Today is the Centenary of the start of the Second Battle of Ypres and a hundred years since the first use of poison gas on the battlefields of the Great War. Poison gas was a weapon outlawed under the Hague Convention but by 1915 the Germans viewed the conflict as a ‘Total War’ and that every weapon was justifiable for victory; there was also belief that the Allies had gas weapons too and it was just a matter of time before they were implemented.
After much preparations and a trial use of the gas, the poison cloud was released at 5pm on 22nd April 1915. More than 170 tons of chlorine gas was released over a 6.5km front, on positions held by French Colonial and Territorial troops. More than 6,000 of them quickly became casualties, having no protection against the gas. Most died within ten minutes as the chlorine gas irritated their lungs causing a ‘drowning’ effect. German assault troops came flooding through the French positions, protected by their own gas masks, and gradually the whole front, including the British lines, began to collapse. In the fighting that followed troops of the Canadian Expeditionary Force played a prominent role in the defence of Ypres; the 1st Canadian Division losing more than 2,000 men killed in action in the first days of the battle.
The photograph above is grainy and unfocussed but shows German soldiers in a captured French trench in the opening phase of the battle. Two dead Poilus are on the trench floor, victims of the gas attack which took place a hundred years ago.
Many thanks to German historian Rob Schäfer for the use of these images.
The Battle of Loos, which took place 97 years ago today, was the first time the British Army used poison gas on the Western Front: to spearhead an attack on the lines that was a joint effort with the French Army who were also attacking simultaneously at Vimy Ridge and in the Champagne.
This image from a contemporary magazine shows Scottish troops being piped into action as they go Over The Top at Loos on the first day of the battle. Loos was very much a Scottish battle with some of the first wartime volunteers from the 9th (Scottish) and 15th (Scottish) Division taking part. Regimental pipers in Scottish regiments played a key role in keeping the morale of the men up as they went into battle and Piper Daniel Laidlaw of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers was awarded a Victoria Cross at Loos for bravery as a piper.
The gas used as Loos meant that British soldiers had to go over in their gas masks – at this stage the P Helmet, a hood like device seen being worn in this image. On parts of the British front gas blew back on the attacking troops, causing more casualties to British units than the enemy.
Gas was a weapon that will be forever associated with the Great War. First used at Ypres in April 1915, it caused many casualties among the front line troops. But gas did not just linger on the battlefield – it drifted. And in drifting it moved into areas that were used to bring up supplies and ammunition, and as the war progressed, these areas became often as much targeted as the front line.
As the majority of transport in every army during WW1 was horse or mule transport, then these animals became as much affected by the gas as their human masters. Just as gas masks were developed for the troops, masks were equally introduced for horses; this image shows a British soldier wearing a Small Box Respirator, introduced in 1916, checking the gas masks of two horses pulling a service wagon. Gas warfare was a bad enough experience for humans; one can only wonder at the experience the horses went through when poison gas enveloped the battlefield.
By 1916 the French Army was defending nearly two thirds of the Western Front and in many respects of all the combatant nations had reacted mostly quickly to the conditions of trench warfare; they were the first to adapt their conspicuous uniforms to wartime conditions with the implementation of Bleu Horizon, the first to introduce steel helmets with the Adrian helmet and during the winter of 1914/15 widely introduced trench weapons and hand grenades.
This image shows a typical French front line trench in 1916. All the men wear Bleu Horizon tunics and Adrian helmets. The image is not likely to have been taken in the front line as the men are too exposed, but it looks like a typical sap used in forward positions. The man holding up what looks like a rolling pin is in fact holding a Barbele Grenade that was used to cut paths in barbed wire defences. All the men are wearing French M2 Gas Masks; some 29 million of these were produced and could give five hours protection against phosgene gas. The man with the canister on his back is holding and using a Vermorel Sprayer; this was a pre-war piece of agricultural spayer used to dispense a solution that would help disperse gas. Both sides used them during the war.