The twenty-second of April 1915 had been a warm and sunny day, but toward the end of the afternoon a breeze sprang up. It came from the north, from behind the German lines, blew across no-man's-land, and gently fanned the faces of the Allied soldiers in position around the village of Langemarck, near Ypres.
They were new to the trenches-French reservists and Algerians from France's north African colony. To them the fresh wind must have seemed a good omen, for a few seconds later, as if on cue, the German guns that had been bombarding them all day suddenly stopped firing. An abrupt silence descended over the front.
A few hundred yards away, four divisions-of the Twenty-third and Twenty-sixth German Army Corps-crouched in their trenches. They had waited there since dawn, unable to move for fear of giving away their presence. Now, just as it had begun to seem too late, the moment had come. The wind had changed. An attack.
At five o'clock, three red rockets streaked into the sky, signaling the start of a deafening artillery barrage. High-explosive shells pounded into the deserted town of Ypres and the villages around it. At the same time the troops sheltering near Langemarck saw two greenish-yellow clouds rise from the enemy's lines, catch the wind, and billow forward, gradually merging to form a single bank of blue-white mist: out of sight, in special emplacements protected by sandbags and concrete, German chemical warfare pioneers were opening the valves of 6,000 cylinders spread out along a four-mile front. The cylinders contained liquid chlorine-the instant the pressure was released and it came into contact with the air it vaporized and hissed out to form a dense cloud. At thirty parts per million of air chlorine gas produces a rasping cough. At concentrations of one part per thousand it is fatal. The breeze stirred again, and one hundred and sixty tons of it, five feet high and hugging the ground, began to roll toward the Allied trenches.
Chemical warfare had begun.
The wave broke over the first line within a minute, enveloping tens of thousands of troops in an acrid green cloud so thick they could no longer see their neighbors in the trench. Seconds later they were clutching at the air and at their throats, fighting for breath.
Chlorine does not suffocate: it poisons, stripping the lining of the bronchial tubes and lungs. The inflammation produces a massive amount of fluid that blocks the windpipe, froths from the mouth, and fills the lungs. In an attempt to escape the effects, some men tried to bury their mouths and nostrils in the earth; others panicked and ran. But any exertion or effort to outdistance the cloud only resulted in deeper breaths and more acute poisoning. As the tide of gas washed over the struggling men their faces turned blue from the strain of trying to breathe; some coughed so violently they ruptured their lungs. Each man, as the British casualty report was later to put it, was "being drowned in his own exudation."1
Advancing cautiously behind the chlorine cloud came the German infantry, all wearing crude respirators of moist gauze and cotton tied round their faces. They passed through an unprecedented scene of horror. The dead lay where they had fallen, arms outstretched trying to escape the gas. Interspersed with the corpses, the wounded and dying sprawled gasping and choking as their agonized lungs coughed up mouthful after mouthful of yellow fluid. Any metal object the chlorine had come into contact with was tarnished. Buttons, watches, coins; all had turned a dull green. Rifles were rusted and looked as if they had been left out in the mud for months. Most of the breechblocks on the sixty guns the Germans captured that day were unusable.
Any of the French still capable of movement fled. The British suddenly found the roads and bridges of their sector clogged with retreating soldiers, many of whom could only point at their throats in explanation. By six o'clock, even as far back as ten miles, the chlorine cloud was still making men cough and their eyes smart. By seven o'clock, the few French guns that had been left in action were ominously silent.
The first large-scale gas attack had taken the Allied commanders so completely by surprise that it was not until the early hours of the morning that they began to appreciate the scale of the disaster that had overtaken them. The Germans had torn a hole four miles wide in the western front, smashing in an afternoon defenses that had held for months. The German commander, Falkenhayn, was as startled as his opponents by the overwhelming effect of chemical warfare. He had seen gas merely as an experimental aid to his attack and had insufficient reserves ready to exploit his advantage. But for that he might have been able to drive right through the Allied line to the Channel ports: the gas attack could have won the war for the Germans. Instead, as night fell over Ypres, the German soldiers dug in. Falkenhayn's "experiment," the Germans reckoned, had cost the Allies 5,000 men dead and 10,000 wounded.
Thirty-six hours later, while the British and the French were still struggling to fill the breach in their defenses, the Germans struck again. At 2:45 a.m., shortly before dawn on April 24, Captain Bertram of the Canadian Eighth Battalion noticed some greenish-white smoke rising from the German front line about 600 yards away. Traveling at eight miles an hour, the cloud "drifted along the ground toward our trenches, not rising to more than seven feet from the ground when it reached our front line."2 The bank of high-density chlorine rolled over the Canadians, whose only protection was handkerchiefs, socks, and towels that they urinated on and then stuffed into their mouths. Over the next few hours they were subjected to successive waves of gas so thick they blotted out the sun. Once or twice through the clouds the Canadians caught glimpses of German troops apparently dressed as divers, wearing large hoods with a single glass eyepiece set in the front.
There was the same panic-stricken scramble for the rear. On a small stretch of ground leading from the advanced trenches to the supports Bertram counted twenty-seven bodies of men killed trying to outrun the gas; he himself collapsed with vomiting and diarrhea, unable to breathe, with a feeling "of great heaviness in the bottom of the chest."
The German gas and artillery attack killed 5,000 men. Sergeant Grindley of the Canadian Fifteenth Battalion was one of hundreds carried off the battlefield into the primitive medical posts. The doctors had no idea how to treat gas casualties and two days later Grindley died, gasping for breath. The surgeon who treated him called it "air hunger." In blue pencil he scrawled a postmortem report:
The Body showed definite discoloration of the face and neck and hands. On opening the chest the two lungs bulged forward. On removing the lungs there exuded a considerable amount of frothy light yellow fluid, evidently highly albuminous, as slight beating was sufficient to solidify it like white of egg. The veins on the surface of the brain were found greatly congested, all the small vessels standing out prominently.3
Of those who survived the gas attack, 60 percent had to be sent home; half were still fully disabled at the end of the war.
Neither for the first time nor the last, men like Grindley-"lions led by donkeys"-suffered for the blunders of their commanders who for weeks beforehand had been warned of what the Germans were planning. Although the facts were suppressed at the time, we now know that on April 13, over a week before the first attack, a French patrol had captured a German soldier actually carrying a respirator. The soldier, a twenty-four-year-old private named August Jäger of Germany's Twenty-sixth Army Corps, revealed the German plan to use gas and described the position of the cylinders (the existence of which had already been confirmed by aerial reconnaissance). Jäger's information was passed to the French divisional commander, General Ferry, who in turn passed it on to the British and French high commands with the advice either that the men threatened be withdrawn or the gas emplacements bombarded. Both his warning and his advice were ignored. As the official British report on the affair-classed "secret" until almost sixty years after the attack-put it:
We were aware of the fact that the Germans were making preparations for the discharge of gas for several days previously. . . . Nobody seems to have realized the great danger that was threatening, it being considered that the enemy's attempt would certainly fail and that whatever gas reached our line could be easily fanned away. No one felt in the slightest degree uneasy. . . .4
Neither Ferry nor Jäger profited when their predictions were proved correct. Ferry was dismissed from his post by the French high command, furious at having their incompetence revealed. Jäger's fate was grimmer. In a memoir published in 1930, Ferry imprudently named him as the source of his information. Jäger, now a civilian, was promptly arrested, and at Leipzig in 1932 he was sentenced to ten years' penal servitude, the court deciding that his betrayal of German plans had helped cost them the war-the last and perhaps saddest casualty of the first gas attack.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.