Chlorine gas was first used as a weapon of war 100 years ago this week. One of the main developers of this fearsome gas for military use was Fritz Haber, a chemical expert and future winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was also a colleague of Albert Einstein, and it is reported that Einstein was horrified by the actions and philosophy of Haber.
Chlorine acts on the bodily fluids, and when inhaled, destroys the eyes, throat, and lungs. It causes the body to effectively drown in its own fluids.
Around 1,200 French soldiers were killed during the first five minutes of the first chlorine attack on April 22, 1915.
Piet Chielens, curator at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, said that the use of the gas was not only indiscriminate, but it also created “psychological terror.”
An article in the Daily Mail claims that German officers had waited over a week for the winds to favor an attack, ensuring that he gas would not be carried back to the German trenches. Eventually, Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn decided they must use the gas the next day or not use it all.
The chlorine gas was contained in 5,000 cylinders. The plan was to release the gas in the cold early morning when it would cling better to the ground, although this had to be deferred due to the wind direction. The gas was eventually released at 5 p.m.
Historian Ann Callens said that the gas was unexpectedly more effective than the generals had predicted, and the resultant attack by German troops secured more territory than had been gained in months.
The Allied forces waited until September of that year to use their own poison gas on the Germans at the battle of Loos. It is estimated that about one million soldiers suffered some effect from gas attacks and 90,000 died.
After chlorine, more sophisticated gasses were developed; eventually the allies deployed even more gas than the Germans — 82,000 tons compared to 68,000 tons. The final attack was launched three days before the armistice of November 11, 1918.
To commemorate the anniversary of the first use of chlorine gas, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will hold a meeting in the area of the original battlefields on Tuesday.