In a previous submission, I addressed the inclusion of trench warfare in Warner Brother’s latest superhero film, Wonder Woman. While trench warfare played only a small role in that film, a more central theme was the use of poison gas, specifically a hydrogen-based, rather than sulfur-based, mustard gas (spoiler: Scientificallyy this would not be feasible as sulfur is the binding agent in mustard gas). One of the primary villains in the film, Isabel Maru, is also called “Dr. Poison” for her ability to create new and destructive ways in which to use chemicals in warfare. Her boss is a caricature of real life German general Erich Ludendorff, who is using the gas in an effort to keep the war going.
It’s fitting that Ludendorff’s plot revolves around the use of poison gas, as he was one of the German generals first responsible for introducing the concept in World War 1.
Ludendorff and the commanding general on the Eastern Front, Paul von Hindenburg, began an assault on the Russian lines in January of 1915 by using xylyl bromide, a non-lethal type of tear gas. Due to the harsh climate of the region, the gas was largely rendered useless. However, this insertion of gas into the fighting was soon put into practice elsewhere, and in April, another type was being used on the Western Front at the Second Battle of Ypres. This was weaponized chlorine, a much more potent and deadly concoction, that in the words of author G.J. Meyer “… destroys the ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen and causes its victims to drown, generally with excruciating slowness, in their own fluids.”1 It sprang from the German dye industry, which was controlled by a conglomerate known as IG Farben. The head of IG Farben was working with a leading German chemist named Fritz Haber to find a way to discharge chlorine in mass amounts in enemy trenches.2 They determined the best course of action was to release the chlorine from pressurized containers when wind conditions were favorable and the enemy was downwind.
Historian John Keegan writes of that initial use of chlorine on the Western Front: “At five o’clock a greyish-green cloud began to drift across from the German towards the French trenches … and soon thousands of Zouaves and Algerian Riflemen were streaming to the rear, clutching their throats, coughing, stumbling and turning blue in the face. Within the hour, the front line had been abandoned and a gap 8,000 yards wide had been opened in the Ypres defences.”3 Recounting that first experience with chlorine gas, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Currie said; “When it is first breathed it is not unpleasant, smelling not unlike chloroform, but very soon it stings the mucous membrane of the mouth, the eyes, and the nose. The lungs feel as if they were filled with rheumatism. The tissues of the lungs are scalded and broken down, and it takes a man a long time to recover …”4 Many men did not recover, suffocating on the battlefield. A subsequent release of chlorine on May 1 was described by a private in the BEF: “”We caught our first whiff of it: no words of mine can ever describe my feelings as we inhaled the first mouthful. We choked, spit, and coughed, my lungs felt as though they were being burnt out, and were going to burst. Red-hot needles were being thrust into my eyes. The first impulse was to run. We had just seen men running to certain death, and knew it, rather than stay and be choked into a slow and agonising death.”5 Luckily for the British, once it was recognized to be chlorine, a quick solution was found. Drenching a piece of cloth in urine and holding it over the mouth and nose while breathing worked to neutralize the effects of the chemical, and soon its usefulness had become limited.
Subsequent battles saw an increase in the use of gas, not just among the Germans but also among the Allies, although the results were rather inconsistent. As the war went on, the production of gas masks increased (by war’s end, some 27 million different gas masks would be manufactured in Great Britain6) which helped to counteract the effect. Additionally, gas was an uncertain weapon since it relied primarily on wind conditions. At Loos, during one encounter, the British planned an assault which would be prefaced by the release of chlorine gas. They released the gas at a moment when the winds were favorable, but before they could charge, the wind shifted direction and blew the gas back into the British trench. This type of incident was not uncommon, and illustrated why gas was so unreliable.
Nevertheless, it continued to be utilized in various forms. Phosgene, which would account for a majority of the gas related deaths that occurred during the war, was used at Verdun by the Germans. Unlike chlorine, phosgene is colorless, and its potency was such that it “… killed every living thing, even plants and insects.”7 And of course, the aforementioned mustard gas was also utilized. Mustard gas was a particularly sinister weapon; John Ellis writes of its effects: “With mustard gas the effects did not become apparent for up to twelve hours. But then it began to rot the body, within and without. The skin blistered, the eyes became extremely painful and nausea and vomiting began. Worse, the gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane. The pain was almost beyond endurance and most cases had to be strapped to their beds.”8 In the American Army alone, out of 58,000 gas casualties, almost half were from mustard gas.9
The introduction and use of gas in the Great War marked a terrible moment for humanity and illustrated the depths of barbarism that 20th-century warfare could reach. Much like trench warfare, its usage is a defining characteristic of the war, but similarly (and fortunately) the war exposed its fundamental problems. As Keegan writes, “Its intrinsic limitations as a weapon, dependent as it was on wind direction … ensured … that it would never prove decisive.”10 In future wars, it would not play as defining a role in combat. To the troops in this war though, in the words of Steve Trevor from Wonder Woman, gas was a weapon “far deadlier than you can imagine.”
• • •
1 Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The story of the Great War. (New York: Bantam Dell, 2007). Pg. 296
2 Keegan, John. The First World War. (New York: Vintage Books, 1998). Pg 198
3 Ibid, pg 198
4 Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.) Pg. 140-141
5 Ibid, Pg. 143
6 Ellis, John. Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War 1. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993.) Pg. 68
7 Meyer, Pg. 428
8 Ellis, Pg. 66
9 Ibid, Pg. 65-66
10 Keegan, Pg. 199