100 years ago this week my great grandfather was serving in the Ypres Salient. On 22 April at 5pm he noticed, ‘a whitish blue mist to the north-east of us over French lines. It was the sort of mist one expects to see over water meadows on a frosty night. We were rather puzzled by it. We soon noticed a peculiar smell which made our noses and throats tingle.’
General Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow had just witnessed the first large scale chemical attack of the First World War. It was in any meaningful sense the start of our modern world’s use of Chemical Warfare. There had been tear gas grenades thrown earlier in the war and shells of gas fired on the Eastern Front but there freezing conditions impeded the release of the gas.
Ypres was different. A cloud of chlorine gas rolled towards allied lines. It hit the portion of the line held by North African troops from France’s colonies. Unsurprisingly they fled. Snow wrote, ‘black colonial troops began to filter through Potijze…. we gathered from the way they coughed and pointed to their throats that they were suffering from the effects of gas and we’re thoroughly scared….. we soon realised that something very serious had happened.’ Snow was right. A huge hole had been torn in the allied line. Thankfully this caught the Germans as much by surprise as it did the allies. It was late in the day, light was fading and they didn’t have the reserves to exploit the success.
German sluggishness was in contrast to the Canadians who were occupying a neighbouring stretch of front. They reacted fast. With rudimentary, urine soaked rags as gas masks they moved to close the gap in the front and drive back any German troops which had penetrated the allied lines.
As with all western front battles this one became a grim stalemate as defenders rushed reinforcements to the area by train and vehicle on internal lines of communication while attackers had to carry what they needed over acres of shattered landscape, knowing that every advance took them further from their logistical and artillery supprt. The further they advanced the further they were also from their commanders, and any hope of a coordinated plan for subsequent attacks.
Ypres turned into yet another indecisive wrestle. Chemical weapons have offered a glimpse of a breakthrough but tenacity in defence and german lack of preparation meant that real movement would require different innovations. Today is a poignant anniversary. Chlorine and other chemical agents are being used on the battlefields of the Middle East. The era of Chemical Warfare is still upon us.