The idea of using gas to kill, disable or harass, the enemy was first proposed during the Crimean War.
At the siege of Sebastopol, in 1855, a young naval officer, devised a plan to burn five hundred tons of sulphur in order to produce a gas that would suffocate the Russians.
The British government rejected his idea, both on grounds of its inhumanity and because they believed it contravened the laws of civilised warfare. This opinion was later formally endorsed by The Hague Convention of 1907.
Germany Takes the Lead
Germany’s lead in gas warfare was the result of their superior manufacturing capacity of the industrial dyes on which gas-warfare is based.
Great German chemical works such as the Badische Anilin und Sodafabrik at Ludwigshafen, the Bayer Company at Leverkusen and the Griesheim-Elektron Chemische Fabrik possessed matchless research and development facilities which could quickly and easily be adapted to satisfy military demands.
The Role of Fritz Haber
Research into the military use of gas was conducted by Fritz Haber, a Jewish chemist, employed by Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918.
Fritz Haber ‘father of Gas Warfare’
Despite an explosion in mid-December 1914, which killed his assistant Dr Otto Sackur, Haber continued his increasingly successful work.
The First Gas Attacks
This enabled the German’s to launch their first chlorine gas attack, against the Russians on the Eastern Front, in early 1915. The attack failed due to adverse weather conditions which neutralised the gas’s effects.
Undeterred, they tried again in the spring of the same year, using chlorine gas against French troops at Ypres.
Troops advance towards clouds of poison gas
At 5.30 pm on April 22nd, 1915, soldiers to the north of Ypres noticed two curious greenish yellow clouds on the ground on either side of the German line.
The clouds spread laterally, joined up, and, moving before a light wind, became a bluish white mist, such as is seen over water meadows on a frosty night.
Wafted by the breeze, the cloud drifted lazily along the ground and, moments later, flooded over and into the enemy trenches with horrific consequences. One observer noted how: ‘Choking, coughing, retching, gasping for breath, and half blinded…the troops were seized with terror at the enemy’s expedient and gave ground, stumbling back through heavy shell fire in their efforts to find some escape from the deadly fumes.’
This attack claimed more than 65,000 casualties.
Victims of Torture and Death
Gas attacks tended to be made at night or in the early hours of the morning when atmospheric conditions were most suitable and the darkness and confusion made it far harder for troops to know when the assault had started.
As a result, the psychological impact produced by fear and uncertainty soon became almost as debilitating as the gas itself. Indeed, as the war progressed gas, which had initially been proposed either as a means of enabling breakthroughs or in retaliation, was being advocated on other grounds as well.
Not only were its victims incapacitated, fighting efficiency was significantly diminished as troops panicked, morale broken and the enemy’s willingness to fight destroyed.
‘In the face of gas, without protection, individuality was annihilated,’ comments historian Charles, Robert Cruttwell, ‘the soldier in the trench became a mere passive recipient of torture and death.’
The Allies Race to Catch Up
Once Germany had demonstrated the lethal potency and military advantages of gas warfare, their enemies raced to catch-up.
In 1914, the British, who had neglected their synthetic-dye industry, possessed little or no commercial expertise in producing organic poisons. Within a year of the attack at Ypres, however, they constructed a new laboratory specialising in chemical warfare at Porton Down in the south-west of England. Its location was, reportedly, chosen due to the surrounding countryside’s similarity to the ridges east of Ypres.
The Gases Used
Chemists developed two forms of tear gas – benzyl bromide and xylyl bromide – and nine lung irritants, including chlorine and phosgene. They also developed paralysing gases, such as hydrocyanic acid and sulphuretted hydrogen, which acted directly on the nervous system to cause death within seconds.
There were ‘Sternutators’, so called because they induced sneezing (sternutation is its medical name), as well as an intense burning and aching pain in the eyes, nose, throat and chest, accompanied by nausea and great depression.
Finally, there was Mustard Gas, whose nature and effects I will describe in a moment.
Colour Coded Poisons
The Allies identified different types of gas by means of coloured stars.
Red stars indicated chlorine and yellow stars a mixture comprising 70 percent chlorine and 30 percent chloropicrin. This combination had the dual advantages of being even more immediately incapacitating and potentially lethal.
The most widely used were White Star gasses. A powerful lung irritant they were made up of 50 percent chlorine and 50 percent phosgene.
By the middle of 1916, White Star had become what Major General C.H. Foulkes, commander of the Royal Engineers’ Special Gas Brigade, called ‘the workhorse gas.’
A latecomer to the battlefield, ßß-dichlor-ethyl-sulphide was a vesicant (one causing blistering) whose properties had first been described by Victor Meyer in 1886.
The Germans referred to it as Yellow-Cross, from the yellow double-cross or Lorraine-cross markings used to identify these shells.
The French knew it as Yperite because it was first used by the Germans at Ypres.
The British called it either BB gas, from the first two Greek letters of its chemical name, or more informally HS (Hun Stuff).
It was best known, however, as Mustard Gas because of its faint odour reminiscent of either mustard or garlic, depending on its impurities.
The Medical Effects of Mustard Gas
The gas burns any part of the body it touches. Especially vulnerable are the face and hands which, typically, are unprotected by clothing. Moist regions, such as armpits, groin, genitalia and inner thighs, are also at high risk because they are moist.
The horrendous nature of these injuries is graphically described in the Official History of the Great War: ‘The most important pathological changes to be found in the human body, after exposure to mustard gas, are those in the respiratory tract,’ it notes. ‘The destruction of the membrane may have proceeded to such an extent that the whole area of the trachea and the larger bronchi are covered by a loosely adhered false membrane or slough of a yellow colour several millimetres thick.
Occasionally the slough on the trachea and larger bronchi can be separated as a whole and removed giving the appearance of a cast of the bronchial tree. Such a cast has been coughed up during life… The skin exhibits all stages of burn from the primary erythema, which is the first manifestation of the cutaneous irritation, up to the final stage of deep burn with necrosis and sloughing of tissues.
The eyes share in the general inflammation of the skin, and exhibit all the stages of an acute conjunctivitis, from the early chemosis up to an ulcerative keratitis.’
Illustration from a WW1 medical textbook showing some of the effects of Mustard Gas
Mustard Gas’s Unique Properties
A key feature of mustard-gas poisoning, and the one that sets it apart from other battlefield gases, is the slow rate at which its effects develop.
‘Only a few of the men who were gassed died at once,’ one Front Line doctor wrote. ‘Many of the men felt perfectly well after the bombardment [and] marched back with their companions on relief, under the impression that they had got through the affair satisfactorily. Several hours elapsed before they reported sick.’
The fatal course of the delayed illness was particularly striking between two and forty-eight hours after exposure, as symptoms gradually intensified.
A Gas That Keeps on Giving
A liquid at room temperature, mustard gas’s high boiling makes it extremely persistent.
An area would remain dangerous for hours or even days as the poisonous fluid either slowly evaporated or was broken down by the elements.
In April 1918, it was used so extensively during the shelling of Armentieres that the gutters ran with it and no German troops were permitted to enter the town for two weeks.
A Terrifying New Experience
Mustard gas was completely unlike any other that Allied soldiers ever experienced.
Until then they had associated ‘gas’ with violent irritating or choking sensations.
The gas mask used by French troops in WW1
Many, under the false impression it was not strong enough to hurt them, omitted to wear their gas masks or to keep them on for long enough. Nor did they initially appreciate that ground in the vicinity of a gas shell burst was heavily contaminated by the poison and continued to be a source of danger long after the bombardment had ceased.
The British Use the Gas
Although UK researchers had first tested Mustard gas in the summer of 1916 and while the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, had been eager to employ it the British government initially refused to sanction its use.
On the basis of the injuries it had produced in laboratory animals, Lloyd George and his ministers regarded the gas as far too barbaric to employ.
The German military, free from the control of their civilian leaders, had no such scruples.
They deployed the gas, for the first time, at Ypres on the night of July 12th-13th 1917, fourteen months ahead of it becoming generally available to British troops.
Once they did start, however, Mustard gas rapidly became used widely, frequently and enthusiastically.
German infantry advance through clouds of gas on the Western Front 1918
Between 1st October 1918 and the end of the war, on November 11th Mustard gas attacks led to an estimated twelve thousand German casualties.
The Battle of Courtrai
On 13th October, the day before the start of what would become known as the Battle of Courtrai, the intelligence officer of the 6th Brigade Royal Garrison Artillery noted in his diary: ‘At 7.30 p.m. we carried out a gas concentration . . . mustard gas shells were used for the first time.’
Before dawn the following morning, German front-line troops heard the unmistakable sounds of British soldiers assembling for an attack, and requested an artillery bombardment of the British lines.
Although this was carried out, the German gunners, firing blind in the darkness. could only lay down their barrage on positions identified by observers the previous day.
The British, who had noted the fall of shells, and had evacuated the areas concerned, suffered few casualties among the assembling troops.
At 5.30 am, on what promised to be a sunny morning, soldiers from the 90th and 21st Infantry Brigades swarmed from their trenches and advanced through the early morning mist, along a 3,500-yard front, towards the river Lys.
With no cover, in the featureless valley floor basin, the artillery barrage that started exactly three minutes before jumping off time, was of vital importance.
The official historian of the 30th Division noted: ‘It was, for the division, the last big barrage of the war…. (It) was as good as any under which the division had advanced. It came down along and in front and behind the Lys with all the cumulative fury of four years of war – machine gun bullets, shrapnel, smoke, gas, thermite and high explosive – the smoke shells from the field guns were particularly blessed by the infantry advancing as close as they could to the curtain they made, for save on the extreme left where it was thinnest, it hid them from what defensive fire the enemy was able to bring to bear.’
With an already demoralised enemy no longer prepared to sacrifice themselves, for what they now realised was a lost cause, the British troops rapidly gained ground.
In the first few hours hundreds of Germans, including one officer who arrived fully prepared for captivity with a packed lunch and his servant, surrendered.
At the same time, scores of injured German troops, many blinded by gas, slowly made their way to Front Line aid stations.
German nurses treating gas injured soldiers on the Western Front
Among them was a soldier destined to become the most famous and most notorious of the war.
Lance-corporal Adolf Hitler.
In my next blog I will be describing the controversial medical nature and terrible political consequences of his injuries.
For further details of the Battle of Courtrai and the gassing of Hitler, see my new book Triumph of the Will?