It happened today - January 31, 2016

On this day in history, the Kaiser’s soldiers made the first significant effort to use poison gas for military purposes at the battle of Bolimow, on Jan. 31 1915. It didn’t work and they won anyway. Indeed, poison gas turned out to be a pretty disappointing weapon all round. But it would be them.

Canadians in particular are familiar with poison gas from 2nd Ypres, where the chlorine provide highly effective and nearly routed the Allies on a key sector of the Western Front. But like all new technology it takes a while to sort things out, and thus the Germans made this first serious attempt, using tear gas shells, against the Russians on the Eastern Front, in Poland.

It failed in two key ways. First, though they fired 18,000 shells which seems like a lot, the xylyl bromide tear gas blew back at their own lines. Second, it didn’t do much harm even to them because it froze. Did I mention it was winter on the Eastern front?

For their second go, at Second Ypres, the Germans chose warmer weather, paid attention to the wind, and released the gas from cylinders. And here they were victims of their own initial success, which despite the courage of many French soldiers opened a far bigger hole in the Allied lines, some 4 miles wide, than the Germans were ready for or had sufficient reserves to exploit.

By the time they did push through they were met and stopped by Canadians. In doing so our troops not only figured out the pee-in-your-sock improvised gas mask trick (hey, when it’s all you’ve got, go for it) but inflicted the first ever defeat of a major European power by a colonial force on European soil. Still, both sides kept working on poison gas and nobody really got anywhere. It remained in use for the rest of the Great War, by both sides, and both sides had some ready in World War II but did not use it.

Humane feelings can hardly be the explanation, especially concerning the Nazis and Bolsheviks. Deterrence certainly played a role; as the Duke of Wellington evidently said on the subject over a century earlier, about much more primitive technology, “Two can play at that game.” But the big problem was that nobody ever found a way to make it work; it was unreliable in harming the enemy, and all too likely to harm your own troops. Indeed, as at Second Ypres, a major problem with the stuff is that as your troops enter the enemy positions cleared by the gas, they run into the gas. There were better ways to win a battle and, indeed, at Bolimow after the gas failed the Russians counterattacked and the Germans slaughtered them with conventional artillery fire.

For all that, there is a lingering feeling that there is something dirty about gas even by the standards of war. The idea in war is to win not to play fair; as a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman recently observed about new technology on the battlefield (specifically those disturbing headless robots), “The Marine Corps isn’t looking for a fair fight.” And despite much revisionism from the 1920s on, Wilhelmine Germany was not just one more European power on a par with Britain and France as arrogant white person colonial empires.

Germany was a lot more aggressive and a lot less democratic. And many might argue that the two were not unconnected. It really did start the war, it really did attack its neighbours, and it really did resort to questionable weapons and tactics including U-boats with something looking like belligerent pride and twisted, unconvincing self-righteousness. It was also a nation with a highly advanced scientific tradition but, as its far more hideous use of poison gas during the next World War would prove, somewhat less restraint than other advanced nations in the uses to which it put its engineering skills.

Of course if chemical warfare had turned out to work the Allies would have used it vigorously, as for instance the Americans certainly used submarines against Japan in World War II. But I find it hard to imagine them, or the British, or Canadians starting it, due to the scruples of policy-makers and of citizens.

Indeed, if I have the story right, Wellington himself was offered a primitive form of poison gas to employ on the French and declined. The Kaiser’s Germany actively sought it out, and when it failed, refined it and tried again.

It didn’t really work anyway. But they would.