The First Use of Chlorine Gas in Warfare

The naval Battle of the Falkland Islands brought down the curtain on major engagements in 1914, but the situation on the Western Front had altered and adopted a shape for the remainder of the war.

Following an indecisive engagement at the River Aisne, many thousands on both sides moved northwards, each trying to outflank the other in what became known as ‘the race to the sea’, ostensibly to protect or deny any British supply material through the channel ports.

On virtually all sorties that took place throughout the war the Germans managed to grab the higher ground, easier to defend and more stable for fortification.  They appeared to have a natural talent for getting to the best spots first!

The year 1915 was particularly bad for the Allies. Spring saw the despatch of an expeditionary force to the Gallipoli peninsula to the west of The Dardanelles. This theatre is covered in some detail in There was a Time and was, in every way, a disastrous mistake from the belated planning stage onwards. The peninsula was evacuated almost a year later with nothing achieved apart from multiple deaths on both sides.

Cheerful ‘Tommies’ taking rudimentary precautions at Ypres, 1915

In March there was a notable victory for Britain at Neuve Chapelle, where the Germans were dislodged from their high-ground strong point. The following month though saw the launch of the Second Battle of Ypres where Germany discharged the first poison gas as a weapon of war. It allowed Germany to make large inroads into the Allied line, but not to take the city. There were several thousands badly injured by the gas, almost half of whom died.

In May the Cunard liner, RMS Lusitania, was sunk by a German submarine, killing 128 American citizens. This precipitated anti-German feeling in the USA and was the first tangible event to pressage America’s entry into the war almost two years later.

The autumn saw the beginning of a French conceived ‘big push’ to dislodge the Germans in the Champagne/Artois regions and the overall Allied commander, General Joffre, asked the British to contribute to the offensive by attacking at the mining town of Loos.  Neither the British C-in-C, Field Marshal Sir John French, nor his deputy, General Sir Douglas Haig, thought the site propitious but complied with disastrous results.

Gas horror at the Battle of Loos, 1915

In response to the German use of chlorine gas at Ypres the 1st Army commander, Douglas Haig, authorised its use at Loos. Insufficient attention was paid to the shifting winds and much of the gas blew back to its source and disabled many British soldiers.

Haig gave the order for the infantry to advance across open fields, where they were mown down by heavy machine gun and rifle fire. They eventually had to retire but Haig sent them again the following day, reinforced by newly-arrived recruits in the same order and with the same outcome.

The injured, still on the ground from the previous day, were pleading for rescue or retreat. It was slaughter on a grand scale with more than 50,000 British casualties and no final objective achieved after thirteen days. (For detail, read Alan Clarke’s account of the battle in THE DONKEYS). This was Britain’s worst day of the war thus far and there would be political consequences arising from both parliamentary and public reactions to the conduct of the war and its prolongation. There would also be concomitant intrigues within the highest British socio-political circles.

The term ‘British’ throughout this narrative includes all allies from within the British Empire.

Note:  I shall be away for a week after posting this episode so nothing further before my return.  In this particularly cold snap may I suggest an armchair and a good book in the meantime. Casting all modesty aside I commend to you the unique account of Great Britain’s past 300 years and more as described in There was a Time.  Enjoy.

The next post will look at the seminal year of 1916 which will include three major confrontations, viz. Verdun, Jutland and The Somme.


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