Of course the use of poison gas in warfare had been proscribed under the Hague Convention of 1905, and Germany as well as all the other WW1 combatants had signed it. The relevant article read: ‘The contracting powers agree to abstain from the use of projectiles;/ /the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.’ In plain language, gas as a weapon was effectively outlawed by the civilised world and deployment of poison gases went against all norms of modern warfare. But Germany was prepared to buck this agreement, although she had been a signatory to it.
A 46 year-old German Jew, Fritz Haber can be credited as the Father of the use of poison gas in warfare. Working with BASF he began looking into the possibility of producing weapons not reliant on nitrates (Chile was the main supplier, and shipment to Germany by sea was essentially cut off by the Royal Navy blockade of Germany). An obvious choice was chlorine gas, it was very toxic, and when inhaled attacked the mucous membranes inside the mouth, nose, and throat, it caused asphyxiation, blindness, and usually death. It was easily available, there was plenty of plant capacity to produce, as dye stuffs exports were interrupted due to the war.
In April of 1915, Haber and a team of young researchers arrived on the front line at Ypres in Belgium, bringing with them some five thousand cylinders of chlorine gas in liquid form. Deep, narrow slits were dug just below the top lip of the main trench, three layers of sandbags were placed on top of these cylinders to protect them from Allied shelling. Small sacks of potash and peat moss were also added, to absorb any gas leaks. All was in readiness. At 5 PM on April 22, the very first gas attack was ordered, protective masks were donned by assault infantry and the gas crews, cylinder valves were opened, and for ten minutes a brisk south west breeze carried a thick yellow and green cloud of deadly chlorine gas out over No Man’s Land towards the Allied positions.
Field Marshal French in his despatch to London said that evening was devastating, throats, noses, and eyes of his unprotected troops in the Allied trenches were smarting agonisingly. Then men began to cough and vomit blood, their chests heaving as they attempted to breathe, only to exacerbate the situation by inhaling more gas. Five thousand troops died, another ten thousand were barely alive in field medical stations.
For the Germans they did not follow up this victory to breach Allied lines, and a Canadian division at great cost in lives quickly regained lost territory. The struggle continued another three weeks using gas again, but prevailing winds were not in Germany’s favour, and gas intended to smother the Canadians was useless given a wind change clearing the gas away from its intended victims.
Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and Commander of the German 6th. Army said in his diary:
‘I make no secret of the fact that the new gas weapons seemed not only disagreeable but also a mistake, for one could assume with certainty that, if it proved effective , the enemy would have recourse to the same means, and with prevailing winds he would be able to release gas against us ten times more often than we against him.’
A prophetic comment, by the end of 1915 both England and France were using chemical weapons as frequently as was Germany. During WWI some twenty two chemical weapons were developed, including mustard gas, arsenics and phosgene gas. Haber and BASF manufactured a brand of phosgene that could even penetrate gas masks. Of course the Allies justified their own use of gas in WW1 as the Germans had been the first to break the Hague Convention, and they were thus allowed to retaliate.
So was born a new method of killing troops opposed to each other, not at all gentlemanly, but then what method of WAR is?
Contact Mackenzie Gregory about this article.