First Gas Attack on the Western Front -April 22, 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres

Excerpt from A History of the Great War by Arthur Conan Doyle (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1917), Vol. Two, pp. 48, 49 (describing the first mass gas attack on the Western Front).

[…] Up to the third week of April the enemy opposite the French had consisted of the Twenty-sixth Corps, with the Fifteenth Corps on the right, all under the Duke of Württemberg, whose headquarters were at Thielt. There were signs, however, of secret concentration which had not entirely escaped the observation of the Allied aviators, and on April 20 and 21 the German guns showered shells on Ypres. About 5 p.m. upon Thursday, April 22, a furious artillery bombardment from Bixschoote to Langemarck began along the French lines, including the left of the Canadians, and it was reported that the Forty­ fifth French Division was being heavily attacked. At the same time a phenomenon was observed which would seem to be more in place in the pages of a romance than in the record of an historian. From the base of the German trenches over a considerable length there appeared jets of whitish vapour, which gathered and swirled until they settled into a   definite low cloud-bank, greenish-brown below and yellow above, where it reflected the rays of the sinking sun. This ominous bank of vapour, impelled by a northern breeze, drifted swiftly across the space which separated the two lines. The French troops, staring over the top of their parapet at this curious screen which ensured them a temporary relief from fire, were observed suddenly to throw up their hands, to clutch at their throats, and to fall to the ground in the agonies of asphyxiation. Many lay where they had fallen, while their comrades, absolutely helpless against this diabolical agency, rushed madly out of the mephitic mist and made for the rear, over-running the lines of trenches behind them. Many of them never halted until they had reached Ypres, while others rushed westwards and put the canal between themselves and the enemy. The Germans, meanwhile, advanced, and took possession of the successive lines of trenches, tenanted only by the dead garrisons, whose blackened faces, contorted figures, and lips fringed with the blood and foam from their bursting lungs, showed the agonies in which they had died. Some thousands of stupefied prisoners, eight batteries of French field-guns, and four British 4.7’s, which had been placed in a wood behind the French position, were the trophies won by this disgraceful victory. The British heavy guns belonged to the Second London Division, and were not deserted by their gunners until the enemy’s infantry were close upon them, when the strikers were removed from the breech-blocks and the pieces abandoned. It should be added that both the young officers present, Lieuts. Sandeman and Hamilton Field, died beside their guns after the tradition of their corps. […]

1914 – The Advent of Modern War

“As the minds of both soldiers and civilians bent themselves to the great contest, it was inevitable that they should be busied with forecasts. All agreed that the war would be of a magnitude never known before in history, and that most of the problems would be different in kind from those of the past. During the last half century revolution had succeeded revolution. The invention of the internal combustion engine had provided motor transport and airplanes. Field telephones and wireless telegraphy had altered the system of communication among troops. The cannon had passed through a series of bewildering metamorphoses, till it had reached the 75mm. field gun and the mighty siege howitzer. No single weapon of war but had a hundredfold increased its range and precision. The old minor tactics, the old transport and intelligence methods were now, it appeared, as completely out of date as the stage coach and the China clipper. There would be no room in the Higher Command for the brilliant guesses, the sudden unexpected strokes, or the personal heroisms of old days. It would no longer be necessary to divine, like Wellington at Assaye, what was happening behind a hill. In one sense, many argued, the problem would be simpler, at least it would have fewer elements; but these elements would be difficult to control, and from their novelty, impossible to estimate. There was a general agreement that modern war was a venture into the unknown, and that while the existence of the new factors was plain, their working was incalculable.

“Let us glance at some of these new factors. The chief was the vast numbers now destined for the battlefield. The greatest action of the old regime was the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig, but there the combatants numbered only 472,000. At Sadowa there were 436,000, at Gravelotte 300,000. (A useful summary of the numbers engaged in the chief battles of the nineteenth century will be found in Otto Berndt’s Die Zahl im Kriege.) In the Russo-Japanese war the armies had been greater–Mukden, for example, had been fought on a front of eighty miles, had lasted for three weeks, and had engaged 700,000 men. But in the coming war it was plain that the number of troops, the length of the front, and the duration of actions must be indefinitely enlarged. The improvement in firearms would itself, as Schlieffen had pointed out in 1909, lead to a great extension of fighting front. The handling of such masses over such an area meant that railways would be of the first importance. Moltke, in 1870, had foreseen this, and his successors in the German command had practiced his teaching. They held, probably with truth, the view that Napoleon’s ultimate failure had been due to the fact that his armies had outgrown the technical resources of his age, and they were determined that every resource of contemporary invention should be harnessed in the service of their new millions. Staff work, too, Moltke had first made a science, must advance pari passu with the growth in complexity of the problems. One special feature also must distinguish this from other struggles. It was the first instance in history of large bodies of men operating in a closely settled country, for in most parts of the garden land of Western Europe there was little freedom of movement. The cultivated nature of the terrain would no doubt simplify the problem of communications, but it would not be easy to find the wide and open battlefield which it was believed that great masses of men would require.

“For it was almost universally assumed that the coming war would be a war of movement and maneuver. The principal reason for this view was that men’s minds could not envisage the long continuance of a struggle in which the whole assets of each nation were so utterly pledged. They underestimated the power of human endurance; they believed that modern numbers and modern weapons would make the struggle most desperate but also short, since flesh and blood must soon be brought to the breaking-point. Such a view was possible, because no belligerent had recognized the immense relative increase of strength given by modern weapons to the defence over the attack. One form of defence, the old-fashioned fortress, was indeed rightly underrated by Germany, for she realized that the heavy howitzer directed by aircraft would make havoc of the type of fort upon which France and Belgium had relied. (In practice, though in theory France held the sound doctrine which had been laid down by Napoleon. See his Corr. xiii. 10726, and xviii. 14707.) But of the impregnability of field entrenchments no combatant was aware till the third month of war. (See Lord French’s remarks in his 1914, pp. 12-13. the man who foresaw modern conditions most clearly was the pacifist Jean de Bloch, writing at the close of last century.)” John Buchan, History of the Great War, Vol. I (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1922), pp. 114-116.


End of February 1918 – On the Eastern Front and the Americans coming…but still months away…

“At the end of February 1918 the Eastern front had gone out of existence. Russia, disjointed and anarchical, lay helpless in the grip of harsh treaties, and Germany was able to bring westward sufficient troops to abolish the small Allied numerical superiority. Already she exceeded their numbers, and she could at will call up a further reinforcement which would give her a margin of more than a quarter of a million men. On the Allied side there was no chance of such immediate increment. The American forces were slowly growing, but at the normal rate of increase several months must still elapse before they could add materially to the trained numbers in the field, and it would be the autumn at least before they could form separate armies.” John Buchan, History of the Great War, Vol. IV (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923)), p. 178.