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- 1915 - gas - Loos - Ypres Salient

Gas

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The war of position and attrition that was the trench warfare of the Great War soon encouraged the belligerent armies to develop new weapons, such as aeroplanes and tanks, in order to gain a better knowledge of the enemy's defensive organization and weaken or eradicate its forces. Poison gas was the epitome of this process.

In August 1914 the French started using tear gas grenades against the German troops. In turn, in Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, the Germans used shells containing a chemical which caused violent sneezing fits amongst the French soldiers. Used on a small scale, the effects of these incapacitating gases were very short-lived.

Aware of the military potential of chemical substances, it did not take long for German chemists to isolate a very harmful gas which was produced during dye manufacturing: chlorine gas. Chlorine burns the mucous membranes of the lung walls and is therefore ultimately fatal. On 22 April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, the German Army used chlorine gas for the first time. This first ever use of a deadly gas was unanimously condemned, both by enemy belligerent states and neutral nations such as the United States of America. Nevertheless, this attack opened the way for this new breed of weapon to be used regularly by both sides.

Chlorine gas had two major drawbacks: it had a strong smell and its green colour was easily recognizable. It therefore alerted its intended victims to the imminence of an attack. Furthermore it was extremely tricky to handle because not only was it contained in heavy cylinders, which had to be carried to the front line by hand, once in position, soldiers could only use it if the weather conditions were right. For example, during the Battle of Loos in September 1915, the British Army was the first victim of its own gas attack when a fickle wind changed direction. This consideration forced the belligerents to seek new ways of delivering the gas and they soon started adding it to their shells and mortars. The advantage of gas mortars was, like shells, they could be fired in any weather and over distances extending well beyond the front lines.

In 1915 the French discovered that if they mixed chlorine gas, which is very light, with a heavier gas it spread out better. They chose phosgene, a colourless gas whose strong odour resembles that of rotting hay. It was less of an irritant than chlorine gas and as a result victims inhaled it more deeply and over a longer period, making it all the more effective.

The dangers of chlorine gas and phosgene were very real and both camps soon developed the means of protecting their soldiers from the gases' effects. For chlorine gas, soldiers were issued with a piece of gauze which they soaked in a solution made from bicarbonate of soda, or failing that urine, which they held in front of their noses and mouths. The first chlorine gas attack was made in April 1915 and by June of the same year the entire British Army was equipped with Balaclava-like hoods, the fabric of which was impregnated with agents to neutralize the effects of the gas. From January 1916 this hood was replaced by the first "gas mask" which very soon equipped all the Allied and German troops. It was to be kept in a metal box always at the soldier's side and comprised a mask with eyeholes connected by a tube to a cartridge containing an active carbon filter. Special gas masks were also created for animals working on the front, such as horses and dogs. Numerous gas alert procedures were developed and bells (sometimes pieces of shell) were installed in all the trenches to be used as alarms.

However, these gas masks were of limited effectiveness against the notorious "mustard gas" used by the Germans during the Third Battle of Ypres in July 1917 and thereafter. The French called the gas, which was colourless but had a very light mustardy smell, "yperite" in reference to the place where it was first used. Mustard gas is a vesicant, since, as well as attacking the eyes and lungs, it burns the skin, causing extensive blistering. Soldiers exposed to strong doses of mustard gas died of asphyxia within four to five weeks.

However the use of chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas in preparation for an assault was not intended to cause the death of enemy soldiers, indeed the concentration of these gases was rarely strong enough to have lethal effects, but merely incapacitate them. The gases caused blindness, which was usually temporary, as well as respiratory problems which were harder to cure.

In addition to their physical effects, gases also proved to be a powerful psychological weapon. Despite the rapid spread of gas masks making gas-induced deaths rare from May 1915 onwards (according to estimates, only 3% of gas poisonings proved to be fatal), the stories told about the suffering endured by gas attack victims spread fear among the soldiers.

At the end of the war, the horror of gas warfare led to the signature in 1925 of the Geneva Protocol prohibiting the "use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare". This did not however prevent European armies from stockpiling large reserves of poison gas as a preventive measure; although none were used during the fighting in the Second World War in Europe. Adolf Hitler, who was himself gassed at Wervicq-Sud in October 1918, was opposed to their use on the battlefield. His own use of gas, in particular Zyklon B, in the implementation of the Final Solution is however common knowledge.

Edouard ROOSE

Archive pictures

British infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos (25 September 1915)

[No. HU 63277B] Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons (jpg - 0.07 MB)

British infantry advancing into a gas cloud during the Battle of Loos (25 September 1915)

Vue aérienne d'une attaque au gaz

New Photographic History of the World's War / Wikimedia Commons (jpg - 0.03 MB)

Vue aérienne d'une attaque au gaz

British 55th Division gas casualties after the Battle of Estaires - 10 April 1918

[Q 11586] Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons (jpg - 0.1 MB)

British 55th Division gas casualties after the Battle of Estaires - 10 April 1918