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The Painful Lessons of Chemical Warfare: Gas, Mud, and Blood at Ypres

Article excerpt

It burned my throat, caused pains in my chest and made breathing all but impossible. I spat blood and suffered dizziness. We all thought that we were lost.--French soldier, 1915 (1)

A FORGOTTEN battlefield with significant lessons for the future, Ypres reminds us of one of the greatest fears in modern war--the use of chemical weapons. On 22 April 1915, the German Army introduced poison gas at Ypres, France, in an effort to break the stalemate across Flanders. With nearly 13,000 gas-related casualties, Ypres marked the first successful demonstration of the incapacitating effects of poison gas against entrenched soldiers. Although a previous attempt took place in February that same year at the Battle of Bolimov, Russia, the gas did not have the desired effect because low temperatures caused the poisonous vapors to freeze and drop to the ground. (2)

Even though the use of gas was successful at Ypres, it still posed several dilemmas for commanders. Reviewing literature and primary sources, four significant problems emerge: the human reaction to unfamiliar and terrifying weapons; the management of chemical casualties; considerations for multinational forces; and short-notice logistics requirements. Based on the outcomes at Ypres, analysts can hypothesize on how these themes might affect future conflicts. (3)

Before 1915, armies relied on maneuver warfare to decide engagements. Less than a year later, maneuver warfare had become trench warfare, a morass of mud and blood on an unprecedented scale. Belligerents measured success in single yards of churned-up earth. Although the Battles of Verdun and the Somme soon dwarfed the casualty figures in the Flanders salient, the dilemma at Ypres provided an ominous premonition for future campaigns. (4)

Poison gas, as a relatively new weapon, significantly affected the psyche of the Allies, especially considering their state of unpreparedness for chemical warfare. From an individual's perspective, poison gas only multiplied the horrors of trench warfare. (5)

On the collective level, poison gas created confusion and pandemonium. Initially, the Allies' reaction to gas warfare was the same as their opponents--surprise. The French had experimented with gas grenades in 1914 but were not impressed by their lackluster performance and discontinued their use. British leaders, who did not believe gas weapons could be used effectively, reassured themselves that the Germans would abide by the 1907 Hague Convention statutes, which prohibited the use of poison or poisonous weapons. German commanders, also suspicious of the capabilities of gas, orchestrated Ypres as more of a weapon-testing ground than a truly decisive engagement. To everyone's surprise, the gas attack was so devastating and unexpected that it created a gap over 4 miles wide in the Allied lines. (6)

When news of the attack reached the Allies, public outrage was pervasive. The Allies had received warnings from German prisoners attesting to the impending attacks, but, incredibly, the Allies chose to ignore them. As a result of Allied unpreparedness, significant second- and third-order effects appeared in the form of combatant casualties. (7)

Ypres not only demonstrated a willingness of cultured nations to use chemical weapons, it magnified the challenges faced by medical units who had to treat a new type of patient--the chemical casualty. In 1915, the average soldier never envisioned the types of casualties that Ypres produced. Existing gas masks and other chemical equipment did not provide sufficient protection. Neither army had the necessary knowledge to adequately treat such casualties. The combination of the medical system's inability to counteract the effects of chemical poisoning and its lack of urgency to produce adequate protective devices only aggravated existing conditions and increased the likelihood of high numbers of chemical casualties. Archives containing World War I primary-source literature recount the hundreds of lingering and slow deaths that were common to the most-heavily contaminated individuals. …