How the Shocking Use of Gas in World War I Led Nations to Ban ItHistorians in the News
tags: war crimes, military history, chemical weapons, World War 1, Geneva Conventions
At the dawn of the 20th century, the world’s military powers worried that future wars would be decided by chemistry as much as artillery, so they signed a pact at the Hague Convention of 1899 to ban the use of poison-laden projectiles "the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases."
Yet from the very start of World War I, both the Allies and Central Powers deployed noxious gasses to incapacitate the enemy or at least strike fear into their hearts. After early failed efforts by the French and German armies to use tear gas and other irritants in battle, the first successful gas attack was launched by the Germans against the British at the Second Battle of Ypres on April 22, 1915.
As the battle began, the Germans released 170 metric tons of chlorine gas from more than 5,700 cylinders buried in a four-mile line across the front. British officer Martin Greener described the horror of that first large-scale gas attack to the Imperial War Museum.
“[T]he next thing we heard was this sizzling—you know, I mean you could hear this damn stuff coming on—and then saw this awful cloud coming over. A great yellow, greenish-yellow, cloud. It wasn’t very high; about I would say it wasn’t more than 20 feet up. Nobody knew what to think. But immediately it got there we knew what to think, I mean we knew what it was. Well then of course you immediately began to choke, then word came: whatever you do don’t go down. You see if you got to the bottom of the trench you got the full blast of it because it was heavy stuff, it went down.”
None of the British soldiers at Ypres had gas masks, resulting in 7,000 injuries and more than 1,100 deaths from chlorine gas asphyxiation. Many of the deaths occurred when panicked victims rushed to drink water for relief from the burning gas, which only made the chemical reaction worse, flooding their throats and lungs with hydrochloric acid.
The British reaction to the German gas attack was “outrage,” says Marion Dorsey, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire and author of A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to WWI Poison Gas. “Did [the Germans] technically violate the Hague Convention,” which only specifically banned projectiles filled with poison gas? “No. But did they violate the spirit of the ban? Absolutely.”
Sir John French, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, decried the attack as evidence of German barbarity: “All the scientific resources of Germany have apparently been brought into play to produce a gas of so virulent and poisonous a nature that any human being brought into contact with it is first paralyzed and then meets with a lingering and agonizing death.”
Before British troops received proper gas masks with rubber seals called box respirators, they were equipped with stop-gap solutions, like thick gauze pads that were strapped tightly over the mouth. A stretcher bearer at Ypres named William Collins described the pads as more suffocating than the gas:
“I found that in using it in the gas cloud that after a couple of minutes one couldn’t breathe and so it was pushed up over the forehead and we swallowed the gas. And could only put the thing back again for very short periods. It was not a practical proposition at all.”
It wasn’t long before British military officers like French changed their stance on chemical warfare. If the Germans were going to sink as low as to use gas, then why should the Allies take the high ground? Soon after French made his public statement about the barbarity of German gas attacks, he wrote a private cable to Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War: “We are taking every precaution we can think of but the most effective would be to turn their own weapon against them & stick at nothing.”
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