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Time Periods => WWI (The Great War) => Topic started by: Sturmkatze on March 12, 2008, 08:31:34 PM
By Steve Fisher, 2./IR111
One of the most novel weapons employed during the Great War was undoubtedly poison gas. This was the first and last time this weapon was used in a major European war. The image of the bug-eyed soldier in his gas mask will forever be linked to the Great War. The following is a brief history of the use of gas during the war.
The first country to use poison gas was Germany, although the French had unsuccessfully used tear gas earlier in the war. England and France had both been considering using gas but lacked an industrial base for its production. Germany on the other hand, was quickly able to develop poison gas because her huge dye industry could be converted for that purpose. One of the reasons the pre-war German Army was so colorful was because of this huge dye industry.
The First Successful Gas Attack
During April of 1915, the Germans launched the first successful gas attack near Ypres. The Germans facing the French 45th Algerian Division and the 87th Territorial Division released a cloud of chlorine gas from 6,000 cylinders placed in the German front line. The enormous yellow-green cloud surprised the Franco-Algerians as it slowly drifted across no-mans-land. They panicked and their line collapsed. The Germans cautiously pursued the fleeing enemy, capturing 2,000 prisoners and 51 guns.
Increasing resistance brought the German advance to a halt. Gas was such a new idea that the German high command had failed to prepare for the opportunity presented them to break through the enemy trenches. The necessary reserves needed to exploit the breakthrough were too far away to be used.
During the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans used chlorine on four other occasions. Gas attacks required extensive preparations. The installation of the gas cylinders was a laborious process; the gas troops (Gaspioniere) had to carry the heavy, bulky cylinders up into the front line and then dig them in under the forward firing step. Complicated pipes and long tubes stretching out into no-mans-land allowed the gas to be released in the direction of the enemy when a gentle breeze blew in the proper direction. This arrangement caused many problems, from accidental bursting of the cylinders to slow leaks in the cylinder, which made the frontline troops sick.
The British and French were quick to emulate the German method, although it took them a few months to set up their gas production facilities. The French had previously made unsuccessful attempts to use tear gas in various forms (grenades and mortar bombs). For the production of chlorine gas, the bleaching powder manufacturers were indispensable.
Chlorine?s effects depend upon how much gas is inhaled. Symptoms include severe inflammation of the lungs, retching, vomiting, and violent spasms, which aggravated and strained the heart because it was being deprived of oxygen. After sleeping, the victim either began to recover or deteriorated further. The lungs would fill with fluid and the victim drowned (similar symptoms caused death from Spanish Flu). Another noted effect was the corrosive patina-like finish left on unprotected metal. Troops had to carefully oil and polish their weapons after passing through a chlorine cloud.
The British were quick to respond to the German gas threat. They quickly organized the preparation of muslin pads moistened in a chemical solution which, when breathed through, would neutralize chlorine gas. The Germans and French also had similar pads. Later goggles were provided to protect the eyes. These measures were generally effective, if the pad was properly moistened, not soaked, and the gas was not densely concentrated. Because gas is heavier than air, it tended to collect in shellholes and trenches. Troops had to be taught proper gas discipline to remain calm, otherwise they might panic and breathe in the gas. Throughout the war the French suffered more from a lack of gas discipline than did the Germans or British.
The chemically soaked pads and the goggles were only a temporary measure while better forms of protection were sought. The British tried several variations of a chemical impregnated hood called the ?Hypo Helmet?; a later version was called the ?PH helmet? and the final version was called the ?PHG helmet.? The last type had tight goggles and a small flutter valve to breathe out through. These hoods were all characterized as being hot, and when they reacted with gas, a foul smell was produced. The helmets were also difficult to care for and became soaked with mud and rain. In May 1916, the hoods were replaced by the ?Small-Box? respirator. This consisted of a mask with goggles and a nose clip along with a breather tube connected to a filter box. This system was the best respirator produced by any of the warring powers. American troops adopted this system when they entered the war.
The French produced several types of pad and goggle masks, each version increased the number of pad layers. In 1916 they introduced the M2 which was a pad mask covered with a waterproof flap with built-in goggles. This mask was carried in a oilcloth pouch and later a small tin box worn on the belt. The M2 was used until 1918 when the ARS (Appareil repiratoire sp?cial) was introduced. The ARS was a copy of the German mask, but unlike the latter, it had a special exhaust valve. Despite its improvements, the ARS was still inferior to the German mask primarily because of faulty manufacturing. The French often issued troops going into the line with new masks, without reclaiming the old ones, thus French units in the trenches could have a variety of mask types.
More Deadly Gasses
During 1916, experiments were conducted by the warring powers in an effort to produce effective gas shells. The use of cylinders was costly and relied too much on the weather conditions and wind direction. After several incidents of troops being gassed by their own gas, officers on both sides demanded a better method. During this same period, Phosgene was introduced which had the distinctive odor of rotten eggs. It produced a delayed reaction, which acted on the lungs and heart?like chlorine, but without the violent spasms. The effect took longer to develop, but was much more lethal when it did?the victim would react suddenly and death could occur shortly afterward.
During 1917, gas shells were perfected and new gas formulations were developed. The British introduced the Livins projector. This was essentially a crude mortar consisting of a base plate and a tube. It used an electrically ignited black powder charge to fling a thin walled drum filled with gas. Operated in batteries, they could fire only at large targets, as accuracy was not considered important. The projectors could easily be carried into the trenches and if not destroyed by shellfire after firing, they could be reloaded and used again. Accuracy was of no importance since the idea was to randomly saturate a large area with gas and kill Germans. The Germans produced a couple of copies of the Livins projector but these were intended to fire accurately at dugouts and guns. The German model was overly complicated and failed to utilize the Livins? best assets?simplicity and lightness.
Another gas developed by the Germans in 1917-18 was called Blue Cross (from its shell markings). This was also copied and employed by the Allies. Blue Cross was a particulate gas which was composed of arsenical compounds. It was a non-persistent gas and was generally non-lethal. Blue Cross was used to incapacitate its victims with coughing or sneezing, thus allowing more lethal gases to enter the victim?s gas mask and do their work. Blue Cross was often used in combination with Mustard gas.
Mustard gas was introduced during 1917 by the Germans (also called Yellow Cross gas). This was a persistent gas, that is, it poisoned the ground it fell on and left iridescent markings on the soil, which revealed its presence. Mustard gas was also copied by the French and British, but not until late 1918. Mustard gas blistered exposed skin, as well as the lungs?temporary blindness was also common. The blistering effect was a delayed action effect. Because of its persistent effect, trenches and shell holes had to be decontaminated. Trenches were decontaminated with white bleaching powder, which then had to be covered with earth for camouflage. Guns had to be washed off and textiles and leather had to be treated or discarded. This process was a monumental task in the front lines.
Initially the German mustard gas shells could be detected by a distinctive ?plop!? when they burst. This gave warning and allowed masks to be put on in time. The Germans improved their design, which increased the dispersal of the heavy mustard gas and the new shells sounded just like any other. During 1917, and particularly during 1918, the psychological effects of gas were stressed. Long periods in masks produced extreme exhaustion and lowered troop morale. The method was to saturate an area, then slowly feed in more gas, forcing the enemy to wear their masks for long periods. This was particularly effective against gunners because the physical activity in loading their guns required a lot of oxygen which had to be sucked in through the mask.
During 1918, the Germans used much more gas than they previously had. The Allies retaliated with phosgene and their own mustard gas. Gas was used extensively during the German offensives of 1918. Mustard gas, used against artillery and positions not to be stormed, created impassable belts of poisoned ground. Phosgene and Blue Cross were used against areas where the assault troops would try to storm through. During the German retreats of late summer mustard gas was used widely to slow the Allied advance. The Allies used their own mustard gas, ?Yperite,? to great effect in the last months of the war.
In summary, the German Army used gas more than all of the other combatant nations combined?they were able to do this because of their huge chemical industry with manufacturers such as Bayer and BASF [Hmmm, do these companies sound familiar??MW]. This enabled the Germans to more easily develop and exploit chemical weapons than the Allies. The ability to produce gas and its efficient use do not necessarily go hand in hand. The Livins projector was a great innovation by the British, of which the Germans failed to realize the value. Also, the Germans concentrated much of their effort on the well-prepared British rather than the poorly organized French.
Overall, the Germans were better able to employ gas than the Allies primarily because they integrated gas with high explosive shell fire and their new storm tactics. But the German Army?s morale was shaken by the failure of their 1918 offensives and the British and Americans were rapidly catching up and indeed, had the war lasted into 1919, would have had considerable advantage in gas production and delivery over the collapsing German effort. The Allied use of mustard gas further reduced morale in a German Army which did not have the supplies to replace contaminated clothing, the rubber for decontamination suits, and chemicals to properly decontaminate effected areas and weapons. The psychological value of Allied mustard gas was much greater than its actual effects.
Hopefully, this article has given the reenactor some appreciation for the types of gas employed, protective measures, and their effects. Gas warfare was a uniquely horrible aspect of the Great War, one which we should all be familiar with. The preceding article contains information taken from The Poisonous Cloud by L.F. Haber. I highly recommend this book for those interested in this subject.