Chemical weapons were probably the most feared of all weapons in World War One. While other new developments such as the machine gun killed far more soldiers overall during the war, soldiers could still find some shelter in shell craters from gunfire, and death would be quick. Death by poison gas however was frequently drawn out and a gas attack meant soldiers having to put on crude gas masks which if unsuccessful, an attack could leave a victim in agony for days and weeks before he finally succumbed to his injuries.
Although chemical warfare had already been outlawed as of the 1899 Hague Conference, France, Germany and Britain all continued to experiment with tear gases as they did not consider them to be in violation of the agreement. From September 1914, the desperate search for ways to break the endless stalemate of trench warfare caused them to turn to these chemical weapons.
In August 1914 the French first used tear gas cartridges developed before the war from weapons used by the Paris police. This was more an irritant rather than a gas that would kill. It was used to stop the seemingly unstoppable German army advancing throughout Belgium and north-eastern France. The Germans first used gas In October 1914 when they fired gas shells at the French that contained a chemical that caused violent sneezing fits. Again, the gas was not designed to kill rather than to incapacitate an enemy so that they were unable to defend their positions properly.
One particular early use of gas of this type showed the limitations of this early and unreliable form of chemical warfare. It was on the Eastern front, unlike the other examples, at the Battle of Bolimov. Here, eighteen thousand gas shells containing xylyl bromide were fired at Russian positions, but were a complete failure. The winter weather was too cold to permit an effective aerosol to disperse the gas, and the chemical was either blown back towards the German lines, fell harmlessly to the ground, or was not concentrated enough to cause any damage.
These first uses of gas took place when the war in the west that was still very mobile. Once trench warfare had time to settle in, all sides involved in the conflict looked for any way possible to bring movement back into their campaigns. One of the more obvious was to develop a weapon that would destroy not only an enemy frontline but also the will to maintain troops on that frontline. Poison gas might even provoke a mass mutiny along a frontline thus causing it to collapse. In other words, poison gas seemed to be the answer for the war’s lack of mobility.
Poison gas (in this case, chlorine) was used for the first time at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. On the 22nd April, French sentries in Ypres noticed greenish-yellow clouds moving towards them, a gas delivered from pressurised cylinders dug into the German front line. The French took this for an enemy smokescreen used to disguise the movement of German troops. Believing this, all French troops in the area were ordered to the firing line of their trench – right in the path of the chlorine. As the gas clouds reached the French trenches and revealed their nature it would have been too late, as the impact was immediate and devastating. Chlorine gas kills by irritating the lungs to such an extent that they flood with fluid, and the victim effectively drowns as a result. The defenders that did not succumb to the gas fled, allowing the German infantry to advance and quickly overrun the frontline.
After this first used of deadly poison gas, other nations then rushed to develop their own chemical weapons and defences against them. This led to a rapid development in these two areas. The development in the use of gas led to both phosgene and mustard gas being used. Phosgene was a gas which was felt by the victim only 48 hours after it had been inhaled and by then it had already too late, as it had imbedded itself in the respiratory system and very little could be done to eradicate it. Also it was much less obvious to begin with that someone had inhaled phosgene as it did not cause as much violent coughing as other gases. Mustard gas was first used by the Germans against the Russians at Riga in September 1917. This gas caused both internal and external blisters on the victim within hours of being exposed to it. The damage to the lungs and other internal organs were extremely painful and although not always fatal, many who did survive were blinded by the gas.
Alongside the development of new gases, armies quickly developed gas masks that gave protection as long as sufficient warning was given of a gas attack. Soldiers were also trained to use make-shift gas masks if they were caught in the open without a gas mask during a gas attack, such as cloth soaked in their own urine and placed over the mouth, said to give protection against a chlorine attack. By the end of the war, relatively sophisticated gas masks were available to soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front.