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

By Albert Palazzo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Introduction and Reaction

As regards the gas question. I cannot see where the difficulty lies in deciding! . . . with the very extensive gas and smoke arrangements which have been prepared, decisive results are almost certain to be obtained. -- Douglas Haig


The Arrival of Gas

In the early evening of 22 April 1915, at the Battle of 2nd Ypres, a new age in warfare made its debut. 1 At 5:00 P.M. German pioneers opened the valves on their cylinders and released deadly chlorine gas into the atmosphere. For five minutes the concentrated gas poured forth, spread into a cloud of yellowish green haze, and drifted toward the 87th Territorial and 45th Algerian Divisions (the French troops that guarded the northern face of the Ypres Salient). The French soldiers, engulfed by asphyxiating vapor, broke and ran, some not stopping for over five miles. The men of the 1st Canadian Division, stationed to the right of the French, quickly surmised that something was up. The increase in the enemy's bombardment and the rattle of musketry suggested a German attack, but it was the fleeing Algerians, ashen purple of face, gasping for breath, and reeking of chlorine, that signaled something unusual and terrifying had occurred. 2

The Allied position rapidly became grave. The Germans had blasted a hole in the Allied lines and their advance threatened to trap the defenders of the salient. The Germans had seemingly restored a mobility that had not been seen since the war's opening campaign. The Allied position was saved by only the narrowest of margins. The Canadians extended and echeloned their left to the southwest, while local reserves moved up to close the gap created by the French rout. The Germans had not anticipated the scale of the superiority created by their innovation. They failed to allocate strategic reserves for the attack, and although there would be further discharges of gas and additional assaults they had spent the impetus of the offensive. 2nd Ypres continued until nearly the end of May, as the Germans tried to renew their drive and the Allies attempted to regain lost ground, but combat had once again become a positional struggle. The Germans had demonstrated the ability

-41-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Tables ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Gas Abbreviations xiii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter I - Confronting the Western Front 6
  • Chapter 2 - Introduction and Reaction 41
  • Chapter 3 - Experimentation 78
  • Chapter 4 - Institutionalization 111
  • Chapter 5 - March to Victory 154
  • Conclusion 190
  • Notes 201
  • Index 233
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