‘… a dozen men – all gassed - their colours were black, green and blue, tongues hanging out and eyes staring.’
Lance Sergeant Elmer Cotton, 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, 1915
To break the trench deadlock, the armies on the Western Front tried a new weapon, poison gas.
In April 1915 the Germans released a cloud of chlorine gas on Allied troops at Ypres. The Allies were horrified. Yet in September, at Loos, the British launched their own gas attack.
As the war went on, the use of gas intensified.
Was poison gas effective?
Soldiers feared gas. Chlorine and phosgene choked and suffocated, mustard gas blinded and burned. But gas masks and medical treatment improved. Compared with artillery, gas caused few casualties on the Western Front. Many victims were back in action within weeks.
The armies soon realised that gas was not the war-winning weapon they were looking for.
Livens projector and gas bomb
The Livens projector fired poison gas bombs at German lines.
It was invented by Captain William Livens, who mistakenly believed his wife had died in a German submarine attack and wanted revenge.
Introduced in late 1916, Livens projectors could suddenly flood wide areas with concentrated poisonous clouds, catching many German troops by surprise.
Livens called each bomb a ‘judgement’ on the enemy.
Gas shells like these meant that gas no longer had to be released from cylinders, which relied upon wind direction.
Shells were coded to indicate contents. The British ‘CG’ shell and German ‘C’ shell contained phosgene, as could the Stokes gas bomb -shown in section here.
The German Blue Cross shell contained an irritant designed to cause sneezing and vomiting, forcing soldiers to remove their masks and inhale deadly gases.
German gas gong, gas rattle, strombos horn
The German gas gong and British gas rattle sounded the alarm to alert troops of a gas attack.
Gas alarms caused a flurry of activity as soldiers scrambled for their masks.
The British Strombos horn, like a ship’s horn, warned of major gas attacks. It could be heard nine miles away.
By 1917 British and Empire troops were well-drilled in gas defence, and there were daily equipment checks.
This leather glove was shrunk by poison gas. Not only did gas do dreadful things to the lungs, skin and eyes of human beings but soldiers under gas attack also noticed other strange effects. Gas could eat into rifle mechanisms, turn buttons and badges black or green and stop watches.
Gas caused horrific injuries.
Inhaling a large amount of chlorine made soldiers choke, turn blue and suffocate. Those poisoned by phosgene threw up litres of yellow liquid in a drowning spasm lasting around 48 hours. Mustard gas caused blisters on the skin that could burn down to the bone.
Despite these agonies, gas was not usually lethal, killing only three per cent of soldiers affected.
Vermorel sprayer, Aryton gas fan –
The Vermorel sprayer, used in peacetime for spraying crops, was meant to neutralise lingering chlorine gas.
The Ayrton gas fan was devised by pioneering electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton to waft away toxic gases. Neither device was effective. One officer described the Ayrton fan as ‘worse than useless’. It was better to light a fire, which heated and dispersed gas.
The Hypo helmet, officially the British Smoke Helmet, was invented by Captain Cluny Macpherson, a Newfoundland Regiment medical officer.
He found that a flannel hood soaked in sodium hyposulphite could protect the wearer for longer than a pad.
From June 1915 2.5 million Hypo helmets were issued to British and Empire troops. But they were uncomfortable to wear and the eye-piece fogged and cracked easily.
The Tube helmet was developed at the Royal Army Medical College in London.
It was impregnated with chemicals to counter phosgene gas. Phosgene was ten times more deadly than chlorine and almost undetectable except for a faint whiff of mouldy hay. It was first used against British troops in December 1915.
The tube helmet was effective, but difficult to see out from. One of its protective chemicals could also burn the skin.
Document ordering attack on Loos
This is an order for the first British gas attack at Loos.
Field Marshal Sir John French hoped that using gas as a weapon would make up for his lack of artillery in this major attack.
At 5.50 am on 25 September 1915, 5,900 cylinders of chlorine gas were released in the direction of the enemy lines. But 30 minutes later, the wind changed. The gas swept back over Allied troops, causing casualties and panic.
Small box respirator
The Small Box Respirator, developed by scientist Bertram Lambert, was standard British Army issue by 1917.
Its box filter contained charcoal granules that neutralised all lethal gases. Every soldier was individually fitted with his mask and then exposed to tear gas in a chamber for five minutes to make sure it worked.
It was the most effective of all the gas masks produced during the war.
Anti-gas goggles and mask
In May 1915, the Germans used a poison gas, chlorine, against Canadian troops.
The Black Veiling pad, worn with goggles, was issued days afterwards. The pad got its name from the gauze covering which was normally used to make women’s funeral veils. On smelling chlorine, soldiers soaked the cotton pads in chemical ‘hypo’ solution, which neutralised the gas. But it gave only short-term protection.
Soldiers using a Vermorel sprayer to disperse gas
Gas and smoke seen in the distance during the British attack at Loos
Soldiers of the Scots Guards wearing a variety of gas masks, December 1915
An Australian Chaplain wearing a Box Respirator
Gas mask drill for horses of the Royal Field Artillery
British soldiers temporarily blinded by tear gas