Gas Warfare

Gassed, 1919, by John Singer Sargent.; One of the leading society portrait painters of his day, Sargent was commissioned to contribute the central painting for the Hall of Remembrance. Gassed is based on the scene at a dressing station as it took in casualties from a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918. Sargent travelled to France with fellow artist Henry Tonks in 1918.

Gassed, 1919, by John Singer Sargent.

art

One of the leading society portrait painters of his day, Sargent was commissioned to contribute the central painting for the Hall of Remembrance. Gassed is based on the scene at a dressing station as it took in casualties from a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918. Sargent travelled to France with fellow artist Henry Tonks in 1918.

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The trench warfare of the Western Front encouraged the development of new weaponry to break the stalemate; poison gas was one such development. The first significant gas attack occurred at Ypres in April 1915, when the Germans released clouds of...

The trench warfare of the Western Front encouraged the development of new weaponry to break the stalemate; poison gas was one such development. The first significant gas attack occurred at Ypres in April 1915, when the Germans released clouds of poisonous chlorine.

The gas inflicted significant casualties among the British and Canadian forces at Ypres and caused widespread panic and confusion amongst the French colonial troops. The chlorine was a strong irritant on the lungs, with prolonged exposure proving fatal. The immediate public outcry for retaliation resulted in quick adoption of defensive anti-gas measures, and new special companies of Royal Engineers were formed with responsibility for offensive gas warfare.

Poison gas was initially released from cylinders, but this required ideal weather conditions and could be very risky. In the first British gas attack, at Loos in September 1915, much of the gas was blown back into the faces of the British troops. From 1916, gas was employed in shells instead, which allowed attacks from a much greater range.

Gases used included chlorine, mustard gas (which was odourless), bromine and phosgene, and the German Army was the most prolific user of gas warfare. Although gas did not prove as decisive a weapon as was anticipated, it was effective in clearing enemy forward positions. As a result, anti-gas measures became increasingly sophisticated. Primitive cotton face pads soaked in bicarbonate of soda were issued to troops in 1915, but by 1918 filter respirators using charcoal or chemicals to neutralise the gas were common.

Although only 3 per cent of gas casualties proved immediately fatal, hundreds of thousands of ex-soldiers continued to suffer from the effects of gas for years after the war.

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  • German troops wearing early versions of gas masks

    photographs

    German troops wearing early versions of gas masks; German troops wearing early versions of gas masks on the Western Front in 1915, the year poison gas was first employed in warfare.
  • A dog wearing a gas mask and anti-gas goggles

    photographs

    A dog wearing a gas mask and anti-gas goggles; A portrait of a dog wearing a gas mask and anti-gas goggles at the military kennels at Roesbrugge. Efforts to ban the use of gas and other poisons in war began in 1874 and have continued to this day, most recently with the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.
  • Small box respirator

    equipment

    Small box respirator; Small box respirator of the type first introduced in August 1916 and standard issue by the spring of 1917. This respirator consisted of a face mask with glass eye-pieces and was connected via a flexible hose to a metal 'small box' filter containing active charcoal and granules. Worn on the chest, the haversack could be opened and the mask positioned for use with the minimum delay, thus saving valuable seconds during a gas attack.
  • German Army gas alarm gong

    equipment

    German Army gas alarm gong; German Army gas alarm gong used during the First World War. Gongs and bells were positioned along the front line so that sentries could raise the alarm in the event of a gas attack.
  • British troops advancing through a cloud of poison gas, 1915

    photographs

    British troops advancing through a cloud of poison gas, 1915; This snapshot photograph was taken from a British trench by a soldier of the 1/5th Battalion, The London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade) on the opening day of the Battle of Loos, 25 September 1915. It shows British infantry of the 47th (2nd London) Division advancing through the gas cloud released during the preliminary bombardment. This was the first major use of gas by the British, but in some sectors it drifted back towards the British trenches.