War History: German chemist introduced chlorine gas to the battlefields of Europe

The ruins of Ypres

The ruins of Ypres - Credit: Archant

It’s a return to Ypres and a look back at April, 1915, for Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian.

Kaiser Wilhelm II - worried about the stalemate

Kaiser Wilhelm II - worried about the stalemate - Credit: Archant

It’s a time when a terrible new weapon threatened to break the deadlock

By the spring of 1915, a much-contested area of ground around the small Belgian town of Ypres had been held on to doggedly. The place had become known by the British as Wipers. German army commanders knew the salient, a bulge of land on the border of the allied and German territories, as the “Ypres Sack” and had spent the winter planning to straighten their line by breaking through the British defences and capturing the troublesome town.

The experiences of 1914 had proved that any attack against barbed wire, machine guns and trenches would prove costly and was not guaranteed to succeed. German planners had spent the winter months looking for alternative strategies and weapons that could break the deadlock and shift the balance from the dug-in defender in favour of the attacking force.

The stalemate on the Western Front had not featured in the original plan for quick victories over France and Russia before Christmas 1914. Now faced with exactly the scenario the Schleiffen plan had intended to avoid – a protracted war against the allies on two fronts – the Germans were becoming increasingly desperate.

The Kaiser and his high command were willing to consider almost any idea. Previous articles describing attacks on the British civilian population by Zeppelin raiders, naval hit and run raids and U-boats have shown their thinking was not constrained by the contemporary rules of war. By December, 1914, Germany was already considering the unthinkable.

During that winter the fiercely patriotic German chemist Dr Fritz Haber had conceived the idea of using chlorine gas as a weapon on the battlefield. He convinced his high command that chlorine could be transported to the frontline in cylinders and, given the right prevailing wind, released toward the British and French lines.

Fritz Haber - the man whose experiments with chlorine saw the gas arrive on the battlefield of Ypres

Fritz Haber - the man whose experiments with chlorine saw the gas arrive on the battlefield of Ypres and bring an awful new dimension to warfare - Credit: Archant

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Haber argued the gas would rapidly kill or incapacitate anyone in its path, leaving German infantry to advance unopposed.

Although such a weapon was considered uncivilised and was outlawed under the conventions of war, the prospect of unlocking the British defences and breaking the deadlock on the Western Front was just too much to resist.

Haber’s plan was secretly approved and he was authorised to produce the gas and train soldiers to use it. The next obvious question was where and when to unleash this deadly new weapon. In spite of some reservations about the viability of gas as a weapon by the chief of the German general staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, it was decided to use it in the Ypres sector.

Work began in the April and by the 11th specialist gas units known as F Batteries had moved into the German frontline. Within six days, in secrecy, the Germans had positioned 5,730 gas cylinders in their frontline trenches.

To ensure that inquisitive Royal Flying Corps aircraft did not spot this activity, all this preparation was carried out at night or during bad weather.

The front of the attack would cover a spread of five kilometres, stretching from a point a few hundred metres east of Langemarck to the bank of the Yser canal at Steenstraat.

Haber’s plan was simple; the gas cylinders were grouped in batches of 20 per “battery”. In total, 180,000 kilograms of chlorine were to be released and the flow of gas was to last for exactly five minutes. Haber calculated this would generate a dense cloud that would roll across no man’s land and into the trenches opposite, engulfing the helpless defending troops.

The plan was not without risk to German troops. A constant danger to the gas pioneers was that enemy artillery shells might smash the cylinders and release the gas prematurely.

This would not only injure German troops nearby but alert the enemy to what was being prepared.

In order to protect men from their own chlorine gas a protective liquid was distributed. The pad came with a 30% sodium sulphate solution. In the event of release, this was to be poured onto a pad of cotton waste and pressed against the mouth and nose.

Although primitive, the pad was adequate as, once exposed to the air, chlorine is carried away on the prevailing wind and doesn’t linger. The same could not be said if it drifted into a confined space such as a dugout or settled in a deep shell hole or trench.

This was exactly the effect that Haber and his supporters were hoping for; they knew the British, Canadian and French soldiers in the target area were unaware of the presence of the F Batteries and had no protective equipment. On April 11 preparations were complete, Nervous of the threat of discovery by British reconnaissance, or a wayward artillery shell shattering their cylinders, the Germans waited patiently for the optimum wind speed and direction calculated to ensure success. They would not have to wait too long.

If you are keen to get out on the battlefields yourself, the next day excursion to Arras travels on June 9 and is available to book at www.travel-galloway.com ? or visit a Galloway Travel Centre for information.

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See more from Galloway Travel on the war here