Germany’s use of chlorine gas at Ypres in 1915 was a prominent development in modern warfare. Despite early outrage, the Allies adopted the weapon within months.
In fact, both sides had previously experimented with gas weaponry. In early attempts, France, Germany and Britain all used non-lethal tear gas to disable enemy forces, with limited success. Gas was an unwieldy weapon, dependent on wind direction, temperature, and the element of surprise. When Germany deployed canisters of tear gas against Russian forces on the Eastern Front in January 1915, the air was too cold for gas to disperse properly, and it had little effect.
By April, German forces had refined the technology, and adopted lethal chlorine gas instead of tear gas. This new, deadlier weapon was introduced to devastating effect on 22 April at the Second Battle of Ypres. Approximately 6000 cylinders of gas were released against French, British and Canadian forces, causing instant mass retreat and a temporary breach of the Allied front line. Gas masks thereafter were a feature of life at the front. Initially as rudimentary as a wet cloth over the mouth, they evolved in line with gas technology. The full mask, with hood and respirator, soon became an iconic image of the war.
For Britain, the introduction of poison gas – and the special horror of this manner of death – fed directly into an ongoing narrative of German barbarism and war atrocities. The Illustrated London News and the Great Eight publications spoke scathingly of the underhand and vicious nature of the new weapon, calling it “an unworthy method of making war.” According to one article,
The Germans have placed themselves definitely at the bottom rung of the ladder of humanity.
A darkly ironic cartoon in The Tatler, titled ‘Idealism’, placed poison gas at the top of a ladder of weapons arranged according to deadly effect. At the time, gas symbolised the worst combination of scientific sophistication and moral barbarism, comparable to later depictions of the nuclear bomb. Alongside this condemnation, the ILN shows a fascination with the scientific and technological novelty of the gas attacks. Features in the paper went into great detail on the design and function of canisters and protective masks.
Poison gas remained associated with German barbarism, even after French and British forces began using it later that year. The first British use of chlorine gas was at Loos, on 25 September 1915. One report, in The Illustrated London News, depicted the terrifying appearance of British forces attacking in gas masks:
As they burst through the smoke on to the German front line, wearing their gas-masks over their heads, they must have looked like hooded Familiars of the Spanish Inquisition.
Despite being lauded as a glorious victory, this aspect of the British attack was generally downplayed in the Great Eight Publications. Much of the gas at Loos was actually blown back onto Allied forces, and its role in the battle was questionable at best. Its actual effectiveness, however, was less important than its moral implications. For many it epitomised the special brutality of the First World War — a watershed moment for standards of warfare in the twentieth century.
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