by Dr Jack Binns
After the severe winter of 1914-15, both sides made attempts to break the stalemate that had deadlocked the Western Front battlefields. At the same time as the British and French opened a new campaign against Turkey on the Gallipoli peninsula, a new terrible weapon of war, poison gas, was first used by the Germans in Belgium.
At dusk, in the late afternoon of April 22, 1915, Algerian French soldiers, occupying trenches near the village of Langemarck in the Ypres salient, saw a ground fog, about five feet high, gently drifting towards them across no-man’s land. It was the product of nearly 6,000 steel canisters of liquid chlorine which once opened vaporized to form a lethal, greenish-yellow cloud. When inhaled the chlorine stripped the lining of their bronchial tubes and lungs and induced huge volumes of bodily fluid. Those men who did not run away soon drowned in their own mucus.
Thirty-six hours later another gas cloud wiped out front-line neighbouring Canadians and later that same day, a bigger attack poisoned hundreds of British infantrymen in their trenches.
In fact, the German high command had already authorised the employment of chlorine gas against the Russians near Warsaw at the end of January; but there the gas had been enclosed inside artillery shells and the intense cold had prevented it from diffusing. Also, even when released from canisters, the effectiveness of chlorine clearly depended on the direction, duration and strength of the wind. On April 22-24 the wind had been judged favourable by the Germans.
Against what The Times called “this diabolical contrivance” which was explicitly outlawed by the Hague Convention of 1907, there was no defence. The victims had been taken completely by surprise. They had no protection or even advice on how to safeguard themselves short of running away from it. All that could be immediately recommended was to cover the nose and mouth with a wet cloth using “any liquid available in the trenches”. Some surviving Canadians had urinated on bandages or towels and stuffed them into their mouths; but brave soldiers who simply stood their ground and ignored the gas enveloping them suffered heavy losses. Predictably, the Daily Mail was outraged by this latest example of German beastliness:
His methods of warfare do not bear comparison with those of even a savage...but rather recall the hideous and unbridled violence of the Mahdi’s hordes...
It is the cold-bloodied employment of every device of modern science, asphyxiating bombs, incendiary discs and the like, irrespective of the laws of civilised warfare.
It then launched an appeal to the nation’s women to make home-made respirators for their military menfolk. According to one report, a million makeshift devices were produced in one day but none of them afforded protection against poison gas. Eventually, chemists discovered that a mixture of salts, particularly sodium hyposulphite, sodium carbonate and glycerine, neutralised chlorine and at first masks soaked in them were issued to front-line troops. Later still, masks were replaced by “hypo-helmets”, flannel bags which covered the whole head and were tucked into the top of the uniform jacket.
Yet however genuinely shocked by the use of this illegal weapon, the immediate British reaction was to retaliate in kind. A telegram sent by Sir John French, commander in chief, to the War Office on April 23 summarised his response:
Germans used powerful asphyxiating gases very intensively in attack on French yesterday with serious effect: apparently these gases are either chlorine or bromide: strongly urge that immediate steps be taken to supply similar means of most effective kind for use by our troops: also essential that our troops should be immediately provided with means of counter acting effects of enemy gases: as a temporary measure am arranging for troops in trenches to be supplied with solution of bicarbonate of soda in which to soak handkerchiefs.
So much for the Hague Convention! Within three weeks Asquith’s cabinet had endorsed General French’s request: German chlorine would be answered with British chlorine.
From now on both sides set their chemists to work concocting ever more deadly and disgusting poisons. Starting with chlorine they moved on to phosgene and finally mustard. Between 1915 and 1918 the British made a total of 768 gas attacks, but they always waited until the Germans initiated a new form first. Both resorted mainly to gas shells fired with increasing accuracy and distance, but both also confronted the permanent problem that their advancing soldiers still had to pass through their own disabling gas.
As with their decision in 1917 to re-introduce unrestricted U-boat warfare, the German first use of poison gas proved counter-productive and self-defeating. Though Falkenhayn’s infantry advanced as far as two miles, without sufficient protection themselves they had to halt and dig in when they reached their own lingering gas cloud. Secondly, lacking reserves and reinforcements, the Germans could not exploit their breakthrough. Ypres, key to the Channel ports, remained in Allied hands. The Germans had missed an unrepeatable opportunity.
In the long-term, poison gas never became a war-winning weapon; but the British made better use of it than the Germans. They inflicted more gas casualties than they suffered, partly because they produced and delivered more of it and partly because they had better protective respirators for their own troops. The inferiority of German military gas masks was their lack of natural rubber, essential for sealing air tubes.
One of the most poignant pictures of the Great War is of a line of British Tommies shuffling along in a slow, single file, eyes bandaged, each with a left hand on the shoulder of the man in front. Here, apparently, were the gas-blinded leading the blind. But the cold statistics convey a rather different perspective. Of the 487,994 British dead of the Western Front, fewer than 6,000 were killed by poison gas and only one in a hundred who received war service injury pensions were victims of gas poisoning. As in the well-known case of Adolf Hitler, most who were initially blinded by gas eventually recovered their eyesight fully; and Charles Laughton’s encounter with gas in 1918 left him with only a permanently husky voice.