Unleashing the suffocating cloud


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.

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“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)

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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.

British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by tear gas await treatment at an Advanced Dressing Station near Bethune during the Battle of Estaires, 10 April 1918, part of the German offensive in Flanders By Thomas Keith Aitken (Second Lieutenant) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

A new and terrible weapon

Today, Bolimów is a small village in the centre of Poland close to Łódz. In 1915, it was equally insignificant but represented a point at the extreme western extremity of vast Russian Empire. The First World War’s clash between Germany and Russian inevitably meant that the former’s Polish territories would bear the brunt of the fighting.

The village (its name then variously rendered as Boromov or Bolomov) and its battle would have remained as a bloody but unnoteworthy skirmish on the Eastern Front but for the introduction of a new and terrible weapon in the German arsenal.

This image shows a World War I German gas attack on the eastern front, and was photographed from the air by a Russian airman. The image was titled, "German Frightfulness from the Air" Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-F0313-0208-007 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

The German artillery positions rained down a ferocious bombardment of eighteen thousand gas shells filled with xylyl bromide (a form of tear gas). The initial panic in the Russian lines was soon replicated on the German side as the wind changed direction and the cloud of gas blew back towards their own lines.

A deadly own goal was only averted because of another feature of the day’s weather – it was freezing cold. At such low temperatures, the gas itself failed to vaporise, becoming ineffective. Although the German attack was called off, they were at least spared the indignity of immobilising their own forces, hoisted by their own poisonous petard.

British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets. Near Ovillers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. The gunner is wearing a padded waistcoat, enabling him to carry the machine gun barrel. See Image:Vickers machine gun crew with gas masks rear view.jpg for an alternate view of this crew British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets. Near Ovillers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. The gunner is wearing a padded waistcoat, enabling him to carry the machine gun barrel. See Image:Vickers machine gun crew with gas masks rear view.jpg for an alternate view of this crew British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets. Near Ovillers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. The gunner is wearing a padded waistcoat, enabling him to carry the machine gun barrel. See Image:Vickers machine gun crew with gas masks rear view.jpg for an alternate view of this crew British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets. Near Ovillers during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. The gunner is wearing a padded waistcoat, enabling him to carry the machine gun barrel. See Image:Vickers machine gun crew with gas masks rear view.jpg for an alternate view of this crew John Warwick Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A painful history

The associations between the area and the horrors of gas as a means of killing would revive in the Second World War. There is an unsettling reminder in the Bolimów’s proximity to Łódź, home of one of central Europe’s largest and most prominent Jewish communities.

Less than 30 years later, this community was confined to an urban concentration camp (the Łódź ghetto) and then destroyed in the Holocaust. German chemistry once again realised its horrific, destructive potential in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

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