New weapons IV: Poison gas

As part of our continued remembrance of World War 1 here at WUHstry, I today will be looking at one of the more dangerous developments in weaponry; the development of poison gas, which became a prominent part of the Second Battle of Ypres.

Canadian Soldier With Mustard Gas Burns 1917/1918

Poison gas as we know ended up causing a large amount of the casualties. Although many felt that it was the Germans who created it, it was the French that first thought up of chemical warfare, deploying tear-gas grenades in the first month of the war, with the Germans then taking the initiative to look at this further.

Soldiers Blinded my Poison Gas

With the capture of Neuve Chapelle in Oct 1914, the German’s fired shells towards the French containing chemicals, which in turn led to a violent fit of sneezing. Then in Jan 1915 the Germans employed tear gas for the first time, firing it in liquid form towards the Russians. However cold conditions made this test unsuccessful, due to the liquid freezing. Not giving up, again they tried Tear gas at Nieuport against the French.

Indian Soldiers Charging Germans at Neuve Chapelle 1915

After all this testing, it was only inevitable that the Germans would have a successful test. On 5pm 22nd April 1915, the German Army released 168 long tons of Chlorine gas over a 6.5 (4.0 miles) front, on the part held by the French territorial and colonial Moroccan and Algerian troops of the French 45th and 87th divisions. The German troops held 5,730 gas cylinders weighing 41 kg each, carried to the front by hand. With the cylinders then being opened by hand, the idea was that the prevailing winds would be carried across to the enemy trenches. However it is no surprise that any German soldiers died or were injured through this tactic, putting emphasis on just how dangerous this new weaponry was: that nobody was safe, it had no definition on who was the enemy or not.

German Soldiers Following the Gas Cloud at the First Try

The French in the path of the gas cloud suffered c6000 casualties, many of whom died within the first 10 minutes, with only a few standing their ground and waiting for their inevitable doom. Those who did die was from asphyxiation and tissue damage in the lungs, with many more blinded. The Chlorine gas formed Hypochlorous acid, which when combined with water damages moist tissues such as lungs and eyes. Because the gas was denser than the air, it filled up the trenches and forced the soldiers to run out into enemy fire. Either way the result of this new weapon was critical.

British Soldiers wearing a Gas Mask

Sadly for the German forces, they had not foreseen such a success, meaning they could not capitalise upon this movement. Canadian troops were able to defend the flank by urinating into cloths and putting them over their faces to counter the effects of the gas. Casualties were heavy for the Canadians, in particular the 13th battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force which was enveloped on 3 sides by the gas.

Again on the 24th April, the Germans attacked the Canadian occupied village of St Julien, which when the Canadians tried to carry out this countermeasure of urine soaked rags, it proved ineffective and led again to a German advancement.  When the Germans later used the chlorine gas towards the French, yellow-green clouds fled across the trenches. However people started to know when there would be a gas attack, due to the distinctive smell, the smell of pineapple and pepper. At first the French thought the enemy were launching an attack behind a smokescreen, but it was only when symptoms  of chest pains and a burning sensation in the throat became apparent, that they realised they had been gassed.

After these first few attacks, Allied troops were supplied masks of cotton pads soaked in urine, with the belief that the ammonia to neutralize the chlorine. The pads were held over the face till the gas dispersed, with soldiers preferring to use handkerchiefs and socks, dampened with bicarbonate of soda tied across the mouth and nose. However soldiers found these methods hard to work with, meaning that come July 1915, gas masks were provided to the soldiers.

As you can see, chemical warfare was now very much a real thing, something that we still see even in this day. However it led to good chemical protection. The introduction of gas masks helped to save many lives, not just on the battlefield but in world war 2 back home too.

Thanks for reading, hope you have been educated, look out for future ww1 posts by our excellent array of writers. If you would like to know more, check out fellow WUHstry’s post:

   Table below with figures of casualties from Gas attacks WW1 from Great War Website

Country Total Casualties Deaths
Austria-Hungary 100,000 3,000
British Empire 188,706 8,109
France 190,000 8,000
Germany 200,000 9,000
Italy 60,000 4,627
Russia 419,340 56,000
USA 72,807 1,462
Others 10,000 1,000

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