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Nastiest Way to Die in World War One is 100 Years Old Today. Send No Flowers.

April 22, 2015


100 years ago today, chlorine gas was first used in battle, during the Second Battle of Ypres. This battle went on quite a while and resulted in the front line changing slightly and twice as many Allied as German casualties.  The effects of chemical warfare were peculiarly traumatic and the survivors offered harrowing descriptions of its impact.

Lance Corporal Elmer Coton described the gas victim as follows:

It produces a flooding of the lungs – it is an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land. The effects are these – a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. The colour of the skin from white turns a greenish black and yellow, the colour protrudes and the eyes assume a glassy stare. It is a fiendish death to die.

Gas never became the “game changer” of World War One, despite the claims of Fritz Faber.  The war on the western front had already, by 1915, achieved such grisly stalemate that any weapon, no matter how horrible, could be vindicated if it could claim the supremely merciful capacity to “shorten the war”.  Gas casualties never rivaled those caused by more “conventional” varieties of bullet and shrapnel.

It was, however, a very nasty way to go, an uncannily unfamiliar and seemingly unmilitary form of death.  In terms of its immediate impact, it created a powerful sense that some kind of “line” had been crossed.  (Of course, germ warfare had been initiated as early as the eighteenth-century by British general  Jeffrey Amherst who gave out smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans who had a naive belief in the integrity of ritualised gift exchange.)  Lines of atrocity are lines in the sand, constantly being erased by political and military tides and constantly being redrawn.

Gas attacks informed a general and recurrent sense of shock that clusters under generational variants of the headline “Can They Do That?”  In terms of the war for hearts and minds, there always seems to be something that “they” are capable of doing that “we” are not.  Except that once “they” do it, they are immediately dehumanised and we can do the same unmentionable thing to them that they started to do to us.  And do it better if possible.  Because they started it.  Whatever “it” was.

So today is the 100th anniversary of something very horrible, in which the inherent horribleness of warfare was both exacerbated and occluded at one and the same time.  It’s the sort of anniversary that needs to be remembered.  Carefully.


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