War with Poisonous Gases
The Gap at Ypres Made by German Chlorine Vapor Bombs
Reports by the Official "Eyewitness"
Dr. J. S. Haldane, F. R. S
[The New York Times/Current History, June 1915]
Dr. John Scott Haldane, F. R. S., who has conducted the investigation for the British War Office, is a brother of Lord Haldane. He is a graduate in medicine of Edinburgh University and an M. A. of Oxford and an LL. D. of Birmingham. For many years he has been engaged in scientific investigation, and has contributed largely to the elucidation of the causes of death in colliery and mine explosions. He is the author of a work on the physiology of respiration and air analysis. Professor Baker, F. R. S., who is carrying out chemical investigations into the nature of the gases, is Professor of Chemistry in the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London. He was a Scholar in Natural Science at Balliol. He has conducted important experiments into the nature of gases. Sir Wilmot Herringham, M. D. Oxon., is a physician to St. Bartholomew's Hospital and Vice Chancellor of the London University. Lieutenant McNee, M. B., M. Ch. Glasgow, a Carnegie Research Fellow, is assistant to the Professor of Pathology in Glasgow University and has conducted many investigations of an important character in pathology and chemical pathology.
British Expeditionary Force,
April 27, 1915.
To Earl Kitchener, Secretary of State for War.
My Lord: I have the honor to report that, as requested by you yesterday morning, I proceeded to France to investigate the nature and effects of the asphyxiating gas employed in the recent fighting by the German troops. After reporting myself at General Headquarters I proceeded to Bailleul with Sir Wilmot Herringham, Consulting Physician to the British Force, and examined with him several men from Canadian battalions who were at the No. 2 Casualty Clearing Station, suffering from the effects of the gas.
These men were lying struggling for breath and blue in the face. On examining the blood with the spectroscope and by other means, I ascertained that the blueness was not due to the presence of any abnormal pigment. There was nothing to account for the blueness (cyanosis) and struggle for air but the one fact that they were suffering from acute bronchitis, such as is caused by inhalation of an irritant gas. Their statements were that when in the trenches they had been overwhelmed by an irritant gas produced in front of the German trenches and carried toward them by a gentle breeze.
One of them died shortly after our arrival. A post-mortem examination was conducted in our presence by Lieutenant McNee, a pathologist by profession, of Glasgow University. The examination showed that death was due to acute bronchitis and its secondary effects. There was no doubt that the bronchitis and accompanying slow asphyxiation were due to the irritant gas.
Lieutenant McNee had also examined yesterday the body of a Canadian Sergeant, who had died in the clearing station from the effects of the gas. In this case, also, very acute bronchitis and oedema of the lungs caused death by asphyxiation.
A deposition by Captain Bertram, Eighth Canadian Battalion, was carefully taken down by Lieutenant McNee. Captain Bertram was then in the clearing station, suffering from the effects of the gas and from a wound. From a support trench, about 600 yards from the German lines, he had observed the gas. He saw, first of all, a white smoke arising from the German trenches to a height of about three feet. Then in front of the white smoke appeared a greenish cloud, which drifted along the ground to our trenches, not rising more than about seven feet from the ground when it reached our first trenches. Men in these trenches were obliged to leave, and a number of them were killed by the effects of the gas. We made a counterattack about fifteen minutes after the gas came over, and saw twenty-four men lying dead from the effects of the gas on a small stretch of road leading from the advanced trenches to the supports. He was himself much affected by the gas still present, and felt as if he could not breathe.
The symptoms and the other facts so far ascertained point to the use by the German troops of chlorine or bromine for purposes of asphyxiation.
There are also facts pointing to the use in German shells of other irritant substances, though in some cases at least these agents are not of the same brutally barbarous character as the gas used in the attack on the Canadians. The effects are not those of any of the ordinary products of combustion of explosives. On this point the symptoms described left not the slightest doubt in my mind.
Professor H. B. Baker, F. R. S., who accompanied me, is making further inquiries from the chemical side.
I am, my Lord, your obedient servant,
J. S. HALDANE.
The following announcement was issued by the British War Office on April 29, 1915:
Thanks to the magnificent response already made to the appeal in the press for respirators for the troops, the War Office is in a position to announce that no further respirators need be made.
THE "EYEWITNESS" STORY
The following descriptive account was communicated by the British Official Eyewitness present with General Headquarters, supplementing his continuous narrative of the movements of the British force and the French armies in immediate touch with it:
April 27, 1915.
Since the last summary there has been a sudden development in the situation on our front, and very heavy fighting has taken place to the north and northeast of Ypres, which can be said to have assumed the importance of a second battle for that town. With the aid of a method of warfare up to now never employed by nations sufficiently civilized to consider themselves bound by international agreements solemnly ratified by themselves, and favored by the atmospheric conditions, the Germans have put into effect an attack which they had evidently contemplated and prepared for some time.
Before the battle began our line in this quarter ran from the cross-roads at Broodseinde, east of Zonnebeke on the Ypres-Moorslede Road to the cross-roads half a mile north of St. Julien, on the Ypres-Poelcapelle Road, roughly following the crest of what is known as the Grafenstafel Ridge. The French prolonged the line west of the Ypres-Poelcapelle Road, whence their trenches ran around the north of Langemarck to Steenstraate on the Yperlee Canal. The area covered by the initial attack is that between the canal and the Ypres-Poelcapelle Road, though it was afterward extended to the west of the canal and to the east of the road.
An effort on the part of the Germans in this direction was not unexpected, since movements of troops and transport behind their front line had been detected for some days. Its peculiar and novel nature, however, was a surprise which was largely responsible for the measure of success achieved. Taking advantage of the fact that at this season of the year the wind not infrequently blows from the north, they secretly brought up apparatus for emitting asphyxiating vapor or gas, and distributed it along the section of their front line opposite that of our allies, west of Langemarck, which faced almost due north. Their plan was to make a sudden onslaught southwestward, which, if successful, might enable them to gain the crossings on the canal south of Bixschoote and place them well behind the British left in a position to threaten Ypres.
The attack was originally fixed for Tuesday, the 20th, but since all chances of success depended on the action of the asphyxiating vapor it was postponed, the weather being unfavorable. On Thursday, the 22d, the wind blew steadily from the north, and that afternoon, all being ready, the Germans put their plan into execution. Since then events have moved so rapidly and the situation has moved so frequently that it is difficult to give a consecutive and clear story of what happened, but the following account represents as nearly as can be the general course of events. The details of the gas apparatus employed by them are given separately, as also those of the asphyxiating grenades, bombs, and shells of which they have been throwing hundreds.
At some time between 4 and 5 P.M. the Germans started operations by releasing gases with the result that a cloud of poisonous vapor rolled swiftly before the wind from their trenches toward those of the French west of Langemarck, held by a portion of the French Colonial Division. Allowing sufficient time for the fumes to take full effect on the troops facing them, the Germans charged forward over the practically unresisting enemy in their immediate front, and, penetrating through the gap thus created, pressed on silently and swiftly to the south and west. By their sudden irruption they were able to overrun and surprise a large proportion of the French troops billeted behind the front line in this area and to bring some of the French guns as well as our own under a hot rifle fire at close range.
The first intimation that all was not well to the north was conveyed to our troops holding the left of the British line between 5 and 6 P.M. by the withdrawal of some of the French Colonials and the sight of the wall of vapor following them. Our flank being thus exposed the troops were ordered to retire on St. Julien, with their left parallel to but to the west of the highroad. The splendid resistance of these troops, who saved the situation, has already been mentioned by the Commander in Chief.
Meanwhile, apparently waiting till their infantry had penetrated well behind the Allies line, the Germans had opened a hot artillery fire upon the various tactical points to the north of Ypres, the bombardment being carried out with ordinary high-explosive shell and shrapnel of various calibres and also with projectiles containing asphyxiating gas. About this period our men in reserve near Ypres, seeing the shells bursting, had gathered in groups, discussing the situation and questioning some scattered bodies of Turcos who had appeared; suddenly a staff officer rode up shouting "Stand to your arms," and in a few minutes the troops had fallen in and were marching northward to the scene of the fight.
Nothing more impressive can be imagined than the sight of our men falling in quietly in perfect order on their alarm posts amid the scene of wild confusion caused by the panic-stricken refugees who swarmed along the roads.
In the meantime, to the north and northeast of the town, a confused fight was taking place, which gave proof not only of great gallantry and steadiness on the part of the troops referred to above, but of remarkable presence of mind on the part of their leaders. Behind the wall of vapor, which had swept across fields, through woods, and over hedgerows, came the German firing line, the men's mouths and noses, it is stated, protected by pads soaked in a solution of bicarbonate of soda. Closely following them again came the supports. These troops, hurrying forward with their formation somewhat broken up by the obstacles encountered in their path, looked like a huge mob bearing down upon the town. A battery of 4.7-inch guns a little beyond the left of our line was surprised and overwhelmed by them in a moment. Further to the rear and in a more easterly direction were several field batteries, and before they could come into action the Germans were within a few hundred yards. Not a gun, however, was lost.
One battery, taken in flank, swung around, fired on the enemy at point-blank range, and checked the rush. Another opened fire with the guns pointing in almost opposite directions, the enemy being on three sides of them. It was under the very heavy cannonade opened about this time by the Germans, and threatened by the advance of vastly superior numbers, that our infantry on our left steadily, and without any sign of confusion, slowly retired to St. Julien, fighting every step.
Help was not long in arriving, for some of our reserves near Ypres had stood to arms as soon as they were aware of the fact that the French line had been forced, and the officers on their own initiative, without waiting for orders, led them forward to meet the advancing enemy, who, by this time, were barely two miles from the town. These battalions attacked the Germans with the bayonet, and then ensued a melee, in which our men more than held their own, both sides losing very heavily.
One German battalion seems to have been especially severely handled, the Colonel being captured among several other prisoners. Other reinforcements were thrown in as they came up, and, when night fell, the fighting continued by moonlight, our troops driving back the enemy by repeated bayonet charges, in the course of which our heavy guns were recaptured.
By then the situation was somewhat restored in the area immediately north of Ypres. Further to the west, however, the enemy had forced their way over the canal, occupying Steenstraate and the crossing at Het Sast, about three-quarters of a mile south of the former place, and had established themselves at various points on the west bank. All night long the shelling continued, and about 1:30 A.M. two heavy attacks were made on our line in the neighborhood of Broodseinde, east of Zonnebeke. These were both repulsed. The bombardment of Ypres itself and its neighborhood had by now redoubled in intensity and a part of the town was in flames.
In the early morning of Friday, the 23d, we delivered a strong counter-attack northward in co-operation with the French. Our advance progressed for some little distance, reaching the edge of the wood about half a mile west of St. Julien and penetrating it. Here our men got into the Germans with the bayonet, and the latter suffered heavily. The losses were also severe on our side, for the advance had to be carried out across the open. But in spite of this nothing could exceed the dash with which it was conducted. One man and his case is typical of the spirit shown by the troops who had had his rifle smashed by a bullet, continued to fight with an intrenching tool. Even many of the wounded made their way out of the fight with some article of German equipment as a memento.
About 11 A.M., not being able to progress further, our troops dug themselves in, the line then running from St. Julien practically due west for about a mile, whence it curved southwestward before turning north to the canal near Boesinghe. Broadly speaking, on the section of the front then occupied by us the result of the operations had been to remove to some extent the wedge which the Germans had driven into the allied line, and the immediate danger was over. During the afternoon our counter-attack made further progress south of Pilkem, thus straightening the line still more. Along the canal the fighting raged fiercely, our allies making some progress here and there. During the night, however, the Germans captured Lizerne, a village on the main road from Ypres to Steenstraate.
When the morning of the 24th came the situation remained much the same, but the enemy, who had thrown several bridges across the canal, continued to gain ground to the west. On our front the Germans, under cover of their gas, made a further attack between 3 and 4 A.M. to the east of St. Julien and forced 'back a portion of our line. Nothing else in particular occurred until about midday, when large bodies of the enemy were seen advancing down the Ypres-Poelcapelle road toward St. Julien. Soon after a very strong attack developed against that village and the section of the line east of it. Under the pressure of these fresh masses our troops were compelled to fall back, contesting every inch of ground and making repeated counter-attacks; but until late at night a gallant handful, some 200 to 300 strong, held out in St. Julien. During the night the line was re-established north of the hamlet of Fortuin, about 700 yards further to the rear. All this time the fighting along the canal continued, the enemy forcing their way across near Boesinghe, and holding Het Sast, Steenstraate, and Lizerne strongly. The French counter-attacked in the afternoon, captured fifty prisoners, and made some further progress toward Pilkem. The Germans, however, were still holding the west bank firmly, although the Belgian artillery had broken the bridge behind them at Steenstraate.
On the morning of Sunday, the fourth day of the battle, we made a strong counter-attack on St. Julien, which gained some ground but was checked in front of the village. To the west of it we reached a point a few hundred yards south of the wood which had been the objective on the 23d and which we had had to relinquish subsequently. In the afternoon the Germans made repeated assaults in great strength on our line near Broodseinde. These were backed up by a tremendous artillery bombardment and the throwing of asphyxiating bombs; but all were beaten off with great slaughter to the enemy, and forty-five prisoners fell into our hands. When night came the situation remained unchanged.
This determined offensive on the part of the enemy, although it has menaced Ypres itself, has not so far the appearance of a great effort to break through the line and capture the Channel ports, such as that made in October. Its initial success was gained by the surprise rendered possible by the use of a device which Germany pledged herself not to employ. The only result upon our troops has been to fill them with an even greater determination to punish the enemy and to make him pay tenfold for every act of "frightfulness" he has perpetrated. Along the rest of the British front nothing of special importance has occurred.
WHAT THE GERMANS SAY
The comments of the German newspapers on the advance of the imperial army north of Ypres readily admitted and justified the use of asphyxiating gases. The leading Prussian military organ, the Kreuz Zeitung, said:
The moral success of our victory is quite upon a level with its strategic value. It has again been proved that in the west also we are at any time in a position to take the offensive, and that, notwithstanding their most violent efforts, it is impossible for the English and the French to throw back or to break through our battle line.
In another article the Kreuz Zeitung said:
When the French report says that we used a large number of asphyxiating bombs, our enemies may infer from this that they always are making a mistake when by their behavior they cause us to have recourse to new technical weapons.
Dealing with the same subject in a leading article, the Frankfurter Zeitung declared:
It is quite possible that our bombs and shells made it impossible for the enemy to remain in his trenches and artillery positions, and it is even probable that missiles which emit poisonous gases have actually been used by us, since the German leaders have made it plain that, as an answer to the treacherous missiles which have been used by the English and the French for many weeks past, we, too, shall employ gas bombs or whatever they are called. The German leaders pointed out that considerably more effective materials were to be expected from German chemistry, and they were right.
But, however destructive these bombs and shells may have been, do the English and the other people think that it makes a serious difference whether hundreds of guns and howitzers throw hundreds of thousands of shells on a single tiny spot in order to destroy and break to atoms everything living there, and to make the German trenches into a terrible hell as was the case at Neuve Chapelle, or whether we throw a few shells which spread death in the air? These shells are not more deadly than the poison of English explosives, but they take effect over a wider area, produce a rapid end, and spare the torn bodies the tortures and pains of death.
The Frankfurter Zeitung then compared the results achieved as follows:
The shells of Neuve Chapelle cost the Germans a trench and a village, but on the edge of the ruin the German ring remained firm and strong. How was it at Ypres? The enemy was thrown back on a front of more than five and a half miles. Along this whole front we gained two miles. These figures would signify little in comparison with the distance to the sea, but our next goal is Ypres, and on the north we are now only a few kilometers from this stronghold.
The Cologne Gazette referred to Sir John French's reports as follows:
It is delightful to read the complaints about the use of shells containing asphyxiating gases. This sounds particularly well out of the mouth of the Commander in Chief of a nation which for centuries past has trodden every provision of international law under foot.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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