2nd Battle of Ypres: First Successful Use of Poison Gas by Germans vs. French & British Troops

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2nd Battle of Ypres: First Successful Use of Poison Gas by Germans vs. French & British Troops

Map of 2nd Battle of Ypres, April 22-May 25, 1915
Gas attack occurred in northern section of the salient
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: April 22, 1915

"It is good that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it."
            ***attributed to Gen. Robert E. Lee, CSA, at battle of Fredericksburg, December, 1862

This week's military history spotlight falls on a battle of "The Great War" which featured the first successful use of poison gas. The battle itself lasted until the next month, but we will concentrate on the Germans' utilization of chlorine gas against their enemy.


The 1st World War in western Europe had degenerated into trench warfare, static lines of defense that essentially stayed in place until American intervention in the conflict beginning in late 1917 upset the balance between the two sides.

In early 1915, near the medieval Belgian city of Ypres (British soldiers badly mis-pronounced it "Wipers"), the German staff developed a plan to reduce a bulging salient in the Allied line east of the city. Among the defenders of the salient were two French and 6 British divisions. One of the French units included Algerian and Moroccan troops, while the British units included Australian, New Zealander, South African, and Indian troops. In addition, the self-governing Canadian Dominion of Newfoundland sent a division of soldiers to fight on the Western Front.

German Chlorine Gas Attack, April 22, 1915

As the prelude to an attack scheduled for April 22, the Germans deployed 5730 gas cylinders (each on weighing 90 pounds). These canisters were hauled to the front of the lines by hand. The Germans bombarded the French Colonial units with heavy artillery. Then, at 5:00 pm, the gas cylinders were opened by hand. [Because of this primitive dispersal system, many German soldiers died.] The prevailing northeast wind wafted the deadly gas, seen as a yellow-green mist, onto the French trenches over a four-mile wide front.

About 6000 French troops died within ten minutes of initial exposure (primarily from asphyxia and tissue damage in the lungs), and another 2000 more were blinded or sickened. The chlorine gas, denser than air, quickly filled the trenches and forced the troops out into heavy enemy fire. Many of the French Colonial troops, not understanding the strange weapon being against them, simply broke and ran away as quickly as possible. One British soldier gave this account of the French rout:

"Plainly something terrible was happening. What was it? Officers, and Staff officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded; for in the northerly breeze there came a pungent nauseating smell that tickled the throat and made our eyes smart. The horses and men were still pouring down the road. Two or three men on a horse, I saw, while over the fields streamed mobs of infantry, the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster. One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with levelled revolver, 'What's the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?' says he. The [Frenchman] was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer's feet."

"Men Under Gas" Illustration from London Times; History of the War Illustrated (1915); Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/pin/483925922435677258/
"Men Under Gas" Illustration from London Times
History of the War Illustrated (1915)
Image courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/pin/483925922435677258/

Symptoms of Chlorine Gas Exposure

The signs of acute chlorine gas poisoning are primarily respiratory, and include difficulty breathing and a cough; listening to the lungs will generally reveal a crackling sound. There will generally be sneezing, nose irritation, and throat irritation. There may also be skin irritation or chemical burns and eye irritation or conjunctivitis. A person with chlorine gas poisoning may also have nausea, vomiting, or a headache. Many men affected by the gas also experienced blackening of the skin.

In addition, chlorine gas forms hypochlorous acid when combined with water, destroying moist tissue such as the lungs and eyes. Some men, trying to clear the throat irritation, tried drinking water, with fatal consequences.

German Gas Attack (Cont.)

After about 15 minutes, to allow the gas to do its work, the Germans advanced along the now-deserted French sector of the salient. However, they were ordered not to advance too quickly or too far. If they had advanced speedily, they might have captured Ypres. They were also concerned about whether the chlorine gas might affect their own men.

The Germans came upon many men incapacitated by the gas; some were taken prisoner, while others – judged to be too far gone – had their weapons confiscated, and were told to simply lie quietly so they could "die better."

However, nearby British units quickly mobilized to contest the German breakthrough. In one British unit, a chemist – after determining the composition of the deadly substance – told his comrades to take handkerchief and urinate on them, then hold them over their faces to stop the worst effects of the gas. At 11:00 pm Canadian forces attacked the Germans, who had advanced only 2 miles into the sector.

The initial battle lasted into the night. Over the next month, the Allies sought to reclaim territory lost to the German, while the Germans sought to retain their gains. By May 25, the Ypres salient had been reduced by at least 50 percent.

Footnote #1: As a result of this chlorine gas attack of April 22, both sides began to develop newer and deadlier gas agents. In addition, both sides began developing counter-measures to this new weapon. Various forms of gas masks, goggles, and the like were issued to the soldiers. Military animals – including dogs, mules, and messenger pigeons – also received protection.

Footnote #2: Immediately after the first attack, the British and French governments quickly claimed the attack was a flagrant violation of international law but Germany argued that the Hague treaty had only banned chemical shells, rather than the use of gas projectors

Footnote #3: An estimated 90,198 deaths have been attributed to gas attacks in the "Great War," with an additional 1.2 million non-fatal casualties.

Footnote #4: Despite the horrors of poison gas attacks, when the 2nd World War broke out, many of the major nations still had large stockpiles of the weapons. The U.S. had 135,000 tons of various gases, German possessed 70,000 tons, Britain stockpiled 40,000 tons. Fortunately, none of these caches were used.

Footnote #5: Over 16,000,000 acres of France had to be cordoned off at the end of the war because of unexploded ordnance. About 20 percent of the chemical shells were duds, and approximately 13 million of these munitions were left in place. This has been a serious problem in former battle areas from immediately after the end of the War until the present. Shells may be, for instance, uncovered when farmers plough their fields (termed the 'iron harvest'), and are also regularly discovered when public works or construction work is done.

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