First Use by the French
Although it is popularly believed that the German army was the first to use gas it was in fact the French who used it first. In the first month of the war, August 1914, they fired tear-gas grenades (xylyl bromide) against the Germans. Nevertheless the German army was the first to seriously study to the development of chemical weapons and the first to use it on a large scale.
Initial German Experiments
In the capture of Neuve Chapelle in October 1914 the German army fired shells at the French which contained a chemical irritant caused violent fits of sneezing. Three months later, on 31 January 1915, tear gas was employed by the Germans for the first time on the Eastern Front.
The gas was in liquid form contained in 15 cm shells and fired against the Russians at Bolimov, the new experiment proved unsuccessful because of the freezing temperatures in Russia.
Not giving up, the Germans tried again with an improved tear gas mix at Nieuport against the French in March 1915.
Introduction of Poison Gas
The debut of the first poison gas however - in this case chlorine - came on 22 April 1915, at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres.
At this stage of the war the famed Ypres Salient, held by the British, Canadians and French, ran for some 10 miles and bulged into German occupied territory for five miles. A combination of French and Algerian troops held the line together.
During the morning of 22 April the Germans unleashed a heavy bombardment around Ypres, but stopped after a while. Towards evening, at around 5 pm, the bombardment began afresh - but, this time the sentries posted among the French and Algerian troops noticed a curious yellow-green cloud drifting slowly towards their line.
Puzzled but suspicious the French suspected that the cloud masked an advance by German infantry and ordered their men to 'stand to' - that is, to mount the trench fire step in readiness for probable attack.
The cloud did not mask an infantry attack however; at least, not yet. It was in fact the first use of chlorine gas on the battlefield. Sadly, its use should not have come as a surprise to the Allied troops, for captured German soldiers had revealed the imminent use of gas on the Western Front. Unfortunately their warnings were not passed on.
The effects of chlorine gas were horrific. Within seconds of inhaling its vapour it destroyed the victim's lungs, bringing on choking attacks.
A Missed German Opportunity
Panic-stricken the French and Algerian troops fled in disorder, creating a four-mile gap in the Allied line. Had the Germans been prepared for this they could have made a decisive breakthrough. Instead the results of their experiment caused as much surprise to the German high command as it spread confusion and death among their opponents.
German soldiers did advance into the gap, but nervously and with hesitance. Although the Germans succeeded in seizing control of a large portion of the salient the Allies managed to re-form a new front line, but it was dangerously weak in some places.
The Germans' use of chlorine gas provoked immediate widespread condemnation, and certainly damaged German relations with the neutral powers, including the U.S. The gas attacks were quickly used by British propaganda makers to portray the Germans as evil and savage, even though the British planned to retaliate in kind.
Casualties From Gas - The Numbers
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