|Fritz Faber: Gas Warfare's Most
Notable Advocate and Innovator
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.
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.
In December 1914, the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and future 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.
|Artist's Rendering of the First Gas Attack on the Western Front
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 (eastern) flank. Further use of the gas followed during the fighting around Ypres.