Gas and chemical warfare

Herr Otto Hahn

The birth of the military chemical units

In the middle of January I received orders to go and see Gahimrat Haber (Fritz Haber), who was in Brussels on behalf of the Ministry of War. He explained to me that the Western Front, which were all bogged down, could be got moving again only by means of new weapons. One of the weapons contemplated was poison gas, in particular chlorine, which was to be blown towards the enemy from the most advanced positions. When I objected that this was a mode of warfare violating the Hague Convention, he said that the French had already started it (…) by using rifle-ammunition filled with gas. Besides, it was a way of saving countless lives, if it meant that the war could be brought to an end sooner.

Haber informed me that this job was to set up a special unit for gas-warfare, Pioneer Regiment No. 36. We received our first special training in Berlin, being instructed in the use of the poison gases and the relevant apparatus, including what was called the Drägersche Selbstretter, a protective device that had to be worn when discharging the gas. We also had to learn something about wind and weather, of course.

From the training course I returned to Flanders and was attached to Infantry regiment. No. 126 as their gas pioneer. My first task was to be what was called a front-line observer, i. e., I had to evaluate positions from which gas might be used. Our position was in the vicinity of Gheluvelt. Directly opposite the English lines, and so at times we could only talk in whispers. We were not yet very well entrenched and we were constantly under enemy fire, so the installation of the gas cylinders for the proposed attack was very difficult indeed.

The gas warning was given a number of times, but the attack had to be postponed again and again because of weather conditions. Every time the time of the attack had been fixed – which had to be twenty-four hours earlier. The wind changed and blew towards us, and the units brought up from the rear had be to taken back again. In the middle April High Command decided to remove the gas cylinder again and take them to the sector of the front north-east of Ypres, where wind condition were more favourable.


The development of chemical weapons

After a short time in Berlin I was transferred to the Bayer Chemical Works in Leverkusen, where I was engaged in the development of a gas that was a mixture of chloromethyl, chloroformate, and phosgene, which was originally merely called an “admixture”.

Besides this, other new gases, Grünkreuz and Blaukreuz, both mostard gases, were being developed. Blaukreuz was a strong irritant that could partially penetrate gas masks. Grünkreuz was a typical poison gas, resembling phosgene. When the two substances were used simultaneously -the mixture was called Buntkreuz – those attacked were forced to tear off their gas masks, leaving themselves exposed to the poison gas.

As a result of continuous work with these highly toxic substances, our minds were so numbed that we no longer had any scruples about the whole thing. Anyway, our enemies had now adopted our methods, and as they became increasingly successful in this mode of warfare we were no longer exclusively the aggressors, but found ourselves more and more receiving end. Another factor was that we front-line observers rarely saw the direct effects of our weapon. Generally all we knew was that the enemy abandoned the positions that had been bombarded with gas shells (…).


From the diary of Sir Douglas Haig

Wind and chemical weapons

Saturday, 25 September. I went out at 5 a.m. Almost a calm. Alan Fletcher lit a cigarette and the smoke drifted in puffs towards the NE. Staff Officers of Corps were ordered to stand by in case it were necessary to counter order to attack. At one time, owing the calm, I feared the gas might simply hang about out trenches. However, at 5:15 a.m. I said “carry on”. I went on top of our wooden look-out tower. The wind came gently from from SW and by 5:40 had increased slightly. The leaves of the poplar trees gently rusted. This seemed satisfactory. But that a risk I must run of gas blowing back upon our own dense masses of troops!


Captain A.F.P Christison,

6th Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders


Friday 13 July. The superstitious were saying it was a bad combination and so it proved to be C Company under Captain Harry Rowan was on my right, and at about 0800 hours I was going round my forward trench when the Germans started to shelling steadily, but with small stuff, and we could not understand why the shells all seemed to be duds. One shell landed on my trench almost beside me and did not burst – just a sort of plop. I felt a burning sensation just above my right knee and heard a man next to me cough and retch. I realised this was something very odd and shouted “Gas” and quickly put on my respirator.  The gas alarm immediately sounded and, as we were good at our gas drill, only five or six of my Company were gassed. Captain Rowan heard the gas alarm and his men put on the respirators. After wearing them for some time in the heat of the morning and no attack developing they thought the original alarm was false as no gas had been smelt. What they did not know was that this was mustard gas, had no smell, and had delayed action. The C Company trenches were saturated with stuff and the whole Company were struck down. By nightfall every officer and man was either dead or in hospital.


Captain J. C. Hill

Special Gas Company, Royal Engineers

The Effects of gas

The German gas attacks were giving us great concerns, they caused eight hundred casualties at least at Ypres. It took us away from the offensive on to the difensive, I was sent as chemical adviser to the 8th Corps. One morning we found a thousand casualties from a new type of gas shell. It was mustard gas.

The men were blinded and couldn't see at all, and they were choking - thousands had to leave the line. Fortunately, one or two of these shells hadn't exploded, so I got one of them and nursed it on my knees all the way back to the research station. But it took our best chemist weeks to find out what this substance was. It was a dreadful oily liquid called dichlorodiethysulphide that evaporated very slowly. Because it had such a faint smell the troops tended to take no notice of it, then when they did feel their eyes smarting, it was too late. If they got it on the soles of their boots, it would go through and burn their feet. And if they got some on their boots then went into a hut or dugout and slept there, they would gas everyone else in it too.


Corporal H. Bale

242nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery

Ineffective gas masks

We had about eight hours of mustard gas shells, churning into the ground at he side of the battery. I was on duty on the signalling pit, working by a candle and with a mask on. After about six hours, the masks were no good. They'd been neutralised, and we were starting to choke. (…) By morning, everyone was round the shell holes vomiting and they had to sent quite a lot of people out to bring us in. The fellows were getting a bit panicky, couldn't get their breath, and I remember saying to myself, “Hold tight and take no notice”, but breathing was very difficult. Eventually, they brought down a GS wagon, a great big thing, and we got into that. I had terrible cramp in the stomach through vomiting, and as we were going along, the road gradually seemed to fade away. By the time we got to Vlamertinghe we were blind, we couldn't see anything. They led us down into the dressing station (…) and told us “Open your mouths”. We waited with our mouths open and suddenly someone shot something like 200 per cent ammonia into your mouth. It nearly knocked the top of your head off. We got bathed and put into bed and I don't remember anything more till I woke up in the hospital at the base. (...) I was there for a long time. Stone blind! I think the worst part was when they opened your eyes to put droplets in them – it was just like boiling water dropping in! Then every day they bathed all the burned spots, and that was not a joke. I remember my left thigh was nothing but a mass of matter.



Lyn Macdonald, 1914-1918. Voices & images of the Great War, Michael Joseph, London, 1988

Max Arthur, Forgotten Voices of the Great War, Ebury Press, London, 2003