The sun was setting on the trenches of Ypres on the evening of April 22nd, 1915. The Allied battlefield, a mixture of British regulars and French colonial troops, had been quiet for months following the First Battle of Ypres in November of the previous year. The men of the French 45th and 87th divisions were acclimating to the routine of the trenches – a far cry from their prior lives in Morocco and Algeria.
On the darkening horizon a cloud began to form from the German line. It moved slowly, practically crawling on the ground towards the French colonial troops. Eyes began to itch and water; mouths filled with a distinct metallic taste. And as the cloud enveloped the trenches, lungs seized and eyes felt like they were melting…because they were. It was 168 tons of chlorine gas.
Science had brought another new horror to the Great War.
The use of new technology as new tools of terror had already been well-established in the Great War.
The airplane and Zeppelin, once gentlemanly pursuits of the conquest of the skies, now rained bombs from above. The modern submarine, an invention not yet even in its second decade, was torpedoing British shipping lanes. The flamethrower had just appeared on the Western Front a month earlier, used to devastating effect by German troops against French conscripts.
The action at Ypres was not exactly the first time gas had been used in the war. Both the French and German armies had used gas in some early battles, including the Germans against the Russians in January of 1915. But those were xylyl bromide canisters – basically tear gas – with limited lethality.
Chlorine gas was something all together different – a poison gas that when combined with water formed hypochlorous acid. In weak concentrations, the gas would burn or irritate any moist tissue, like lungs or eyes. In stronger doses, it could melt skin or practically dissolve a man from the inside out.
The Germans knew the mathematical equation to determine how much gas to deliver to the unsuspecting French colonial troops – Haber’s rule. It was named after the gas’ inventor.
For a man who would be known as the “Father of Chemical Warfare,” Fritz Haber had originally intended to try and save lives.
Haber’s discovery of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gas was a critical breakthrough in the development of synthetic fertilizer. With British ships blocking German ports, Haber’s fertilizer formula allowed Germany to continue to feed herself far longer than would have been possible otherwise. And Haber’s fertilizer formula continues even into the modern era, likely feeding millions more. For his work, Haber would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.
If you think this is the part of the narrative where the well-intended scientist sees his creation exploited into something monstrous without his consent, unfortunately Haber isn’t that figure. Haber dove into turning his discovery into a weapon in earnest, stating that in war “death was death.” His wife Clara, also a scientist, vehemently disagreed, imploring that he abandon his work. Haber refused, instead going to Ypres himself to oversee the release of the gas.
6,000 French colonial troops were killed or wounded within ten minutes of the gas being released.
Thousands more fled the battlefield, mystifying their native French commanders or neighboring British soldiers. Only as command tried to force the men to stay in place did they begin to understand what was occurring. A 4-mile opening in the Allied lines had been created and no one wanted to rush to the front.
That included the Germans. No one, not Haber nor the German High Command, had foreseen the effectiveness of the gas. With few reserves available, and few pre-cautions against the gas, the Germans slowly moved ahead. No prisoners were taken, although this was more out of mercy than barbarism. A quick bullet seemed preferable to the ghastly sights of men choking on the fluid of their own melting lungs.
If not for a battalion of Canadian troops rushing into the line, at the loss of 75% of their men, the Germans might have been truly able to exploit the advantage. The Canadians found that placing urine-soaked clothing over their noses and mouths neutralized the worst effects of the gas. It wouldn’t be until July of 1915 that Allied troops were given adequate gas masks. By that time, new and even more terrifying forms of gas weaponry had been developed.
Upon Haber’s return to Germany, his wife Clara angrily confronted him. The news of the gas attack had been publicized worldwide. Running from their fight, Clara removed herself to the couple’s garden. There, she shot and killed herself with Haber’s service revolver. If Haber had any anguish over his wife’s suicide it didn’t affect his work – he left for the Eastern Front to conduct gas attacks against the Russians just days after her death.
Haber would continue to work on chemical weapons experiments between the World Wars, helping both Russia and Spain create their own chemical weapon departments. As the Nazis came to power, Haber found himself attracting a great deal of interest from German authorities again. But not for his weapons.
Haber was Jewish. He died, exiled and in poor health, trying to travel to British Palestine in 1934.