Croydon and chemical warfare in the First World War

By - Wednesday 16th May, 2018

How the most brutal of weapons touched the lives of Croydon men

Major Baxter, an Australian Chaplain, wearing a large box respirator (gas mask); Fleurbaix, June 1916. The box respirator design was lead by pharmaceutical chemist Edward Harrison, a former Croydon chemist’s assistant.
Photo © IWM (Q 670), used under non-commercial licence.

The Croydon roll of honour from the First World War identifies thirty-five cases of gas poisoning amongst Croydon men, with twenty-two direct fatalities, as a result of the gas warfare that was waged by the European belligerents and, later, the United States. Gas, used as a large-scale weapon for the first time, killed considerably less men during the war than machine guns and artillery. Yet it had enough of an effect, including as a maiming and psychological weapon, to usher in a new era for the chemical weapons industry.

At the outbreak of war, the French army are thought to have been the first to deploy tear-inducing gas, used in grenades against German forces in August 1914. The Germans then used a form of tear gas in October 1914 against the British and, on a much larger scale, on the Eastern Front against Russian forces. Due to usage in low concentrations and, in the latter case, excessively cold temperatures, they made little impact.

Lethal chlorine gas was introduced at Ypres on 22nd April 1915 by German forces who released the gas from cylinders to drift on to a Canadian and French line of troops, including an Algerian division. The German high command underestimated the impact of the new weapon, and were not ready to take advantage of the panic it caused in the enemy ranks. Chlorine is a lung injurant, which can cause asphyxiation and, with entry to the lungs, reacts with water to form acid which damages tissue. Around 1,000 men are thought to have been killed in this first attack.

Poison or poisoned weapons were banned from ‘civilised’ battlefields

Britain had tested the use of incapacitating irritants, but were cautious about breaching the 1899 Hague Declaration that banned ‘the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gas’ and the 1907 Hague Convention that prohibited use of ‘poison or poisoned weapons’ against contracting powers. Whilst international law did not apply to ‘warfare with uncivilised states and tribes’, according to the British Manual of Military Law, it was applicable between warring civilised nations. There was also concern about the advantage held by Germany which dominated the dye-making chemicals industry.

Walter Rattee was gassed at the Battle of Loos.
Photo by Museum of Croydon, used with permission.

The German high command claimed to be within the law during 1915 in releasing gas from cylinders, relying on the wind to carry it to the enemy. It was soon used on the Eastern Front against under-equipped Russian troops, who were to suffer the greatest number of gas deaths by the end of the war. Britain’s retaliation on 25th September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, revealed some of the weaknesses of the tactic. Some cylinders could not be opened, others leaked and a change in the wind carried chlorine onto British troops, with seven deaths in the first three days of use. Nonetheless, gas-clouds were used most extensively by British forces during the war, with 150 attacks of the 220 total.

Walter Edward Rattee, a twenty-one-year-old draper’s assistant and son of a couple living in Thornton Heath was gassed at the Battle of Loos but survived, only to be killed at the Somme a year later. The visibility of the greenish, low-lying clouds of chlorine and its solubility meant that cloth soaked in water or urine could be applied to reduce its effects and the introduction of the early gas masks – respirator cotton pads and then wool hoods, that covered the whole head, soaked in sodium bicarbonate, may have protected Rattee.

The chemical warfare escalated at the Battle of Loos, September 1915, when the British deployed the Stokes mortar which fired shells containing chemical agents. French scientists are thought to have developed phosgene, another lung injurant, which, unlike chlorine, was colourless and had a weaker odour. The build-up of fluid in the lungs caused by the gas could take forty-eight hours to appear. Phosgene, mixed with chlorine in a German attack in December 1915, was adopted by both sides and is, along with the related diphosogene, thought to have been the most lethal gas used during the First World War, causing an estimated 85% of the 91,000 gas deaths.

Edward Harrison, a former chemist’s assistant from Croydon, invented a brand-new gas mask

The introduction of gases such as phosgene necessitated improvement to the hood gas mask. A pharmaceutical chemist, Edward Harrison, who had started his career as a chemist’s assistant in Croydon, living in Thornton Heath and later settled in Sanderstead, was recruited to the Royal Engineers’ Chemists’ Corps to lead this research for Britain. He and his team came up with a respirator consisting of a face mask connected by a tube to a filter box containing filtering chemicals. Called the Large Box Respirator, it was issued to British troops in the early part of 1916. A smaller version, the Small Box Respirator, came into use in August 1916. Testing took place at the newly established Experimental Station at Porton Down, Wiltshire, and Lieutenant-Colonel Harrison, as he became by October 1918, had been promoted to become Controller of Britain’s Chemical Warfare Department (CWD) at the Ministry of Munitions. He died within a month of influenza, on 4th November 1918, weakened, it is said, by overwork and exposure to gases during testing he conducted.

Minister of Munitions, Winston Churchill, wrote in a letter of condolence to Harrison’s widow, “it is due in large measure to him that our troops have been given effectual protection from the German poison gases”. Harrison, whose son died at the Somme in 1916, was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur.

Whilst mortality rates amongst gassed soldiers fell by 1918, casualties had surged following the introduction of a powerful vesicant, or blistering agent, mustard gas, first used on 12th July 1917 by German forces at Ypres. Even through clothing, it could inflict a delayed reaction of chemical burns, blistering and respiratory problems. In the first three weeks of mustard gas shelling, British forces suffered over 14,000 casualties. Sergeant FW Oakes, of South Norwood, who worked as a sorting agent and telegraphist with Croydon Post Office before the war, died of gas poisoning on 25th July 1917, having been evacuated to Britain from Ypres and may have been amongst the early victims of mustard gas. He was buried at Queen’s Road Cemetery, Croydon.

19-year-old,Walter George was educated at the British School on Tamworth Road, Croydon. He died of gas poisoning on 29th March 1918.
Photo by Museum of Croydon, used with permission.

By 1918, nearly twice as many soldiers were being hospitalised by gas than at any previous stage and medics treating them faced the risk of poisoning. The armies developed ever-more effective methods of using projectiles, shells, mortars and cylinders to deliver gas, in combination with smoke and explosives – all without decisive strategic effect. British forces had been the first to use gas shells in the Middle East, when attacking Ottoman-held Gaza in Palestine during the Second Battle of Gaza, on 12th April 1917. Had the war continued into 1919, Britain and America planned to use the newly developed vomiting agent adamsite, which could bypass gas masks. Moreover, lewisite, a gas discovered by American scientists, which was similar to mustard gas but produced instantaneous burns, may have replaced mustard gas.

Mustard-gas exposure left soldiers of the First World War with long-term respiratory tract and eye disorders and, evidence suggests, higher incidences of cancers, compounded by other factors such as nutrition. The spike in a disorder of the kidneys, acute nephritis, confounded medics who suspected the chemically contaminated environment of the war fronts as a factor. Research on the victims of mustard gas during the Iran-Iraq war has since revealed higher incidences of congenital abnormalities and disorders in victims’ children.

Chemical contamination of the environment was also caused by the heavy metals, arsenic and explosive compounds from shells and bullets, including from the unexploded ordnances that continue to be found in the hundreds of tonnes every year on the Western Front. A ‘red zone’ is still restricted from use and access today and authorities suggest it may take hundreds of years to be fully cleared. No such clean-ups have taken place on other fronts, such as Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

The RAF attacked Russian villages with gas bombs in 1919

In the aftermath of the war, Britain’s RAF attacked Bolshevik-held villages in Russia using bombs filled with gas, thought to be adamsite, from 27th August 1919. British War Secretary, Winston Churchill, also proposed use of gas against tribal uprisings in British-occupied north-west India, stating in a memo: “It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected”. In 1920, mustard gas was considered for the RAF’s aerial bombardment of Mesopotamia, now Iraq, by Churchill, but was eventually not thought to have been used as Britain suppressed an Iraqi revolt.

Though not decisive in the First World War, the rapidly developing gas warfare had proven an effective method of inflicting casualties and terror. It had been most effective against unsuspecting and under-prepared targets, deployed alongside more acceptable weapons which were more lethal, and this would be reflected in subsequent use. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol placed some restrictions on use against other signatories but not on development or stockpiling.

Samuel Ali

Samuel Ali

Samuel recently worked as a Heritage Trainee with the Museum of Croydon, in conjunction with arts and heritage charity, Culture&. He is interested in opening archives and museum collections to engage diverse and under-represented audiences. All views are his own. Contact: sam491812 (at) protonmail (dot) com or @museumpoetry

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