Monday, 6 May 2013
Gas! Gas! Gas!
It feels good to be back to working with this column again. Once more, I cannot promise a regularity or frequency of posts at the moment due to my current schedule, but I will try to do the best I can to provide new content as often as I am able. To that end, I’m cheating a little with today’s essay as it is pulled directly from new content I generated for the print version of “If Ye Break Faith.” I don’t want to do this too often as I don’t want to give too much away, but I figured a sample chapter might whet some appetite. I have not had much time to approach publishers with regards handling this work, and it isn’t quite complete yet; but I feel very close. Good news from bad is that I have received first refusal from a prospective agent and am free now to shop the manuscript to whomever I would want to approach.
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I tend to ask, when stuck for subject matter, a rather quick-fire question: “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the First World War?” Surprisingly, no matter how many times I’ve posed that question to friends and relations, only one has answered “Poison gas; and its brutality.”
I think we have developed a cultural blind spot in the modern age to how widely this weapon was used during the war, have preconceived notions of its effectiveness and particular to those of us with a cultural bias towards the Western Allies most will decry the nastiness of the Germans for having used it first; with our subjectivity blind to who actually made the most prolific use of the various gasses developed in the war; Great Britain.
The Hague Convention, an 1899 conference and compromise between major European powers on the laws and conduct of war had resolved that the use of shells with the purpose of delivering asphyxiating gasses was to be prohibited. Non-lethal gasses known as ‘lachrymatory’ or more commonly referred to as ‘tear gas’ was permitted by the Convention as it was seen as an aide to civil unrest.
It is supposed that the Germans, who first used chlorine against French Colonial troops on the 22nd of April 1915 in the opening phase of the 2nd Battle of Ypres, were attempting to side-step the Convention as they released this deadly gas via cylinders placed along their front lines as opposed to using artillery shells as a method of delivery.
As a surprise weapon against unprepared troops it was decidedly effective, causing the two French divisions to retire in panic. This left a gap nearly four miles wide into the left edge of the salient and it was only a German failure to exploit this gain by having reserves close to hand to push through this breach that prevented a decisive breakthrough. Two days later, the 24th, the Germans renewed their attack, this time against the Canadian Division which held the centre position at Ypres. However in the intervening days, a simple expedient of using cloth soaked in water or urine to dilute the gas had already been set down as practice for the defenders. This may destroy some notions that the use of such methods was a spontaneous measure enacted at the onset of the assault that morning. The Canadian Division was able to hold their position and when reinforced on the left by British and Indian units were able to refuse the Germans any considerable gains.
Although the Western Allies protested this abuse of the Convention, a race was begun involving both sides to produce more effective gasses and means of delivery. The first use of gas by the British was at their offensive at Loos on 25th September of the same year. They too used chlorine dissipated via cylinder but a shift in wind direction made this deployment very ineffective. (Keegan 201)
While both sides attempted to outdo each other in the development of chemical weapons, they each in turn made progress in personal protective measures. At its best, this was a respiratory device which used filters mainly of activated charcoal to negate the poison. Colloquially these respirators became known as we still now call them- gas masks.
The very first use of asphyxiating gas was by far the most successful, but relied mainly on the shock and surprise of the new weapon rather than the casualties it caused. “The chlorine gas originally used was undeniably cruel, but no worse than the frequent effect of shell or bayonet...statistics proved it the least inhumane of modern weapons.” (Liddell Hart, 145) It is estimated that for the British, from official war records, gas was an accountable cause of death for 1.2 per cent of the total loss of life in the war. This seems to waylay the overt idea of its lethal effectiveness, but let’s not forget that in such a war, a single percentage of fatalities is indicative of nearly 6 000 lives. It is generally supposed that the use of chemical weapons on the Eastern Front was much more deadly, but poor records kept by pre-Revolution Russia and the confusion of the events for that country in 1917 have made accurate assessments difficult to determine.
Despite this fact, each major offensive mounted by either side for the remainder of the war was predicated with the use of gas in the ‘Fire Plan’ (the elaborate artillery preparation and bombardment prior to advancing the infantry.) This should be taken into account that no one side which had access to chemical weapons and the means to use them desisted; even the Canadian Expeditionary Force. We may think ourselves higher minded today but the language of our policy on Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence (NBCD) should be scrutinised. The policy states that Canada would never initiate an NBC attack. Nothing is stated on retaliatory measures and it would be a bit naive if we allow ourselves to believe our nation currently has not the means to do so. Something to think about indeed.
Two reasons dictated the perseverance of chemical weapons in the First World War. The first was that neither side wished to cede a technical advantage, no matter how marginal. The second may not be readily apparent. Forcing one’s opponent to wear and operate in protective respiratory equipment by use of gas has a tremendous effect on their capabilities. Gas masks, in order to work well have to be restrictive as to not allow any leak of poison. The wearing of such devices dramatically reduces visibility and hearing and makes vocal communication incredibly difficult. Even modern variants are terribly uncomfortable things to wear and work in.
It seems odd but we owe it to his experience of having being gassed in the First War which made Hitler forbid the offensive use of poison gas by his armies in the Second. Perversely, though, it was also why gas was used as a means to enact his “Final Solution”, his government’s design for the eradication of European Jews and other groups the National Socialists deemed undesirable and therefore dispensable. On the other hand, it should be taken into account that Churchill was fully prepared to use the incredibly lethal type of gas known as ‘nerve gas’ (where deadly exposure could occur with as little as a few micrograms breathed in or absorbed through the skin) in the event of German landings on British beaches.
Today, the present fear of use of biological or chemical weapons, what we now term “Weapons of Mass Destruction” dictates that the respirator and other protective clothing be a constant part of a soldier’s combat equipment. Such is the legacy of terror of these weapons that the respirator is given priority over all other equipment. A soldier in the field today may from time to time be without a weapon depending on tactical situation or not wearing their load-bearing equipment but they will never be without the pouch containing their gas mask.