Unprovoked and Unchivalrous

 The following is only for those who truly want to read this… Good luck… (Endnotes and annotated bibliography included!) Fair warning, analytical writing has always been a weak point with me…

Unprovoked and Unchivalrous:

How the German decision to use chlorine gas at the Second Battle of Ypres came to pass and said decision’s unforseen consequences.

Throughout the past few decades, biochemical warfare has taken a forefront in the news.  Attacks, such as the anthrax attacks, as well as the fear of a terrorist group poisoning or infecting an entire city have led to increased interest in the subject.  The dawn of the age of terrorism was not, however, the first time that biochemical warfare was a relevant subject among noncombatants.  Although not the first use of a chemical in the arena of war, The Second Battle of Ypres marks the first government sanctioned use of a lethal chemical as a means of disabling adversaries. [1] [2] The choice by Germany to use chlorine gas at Ypres, a choice influenced by a number of factors, such as the need for an actual test of chlorine [3] as a viable chemical weapon, had many negative repercussions including, but not limited to, the unfair labeling of Germany as an unfaithful country willing to break treaties at first notice and accusations from the Allies of engaging in unfair and unchivalrous warfare, a concern echoed by German military leaders as well.

The Second Battle of Ypres, a collection of four smaller engagements, took place in the spring of 1915.[4]  Ypres, a town in western Belgium, was also the site of two other battles, appropriately named the First Battle of Ypres and the Third Battle of Ypres. [5] The Third Battle of Ypres, also called the Battle of Passchendaele, is the most well know of the three battles [6] that together encompass the four-year siege of Ypres. [7]

Together, causalities from the three battles of Ypres most likely exceeded a million. [8] Even with the large number of casualties on both sides, the majority of the time, whichever side possessed an advantage, either the Germans or the Allies, did not exploit their advantage. [9] This inability to maintain the upper hand led to the repeating skirmishes and long-term siege of Ypres. [10]

The Second Battle of Ypres would be more easily forgotten if not for the critical fact that it is the first major use of a deadly biological or chemical agent in modern warfare. [11]  At the beginning of the battle, the afternoon of April 22, 1915 [12], nearly 150 tons of chlorine gas were released from underground capsules that the Germans had placed earlier that month (from April 5th until April 11th). [13] The following monstrosity, described by Anthony Hossack in a collection of first hand accounts, is chilling: [14]

As we gazed in the direction of the bombardment, where our line joined the French, six miles away, we could see in the failing light the flash of shrapnel with here and there the light of a rocket.  But more curious than anything was a low cloud of yellow-grey smoke or vapour, and underlying everything, a dull confused murmuring.

This sense of confusion, found in many of the first hand accounts, is very clearly expressed and remarked on in post-war analysis of the event.[15] [16] An article published in the Armed Forces Chemical Journal (1960), written by Capt. Edward F. Fitzgerald (United States Marine Corps), attributes the 1500 causalities to “surprise, unpreparedness and lack of gas discipline among the troops.” [17]

The Allies, however, had reason to be surprised.  According to L. F. Haber, son of Fritz Haber, the German chemist behind their use of gases in warfare, the Allies took a very different approach to chemical warfare than the Germans. [18]  “The British confined themselves to experiments.  The French relied on their pre-war work on tear gases, extended it and had every intention of using these materials in the first half of 1915.” [19] The Germans, however, in late 1914, placed Fritz Haber in charge of developing a lethal gas and an efficient delivery method. [20] [21] [22] After choosing chlorine, the Germans needed a large-scale opportunity to demonstrate and test the appropriateness of chlorine gas as a weapon. [23]

In order to prepare for the grand experiment, a number of factors had to be taken into consideration.  Among these, was the matter of the container.  There were two options, to fashion a projectile filled with chlorine that could be shot towards enemies or pressurized canisters that would release chlorine at the appointed time. [24] The latter was chosen for a number of reasons.  First, there was a rather inconvenient shortage of artillery shells for chlorine storage. [25] In addition to that, the latter option “offered a number of potential advantages: chlorine released directly from cylinders would blanket a far larger area than could be achieved with projectiles, and the gas would dissipate rapidly, allowing the affected areas to be occupied by friendly troops.” [26]

After hearing these extremely convincing arguments in January of 1915, General Erich von Falkenhayn selected Ypres as the perfect locale for a large-scale test of the effectiveness of chlorine gas. [27] Of course, as Haber’s preparatory team later discovered, there could not have been a more inconvenient place to test a new, air-based weapon. [28] The winds of Ypres were extremely unpredictable, a factor that had repercussions throughout Haber’s attempts to finalize the details of the gas attack. [29]

The Germans took great pains to ensure the success of their new weapon, after the initial hiccup of choosing a coastal town with unpredictable weather and winds, of course. [30] Fritz Haber, the chemist behind the secret weapon, was sent to Ypres in early February 1915 with a team of scientist-soldiers to direct the installation of the gas canisters. [31] Upon arrival, the team under Haber changed the planned location of the gas canisters multiple times. [32] Each time, it was caused by the realization of yet another uncontrollable facet of the location.  As the season changed from winter to spring, the wind patterns changed and the planned location of the canisters changed as well, with soldiers working through the night in an attempt to keep the Allies in the dark. [33] [34] Haber and the Germans worked for perfection on an extreme level, wanting the grand unveiling of their new, debilitating weapon to be as exciting as the controversy its use would bring.

The controversy in question was found on both the German and Allied sides, and is still being debated in the modern era. [35] In 1915, however, the main point of the contemporaneous heated discussions concerned the fact that Germany had deliberately broken a treaty.  Germany’s use of chlorine, a definite chemical agent, was in clear violation of the agreements signed at the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and even though many of the commanders in the German army disagreed with its use, the order was still given in approval because it was hailed as a miracle weapon that could end the war with minimal bloodshed for Germany. [36]

When approached to host the first test of chlorine gas, of all the German Army commanders, only one, Duke Albrecht of Württemberg, agreed, [37] a clear sign that the majority of the decision makers in the army disagreed with the gas’s use.  Not only that, but General Erich von Falkenhayn when presented with Haber’s arguments in support of gas use, expressed his feelings on the subject, calling it “unchivalrous.” [38] In an age when chivalry and morality were still present on the battlefield, this was tantamount to expressing complete disgust with the amoral actions [39] advocated by Fritz Haber.

Haber countered Falkenhayen and others’ uncertainty [40] with reassurances that enforced Falkenhayen’s hopes that the use of gas “would lead to a decisive solution in the West.” [41] Other officers reconciled themselves with the use of chlorine by asserting that the British “were the most resolute and dangerous opponents.” [42] The following excerpt, from the memoirs of Infantry General Berthold von Deimling, clearly illustrates the dichotomy of fair warfare and quick warfare.

I must confess that the commission for poisoning the enemy, just as one poisons rats, struck me as it must any straightforward soldier: it was repulsive to me.  If, however, the poison gas were to result in the fall of Ypres, we would win a victory that might decide the entire campaign.  In view of this worthy goal, all personal reservations had to be silent.  So onward, do what must be done! War is necessity and knows no exception.  [43]

Regardless of the dissent within the German troops, the backlash was still fierce and unforgiving with Sir John French, general of the British forces, claiming it as a “cynical and barbarous disregard of the well-known usages of civilized war” in a letter to Secretary of State for War, and civilian, Lord Kitchener. [44] When news broke across Europe that Germany possessed, and was willing to use, a lethal gas, Germany was accused of breaking the treaties that had been signed at the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907.  The Hague Convention of 1899 was the first international peace conference. [45] All participating countries agreed “to abstain from the use of projectiles, the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” [46] The Hague Convention of 1907, signed by France, Germany, Great Britain among other European powers, reaffirmed all of the original bans. [47]

With the breach of the convention terms by Germany, Germany was forced to justify its actions.  One of their chief defenses was that the Allies had used gases before the Battle of Ypres thereby rendering the accusations obsolete.  The validity of those allegations, however, are still being debated, some historians claiming that they had very little basis in fact [48] with other’s claiming that “it is now beyond question” [49] that the French possessed, and used small gas projectiles called cartouches suffocantes. [50] [51]

Whether or not the Allies used gas, Germany’s use of such a debilitating weapon was unexpected and unprovoked.  Not only that, but the use of chlorine gas at Ypres caused a rapid escalation powered by a vicious cycle perpetually searching for vengeance. [52] [53] [54] After the attack at Ypres, the British began efforts to both match and exceed the lethalness of Germany’s new weapon.  [55] [56] Their first attempt to use chlorine gas failed as a result of capricious winds that caused more British casualties than German casualties. [57]

As the attacks became more refined, so did the defenses. [58] After the attack at Ypres, soldiers were told to use “motorcycle googles [sic] and cotton pads that they were told to soak in urine…and hold over the mouth and nose” in the event of another gas cloud. [59] The ammonia in the urine reacted with the chlorine to cleanse the air, although it produced toxic fumes instead. [60] The Germans then developed phosgene, a chemical derived from the dye-making process, in late 1915 as a suitable weapon. [61] The French retaliated with their own phosgene in early 1916. [62]

In the end, Germany’s choice to use chlorine gas at Ypres was the direct result of a series of different decisions.  Starting with the choice, in late 1916, of Fritz Haber as the head of German efforts to develop a new and extremely deadly weapon, [63] followed by the choice of Ypres as a suitable place for experimentation, [64] the various facets of the chlorine release at Ypres have had a multitude of effects on modern warfare.  Today, gas usage in warfare has been overshadowed by the threat of biological warfare and weapons, the use of “microbial and other biological agents and toxins” [65] for “hostile purposes.” [66] Although not nearly as stealthy as biological weapons, there was often an unfamiliar scent [67], or, as with chlorine, a physical cloud of chemicals, gas warfare was very mentally taxing.  “The notoriety of gas can be explained by its physical effects and by the psychological impact it had on other soldiers, who from then on lived in fear of its effects, initially without masks and then with rapidly produced expedients that limited both the amount of air they could breathe and how much they could see.” [68] The fear of the unknown has always been one of the strongest fears in the collective human psyche.  The mental effects that the chlorine use at Ypres had on the soldiers is clear.  The physical effects are clear as well.  Not only is dying through chlorine-induced asphyxiation [69] horrible, so is watching fellow soldiers die from the effects of a mysterious cloud.

The use of chlorine as a weapon was indeed unprovoked and unchivalrous.  The Germans had no valid reason to use their new weapon at Ypres.  It brought them no strategic advantage to do so and when the release fractured the Allied lines, the Germans were not prepared to use their newfound advantage.  Not only that, but the only gas that the Allies had was in the form of cartouches suffocantes, a mild irritant nowhere near as lethal as chlorine.  The chlorine was an unnecessary escalation of a prior-to non-existent engagement where gas was used as one of the employed weapons on the battlefield. The unchivalrous component of the release of chlorine was discussed among both the Germans and the Allies. Many of the senior commanders of the German forces, including General Erich von Falkenhayn and Infantry General Berthold von Deimling, expressed concerns about their actions.  It seems that the only unapologetic member of the team behind the chlorine release was Fritz Haber.   He spent most of his time examining the scientific aspect of the release as opposed to the human aspect.  He serves as a constant reminder that an amoral scientist can do much more harm then any other professional.

Ypres is a location that will stay in the halls of history for years to come. Whether or not the Second Battle of Ypres maintains the same level of fame has yet to be seen, but the engagement is nonetheless one that deserves to be remembered. If immortalized for the causalities or the gruesome manner they were brought about, the Second Battle of Ypres will carry forever the banner of being the locale of the first release of gas. Although chlorine gave way to other gases and the underground canisters were replaced by more efficient methods of delivery, the inventions and machinations of Fritz Haber will likely be remembered for being a particularly unkind way of bringing about a fellow soldier’s, even if the enemy, death. The Second Battle of Ypres changed the world, whether for the better or for the worse has yet to be decided. But the simple fact is that it did and that it therefore deserves to be remembered.


[1] Ulrich Trumpener, “The Road to Ypres: The Beginnings of Gas Warfare in World War I” The Journal of Modern History

[2] Guillemin, Jeanne, Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism (New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, . 2005) p.

[3] L.  F.  Haber,  The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) p. 30

[4] Robert Cowley, “Battles of Ypres” in The Reader’s Companion to Military History, (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton-Mifflin, 1996)

[5] “Battles of Ypres Salient” in Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations, (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, . 200. 2)

[6] Ibid.

[7]  Robert Cowley, “Battles of Ypres” in The Reader’s Companion to Military History, (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton-Mifflin, 1996)

[8] Robert Cowley, “Battles of Ypres” in The Reader’s Companion to Military History, (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton-Mifflin, 1996)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Battles of Ypres Salient”

[12] Trumpener, “Road to Ypres”

[13] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 31

[14] Anthony Hossack,

[15] Edward F. Fitzgerald,  “Gas!” in the Armed Forces Chemical Journal (The Armed Forces Chemical Association)

[16] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York, New York: Alfred A.  Knopf, 2007) p. 121

[17] Fitzgerald, “Gas!”

[18] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 23

[19] Ibid.  p. 23

[20] Daniel Charles, Mastermind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate who Launched the age of Chemical Warfare (New York: HarperCollins, . 2005) p.  156

[21] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 27

[22] Jonathon B. Tucker, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (New York, New York: Pantheon Books, 2006) p. 12

[23] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 30

[24] Tucker, War of Nerves p. 12

[25] Ibid. p. 12

[26] Ibid.  p. 12

[27] Ibid.  p. 12

[28] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 29

[29] Ibid.  p. 29

[30] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 29

[31] Ibid. p. 30

[32] Ibid.  p. 32

[33] Tucker, War of Nerves p.  13

[34] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p.  31

[35] Fitzgerald, “Gas!”

[36] Tucker, War of Nerves p. 12

[37] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 28

[38] Tucker, War of Nerves p. 12

[39] Ibid.  p. 16

[40] Ibid.  p. 12

[41] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 28

[42] Ibid.  p. 28

[43] von Deimling, Berthold  Aus der Alten in die neue Zeit, Lebenserinnerungen (Berlin: Ullstein, 1930)

[44] Charles, Master Mind p. 164

[45] Guillemin, Biological Weapons p. 3

[46] Ibid. p. 3

[47] Ibid. p. 3

[48] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 19-20

[49] Trumpener, “Road to Ypres”

[50] Ibid.

[51] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 20

[52] Tucker, War of Nerves p. 16-17

[53] Smith, Utility of Force p. 121

[54] Guillemin, Biological Weapons p.  ix

[55] Tucker, War of Nerves p. 17

[56] Haber, Poisonous Cloud p. 36

[57] Tucker, War of Nerves p. 17

[58] Ibid.  p. 17

[59] Ibid.  p. 17

[60] Ibid.  p. 17

[61] Ibid.  p. 18

[62] Ibid.  p. 18

[63] Charles, Master Mind p. 156

[64] Tucker, War of Nerves p. 12

[65] Guillemin, Biological Weapons p. 3

[66] Guillemin, Biological Weapons p. 2

[67] Tucker, War of Nerves p. 18

[68] Smith, Utility of Force p. 121

[69] Charles, Master Mind p. 156

Bibliography

Charles, Daniel.  Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare.  New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2005.

Charles’ biography of Fritz Haber covered the scientist’s entire life.  Only part of the book was applicable, the ones covering the years that Haber worked on developing a chemical weapon.  This book, unlike others, focuses on the development of chemical weapons from the perspective of Haber as opposed to the perspective of a biased outsider.

Cowley, Robert.  “Ypres, Battles of.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History.  Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Fitzgerald, Edward F.  “Gas!” Armed Forces Chemical Journal (The Armed Forces Chemical Association) XIV, no.  6 (1960): 14-19.

Guillemin, Jeanne.  Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism.  New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Guillemin’s analysis of the evolution of biological weapons and warfare offered another side to the story.  Biological warfare and chemical warfare are often lumped together under the title “biochemical warfare.” Guillemin’s work allows for a clearer differentiation between the two.

Haber, L.  F.  The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Written by the son of the infamous Fritz Haber, The Poisonous Cloud offers a unique perspective on Haber’s life and work.  Nearly an entire section of the book is devoted to the Second Battle of Ypres, as L.  F.  Haber deems it one of the defining moments of his father’s life.

Hossack, Anthony R.  “The First Gas Attack.” In Everyman at War: Sixty Personal Narratives of the War, edited by C.  B.  Purdom.  London: J.M.  Dent, 1930.

Smith, Rupert.  The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World.  New York, New York: Alfred A.  Knopf, 2007.

Although Smith’s analysis of modern warfare does not offer much concerning the Second Battle of Ypres, his unique view as both a member of the military and an internationally recognized analyst allows for a different view of the events at Ypres.

Trumpener, Ulrich.  “The Road to Ypres: The Beginnings of Gas Warfare in World War I.” The Journal of Modern History (The University of Chicago Press) 47, no. 3 (September 1975): 460-480.

Tucker, Jonathan B.  War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda.  New York, New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.

Tucker’s history of chemical warfare contained a plethora of useful information.  It begins with the Second Battle of Ypres and spends nearly an entire chapter discussing the events of April 1915.  His opinions are refreshing and fresh and he approaches the Second Battle of Ypres solely focused on the events relating to the release of gas.

von Deimling, Berthold.  Aus der Alten in die neue Zeit, Lebenserinnerungen.  Berlin: Ullstein, 1930.

“Ypres Salient, Battles of.” In Greenwood Encyclopedia of International Relations.  Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2002.

“Ypres, Battles of.” In Dictionary of British History.  Aylesbury, Bucks: Market House Books Ltd, 2002.

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4 thoughts on “Unprovoked and Unchivalrous

    • Why thank you, they took me forever! Turabian is such a hassle… And it’s my teacher, this was my history final… Shhh, don’t tell anyone 🙂 I must maintain the illusion of being older than I actually am!

      Thanks for reading!
      Eva

  1. This was very well documented and narrated. It reminded me of John Keegan’s work in The Face of Battle, a book I highly recommend if you’re looking to know more about the role and mentality of combatants in warfare throughout the ages.

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