Thursday, March 05, 2015

April 22, 1915

April 22, 1915 was the day when gas weapons were first used in WWI.  Chemical and Engineering News has unflinching articles written by Sarah Everts, as the editor says, not to celebrate but to remember, for it is easier to repeat mistakes if they are forgotten.  There is no paywall.  The testimony of two eyewitnesses is available and enough.  Willi Siebert, one of the German infantry who opened the gas cylinders, left this account for his son and us
Finally, we decided to release the gas. The weatherman was right. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining. Where there was grass, it was blazing green. We should have been going on a picnic, not doing what we were going to do. …

We sent the infantry back and opened the valves with the strings. About supper time, the gas started toward the French; everything was stone quiet. We all wondered what was going to happen.

As this great cloud of green grey gas was forming in front of us, we suddenly heard the French yelling. In less than a minute they started with the most rifle and machine gun fire that I had ever heard. Every field artillery gun, every machine gun, every rifle that the French had, must have been firing. I had never heard such a noise.

The hail of bullets going over our heads was unbelievable, but it was not stopping the gas. The wind kept moving the gas towards the French lines. We heard the cows bawling, and the horses screaming. The French kept on shooting.

They couldn’t possibly see what they were shooting at. In about 15 minutes the gun fire started to quit. After a half hour, only occasional shots. Then everything was quiet again. In a while it had cleared and we walked past the empty gas bottles.

What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive.

All of the animals had come out of their holes to die. Dead rabbits, moles, and rats and mice were everywhere. The smell of the gas was still in the air. It hung on the few bushes which were left.

When we got to the French lines the trenches were empty but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable. Then we saw there were some English. You could see where men had clawed at their faces, and throats, trying to get breath.

Some had shot themselves. The horses, still in the stables, cows, chickens, everything, all were dead. Everything, even the insects were dead.
The account from the other side, from a Canadian soldier, A.T. Hunter, is equally searing.


Kyle Splawn said...

It's hard to imagine the state of mind required to keep using such a horrifying weapon even knowing what the results will be from an academic standpoint, let alone after seeing them in the field. War creates "necessities" that are truly monstrous.

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History goes into more accounts of the introduction and use of gas during his excellent series of podcasts covering the war, entitled Blueprint for Armageddon. I believe the advent of gas is covered in part 3.

HH is highly recommended in general. He's not just some military buff waxing poetic about troop movements and weapons developments, detached from what those things actually do; whenever he covers a conflict he always focuses the most attention on the human aspects, drawing from first-hand accounts to tell the stories.
If you're even slightly interested, better grab the episodes now while you can. After a while they tend to fall behind a paywall.

Dano said...




Jim Eager said...

April 22, 1915 was not the first use of gas weapons in WWI.

The French were the first, using ethyl bromoacetate tear gas grenades in August, 1914.

The Germans employed some kind of chemical irritant in an artillery barrage in October, 1914.

The first small scale use of chlorine on the Western Front came before January 2, 1915 according to some German field reports.

The first large scale attack used xylyl bromide tear gas shells against Russian positions on January 31, 1915.

But the April 22, 1915 mass release of chlorine at Ypres did indeed dwarf these precursor attacks. No wonder the others are forgotten.

Mike said...

a french youtuber talked about Fritz Haber, the scientist behind the Ypres attack - a very good video, showing the complex case of this man both savior of people (with the invention of a process to transform atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizant) and war criminal.
But in french.

And the most ironic about this man is that he, a former Jew, was the man who devised Zyklon A in order to protect crops from bugs.

Anonymous said...

The use of gas became more or less inevitable as soon as the hopes of a "splendid, little war" were dashed by the horrific casualties of the first 6 months. The generals and politicians were desperate to break the stalemate, and blood flowed like water in the fields of Belgium and France. And as the casualties mounted, the costs were so high that nothing short of total victory could be worth the price paid, so the war dragged on. After all, the more you pay, the more it's worth.

John Farley said...

When the First World War broke out in August 1915, many of the belligerents (policymakers as well as the public) thought the war would be over quickly. Why did it last so long? Any why did so few people object? Here's the story from historian A. J. P. Taylor:

There existed in Germany in the First World War forces which repudiated [the] program of conquest and sought an alternative. The first of these forces came from all those members of the “governing classes” - intelligent industrialists, skeptical generals, rigid Junkers, competent bureaucrats, [the Chancellor] himself - who believed that Germany could not win the war; but as a peace without victory raised even more terrifying problems than endless war, their opposition counted for nothing. They regretted, they lamented, they complained; but they acquiesced in every step taken to achieve a world conquest which they believed impossible. [A. J. P. Taylor, The Course of German History, Putnam’s, 1962, p. 192.