Enemy artillery shells come screaming in and crashing about, bringing a thunderous nightmare! Soon an eerie great cloud drifts slowly towards the trenches. The call to don a mask is roared out along the line, “It’s the dreaded gas boys!“. Blinding, gaseous poison that could burn the skin whilst destroying lungs in a single breath, leading to a slow, painful, choking death. It would settle upon the trenches and cause total panic. Foul bloody stuff!
I was recently exploring the Centenary of World War One exhibits (1914 to 1918) at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and was particularly interested in the fascinating array of gas masks for man and beast alike. The variations of gas masks to protect soldiers and animals such as dogs and horses from this hideous weapon are quite interesting but it got me thinking about the gas itself.
I had never really read much about the types of gas deployed on the battlefields of World War One, other than knowing predominately about mustard gas. So I decided it was time to look into this in more detail.
The French first used tear gas grenades in August 1914 in an attempt to rout German lines but had little effect. Tear gas was not deadly and was intended to be used to incapacitate an enemy during an attack as it could cause serious irritation to the nose and throat and even temporary blindness.
The Germans first used tear gas in January 1915 during an artillery attack on Russian lines but it proved to be next to useless when it froze in the cold air and did not disperse at all. Gas masks helped prevent the symptoms of tear gas.
It was Germany that eventually put gas warfare to more effective and deadly use as a disruptive tactic before an assault. In April 1915 they fired chlorine gas into French lines near Ypres, which resulted in a large cloud of gas that was morale crushing as it caused panic and death amongst the French and colonial soldiers (more than 1,100 died).
Chlorine gas is nasty as it reacts with water in a persons lungs and eyes to form hydrochloric acid which can cause coughing, vomiting, severe eye irritation and death at higher concentrations. Luckily with a yellow-green colour and bleach like odour it was easy to detect and gas masks were later deployed to limit the effectiveness of chlorine gas.
Great Britain first used chlorine gas against German lines at Loos in September 1915. They discovered the dangerous nature of such gas deployment when the wind changed pushing the deadly gas towards their own lines resulting in heavy casualties as a result!
Phosgene and Diphosgene Gas
Phosgene and diphosgene gas was used as a substitute for chlorine gas. It had a musty hay smell and could irritate the nose and throat, cause coughing, breathing difficulty and suffocation. A sinister side of such gas was that it could have a delayed effect of up to 48 hours, which could result in a fluid build up in the victims lungs and death.
First used by the Germans against British troops at Ypres in December 1915, phosgene and diphosgene gas is ultimately said to have caused 85% of all gas related fatalities in World War One. Although gas masks could be used to prevent the effects of such gas, it was colourless and generally fired in high explosive artillery shells which left little, if any time, for soldiers to detect the gas quickly enough to put on their gas mask.
A yellow-brown colour with a garlic or horseradish odour, mustard gas was particularly horrific, caused panic and could be devastating upon troop morale. It could penetrate all clothing, tended to stick around and gas masks were more or less useless against it. The gas would burn skin on contact, causing severe blistering of the skin, eyes and respiratory system (the blisters would fill with yellow liquid).
A horrifying and debilitating weapon, victims of mustard gas required extensive medical care to treat the skin burns and respiratory problems and depending on the level of contact with it, the gas could cause death from asphyxiation within a few hours. Many though could struggle on for four or five weeks before succumbing to the damage caused by mustard gas.
The Germans first used mustard gas on July 17th, 1917 against British troops at Ypres (it seems this unfortunate and bloody battlefield was a major site for experiments in gas warfare). Surprisingly given its deadly properties, only 2-3% of those who were hit by mustard gas died directly as a result of such an attack.
Gas Warfare Casualties
91,000 are said to have died from gas attacks during World War One with over 1.2 million more being detrimentally effected through contact with it. Gas victims who survived often suffered debilitating side effects and disabilities from their ordeal. These effects went on long after the war had finished and many men later died from respiratory issues (cancer was also an issue for mustard gas victims).
Common place on the battlefield in 1918, poisonous gas did not change the course of war too much and caused <1% of total casualties in World War One but luckily such gases have long been banned from warfare. A Geneva gas protocol in 1925 banned its use, although chemical warfare is reported to have been used by local forces in conflicts in the middle east in recent decades.
In a unique twist of fate, a gas attack could have changed the course of history in Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s. A certain Austrian born lance corporal, serving in the Imperial German Army on the Western Front was a victim of an October 1918 British gas attack. Yes Adolf Hitler was a Gefreiter (lance corporal) in the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division (a division made up of recalled reservists and volunteers) of the Royal Bavarian Army (part of the German Army), which he joined in August 1914 originally as a private at 25 years of age (drafted but denied entry in the Austrian Army for physical reasons in February 1914, special permission was granted to join the Bavarian unit as he was an Austrian citizen).
Hitlers regiment fought at the bloody First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 and was decimated (of 3,600 men at the start of the battle, only 611 were able-bodied at its end. One death during the battle was List, the regimental commander and from then on they were known as Regiment List in his honour). After this battle Hitler was promoted to lance corporal and became a regimental message runner for the next 4 years, learning much about military operations and command along the way as his regiment fought in numerous battles including the Battle of the Somme (July 1st to November 18th, 1916), the Battle of Fromelles (19th to 20th, July 1916), the Battle of Arras (April 9th to May 16th, 1917) and the Battle of Passchendaele (July 31st to November 10th, 1917).
Hitler was awarded twice for bravery during this time. He received an Iron Cross, Second Class in October 1914 for dragging a wounded comrade to safety during the First Battle of Ypres and an Iron Cross, First Class in August 1918 during the final German offensive for single-handedly capturing a group of French soldiers hiding in a shell hole.
In the first significant moment when history could have changed forever, Hitler received a thigh wound requiring months of hospitalisation following an artillery attack during the Battle of the Somme in October 1916. He returned to service in February 1917 and resumed his message runner role but on October 15th, 1918 he was temporarily blinded during a British mustard gas artillery attack at Ypres and hospitalised for immediate treatment, where he remained until after the war ended on November 11th, 1918.
Hitler had survived again to unleash a dark period of history just two decades later. It is interesting to think how different the world would have been if the concentration of mustard gas had been more intense and taken its toll. It is said his experience with mustard gas could have been a major reason that even when facing overwhelming odds against the Soviets on the Eastern Front from 1943 to 1945, Germany never used gas on the battlefield during World War Two. Sadly they had no such concerns with the use of the dreaded Zyklon B cyanide based pesticide in extermination camps from 1942 to 1945…
World War 1 Vets – Gas Warfare