Here in Britain, populist history of the First World War paints a simple picture chemical warfare. Poison gas was a terrifying, volatile weapon that never lived up to its reputation as a game-changer and made no strategic difference to anything. Its use was a classic symptom of the modern brutality foisted upon the world by the Great War, and yet another example of the clumsy desperation displayed by contemporary commanders. Gas shouldn’t have been used, and might not have been if the dastardly Germans hadn’t broken international law to start the ball rolling.
This analysis contains plenty of truth, most of it obvious, but the overall picture contains more than a hint of poppycock. So on the centenary of the German Army’s first large-scale battlefield deployment of gas, at Bolimov in what is now Poland, here’s a brief but sober look at what chemical warfare actually meant in 1915.
It meant gas and flamethrowers. Flamethrowers were a German invention, developed since the turn of the century, regularly deployed by the middle of 1915 and eventually copied by the British for limited use in the latter stages of the War on the Western Front. Gas had been around a lot longer – the Chinese had used arsenic smoke as a weapon almost three thousand years earlier – and had become a matter of serious international concern with the growth of mass-producing chemicals industries during the nineteenth century. Although outlawed by the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907, agreements ratified by every major power except the USA, the use of poison gas was still a matter of live argument in 1914.
Washington’s official view, espoused by Admiral Mahan, its chief delegate at the Hague and an isolationist nation’s apostle of military preparedness, was that no international agreement should be allowed to restrict the USA’s technological or military enterprise, but the real debate centred on the morality of gas attacks. The argument that poisonous gas was a weapon too barbarous for use by civilised people won the day in peacetime, but every armed nation embraced a strand of opinion, usually though not always military, that saw no real difference between gassing people and shooting them or blowing them to bits. Once war broke out they had their day.
Both sides on the Western Front attempted small-scale experiments with canisters of irritant gas during the autumn of 1914, as the defensive superiority of trench warfare became evident and forced a search for radical methods of attack, but discovered that small amounts of tear gas weren’t even noticed by troops on a modern battlefield. On 31 January 1915 the German Ninth Army on the Eastern Front repeated the experiment on a much larger scale, firing 18,000 shells containing canisters of tear gas (xyxyl bromide) at Russian troops defending Borimov.
The German attack, a preliminary to a major offensive around the Masurian Lakes, in the northern sector of the Eastern Front, was a total failure. Cold weather meant most of the gas fell harmlessly to the ground, changing winds sent some of the rest in the wrong direction and the small amounts that reached Russian forces had little effect. Tear gas was cheap and easy to mass produce, but after one more large-scale experiment in March at Nieuport, on the northern tip of the Western Front, the German High Command turned to lethal chlorine gas.
Germany’s first use of chlorine, against French colonial troops at Ypres in April, signalled the beginning of chemical warfare in earnest. The British began their own attacks in September, and by 1916 both sides on the Western Front were adding poison gases to artillery shells as a matter of course.
Gas always terrified those in its path and sometimes caused utter panic, but its strategic impact was very limited. Changeable weather always made its use a risky business, and when successful it delayed or prevented advance into affected areas. Countermeasures meanwhile improved rapidly to provide reasonably effective protection in the form of gas masks, but were heavily dependent on rapid detection and therefore less useful against another German innovation introduced near Riga in 1917 – mustard gas.
Of all the poisonous chemicals deployed by both sides, none was more effective as a shock weapon than mustard gas, which could be used in tiny, undetectable quantities and produced powerful but delayed effects. Its relative success has come to represent wartime gas attacks, the terror they caused and the suffering of their victims, for posterity, while sealing Germany’s popular reputation as the villain of the piece.
The Germans were quicker than the Entente powers to exploit the potential of chemical warfare, were perhaps more ready than their enemies to ignore international law in the process, and were arguably more ruthless in its execution. None of that alters the fact that the British and French were more than willing to do the same thing, or erases the suspicion that the long-term effects of propaganda have something to do with our heritage history’s acceptance of German guilt.
Gas was and still is frightening. While other weapons initially deplored as barbarous and greeted with blind terror – aerial bombing, mines and torpedoes spring to mind – have passed into modern definitions of conventional warfare, chemical warfare has remained in the realm of nightmares, outlawed and despised the world over. Perhaps this twist of human psychology explains why the gas attacks presaged on the last day of January 1915 are treated by today’s heritage industries very much as they were by British propaganda at the time, as German-inspired barbarism, when they were in fact a symptom of the age, implemented with greater determination by the most efficient fighting nation of the age.