Barely a few months after hostilities began, the conflict begins to bog down: the movement war gives way to the trench war. The Germans are looking for an efficient means of clearing the Allies from their trenches, given that classical artillery is having little impact. Would it be possible to introduce a new weapon? A terrifying weapon that could cause the enemy to quickly abandon its positions? A weapon that, beyond its immediate effect, would cause a long-term psychological effect?Indeed, if it seems that the war won't be won by physically affecting the opposing soldiers, it may be possible to attack the last thing remaining to them: their morale. Gas will make life impossible in the trenches, and its inventor, for his part, will be crowned with laurels. However surprising it may be, Fritz Haber will later receive the Nobel Prize for chemistry, more for his contribution to agricultural fertilizers than for his involvement in chemical warfare. But the Allied countries were no less shocked by this.
The birth of chemical warfare
Belgium will be the setting for an unfortunate worldwide innovation. April 1915 will see the recourse to the first weapon of mass destruction in violation of the Hague Convention of 1907 (agreement between belligerent countries regarding the "rules" to be followed in wartime). The designer of this fatal invention is the German chemist Fritz Haber, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany.
Other tests had been undertaken before the Yser front, but only with relative efficiency and never in such proportions. The usage of gas as a weapon results in many technical complications. It must be dense enough to remain compact once released, but it must also infiltrate every cavity by staying close to the ground. As such, the Germans opt for chlorine gas, which meets all of the aforesaid characteristics. Though article 23 of the Hague Convention prohibits the use of poisonous weapons, on 22 April 1915 at Langemarck (city located north of Ypres), the Germans are trying at all costs to dislodge the Allies from the trenches, and therefore position tanks containing chlorine gas; they use the wind to direct this gas toward the French lines of the 87th territorial division and the 45th Algerian division. With the soldiers caught totally off guard, the French units panic. Without protection when faced with this new enemy, the few survivors flee. The men run, fall and are asphyxiated. The survivors scream for water. Their throats are burned, they spit up blood, they struggle to find a bit of oxygen.
Building on this initial success, the German general staff asks Fritz Haber to produce additional chlorine for new attacks. However, the Allies improvise means for protecting against this gas. As such, Canadian troops use respiration pads in order to counter the effects of the chlorine. And one month after the first attack, the Allies begin to use an exceptional invention: the gas mask. It serves to stem the panic, and constitutes the best protection against this chemical weapon.
The men run, fall and are asphyxiated. The survivors scream for water. Their throats are burned, they spit up blood, they struggle to find a bit of oxygen.
Experimentation and desolation in the field
If Belgium is sadly chosen for the first combat use of gas, one of the reasons for this is that it meets the requirements for the use of chlorine gas. As previously explained, chlorine must be able to spread easily, without losing its density. The relatively flat relief of the Flemish plains will be the ideal terrain for the spread of toxic clouds. Given that these clouds are carried only by the wind, the Germans will wait for appropriate meteorological conditions. The wind must not be too strong, and it must not be blowing in the wrong direction. As such, the date of 22 April is not randomly chosen. The wind is blowing from west to east (from the German lines to the Allied lines), the sun isn't too hot (which would have evaporated the gas), and there's no rain (which would have pushed the gas into the ground).
Many problems surround the repetition of this operation. The most important point is the element of surprise. As such, the time of day must be chosen with meticulous care. Given the colour of chlorine gas (greenish yellow), it must be released at the moment when it is least visible, i.e. in full daylight… Also, preparing the operation takes a certain amount of time. Approximately two weeks are needed to deliver thousands of tanks near the enemy line, and to bury them. During this significant lapse of time and faced with so much agitation, i.e. the transport of thousands of tanks and the necessary works, the enemy's intelligence services may well anticipate this attack, and provide the soldiers with protection means.
With the drifting cloud of toxic gas depending on too many random factors such as climatic conditions, a second system for using gas is developed: chemical shells. The massive use of such shells will not be seen until almost 1917. Without precise information on the efficiency of this new weapon, the armies preferred to use conventional munitions as a result of a shortage of shells between 1915 and 1916.
The use of such shells will result in new tactics, but also the recourse to new gases.
Example of an exercise undertaken by soldiers, and that can be found in the notes of the Belgian army from 1917 :
" III. Usage Method.
The fumes from shell n°4 (gas containing Vincennite with toxic properties), the density of which is relatively low, tend to dissipate quickly.
The fumes from shell n°5 (Phosgene tear gas), three times heavier than air, follow the surface of the ground and infiltrate into the deepest shelters, where they make the atmosphere unbreathable for quite a long time.
These essential characteristics serve to clarify the usage method that is likely to give the best result.
Shell n°4, with its devastating action, has been specially designed for its surprise effect at the start of an attack. Its use is less appropriate when the alerted enemy has been able to don protective gear.
It is in this case that shell n°5 should be used. Fired methodically, it will force the enemy to remain in a fatal atmosphere that will produce its effects when the protective masks have exhausted their reactive capability.
In general, and when atmospheric conditions are suitable for their usage, both types of toxic projectiles will be used successively, while taking the following rules into account:
1°) Beforehand, determine the firing elements using explosive shells so as not to encourage the enemy to don protective gear.
2°) Begin the attack by firing, with the speed allowed by the equipment, volleys of shell n°4 (…) "
Once the strategy has been implemented, the chemical artillery will focus on very specific objectives: rendering accesses impractical due to the persistent nature of the gases, hindering the adversary who will have to cover his face for a certain time, neutralizing strategic points, allowing the artillery to fall back, putting a troop out of action."
This gas known for its odour, but also after the city where it is used, is the most dangerous gas in the First World War
Medicine: between protection and instruction
The Army Medical Corps, already lacking in means, will be totally unequipped to deal with these new patients. Indeed, it will be a year after the first attack before a proper course of treatment is determined for gas victims.
After each attack, physicians are ordered to analyse the nature of the employed gas. To prepare their diagnosis, they gather information from the soldiers that have been victims of the attacks. In addition to treating the wounded, they are also given a preventive mission. They must give theoretical courses to each unit, so that the men will correctly use the masks that have been provided to them. After the lessons, all of the soldiers undergo practical training. Insofar as possible, this training will re-create the conditions of gas attacks at the front. Training example described by the Belgian army:
"2nd exercise: use of smoke to imitate the explosion of a gas shell.
Using a small detonator, small packets of powdered red phosphorus contained in canvas bags are exploded. These packets are around 5 cm in diameter, and when bursting, perfectly imitate the cloud of gas resulting from a gas shell. These small bombs must be prepared on the day of their intended use.
Procedure: set off one or two of these small bombs about a dozen metres away, on the side from which the wind is coming. Have the men cross through the cloud while adjusting their masks as they do so."
Gas will not only affect soldiers, but also civilians. Belgium will be one of the few countries where civilians have been victims of gas. To protect the inhabitants of villages close to the conflict, it is decided to provide them with hoods and masks, for people living near heavily bombarded areas. Some officers will also be asked to provide the civilians with demonstrations, so that they will be able to use their protection correctly. Everything will be done so that information is as accessible as possible, and to as many people as possible. However, on 25 May 1918, the Flemish newspaper "De Belgische Standaard" indicates that the instruction to use gas masks and other types of protection will often be only in French… The main reason for this unilingual notification is that the gas masks come from the French army. However, this will not be a concern. Translations will in fact be provided in Dutch for the Flemish civilians living near the front – who are most likely to be gassed – and when the masks are provided to them, they are gathered together in order to be instructed in their correct usage. At the front, physicians provide explanations on the theory and practice of using the mask, meaning that there is no problem there as well. However, when treating patients, the fact that certain physicians are not bilingual will cause many problems, though there are no statistics in this regard.
One of the war's main problems will be transporting the wounded, which will increase the number of victims. As such, sometimes excessively slow transportation or an excessively fast diagnosis can have many repercussions on the lives of patients. Many gas victims, not recognised as such due to a lack of apparent signs, do not receive appropriate care. Other wounded soldiers are not treated quickly enough, believing that it is crucial to first transport them to the hospital located behind the front.
Another problem inherent to the use of gases is the treatment provided to these wounded. Ignorance regarding the impact of gases will result in many complications in terms of the treatment provided to the various victims. In the reports from many "ambulances" (aid stations), gas victims will not be identified correctly. The English do not mention gas victims under a separate heading until the end of the summer of 1915. The Germans won't do so until 1916, nor the French until 1918.
The various types of gases begin to be classified according to their effects: blistering (i.e. with irritant effects) or choking agents, though the victims can be intoxicated by both at the same time. Amongst the choking agents, chlorine is highly feared, and its impacts are terrible. It is very toxic, it asphyxiates and it destroys the pulmonary lining. Also, it causes great pain and the fact of fleeing aggravates the poisoning.
When the troops are well-prepared, the countermeasure against chlorine is fairly easy. Though basic, the protection that involves soaking a pad in sodium hyposulphite is sufficient to neutralize the effects of chlorine. In the absence of hyposulphite, certain physicians recommend soaking fabrics (socks or handkerchiefs) in urine, the properties of which (notably the ammonium hydroxide contained therein) could prevent poisoning.
The use of a new gas with blistering effects will cause the medical field to intensively focus on the question of gases. This gas known for its odour, but also after the city where it is used, is the most dangerous gas in the First World War Mustard gas (dichloroethyl sulphide) or yperite (referring to the city of Ypres) will cause eight times as many victims as the other toxic agents used during this war. One of the most famous victims of this gas will be corporal Adolf Hitler…
Choking agents only affect the adversaries when they aren't wearing protection, and their effect dissipates quite quickly. Yperite, for its part, is the most cunning gas ever developed. A mask does not provide sufficient protection The entire body must be protected against the blistering droplets (that irritate the skin and cause blisters to appear) resulting from the gas. Also, the entire area affected by the gas is contaminated for quite a long time. Yperite makes day-to-day life unlivable. As such, it becomes increasingly difficult for the soldiers to feed themselves. The obligation to wear a mask becomes widespread, foods are poisoned with the gas, even the best-sealed shelters are affected. This gas will have a psychological impact that is much greater than the other toxic gases. Persons contaminated with yperite do not always develop the symptoms immediately. This further increases the terror of soldiers who will be exposed to this gas, but without knowing that they have been poisoned.
To combat yperite at the front, the contaminated area will be swept using special equipment, and disinfected using chlorinated lime.
Treatment of gas victims
To treat a gas victim, the physician must first of all remove the toxin. To do so, the poisoned person must be exposed to pure air. If the physician has this option, it's best to treat the person on-site, such as to avoid any movement that would demand additional respiratory capacity. Stabilising the person's condition is important, encouraging a normal resumption of breathing while inhaling oxygen. Many gas victims will struggle to breathe, meaning that it is essential to calm them in order to treat them correctly.
Physicians must also lower the patient's blood pressure, thereby facilitating blood circulation. To this end, the patient will be bled (a certain quantity of blood is removed from the patient), that will have the advantage of helping the heart to correctly play its role.
For persons gassed using yperite, the physician disinfects the patient. The gas victim must gargle thoroughly using bicarbonate water. The eyes are rinsed using a sodium bicarbonate solution. In fact, many carbonate solutions are used. They serve to decrease the internal lesions due to the gas. When the skin is affected, the patient is washed using hot water and soap. At all costs, the patient must avoid efforts that would result in excessive oxygen consumption. With this in mind, only liquid foods, such as hot beverages, are permitted for the patient; the aim is to reduce digestion that would result in a substantial oxygen demand.
All of these measures make it possible to correctly treat the patient in many cases. As such, many combatants can return to the front after a few weeks. However, in case of yperite victims, a relapse may well occur. Some will suffer lifelong effects of the poisoning.
Gas will remove last human aspect from this war, that of being able to see your comrade's face without his mask.
Chemistry between death and reward
To justify the use of gases, Germany claims that the Hague Convention was insufficiently precise regarding the ban on the usage of such weapons.
Considered to be the father of chemical weapons, Fritz Haber will receive the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1920 as a result of his synthesis of ammonia, to the great displeasure of scientists from the former Allied countries. While Fritz Haber was proud of his solution and of his success, the same could not be said of his wife. If ever there was a couple that would be the antithesis of the couple of Pierre and Marie Curie, it would be Fritz Haber and Clara Immerwahr. Both scientists, when Clara marries F. Haber, she lives in the shadow of his work. Clara Immerwahr commits suicide on 2 May 1915, seemingly without leaving a suicide note. Many questions remain unanswered regarding the reasons for her action. One of the suggested hypotheses would be her total disapproval on the usage of scientific knowledge for military purposes.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize to F. Haber will be justified by the fact that his innovation was of major scientific interest (ammonia will be used in agricultural fertilizers and allow for unprecedented yields), and also by the fact that we cannot remain attached to constant hatred based on past events. Also, however cruel gas combat might be, for some scientists, such battles were no less subject to condemnation than ones using conventional weapons. The number of persons wounded by artillery will be much greater than the number of gas victims. According to French historian Andoin-Rouzeau, a specialist in the Great War, fewer than 1% of the deaths amongst the belligerents are due to gas. The greatest reproach directed against the use of gas is that its effects are much more perverse than classical weaponry. Even after treatment, the effects of the gas could be felt by the victim for many years to come.
Though gas did not have a decisive impact on the course of the war, it had enormous psychological consequences. Gas will remove last human aspect from this war, that of being able to see your comrade's face without his mask.