Crucible of Innovation: Salisbury Plain during the Great War

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On May 7th 2016 I will be one of the speakers at the AGM of The Western Front Association, along with Professor Andrew Lambert and Richard van Emden. My subject will be ‘Crucible of Innovation: Salisbury Plain during the Great War’ which I researched while Guest Curator for English Heritage producing a special exhibition for the Stonehenge Visitor Centre in 2014. The exhibition examined the history of the monument and the surroundings during 1914-1918, especially the Salisbury Plain Training Area. The vast complex of military camps, firing ranges, airfields, army and air force schools and the Porton Down chemical warfare experimental ground made Salisbury Plain a centre for innovation and especially the development of the all-arms battle, which is now recognised as the revolutionary contribution made by British and Commonwealth forces to Allied victory.

The exhibition ran during 2014-2015, see the photographs on the website of the designer Northover & Brown.

The WFA AGM is on Saturday 7th May 2016 at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton.


 

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Famous Verdun photographs which are not what they seem

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A dramatic photograph was prominent in media reports of the centenary of the opening of the Battle of Verdun on 21 February 1916, apparently showing a French soldier caught in the moment of death. It is usually licensed from Getty images who have now altered their caption to acknowledge that it is in fact a film still from 1928.

Embed from Getty Images

The French film maker Léon Poirier produced a remarkable feature Verdun, visions d’histoire, shot on the old battlefields and inside the forts, using veterans wearing original uniforms and equipment.

Leon Poirier Verdun_visions_d_histoire

(Poster source)

Another famous photograph of stretcher bearers under shell fire is also from the film but Getty have yet to alter the caption.Embed from Getty Images

Watch Verdun, visions d’histoire on YouTube:


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Rossignol Wood

Rossignol Wood

Rossignol Wood, shell craters and trenches.

It is more than thirty years since I first stumbled across this wood on the northern part of the Somme battlefield. Rossignol, or Nightingale, Wood seldom features in the usual histories or battlefield itineraries but it clearly showed evidence of fierce fighting: deep trenches running along the edges, smashed concrete bunkers and collapsed dugouts, shell holes and heaps of German grenades, while in the adjacent ploughed field lay British shell fuses.  Two small British cemeteries are close by and one, uniquely for a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, holds more German burials than British. Subsequent visits and research over the years have revealed the story of the fighting at the wood and also its association with some of the most remarkable personalities of the war.

Rossignol Wood view from German trench

Rossignol Wood, the view from German trench.

Fighting came to the wood in February and March 1917 when the Germans withdrew from the old Somme battlefield to the Hindenburg Line. Strong German rearguards caused heavy casualties to the North and South Staffords and the Bradford Pals.  Immediately to the west, the 18th Durham Light Infantry captured the German line. For his part a young Second Lieutenant, James Barker Bradford, received the Military Cross but died of his wounds. He was the third in age of the four famous Bradford brothers, two of whom went on to receive the Victoria Cross but both were also to lose their lives.

German grenades in Rossignol Wood

German grenades in Rossignol Wood.

The Germans withdrew later in March only to retake the ground a year later during the 1918 spring offensive when they were halted a short distance away at Hébuterne. In April 1918 the Lincolns and the Somersets attempted to capture the wood but were forced out. Their chaplain, Theodore Hardy DSO MC, went into the wood and, with the help of a sergeant, managed to bring a man back. For his actions, including tending a wounded man near a German bunker which still survives in Rossignol Wood, Hardy was awarded the Victoria Cross. He died of wounds in October 1918, the most highly decorated non-combatant of the First World War.

Rossignol Wood German bunker

Rossignol Wood, German bunker.

In July 1918 the German infantry officer Ernst Jünger came to Rossignol Wood. The author of The Storm of Steel,  the most famous German memoir of the First World War, Jünger also wrote an account of the period that he spent at the wood, entitled Copse 125 after its German name. The book culminates in a grenade attack immediately to the south of the wood against New Zealand troops among whom was Sergeant Dick Travis DCM MM of the Otago Regiment. Travis helped beat off the attack and captured two machine guns but was killed the following day; he received a posthumous Victoria Cross and is regarded as New Zealand’s greatest soldier.

Rossignol Wood Cemetery

New Zealand graves in front of German burials in Rossignol Wood Cemetery. The cemetery contains 41 Commonwealth and 70 German burials.


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The Italian Front in the First World War at Asiago: Monte Zovetto and Magnaboschi

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Monte Zovetto Italian and British observation posts and shelters.

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Monte Zovetto trench

Monte Zovetto OP 3

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Monte Zovetto  inscription left by British artillerymen in June 1918.

Monte Zovetto inscription left by British artillerymen in June 1918.

Magnaboschi British Cemetery

Magnaboschi British Cemetery

Magnaboschi British Cemetery

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The Italian Front in the First World War at Monte San Michele.

The Italian Front in the First world War at Redipuglia and Monte Sei Busi.

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The First Gas Attacks, A Century On

British gas casualties Bailleul May 1915

How a confused British response to the first German chlorine gas attacks led to the disaster of the British attack at Loos in September 1915.

Originally published in The Great War, Vol. 1, No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1 (1989). Click images to enlarge.

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Yellow Cross: the Advent of Mustard Gas in 1917

 

When Chemical Weapons Were First Dropped From the Air, North Russia 1919

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Lieutenant Donald R Grantham MC RE, holding M Generators adapted as aircraft bombs, Lake Onega seaplane base, 1919. (RE Museum)

The first time chemical weapons were used from aircraft was during British operations against Bolshevik forces around Archangel and Murmansk in 1919. Here is a shorter version of my article on the episode which was published in the Imperial War Museum Review (No. 12, 1999) and is given in full below. (Click each page to enlarge). Scroll to the bottom for more articles.

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Understanding Chemical Warfare in the First World War


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German Yellow Cross mustard gas shell for 105mm howitzer.

Yellow Cross: The advent of Mustard Gas in 1917


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Myths of Messines: the ‘Lost Mines’

Virtual Tour of Trenches and Tunnels excavated at La Boisselle

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Click on the above image to access high-quality interactive panoramas created by PAN360 show the archaeological excavation of the battlefield at La Boisselle on the Somme in 2012.  Then click on the circles on the map.  The trenches and tunnels date from 1914-1916 when there was fierce fighting over the sector which was called by the British the ‘Glory Hole’. A three-year excavation phase has ended and reports are being completed for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Direction régionale des affaires culturelles Picardie. More information about the project is on the La Boisselle Study Group website.


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For a limited period I am offering my book Underground Warfare 1914-1918 for £10 UK (including 2nd Class postage) or £14 Europe or £16 Rest of the World (including international standard postage). Contact me for payment details (PayPal preferred).


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Why the poet Isaac Rosenberg is not shown in First World War archive footage

A story in the Observer newspaper states that the poet Isaac Rosenberg has been identified in archive footage in which a stretcher bearer in the front right of the frame is ‘staring out at the camera with a haunted look’ (photo below). The article states that the date and location of the film are yet to be identified.

The soldier in the bottom righthand corner is believed to be first world war poet Isaac RosenbergHowever I recognised the still as showing the same scene as a photograph by the British official photographer J. Warwick Brooke (Q 5732) (below) which enables the footage to be identified as having been taken on 31 July 1917 at Pilckem, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres.

Q 5732

Furthermore, the photograph caption identifies a wounded man being treated as an officer of the Irish Guards. The ‘Rosenberg’ figure is not in the Brooke photograph but another stretcher bearer is clearly recognisable (identified by the ‘S B’ armband) standing on the right. This man can also be seen to be wearing a distinctive cloth ‘Irish Guards’ badge on his shoulder and this badge can also just be discerned on the ‘Rosenberg’ figure. Rosenberg served with the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (attached for a time to the Royal Engineers) rather than the Irish Guards and whilst, on occasion, he did duty carrying wounded there is no evidence that he was a regimental stretcher bearer. On the day that the photograph was taken the 40th Division, in which Rosenberg was serving at the time, was about 60 miles to the south and did not take part in the Third Battle of Ypres.


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Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917


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Yellow Cross: Measures to protect against Mustard Gas

As a follow-up to my post on the introduction of mustard gas I have provided some details of the means that could be taken to protect against the weapon.

During the first three weeks after its first use on 12-13 July 1917, around 14,000 British soldiers were admitted to Casualty Clearing Stations affected by mustard gas. Of this number, 7,797 were Fifth Army casualties from the Ypres Salient.  This was more casualties than had been suffered by the British from gas shelling during the entire previous year.  Owing to the length of time required for recovery, more than three quarters had to be evacuated to hospitals on the lines of communication.

Mustard Victim 1

A British victim of the first mustard gas attack, recorded five days after exposure, this man was suffering from slight laryngitis and bronchitis but his eyes and skin were affected, the latter in areas of perspiration. W. G. MacPherson (ed.), History of the Great War Medical Services Diseases of the War, Vol. II, plate VI.

The British found unexploded shells marked with a yellow cross the morning after the first bombardment and within three days scientists, at the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) Central Laboratory at Helfaut, identified the contents as mustard gas.  Rapid treatment and secrecy prevented mustard from having a fatal effect on British morale.  Limited detection was possible from the smell of garlic or mustard and, until the Germans modified the shells, the distinctive ‘plop’ sound of their bursting.  Mustard gas evaporated in sunlight and, after a night bombardment, might not be noticed until sunrise when the vapour became dangerous.  In winter it could lie dormant for several weeks.  Those affected might not know they were contaminated for several hours, feeling no pain until conjunctivitis and skins lesions appeared, the sweaty parts being affected worse.

Mustard Victim 2

A British mustard gas victim recorded eleven days after exposure showing the effects of sitting on contaminated ground. This man’s injuries healed in three weeks. W. G. MacPherson (ed.), History of the Great War Medical Services Diseases of the War, Vol. II, plate VII.

Powdered chloride of lime became the standard means of removing mustard gas and was scattered over the shell craters and areas where the shells had burst.  The chloride of lime then had to be covered with clean earth both to camouflage it and because the smell prevented the detection of further mustard.  It was used in solution to wash guns, trees, etc which had been splashed.  Clean uniforms had to be issued immediately.

The French had already attached a pharmacist to each unit for anti-gas duties and in response to mustard created battalion and battery decontamination squads.  However, the affected areas were often so extensive that there was insufficient chloride of lime: the teams therefore had to choose the key points to treat, and prohibit access to others.  In late August fatigue uniforms impregnated with oil were issued while special overalls treated with boiled linseed oil and dyed horizon blue, impregnated gauntlets, and trench boots were developed.  The British were unimpressed by the French anti-mustard gas clothing, finding that neither the gloves nor the boots would keep out mustard.  They devised hooded overalls of black oiled cloth but the BEF Army Chemical Advisers did not consider that the amount of injury suffered from mustard gas warranted special clothing and concentrated instead on training and discipline.  Skin blistering could sometimes be prevented by directly applying chloride of lime and Britain, Germany and France all developed anti-mustard gas ointments, the French version Pommade Z comprising 10% chloride of lime in Vaseline.

Member of a French mustard gas decontamination squad, with oil impregnated overalls, ARS respirator and Vermorel sprayer containing chlorine of lime. © Simon Jones

German mustard shelling became intense with the series of offensives beginning in March 1918, and during the period of withdrawal of September – October when the British suffered 3-4,000 casualties per week.  Special clothing was again issued by the British from March but it was seldom possible to have it available when needed.  The USA ultimately developed the most extensive measures for both protection and decontamination in the form of mobile shower units.  Germany lacked the resources to produce either adequate protective clothing or replacement uniforms.  As the Allies began to use mustard, this presented Germany with a potentially disastrous situation.

e001540690CROP

Memorandum by the Chemical Advisor to the Canadian Corps, 27 September 1917, expressing concern that men were deliberately contaminating themselves with mustard gas. (Library and Archives Canada http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e062/e001540690.jpg)

Chemical weapons added novel ways to the already horrific means of injury and death during the First World War.  Morale, discipline and training were major factors in combating mustard gas.  The non-permanent nature of mustard injury led the Chemical Advisor to the Canadian Corps to report at the end of September 1917 that he believed men were deliberately exposing their eyes to mustard in order to gain a few weeks rest in hospital.  Tens of thousands of Allied soldiers were hospitalised for months with mustard gas.  Yet mustard gas presents a paradox because the mortality rate was far lower than for any other weapon and, by being kept away from the fighting at a time when casualty rates were extremely high, mustard gas will actually have saved the lives of many of its victims.

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British troops temporarily blinded by mustard gas at an Advanced Dressing Station at Béthune, 10 April 1918. The Germans bombarded areas north and south of the Lys attack area on 7 – 9 April to cut off support from the flanks. Note the soldiers in the background staring at the casualties (Wikimedia Commons/ Imperial War Museum).

Further reading

Simon Jones, World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment, (Osprey, London 2007).

W. G. MacPherson (ed.), History of the Great War Medical Services Diseases of the War, Vol.  II, (HMSO, London, 1923).


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Käthe Kollwitz sculptures, Vladso German Cemetery

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German Yellow Cross mustard gas shell for 105mm howitzer.

Yellow Cross: The advent of Mustard Gas in 1917

 


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Understanding Chemical Warfare in the First World War


Simon Jones, World War I Gas Warfare Tactics and Equipment


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Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917

In July 1917, on the eve of the Third Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduced two new chemical weapons to the battlefield.  One was a failure, the other a spectacular success.  The story of their use illustrates one of the lessons of chemical weapons from the First World War: the impossibility of predicting how they would behave in the field.[1]While gas played a comparatively minor role on the battlefield in 1916, it would become ubiquitous by the end of the following year.  Chemical warfare in 1917 was characterised by the British introduction of a new and effective means of delivery for chemical agents, the Livens projector, and by the German introduction of a new agent for artillery shells, mustard gas.  This article focuses on the introduction and impact of mustard gas.

All the combatants used colour-coded markings on their shells, and the Germans used a system to simplify the complex varieties of chemical fillings according to their function.  The existing diphosgene shells and others containing lethal lung irritant gas, which might dissipate in a few hours and was regarded as non-persistent, were marked with a green cross.  In July 1917 as the preparations for the Third Battle of Ypres were underway, the Germans introduced two new chemical agents, neither of which can accurately be described as a gas.

Blue Cross Shell

German Blue Cross shell for the 77mm field gun, showing the glass bottle containing the chemical embedded in the explosives.

The first was diphenyl chloroarsine, or Blue Cross.  The concept of these shells was not in themselves to cause death or injury, but to penetrate the respirator filters using a fine particulate dust, causing uncontrollable sneezing and coughing which would force the wearers to remove their respirator and succumb to lethal diphosgene shell.  The ‘mask-breaker’ shells were coded with a blue cross.  If effectively disseminated, the arsenic dust could cause intense pain to the sinuses and mental depression.  However, two factors served to diminish the effect of these shells.  Firstly the Germans chose as their method of dissemination to embed a glass bottle containing the powder in a high explosive shell and this rarely produced particles fine enough to penetrate the British respirator filters.  Secondly, the British had already introduced this concept with stannic chloride and between April and June 1917 had issued a particulate filter as an extension for their respirator to protect their own troops in the Ypres Salient.  Moreover, they had under development a new filter box incorporating the filter which they began issuing in July.  The Blue Cross shells however had the advantage of being effectively indistinguishable in flight and detonation from normal high explosive shells, thus soldiers had no warning of the bursting of the shells and might succumb before they could adjust their masks.

Strandfest: the first use of Blue Cross at Nieuwpoort, 10 July 1917

The Germans introduced Blue Cross shells during their operation to retake the bridgehead at Nieuwpoort (Nieuport) from which they rightly suspected that the recently arrived British were to launch an operation along the Belgian coast.  They amassed 146 batteries for this small, local action, under the codename Strandfest (which might roughly translate as ‘Beach Party’).  Because of bad weather the attack date was shifted several times, until early on 10 July orders were issued for a ten-hour preparatory bombardment to commence at 10am.  In addition to diphosgene (Green Cross) and tear gas shells, the British reported another type which burst like a high explosive shell but caused sneezing, slight irritation of the nose and eyes, and tightness of the chest.  At 8pm the German 3rd Marine Division stormed the British positions and threw them back over the Yser.  Despite taking 1,250 British prisoners, the Germans were apparently unable to establish how useful the new Blue Cross shells had actually been in achieving the success.[2]

In order to obtain evidence of the effectiveness of both the Blue Cross shells and the method of combining them with Green Cross, the Germans staged a major raid on 28 July at Wytschaete, south of Ypres.  Code-named, Heuernte or ‘Hay Making,’ the operation involved bombarding British positions at 10.40pm for six minutes by nine light field howitzer batteries with 100 rounds each of Blue Cross ammunition.  This was followed by 14 minutes of high explosives after which five raiding parties entered the British trenches.  They found however that the British had withdrawn from the shelled area and no prisoners were obtained.

British investigations following the 10 July attack where also inconclusive.  There were reports of the new symptoms but they were unable to recover an unexploded shell in order to identify the filling until early August.  The more dramatic use of mustard gas shortly afterwards also delayed investigation of the Blue Cross shells.  This occurred on the night of 12-13 July.

The development of Mustard Gas

While Blue Cross was developed as an attack ammunition for use in conjunction with Green Cross, mustard was adopted as a defensive agent which was suitable for the continuous poisoning of an area.  Mustard gas, dichlorodiethyl sulphide, is in fact an oily liquid with a low boiling point, given the name mustard gas by the British owing to its odour of mustard or horseradish in its impure form.  It was to become the most effective chemical agent used during the First World War owing not to the numbers which it killed but to the temporary effects of skin blistering and severe conjunctivitis and to its ability to render ground uninhabitable owing to the time which it took to evaporate.  Its effect on the skin was noted by Viktor Meyer in 1886 but both the British and French considered adopting mustard in 1916 but rejected it on the grounds of its lack of toxicity.  Professor Ernest Starling, in charge of British anti-gas research, had ordered experiments on cats in 1916.  However, the persistency of mustard, the way that it continued to poison for hours or days after release, was not noticed and the range being only that of a bursting shell it was turned down.

The Germans named it ‘Lost’ after the names of the proposers: Dr Wilhelm Lommel at the Bayer research laboratories and Dr Wilhelm Steinkopf at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.  Trials were carried in September and October 1916 out by Doctors Ferdinand Flury and Curt Wachtel, toxicologists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.  Their tests results on monkeys demonstrated eye and respiratory injury but made no mention of skin symptoms.  Wachtel later described how, in late 1916, mustard came to be adopted. [3]  The head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and also head of the German chemical warfare programme, Fritz Haber, learnt from the German commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff that they required a defensive gas suitable for preventing Allied attacks expected in the summer of 1917.  Haber was able to propose the newly tested mustard gas which would remain dangerous for long after the gas shell then in use had dissipated and industrial production was initiated.  Haber’s son, L F Haber, however suggests that, while mustard was selected because of its persistency, its effect was still expected to be as a lethal lung-irritant rather than the non-lethal casualty producer that it in fact turned out to be: ‘No one appears to have remembered that Meyer, thirty years earlier, had written of its blistering action.’[4]

The lack of lethal effect was in fact noted before it was used in the field, according to Wachtel, following a serious explosion at the Adlershof gas shell filling plant, near Berlin, in the spring of 1917.  Occurring after the first 1,200 77mm shells had been prepared, this explosion delayed the first use of mustard by several weeks.  But a lack of casualties during the fire fighting and cleanup led to claims that it was not sufficiently toxic which had to be refuted with further toxicology tests.  A trial was conducted in which 500 mustard shells were fired on a test range on which several hundred cats and dogs were tethered.  Before its use in the field, mustard was dismissed by most gas warfare experts as being the best means to kill cats but not as a war gas. [5]

German Yellow Cross mustard gas shell for 105mm howitzer.

German Yellow Cross mustard gas shell for 105mm howitzer.

The First Mustard Gas Bombardment, 12-13 July 1917

The new shells were marked with a yellow cross to indicate their persistency.  The first bombardments which the Germans carried out at Ypres were clearly intended to forestall the British offensive.  From the start, mustard was a defensive agent, used to poison areas of ground over which the Germans had no intention of attacking over in the foreseeable future.  Some 50,000 shells containing 125 tonnes of mustard were used on this first night. [6]  The bombardment, with 77mm and 105mm shells, was in three phases apparently reflecting the way that non-persistent gas clouds were created and topped up using shells: starting at 10.10pm for twenty minutes, it resumed at 1230, again for twenty minutes, followed by a third phase at 1.55am for twenty-five minutes.[7]

On detonation the shells, bursting with a dull plop, sprayed the liquid in a seven metre radius in the case of the 77mm and about 10 metres in the case of the 105mm.[8]  Contact with either the liquid or the vapour, which evaporated in sunlight, caused injury.  However, the lack of any immediate symptoms meant that troops did not keep their masks on and did not appreciate the danger of being present in the vicinity of the shells.  At first those in the bombardment suffered only slight irritation of the nose which caused some sneezing (perhaps the result of Blue Cross shells).  However, in an hour or two they suffered painful inflammation of the eyes, vomiting, followed by reddening of the skin and blistering.

45 Bde WD 12 July 1917

The first mustard gas bombardment reported in the War Diary of the 45th Infantry Brigade, 12 July 1917. (The National Archives, WO95/1943)

Large numbers of casualties began to report to medical units.  The first were admitted to Numbers 47 and 61 Casualty Clearing Stations at Dozinghem (near Poperinge) and Numbers 46 and 64 at Mendinghem (near Proven) and on 13-14 July a total of 2,143 were admitted to these four units.  By the time they reached the Casualty Clearing Station the conjunctivitis had developed so rapidly that they were virtually blind and had to be led in files, each man holding on to the man in front, guided by an orderly or lightly wounded man.

British_55th_Division_gas_casualties_10_April_1918[1]

British mustard gas casualties at an Advanced Dressing Station, April 1918 (IWM Q 11586).

In the first few hours the symptoms were in strong contrast to those usually found in gas cases, with only one or two casualties suffering from symptoms of acute pulmonary oedema (again this was possibly caused by Green Cross shells mixed with the new shells).  The majority suffered little distress to their breathing, although some exhibited a husky voice and a hard cough.  After a few more hours symptoms of laryngitis, tracheitis and bronchitis became more definite in a large number of the cases and some developed grave or fatal broncho-pneumonia. [9]

Men developed blisters on their buttocks, genitals and armpits.  Within two days many were suffering from bronchitis and some had died from inflammation of the lungs.  By the sixth day the conjunctivitis which caused the blindness had disappeared but the breathing difficulties were still severe and the blistering had been replaced by skin rashes.

Of the 2,143 cases admitted to the four Casualty Clearing Stations, a comparatively small number, 95, or 4.4%, died.  German unit histories report that the British guns were all but silenced for up to two days.

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Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

Up to the end of July, the Germans bombarded the Ypres area every night with mustard, during which the Germans gunners had to surround their own gun positions with chloride of lime as a precaution against leaks or premature bursts of the shells.  In addition, a series of set piece gas shoots were conducted.  On 15 July a ‘multi-coloured’ shoot of a thousand rounds was carried out, which despite barrel bursts was repeated the following day.  Then on 17th and again on 21st more extensive gas shoots were carried out on tracks, shelters and accommodation at Zillebeke Lake.

On the night of 20-21 July Blue and Green Cross were again tried in combination in an operation called Britentod or ‘British death,’ postponed from the previous night owing to strong winds.  British battery positions at Voormezele were targeted, each German field battery having been issued with 900 rounds of Green Cross and each howitzer battery 350 rounds of Blue Cross.  The bombardment, from 1am to 3am, completely silenced the British batteries although no mention is made of mustard having been used.

On the same night 20-21 July, in an operation called Totentanz, or ‘Dance of Death,’ Armentières was first targeted with mustard gas, injuring about 6,400.  The following night 21-22 July, Nieuwpoort was heavily bombarded with mustard, thus the south and north flanks successively of the expected British attack area were rendered impassable.  The casualties were worse overall than those suffered at Ypres as the troops here had not yet received adequate warning and instructions regarding mustard gas.

On 23-24 July Britentod was repeated, then on 26-27 gas bombardments in the Wytschaete sector named Schlesien and Apolda.  On 28-29 July renewed gas bombardments of Armentières and Nieuwpoort was carried out between 1am and 4.30am.  The civilian casualties from mustard gas in Armentieres totalled 675, of which 86 had died by 18 August, a high mortality due in part to the number of elderly citizens, many living in cellars, who were either unable or reluctant to leave the area while the shelling was in progress.

From July, Blue and Yellow Cross shells were used in very large numbers with a reduction only coming in the winter of 1917-18.  Once the Germans had identified the improved protection afforded by the British respirator against Blue Cross, they came to use these shells at the beginning of a gas bombardment, as the shells could not be distinguished from HE shell.  The sneezing symptoms would therefore affect men before they could adjust their masks and then cause them to succumb to Green Cross shells used subsequently.  HE or Blue Cross shells were used to disguise the distinctive bursting sound of Yellow Cross mustard gas shells.

During August and September 1917, the Germans used mustard to defeat French attacks on either side of the river Meuse, causing 13,158 to be poisoned and 143 killed.  Losses were so great in the affected areas that it has been claimed that the French were forced to abandon the attack.[10]  The combination of Green and Blue Cross shells, used for the first time to support the attack at Nieuwpoort on 10 July, was later used for the successful German assault across the Daugava river on 1 September 1917 which lead to the fall of Riga.  The artillery fire plan was the work of Colonel Georg Bruchmüller and the publicity accorded it has led some to assume incorrectly that Bruchmüller invented this combination of gas shells, called Buntschiessen or ‘colour shoots’.

Mustard gas caused serious casualties to the British in July 1917 but there seems to be no evidence to support the claim by Beumelburg and Hanslian that it caused the start of the 3rd Battle of Ypres to be postponed for a fortnight.[11]  Hanslian and Seesselberg claimed also that it prevented a British break-though during the offensive.  Whilst mustard continued to be used throughout the battle, it was not used to cover the withdrawal of German forces as it would be in 1918, as they could not contaminate ground which they would wish immediately to recapture.  Although the Germans improved slightly the effectiveness of their Blue Cross shells, the Allies regarded them as a wasted effort, something that post-war German writers could not accept.

Conclusion: Yellow Cross in 1918

The year 1918 was to see the development of German gas tactics, in particular the use of the persistent mustard gas to block the flanks of areas attacked. The Germans used gas shells in unprecedented numbers and they were integral to their spring and summer offensives.  Against infantry, the Green Cross diphosgene and Blue Cross combination was 50% of the total shells used.  Against artillery the ratio was as high as 80% mustard to high explosive.  Areas outside the attack zone were heavily shelled with mustard to prevent counter attacks.  Mustard was extremely effective as a counter-battery weapon and British decontamination measures broke down.  At one point in 1918 the British had the equivalent to two divisions in hospital suffering from mustard gas injuries.  However, gas was less effective during the June – July offensives: attacking in gas masks behind a gas barrage was especially fatiguing for the Germans while Allied casualties were decreasing.

For the remainder of the year, the Germans were in retreat and mustard was to prove far more suited to defence than attack.  On 31 July 1918 they used 340,000 mustard gas shells to forestall a Franco-American attack west of Verdun.  During September – October British mustard gas casualties were 3 – 4,000 per week but as the British advanced continued, German bombardments became less effective and poorly targeted.  It was impossible for the Germans to create their complex fire plans as supply and command became disorganised.  When the Allied advances began, the Germans discovered that French troops were less hindered by mustard having learnt to minimise casualties when passing through affected areas.  Supplies of mustard were less plentiful by September and during October gas ceased to be a factor in halting the Allied advance.

The cases of both Blue Cross and Yellow Cross shells demonstrate that chemical weapons rarely behave on the battlefield in ways predictable in the laboratory or on the firing range.  Nevertheless, the German use of mustard was rightly regarded as a military success.  Despite apparently intending its effect to be as a lethal lung irritant rather than a non-lethal casualty producer, mustard revolutionised chemical warfare, and introduced an agent which alone amongst the chemical weapons of the First World War has continued application into the 21st century.  Until the introduction of mustard, the artillery arm, by far the most flexible means of using gas, had been handicapped by the lack of an agent effective enough in the smaller quantities delivered by shell.  By its persistent nature mustard provided this.  The German unity of research, production and military expertise, embodied in the person of Fritz Haber, meant that the right substance was available to meet the military demand.

The introduction of mustard gas however was a gamble for Germany.  A physicist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Wilhelm Westphal, claimed that when Haber described mustard gas to General Ludendorff, he warned against its use unless the war was certain to be won within the year.  Otherwise the Allies would produce mustard for themselves and Germany lacked the Allies’ ability to replace contaminated uniforms.  This alone he said could lose the war for Germany.  It did take the Allies a year to produce their own mustard gas, achieved by the French through accepting casualties in their factories comparable to those at the front.  Westphal’s anecdote may be apocryphal but when the Germans identified French-produced mustard in August 1918, this awareness that the Allies would probably soon be using it on a large scale was one more reason why the Germans would be unable to continue fighting in 1919.

Text (c) Simon Jones.  See below for Notes.

Yellow Cross: Measures to protect against mustard gas


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Notes on Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas

[1] This article is an extract from a paper delivered at the In Flanders Fields Museum in 2007 and is partially referenced. Contact me if you require more information on sources.

[2] W. Volkart, Die Gasschlacht in Flandern im Herbst 1917, (E S Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1957) p.46.  The British Official History, J. E. Edmonds, Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 Vol. II, (HMSO. London, 1948), p. 119, mistakenly states that the Germans used mustard gas in the bombardment prior to this assault.

[3] Curt Wachtel, Chemical Warfare, (Chemical Publishing Co., Brooklyn, 1941), pp. 226-7.

[4] L. F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986), p. 117.

[5] Wachtel, op. cit., pp. 221-2.

[6] Volkart, op. cit., citing Rudolf Hanslian, Der Chemische Krieg, (E S Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1937).

[7] Hanslian, op. cit., pp. 132-141.

[8] Volkart, op. cit., p.40.

[9] W. G. MacPherson (ed.), History of the Great War Medical Services Diseases of the War, Vol. II, (HMSO, London, 1923), pp. 292-293.

[10] Hanslian, op. cit., pp. 132-141.

[11] Hanslian op. cit., p. 140.


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