The Second Battle of Ypres (1915) is the conventional starting point for the terrible chemical warfare that would characterize the middle years of conflict on the Western Front. It was indeed the first battle in which poisonous gas attacks played a part in the western theatre. But it was not the first time chemical weapons were used in the war. That dubious distinction goes to the Battle of Bolomov, a skirmish between the Germans and Russians.
“I have to confess that I felt rather proud,
of the simple device of my suffocating cloud.
The Prospero of poisons, the Faustus of the front,
bringing mental magic to modern armament.”
Tony Harrison, Square Rounds (1992)
The English poet, Tony Harrison, puts these words into the mouth of the German Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber. His ‘suffocating cloud’ was indeed a ‘mental magic’, unsettling, dense billows of thick smoke spreading across First World War battlefields bringing a tortured, suffocating death to any unfortunate soldiers in its path.
Poisonous gas attacks became one of the infamous cruelties of the First World War. Exposure to chlorine and mustard gas caused a painful, lingering death or permanent and debilitating respiratory damage. But the escalation to poison gas attacks was gradual. Before, both French and German forces experimented with less lethal chemical attacks.