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.
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.
French Cuirassiers only a year before WWI would begin, looking much the same as they did under Napoleon; ca. 1913
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!”
British soldier with experimental body armor meeting with his medieval counterpart; ca. October 1917
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.
German soldiers on outpost duty near Antwerp, sharing their food with Belgian orphans, published in 1915.
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
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.
The raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, which took place on 16 December 1914, was an attack by the Imperial German Navy on the British seaport towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool, West Hartlepool, and Whitby. The attack resulted in 137 fatalities and 592 casualties, many of whom were civilians. The attack resulted in public outrage towards the German navy for an attack against civilians, and against the Royal Navy for its failure to prevent the raid.
Australian soldiers blinded in a German gas attack at an aid station near Villers-Bretonneux, France; May 27, 1918.
The Germans were using mustard gas at Villers-Bretonneux. A mild dose would result in the eyelids swelling up to the point where the casualty would be temporarily blinded, more severe exposure could damage their eyes to the point where they’d be blind permanently.
Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen, officer in the German Army, wearing the Totenkopf (skull and cross bones) which was part of German military gear since the 18th century
Anton Ludwig August von Mackensen (6 December 1849 – 8 November 1945), born August Mackensen, was a German soldier and field marshal. He commanded with success during the First World War and became one of the German Empire’s most prominent military leaders. After the Armistice, Mackensen was interned for a year. He retired from the army in 1920 and was made a Prussian state councillor in 1933 by Hermann Göring. During the Nazi era, Mackensen remained a committed monarchist and sometimes appeared at official functions in his First World War uniform. He was suspected of disloyalty to the Third Reich, although nothing was proved against him at this time.
I’ve always found it a nice detail how he continued to show up in his old imperial Prussian officers uniform long after the empire had fallen. (Prussia was one of several states that unified and became Germany in the late 1800s. Before that there was no one country called Germany, it was Prussia, Bavaria, etc.)
Here he is at the funeral of Wilhelm II in 1941:
Russian infantry take cover during their battle against the Austro-Hungarian army, at the beginning of World War I; ca. August 1914
- The Kaiserschlacht offensives had massively overstretched the Germans. Ludendorff had aimed to use reinforcements from the now defunct Eastern Front to smash through the Allied defences and end the war before the Americans could arrive in large enough numbers to turn the tide of the war. Instead what the Kaiserschlacht achieved was giving the Germans control of large swathes of tactically unimportant land in exchange for their last reserves and the deaths of many of their best soldiers who had been grouped into the stormtrooper brigades and suffered disproportionate losses. Furthermore as Operation Michael et al were smashing through the Allied positions, the Germans came across Allied supply dumps and started looting and getting drunk, seeing how well the British and French soldiers were still living compared to conditions on the German side and how even after all the efforts of the Kaiserschlacht the war continued, German morale started to suffer serious degradation. This combined with the almost disastrous conditions of the German Home Front where the British blockade was destroying the Home Front and people were coming close to starvation. Unrest and political upheaval grew with every month and although the German Army would fight until the very end it was suffering from serious morale problems by the end as commented upon by British soldiers when capturing Germans during this period.
- Allied tactical improvement. The operations planned during the Hundred Days were so much more sophisticated than the blundering at the Somme or the Nivelle Offensive. The BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had been on a ‘learning curve’ since ’14 adapting to the modern state of war and increasing their tactical ability with every battle fought and every lesson learned. Although battles such as the Somme had been a disaster they had taught the British important lessons and even by early ’17 you can see a clear improvement in British tactical planning. By ’18 the Allied armies (especially the British) had absorbed these lessons and developed the beginnings of true combined arms tactics. Infantry tactics had become devolved to the men on the ground and focused around the platoon rather than large formations of men. This allowed the infantry to be much more efficient and reactive compared to the botched large formation basic orders of the Somme for instance. Each infantry platoon was also far more heavily equipped than their equivalent in ’14-’17 with more machine guns and grenades than ever before. Behind the lines the artillery had mastered its art, was able to fire bombardments without being able to see the enemy to maximise surprise (using maths to calculate their position), was now extensively using hurricane bombardments to further maximise the surprise and was heavily using creeping barrages and leaping barrages. It had become so effective at co-operating with the infantry that a barrage could timed to perfectly match the advance of the infantry, covering their attack on the German trenches and giving the Germans no time to react until the advancing infantry were upon them before then lifting forwards to the German rear lines to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their positions under attack. Elsewhere tanks were present in ever increasing numbers supporting the infantry and enabling them to break through trenchworks while providing mobile heavy fire. It’s important to note these were not the speedy panzer divisions of ’39-’45 and still performed a support role to the infantry. Finally aircraft were being used in increasing numbers, doing innovative things such as air-dropping supplies, dropping smoke bombs over the battlefield and chasing and strafing retreating German soldiers preventing them from regrouping once a breach had been made in the German lines. At the same time Whippet Tanks, which were more mobile versions of the main British tank (although still far from what we’d consider mobile) were also involved in widening and exploiting any breaches made. All these factors combined: improved infantry tactics, massively improved artillery tactics and increased and innovative usage of tanks and aircraft combined to give the Allies almost the precursor of modern warfare and something that the Germans had no reply to. They could now easily break into German lines and make advances of 5/6 miles a day in some cases but this would be useless if it wasn’t tied to improved strategic decision making.
- At the same time strategic decision making improved massively. Rather than simply batter the same positions for months at a time even though the chance for breakthrough had ended, as soon as the first few days of an assault were over and the breakthrough slowed down the Allies switched their point of attack. While this was happening all the Allied armies were attacking at the same time, the British from Flanders and Northern France, the French in the centre, the Americans in the south in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This constant stream of hammerblows across the entire front and the constant switching of the focus prevented the Germans from reinforcing their positions and no sooner had one breakthrough been halted, another would open up somewhere else on the front. This stretched the Germans so much that by late October it had broken them into a full on fighting retreat. Behind this huge exertion of resources and manpower was the sheer materiel superiority of the Allies, to enable such a concerted and continuous chain of offensives required a huge amount of resources and by this point of the war the Allies (now with America on full war footing) were massively outproducing the Germans in almost every metric possible.
So the reasons why the Hundred Days was so effective was the declining state of the German Army and it’s failure to win the war with the Kaiserschlacht, the sheer materiel superiority of the Allies and finally their ability to put together the lessons of the past four years into true battle winning tactics that look more like the tactics of ’39-’45 than they do the tactics of ’16 and before. America’s entry into the war wasn’t so much the ‘turning point’ in terms of their military contribution, that was still relatively speaking lesser than the British and French even in November ’18 but more in terms of forcing the Germans to launch the Kaiserschlacht in early 1918 and gamble on victory before the Americans could arrive in large numbers. Unfortunately that gamble failed for them and weakened the German Army, then when the Allied launched the Hundred Days, the culmination of four years of bloody lessons, there was only going to be one result.