April 22nd in German History: Chemical Weapons on the Western Front

Land Battles - Second Ypres | Canada and the First World War
Canadian troops defend against German assaults. Image Credit: Canadian War Museum.

On April 22nd, 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres began with a German offensive against Allied lines in Flanders. The battle is notorious because it saw the first use of chemical warfare on the Western Front as the Germans unleashed chlorine gas on Allied defenders. The Germans has used chemical weapons on the Russian front earlier that year, but on a relatively small scale. Gas was first used in the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge, part of the great Second Battle of Ypres. The gas initially caused around 1000 fatalities among the French defenders and thousands more wounded. Many of the defenders fled from the gas, although many stayed and attempted to wait out the gas cloud. The Germans recorded twelve dead from gas during the battle, a testament to the fickle nature of the wind which would often blow the gas back towards German lines. The Germans would use gas a second time on the 24th of April during the Battle of St. Julien, although by this time the French, British, and Canadian defenders had begun to use cloth soaked in urine as an improvised gas mask, as ammonia helped neutralize the effects of the Chlorine. The Germans were further unable to break the British lines at the Battles of Frezenberg and Bellwaarde in May, in part because German troops were hesitant to advance into areas recently targeted with gas. In the end, the Second battle of Ypres would result in only minimal German gains, although the Germans were able to inflict more casualties than they received. Chlorine gas would not break the stalemate on the Western Front.

Despite this initially mediocre performance, the Allied Powers immateriality began to develop their own gas and would use it on the Germans in the same year. Both sides would also develop better and better gas masks that would eventually negate most the the impact of chlorine gas. The Germans would maintain the lead in Chemical Warfare development, however, with the introduction of mustard gas in 1917. Mustard gas damaged the skin and so ignored gas masks, but the implementation of protective clothing was able to mitigate its impacts. In the end, chemical weapons would not be the miracle weapon that would break the trenches as both sides had the resources necessary to develop protective measures. Around 30,000 troops were killed by chemical weapons over the course of the war, a large number but one far smaller than the number of troops killed by artillery or simply rifles. Chemical warfare has been far more effective, however, as a weapon against the defenseless. Fascist Italy used it against Ethiopia when their invasion proved too costly, and it was used in the Iran-Iraq War and in Yemen in the 1960s. In all of these cases the target lacked gas masks and other protective measures and so suffered horribly. Chemical weapons are thus a weapon best used by the strong against the weak or against civilian populations, as a strong military can easily guard against it. The measures to limit their stockpiling and ban their use must be enforced so as to prevent warfare from becoming even more indiscriminate and deadly than it already is. War is already bad enough for civilians caught in the middle; it need not be made worse by one of the most gruesome products of humanity’s cold genius.

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