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New Weapons of the Great War
Gas Warfare:
The Hague Convention of 1899 discussed the issue of using chemicals as
weapons. The Contracting Powers agreed not to use projectiles whose sole
purpose was the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases. Delegates from
all of the attending countries except the United States signed the resolution.
Germany did not want to be the first to break The Hague Conventions, so they
sought an indication that the Allies were using gas. In August 1914, France
used 26-mm gas grenades during a battle. Newspaper reports of France
developing a liquid explosive, turpinite, which gave off lethal fumes, caused
Germany additional concern over France’s development and deployment of
chemical weapons. After a French bombardment that left soldiers dead due to
asphyxiation, Germany blamed the deaths on turpinite. Germany’s capture of a
French document, dated 21 February 1915, describing chloroacetone cartridges
and grenades and explaining their use, gave Germany more data to back up its
claim that France was using chemical weapons. These and other incidents
increased Germany’s belief that France was using gas. Moreover, the German
High Command felt that Germany was now free to used poison gas.
Ypres is the most famous of the chemical attacks, primarily because it was the
first gas cloud attack. The German High Command chose Ypres not because it
was the best place to use gas, but because the other German commanders
refused to use gas in their theaters. Ypres was not a good location for gas cloud
usage. The terrain is not even and the slight differences in terrain of 5 - 10
meters caused the gas cloud to move in unpredictable ways. The wind, which
dominates the use of gas clouds, was generally from the west. This meant that
the Germans had to ensure that when they released the chlorine, that a wind
from the east would blow the gas towards the enemy. This reliance on the wind
meant that planning for an exact day and time was very difficult and therefore
coordination with an infantry assault was extremely complicated. The infantry
that was to follow the gas cloud initially did not have any type of protection.
However, prior to the attack, the soldiers were issued mouthpads. Finally, after
several false alerts, Germany released approximately 150-168 tons of chlorine
against the Allied forces along a 7-kilometer front on the evening of 22 April
1915. The gas engulfed the Franco-Algerian soldiers that manned the front
lines. Many of these troops ran away, and hundreds lay dying in the 7 kilometer
wide opening that the gas caused. The German soldiers slowly advanced into
the breech created by the gas cloud. Canadian and British troops on the flanks
of the gas cloud quickly organized a defensive line approximately 7 kilometers
behind the initial front lines and stopped the Germans from advancing any
further. The German troops reached their initial objective, but the wear of
waiting approximately a month for favorable winds, and the sight of the
destruction that the gas cloud caused, limited them from advancing any further.
If the Germans would have had a large force in reserve, their advance could
have caused a break through, cutting the Allied defenses in half. However, the
Germans were not expecting such success from the new weapon and were
unprepared to take advantage of the situation.
When Germany launched its chlorine attack at Ypres on 22 April 1915, it
caught the world by surprise. It aroused world public opinion, which blamed
Germany for breaching The Hague Conventions. Germany justified its actions.
They stated that The Hague Conventions only discussed projectiles whose sole
purpose was the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases and did not
cover gases released by cylinders. The Germans also stated that France broke
the conventions first.
The primary gases used in World War I were chlorine, phosgene, a mix of
chlorine and phosgene, and mustard. Chlorine is an asphyxiating gas that
causes acute bronchitis with gradual suffocation and, "those who initially
survived a considerable dose generally died from pneumonia." Phosgene,
another asphyxiating gas, was deadlier than chlorine because it incapacitated a
solder in less than one-fourth of the time of chlorine (41 seconds vs. 240
seconds) and it required a much lower concentration to cause death. A
combination of chlorine and phosgene also caused severe injuries, depending
on how much of the gas a soldier breathed.. People seldom died when the
asphyxiating gas passed over them if they masked quickly enough and those
who breathed in small amounts of the gas usually recovered quickly. However,
those that were badly gassed soon suffered severe inflammation of the lungs.
The critical stage for these men usually occurred within three to four hours
after initially being gassed. At this point, either the soldier would recover after
sleeping, or his health would deteriorate further with death occurring within the
next twenty-four hours. Mustard Gas was first used at Ypres in 1917. Mustard
gas produces a large amount of casualties that require extensive medical
treatment. This is a pungent-smelling "blister" gas, tiny droplets of which could
still burn the skin after five hours. Initially some soldiers did not realize that
they had been gassed with mustard because the effects were not apparent for up
to twelve hours after exposure — at this point Breathing the gas caused
bronchitis. An unidentified Allied nurse stated:
"I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a
holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on
no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean,
could see a case - to say nothing of ten cases - of mustard
gas in its early stages - could see the poor things burnt and
blistered all over with great mustard-colored suppurating
blisters, with blind eyes . . .all sticky and stuck together,
always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper,
saying that their throats are closing and they know they will
The German Army first began experimenting with flame-throwers in 1900 and
were issued to special battalions eleven years later. The flame-thrower used
pressurized air, carbon dioxide or nitrogen to force oil through a nozzle. Ignited
by a small charge, the oil became a jet of flame.
Flame-throwers were first used at the Western Front in October 1914. Operated
by two men, they were mainly used to clear enemy soldiers from front-line
trenches. At first they had a range of 25 meters but later this was increased to
40 meters. This meant they were only effective over narrow areas of No Man's
Land. Another problem was that the flame-thrower was difficult to move
around and only contained enough oil to burn 40 seconds at the time. Soldiers
who operated flame-throwers had a short-life span because as soon as they used
them they were the target of rifle and machine-gun fire.
The British Army also experimented with flame-throwers. However, they
found short-range jets inefficient. They also developed four 2-ton thrower that
could send a flame over 30 yards. These were introduced in July 1916 but
within a couple of weeks two had been destroyed. Although these large flamethrowers initially created panic amongst German soldiers, the British were
unable to capture the trenches under attack. With this failure, the British
generals decided to abandon the use of flame-throwers.
Prior to World War I, naval opinion considered the submarine an ineffective
weapon for blockading an enemy country. Submarines, filled with exposed
piping and crammed with machinery, had no space to take prisoners aboard.
Additionally, the submarine could never carry enough sailors to [U-boat in an
angry sea] provide crews to man captured ships. Therefore, the submarine was
considered a useless weapon against civilian shipping.
In February 1915 the German government announced its solution to the
problem -- unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans realized they didn't
have to capture a merchant ship, just sink it - crew and all. They declared a war
zone around the British Isles within which they would sink any allied merchant
vessel on sight. Fifty ships were hit between February and September including
the liner Lusitania. One hundred thirty-eight Americans were among the 1,198
lives lost in the Lusitania sinking. American public opinion was outraged,
many clamoring for war. President Wilson protested to the Germans. Afraid
that America might join the war, and mindful that they didn't have enough subs
to do the job right, the Germans suspended their campaign -- but only
In February 1917, with U-boats available in quantity, the Germans again
declared their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. This time not only
allied but neutral ships (such as those of the U.S.) would be sunk on sight. It
was a big gamble. The Germans knew it would bring America into the war.
But, they reasoned they could starve the Brits out first. It was a gamble they
almost won. By April, when America declared war , Britain was almost on its
knees. Over 1,030 merchant ships had been sunk and Britain was only six
weeks away from starvation. The introduction of the escorted convoy helped
saved the day. Ship losses dropped dramatically and the supply route from
America to Britain began to flow.
Machine Guns
The 1914 machine gun, usually positioned on a flat tripod, would require a
guncrew of up to half a dozen operators. They could fire some 400-600 smallcalibre rounds per minute, a figure that was to more than double by the war's
end, with rounds fed via a fabric belt or a metal strip.
These early machine guns, together with their successors, would rapidly
overheat and become inoperative without the aid of cooling mechanisms.
Cooling generally took one of two forms: air cooled and water cooled. Air
vents would be built into the machine guns for the former and water jackets
provided for the latter. Water cooled machine guns would still overheat
relatively quickly (even within two minutes), with the consequence that several
spare water jackets would need to be on hand in the heat of a battle (and, when
these ran out, it was not unknown for a
machine gun crew to solve the problem by urinating into the jacket). Whether
air or water cooled, machine guns still jammed frequently, especially in hot
conditions or when used by inexperienced operators.
Consequently machine guns would often be grouped together to maintain a
constant defensive position. Estimates of their equivalent rifle firepower varied,
with some estimating a single machine gun to be worth as many as 60-100
rifles: a more consensual figure is around 80, still an impressively high figure.
The carnage caused by the machine guns began to raise the question of whether
or not war was the price paid for the land gained. The use of the machine gun
certainly begged the question as to whether war in the future should be used
simply "as an extension of foreign policy."
The name tank came when the British shipped them to battle's in crates marked
"tanks" trying to cover up what they really were. The first battle in which tanks
were implemented was the Battle of the Somme, on September 15, 1916. The
weapons immediately proved effective. The British gained more ground in the
first day of tank use than they had in the previous several months. Thirty-six
tanks were initially brought into action. Most of these, however, were soon out
of action due to mechanical failures or flipping over on the battlefield. Tanks
also ad a difficult time in the muddy soil often getting stuck and were unable to
be pulled out due to their enormous weight. French tanks which couldn't cross
over trenches were even less effective. Little more than a year later, however,
in November 1917, 400 British tanks penetrated German lines near Cambrai,
capturing 8000 of the enemy and 100 guns. This initial success soon
encouraged all "modern" countries to begin a tank building program and
innaguated the mobile warfare used in the Second World War.
1. Name 4 gases used in WWI and explain how they killed.
2. Name the respective drawbacks of gas warfare, flamethrowers,
submarines, machine guns, and tanks.
3. Why did the Germans take the risk of restarting unrestricted submarine
4. What was the range of the flamethrower when it was first used in WWI?
What did it become after improvements were made?
5. Why, in your opinion, with modern weapons more capable of
destruction; why have politicians and leaders failed to reevaluate
decisions to take nations to war?