There’s something in the air…

Gas attack Somme

In ‘The Natures of War’ I include a brief discussion of the ways in which chemical gas attacks on the Western Front militarised the atmosphere:

Gas warfare turned the very air the soldier breathed into a potential enemy and, to Peter Sloterdijk, inaugurated a ‘new “ecologized” war’, a battle ‘conducted in the atmospheric environment [that] was about conquering the respiratory “potentials” of hostile parties’.  Here the French and the Germans led the way. The French were the first to use toxic gas shells on a large scale but these discharged tear gas which in most cases was not lethal, and when the Germans used similar shells against the British in October 1914 at Neuve Chapelle they too proved largely ineffective.  These were ‘Lilliputian efforts’, according to Peter Bull, and experiments by both sides with other systems were aimed at a greater harvest.

They yielded their first (poisoned) fruit on 22 April when the Germans launched the first lethal gas attack at Ypres. Unlike those earlier attempts this did not involve artillery – which is how the High Command persuaded themselves they were not violating the 1899 Hague agreement that prohibited the ‘use of projectiles the sole use of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or noxious gases’  – and instead released chlorine gas from specially adapted industrial storage containers hidden in the German trenches and then relied on the wind to disperse the gas cloud. On that first, fateful evening more than 5,000 cylinders discharged 150 tons of chlorine gas. It billowed into a yellow-green cloud nearly six kilometres wide and 600-900 meters deep, which was then carried on a north-easterly wind towards two French divisions at 2-3 meters a second. The gas attacked the bronchial tubes and victims suffocated by drowning in their own fluids. German infantry advanced behind the gas cloud which had breached the French lines, and while they did not press home their advantage all sides concluded that gas was the way ‘to break the “riddle of the trenches”’ by flushing troops from cover and ending ‘the stalemate that had confounded all.’  But the reliance on wind as a dispersal vector was risky, not least because the prevailing wind on the Front was from the west – the initial attack had been postponed time and time again until conditions were favourable – and on 25 September the British launched their own gas cloud attack at Loos. This too went awry as a result of changing wind direction, and soon both sides had reverted to artillery delivery systems. They also developed deadlier agents (all derived from chlorine), and from 1916 gas of more than 60 types was in every engagement by artillery on all sides for both offensive and defensive purposes.

These gases affected more than the surface environment because they were all heavier than air. Chlorine and the far more deadly phosgene seeped into craters and shell holes, ‘corrupting the very areas of relative safety where men took refuge’. Mustard gas lingered even longer. It was designed to disable not kill – a blistering agent, it burned the skin and caused (usually temporary) blindness [see John Singer Sargent‘s famous Gassed, below] – and repeated intermittent exposure deadened the sense of smell so a man could no longer detect it. Since mustard gas remained dormant for days, it ‘consigned the soldier to a state of permanent unease’ in which ‘every puddle [became] an imagined trap’; in the winter of 1917-1918 there were reports of soldiers tracking frozen mud contaminated with mustard gas into their dugouts where it melted and gassed their companions.  Here too, the psychological effects of this militarised nature were as significant as their physiological ones. Gas turned out not to be the decisive weapon of the war; it accounted for around 1 per cent of British deaths but caused disproportionately more casualties. One of its main purposes, Tim Cook concludes, became disruption: spreading surprise, uncertainty, and fear on the battlefield. By 1918 gas made up 20-40 per cent of all shells within the artillery dumps on both sides and ‘all soldiers on the Western Front lived in an environment where gas was a daily fact of life…’

John Singer Sergeant, Gassed (1919)

The bibliographic references are in the draft text under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I rehearse all this because Sarah Everts has a richly illustrated and informative new essay on ‘When chemicals became weapons of war’ here – it’s an excellent survey.

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