Searching For Traces Of 1914 Contact Poison gas - the silent killer

Poison gas - the silent killer

Our sound-story treats the topic of the revolutionary use of poison gas during the first world war. To offer a complex view on the topic we decided to mix several quotations and factual texts up.

English version:

Poison gas- the silent killer

"A grey-green cloud had reached them and had destroyed everything it had touched and had killed all plants. Then the French soldiers staggered in the middle of us. They were blind, they coughed, they panted, their faces were bright red. Their fear of death had made them speechless, and behind them, in the gas-filled ditches, we noticed that they had left behind hundreds of dead and dying comrades."

Gas clouds were produced in air pressure cylinders and were dependent on the wind which should blow the gas towards the enemies. In a gas attack most of the time this resulted in panicking soldiers who were not prepared for this weapon of mass destruction.

"The history of the art of war goes back to the beginning of the gas attack on the 22nd of April 1915, because on this day an unquestioned military success by means of gas weapons had been achieved for the first time."

So this 22nd of April 1915 with its estimated 1200 dead and 3000 wounded people is also regarded as the birth of modern weapons of mass destruction. As Fritz Haber, the Director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, and his general staff finally gave the order for the first gas attack in which the German army was far more effective than expected. The intended panic that should be spread among the French was significantly more intense than expected.

"Haber had cherished the hope that peace could be established faster by means of the gas attacks."

"Mother, tonight at 2 o´clock as I stood guard, the English made a very strong gas attack. On my left three gas grenades exploded not more than three metres away from me. Before being able to put my gas mask on and to alarm the dugout I had swallowed a bit of a gas"

"The reports, however, show that the troops equipped with masks and other gas repellents did not have more than 3-4% dead due to the use of gas. This implies that the gas weapon is not only one of the most effective weapons, but it can also be changed into one of the most humane weapons."

Such a concentrated amount of phosgene with the only aim to kill the enemy was not used before 1916. Because of the bad protection of the troops the use of chlorine, mustard gas, arsine or smaller amounts of phosgene also led to serious injuries many soldiers consequently died of. Direct effects were initially only coughing, shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, nausea or weakness. Some hours later the soldiers were diagnosed with blisters, fluid retention or inner and outer skin burns. The resulting consequences, which forced most of the soldiers to a monthlong stoppage, were damages to respiratory organs, the heart and circulatory system, but mostly lung, liver or other types of cancer.

"The voice is toneless, the coughing is dry and hoarse. Invalids are lying crouched there, sullen and desperate. They are mumbling and moaning softly. They are not eager for a kind word. If you want to dress their wounds again, they beg and cry: Please, do not touch the dressing, don´t dress the wounds again because it will be such a horrible pain. There are sick people who have been lying there for months. The wounds heal so extraordinarily badly"

"When the minor cases were taken away, everyone had to be guided one by one, like a blind man, to the ambulance. Their faces were often extremely red and swollen, mainly the more serious cases had small blisters on the lower part of the face, under the chin and sometimes on the neck. Several invalids had painful, blistered spots on the back of the thighs, on the back of the body and even on the scrotum, with scrotum and penis edema."

Germany's first use of grenades and thus the first step towards the gas war is recorded in Neuve Chapelle on the 27th of October 1914. The success of the poison grenades, however, fell behind the expectations of the Germans, because the irritation of mucous membranes and of the upper respiratory system seemed insufficient for a weapon of war, and its effect on the enemy was almost undetected.

"I raised the objection that the use of toxins is probably internationally unconstitutional, whereupon he replied that the French had already tried something similar in the fall of 1914 with rifle grenades so we would not be the ones beginning with this way of fighting,. One would also need to take the means of war that lead to a rapid end of the war."

"Because of the gas the company commander and eight men in the seventh company are dead, and many are ill. A lot of them will finally die. Many of the twelfth company are gas-sick, too. They will not get ill before the day after."

In addition to the 500,000 injured people, the gas war claimed 20,000 dead people at the western front. This allows to draw the conclusion that 3, 4% of war victims died or got injured because of the gas war. However, there are no reliable figures as regards deaths and injuries at the eastern front, especially in the Russian Imperial Army ranks.

"The gas weapons are more cruel than flying pieces of iron."

"Hopefully this genocidal war will come to an end soon. Yet the English troops had to carry away their dead soldiers en masse after one of the successful German gas attacks, in the course of which they continued to lose thousands in less than two hours. (What was destroyed by the artillery is out of all proportion.) The techniques of war are therefore on the best way to devastate complete armies 'without bloodshed' by suffocating them and letting them fall asleep then."

"I must confess that the task of poisoning the enemies like rats goes against the grain. Every decent sentient soldier will feel the same. But perhaps Ypres could only be defeated with the poisonous gas, and thus, a decisive victory could be won. Because of such a high aim all concerns had to be neglected."

Chemical warfare has made killing a much more self-evident and above all more anonymous act and therefore has clearly changed the image of the "knightly fight" of man against man. The gas presented itself as an innovative ammunition, as it impeded the living and fighting conditions of the enemy and also caused the death of those enemies. During the gas war, the provisions of the Hague Convention were passed over without scruple to win the race of the effectiveness of warfare material.

"We must convince science that chemical and biological warfare is not a dirty business. It is not worse than other methods of killing. "Fenn College"

"It is not to be predicted what kind of change could make chemical warfare dispensable as long as wars are waged between nations being on the same technical level of development. On the contrary! The relative importance of chemical warfare material will (...) continue to increase because the development of this knowledge and formation concerning this material has just started."

"One has heard many views on the humanity of the gas war since World War II . Anyone who has ever seen a gas-sick patient suffering from pulmonary edema at their height must fall silent if he still has a scrap of humanity in himself."

History has taught us that humanity loses all its importance in a war,. The idea and the beginning of killing as many human beings as possible with chemical warfare material have destroyed any gleam of hope of believing in people’s humanity. The first use of these weapons of mass destruction in Ypres left a mark on the entire last century. But even if it had not been used for the first time at that time, the strong desire for victory, superiority and power would certainly have started this chapter at some point or other in time. And Fritz Haber was right in saying that the end of World War I did not mean the end. Auschwitz and Hiroshima are only the most outstanding events proving the steady abuse of chemical warfare in human history.

Hannah Ochmann, Pia Poredos, Daniela Erhardt

Hans Brotkorb
Jesco von Eichmann
Sirka Elspaß
Marvin Fischer
Andreas Flocke
Lennart Hemme
Annika Mergehenn
Gottfried Mergehenn
Heinz-Bernd Meurer
Reinhard Schöpke
Hendrik Thiele
Manfred Witt

Ulrich Otto

Musical score:
Felix Heinicke

Supported by:
Industriemuseum Oberhausen
Universität Siegen
Radio Essen
Bürgerfunkstudio Oberhausen