Gas! Gas!

April 22nd, 2015

Today marks the centenary of the first use of poisonous gas in the First World War, at the Second Battle of Ypres. At about five o’clock in the evening of the 22nd April 1915, French soldiers in Ypres saw a yellow fog drifting towards their lines.

Not expecting gas they assumed a smoke screen was being used to cover a German assault. In response, all men were ordered to their firing positions in the trench and in so doing exposed most men to the gas. In the face of this insidious weapon, many of the French and Algerian troops fled, leaving the Germans to take the position.

The gas used was chlorine and although it is generally accepted to be the first such attack, the French themselves had tried gas earlier in the war, in August 1914. This was xylyl bromide, an irritant rather than a poison, its use was to facilitate a conventional attack rather than as a lethal weapon in itself.

This first chlorine attack led to the use of more horrific gas weapons; phosgene and mustard gas were used which caused terrible injuries and disabilities, sometimes having fatal effects years later.

In total there were over 1 million casualties due to gas in the war, but around only 90,000 fatalities, just over half of these being Russian. Russian troops suffered most heavily from gas attacks. The figures do not include the men who died from gas related injuries sometimes years after the end of the war. They also do not reflect the psychological effects of such attacks and the lasting, non-fatal disabilities.
Both sides produced gas masks which offered some protection as long as there was enough warning of the attack for men to find them and get them on. Men often made use of what they could if masks were not readily available. It is said that urine soaked cloths gave some protection against chlorine!

Ripley man, Gunner Harold Brown, records a gas attack in his diary, now held at Ripley Library:

Saturday night 12.30, Sept 16th 1916

We are gassed near Mametz wood and there is a rush for respirators at midnight, the first time I had been under gas.

When considered in the whole context of the war, gas was not a particularly lethal weapon, however, its threat and psychological effect were devastating and greatly affected morale, much like the use of tanks later in the war.

Like many aspects of the First World War, it has become a template for later conflict and the use of chemical weapons still has a chilling effect today.

One of the most graphic and moving accounts of a First War gas attack was recorded by Wilfred Owen in his poem Dulce et Decorum est. The excerpt below describes what seems to be a phosgene, or chlorine attack:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!
– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning