Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment

by Simon Jones. Illustrated by Richard Hook
Osprey Publishing, 2007

French Re-enactors Demonstrate Two Models of Gas Respirators

Today, we use the term "chemical weapons" or "weapons of mass destruction." During the Great War, the term to describe these weapons was much simpler—GAS! One of the unique things about the Great War was the widespread use of gas on the Western Front. We have iconic images of British soldiers with their "P" or "hypo" helmets manning a machine gun. Imagine wearing a heavy flannel bag over your head, treated with skin irritating chemicals, sweating in the heat, breathing out through a tube and hoping that the bag over your head neutralizes the toxic cloud of gas that surrounds you. Later, the British came up with the small box respirator and we have iconic images of Tommies, guns at the ready, wearing their small box respirators. And finally we have the image used for the cover of this book, the image of British or American soldiers in a line, some with eyes bandaged, with their left arm on the shoulder of the man in front of him, forming a line to be led to treatment for gas induced blindness at an aid station.

This book is part of the Osprey series on military history. It is a very, very brief book, at 63 pages. Of those pages, eight are full-page illustrations and four pages are explanations of these illustrations. Most other pages include a third to a half page of pictures, so it is a book you can read in a couple of hours. In addition, this is not a new book, having first been published in 1994.

At the Hague Convention of 1899, the major European powers agreed to abstain from using projectiles "the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases." Before the war, Germany was the leading power in terms of scientific research, with German scientists winning over half the Nobel prizes for science awarded up to 1914. Nowhere was this German dominance in science more evident than in the German chemical industry.

On Maneuvers German Soldiers and Dogs Demonstrate Respirators

The author points out that both the French and Germans early in the war experimented (without result) with non-fatal gasses such as tear gas and gas to irritate and cause sneezing. It was German scientist Fritz Haber who came up with the idea to weaponize chlorine gas by delivering it as a cloud against an unprepared enemy. This was done in April 1915 and could have been a game changer had the Germans been better prepared to follow up on the havoc wreaked on the Allied line. The Allies, however, quickly identified the gas and came up with improvised counter-measures, soon embracing the use of toxic gases themselves. At first, gas was looked on as a potential war winner, but it soon proved to be less than that. It was difficult to deliver, it quickly dispersed, and it proved fairly easy to counteract. Nonetheless, gas evolved into a valuable tool to harass, suppress, and isolate enemy troops. The author methodically recounts the developments in gas warfare. First was the competition, usually led by Germany to develop new chemical weapons, from chlorine to phosgene to the ultimate Great War chemical weapon: mustard gas. Next evolved the competition to develop the most effective ways of delivering the toxic chemicals, from the original cloud method to artillery shells, to the British Livens projectors, which were banks of large mortars that threw hundreds of large containers of chemicals at the German positions. Third and final was the necessary competition to develop measures to protect soldiers from the new chemicals and delivery methods. These consisted of developments of protective gear and the training and discipline to deal with gas.

The dynamic was that since the Germans seemed to keep one step ahead of the Allies in developing new mixtures of gas, it was then for the Allies to learn how to develop counter-measures that would make the new gases as harmless as possible. The Germans also were more advanced in terms of delivery methods and protective equipment. Allied efforts were more improvised and less methodical.

The author plots all this chronologically, by year, all done in a very brief manner. The text is straightforward and well written, and the pictures do a good job of illustrating the equipment used in gas warfare. This is a good starting point for learning about the chemical warfare waged in World War I.

If you want to look at more detailed accounts of the use of WMDs in the Great War, I would recommend Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War I, which is an in-depth discussion of British strategy and how chemical weapons were a part of that strategy. Chemical Soldiers: British Gas Warfare in World War I is an account of the activities of the Special Brigade, the unit created in the British Army that was responsible for launching chemical attacks. Finally, I would recommend No Place to Run, which is the story of the Canadian Army's experience with gas warfare on the Western Front.

Clark Shilling


  1. I remember the gas mask drill at Ft. Knox in 1970 as a fledgling orthopaedic surgeon in the Medical Corps. It was about the time that tear gas was used at Kent State. My father thought that the drill was a good idea in late 1917 in France where he too was a surgeon in the Medical Corps!

  2. Nice review of the book! One of the most moving paintings on this topic to come out of the War is John Singer Sargent's 'Gassed', which hangs in the Imperial War Museum.