Updated: Jul 21
#58 Science in History
22nd April 1915
Today in 1915, chlorine was first used on the battlefield.
The gas attack at Ypres in 1915 was a devastating event that marked the first time a chemical weapon was used in warfare. It took place during the First World War, on April 22, 1915, near the Belgian city of Ypres. The attack was carried out by the German army and involved the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon.
The gas and delivery system used in the attack was developed by Fritz Haber, a German chemist working for the German army. Haber had been researching the use of poisonous gases as weapons for some time, and he believed that the use of gas could be a powerful tool in warfare. He developed a method for producing chlorine gas on a large scale, which allowed the German army to use it in the attack at Ypres.
“The effect of the gas was terrifying. Men clutched their chests, coughing and struggling for breath, and many fell and died within a few minutes." - Private William Raine, British soldier who survived the gas attack.
The consequences of the gas attack were devastating. The German commander, General Fritz von Below, gave the order to release the gas from canisters and it was carried by the wind towards the Allied trenches. The dense, yellow-green gas caused severe respiratory problems, including suffocation, and many soldiers died within minutes of inhaling it. The gas also caused blindness and other debilitating effects, and those who survived often suffered long-term health problems.
"This new weapon has had an enormous effect. The men are absolutely panic-stricken when they see the gas clouds coming and they do not have sufficient protection." - General Fritz von Below.
The use of gas in warfare was widely condemned by the international community, and there was an outcry against the German army for their use of this new weapon. The British government immediately issued a protest against the use of gas, and the French government condemned it as a violation of international law. The United States also condemned the use of gas, and President Woodrow Wilson called for an end to the use of all chemical weapons in warfare.
Both sides continued to develop and use chemical weapons, such as phosgene and mustard gas, throughout the duration of World War I. Mustard gas, first used by the Germans in 1917, caused severe skin burns, blindness, and respiratory damage, and it became one of the most feared chemical weapons of the war.