Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War I

By Albert Palazzo | Go to book overview

Introduction

Gas achieved but local success, nothing decisive; it made war uncomfortable, to no purpose. - James Edmonds If the war had gone on until 1919 you would have won by gas alone. - Fritz Haber

Since its appearance in World War I, chemical warfare has been marked by controversy. The comments of Brig. Gen. James Edmonds, the general editor of Britain's official history of the war, and those of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize-winning German chemist and father of gas warfare, suggest the widely diverging conclusions that knowledgeable people could come to on the efficacy of gas as a weapon. While the true assessment undoubtedly lies somewhere in between Edmonds's and Haber's extreme opinions, both men advanced conclusions that are legitimate when examined from their culturally different viewpoints. Haber, a scientist and the product of modernist Germany, saw gas as an independent device that could help transform war into an activity dominated by technology; Edmonds, an officer and the product of a British army that valued tradition and moral values, saw gas as a weapon that would violate the primacy of man in battle.

The distance between the opinions of Haber and Edmonds is so great that it demands further investigation into just how significant gas was in World War I. Edmonds was responsible for writing many of Britain's official histories of the western front and had access to both the documents on the conflict and the officers who experienced chemical warfare firsthand. Haber was not only a leading promoter of gas but helped direct the organization of Germany's chemical warfare efforts at all levels. Both individuals had the resources and experience to make a sound evaluation of the value of gas, yet they came to opposite conclusions. It would be easy to dismiss their divergent judgments on any number of grounds. Prostrate Germany, rather than admitting to the nature of its defeat, might seek comfort in the belief that it had lost due to the enemy's superior technology. Conversely, victorious Britain might prefer to assign Germany's loss to the superior British force of arms and will. For historians it has evidently been simpler to accept Ed

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