Above is a photograph of Russian soldiers killed by chlorine gas. I seldom use gruesome images to make a point, but that only makes this day all the more meaningful, for today the human race graduates from its previous petty conflicts to a whole new level of mass-murder. A confluence of industrialized production, scientific advancement, and wartime emergency are about to send Germany past a fateful line of no return, splitting history into the time before weapons of mass destruction and everything after.
Near Bolimów, troops under Field Marshall August von Mackensen fire 18,000 ‘T-shells’ (also called Tappen-shells, or T-stoff), named for the initial of their inventor, Professor Hans von Tappen of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin, at their Russian opponents. Professor Tappen has designed these weapons to carry seven pounds of liquid xylyl bromide (a kind of teargas), burst with a shrapnel effect, and force Germany’s enemies from their bunkers and fortified trenches by turning the air in them unbreathable. We may therefore regard his invention as another attempted technological answer to the tactical problems of the trench warfare stalemate that has settled in on all fronts.
Today’s attack is also a sign of strategic desperation. Germany’s new Ottoman ally is losing battles; their old Austrian ally is fighting just to keep more of her neighbors from swarming her borders; a blockade is crippling German industries as her armies struggle in the static warfare of the day. It is no coincidence that, just as the German General Staff settles on gas warfare as a solution, the German Admiralty also turns to unrestricted U-boat warfare. The two events are absolutely related.
Mackensen’s troops follow up the bombardment with a general assault. However, the freezing temperatures render the xylyl bromide mostly inert — an effect unforeseen by Professor Tappen — and a shift in the winds sends much of the remaining vapor back into the faces of the charging German troops. The attack is swiftly called off when it becomes clear that the operation is a failure. A few Russians are injured or suffocated by the gas, but because the main assault fails, the Stavka (Russian General Staff) neglects to inform their allies about what has transpired here.
The Great War is also known as ‘the war of chemists,’ and for good reason. Germany’s use of both submarines and gases is made possible by their national advantage in the chemical sciences, and in fact the man who first proposed the use of poison gas as a battlefield weapon to the Kaiser is on hand to witness today’s abortive operation. Unworried by the failure, Fritz Haber has another plan to use canisters placed all along the line, opening the valves when the wind is favorable so as to send a cloud of lethal toxins across no man’s land. He will get his first chance to try this tactic on unprepared enemy troops in April.
Of course, once it appears on the battlefield, the success of gas as a weapon is immediately constrained by countermeasures. Soldiers are by nature resilient and adaptable, no matter what army they serve, so before the first gas attacks are over there are already field-expedient defenses available — for example, Canadian troops urinate on cotton rags and breathe through them, nullifying the effects of the gas. It soon becomes apparent that chemical warfare is only effective against the unprepared defender: if men have time to put on masks, the gas will not drive them off or discourage them from resisting attacks. Thus chemical weapons have a limited utility from the beginning that is only reduced with advances in defensive technology.
This also explains why the casualty ratios of Eastern and Western fronts are so vastly different. While France, Britain, and eventually the United States will suffer more than 430,000 gas casualties, there are only 17,600 deaths. Germany suffers about 200,000 casualties, but only 9,000 deaths. Russian sources estimate that of the 420,000-500,000 casualties sustained from gas attacks, more than 56,000 are killed — a quantitative difference that shouldn’t be surprising. Already hard-pressed by material shortages of ammunition, food, and fuel, the Russian ‘war machine’ is never able to manufacture and distribute protective masks to its armies like their allies can. Nor does Russia’s meager chemical industry have the means to produce chemical agents for a response in kind.
The journey to this day has not been one-sided, however. French pioneer regiments went to war with 30,000 26-millimeter tear gas rockets (cartouches suffocantes) that had been used to suppress riots in Paris in 1912. From August of 1914, Germans suspected these weapons were used against them on the battlefield, and became increasingly sure of their evidence in a series of propaganda statements. On October 27th, a barrage of three thousand ‘Ni-shells,’ a shrapnel shell filled with sneezing powder named for inventor Hermann Walther Nernst, were fired against British and Indian troops at Neuve Chappelle, having no effect. From the German point of view, today is merely the latest escalation in six months of chemical warfare by both sides.
Nor can we simply denounce men like Haber as evil. Like all of Germany’s Great War scientists, he was first and foremost a patriot, and his legacy is a complex matter which defies easy pigeonholing. In 1915, Haber is already responsible for inventing the first practical, cheap way to take nitrogen from the air and turn it into high explosives — or fertilizer. Indirect fire using the former product will account for most battlefield deaths in the 20th Century, while most people alive today depend on Haber’s latter legacy to sustain life. After leading the development program which results in the Great War’s most horrific weapons, he receives the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918; it is his reward for an invention that will feed billions of people.
By then, he has prevented millions of Germans from starving under the British blockade of nitrate fertilizer, extending the war when Germany would otherwise have run out of the means to sustain their fight. A Jew, Haber’s darkest legacy is the Zyklon agent developed by his lab and later used by a different German government to exterminate millions of his fellow Jews, including his own family members. It is the age of total war, when entire peoples are weaponized — and targeted.