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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Early Use of Gas in the Great War

Although it is popularly believed that the German Army was the first to use gas in the Great War, the French fired a tear gas agent (ethyl bromoacetate) against the Germans in the first month of the war. The German Army, however, had done more serious prewar research and would soon begin using their chemical weapons. Eventually they would be the war's first combatant to use gas on a scale large enough to potentially influence the outcome of a battle.

Early Use on the Eastern Front

As early as October 1914 at Neuve Chapelle the Germans used a sneeze-inducing irritant against the French. Better known is their effort on the Eastern Front at Bolimov on 31 January 1915 when they fired shells containing tear gas against the Russians. The experiment failed as the chemical, which was in liquid form in the shells, failed to vaporize in the freezing weather. Further attempts were made on the Western Front with improved tear gas, but German chemical warfare was receiving a tremendous boost due to the contributions of one of the world's most distinguished chemists and would soon take a dramatically different course.

Cartoon by Dutch Artist Louis Raemaekers

In December 1914, the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and soon-to-be recipient of the Nobel Prize, Fritz Haber, pointed out to the army that chlorine gas, a powerful respiratory irritant, would be a much more effective weapon. He was subsequently appointed chief of the chemical section of the war ministry and soon took over leadership of the chlorine project. Haber would eventually emerge as Germany's chief authority on chemical warfare matters. Due to his impressive credentials, he was able to recruit a scientific "all-star" team to support Germany's gas warfare that included other future Nobel Prize laureates James Franck, Gustav Hertz, and Otto Hahn.

Early Improvised French Gas Masks

In a January conference agreement was reached that the first trial for chlorine gas would be in Flanders on the southeastern side of the Ypres Salient. The deployment was subsequently shifted to the northern boundary of the salient between Steenstraete and Poelcappelle. The gas attack, with Haber present in the field, was scheduled for 15 April but was delayed a week because of a complete lack of wind. The debut of the poisonous chlorine gas would come on 22 April 1915 in the action known today as the Second Battle of Ypres. It would initially target French Territorial and Algerian troops with Canadian troops on their right flank. Further use of the gas followed during the fighting around Ypres. Soon all the combatants were exploring gas warfare as a legitimate tactic. 


  1. Fritz Haber also did fantastic work in nitrogen fixing. What a complex person.

  2. Historians tend to downplay the importance of gas. Perhaps that is because they are squeamish about inhumane, uncivilized warfare. They point out that gas killed relatively few. (Proponents of gas say that is good, and it doesn't remove arms, legs, faces, and testicles either) Gas does, however, influence battles. The US Army suffered more casualties from gas than from bullets and grenades combined. Machine guns killed people, but gas got them off the battlefield. The German masks, leather for lack of rubber, failed about 15% of the time. Consider a trench with 7 Germans defending it. Apply gas. One is likely to be lying on the floor gasping for breath. If he stays there, he will die, so four of his buddies pick him up and carry hime to the rear. There are now only 2 defenders, not 7, even though the gas attack didn't kill.

    A good example is the battle of Hamel, 4 July 1918. Before the battle, every morning at 3 AM, the Australians fired gas and smoke at the German trenches. Soon the Germans learned that, at 2:50 they should put on their masks, withdraw to their dugouts, close the gasproof curtains, and wait for the noise to stop. On the 4th of July, the Aussies put down smoke but no gas. The Germans did not see the Australians, without masks, advancing through the smoke and jumping in the undefended trenches. Fully half of the thousands of German prisoners refused to remove their masks, unable believe they had been tricked. One could argue that gas won the battle without killing anybody.

    1. Excellent anecdote! I'll have to share that with some friends. Thanks!

  3. Modern explosives require nitrates, which were imported by sea fromChile. When the British blockade became effective, Germany couldn't import nitrates, and it seemed reasonable to think they would soon run out of ammunition. The war might be over by Christmas. Fritz Haber figured out how to synthesize ammonia from air and water, which do not have to be imported. Oxidize the ammonia to nitric acid, and the supply problem is solved. One could argue that had Haber had a heart attack before the war, it might have been over by Christmas.

    Haber, who was Jewish, had to leave Germany in the 30's, but he tried to get back, because he wanted to be buried with his wife, who had shot herself rather than stay married to a war criminal. he couldn't get back and was buried near the Swiss border. His friends then exhumed the wife's body and took it to Switzerland, so they could be buried together.

    1. Those nitrates from Chile were in the form of bird guano...pretty primitive in comparison to the Haber process. I believe the windjammer,Balclutha's, now berthed in San Francisco, last role was that of a guano runner.