Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.
Part 2: The Stink Trailblazers tells the story of the Battle of Ypres, the first chemical gas attack of the modern era.
Chemical weapons first came of age a century ago, in the small Flemish town of Ypres in western Belgium. A four-mile long line of German troops faced off against Canadian, French Territorial, Colonial Moroccan and Algerian soldiers. In what was one of the most poorly guarded secrets of the war, German troops hand-carried some 6,000 canisters of chlorine gas to the front line, put them into position, and waited—and waited—and waited. Hours turned to days, and days turned to weeks as the German command waited for favorable winds, casting much doubt on to the potential effectiveness of such a weapon.
In the interim, the 6,000 steel cylinders posed more of a threat to their sixteen hundred specially trained regimental attendants (cruelly nicknamed the “Stink Trailerblazers”) than to the dug-in enemy troops. Allied soldiers rained artillery fire, colloquially dubbed “iron rations for Fritz”, on the German lines. Well-placed shells periodically ruptured gas canisters, wounding and killing their attendants in terrible fashion.
Five weeks of waiting for ideal atmospheric conditions put frontline troops five weeks closer to rotating out, and the occasional lapse in continuous shelling allowed some to dream that the worst might be over. It was not. On April 22nd, 1915, the Germans renewed shelling with incredible ferocity and, without warning, released 320,000 pounds of chlorine gas from 5,730 canisters. Two massive clouds of yellowish-green haze formed and coalesced into a single four-mile wide, half-mile deep cloud, slowly advancing toward the Allied position.
The Allied troops reacted in a manner oft repeated by soldiers facing a truly novel weapon of war—genuine bafflement and total paralysis. Despite the rumors of a new gas weapon, some troops thought they’d be able to simply fan clouds away. Others believed it to be the smoke of a new type of gunpowder, not to be feared.
A sour, pungent taste entered the mouths of allied soldiers as the haze of gas swirled around them. Heavier than air, the chlorine seeped into the lowest parts of the trenches. Then the burning began—chlorine reacting with the water in their eyes, mouth, throat and lungs and turning into hydrochloric acid upon contact with water, chemically burning their lung and upper respiratory system. Affected troops screamed and choked, rolling on the ground, coughing and spitting up pink, frothy mixture of blood, saliva and chemicals. About 6,000 died within ten minutes, drowning in their own fluid-filled lungs. The fleeing wounded would spend the rest of their lives suffering from terrible respiratory ailments, never to fully recover.
It is said that the Germans were so stunned by the success that they completely failed to capitalize on their strategic victory. Enough time passed to allow the Canadians to rally, tying piss-soaked cotton rags to their faces and mounting an impromptu defense of Allied positions. It would not be long before the allies developed and deployed their own equally brutal chemical arsenal. In all, chemical gas attacks would kill more than ninety thousand and wound over a million, with Russian soldiers alone comprising a third of the wounded and more than half of the dead.