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WWI gas attacks usher in age of chemical warfare

The Story

Belgium's Ypres is a scene of carnage and ruin, throbbing with murderous machine gun and artillery fire and littered with unburied corpses. As if this vision of hell on earth isn't bad enough, a new innovation is turning the very air to deadly poison. In April 1915, the Germans unleash the horrific weapon of chlorine gas on Canadian troops. As we hear in this item from CBC Radio's Ideas, the new weapon is terrifying, but the Canadian line does not break. 

Medium: Radio
Program: IDEAS
Broadcast Date: May 7, 2003
Guests: Tim Cook, Tim Traverse
Reporter: Gilbert Reid
Duration: 4:51

Did You know?

• Gas warfare was an innovation of the First World War, although there are stories of the Spartans using sulphur gas in 5th century BC Greece. The French first used tear gas (a non-lethal irritant) in August 1914, and the Germans used it in artillery shells against the French that October. The Germans used tear gas against the Russians in January 1915, but the chemical simply froze instead of vapourizing.

• Germany's powerful chemical industry then began producing deadly chlorine gas shells. They would create visible clouds of strong-smelling, grey-green gas that drifted over enemy lines. The gas destroys lung tissue, causing suffocation. Chlorine gas was first used against French trenches at Ypres in April 1915. The French troops fled, but the Germans were wary of the gas, and did not penetrate the break before reinforcements arrived.

• On April 24, 1915 the Germans used chlorine gas against the Canadian First Division at the Second Battle of Ypres. With the wind in the German's favour, anything short of a full retreat would have put the Canadians in the path of the gas. Realizing the only fresh air was at the German line, the Canadians pushed forward, breathing through water- or urine-soaked rags as makeshift gas masks. (It was believed that the ammonia in the urine would neutralize the chlorine.)

• The Canadians held their ground until they were reinforced by British troops a day and a half later. The battle earned the Canadian forces great respect, though it came at a cost of some 6,000 men, and ended in a stalemate.

• By the fall of 1915, the British too embraced gas warfare, using it widely on the Western Front.

• In 1915, the deadly gas phosgene was used. It was hard to detect and much deadlier than chlorine, though it took up to 24 hours to incapacitate its victims.
• The most notorious gas warfare came in 1917 with the introduction of mustard gas. Mustard gas is a "vesicant" or blistering agent that would burn skin on contact. Heavier than air, it would sink into trenches and pollute the battlefield. It was generally not fatal, but caused horrible burns, infections and blindness.

• Gas warfare was most effective as a psychological and harassing weapon, accounting for only three per cent of the war's combat deaths (approximately 100,000 men.) Its effectiveness was greatly diminished as gas masks became widely available in 1915.
• In 1925, most countries in the world signed the Geneva Protocol, which outlawed the use (but not the production or storage) of lethal gas.

• Perhaps the most famous account of a gas attack is in the poem Dulce et Decorum Est by the English poet and soldier Wilfred Owen:

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering 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.

Other key innovations during the First World War include:

• the development of trench warfare
• grenade warfare
• widespread use of machine guns
• moving artillery barrages
• aircraft reconnaissance, bombing and combat


The First World War: Canada Remembers more