chemical warfare -- 2/22/22

Today's selection -- from When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut. The first gas attack in history happened in Belgium in 1915:
"The horror experienced by the soldiers who survived attacks with sarin, mustard and chlorine gas in the trenches in the First World War had seeped into the subconscious of an entire generation. The greatest testament to the terror caused by history's first weapon of mass destruction was the universal acceptance of the prohibition on gas during the Second World War. The North Americans had enormous reserves ready for deployment, and the British had experimented with anthrax on a remote Scottish island, massacring flocks of sheep and goats. Even Hitler, who showed no qualms when using gas in the extermination camps, refused to do so in fields of war, for although his scientists had manufactured some seven thousand tons of sarin, enough to eradicate the population of thirty cities the size of Paris, he had witnessed its effects first-hand as a foot soldier in the trenches of the First World War, had seen the agony of the dying and had suffered some of its lesser effects himself.

"The first gas attack in history overwhelmed the French troops entrenched near the small town of Ypres, in Belgium. When they awoke on the morning of Thursday, April 22, 1915, the soldiers saw an enormous greenish cloud creeping towards them across no-man's-land. Twice as high as a man and as dense as winter fog, it stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, as far as the eye could see. The leaves withered on the trees as it passed, birds fell dead from the sky; it tinged the pastureland a sickly metallic colour. A scent like pineapple and bleach filled the throats of the soldiers when the gas reacted with the mucus in their lungs, forming hydrochloric acid. As the cloud pooled in the trenches, hundreds of men fell to the ground convulsing, choking on their own phlegm, yellow mucus bubbling in their mouths, their skin turning blue from lack of oxygen. 'The weatherman was right. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining. Where there was grass, it was blazing green. We should have been going on a picnic, not doing what we were going to do,' wrote Willi Siebert, one of the soldiers who opened the six thousand canisters of chlorine gas the Germans released that morning at Ypres. 'We suddenly heard the French yelling. In less than a minute they started with the most rifle and machine gun fire that I had ever heard. Every field artillery gun, every machine gun, every rifle that the French possessed must have been firing. I had never heard such a noise. The hail of bullets going over our heads was unbelievable, but it was not stopping the gas. The wind kept moving the gas towards the French lines. We heard the cows bawling and the horses screaming. The French kept on shooting. They couldn't possibly see what they were shooting at. In about fifteen minutes the gunfire petered out. After half an hour, only occasional shots. Then everything was quiet again. In a while it had cleared and we walked past the empty gas bottles. What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive. All of the animals had come out of their holes to die. Dead rabbits, moles, rats and mice were everywhere. The smell of the gas was still in the air. It hung on the few bushes which were left. When we got to the French lines the trenches were empty but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable. Then we saw there were some English. You could see where men had clawed at their faces, and throats, trying to breathe. Some had shot themselves. The horses, still in the stables, cows, chickens, everything, all were dead. Everything, even the insects were dead.' 

Depiction of the German gas attack on French Territorial and soldiers of the Troupes coloniales, which was launched on 22 April.

"The attack at Ypres was overseen by the father of this new method of war, the Jewish chemist Fritz Haber. Haber was a man of genius, and the only one, perhaps, capable of understanding the complex molecular reactions that would blacken the skin of the five thousand soldiers who died at Ypres. His mission's success earned him a promotion to head of the Chemistry section of the Ministry of War and a dinner with Kaiser Wilhelm II himself; but when he returned to Berlin, he had to face his wife's fury. Clara Immerwahr -- the first woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry at a German university -- had not only seen the effects of the gas on animals in the laboratory; she had also nearly lost her husband when the wind suddenly changed direction during one of his field tests. The gas blew straight towards the hill where Haber was directing his troops on horseback. Haber saved himself, miraculously, but one of his students failed to escape the toxic cloud; Clara watched him die on the ground, writhing as if set upon by an army of ravenous ants. When Haber returned victorious from the massacre at Ypres, Clara accused him of perverting science by devising a method for exterminating human beings on an industrial scale. Haber ignored her: for him, war was war and death was death, regardless of the means of its infliction. He used his two days' furlough to invite his friends to a party that lasted until dawn, and, at its end, his wife walked down to the garden, took off her shoes, and shot herself in the chest."



Benjamín Labatut


When We Cease to Understand the World


The New York Review of Books


Copyright 2020 by Benjamín Labatut


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