The Gas Attack at Caporetto, 24th October 1917

The Battle of Caporetto (12th Battle of the Isonzo) was a German – Austro-Hungarian attack against the Italian positions on the Upper Isonzo (Soča) river.  It was named after the town today known in Slovenian as Kobarid.

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The attackers achieved a break-in by twin advances along the valley floor to bypass the Italian front line defences.  In the ensuing break-through and retreat, the Italians lost 14,000 square kilometres of territory, making the gas attack the most successful ever staged.

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The Bovec valley from Austrian positions at Čelo (Simon Jones).

The Austro-Hungarian artillery used large numbers of gas shells to penetrate Italian artillery batteries in tunnelled mountainside emplacements. In addition, on the northern valley floor, the Germans used a new type of gas weapon to break the Italian front line positions at Bovec (Plezzo in Italian, Flitsch in German). A ravine immediately behind the Italian front, inaccessible to field artillery, was targeted with gas in the first German use of a weapon copied from the British.

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The German 18cm Projector showing how it was partly sunk into the ground, with projectile, seen in Kobarid Museum.

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The German 18cm gas smooth-bore mortar bomb, an existing design employed with the gas projector.  (From S.S. 420 Notes on German Shells, second edition, General Headquarters, 1918.)

Developed during the Somme, the British Livens projector was crude but highly effective, hurling cylinders of liquid gas from hundreds of steel tubes sunk into the ground.  Its devastating effect persuaded the Germans to adopt a version of the weapon, the 18cm Gas Projector, with its first use at Caporetto.

Q 48449 German projectors Feb 1918

18cm Projectors laid out before being dug in, these photographs, apparently taken on the Western Front, show the same configuration as used on 24th October 1917. (IWM Q 48449).

After transportation difficulties on the narrow mountain roads, on 23rd October 1917 912 projectors were dug in about 130 metres behind the Austrian lines by the 35th Pioneer Battalion, a specialist gas warfare unit.[1]

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German gas pioneers installing firing charges in 18cm Projectors. (IWM Q 88120)

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Installing the electrical cabling for the simultaneous firing of the 18cm Projectors. (IWM Q 29949)

The entrances to the gorge were targeted, with the bulk aimed at the gorge itself.  Gas projectors were ideal for this position, which could only be reached by high trajectory weapons, and where the gas would form a dense concentration and penetrate many dugouts situated in the gorge.  This use of the weapon mirrored one of the earliest uses of the Livens projector during the Battle of the Somme when the British fired gas into Y Ravine prior to the assault on Beaumont Hamel on 13th November 1916.

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The shoot plan for the projectors installed between Bovec to the north and the Soča (Isonzo) river to the south.  From Friedrich Seesselberg, Der Stellungskrieg 1914-1918, (E S Mittler and Son, Berlin, 1926), p. 419.

The artillery gas bombardment began at 2am on 24th and the projectors were fired electrically five minutes later.  The simultaneous discharge was accompanied by a sheet of flame and a loud explosion. In flight, the bombs emitted a trail of sparks and made a loud whirring noise, before bursting with a sharp detonation, producing a thick white cloud.[2]

Of the total installed, 894 could be made ready for firing, and 818 bombs hurtled into the gorge filling it with about 6.5 tonnes of phosgene gas.[3] Twenty-nine projector barrels burst and seven pioneers were affected by gas; 47 failed charges were fired 35 minutes later.  The pioneers then attempted to re-lay the projectors and reload them with explosive bombs, but owing to the gas and barrel bursts, they were only able to fire 269, between 6.30am and 8.30am.

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The shoot plan on a modern satellite photograph, showing the ravine behind the Italian lines targeted. (Simon Jones/GoogleEarth)

The Austro-Hungarian infantry attack was launched north of Bovec at 9am, seven hours after the gas attack. The gassed area to the south was assaulted by 140 Storm Troops from the 35th Pioneers.  They encountered no resistance, just some weak machine gun fire from the far side of the Soča river.

The Pioneers found the ravine clear of phosgene but the dense concentration of highly poisonous gas had done its work perfectly.  Just a few isolated Italians remained alive but badly injured.  The rest of the garrison, 600-800 men, were all found dead.  Only some had managed to put on their masks, after the bombs had landed amongst them.  The rest were in attitudes indicating sudden death.

The absence of any resistance on the left flank of the Austrian attack enabled the whole Bovec valley to be taken with remarkable rapidity.  The Italians had failed to create an in-depth defence and, within a few hours, the break-in developed into a break-through.

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A small cavern in the ravine in which the gas victims were caught is now a monument. (Simon Jones)

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References.

[1] This account is drawn from Rudolf Hanslian, Der Chemische Krieg, (E S Mittler & Sohn, Berlin, 1937), pp. 178-182.  Hanslian cites as his sources Friedrich Seesselberg, Der Stellungskrieg 1914-1918, (E S Mittler and Son, Berlin, 1926) and W. Heydendorff, ‘Der Gaswerferangriff bei Flitsch am 24. Oktober 1917’ in Militärwissenschaftliche Mitteilungen, 65. Jahrgang, 1934.

[2] S.S. 420 Notes on German Shells (Second edition), General Headquarters, 1918, p. 454.

[3] Hanslian, p. 178 states that the projectiles for the 18cm Projector contained 12-15 litres of liquid gas but the British manual, S.S. 420 Notes on German Shells, second edition, (General Headquarters, 1918), reported from examination of the 18cm projectile that it contained 5.23 litres.


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Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917


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Understanding Chemical Warfare in the First World War


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Trenches and Memorials on the Italian Front around Caporetto – 1


 

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Shirebrook Miners in the Tunnelling Companies

Recently in the news in the UK owing to working conditions in a huge warehouse, at the beginning of the twentieth century Shirebrook was notorious in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire owing to the thousands of miners drawn to its vast colliery. During the First World War, many of these miners joined specially formed Tunnelling Companies to dig deep beneath no man’s land and the German lines. I have gathered the stories below for my book on Tunnellers at La Boisselle in 1915-1916.

A large group of miners recruited from collieries around Chesterfield and Mansfield crossed to France on 23 September 1915 and many were posted to 185th Tunnelling Company. The most notorious mining centre in the region was Shirebrook which had grown rapidly after a pit was sunk in 1896 and in fifteen years the population had risen from 600 to 11,000. It gained a reputation for immorality, drunkenness and violence with the newspapers filled with reports of attacks on the police, armed poachers and closing-time fights outside the pubs.[1] John Flowers, a 37 year old miner well-known to the police and courts, appeared before magistrates on 4 September 1915 for being drunk and disorderly in Shirebrook, during which he had offered his wife for sale. Although already under a bond of good behaviour, he was let off on the condition that he enlisted. [2]

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Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4 September 1915.

Three weeks later he was at the Rouen Base Camp allotted to the 185th. Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, good friends in their late twenties, enlisted as Tunnellers on the same day as Flowers. Despite the chaotic picture of Shirebrook depicted in the local press, it was a comparatively small number of miners who regularly appeared before the courts. Eight years before, an encounter with one such individual had serious consequences for Joe and Tom when, one night after closing time, Hodgetts, a keen amateur boxer, agreed to fight the man. He produced a knife and stabbed Tom and Joe in the head and neck.[3]

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Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 19 March 1907.

Joe and Tom survived serious injuries and it may have been this experience that moved Joe to begin organising meetings at the Pentecostal Mission.

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Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts, 185th Tunnelling Company photographed on the Somme in Albert. (c) Duncan Hunting

In a photograph taken in Albert in the winter of 1915-1916, Tom rests his arm on Joe’s shoulder; only one would survive the war.

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The Derbyshire Courier, 24 April 1917.

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Joe Cox’s grave in Lapugnoy Military Cemetery, France. (c) Duncan Hunting.

A group of miners from the Shirebrook area would excel in driving tunnels though the hard chalk of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. In 1916 they were awarded silver medals by 185th Tunnelling Company for a record drive of 127 feet 4 inches in 120 hours, including Harry Richardson (whose name was given in the press as J. Richardson).

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Derbyshire Courier, 17 October 1916.

John Flowers, Tom Hodgetts and Harry Richardson survived the war but Flowers was soon in court again for drunkenness, this time blaming wartime gas poisoning for his conduct. The gas he referred to was carbon monoxide, released in large quantities in the underground galleries by the detonation of massive explosive charges. It could cause violent behaviour and permanent mental impairment.

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Derbyshire Courier, 11 October 1919.

[1] Belper News, Derbyshire Courier and Nottingham Evening Post, passim.

[2] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4/9/1915; Belper News, 10/9/1915; Silver War Badge roll WO329/3002.

[3] Derbyshire Courier, 23/3/1907, Nottingham Evening Post, 11/4/1907, Derby Daily Telegraph, 11/4/1907.


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The Men Who Dug The Lochnagar Mine


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Edward Harrison who gave his life to protect against poison gas


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Edward Harrison, who gave his life developing protection against poison gas

I was very pleased to be asked by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to write the entry for one of the lesser-known heroes of the First World War who died one week before the Armistice as a result of poisoning and overwork while developing protection against poison gas.

Edward Harrison

Edward Frank Harrison (Wikimedia Commons)

Harrison, Edward Frank (1869-1918), analytical chemist and soldier, was born on 18 July 1869 in Camberwell, London, the third child of William Harrison, a Home Office clerk and his wife Susannah, a school teacher.   His father died when he was aged nine and his mother opened a small school which enabled the education of her sons at the United Westminster Schools.  At the age of 14 Harrison was apprenticed to a pharmaceutical chemist in north London, following which he was an assistant pharmacist in Croydon.  In 1890 he gained a Pharmaceutical Society Bell Scholarship and entered the School of Pharmacy in 1891.  He spent long hours in the research laboratories of the Society and made ends meet by working at a pharmacy each evening and as an assistant lecturer at the School.  Hard work, seriousness and a strong moral purpose were features from an early age.  His parents were Particular Baptists but his scientific education and a rigorous critical discernment meant that he found such religious conviction wanting to be replaced by a belief in research for its own sake.  He retained however a strong sense that life must have a moral purpose.

In 1894 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Chemical Society but the desire to earn enough to marry caused him to take a position with Brady and Martin pharmaceutical chemists of Newcastle upon Tyne which lasted five years.  In 1895 he married Edith Helen Wilson, a school teacher and sons Noel Stuart and Douglas Frank were born in 1897 and 1900.  In about 1899 he was appointed head of the analytical department of Burroughs, Wellcome and Company at Dartford.  During this time he also prepared for his B.Sc. at the University of London and graduated in 1905.  In that year he formed a partnership with Charles Edward Sage as an analytical and consulting chemist and to teach at Sage’s Central School of Pharmacy.  The partnership was dissolved in 1906 and Harrison took up independent practice in Chancery Lane, London.  He was assisted by Percy Arthur William Self and by 1914 traded as Harrison and Self.  A reputation for careful and thorough research led the British Medical Association to commission Harrison to analyse a variety of proprietary medicines to prevent deception of the public, and the results were published in 1909 as Secret remedies: what they cost and what they contain, followed in 1912 by More secret remedies.  That year he gave highly effective evidence to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Patent Medicines as chief witness for the BMA.

Secret Remedies

Secret Remedies, written by Edward Harrison for the British Medical Association in 1909 to expose fake medicines.

Following the outbreak of the First World War, Harrison made repeated attempts to enlist in the forces.  He succeeded in May 1915 in joining the 23rd (1st Sportsman’s) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, reducing his stated age by two years to meet the limit of 45.  The Germans in April having carried out an attack in Belgium using chlorine gas, in July he transferred to the Royal Engineers following the formation of a Chemists’ Corps and was immediately commissioned temporary Second Lieutenant in order to work on anti-gas research.  Like most of his profession, he was motivated in particular by detestation for what was seen as the prostitution of chemical science by the Germans in the use of poison gas but he also had no doubt that the Allies should reply in kind.

Harrison joined the staff of the Anti-Gas Department, initially at the Royal Army Medical College at Millbank, London, which had the task of devising protection.  The situation was one of the utmost urgency, the Allies having been caught with no form of respirator.  The design and production of masks to protect against chlorine was comparatively simple but by July 1915 the problem was to devise a single mask which could keep out a potentially very large number of gases which at one point exceeded 70.  Hydrogen cyanide and phosgene emerged as the most likely to be used.  Harrison’s experience and intuition enabled him to make rapid decisions when scientists with a purely academic background tended to be overly cautious and deliberate in their investigations.  There was a high degree of self-experimentation and all the scientist during this most critical phase were at times incapacitated, often to the point of unconsciousness.

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British troops train in gas helmets, 1915. (c) Simon Jones.

The War Office wished improved protection to be through modification of the existing chemically impregnated flannelette hood.  Although these hoods had some success against phosgene, they were penetrated by high concentrations and were not suitable for adaptation to meet new threats.  Almost immediately in July 1915, Harrison and a small team began developing a respirator in which the protective chemicals were layered in a filter box, initially an adapted army water bottle.  Soda lime permanganate granules, developed by Bertram Lambert at Oxford University, were capable of providing protection against a very wide range of substances but broke down into a dust which choked the wearer.  Hardening the granules rendered them ineffective until, after forty-nine attempts, Harrison discovered a successful formula.  Initially known as ‘Harrison’s Tower’, the respirator developed by the end of 1915 comprised a filter box connected to a facepiece with inlet and exhalation valves.  Adopted by the Army as the Large Box Respirator, 200,000 were issued to artillerymen and machine gunners between February and June 1916.  A compact version, the Small Box Respirator, was made a universal issue from August 1916.  The design meant that the filter box could be modified to protect against new agents; regarded as the most effective gas mask of the war it was adopted by the USA in modified form.  Harrison emerged as the most able in solving the complex problems of both design and production and made frequent visits to France to meet with chemists working at the front.  In January 1917 Harrison became Head of the Anti-Gas Department and in June was appointed a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.  On 1 November 1917, the Anti-Gas Department became part of the Chemical Warfare Department (CWD) of the Ministry of Munitions and Harrison was appointed an Assistant Controller of the CWD responsible for anti-gas apparatus.   In July 1918 he was appointed Deputy Controller and, in October, Controller of the CWD; in the same month he was appointed Officer of the French Légion d’Honneur.

Officers in Small Box Respirators

British officers in Small Box Respirators, 1917-1918. (c) Simon Jones.

His eldest son was killed in action age 19 on 30 July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.  By October 1918, Harrison was weakened by two and a half years of constant work and the gas inhaled during the early stages.  He succumbed to influenza and died at the premises of Harrison and Self at 57 Charing Cross Road on 4 November 1918.  He was buried with full military honours at Brompton Cemetery.  Lengthy tributes emphasised his abilities, personality and organisational genius.  Memorials to Harrison were unveiled by the Pharmaceutical Society, Bloomsbury Square, and the Chemical Society, Burlington House, and both organisations continue to award prize medals in his memory.

Harrison Medal

The Harrison Medal awarded by the Royal Society of Chemistry. A large version of the medal forms the Society’s war memorial in Burlington House, London.


Contact me for details of sources. This article is available for download as an Oxford Dictionary of National Biography podcast.

I have also written about the Edward Harrison for The Guardian.


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Sawyer Spence (1)

Understanding Chemical Warfare in the First World War


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The Lochnagar Mine: how and why it was blown and who were the men who dug it

Understanding chemical warfare in the First World War

In August 1918, while waiting to advance east of Amiens, Sergeant Sawyer Spence lay in a shell hole contaminated with mustard gas. Feeling no ill effects he only reluctantly agreed to be evacuated; only after 24 hours did medics realise that his uniform had been saturated by the oily liquid. By the time he reached a hospital twelve days later, in the converted pavilion of Nottingham’s Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, the whole of one side of his back and legs was septic and discharging pus, the result of massive blistering. He was the worst mustard gas case that the hospital had ever seen.

Sawyer Spence suffering extensive mustard gas blisters, Trent Bridge Hospital, Nottingham, 1918. © Jon Spence, used with permission.

Sawyer Spence suffering extensive mustard gas blisters, Trent Bridge Hospital, Nottingham, 1918. © Jon Spence, used with permission.

Sawyer Spence was one of an estimated half a million chemical warfare victims of the First World War. The first were on 22nd April 1915 when the Germans released 150 tonnes of chlorine gas from their front line trenches north of Ypres in Belgium and allowed it to drift towards the French positions. It inspired some of the most powerful works of art and literature to come out of the First World War yet, since its shocking debut, our understanding of chemical warfare remains surrounded by a miasma of fear, emotion and propaganda.

Chemical weapons were outlawed at arms control conferences at the Hague in 1899 and 1907; despite being signatories, Germany, France and Britain all carried out research before the outbreak of war. When trench warfare atrophied into a vast linear siege, chemicals were high on the list of solutions to break the deadlock; substances that would not cause permanent injury, such as tear gas, were favourites. Germany was first, adding an irritant to shrapnel shells, and thus technically not breaking the Hague Agreement, but the British-Indian troops they were used against in October 1914 failed even to notice. In a second attempt, Germany fired tear gas in shells against the Russians near Bolimow in Poland in January 1915, was equally ineffective when in the cold the liquid failed to vaporise. France followed by issuing instructions in February 1915 for the use of an anti-riot tear gas cartridge at the front, again without particular success. Britain adopted a tear gas, ethyl iodoacetate, in January 1915 after it was identified by Jocelyn Thorpe, professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College, University of London, which was codenamed ‘SK’ after the South Kensington location. Thorpe claimed that the War Office was only convinced of SK’s effectiveness after a small boy was given a shilling to stand in a trench into which it had been released; in April 1915 the British government was still pondering its legality.

Fritz Haber, in the uniform of the 35th Pioneer Regiment.

Fritz Haber, in the uniform of the 35th Pioneer Regiment.

Germany took the lead in chemical weapons thanks to her developed chemical industry and universities, but also because of the remarkable genius of Fritz Haber. The son of a dyestuff manufacturer, six years before the outbreak of war Haber made perhaps the single greatest chemical discovery of the twentieth century, for which he was to receive the Nobel prize for chemistry: the means of converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia. Fertiliser made using the Haber-Bosch process has produced food to increase the world’s population by an estimated one billion people; it has also facilitated the bulk production of explosives. Haber was the first Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and in 1914 threw his immense energy and talent into his nation’s war effort. Vigorous and persuasive, he was responsible more than any other individual for the development of chemical weapons during the First World War. After the failure of the earlier attempts, Haber made a simple and direct proposal: readily available chlorine gas should be released from cylinders to be carried by a breeze over the enemy positions. If it was successful, the Germans believed that the Allies could not respond owing to their limited capacity for chemical production. Despite moral and military objections by two senior German commanders, the chief of the general staff, von Falkenhayn, decided that it should be tried at Ypres. A simple idea, in practice it was anything but. Carrying the heavy cylinders of chlorine into the trenches and concealing them was dangerous and difficult; when some were hit by shell fire the gas killed three of their own men and injured 50. The prevailing westerly wind placed the Germans at a disadvantage; it refused to blow in the right direction, or changed just as the attack was about to be launched. After a fruitless two week wait, the Germans had to reinstall 6,000 cylinders from the south of Ypres to the north but again twice more postponed when the wind was wrong.

German troops carry poison gas cylinders to be installed in trenches.  © Simon Jones

German troops carry poison gas cylinders to be installed in trenches. © Simon Jones

Finally, the order was given to release when it was ‘half-way favourable’; the troops assembled packed in the trenches throughout the 22nd April until, late in the afternoon, a southerly wind arose and orders were hurriedly issued to attack. The gas hissed from hundreds of pipes placed over the trench parapets and greenish-yellow clouds drifted across no man’s land towards the French positions; in most places, the gas quickly engulfed the trenches and the field guns close behind them. Reservist and North African troops had no means of protection; a powerful odour of bleach and fumes which stung the eyes were quickly followed by choking as they inhaled the gas. Most fled for their lives but the unlucky ones fell to the ground where the gas pooled. As the gas entered their lungs the mucous membranes produced fluid to flush away the irritation, oxygen transference was severely hindered and the victims began to drowned.

A French victim of the first chlorine gas attack. © Simon Jones

A French victim of the first chlorine gas attack. © Simon Jones

It should not have been a surprise to the Allies. At least two German soldiers deserted to the French before the gas attack, revealing detailed information and even producing rudimentary gas masks. Chemical weapons had achieved such negligible results that it was assumed the effects would be equally insignificant but it is cited as one of the great intelligence failures of history; when the name of one of the deserters was published in 1933, he was imprisoned by the Nazis and ultimately sent to Dachau concentration camp.

The Germans, moving cautiously for risk of succumbing to their own gas, gained two and a half miles by nightfall. It was the largest advance since the onset of trench warfare; but lack of troops and resistance on the flanks by Canadians and Belgians prevented them from exploiting the attack. In the captured French positions the Germans took thousands of prisoners, and found gas victims lying on their backs with fists clenched; but their own reports state that they found few dead. A doctor was told by a German officer, himself injured by chlorine, that he saw few French dead and most ‘had run away like a flock of sheep’. The number killed by the first attack, impossible to calculate, may still be somewhere between 800 and 1,400; a figure of 5,000 dead, grossly exaggerated by the Allies for propaganda purposes, is still reported as fact.

The response of the Allies was a mixture of real and artificial outrage; there was genuine anger that a barbarous and unchivalrous method should be used against their troops, and breaking the spirit if not the letter of the Hague Agreement. Chemical weapons nullified the romantic chivalric contest of equals that war was supposed to be but never has been. In this confused notion, to have an agreement and then break it almost seemed worse than if there had been no agreement at all. Paradoxically, an unrealistic notion of the degree to which warfare could be governed by humanitarian considerations may even have made matters worse by bringing about a swifter abandonment of restraint once the system collapsed. The Hague Agreement failed to prevent the use of chemical weapons because it did not anticipate what the war was becoming: a war of nationalism and ideologies, a war of hatred, a war to the death. There was also much inflated indignation to influence neutral American opinion; in this respect the chlorine attack was a propaganda gift to the Allies, as was the sinking of the liner Lusitania just 16 days later.

Many would subsequently express a more detached view on the relative distinction between chemical and so-called conventional weapons. The wartime officer, C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, later principal of Hertford College, concluded that ‘there is little to choose in horror and pain between the injuries inflicted by modern war. The extent to which the human body can be mangled by the splinters of a bomb or shell, without being deprived of consciousness, must be seen to be believed.’ J. B. S. Haldane, future Professor of Genetics at University College London, went further: injured by chlorine developing the first protective masks and shortly afterwards wounded in action, he maintained that the pain and discomfort from gas were ‘utterly negligible compared to those produced by a good septic shell wound’. A weapon which temporarily incapacitated such as tear gas, Haldane said, was ‘the most humane weapon ever invented’. Yet such views ignore the fact that there was nothing irrational about the terror felt by soldiers at being gassed; even the Army pathologist who specialised in gas cases felt that there was something particularly terrible about dying of suffocation from gassing. Coupled uneasily with outrage was the belief that the Allies must adopt such an apparently effective method without hesitation and not be hindered by misguided notions of honour if the enemy was not abiding by them. Five days after the first chlorine attack the British cabinet gave its consent for the Minister for War, Lord Kitchener, to fall ‘to the level of the degraded Germans’ and instructed him to ‘use anything he could get invented’. 

The method used at Ypres turned out to be of limited military value. Nine subsequent German chlorine attacks during the month-long Second Battle of Ypres were thwarted by the desperate resistance of British soldiers protected by rudimentary mouth pads soaked with neutralising solutions, including urine, which limited German gains to a few short lengths of front line trench. The Germans themselves suffered heavy casualties when the wind changed, which worsened when they tried it on the Eastern Front, and on one occasion 1,450 of their own men were gassed with 138 killed. But the chlorine attacks had a profound impact on the British, seemingly unaware of the difficulty of coordinating the massed troops to exploit the gas with a favourable wind to blow it onto the enemy. Britain’s first attack with chlorine gas was to be made in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the British 1st Army, was a sceptic about the value of gas. However, ordered by the government to carry out an attack around Loos over terrain which was utterly unsuitable and for which he had insufficient guns and shells, his view was altered by a demonstration of chlorine gas at Runcorn when it appeared to move so effectively to the Manchester ship canal that bargees had shouted abuse. The gas seemed the means to carry out this unwanted attack and even achieve a rapid advance like that of the Germans at Ypres. Confounding the German belief that the Allies lacked the capacity to do so, Britain managed to stage a chlorine gas attack on 25 September 1915, five months after the German attack; the Battle of Loos however was a failure. On the morning of the attack, Haig took the decision to release the gas on the advice of a meteorologist and the drift of the smoke from the cigarette of his ADC but when the wind appeared to change it was impossible to countermand the order. The British troops encountered exactly the same problems as the Germans but on a larger scale: the wind was wrong and panic that the gas induced in the attackers is recorded by Robert Graves in Good-Bye to All That. The Germans, in strong defensive positions, all had gas masks and the machine gunners had breathing apparatus. Over two and a half thousand British soldiers were hospitalised as gas cases, although two-thirds were more terrified than badly injured. Seven British soldiers, and no Germans, were reported killed by the gas. As a result, the British almost never again used gas directly to assist an attack. Instead British chemical weapons were used to kill, injure and demoralise enemy troops in sectors away from main attacks; in other words for attrition not break-through.

Personnel practicing for the first British gas attack.

Personnel practicing for the first British gas attack.

The escalation of chemical warfare was limited solely by the restraints of research, development and production rather than any questions of morality. The first attacks had shown that chlorine was not poisonous enough and too easily protected against; the Germans led in the introduction of new chemicals owing to their ability to produce chemicals in bulk. Both sides raced to deploy new and more poisonous chemicals and to issue masks to their own troops to protect against a range of potential substances. Phosgene, about one hundred times more toxic than chlorine, was the most prominent threat and a German phosgene attack against the British in December 1915 was thwarted by the rapid issue of an improved gas helmet. The Germans were soon able to penetrate these impregnated cloth helmets with higher concentrations and the British were forced to replace them with a complex but effective mask in which a box filter was connected by rubber hose to a face piece. These ‘Small Box Respirators’ began to be issued in autumn 1916 and within five months every man at the front possessed one. The unsung scientist responsible for coordinating this triumph of design and production, Edward Harrison, weakened by overwork and gas inhalation, died of influenza one week before the war’s end.

Edward Harrison, who gave his life in the development of protection from poison gas.

Edward Harrison, who gave his life in the development of protection from poison gas.

In 1916 the gas shell became the favoured means of overcoming the problem of the wind but a very large number of shells had to be fired to build up a concentration sufficient to penetrate a gas mask, especially after the British introduced Harrison’s Small Box Respirator. The tactic shifted to forcing men to wear their masks for long periods and thereby impede their ability to fight and chemical weapons became particularly important as a counter-battery weapon to silence the opponents’ guns. The aim was also to catch soldiers by surprise before they could adjust their masks and gas shells contained a charge just large enough to break open the shell with a distinctive dull plop. Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ describes his recurring nightmares of a man dying of gas poisoning after soldiers are surprised by phosgene shells which drop softly behind them. Troops easily recognised the sound and in 1918 the Germans increased the size of the charge, rendering them harder to distinguish from high explosive shells. The one major British innovation in chemical weapons, highly effective but also technologically the most crude, was a means of projecting a dense cloud of gas instantaneously onto enemy positions. Inspired by the desire of William Livens to avenge his wife whom he thought had perished on the liner Lusitania (it turned out she hadn’t sailed), each Livens Projector hurled a drum containing 11 litres of liquefied gas, when up to 800 were fired simultaneously, it either gassed the German soldiers before they could get their masks on or penetrated the filters owing to the high density. It was so effective that after its first use Livens boasted that he could kill Germans at 16 shillings per head. The Germans copied the Livens projector and, on the Italian front at Caporetto in October 1917, used it to drench low-lying Italian positions with phosgene; they followed it up with an advance far more substantial and dramatic than that at Ypres in 1915, and the resulting panic formed the central sequence of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

The first German lethal gas shell, containing 0.285 litres of diphosgene.

The first German lethal gas shell, containing 0.285 litres of diphosgene.

The quest to find toxic chemicals which did not disperse as quickly as a gas led the Germans to a liquid, dichlorodiethyl sulphide, commonly called ‘mustard gas‘ by the British owing to its odour of mustard or horseradish. The most effective chemical agent of the First World War, it would inflict on soldiers a new dimension of horror and suffering. Ironically, after testing on cats in 1916, the British rejected mustard on the grounds that it was not sufficiently lethal. German trials on monkeys demonstrated that it caused eye and respiratory injury but again there were doubts about its lack of toxicity. It was noted that the liquid took much longer to disperse than gas; a detonating shell spread droplets which slowly evaporated in daylight, prolonging its harmful effects. This quality prompted Haber to propose its use to the German High Command when he learnt of the requirement for a chemical weapon to forestall Allied attacks expected in the summer of 1917. However, Haber is said to have warned that it should only be used if Germany was certain of winning the war within a year; once the Allies had the ability to bulk produce their own, Germany would not be able to produce sufficient replacement uniforms needed for decontamination. On the night of 12 July 1917, the Germans fired 50,000 shells containing 125 tonnes of mustard into the ruins of Ypres; it was the first of a series of intense bombardments to target British attack preparations. Within 24 hours, over two thousand British soldiers had been admitted to Casualty Clearing Stations, many suffering intensely painful inflammation of the eyes which effectively blinded them, they were led in files, each holding on to the man in front. After several hours many developed severe throat and lung irritation which in some turned into fatal broncho-pneumonia. A third prominent symptom, not anticipated by the Germans, was large skin blisters, especially on the buttocks, genitals and armpits. Mustard caused injury by skin contact, especially the sweaty parts of the body, either with the vapour as it evaporated in daylight or sitting where the liquid had been splashed by the bursting shell. The predictions that it would have a low mortality rate were correct: of the 2,143 cases admitted to Casualty Clearing Stations after the first bombardment, 95 died, a comparatively small number; put crudely it had taken 500 mustard gas shells to cause each death. But the Germans reported that the British guns were all but silent for two days afterwards. The effectiveness of mustard did not lie in the death rate, rather the large numbers injured, many of whom, by the standards of the time, recovered after several months in hospital. Many, however, such as those nursed by Vera Brittain on the French coast, suffered serious infection and pneumonia, ‘burnt and blistered all over with great mustard coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes… and always fighting for breath, their voices a mere whisper…’ A German mustard gas bombardment of the still partially inhabited town of Armentières later the same month, an operation called ‘Totentanz’ (‘Dance of Death’), caused 675 civilian casualties of which 86 died; a high proportion, many elderly, were unable or unwilling to leave the contaminated area. Yet, paradoxically, for some soldiers injury by mustard gas actually saved their lives by taking them out of the fighting for an extended period; in September 1917, a Canadian Chemical Advisor claimed that soldiers were deliberately exposing their eyes to mustard gas in order to escape the front line.

German troops demonstrate their gas mask at a gas alarm post. © Simon Jones

German troops at a gas alarm post. © Simon Jones

The International Red Cross appealed for an end to gas warfare in February 1918 but neither side was willing. The Allies were beginning to rival the Germans in production capacity and also did not trust the Germans to abide by such an agreement. The German use of chemical weapons during their offensives in the spring and summer of 1918 was lavish, comprising 50% of all shells fired, and sophisticated. Shells were colour coded according to their effect: non-persistent lung irritant gas phosgene shells were designated Green Cross and fired in combination with ‘Blue Cross’ shells designed to penetrate respirator filters and cause sneezing, forcing the soldier to remove his mask. Mustard gas, ‘Yellow Cross,’ was fired into the rear and flanks to block reinforcements from reaching the attack zone and to silence the artillery; as many as 80% of the shells fired into these areas were mustard. British mustard decontamination could not cope and at one point in 1918 the British had about thirty thousand men in hospital suffering from the effects. In August 1918, the sight of lines of men blinded by mustard gas inspired society painter John Singer Sargent to produce his monumental canvas ‘Gassed‘ which remains for many the most powerful artistic representation of the First World War. Pushed back by Allied offensives, mustard was initially the ideal defensive weapon for the Germans and the British suffered up to 4,000 mustard casualties per week during September and October. But the effectiveness of German chemical weapons declined as their forces became disorganised and Allied troops learnt to avoid the worst effects of mustard. As Haber had warned, the Allies managed to produce their own mustard within a year of the German use; American production in particular threatened to overwhelm the German ability to decontaminate. By November 1918 the Americans could produce 1,600 tonnes of chemical warfare agent each month, enough for 2.7 million shells. If Germany hadn’t requested an Armistice she would have been overwhelmed by Allied chemical weapons in 1919.

German respirators for man and horses.

German respirators for man and horses.

Was Germany ultimately defeated by chemical weapons? She was already beaten militarily in the field and starved at home by the blockade: chemical weapons did not have a decisive impact on the outcome. Deaths during the war from chemical weapons are estimated at about 18 thousand, or less than 0.2 per cent of battlefield deaths. Even allowing for the effectiveness of mustard in causing injury rather than death, this was a negligible contribution. Herein lies the reason why gas was not used on the battlefield during the Second World War: chemical warfare wasn’t as effective as other methods of warfare developed and refined during the First World War. With the end of the war, efforts were made to limit the use of chemical weapons. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forbidden chemical weapons, along with tanks, aircraft and submarines, and in 1925 the Geneva Protocol aimed at a global prohibition of chemical and bacteriological weapons. Between the wars the use of such weapons from the air on towns and cities dominated public anxieties and in the late 1930s most European nations embarked on the mass supply of gas masks to their civilian populations. Whilst the masks were not particularly good, informed opinion was aware that the concentration achievable with aircraft payloads would be low and thankfully the threat never materialised; however, since 1919 chemical weapons have been used almost exclusively against unprotected victims, usually non-combatants, and favoured by rogue states and terrorists. During the lead up to both Gulf wars the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ encouraged an entirely false equivalence with nuclear weapons; ‘weapons of mass terror’ has been suggested as a more appropriate term.

In the hospital at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, antiseptic dressings had little effect on Sawyer Spence’s septic mustard gas blisters and caused him such pain that they were abandoned; instead a treatment was begun with a new paraffin medication developed by Boots the Chemist. By early November 1918 he was at home recovering; he died, age 81, in 1973.

Sawyer Spence suffering extensive mustard gas blisters, Trent Bridge Hospital, Nottingham, 1918. © Jon Spence, used with permission.

Sawyer Spence suffering extensive mustard gas blisters, Trent Bridge Hospital, Nottingham, 1918. © Jon Spence, used with permission.

Fritz Haber, who used science to create life and to end it, is surrounded by myths. His wife, Clara, herself a doctor of chemistry, was opposed to his chemical warfare work but it remains unknown whether this was the reason, as has been claimed, for her suicide shortly after the first chlorine attack. The oft-quoted description of chemical warfare as ‘a higher form of killing’ attributed to him is almost certainly apocryphal. It is clear however that when the Nazis took power Haber, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, was unable to retain his post as head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry. His friend Albert Einstein had concluded many years before that his own future did not lie with identifying himself with the German state. Haber realised this too late; leaving Germany in 1934 he died soon afterwards. A method of pest control using hydrogen cyanide gas invented in 1918 under Haber’s direction and marketed as ‘Zyklon B’ was used by the Nazis to kill over a million people.

Dr Clara Haber (née Immerwahr) committed suicide on 2 May 1915 while her husband was home on leave after the first gas attack.

Dr Clara Haber (née Immerwahr) committed suicide on 2 May 1915 while her husband was home on leave after the first gas attack.

See below for bibliography including online sources.

Text © Simon Jones


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Edward Harrison, who gave his life developing protection against poison gas


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The Lochnagar Mine: how and why it was blown and who were the men who dug it


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Yellow Cross: the advent of mustard gas in 1917

Yellow Cross: measures to protect against mustard gas

The First Gas Attacks, a Century On

Understanding the 1914 Christmas Truce


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

Grantham N Russia RE Lib

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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sawyer-spence

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’

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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Who was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’?


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Yellow Cross: the advent of Mustard Gas in 1917


Eric Haydon DCM Citation London Gazette 2Dec1919

‘Anon.’ no longer: the author of ‘Man at Arms’ revealed


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‘Anon.’ no longer: the author of ‘Man at Arms’ revealed.

Over the past fifteen years, an anonymous poem has grown in popularity, especially with battlefield visitors who find that its sentiments strike a chord with them as they attend the evening sounding of the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.  The memorial, unveiled in 1927, bears the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient who have no known grave.

Menin Gate at midnight (1927) by Will Longstaff (Australian War Memorial/ Wikipedia commons)

Menin Gate at midnight (1927) by Will Longstaff (Australian War Memorial/ Wikimedia commons)

The poem appears to have been inspired by the Australian artist Will Longstaff’s painting  of 1927 ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ which shows the ghosts of the dead filling the battlefield around the newly built memorial. Entitled ‘Man at Arms’, the poem is always described as by an anonymous author. The writer addresses a soldier who tells how, just as in the painting, the dead will rise at midnight and march to the Menin Gate.

            Man at Arms
What are you guarding, Man-at-Arms?
Why do you watch and wait?
‘I guard the graves, said the Man-at-Arms,
I guard the graves by Flanders farms
Where the dead will rise at my call to arms,
And march to the Menin gate’.

‘When do they march then, Man-at-Arms?
Cold is the hour – and late’
‘They march tonight’ said the Man-at-Arms,
With the moon on the Menin gate.
They march when the midnight bids them go.
With their rifles slung and their pipes aglow,
Along the roads, the roads they know,
The roads to the Menin gate.

‘What are they singing, Man-at-Arms,
As they march to the Menin gate?’
‘The Marching songs’, said the Man-at-Arms,
That let them laugh at fate.
No more will the night be cold for them,
For the last tattoo has rolled for them,
And their souls will sing as of old for them,
As they march to the Menin gate.

Popular as it has become, I have never included it in my literature and art battlefield tours because I had no evidence that it was the authentic testimony of someone who had experienced the war. Curiosity as to its origins however led to research its authorship.  Jeffrey Richards in  Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953 (2001) quotes the opening lines as being from a song The Menin Gate by Bowen.  This proves to have been by Lauri or Lori Bowen, published in 1930 by Boosey & Hawkes, with words by Eric Haydon.  A recording performed by Peter Dawson was released by His Master’s Voice in 1930. Following on from the success of Longstaff’s painting, the song achieved particular popularity in Australia. A first clue as to who Eric Haydon was comes from a brief article in an Australian newspaper, the Perth Daily News of  28 January 1936, which describes him as an English novelist and lyric writer, en route for Victoria on the liner Moldavia. Mr Haydon, the article notes, wrote ‘The Menin Gate’ lyrics.

The Daily News (Perth, WA), Tuesday 28 January 1936, page 5

The Perth Daily News, 28th January 1936, announcing the arrival of Eric Haydon.

The passenger list of the Moldavia includes Eric Haydon, age 42, en route for Melbourne, having previously lived at an address in London NW3.  Census returns and a 1939 militia attestation form show that he was born in Kensington, London, on 7 July 1895, the son of a cheesemonger’s assistant.  By 1911, age 16, he worked as a cashier’s clerk for a publisher and lived in Stoke Newington. In the 1930s, Haydon began to have some success as a song lyricist and novelist. In September 1939, when he enlisted in the Australian Militia, he lived at 30 Tivoli Road, South Yarra. Success however brought mixed blessings as the award for the best radio play in Australia of 1947 unfortunately seems to have drawn his financial affairs to the attention of tax officials who the following year fined him £70 for having failed to declare income from the play. He died in Parkville, Victoria, in 1971 at the age of 76.

There remains the question as to whether Eric Haydon’s experiences during the First World War might have inspired the lyrics to ‘The Menin Gate’.  Luckily, a service record survives enabling his military career to be reconstructed.  In February 1915 Haydon enlisted as a Private in the London Scottish, number 4359, and was posted to the 2nd Battalion with which he served for the whole war.

Eric Haydon Attestation form WO363

Eric Haydon’s attestation form showing his enlistment in the London Scottish on 4th February 1915. (National Archives WO363)

This battalion was to have a remarkably varied experience, being posted from Salisbury Plain to Ireland in April 1916 in the wake of the Easter Rising, then to the Western Front where it spent time on Vimy Ridge.  After five months in France, it was sent to Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece, then seven months later, in July 1917, to Egypt.  It was at this point that the one misdemeanour contained on Haydon’s crime sheet occurs, when he was found guilty of disobedience to a lawful command and insubordination resulting in a sentenced of seven days Field Punishment No. 1, the infamous tying of a soldier to a fixed object for several hours each day in place of detention in the guardroom.  The 2nd London Scottish spent ten months in Palestine, where it took part in the capture of Jerusalem in December.

Eric Haydon Crime Sheet WO363

Eric Haydon’s Crime sheet showing the award of 7 Days Field Punishment Number One in July 1917 and his mention for gallantry in October 1918. (National Archives WO363)

The German attacks in the Spring of 1918 led to Haydon’s battalion being sent to the Western Front in June: it is at this time that he would have first seen the future site of the Menin Gate at the eastern exit through the Ypres ramparts on the route taken by troops to the front line.  At the end of September his battalion retook Messines, then participated in a final advance, the forgotten ‘5th battle of Ypres’, to push the Germans back from Ypres and which by mid-October 1918 resulted in the Battle of Courtrai. During this fighting he was mentioned in a Brigade Order for Gallantry in the Field.  This resulted in the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, announced in the London Gazette of March 1919. It wasn’t until December 1919 that the citation was additionally published which reveals an astonishing action which in the earlier years of the war would have gained him the Victoria Cross:

Eric Haydon DCM Citation London Gazette 2Dec1919

Eric Haydon’s citation for the Distinguish Conduct Medal, published in the London Gazette, 2nd December 1919.

Private Eric Haydon was discharged in February 1919 unscathed physically by enemy action with a total of four years and 20 days service.

I can now include his poem in my tours as an authentic testimony by one who saw Ypres in its most devastated state, and who played a remarkable part in the fighting in the last days of the war.


Note: Since researching Eric Haydon, I’ve discovered that Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient and Passchendaele (Pen & Sword, 2011 Ed.) also credits him as the author and acknowledges Martin Passande as the source of the information.


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Joe Cox and Tom Hodgetts (c) Duncan Hunting

The Lochnagar Mine


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Understanding Football and the 1914 Christmas Truce


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