On Sunny Breezy Day, A Grey-Green Cloud of Death;

German Gas Attack Leaves Thousands Choking, Fleeing the Battlefield

Special to The Great War Project

(21-22 April) “It was on April 22,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “that gas was used for the first time in the First World War.”

The attack takes place in the evening, near the southern Belgian town of Langemarck, close to the town of Ypres where so much fighting and dying has already occurred.

Poison gas hits the battlefield on the Western Front, April 1915.

Poison gas hits the battlefield on the Western Front, April 1915.

The afternoon is sunny with a light breeze, recounts war historian John Keegan. “At five o’clock a greyish-green cloud began to drift across from the German towards the French trenches.” Soon thousands of soldiers “were streaming to the rear clutching their throats, coughing, stumbling and turning blue in the face.”

According to Gilbert, “the Germans discharged, within five minutes, 168 tons of chlorine from 4,000 cylinders against two French divisions” and others from Algeria and Canada. The gas is used over a four-mile front.

“The effect of the gas was devastating,” writes Gilbert. One of the British commanding generals, Sir John French, reports to Lord Kitchener, the British Minister of War that…

…“hundreds of men were thrown into a comatose or dying position.”

As for the German soldiers who advance toward the British and French lines under cover of the gas, they are equipped with respirators to avoid the same fate as the French. The Germans take 2,000 prisoners and 51 guns.

“But no reserves had been brought forward to exploit the success by driving through the gap,” writes Gilbert. “The attack had been experimental, not tactical.”

The following day the British launch further attacks on the Germans, who continue to fight the British and French advance with gas.

The gas proves to be a powerful weapon, at least initially. With no protection from the gas, “French colonial troops, blacks from Senegal, were ordered to make a diversionary attack on the British flank,” according to Gilbert’s account of the fighting, “but were so terrified by the gas that they shot their own officers, who had orders to shoot them if they turned away from the line of advance.”

Unprotected British soldiers after German gas attack, April 1915

Unprotected British soldiers after German gas attack, April 1915

Two-thousand Canadian troops are killed in these gas attacks. But the Germans “experienced considerable difficulties in combining a gas attack with an infantry advance.

“Without a favorable wind, the gas was a danger to the advancing troops, who found themselves moving forward into their own poison cloud. With a sudden unfavorable wind it became a positive danger.” Gas could blow back into the German trenches, making it impossible for the Germans to exploit any advantage the use of gas might provide.

British leaders condemn the German use of poison gas shells, but the following day the British war cabinet authorizes their own use of poison gas. “A new weapon had become a part of the accepted method of war-making,” writes Gilbert.

One British general offers this description of the battlefield under gas attack…

“The horrible part of it is the slow lingering death of those who are gassed…”

“I saw some hundred poor fellows laid out in the open, in the forecourt of a church, to give them all the air they could get, slowly drowning with water in their lungs – a most horrible sight.”

“And the doctors quite powerless.”

“Gas adds a new dimension to the fighting,” writes historian Adam Hochschild, but it fails to achieve its goal the Germans hope for.

It does not break the deadlock.