Tuesday, 11 November 2014


On the 11th hour of the 11th month, 1918, hostilities ceased on the Western Front

Does my ARSE look big in this?

Is there anything more terrible than poison gas? There is something particularly chilling about stealing a man’s breath, searing his lungs, blistering his skin and leaving him to linger in agony before expiring. 

It is generally held that the Germans initiated the release of poison gas in the Great War. As a point of fact, the French fired tear gas grenades against the Germans during the first month of the war in 1914. However, the quantities used caused the Germans little distress and it is unlikely that the troops registered the assault. If they had I am sure they would have shed a tear.

The first major release of gas occurred on the Eastern Front in January 1915. On this occasion the Germans fired 18,000 artillery shells containing a non lethal tear gas into the Russian positions on the Rawka River during the battle of Bolimov. Due to the extreme cold the gas failed to vapourise and froze into the ground. Even the stones wept during this battle.

Chlorine gas was first deployed by the Germans on the Western Front in April 1915. The gas was released from 5,730 cylinders and the light breeze prevailing along the front propelled the green pall into the allied lines occupied by French Colonial troops. The troops abandoned their positions causing an 8,000 yard rent in the lines.  However, the Germans failed to exploit their initial success and the line was rapidly plugged by Canadian, British  and French troops.

The April gas attack caught the allies completely off guard and make shift gas masks had to be hastily assembled. Gauze pads soaked in bicarbonate solution proved useful. If desperate the pad could be soaked in urine. As the war progressed sophisticated gas masks were issued to all combatants. A full faced mask incorporating eye protecting goggles became the norm. 

The Allies quickly followed suit and the British released chlorine gas during the battle of Loos, 25th September, 1915. Due to an unfavourable wind some of the gas blew back into the British trenches causing causalities. Clearly, release by cylinder was not the best medium for delivering death and subsequently combatants dispensed gas exclusively by artillery; shells provided a more effective and precise delivery.

More deadly gases were soon developed. Phosgene, a colourless gas with the odour of new mown hay was particularly potent. Unlike chlorine, its effects were not immediately apparent as it didn’t, initially at least,  cause coughing. Phosgene often had a delayed action and apparently healthy soldiers would sometimes succumb two days after initial exposure. In fact this was considered the main disadvantage of the gas, as soldiers could continue to fight long after receiving a lethal dose. The Germans introduced mustard gas to the battlefield in 1917. Mustard  gas is an almost odourless, blistering agent. Again, like phosgene its effects are not immediately apparent. Mustard gas was more difficult to protect against than chlorine or phosgene as it not only attacked the respiratory system but caused severe blistering to exposed areas of the skin. It is also persistent and relatively dense and therefore lingered on the battlefield for weeks after release.

Gas was never a major battlefield killer. It has been estimated that less than 10% of all British casualties were caused by gas, and only 3% of these were actually fatal. Of the million Britsh and Commonwealth troops killed in the war, 8,000 died of gas poisoning. Artillery in the Great War was the major harvester of souls. If the war had continued into 1919 it is estimated that up to 50% of allied shells would have contained gas. Although not a great killer of men, gas had a debilitating affect during battle. Men had to wear and fight  for hours on end confined in hot, sweaty and uncomfortable masks. Gas attacks reduced morale, terrified the recipients and severely reduced fighting efficiency.

The use of poison gas was prohibited by the 1899 Hague declaration concerning 'Asphyxiating Gases'. Technically, all the belligerants should have been indited as war criminals. The expediency of war makes men wretched.

I'll leave the last word to Wilfred Owen who died on the 4th November 1918, six days before the end of the war ......... 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

A soldier of the Great War


  1. Will we ever know who fired the first gas shell? History is written by the victors after all...

  2. Flaxen you picked my all time favourite Owen poem! I read the first few lines of your blog today and was going to comment about Owen certainly agreeing with you and then I scrolled down and saw the poem and I thought well bang goes my comment but , OH LOOK my favourite poem. I learnt this poem by rout at secondary school for a recital and fell in love with owen's poems, the rest of the class hated them and complained so much that the school considered removing the Owen from the curriculum. I pointed out that yes it was not happy jolly reading but that these men had made massive sacrifices for us and that the least we could do was read a few "flipping" (the closest I ever got to swearing at my expensive private girls school) poems. So when we were asked to learn a poem any poem I chose this one because it irritated the hell out of the ring leaders in the class, but I didn't care, learning and reciting that poem that day changed several peoples views of WWI poems for the better and I am very glad of that.
    I know little about the chemistry of the gas shells and their derivatives, but I do know that reading Owens poem DULCE ET DECORUM EST changed my life and my understanding of the use of gas shells in a way History never did.

  3. "...and fell in love with owen's poems..."

    Something we have in common, Kath. I too was taught Owen's poetry at school, circa 1965 (when I were a lad) - I was at school in Newport, Shropshire and asWilfred Owen hailed from Oswestry, he was viewed as almost a local-ish man.

    I've long rated him as one of my favourite poets but would be pushed to nominate a specific favourite poem.

    1. It is hard to choose a favourite but I love that one specifically for it's imagery. It's hardly light reading but it's deeply emotional and vivid for me the words conjure a very clear image.
      Owen was very good at that level of imagery.

    2. I was never a particularly diligent scholar at school (late bloomer) and usually managed to stay one step of being placed in the remedial class. As I went to a particularly crap secondary modern you can imagine what horrors would have awaited me there. But I did shine at poetry and even applied myself to a course we had on First World War poetry. I was struck by the contrast between the poetry penned at the beginning of the war and that during its latter stage. The former was full of heroic patriotism while the later was full of heroic despair.