Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “World War One

Chemical Warfare in World War One

Most historians of the war argue that poison gas on the battlefield was a failure and usually measure its effectiveness based on its lethality. But Tim Cook argues in No Place to Run that this may be true in that gas was not a “war-winning weapon,” but historians should remember that gas was a much more “complicated and nuanced weapon.” It was far more effective at removing men from combat and leaving fear and unrest among its survivors. One soldier wrote that “it is a terrible and hateful sensation to be choked and suffocated and unable to get breath: a casualty from gun fire may be dying from his wounds, but they don’t give him the sensation that his life is being strangled out of him.” Thus, gas was effective for many reasons other than its lethality.

One, it was a weapon of fear. There was no escape from gas on the battlefield, there was no way to tell if you were actually out of range of the gas cloud, or it would be trapped in the buried earth of an artillery shell blast, or even spending a night in a respirator because a sentry mistook fog for a phosgene gas cloud. As Cook’s title notes, there was “no place to run.”

Two, gas was primarily a casualty-causing agent rather than a killer. Cook notes that in 1918 when the Germans were using mustard gas, British gas casualties rose to from 7.2% in 1917 to 15% of total casualties. Yet, at the same fatality rates from gas dropped from 3.4% in 1917 to 2.4% in 1918. Gas wounded soldiers required their comrades to bring them off the battlefield, clogging up supply lines, aid stations and weakening the manpower available to actually continue an offensive. Or, imagine heading to the frontlines while passing the lines of gurgling, choking men who would never die from their wounds but would never recover either. The fear of gas was a far more important weapon than the casualties inflicted.

Even gas casualties statistics are misleading. The British army reports somewhere between 1.1 and 1.3 million gas casualties in the war, of which 91,000 died. This is not as large a number as you might think. Mostly it looks as if gas warfare was ineffective. For example, if the Germans released 600 canisters of chlorine gas and only caused 50 British casualties, this would be seen as a failure. Yet that attack would force the entire line of British soldiers to wear respirators for the duration of the battle – drastically changing the nature of the engagement even without the statistics to prove success.

Both armies on the Western Front (dont know much about other theatres) quickly adapted to the reality of gas warfare. Soldiers were trained to put on masks and protective gear quickly and without thinking – even a few seconds could save you from decades of agony or death. Intensive gas training was increasingly a part of an effective unit’s ability to fight on the battlefields of the Western Front, as there was always the fear of gas in any battle by the last years of the war. Soldiers had to act without thinking – the second the whistle blew that gas was spotted, or when a gas shell landed 5 metres in front of you, you had to immediately adjust your gear or put on your mask, and then keep fighting. Any hesitation could be lethal. Total gas warfare, when both sides began using choking gas, tear gas, and gas that burned any skin it came in contact with, meant that armies had to be trained at many levels. Small things like Doctors removing contaminated fabric from the wounded to avoid gas burns had to be “learned” in medical services dealing with gas casualties. Still, total preparation did not stop gas casualties. Hiding gas shells in the midst of a high explosive artillery barrage could catch soldiers unaware, or gas stuck in shell holes, or gas mixing with the mud and water of the trenches. Days after an attack, a soldier might be discovered dead after digging a hole to rest in during the night, or severely burned as water shifted in the muddy landscape onto a soldier as he slept.

Cook’s work on gas warfare stands out as one of the few historical studies that belie the established narrative in the Canadian literature on the war. I am not sure how other nations’ historians have treated it. Unlike other Canadian historians of the First World War, such as Duguid and Nicholson, Cook’s writing on gas warfare provides depth to the history of the weapon as more than simply an immoral tool of war. He argued that the “gas environment” where a soldier had to fear a gas attack at any moment, or endure fighting within the gas cloud, had had dramatic consequences for all the soldiers of the war. Cooks attempts to re-imagine the entire soldier experience of the trenches as one equally marked by toxic gas as by artillery shells and machine gun bullets. The image of the war he describes presents an important but subtle difference from what other historians have written. It is an atrocious world where the brief moments of courage do little to overcome the unending horrors of gas warfare. It was “like water rotting wood,” Cook writes, “not often immediately deadly, but … constant, insidious, and demoralizing.” His picture has little in common with the image of the successful, deadly, and honourable Canadian soldier. By the end of the war during the Hundred Days, Cook argues that “the Canadian way of war was steeped in poison gas.” Consider that 1 in 4 American casualties were from gas warfare, which demonstrates how the lack of proper gas protocols in the unbloodied American army severely affected their fighting capability. Gas warfare was a reality of the Western Front, one to which armies had to adapt or perish. So while most historians, and popular memory, acknowledge the pervasiveness of gas warfare in the First World War, few address its totality and its effects on tactics and operations.

Gas warfare wasn’t technically banned until the 1925 Geneva Protocol, and even still chemical agents have been used since the First World War. The Italians used it against the Abyssinians in the 30s, Japan used it against the Chinese, there are unconfirmed reports that Egypt used it against Yemen in the 60s, the United States’ use of napalm in Vietnam, allegations of Soviet use in Afghanistan in the 80s, and of course Iraq using it against Iran also in the 80s. One of the biggest fears of the American Army as it entered Iraq in the First Gulf War was being confronted with chemical warfare.


Russian trenches in the forests of Sarikamish, WWI; ca. 1914-15

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The Battle of Sarikamish was an engagement between the Russian and Ottoman empires during World War I. It took place from December 22, 1914 to January 17, 1915 as part of the Caucasus Campaign.

The outcome was a Russian victory. The Ottomans employed a strategy which demanded that their troops be highly mobile and to arrive at specified objectives at precise times. This approach was based both on German and Napoleonic tactics. The Ottoman troops, ill-prepared for winter conditions, suffered major casualties in the Allahuekber Mountains.

Afterward, Ottoman leader Enver Pasha publicly blamed his defeat on Armenians and the battle served as a prelude to the Armenian Genocide.

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French Cuirassiers only a year before WWI would begin, looking much the same as they did under Napoleon; ca. 1913

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And for most of that first year of fighting in WWI, they continued to look like this. French soldiers were massacred because of these dated outfits.


At the outbreak of war the French Army retained the colourful traditional uniforms of the nineteenth century for active service wear. These included conspicuous features such as blue coats and red trousers for the infantry and cavalry. The French cuirassiers wore plumed helmets and breastplates almost unchanged from the Napoleonic period. From 1903 on several attempts had been made to introduce a more practical field dress but these had been opposed by conservative opinion both within the army and amongst the public at large. In particular, the red trousers worn by the infantry became a political debating point. Adolphe Messimy who was briefly Minister of War in 1911-1912 stated that “This stupid blind attachment to the most visible of colours will have cruel consequences”; however, in the following year, one of his successors, Eugène Étienne, declared “Abolish red trousers? Never!”

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Dead soldier beneath crucifix WWI; ca. 1917

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British soldier with experimental body armor meeting with his medieval counterpart; ca. October 1917

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Before the First World War, no military used true protective helmets; Pith helmets and Pickelhaubes technically are helmets, but offer very little protection against bullet fragments and shell splinters. Similarly, any armor used previously to the First World War would be of medieval-inspired designs, for instance in the armor found on heavy cavalry. Even the French helmet from that conflict was designed with medieval aesthetics in mind.

In the First World War context, modern body armor would have primarily been used for machine gunners and others in static positions exposed to heavy small arms fire. This, though, is the most modern in appearance and design that I’ve seen – the groin protector is surprisingly sophisticated.

The First World War was the true introduction of so much modern military equipment on a vast scale: helmets and body armor designed for modern threats, gas masks, tanks, fighter and bomber aircraft, light machine guns, submachine guns, semi-automatic battle rifles, and more. The Second World War, with the exception of the nuclear bomb, offered more incremental improvements than revolutionary ones.


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Body of French boy blown into a tree by German shellfire at Avocourt Wood (Battle of Verdun); ca. 1916

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circus elephant from a Belgian zoo is put to work on a Belgian farm during World War I. Horses and mules were drafted to aid in the war effort, which left a shortage for farmers in Europe; ca. 1915

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German soldiers on outpost duty near Antwerp, sharing their food with Belgian orphans, published in 1915.

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The basic Pickelhaube, as seen in the photo, was made of hardened (boiled) leather, given a glossy-black finish, and reinforced with a metal trim. Starting in 1892, a light brown cloth helmet cover, the M1892 Überzug, was issued for use during manoeuvres and active service. The Überzug was intended to protect the helmet from dirt and reduce its combat visibility, as the metallic fittings were highly reflective. As you mentioned regimental numbers were then sewn or stencilled onto the front of the cover.

This photo was most likely staged to generate evidence that countered Great Britain’s aggressive propaganda campaign against the German occupation of Belgium. Given this assumption there would be little reason for these men to don their Überzug.

As the war progressed, and Britain’s blockade limited Germanys leather supply, the economic factors you mentioned drove the government to produce Pickelhauben from thin sheet steel. However by 1915, as demand rapidly outpaced supply, pressurized felt and even paper was used to construct pickelhauben

By 1916, the Pickelhaube was slowly replaced the the new Stahlhelm (steel helmet) which offered greater over-all head protection.


Today in 1918, Manfred von Richtofen, World War I’s greatest flying ace, was shot down in his Red Fokker Triplane by a single bullet through his heart. Here is the Red Baron in a sweater in happier times; ca. 1917

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He landed in enemy territory, and the RAF gave him a funeral with full military honors, befitting a legendary military aviator such as himself. It’s strange how a sense of professional respect can transcend the hatred of enemies, especially in the case of an enemy who had personally killed so many RAF pilots.

He was a dangerous enemy, but he was truly admired.


A German dog hospital, treating wounded dispatch dogs coming from the front; ca. 1918

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