Imagine you’re a soldier, in any war, anywhere.
You’re prepared for battle, for the enemy, and you know you might get shot or even killed.
Imagine being on the front line, though, and suddenly something comes creeping around your
legs. A cloud of yellow or green, that spreads and spreads until you have no choice but to
breathe it in, and you begin to gag and to choke as your throat and lungs are eaten from
the inside out by the horror of poison gas. I’m Indy Neidell, welcome to today’s special
episode about Chemical Weapons in the First World War. The stalemate on the Western Front that persisted
through much of the war prompted the most intensive use of chemical weapons in history.
Despite an 1899 treaty that banned the military use of poisonous gases, all major combatants
of the war used them at one point or another, especially during 1915 and 1916. Considered uncivilized prior to World War
One, the development and use of poison gas was seen as necessary by the wartime armies,
who were desperate to find a new way of overcoming that stalemate of unexpected trench warfare;
that war of attrition that claimed thousands upon thousands of lives every month with no
gain in territory. Although it is popularly believed that the
German army was the first to use gas, it was in fact initially deployed by the French.
In the first month of the war, August 1914, they fired tear-gas grenades- xylyl bromide-
against the Germans, but the German army was the first to give serious study to the development
of chemical weapons and the first to use it on a large scale. Let’s go back a bit; At the end of the 19th
century, many foresaw the devastation that chemical agents could cause in a European
war. The Hague Convention of 1899 discussed the issue of using chemicals as weapons, and
the signees agreed not to use projectiles whose sole purpose was the diffusion of asphyxiating
or deleterious gases. Delegates from all of the attending countries except the United
States signed the resolution. A Second Hague Convention reaffirmed the provisions
on chemical weapons usage and widened the restraints by prohibiting the use of poison
or poisoned weapons. Hague II included a clause prohibiting projectiles, weapons, and materials
that could cause unnecessary suffering. Prior to the war, all of the future belligerent
nations except Italy, the US, and the Ottoman Empire were signatories of Hague II. Both
Hague I and Hague II had good intentions: to prevent the creation of new and possibly
more awful weapons of war, but in reality the wording of the contracts was pretty confusing
and interpretations differed considerably between countries. So… gas. On January 31st, 1915, the Germans
used gas for the first time. It was also tear gas, like the French used, and they launched
18,000 shells loaded with it against the Russians on the Eastern Front, but it failed to vaporize,
having frozen in the winter temperature. Chlorine gas was used for the first time at
the Second Battle of Ypres a few months later. At around five PM on the 22nd of April, French
sentries in Ypres noticed a yellow-green cloud moving towards them – a gas delivered from
pressurized cylinders dug into the German front line between Steenstraat and Langemarck.
They thought that it was a smokescreen to disguise the advance of German troops, and
based on that, all French troops in the area were ordered to the firing line of their trench
– right in the path of the chlorine. Its impact was immediate and devastating. The French
and their Algerian comrades fled in terror. Their understandable reaction created a big
opportunity for the Germans to advance unhindered into the strategically important Ypres salient.
But even the Germans were unprepared and surprised by the impact of chlorine and they failed
to follow up the success of the attack. So the gloves were now off and other nations
with the ability to manufacture poison gas could now also use it and blame it on the
Germans, as they had been the first to use it. The first of the Allied nations to respond
to the Ypres gas attack was Britain in September 1915. The newly formed Special Gas Companies
attacked German lines at Loos. When the wind was in a favorable direction, chlorine gas
was released from the British front line so that it could drift over to the German front
line. This was then to be followed by an infantry attack. However, along parts of the British
line, the wind changed direction and the chlorine was blown back onto the British causing over
2,000 casualties on their own side with seven fatalities. This risk of blowback also affected
the Germans and the French in some of their gas attacks in late 1915. Did I say “gas
attacks”? Sorry, The Special Gas Companies were not allowed to call their new weapon
gas – it was referred to as an “accessory”. Like a handbag. The horrors of gas warfare caused public indignation,
both during and after the war, and in 1925 a Geneva Convention outlawed the use of chemical
weapons. Adolf Hitler, who had himself been a victim of mustard gas in 1918, adamantly
refused to deploy poison gas during World War II. Nevertheless the major powers retained
stockpiles of these weapons – and indeed still do. A chemical weapon is generally defined as
a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, maybe a shell or a bomb. In trench warfare,
direct attack was often fraught with difficulties and incurred massive casualties. Chemical
warfare was to be an effective way of attacking without direct contact or direct risk. A cloud
of gas could be launched towards a line of soldiers sheltering in a trench without danger
for the attackers. Now, there were several types of gas used
during the war; here are a few of them: Tear Gas First introduced, as I said, by the French
in 1914. Tear gas is an irritant and is not deadly. When they first deployed this against
the Germans by using hand grenades, the Germans didn’t even know they were using it. One
thing here- none of the warring countries believed that tear gas was a violation of
the Hague Conventions. Chlorine Gas Just a few months later, Germany had the Bayer
Company, the aspirin people, come up with a more toxic type of gas to use. The result
was Chlorine gas, which was a by-product of dye manufacturing. Chlorine gas looked like
a greenish-gray cloud of smoke and was highly visible to the enemy. Chlorine gas is a powerful irritant that inflicts
damage to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. At high concentrations and prolonged exposure
it can cause death by asphyxiation. An initial attack against the Russians that injured some
9,000 of them so inspired them that they too began to practice chemical warfare. Brilliant.
Thing is, you need a lot of Chlorine to kill people and gas masks are an effective deterrent.
Something stronger had to be created. Thus, Phosgene Gas This was the next step in the progression.
The French retaliated against Chlorine gas with phosgene. Phosgene was a potent killing
agent, deadlier than chlorine. One semi-drawback was that some of the symptoms of exposure
took 24 hours or more to manifest. This meant that the victims were initially still capable
of putting up a fight; although this could also mean that apparently fit troops would
be incapacitated by the effects of the gas on the following day. Colorless and having an odor likened to “moldy
hay,” phosgene was difficult to detect, making it a more effective weapon. It was
sometimes used on its own, but was more often mixed with an equal volume of chlorine to
help it spread across the battlefield. Although phosgene was never as notorious in the public
consciousness as our next gas, it killed far more people, about 85% of the 100,000 deaths
caused by chemical weapons during the war. Mustard Gas The poster child for WWI chemical weapons.
As if these chemicals weren’t scary enough, mustard gas was unleashed by Germany in 1917.
Mustard gas was the most effective and widely publicized gas of the entire war. However,
it wasn’t a particularly effective killing agent, though in high enough doses it is fatal.
The reason it was so terrifying is that mustard gas was painful, caused huge yellow blisters,
and incapacitated a person – just by touching their skin. Gas masks didn’t work against
this stuff! Not only that, it didn’t go away like other gases. When other gases were
used against an enemy, wind would eventually disperse them. Not so with Mustard gas. It
was heavy and sunk into crevices and trenches, then stayed there for weeks, months, even
years, so the Germans found that it was quite difficult to attack the enemy with Mustard
gas and then advance to the enemy’s position. When you think about it, compared to the other
causes of casualties in the First World War, chemical weapons were relatively ineffective.
Only 3% of those who suffered an attack by chemical weapons died, another 2% were permanently
incapacitated, but nearly three quarters were fit for active duty again within 6 months.
However, blindness, temporary or permanent, was often a side effect of gas, as was respiratory
illness, and death by gas was often slow, so you can see why it got its reputation,
when those hardest hit were sent home to painfully and slowly die in front of their loved ones
over weeks and months. It was Russia that actually suffered the most
casualties, by far, from gas during the war- around 56,000, but everywhere it was the trench
soldier’s greatest fear, and was immortalized in paintings, diaries, and poems, like this
one from Wilfred Owen: Gas… GAS! Quick boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time. But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. Dim through the misty panes and thick green
light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. Just try for a moment to imagine the horror. We make these special episodes every few weeks
to go in greater depth into topics we can’t cover properly in our regular weekly episodes,
and you can check out our special on animals in the war right here. Don’t forget to subscribe.
See you Thursday.