Innocence Slaughtered

Gas and the transformation of warfare and society

Jean Pascal Zanders (ed.)

Uniform Press, 2016

innocence-slaughteredThe roots of this book lay in an academic conference held in 2005. The papers from that day have been rediscovered and brought together by Uniform Press and In Flanders Fields Museum in commemoration of (and in response to) the centenary of the first gas attack in April 1915.

The ‘horrors’ of the First World War are regularly featured in news stories and books about the conflict, but few developments of that period can be more horrific than the introduction of gas. It is one of the legacies of the First World War that chemical weapons are still evident in so many modern conflicts.

The book opens with a chapter on the ‘Road to the Hague’, examining the history of the use of poison weapons and the subsequent bans on chemical weapons. By deploying gas from cylinders in April 1915, Germany had technically not violated the agreement, which covered the use of projectiles. Interestingly proposals for the first types of gas masks were developed around the time of the Crimean War, although the significance of their use in warfare did not become apparent (or necessary) until the First World War.

The first use of gas on 22nd April 1915 is the subject of the next chapter, chronicling the work of Fritz Haber and the release of 150 tonnes of chlorine from 5,830 cylinders, and the impact this had on the Allied lines. Interestingly the proposed use of gas was opposed by some within the German Army, as some high-ranking officers viewed it as breach of their code of honour. There was also a lack of confidence in the new weapon, and the Germans did not capitalise on its success primarily because a strategic breakthrough had not been envisaged. It is difficult to assess the impact of that first attack in terms of casualties – sources give possibly as many as 5,000 killed and double that injured. A more conservative estimate by the author (Olivier Lepick) is given as 1,400 killed, 3,000 wounded. Due to lack of confidence the German’s had not exploited their breakthrough.

The next chapter looks at the Belgian Army and the attack of 22nd April 1915. As early as February Belgian intelligence was made aware that the Germans had ordered production of face masks to protect their troops against the gas, and on 16th April Belgian GHQ issued a very detailed brief to the infantry division headquarters about the German proposals – however this was ignored by High Command. However the Belgians held their line during the attack, and managed to keep up constant artillery fire against the advancing Germans.

In his chapter Julian Putkowski adds detail about how the French and British were also forewarned. The Canadians also had difficulty defending against the German attack due to problems with their Ross rifles jamming. Putkowski is also quite scathing of Field Marshal French’s response to the attacks, believing that his counter-attacks were rushed and badly planned. A chapter on the Indian Army during Second Ypres completes the overview of the impact on the Allies, and German, French, Belgian, and Canadian first-hand accounts provide a small insight into what the attack was like by those who witnessed it.

The German introduction of Phosgene is the subject of another chapter. It was first used in the Ypres salient on 19th December 1915, having been trialled on the eastern front at the end of May 1915, and against the French in the Champagne region in October 15. Phosgene was 18x more lethal than chlorine. The British were aware a gas attack was coming due to interrogation of prisoners. The Germans released the gas on the early morning of the 19th on a 3 mile front northeast of Ypres, and the gas reached many parts of the British line before they even had a chance to put on their masks. British troops stood their ground well despite the gas, but the delayed effects of phosgene only became apparent several hours after the attack. Just over 1,000 casualties were inflicted, a quarter of these fatalities.

The impact of the April gas attacks led to a rise in recruitment and a demonisation of the Germans in the British press. How the attacks were reported specifically in the Welsh press is examined in detail, concluding that in actual fact the sinking of the Lusitania led to more new recruits than the gas.

Reporting of the attacks in the German press is also examined. Papers started to mention poison gas in the heavily-regulated reports prior to its actual use. But after its use, the only mention in the German press was through Allied reports, and the legality of its use was never raised.

Overall the book provides a scholarly and diverse examination of the use of gas. The book does not refrain in its use of pictures to graphically illustrate the casualties of the gas attacks, and the pictures alone provide a stark visual reminder of the deadliness of gas as a weapon.

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Innocence Slaughtered: Gas and the Transformation of Warfare and Society