The Gas Attack at Ypres in World War One
- 22nd April 1915 -
NB: Image shown is of victims of gas in 1918
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, written between October 1917 and March 1918, tells of the infamous gas attacks that took place during World War 1. By the symptoms and description, the gas appears to be either chlorine or phosgene. He talks of the helmets, or gas-masks, which was their early name, ‘Lime’ - the white chalky substance that burns live tissue – and ‘Panes’ – the glass in the eye pieces of the gas masks. A German chemist, Fritz Haber, had developed this use of gas as a weapon to be used in war. In his opinion he didn’t see the difference between killing with a gun and the use of gas. “In peace time a scientist belongs to the world. In War time he belongs to his country,” he said. There are few that would agree with him either then or today.
The first use of gas had been by the French in August 1914. This was tear gas and was supposed to render the enemy useless and incapacitate them rather than kill. However, the Germans never even noticed it. In October 1914 German troops fire a particular type of shell with a chemical irritant at Neuve Chapelle. Like the French before them, the concentration was too small and the French did not notice. It was believed, by those who ordered its use, that it was not against the Hague Treaty of 1899 which stipulated that it was illegal to fire shells containing gas of asphyxiating or poisonous gas.
On 31st January 1915 the Germans fired 18,000 shells of liquid bromide at the Russians, west of Warsaw. However, the gas froze, turned into a solid and was useless. It was chlorine gas that Fritz Haber was developing. This inflicted damage to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs and could cause death. It was hoped that by gassing the frontline of the opponent it would break the deadlock of trench warfare that was developing along the Western Front by opening up gaps in the enemy line. Thus the first major use was at the second battle of Ypres on 22nd April 1915 at 17:00 hours. The French soldiers on duty noticed a yellow/green cloud moving towards them. The Germans had let this off from cylinders dug into the German frontline when the wind was blowing towards to the enemy positions. Thinking it was a smokescreen for an assault all men were ordered on to the fire step in readiness for an attack. 400 tons of chlorine gas had been released.
Willi Siebert, a German soldier who witnessed the first chlorine gas attack, wrote this account of the event for his son in English.
Finally, we decided to release the gas. The weatherman was right. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining. Where there was grass, it was blazing green. We should have been going on a picnic, not doing what we were going to do. …
We sent the [German] infantry back and opened the [gas] valves with the strings. About supper time, the gas started toward the French; everything was stone quiet. We all wondered what was going to happen.
As this great cloud of green grey gas was forming in front of us, we suddenly heard the French yelling. In less than a minute they started with the most rifle and machine gun fire that I had ever heard. Every field artillery gun, every machine gun, every rifle that the French had, must have been firing. I had never heard such a noise.
The hail of bullets going over our heads was unbelievable, but it was not stopping the gas. The wind kept moving the gas towards the French lines. We heard the cows bawling, and the horses screaming. The French kept on shooting.
They couldn’t possibly see what they were shooting at. In about 15 minutes the gun fire started to quit. After a half hour, only occasional shots. Then everything was quiet again. In a while it had cleared and we walked past the empty gas bottles.
What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive.
All of the animals had come out of their holes to die. Dead rabbits, moles, and rats and mice were everywhere. The smell of the gas was still in the air. It hung on the few bushes which were left.
When we got to the French lines the trenches were empty but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable. Then we saw there were some English. You could see where men had clawed at their faces, and throats, trying to get breath.
Some had shot themselves. The horses, still in the stables, cows, chickens, everything, all were dead. Everything, even the insects were dead.
Back home in Germany Fritz Huber was celebrating his success. On May 2nd he held a party at his Berlin home where he was toasted by his friends. His wife, also a chemist, was horrified by what she saw as a perversion of science. She took her husband’s service revolver, went out into the garden away from the party and shot herself in the heart. She died the following day in the arms of her 13-year-old son, Hermann.
Back at Ypres the French and Algerian troops fled quickly creating a 7km gap in the defences. The Germans though were so surprised by the speed of events, concerned by the existence of the gas and with so few reinforcements that they failed to take full advantage and the gap was plugged.
A.T. Hunter, Canadian Soldier, witnessed the first chlorine gas attack. This is an excerpt from “Canada in the Great World War” (1919), The Second Battle of Ypres.
The French troops “saw none of this installation of premeditated murder. Looking across to the German trenches at about five in the afternoon, they saw a series of sharp puffs of white smoke and then trundling along with the wind came the queer greenish-yellow fog that seemed strangely out of place in the bright atmosphere of that clear April day. It reached the parapet, paused, gathered itself like a wave and ponderously lapped over into the trenches.
“Then passive curiosity turned to active torment – a burning sensation in the head, red-hot needles in the lungs, the throat seized as by a strangler. Many fell and died on the spot. The others, gasping, stumbling with faces contorted, hands wildly gesticulating, and uttering hoarse cries of pain, fled madly through the villages and farms and through Ypres itself, carrying panic to the remnants of the civilian population and filling the roads with fugitives of both sexes and all ages.”
By September the British had developed their own gas and used it against the Germans at Loos. The wind changed direction, however, after the gas had been released and blew back onto the British causing 2000 casualties and 7 fatalities.
After this Huber developed other gases – namely Phosgene and then Mustard Gas. The symptoms of phosgene were not known for 48 hours after inhaling it by which time it had got into the longs and could not be got rid of. By then it was too late. Mustard Gas was first used against the Russians at Riga in September 1917. Many of those who survived were blinded. Gas masks became commonplace among the kit given to the soldiers although it wasn’t until nearer the end of the war that they were sophisticated enough. Cloth soaked in urine protected from chlorine and very basic forms of masks were used before then. In total the British Army had 188,000 gas casualties of which 8,100 were fatal. In the war as a whole there were 91,000 fatalities of which nearly 50% were Russian. These figures don’t take into account those who died from gas related injuries years later.
HS Clapham – British soldier on Western Front – recalls events when they were under attack from gas. “At 6.0 p.m. the worst moment of the day came. The Huns started to bombard us with a shell, which was new to us. It sounded like a gigantic firecracker, with two distinct explosions. These shells came over just above the parapet, in a flood, much more quickly than we could count them. After a quarter of an hour of this sort of thing, there was a sudden crash in the trench and ten feet of the parapet, just beyond m, was blown away and everyone around blinded by dust. With my first glance I saw what looked like half a dozen bodies, mingled with sandbags, and then I smelt gas and realised that these were gas shells. I had my respirator on in a hurry and most of our men were as quick. The others were slower and suffered for it. One man was sick all over the sandbags and another was coughing his heart up. We pulled four men out of the debris unharmed. One man was unconscious, and died of gas later. Another was hopelessly smashed up and must have got it full in the chest."
Despite the suicide of his wife and the effects his inventions had Huber continued to work on gas. He also developed the use of nitrogen as an effective fertilizer and received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918. However, despite becoming a Christian, due to the persecution of the Jews, and the fact that he had helped in World War One, Huber left Germany in 1933 for England as he feared the rise of Nazism under Hitler. He stayed for three months before deciding to start a new life in Palestine. On his way he stopped off in Switzerland where he died of a heart attack. His son, Hermann, emigrated to the United States where he too committed suicide in 1946.
The words of Wilfred Owen still ring out loud today. The horrors of gas/chemical warfare are still a cancer in the world and despite all the technology, all the wealth, all the good intentions and words people are still dying from it.