Why World War One?

The long Failure of Western Arms.

Gas Warfare Fritz Haber

The Story of Fritz Haber.

There were some experiments with possible weapons by the French, English and Germans, but nothing really happened until trench warfare became significant. The beginning of the First World War opened up the success of trench warfare. It defeated cavalry charges, defended against the successful use of guns and created a stalemate. The French used some gas ineffectively, but the first large scale use came from the Germans, or more specifically from one German chemist, Fritz Haber. He pushed the technology successfully until it was taken up by the German army and used in the War. Haber’s situation was complex. He did some groundbreaking work on chemical fertilizers and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. His work on chemical weapons with its obvious results was tragic as his wife, Clara Haber, recognized. She was appalled that her husband was prepared to pervert the use of his scientific knowledge in this way, and after several furious rows with him she shot herself in the heart with his pistol, in protest at his inhumanity, a fairly emphatic way of making her point. If she were in charge, untold misery would have been averted. Clara died. Later, his son also committed suicide. 

Meanwhile, Fritz, promoted to Captain, dashed off to the front to supervise chemical attacks and left others to sort out his wife’s burial. That is how this industry started.[i] It had another level of irony, because Fritz Haber was a Jew, and the techniques he had developed were later used in the gas chambers against his own people.

Gas could clear the trenches. German industrial production of chlorine was turned to use on the battlefield in 1915. Robert Asprey describes the first attack.

The offensive kicked off at the end of January with a feint attack by the Ninth Army, an effort made historically remarkable by Germany’s introduction of poison gas. This was the work primarily of Fritz Haber and Carl von Duisberg, who not without difficulty had developed a liquid gas, xylylenbromide or chlorine, that savagely burned eyes, nose, and throat and clung to the ground for long periods. Known to the troops as T-Storff, in this instance it filled 18,000 shells. Max Bauer, who had been involved with its development and who ingeniously claimed that it was not poison gas, witnessed the pioneer attack. Extreme cold and adverse winds nullified effective results on the Russians (except to set a horrible precedent), and the Germans soon broke off the attack. German casualties from the gas blown back at the troops by the shifting wind were so severe that Bauer would never forget them.[ii]

It is tempting to think – serves them right, but of course such suffering should not be wished on anyone. Soon this weapon was “successful”; it cost the British and Canadians 59,000 casualties. Poison gas seemed a “better” weapon than explosives – killing more people, better spread, cheaper to produce. The Allies worked both at defensive measures, like gas masks, and their own chemical weapons. Both sides were then in stalemate, ruining the lungs of soldiers on both sides. This initial stalemate was followed by a technical breakthrough. The German military came up with mustard gas, fired in artillery shells. Suddenly troops had a lethal blister gas in their trenches. A million of these shells were fired in the first ten days attack in July 1917, and they resulted in about 160,000 British casualties, while the Americans and French had a lot more[iii]. Again the Allies retaliated, although it took them a while to get production up and running. Both sides expanded their use of chemical shells and the companies pushed their manufacture. Churchill called them “the pure essence of slaughter” and said, “Although the accidentally burned and blistered at the factories exceeded 100% of the staff every three months, volunteers were never lacking.”[iv] Towards the end of the Great War both sides had the weapons. They had gas masks, skin protection clothing and gas warning systems and the general feeling was that chemical weapons were a nuisance, making life uncomfortable for soldiers, but not decisive in battle. (from WOP)

Gas casualties in WW1.

                                              Fatal                        Non-Fatal

Russia                                    59,000                      419,340    

Germany                                 9,000                      200,000

France                                     8,000                       190,000     

Austro-Hungary                    3,000                       100,000

Britain and Empire                 8,109                       188,706  

United States                          1,462                         72,807    

Italy                                        4,627                         60,000

Total                                      88,498                    1,240,893   

[i] Greg Goebel A History of Chemical Warfare www.vectorsite.net/twgas_1.html

[ii] Robert B. Asprey The German High Command at War (London: Little Brown and Company, 1993) 162

[iii] Utgoff, Victor A. The Challenge of Chemical Weapons (London: Macmillan, 1990) 6-7

[iv] Churchill, Winston S. The World Crisis Vol IV (London: Thornton, Butterworth, 1927) 482