The First Chemical Weapon Used in World War I

[This post was updated to include new material from the British Archives on April 22, 2016 - BAT]

Contrary to common belief, the French grenade pictured below was actually the first known chemical weapon to be used in the First World War. The picture shows a grenade suffocante modele 1914 on display in the Musee de l'Armee in Paris (Inventory Number 07935).  I am continuing the research on this actual grenade, as a number of secondary sources disagree about these (some incorrectly identify this grenade as a rifle grenade, for example). That said, I'd like to offer a few thoughts about this weapon, given the recent commemoration of the April 22, 1915 attacks.

Photo by Brad Trefz. Original grenade is on display at the Musee de l'Armee, Paris, France.

The first use of these type of tear gases by the French was likely around 1912 in Paris (during the usual riot season - it has a long history).  The initial fill was probably ethyl bromoacetate (BrCH2COOC2H5) which is actually quite toxic, especially if released in a confined space. Other known fills used prior to April 22, 1915 included chloroacetone and xylyl bromide, which the Germans may have used in their own grenades prior to April 22. Due to limited access to bromide, the French later shifted to using other chemicals and there were two later versions of French "suffocantes" grenades, one in 1916 and another in 1917 (also on display at the Musee de l'Armee).

There are conflicting reports about the first French use, which the French attempted to cover up after April 22, 1915.  Some sources claim that mobilized French policemen brought the grenades to the front in August 1914. While that may be the case, the information I currently have on the grenade shown, was that it was already in the French inventory at the start of the war. Sources also generally agree that by October, the French Army had ordered 30,000 more.  It is more likely the French Army already had them in inventory at the start of the war in some quantity, and I suspect any police weapons that found their way to the front were in addition to this existing (though small) stockpile.

The Hague Declaration of 1898 stated:

The Contracting Powers agree to abstain from the use of projectiles the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases. The present Declaration is only binding on the Contracting Powers in the case of a war between two or more of them. It shall cease to be binding from the time when, in a war between the Contracting Powers, one of the belligerents shall be joined by a non-Contracting Power.

Incidentally, the United States delegation led by Admiral Mahan (yes, that Mahan), was not a contracting power to that agreement, but I digress. The Germans claimed before April 22, 1915, during the war, and throughout the interwar period (1919-1939), that the French use of these tear gas grenades voided the Hague declaration as the French grenades were clearly projectiles, while the German use on April 22 did not use projectiles.  It is a quibble, and the scale and scope of the two weapons is hardly comparable, but it is one of those little details that opens up other questions, especially when it is known the Germans attempted at least two (maybe three, the sources don't all agree) chemical attacks prior to April 22 with no success. Those attempts did use projectiles (artillery shells), so the Germans were more than a little disingenuous on this issue.

That said, the French went first. The French grenades where excellent for attacking dug in troops, clearing dug-outs, and in other confined spaces. This is the same reason why tear gases were used so extensively by the US in the tunnel war in Vietnam 1965-1973. Such small grenades designed like these early versions would be of little real use in open areas with large forces conducting meeting engagements.  That also means that the likelihood is high that while the grenades were seen as "riot control" agents, their use in the early months of the war was more likely as an "asphyxiating" agent. After all, their contents were highly toxic if inhaled in sufficient quantity (check the MSDS or NIOSH for yourself), and soldiers are the same anywhere, give them a weapon and they will find a way to use it to maximum effect.  The other question that immediately pops into mind is, if the French had these, what else were they up to?

That is where things get really obscure. After April 22, 1915, the Allies worked overtime to capitalize on the propaganda value of the German attack. That meant obscuring any of their own chemical research. We know that Winston Churchill at the British Admiralty, and later the Asquith Government, authorized chemical weapons research prior to April 22, 1915.  Churchill's account of that in his history of the war seems a bit too convenient. His account suggests that they had both conducted tests AND the research was only just authorized when the Germans carried out the April 22 attack.

Based on my research, I have come to believe that the British may have deliberately obscured the scope of their pre-April 1915 program both during and after the war. During a recent trip to the British Archives I examined the admiralty and cabinet records Churchill references and some he does not. In them I found evidence that the British Navy had carried out a number of tests for producing artificial smoke, and that some of them may have included tests of smoke they knew (or hoped) would be toxic. This is related to a great book on that history by Charles Stephenson, The Admiral's Secret Weapon: Lord Dundonald and the Origins of Chemical Warfare. In any case, from Stephenson's work, and my own preliminary examination of the original documents, I believe that while the British were just beginning to test their "smoke" apparatus, its intended use was in the Dardenelles and that they hoped to use Dondonald's "secret weapon" or some permutation of it.  Not much came of that later as April 22, 1915 opened the door to other, more effective chemical weapons, but it is clearly evident that the British, prior to April 22, had already begun to consider chemical warfare and carry out research, even if they had an official no-first use policy. I'll have more on that in some future posts.

Lutz Haber, the son of Fritz Haber (father of Chemical Warfare and the other half of the Bosch-Haber process that earned a Nobel Prize) wrote what remains the most thorough examination of chemical warfare in World War I in the 1970s and early 1980s, The Poisonous Cloud. In that work, he mostly depended on his friend and a key figure in British chemical warfare during and after the war, BG Harold Hartley. The Hartley papers were his primary source, supplemented by the British Archives material. That he relied so heavily on Hartley for his interpretation presents some problems and his analysis is sometimes flawed.

That said, Haber's book remains one of the few good accounts based on primary documents and research. There are a few more recent works that offer more solid analysis and broader research: Tim Cook's No Place to Run and Albert Palazzo's Seeking Victory on the Western Front join a growing number of individuals re-evaluating chemical warfare's role in the First World War. In any case, the French were also conducting some research before Fritz Haber opened the door for all sides to use chemical weapons in April 1915. Unfortunately, there are no good works in English on the French program, the definitive work is Olivier Lepick's La Grande Guerre Chimique. Speaking of which - if you are a French translator and reading this - please consider a translation of that book!

Complicating matters, within weeks of the April 22, 1915 attack, the Germans sank the Lusitania. That propaganda coup drove the events of April 22 off the front page in Britain, France, and the United States (the target of most British and French propaganda). Incidentally, the Lusitania was another British obfuscation - the passenger ship WAS carrying weapons and ammunition in violation of treaty, and as the Germans then claimed. That was confirmed in recent dives on the newly discovered wreck. Further, Churchill, infamously noted during his time at the Admiralty, prior to the Lusitania, that such an act by the Germans against neutral shipping might be advantageous to the British and turn American opinion (which was firmly neutral) against Germany. Chemical warfare isn't the only thing historians and countries have been arguing over World War I during the last hundred years.

The Lusitania incident and the subsequent disappearance of chemical warfare from newspapers was not an accident. The French and British in 1915 cut the transatlantic cables between Germany and the US and started censoring any dispatches made by American reporters. American reporters in Germany were similar restricted and unable to get their reports out anyway. The French and British made sure there were few or any reports in the American press about chemical warfare until after the US entered the war in 1917.

That censorship, which also applied to the French and British press, makes research on chemical weapons even harder. The official British accounts and records are suspect or edited, and the few media reports are sketchy and made upentirely of propaganda.  The French archives are notoriously scattered, unorganized, and missing large numbers of documents that were never kept. The German national archives with all the documents from the First World War were destroyed in World War II (by the British), and while some exist in regional archives, the full record will never be known.

Adding to the confusion, the Germans were conducting their own propaganda campaign about French and British use prior to and after April 22, in order to deliberately confuse the situation. They knew they would have to justify their use, and tried to set things up so they could, even if it didn't work. The truth about who went first was a point of serious contention during the 1920s and 30s between French, British, and German historians and military writers, and no side was ever truly objective. Interwar histories and sources were all obfuscatory and disingenuous to some degree regarding their own culpability.

Despite that, research in this area is something I continue to explore, and will share more at a later date. Suffice to say, the real story of the beginnings of chemical warfare is more complicated than it may first appear.