In November 2005 In Flanders Fields Museum organised and hosted an international conference in Ypres, entitled 1915: Innocence Slaughtered. The first major attack with chemical weapons, launched by Imperial German forces from their positions near Langemarck on the northern flank of the Ypres Salient on 22 April 1915, featured prominently among the presentations. I was also one of the speakers, but my address focussed on how to prevent a similar event with biological weapons. Indeed, it was one of the strengths of the conference not to remain stuck in a past of—at that time—nine decades earlier, but also to invite reflection on future challenges in other areas of disarmament and arms control. Notwithstanding, the academic gathering had a secondary goal from the outset, namely to collect the papers with historical focus for academic publication.
The eminent Dutch professor and historian Koen Koch chaired the conference. He was also to edit the book with the historical analyses. Born just after the end of the 2nd World War in Europe, he sadly passed away in January 2012. He had earned the greatest respect from his colleagues, so much so that the In Flanders Fields Museum set up the Koen Koch Foundation to support students and trainees who wish to investigate the dramatic events in the Ypres Salient during the four years of the 1st World War. The homage was very apt: Professor Koch had built for himself a considerable reputation as an author of studies on the 1st World War. Most remarkable: The Netherlands had remained neutral during the conflagration, which adds to the value of his insights.
Death, unfortunately, also ends projects. In the summer of 2014, while doing some preliminary research on the history of chemical warfare, I came across the manuscripts of the chapters that make up the bulk of this book. They were in different editorial stages, the clearest indication of how abruptly the publication project had screeched to an end. Reading them I was struck by the quality of the contents, rough as the texts still were. Together, the contributions also displayed a high degree of coherence.
One group of papers reflected on the minutiae of the unfolding catastrophe that the unleashing of chlorine against the Allied positions meant for individual soldiers and civilians. They also vividly described German doubts about the effectiveness of the new weapon, and hence its potential impact on combat operations. These contributions also reflected on the lack of Allied response to the many intelligence pointers that something significant was afoot. In hindsight, we may ponder how the Allied military leaders could have missed so many indicators. Yet, matter-of-fact assessments of gas use by Allied combatants recur in several chapters, suggesting either widespread anticipation of the introduction of toxic chemicals as a method of warfare or some degree of specific forewarning of the German assault. Gaps in the historical record, however, do not allow a more precise determination of Allied anticipation of chemical warfare. Still, a general foreboding may differ significantly from its concrete manifestation. From the perspective of a contemporary, the question was more likely one of how to imagine the unimaginable. Throughout the 2nd Battle of Ypres senior Allied commanders proved particularly unimaginative. In the end, the fact that German military leaders had only defined tactical goals for the combat operations following up on the release of chlorine, meant that they had forfeited any strategic ambition—such as restoring movement to a stalemated front, seizing the Channel ports, or capturing the vital communications node that Ypres was—during the 2nd Battle of Ypres, or ever after. The surprise element was never to be repeated again. Not during the 1st World War, not in any more recent armed conflict.
The second group of papers captured the massive transformation societies were undergoing as a consequence of industrialisation, science and technology, and the impact these trends were to have on the emergence of what we know today as ‘total war’. Chemical warfare pitted the brightest minds from the various belligerents against each other. The competition became possible because the interrelationship between scientists, industry, politicians and the military establishment was already changing fast. But chemical warfare also helped to effectuate and institutionalise those changes. In many respects, it presaged the Manhattan Project in which the various constituencies were brought together with the sole purpose of developing a new type of weapon. In other ways the competition revealed early thinking about racial superiority that was to define the decades after the Armistice. The ability to survive in a chemically contaminated environment was proof of a higher level of achievement. In other words, chemical defence equalled survival of the fittest. Or how Darwin’s evolutionary theory was deliberately misused in the efforts to justify violation of then existing norms against the used of poison weapons or asphyxiating gases.
During and in the immediate aftermath of the war, opposition to chemical warfare was slow to emerge. In part, this was the consequence of the appreciation by soldiers in the trenches and non-combatants living and working near the frontlines that gas was one among many nuisances and dangers they daily faced as its use became more regular. Defences, advanced training and strict gas discipline gave soldiers more than a fair chance of surviving a gas attack. The violence of total war swept away the humanitarian sentiments that had given rise to the first international treaties banning the use of poison and asphyxiating gases in the final year of the 19th century. Those documents became obsolete because people viewed modern gas warfare as quite distinct from primitive use of poison and poisoned weapons or the scope of the prohibition had been too narrowly defined. By February 1918 chemical warfare had become so regular that a most unusual public appeal on humanitarian grounds by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) badly backfired on the organisation. Throughout the 1920s the choice between an outright ban on chemical weapons and preparing populations for the consequences of future chemical warfare would prove divisive for the ICRC. In contrast, peace and anti-war movements in Europe campaigned against war in all its aspects and consequently refused to resist one particular mode of warfare before the Armistice. It is instructive to learn that opposition to chemical warfare specifically first arose far away from the battlefields—northern America and neutral Netherlands—and among a group of citizens not directly involved in combat operations: women. And perhaps more precisely, women of science who protested the misapplication of their research and endeavours to destroy humans. Just like the chlorine cloud of 22 April 1915 foreshadowed the Manhattan project, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom presaged the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, who would bring together scientists, academics and political leaders to counter the growing menace of nuclear war and find solutions to other threats to peace and security.
It was clear to me that I should not remain a privileged reader of the manuscripts. They contained too much material and insights that the broader public should have access to. Piet Chielens, curator of the In Flanders Fields Museum, and Dominiek Dendooven, researcher at the Museum, could not agree more, and so a new publication project was born. However, since the centenary of the chlorine attack was only a few months away, reviving the academic product Koen Koch had been working on was initially not an option. So, the decision was to exploit modern communication technologies and produce the volume as a PDF file in first instance. However, by the time the electronic edition was ready for online publication, In Flanders Fields Museum had found a publisher willing and able to produce a formal edited volume before the end of the centenary year of the first modern gas attack. My gratitude goes to Ryan Gearing of Uniform Press for his guidance and concrete assistance in making this book a reality.
Time for preparing this publication was very short. To my pleasant surprise, every author in this volume responded favourably and collaboration over several intense weeks—both in the preparation of the original PDF version and the subsequent book project—proved remarkably gratifying and productive. Some contributors even took the time to introduce me to certain concepts widely accepted among historians, which I, with my background in linguistics and political science, had interpreted rather differently. For the experience in preparing this volume, I indeed wish to thank every single contributor.
22 April 1915 was not just the day when the chlorine cloud rolled over the battlefield in Flanders. It also symbolises the confluence of often decade-old trends in science, technology, industry, military art and the way of war, and social organisation. That day augured our modern societies with their many social, scientific and technological achievements. However, it was also a starting point for new trends that eventually led nations down the path of the atomic bomb and industrialised genocide in concentration camps. It also highlighted the perennial struggle of international law and institutions to match rapid scientific and technological advances that could lead to new weapons or modes of warfare. This volume captures the three dimensions: the immediate impact of poison warfare on the battlefield, the ways in which the events in the spring of 1915 and afterwards shaped social attitudes to the scientification and industrialisation of warfare, and the difficulties of capturing chemical and industrial advances in internationally binding legal instruments. Indeed, there can be no more poignant reminder that our insights into the trends that brought the chlorine release 100 years ago are crucial to our understanding of trends shaping our societies today and tomorrow.
Yes, the world has moved on since the 1st World War, even if the use of chlorine in the Syrian civil war one century later may seem to challenge the thought. Yet, one institution may unwittingly have come to symbolise the progression. Fritz Haber, the scientific and organisational genius who led Imperial Germany’s chemical warfare effort in 1915, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918. Typical for the day, the Nobel Committee detached scientific achievement from moral considerations. His contribution to the development of a synthetic fertiliser for agricultural use, for which he got the prize, equally enabled Germany to continue munition production in the face of an Allied blockade denying it access to foreign raw materials. Haber’s part in chemical warfare too fell entirely outside the Nobel Committee’s considerations. Ninety-five years later, in 2013, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received the Nobel Peace Prize for its progress in eliminating the scourge of chemical warfare. The decision represented a strong moral statement, for it reflected the (Norwegian) Nobel Committee’s views that today chemistry, and science in general, should serve peaceful purposes. Therefore it is indeed painfully paradoxical that the successful elimination of the most toxic substances developed and produced for warfare has resulted in the return of chlorine, today a common industrial chemical, as a weapon of choice in the Syrian civil war that started in 2011.
We indeed still experience the consequences of 22 April 1915: this dichotomy between the application of science and technology for life and their mobilisation for war continue to characterise our societal development today. This realisation explains why I thought that the papers, initially prepared under the guidance of Professor Koen Koch, should see the light of day. Particularly now.
Jean Pascal Zanders
Ferney-Voltaire, October 2015