Re-examining the History of Chemical Warfare - Part I

British Troops wearing the British Small Box Respirator (SBR). Image: Public Domain.

“Gas achieved but local success, nothing decisive, it made war uncomfortable, to no purpose.” So claimed James Edmonds, the editor of the British Official History of the First World War. [1] The historical consensus since World War II did not differ with this judgment, despite a significant interwar debate on the question that suggested otherwise. Similarly, this assessment runs counter to the fact that the major powers continued to develop and deploy chemical weapons from 1919 to 1993.[2]  Nearly every decade since 1918 has witnessed some use of chemical weapons.[3]  Given this subsequent history, it is hard to square the earlier assessment with the facts. Yet, that is precisely what historians of the war, with a few notable exceptions, have done.[4]

The American experience in the First World War offers a counter-example to the traditional assessment of chemical weapons in the First World War. There were three distinct periods of chemical warfare in the First World War and the last in 1918 coincided with the American Expeditionary Force’s (AEF) deployment to the Western Front. In the final months of the war, both sides were using chemical weapons in all their operations. Over eleven months of combat, American troops faced frequent chemical attack, right up to the final days of the war. The AEF struggled to adapt defensively to this new battlefield and soon embraced the offensive use of their chemical weapons. After the war, the U.S. Army wrote chemical weapons into post-war doctrine.[5]  The AEF’s experience explains why the narrative of chemical warfare’s “failure” in the war is wrong, and forms the basis of a new, more nuanced understanding of chemical warfare in the First World War, and chemical weapons. The historical evidence demonstrates that far from being an uncomfortable inconvenience, chemical weapons possessed significant tactical utility that was on open display in 1918.

When the first units of the American Expeditionary Force left New York harbor, they possessed no protective masks and had no training in chemical warfare.[6]  While the AEF was unprepared for the Western Front in nearly every aspect, this was one of the most glaring deficiencies. Widespread chemical warfare in the First World War began in April 1915. Over the course of the subsequent two years, the singular response of the American military establishment was to dispatch an officer to Europe to observe the situation.[7] As the chemical conflict escalated in 1916 and 1917, the British deliberately obscured the full extent of chemical warfare from the Americans for fear that it might provide ammunition to those in the United States opposed the war. This propaganda effort forms the underlying basis for the traditional narratives regarding chemical warfare in the First World War.

Most accounts date chemical warfare in the modern era as beginning at 5:30 p.m., April 22, 1915, when the Germans opened over 5,730 canisters of chlorine containing approximately 150 tons of chlorine. The attack took place near the village of Langemark-Poelkapelle in the northern part of the Ypres salient with French colonial troops its intended target.[8] The Germans spent some time moving the gas into position, and British and French propaganda notwithstanding, the attack should not have been a surprise.[9] French intelligence ignored the claims of captured German prisoners who warned of the impending attack, and failed to pass the information on to the British in the sector.[10] British troops even captured a cylinder of chlorine while raiding the German lines.[11] Astonishingly, The Times of London on April 9, 1915 published a detailed account of German plans to release “asphyxiating gases” in the area.[12]  For whatever the reason, both the British and French commands ignored or dismissed these and other warnings.

When the wind was right that early April morning, the Germans opened the valves and let the gas drift across no-man’s land. The unprotected French troops fled or died. Exact casualty figures are impossible to pin down. A post war American study noted, “There are no data regarding the number of men actually killed by gas in the field nor of gas casualties taken prisoner by the Germans.”[13] The American study estimated 7,000 casualties and 350 deaths from the first and subsequent five gas attacks conducted between April and May of 1915. This number corresponds to the number of casualties the British treated in their aid stations in the salient. Other accounts vary widely, claiming 15,000 French casualties, with 5,000 of them killed by the gas.[14] One post war account simply described the casualties as “enormous.”[15] The truth is impossible to discern in part because sensationalist propaganda following the attack obscured it.[16]  Based on evidence from other attacks, the death rate was probably in the hundreds, not thousands, though many ran, or were otherwise injured. The greatest initial effect of the gas was surprise and fear.

The image of a wave of asphyxiating death remained after April 22, 1915, even if the tactic was mostly out of use by 1917.[17] Traditional narratives about chemical warfare in the Great War begin and end with the German attack at Ypres on April 22, 1915. The event has loomed so large, that it led Jay Winter, the respected cultural historian, to proclaim, “In some ways, you might be able to argue that the First World War started on the 22nd of April 1915.”[18] While that is hyperbolic, no serious history of the war leaves April 22 out. Unfortunately, many quote the British propaganda and sensational newspaper accounts when describing it. Despite this, mentions of chemical warfare after April 1915 in the press and much post war history are rare. A simple glance in the index of any history of the war demonstrates the lack of attention paid to the subject. 

Despite the narrative, the April 22 attack was not the first. Rather, it was the first large-scale successful attack. Previous attempts to use irritant agents by the Germans went unnoticed by the Russians, French, and British. Throughout 1914 and into 1915, both sides, particularly the French, made use of various forms of tear gas much of it actually quite toxic. The British were also developing their own chemical weapons, which they tested prior to April 1915.[19] The British also established a cabinet sub-committee to hear chemical warfare research proposals before the spring of 1915.[20] 

These early events were minor compared to the April 22 event at Ypres. The Germans claimed the use of French tear gas, which was a projectile, technically violated the pre-war Hague Convention long before they did.[21] By their estimation, the Germans had not technically violated the Hague Conventions, as they had not used projectiles to deliver the gas. While tenuously correct, it was a weak argument.[22] While it may be splitting hairs, all but a few specialist histories devoted to chemical warfare leave out the question of “who went first,” even though the question was a serious point of contention among scholars in the interwar period. In part, this is due to the propaganda effort that followed the initial attack targeting the Americans, though the sinking of the Lusitania soon overshadowed it.[23] This portrayed the German use as an underhanded and unfair form of warfare, a view shared by the British military establishment. Only lunatics would use such a weapon in this estimation.[24] Post World War II, the “who went first” question’s association with the later “stab in the back” narrative of inter-war Germany also makes examinations of it problematic for many historian, and outside of a few histories it is never mentioned. Chemical warfare was a muddied and misunderstood topic from the start.

In any case, the Allied propaganda effort went far beyond chemical warfare. Following the initial attack and their public and vehement propaganda effort regarding the “German act of unprecedented barbarism” discussions of gas and chemical warfare disappeared from censored dispatches in the United States after the initial attack and would remain absent for the next two years, even while both sides escalated their chemical warfare programs. Both the British and French anxiously obscured the true scale of human devastation then occurring on the continent, except when they could blame the Germans for it, out of fear it would reinforce American neutrality.[25] The British effort headed by Lord Northcliffe, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, remains one of the more brilliant propaganda efforts in history, with deep impact on both sides of the Atlantic.[26]

One of the reasons for Northcliffe’s success was he had a near monopoly on information flowing to the United States. Early in the war, the British cut the transatlantic cables that connected Germany to the United States. This gave the British and the French exclusive control over American correspondents’ dispatches back to the United States, which they freely censored.[27] The United States had a huge German-speaking population and prior to 1917, an equally large and influential German language press. The connections between the United States and Germany were strong. Early in the war, American reportage from Europe reflected this condition, depending on the paper and the correspondent’s leanings. That changed when the Allies began to restrict American access and censor their reports. The use of chemical weapons fit into the larger scheme of “atrocity stories” that began with the “rape of Belgium” narrative encouraged by British propagandists and they made sure the press reported it that way. A number of post war histories quote or echo British propaganda on the initial attack via these sensationalist press reports, sometimes verbatim without realizing the original source.[28]

Following the initial burst of righteous indignation by the Allies, reporting on chemical warfare shifted to stories about the reluctant use of similar weapons by the Allies downplaying the number of casualties.[29] Critically, in the spring and summer of 1917, just as chemical warfare on entered a new and more prevalent phase, a news blackout took hold in the American press. Chemical warfare disappeared from dispatches, even as it escalated in reality. The United States Assistant Secretary of War, Benedict Crowell, believed the Allies "feared and perhaps with reason" that a picture of gas warfare, if presented to the Americans, would result in an "unreasonable dread of gases on the part of the American nation and its soldiers."[30] It is fair to say, the British information operation was so efficacious in obscuring the widespread use of chemical warfare from Americans that it almost certainly contributed to the AEF deploying for Europe in 1917 without gas masks and training in chemical warfare.[31] 

In our next post we will examine some of the American experience, and dispel long held myths about the AEF in chemical defense.

[1] Albert Palazzo, Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War I (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 1.

[2] The United States and Russia ratified the Chemical Warfare Convention in 1993. This was the first treaty to ban possession of chemical weapons rather than use. Only a few nations remain outside of the CWC regime, including Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Burma, Angola, and the newly formed South Sudan. Syria, Libya, and Iraq are the most recent to join.  

[3] Contrary to popular myth, chemical weapons saw use in World War II, especially in China. Late in the war during preparations for the invasion of the Japanese mainland, US planners pushed the use of chemical weapons. There is debate about the plan, but as the war ended the mainland invasion never took place. Likewise, there were several unauthorized German uses against the Soviets, and the Soviets may have used agent in Manchuria and China. Germany also used chemical agents in the concentration camps.

[4] The two exceptions are Albert Palazzo, cited above, and Timothy Cook, No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1999, 2007). 

[5] The same was true of the Italians and Russians/Soviets who similarly suffered extensive chemical casualties. The Russians had more chemical casualties than any other combatant and the Italian defeat at Caporetto was largely the result of chemical weapons. The Italians were arguably the biggest interwar proponents of chemical warfare, as the influential airpower advocate Giulio Douhet openly called for strategic bombing using chemical weapons, a tactic put to use by the Italians in their invasion of Ethiopia to great effect. 

[6] Charles E. Heller, Leavenworth Papers No. 10, Chemical Warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918 (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1984), 38.

[7] Heller, 36-38. The Army finally took notice of the threat of chemical weapons in February 1917, prior to the declaration of war in April 1917. That effort was preliminary and focused on developing potential defensive equipment, which was not ready until late in the war.

[8] For a thorough account see Cook, cited above. Some accounts describe the French Division as Algerian; others mention the Caribbean Island of Martinique. The division was a mixed unit with colonial troops from multiple locations, though the bulk was from Algeria. The Corps it was part of included French units, and it bordered the Canadians, who also faced early chemical attacks. Following the battle, the Colonial division effectively ceased to exist, its members dead, captured, or scattered, hence the difficulty in determining exactly what occurred.

[9] Unfortunately, this is one area of history where historians frequently cite propaganda, suggesting in their narratives the attack came as a complete surprise. The effectiveness of the attack was a surprise; the attack itself was not, though propaganda obscured this. Likewise, the Germans never intended the original attack to win the war, but achieve a very specific tactical goal.

[10] B.H. Liddell Hart, A History of the World War 1914-1918 (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), 175-177.

[11] William R. Griffiths, The Great War, The West Point Military History Series, Thomas E. Griess, ed. (Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers, 2003 ), 67.

[12] The Times, “A New German Weapon. Poisonous Gas For Our Troops. The Control Of Modern Battles,” April 9, 1915, 7. 

[13]  H. L. Gilchrist, A Comparative Study of World War Casualties from Gas and Other Weapons (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1928), 11.

[14] Edward M. Spiers, A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons (London: Reaktion, 2010), 31;  Kim Coleman, A History of Chemical Warfare (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 19-20; Robert Harris, and Jeremy Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002), 3. Despite her work’s other errors, Coleman’s work contains one of the better discussions of the casualty figure problem and gives a good overview of the competing sources. Harris and Paxman tend to sensationalize throughout their work. See also Augustin M. Prentiss, Chemicals in War: A Treatise on Chemical Warfare (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), 647-684.

[15] Lewis Hullinger, “Gas Attack-The Unused Weapon of World War II,” The Ohio State Engineer (November 1941): 7.

[16] The press accounts regarding the event tended to grow in their sensationalist descriptions of the initial attack the longer time passed between them and the event. For examples, see Will Irwin, New York Tribune, April 25, 26, 27, 1915. index.php/The_Use_of_Poison_Gas (accessed March 14, 2011) versus Daily Mirror, “Germans gain ground near Ypres by using asphyxiating gas,” April 24, 1915. Wartime and interwar “histories” made frequent use of similar language on both sides of the Atlantic. For an example see Francis Andrew March and Richard J. Beamish, History of the World War: An Authentic Narrative of the World's Greatest War Including the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Terms of the Treaty of Peace (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co, 1928), 217. Even those who should have known better quoted the newspapers Fries and West for example. Chemical Warfare. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1921), 13. Sir John French’s own statements on the subject tended to inflate with time. Compare his initial statement, reported in the Daily Mirror cited above, versus his and Kitchener’s later statements as quoted in Victor Lefebure, The Riddle of the Rhine: Chemical Strategy in Peace and War (New York: Chemical Foundation, Inc., 1923), 31-33.

[17] The exception to this rule was the British who suffered shell shortages throughout the war and feared devoting any significant part of their shell production to chemical rounds. See Palazzo for a full account.

[18] Blaine, Baggett, Jay Winter, and Carl Byker. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (Alexandria, VA: PBS Home Video, 1996). Winter co-authored the companion book to the television series, produced with Imperial War Museum assistance.

[19] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, 1915, Vol. II (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1923), 310-313. Churchill is obfuscating the pre-April 1915 British chemical warfare effort. The Germans claimed the British conducted battlefield tests prior to April 22. Though proof of that is not extent, though it is not out of the question that such tests occurred, the British leadership obscured many similar damaging facts. For an alternate discussion on British efforts see William Moore, Gas Attack: Chemical Warfare 1915 to the Present Day (London: Leo Cooper, 1987), 8-18; or Charles Stephenson, The Admiral's Secret Weapon: Lord Dundonald and the Origins of Chemical Warfare (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2006).

[20] Ludwig F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 22-25.

[21] Hague Convention of 1899, “Laws of War: Declaration on the Use of Projectiles the Object of Which is the Diffusion of Asphyxiating or Deleterious Gases”, July 29, 1899. Unlike the Europeans, the United States abstained from endorsing this declaration. 

[22] Lefebure, 33. Lefebure quotes the Colniche Zeitung, June 1915.

[23] The Lusitania is another aspect of the war where propaganda sometimes trumps the truth in many histories. In addition to long standing documentary evidence, the recent discovery of the wreck of the Lusitania and subsequent exploration proved what the Germans claimed at the time: it was carrying large numbers of munitions. Contrary to the outbreak of chemical warfare however, the Lusitania question is a cottage industry within certain historical circles, especially those related to conspiracy theories regarding Churchill’s role as First Sea Lord. It is worth noting that Churchill was also the instigator of early chemical weapons research in Britain (prior to April 1915) and his account of the early gas projects in The World Crisis is obfuscatory.

[24] The idea of the German brute rampaging across Europe in the form of an enraged ape was a common one, as was attribution of atrocity to “German kultur.” Both of these were common propaganda themes that cast long shadows. The possession of weapons of mass destruction by minor powers is inherently now associated with mad men and crazed dictators. This idea of irrationality contributed to the pre-2003 perceptions of Hussein in Iraq and Qaddafi in Libya.

[25] See Harold D. Lasswell, Propaganda in the World War (New York: Peter Smith, 1938); H. C. Peterson, Propaganda for War: The Campaign Against American Neutrality 1914-17 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939); James Morgan Read, Atrocity Propaganda, 1914-1919 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941); J. Lee Thompson, Politicians, the Press & Propaganda: Lord Northcliffe & the Great War, 1914-1919 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999).

[26] See Thompson, Politicians, the Press & Propaganda: Lord Northcliffe & the Great War, 1914-1919.

[27] Heller, 35.

[28] Compare March and Beamish, 217 to accounts in the Times, for example.  The problem is not necessarily the errors of the inter-war history in quoting propaganda, but recent history that cites it. See also Lefebure’s or Haldane’s discussion on this aspect of the war history, both writing in the 1920s. Lefebure recognized the errors were useful for the effort to ban chemical weapons, but was frustrated that might lead to unrealistic ideas about chemical warfare that posed a danger in future conflicts.

[29] The British first use of chemical weapons at Loos was a disaster and they managed to gas some of their own troops, a fact kept out of the press for obvious reasons.

[30] Frederick Brown, Chemical Warfare, A Study in Restraints (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 15-17. See also Heller, 35. Heller confirmed Brown's analysis of the propaganda war by examining prewar issues of the Army-Navy Journal, The Literary Digest, and the New York Times as well as Harold D. Lasswell, Propaganda in the World War and Peterson, Propaganda for War. According to Heller “Frederick Palmer, an astute wartime observer, gives an excellent overview of the effect Allied propaganda had on Americans in Newton D. Baker, America at War, 2 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931), 1:36-39. See also Benedict Crowell, America's Munitions, 1917·1918 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1919), 410. For a more recent examination, see Thompson, Politicians, the Press & Propaganda: Lord Northcliffe & the Great War, 1914-1919.

[31] Heller, see also Cochrane, 1st Division at Ansauville