from the 'The War Budget', January 6th, 1916,
'Aerial Poisons of the War'
By Ignatius Phayre


Green Clouds of “Frightful" Victory

early British gas-masks


Aerial Poisons Of The War

“What is 'law' any longer," Professor Wegener asks, "in this most unmoral of all Wars? " What indeed — with sea and land dastardry which has set the world aghast; with the face of the waters alive with drowning women and babes, the hospital a nightmare of dreadful looks and hideous cries.

"See here," the surgeon murmurs, "I've had my place choc-a-block from wall to wall with desperate cases. I've seen horrors in savage Africa too, but nothing ever sickened me like the sight of those gassed Canadians. The vapour fills the lungs with froth. My patients fight for fourteen hours on end before relief comes. Death, you know.

"They sit bolt upright, rigid and stark, faces and arms a purplish-black or grey. Glazed eyes and mouths agape — swaying, rattling, screaming, gurgling. God help the spectator, my friend. I pity our nurses in these gas cases. I've seen veteran matrons faint away and chaps' mates at the bedside breakdown in agonies of tears. Nero himself never dreamed of so foul a revenge as those spectacled professors of Kultur who tried their green smother upon dogs in the trenches at Houthaelen."

A Devilish Device

A terrible story, calling for restraint in the telling — though it moved to fury our own Commander-in-Chief and a great war-wizard like Lord Armstrong, who called the gas-cloud "the most devilish device ever invented by human ingenuity."

"I much regret," wrote Sir John French, "that during the period under report (the second Battle of Ypres) the enemy has shown a cynical and barbarous disregard of- the well-known usages of civilised war, and a flagrant defiance of the Hague Convention." But the Hun's maxim in his mighty plunge is "Not kennt kein gebot," which I'll translate as "Need sanctions any deed."

It is a mistake, however, for these horrors only hardened the Allies. For the first time hate answered hate and Peace loomed as downright outrage until these devils were thrust down, Now this gas was a great coup. "There can be no doubt," our Field-Marshal reports, "that these poisonous fumes did materially influence the operations in that theatre."

They were more than flesh and blood could stand, yet behold Private Lynn of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers defying the awful miasma — hoisting his machine gun on the parapet single handed, and blazing away with streams of death whilst he himself was dying. To such sublimity can a sense of duty raise the humblest of our soldiers. He died in. terrible agony without a scratch to show for his dreadful passing.

The Mysterious Terror

Our men were wholly surprised in that April dusk of the great German effort. The yellow death rose like a marsh-mist, and rolled in seven-foot banks upon our lines. "From above," says a German airman, " it looked as if the very soil itself were walking, after months of immobility. On and on swept the soft mysterious terror. Rising — quickening — pausing, as it were to peep into enemy trenches, then sinking like a living thing. Shrieks of terror came up to me; then I saw a panic flight. We pursued them even to the second and third positions."

Whose idea was this satanic scheme? It is purely German, and has long been known in the Berlin Kriegsakademie. "The chemist keeps his sword sheathed," said Bismarck long ago, "but his inventions will decide peace and war." As if we had no chemists, or brilliant France, or Italy, or Russia.' The gas was pumped from cylinders. Each jet coalesced a little way out, and a favourable wind did the rest.

A Two-Edged Weapon

Regular pipes were laid on the Russian front; and lest the wind shifted — a very real danger — corps of rescuers followed the advancing infantry with cylinders of oxygen like those used in the mephitic vapours of a coal-mine. A very doubtful friend, this chlorine cloud. Hostile aviators may bomb the reservoirs prematurely and gas the gassers, spreading havoc and dismay through the German lines, as happened at Sokal.

"The cries of our foe," a Siberian officer says, " were horrible to hear. Nightmare figures - ghoulish goblins in monstrous masks — blundered along, gurgling, gesticulating, tearing like madmen at the grisly gear they wore. My men took no prisoners." So ;frightfulness does not always pay.

This vapour is inconceivably deadly. Men caught in it fall, suffocating and paralysed, with bursting eyes and blue swollen faces. A thousand yards off men sicken and grow giddy from faint traces of the fumes; the very grass is blighted and blanched.

Putting a Name to it

Franco-British science soon came to the rescue. What was the stuff? "Liquid chlorine," replied Sir James Dewar; "Bromine," said Dr. F. A. Mason of South Kensington; "Carbon-monoxide," was Dr. Crocker's guess; and "Phosgene," that of Dr. W. J. Pope, Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge.

Our Government sent out Dr. John Scott Haldane, F.R.S., Lord Haldane's brother and our great authority upon lethal gases — especially after mine explosions. Professor Baker of the Imperial College went with him, and the two were assisted by Sir Wilmot Herringham of Bart.'s, Vice-Chancellor of the London University.

"The effects," Dr. Haldane reported, "are not those of the ordinary products of combustion of explosives. Rather do they point to the use of chlorine for the purpose of asphyxiation." So the gas-murders were out and reprisals called for as mere military precaution. The French led the way, advised by the Army Committee of the Senate, under M. Clemenceau.

"Maleficent science is loathsome to us," said Professor Appel, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, and President of the French Institute. " We wished neither to burn, suffocate, nor poison our foes. But now we shall reply with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. What else can we do?"

And war-wizard Turpin set to work with liquid ammonia as an antidote to those fearsome fumes. Anti-gas bombs were soon thrown into the rolling banks of death. Grenades full of liquid oxygen too. Bisulphide of sodium was also sprayed on the advancing cloud, according to the formula of M. Edmund Perrier, Director of the French Museum of Natural History. Then down at Chalons-sur-Marne "weeping"-shells made their appearance. When they burst they set the eyes streaming with tears and made shooting an utterly hopeless task.

But the fumol fumes of these have no deadly effect. They merely put the marksman out of action for the time. He's soon a prisoner in his own trench with the foe "wiping his eye" in triumph. Here at home Sir Hiram Maxim produced a petrol-bomb to explode in the gas-cloud and lift it harmlessly over our men's heads.

Wraiths of Death

It is common knowledge that at the great Battle of Loos we used gas of our own make — a seething, fleece-like cloud backed up by bombers — grim hooded Figures looming like wraiths of death in the vengeful smoke and vapours of the Hohenzollern Redoubt.

"They ran like rabbits," we hear of the first poisoners. Our own gas pumps are in charge of corporals in the Chemical Corps of the Sappers. These non-coms, when at home are often men of high scientific attainment. One at least is Lecturer in Chemistry at a great University. But he left his test-tubes and quantitative analysis for the greater allurement of laying out Huns with mysterious puffs in the drear, wet trenches of Flanders and France.

"Our gas is humane," he tells me, none too humanely. "They don't deserve it, but it doesn't produce the dry-land drowning that their gas does. It just puts 'em out of business till our walkover is complete."

So poison-gas "frightfulness" is a thing of the past. Malignant science is a two- edged sword leaving only a memory which will not die when the Great War is over. We now have regular munitions and special artillery for the greenish mist we know so well. Our men are armed as well as armoured against it. We no longer fear poison-bombs dropped upon our sleeping cities by Zeppelin craft. Nor do our troops dread ingenious tanks put in position at night by crafty hands and burst by gun and rifle fire, for which the range is measured to a yard.

The Poisoners' Record

Poisoned wells in South-West Africa, poisoned seas alive with floating mines, poisoned atmosphere fraught with death in its most dreadful form ! What a record of German "Kultur" for our children to ponder, thanking God that the civilised nations were able to sweep away the pest in hurricanes of righteous indignation.

The Germans began the war with 17-inch shells; now they have got down to molecules. There is no smaller projectile unless the electron stream and the cathode ray is utilised. This, however, is at present confined to the pages of romancers. When Bethmann-Hollweg, in regard to the violation of Belgium, paraphrased Bismarck's "Might' makes right" by exclaiming, "We are violating the law of nations, but we must hack our way through," he voiced that impatience of civilised restraints which has been the most discouraging revelation of the twentieth century civilisation of Germany. The first duty of civilisation after the war is over will be to chain down for even the instinct of barbarity which Germany has shown, culminating in the use of green clouds of "frightfulness".


more early model gas-masks


see also
The First Gas Attack : an Eyewitness Account
Discussing the Use of Poison Gas