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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Pte. John Alvin 'Jack' Crittenden - A 'Gassed' Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: February 18, 1894

Place of Birth: Port Mulgrave, NS

Mother's Name: Mary Carter

Father's Name: Hiram Bruce Crittenden

Date of Enlistment: October 22, 1915 at Halifax, NS

Regimental Number: 222850

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force - Infantry

Units: 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders); 17th Reserve Battalion

Location of service: Canada, England, France & Belgium

Occupation at Enlistment: Machinist

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mrs. Mary Crittenden

Pte. John Alvin 'Jack' Crittenden, 85th Battalion.
John Alvin 'Jack' Crittenden was born on February 18, 1894, the second son in a family of five boys and two girls raised by Hiram and Mary (Carter) Crittenden in their Port Mulgrave home.  Sometime after 1911, Jack relocated to Pictou County, where he worked as a machinist at Nova Scotia Steel & Coal, Trenton.  His civilian career was put on hold when Jack responded to the first province-wide recruitment campaign soliciting volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  On October 22, 1915, he enlisted for overseas service with the 85th Battalion at Halifax.

Jack spent the next twelve months in training, initially at the Halifax Armouries and later at Camp Aldershot, NS.  On October 16, 1916, the 85th boarded the SS Olympic at Halifax, along with the 185th, 193rd and 219th Battalions, for its trans-Atlantic voyage.   The four units were part of a 'Highland Brigade' recruited across the province.  As events unfolded in Europe, only the 85th would see combat in France and Belgium as a distinct fighting unit.

Arriving in Liverpool, England on October 19, Jack made his way to Witley Camp, South Surrey, England, where the members of the Highland Brigade resumed training.  By year's end, only two of its battalions - the 185th (Cape Breton Highlanders) and 85th - remained intact as the 193rd and 219th were disbanded and their members re-assigned to other battalions.

On the morning of February 10, 1917, the long awaited 'call to arms' finally came.  Jack boarded the SS London at Folkestone, England for the short voyage across the English Channel to Boulogne, France.  Arriving at mid-day, the soldiers marched to St. Martin's Rest Camp, where they were issued combat equipment.  Three days later, the men travelled by train to Houdain and then marched to billets at Gouy-Servins, near Lens, France.  On February 17th, the 85th's officers begin preliminary 'tours' of the front lines.  In the meantime, the men completed training in musketry, signalling, Lewis Gun, rifle grenade and trench mortar operation, and the use of box respirators ('Gas School'), in addition to providing working parties for the 176th Tunnelling Company.

Jack (back row, 3rd from left) and comrades, December 1915.
By early March, small groups of officers and enlisted men began short tours of the front line with other battalions.  It was not long before the 85th's war diary recorded its first casualty - Pte. L. R. Young, # 283336, was killed near 'Hospital Corner', an officer and two 'other ranks' (OR) wounded by artillery fire on March 4.  Three days later, the battalion relocated to Bouvigny, where front line tours continued, as did the casualties.  On March 8, the war diary reported four fatalities and three wounded during the day's events.

Sir Robert Borden, Canadian Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for Halifax, reviewed Companies 'A' and 'B' along with the 85th's stretcher-bearers on March 9, near Vimy.  Meanwhile, front line tours continued throughout the month.  The war diary recorded the battalion's first 'casualty in action' on March 16, when Pte. W. I. Leslie, # 222998, was killed "while on sentry duty in front line trenches with [the] 46th Battalion".  On the evening of March 22, the battalion rehearsed 'relief' procedures, replacing the 9th Royal Sussex 'in the line' at Lorette Spur for four hours before being relieved by the 2nd Leinsters at midnight.

As April arrived, Jack and the men of the 85th were no doubt eager to experience combat.  That opportunity would occur during Canada's most famous military engagement of the war.  As part of preparations for the scheduled attack on Vimy Ridge, the battalion was assigned a 'support' role that included: constructing ammunition dumps, trenches and dugouts; carrying wire, ammunition and supplies to the front lines; escorting and guarding anticipated prisoners of war.  On the night of April 8, 1917, the 85th relocated to its assigned 'jumping-off point' on "Music Hall Line" at midnight.  The men had an uncomfortable night as there was "very limited dugout accommodation.  Men [were] crowded in [a] trench, [and] secured very little rest."

Canadian soldiers advance through No Man's Land (April 1917).
As the historic battle unfolded on April 9, the 85th carried out its assigned support duties.  When the advance was held up by stiff German fire on its Brigade's left front, two of its companies - 'C' and 'D' - moved into front line positions at 4:30 pm as part of action designed to capture the resisting enemy position.  The advance commenced without artillery support at 6:45 pm.  The battalion's war diary describes its first combat experience in these words:

"In spite of machine gun and rifle fire from the enemy, which immediately opened, the attack was pressed home, the Companies providing their own covering fire by Lewis Guns firing from the hip and riflemen firing on the move.  Many of the Germans finding themselves unable to stop the advance turned and ran but were soon put out of action by our fire.  About 20 prisoners, including 3 officers were taken.  Two… officers and about 70 other ranks were killed.  At least 3 machine guns were captured."

The 85th had successfully completed its first combat assignment, capturing its objective within ten minutes.  The ordeal was far from over, however, as it "snowed in [the] evening[,] turning very cold.  Men in the open holding shell holes".  The following day, 'A' and 'B' Companies took up positions along the newly captured line under the command of the 47th Battalion.  The hardships continued as it "snowed in afternoon, making conditions very bad for men who had no shelter except shell holes."  Such was Jack's introduction to combat.

Map displaying 85th's front line positions, May 1917.
The following day, 'A' and 'B' Companies were transferred back to 85th command as the battalion assumed complete responsibility for its section of the line.  The situation was quiet for the next few days as the Canadian units consolidated their new positions.  During the night of April 14/15, the 85th was relieved in the line and moved into billets at Bouvigny.  The war diary reported that 6 officers were wounded, 47 OR killed, 116 OR wounded and 3 OR missing as a result of its first combat assignment.

Jack and the 85th spent several days resting and cleaning up before providing working parties for road repair.  The unit experienced "some hostile shelling, principally shrapnel bursting high and behind [its] camp", but reported no casualties.  On April 24, the men moved back into front line positions along the Lens-Vimy Railway in support of an attack by 5th Division (Imperial) infantry.  Working parties constructed new front line and communication trenches before being relieved the 72nd and 785th Canadian Infantry Battalions in the early hours April 29 and moving into brigade support at Givenchy.  The battalion provided working parties for the front lines at night, but no training was possible as their position was "under direct [German] observation so that there can be no movement by daylight".

On May 2, Jack returned to the front lines as the 85th relieved the 78th Battalion for four days before retiring to Brigade Reserve positions on the western slope of Vimy Ridge.  The war diary reported light casualties - 2 officers and 20 OR wounded - during this assignment.  Jack spent the remainder of May and early June in rotation in the Vimy area, serving seven or eight days 'in the line' before retiring to support positions in a rotation interspersed with several days' rest and training in reserve.

85th Battalion Pipe Band on parade (date unknown).
The 85th participated in a series of attacks on German positions at 'Canada Trench' and 'Ontario Trench', near the Lens-Arras Road, from June 25 to July 1.  The battalion sustained significant casualties during the fighting, the war diary reporting 24 OR killed, 8 officers and 118 OR wounded, and 9 OR missing as Canadian troops advanced one mile into German-held territory.  The battalion was relieved by Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry on the night of July 1/2 as the 4th Canadian Division moved into "Corps Reserve for training and rest from duties in the line".  The men were billeted at Suburban Camp, Villers au Bois for three weeks, following a daily schedule of 6 hours' training and lectures, combined with rest and cleanup.

On July 25, Jack and the 85th relocated to the Zouave Valley, relieving the 50th Canadian Battalion in the line at 2:20 am July 26 before moving into brigade support the following day.  Jack spent the month of August in the valley while the battalion logged 39 days of front line service before retiring to reserve positions on September 2.  During its longest 'tour' since landing in France, the battalion's casualties were light - three officers wounded, 8 OR killed, 36 OR wounded (four 'accidental'), 7 OR gassed, 14 OR wounded but remaining at duty.

Following a week of rest, cleanup and training, Jack was back in the line on September 11 near Avion.  The 85th served in rotation for the remainder of the month before moving into division reserve at Tottenham Camp in the Zouave Valley, where the men commenced training for their second major assignment.  On October 5, Jack was on the move to a new and treacherous location as the battalion relocated to Staple, France in preparation for a scheduled Canadian attack at Passchendaele, Belgium.  For two and a half weeks, the men rehearsed the battle plan on a simulated battlefield marked with tape, a technique previously used successfully in preparations for Vimy Ridge.

On October 23, Jack and the 85th moved by bus from Staple to Brandhoek, Belgium and then marched to nearby St. Lawrence Camp, located between Poperinge and Ypres.  Later that same day, battalion officers visited the front lines to view the battlefield.  Five days later, the men relocated to Potijze, where they completed preparations for battle and moved into front line positions.  The following day, officers observed considerable manpower in the line opposite their position and requested an artillery barrage on enemy trenches prior to the scheduled infantry attack.  The officers laid out tapes in the trenches, marking the 'jumping off' points for the next day's attack.  That evening, Jack and his comrades received hot tea and rations as they rested in preparation for battle.   At 4:30 am October 30, the men assumed their assigned positions one hour before the attack was scheduled to commence.

Map of 85th's positions at Passchendaele, October 30, 1917.
At 'zero hour', the brigade's machine guns opened fire as the men advanced.  The battalion war diary reported that "they were met by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire… all the way along our front."  Nine officers were killed or wounded in the attack's opening minutes.  The requested artillery barrage in support of the advance was described as "light" as "very little if any of it fell on our side or on the enemy's trench".  'A', 'B' and 'C' Companies advanced nonetheless, "providing their own covering fire with rifle-grenades, Lewis Guns and rifle fire until they had passed our old front line.  Then, in No Man's Land, a fierce fire fight took place…. Anyone who attempted to walk upright instantly became a casualty." 

The fighting continued for 10 to 30 minutes before 'D' Company advanced in support of the attack, enemy resistance breaking upon its arrival.  "The whole line swarmed across the hostile front line and pushed onto the final objective. sniping the fleeing enemy and dealing with those who remained in shell-holes behind his original front line."  The battalion reached its objective by 6:38 am, one officer reporting: "Casualties are very heavy".  Enemy forces appeared to be regrouping for a counter-attack later in the day but it never materialized.

Jack had survived the worst of the fighting, but the battle was not over.  After a lull during daylight hours, the war diary reported: "Just at dusk on the night of the 31st a very heavy barrage of H. E., shrapnel and gas shells was placed on on our front line and in the back areas about Battalion Headquarters.  Our artillery replied in a very effective manner and no counter-attack developed."  The war diary dispassionately recorded the results of two days' combat: 12 officers killed, 8 wounded, and 3 wounded but still at duty; 371 OR killed or wounded.  Total battalion strength prior to battle was 26 officers and 662 OR.  As a result of its Passchendaele action, the 85th recorded a shocking casualty rate of 57 %.  The war diary nevertheless reported that "the fighting spirit of the 85th was never better than on the day of relief" as the 102nd Battalion replaced it in the line on the night of October 31/November 1.

Jack was amongst the fortunate survivors, moving to Burns Camp, Potizje where the battalion spent the next few days resting and cleaning up.  On November 3, the 85th crossed the Belgian border to the Borre area, near Hazebrouk, France, where the men were billeted in "excellent qualities all round".  Two days later, however, Jack's tour of duty at the front came to an end when he reported to Casualty Clearing Station 37 for treatment of injuries sustained during the fighting at Passchendaele.

Westcliffe Canadian Eye & Ear Hospital, Folkestone, England (1916).
On October 31, Jack was amongst the soldiers exposed to poison gas.  He was also struck by a small metal fragment that penetrated the cornea of his left eye.  Despite these injuries, he remained on duty until their effects required medical intervention.  On November 6, Jack was transferred to # 57 General Hospital, Wimereux France, where the metal fragment was removed.  The following day, he was evacuated to # 54 General Hospital, London for further treatment.  Exposure to poison gas had resulted in loss of voice in addition to pains in his chest and stomach.  A medical note written on November 19 summarized his condition in these words: "Voice slightly improved, eye very much better, slight pain in chest".  One week later, his "voice [has] not completely returned" as Jack was "transferred to Westcliffe Canadian Eye & Ear Hospital, Folkestone", where he was treated for "laryngitis - gas" in addition to "intermittent discharge" from both ears.

Jack spent the winter of 1917-18 convalescing at Westcliffe.  A medical entry noted that he was "gassed last October" and suffering from "aphonia" [inability to speak] since.  Larynx reddened, membrane swollen, vocal cords do not approximate."  On March 20, 1918, Jack was discharged from hospital and posted to the 17th Reserve Battalion, Bramshott, England on April 1.  Any hope Jack may have had of returning to action came to an end when he was "struck off strength" on April 17 as a result of continuing problems with his larynx.  He was posted to the Canadian Discharge Depot at Buxton on August 6, 1918 "pending embarkation to Canada".   

Two months later, Jack was back in Halifax, where he was admitted to hospital for medical assessment.  A detailed report dated November 4, 1918 identified a "bullet mark on [his] right forearm", apparently a slight wound for which he received no recorded treatment.  Its main focus, however, was the condition of his voice.  The report noted that he continued to suffer from laryngitis and was "unable to speak above a whisper.  [Patient] says in dry weather he can do much better, and the condition is improving.  He is easily fatigued, says he feels very tired after walking two miles…[,] has shortness of breath and palpitation after exertion".

Jack & Mildred Crittenden's CNR pass.
The report noted that hoarseness "is gradually improving", but concluded that the duration of the disability was likely "permanent".  As a result, it recommended that Jack be placed in "Category E" - 'medically unfit for service'.  A consultant's report dated November 6 noted that Jack's epiglottis was swollen and his vocal cords did not meet "owing to infiltration…. This was caused by gas on service and has been aggravated by climate.  In as much as exposure and use of voice is very injurious to this condition", the consultant concurred with the previous report, recommending discharge from military service.

Two days later, the medical board examining Jack's condition accepted these recommendations.  On November 30, 1918, Pte. John Alvin Crittenden was officially discharged as "medically unfit for further service".  In addition to the British War Medal and Victory Medals acknowledging his overseas service, Jack was awarded one gold bar in recognition of wounds sustained in the field.

It did not take long for Jack to settle into civilian life.  On February 20, 1919, he married Mildred Lavine Gould, a native of Jeddore, Halifax County.  The couple had met in Halifax prior to Jack's departure for overseas service and corresponded throughout hiss time in Europe.  He and his bride returned to Mulgrave, where Jack found employment with the Canadian National Railways as a marine engineer.  He spent the majority of his career serving as mate and captain on the CNR's Scotia ferry, carrying railway and passenger cars from Mulgrave to Port Hastings.

Ralston Stirling (leftt) and Jack Crittenden (date unknown).
Jack and Mildred raised two children in their Mulgrave home - daughter Myrtle Ona and son Ralston Stirling, who later served during World War II.  A living descendant, Jack's grand-daughter Joyce, does not recall any lingering effects to either voice or lungs from exposure to poison gas.  She does remember, however, that Jack always kept the radio volume low and did not allow the purchase of firecrackers at Halloween, actions attributed to the lingering effects of "shell shock".

Jack retired from his position with CNR in 1955.  By this time, he had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, a condition that led to his sudden and untimely death two years later.  On August 27, 1957, Jack and his grand-daughter travelled by train to New Glasgow, where Joyce had a dental appointment.  Returning to the train station, Jack made sure that Joyce was comfortably settled in the coach car before leaving to supervise the loading of lumber purchased during their visit.  Jack suffered a heart attack in the boxcar and could not be revived.  He was laid to rest in St. Andrew's Anglican Cemetery, Church St., Mulgrave on August 31, 1957.


Regimental Record of Pte. John Alvin Crittenden, No. 222850.  Library and Archives Canada: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 2144 - 36.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diaries of the 85th Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders.  Library and Archives Canada: RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 4944 , Reel T-10751-10752, File : 454.  Available online.

Special thanks to Jack's grand-daughter, Joyce Malcolm of Port Hawkesbury, who provided the family photographs included in this post.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Poison Gas

Perhaps the most controversial military development during the First World War was the use of poison gas.  While no formal restrictions on its use existed prior to 1914, contemporaries widely considered such action morally unacceptable.  As the stalemate of trench warfare emerged along the Western Front, however, both sides searched for a weapon or tactic that could produce a 'breakthrough'.  In this situation, it is not surprising that combatants contemplated its use.

During the war's early months, both sides employed non-lethal gas in an attempt to gain a military advantage on the battlefield.  As early as August 1914, French troops used a form of tear gas against advancing German soldiers, hoping that the eye irritant would impair their fighting abilities.  German forces responded with a similar attack on British troops at Neuve Chapelle on October 1914.  In both instances, the gas proved largely ineffective.

As the year came to an end, Germany found itself in the predicament it had hoped to avoid - simultaneously fighting a war against French and British forces on the Western Front and Russian forces on the Eastern Front.  With its human and industrial resources stretched to the breaking point, German military commanders desperately sought a means to a quick victory on either front.  Thus, they advocated the use of poison gas, despite its moral implications.

The war's first large-scale gas attack occurred along the Eastern Front on January 31, 1915, when German forces fired 18,000 artillery shells filled with tear gas on Russian soldiers near Warsaw.  Cold temperatures caused the gas to freeze, rendering it largely ineffective.  Nevertheless, the scale of the attack set a precedent and suggested a significant change in strategy.

Poison gas attack on the Western Front.
This new direction was confirmed three months later at a strategic location on the Western Front.  The Ypres Salient extended more than eight kilometres into German front lines, containing sixteen kilometres of trench defended by French colonial, British and Canadian soldiers.  A German breakthrough at Ypres might end the impasse and lead to a decisive victory.  In retrospect, it is not surprising that poison gas made its debut at such a time and place.

On April 22, 1915, German artillery launched a morning barrage near Ypres.  By mid-day, the guns fell silent only to resume firing in late afternoon. A gentle breeze blew across "No Man's Land" toward an Allied section manned by French Algerian and Mauritanian troops.  Almost 6000 pressurized cylinders containing 168 tons of chorine gas lay along the parapet of the German trenches from Langemark to Poelkapelle, north of Ypres.  At 1730 hours, German soldiers opened the valves, releasing the gas into the air.

When Algerian sentries observed a yellow-green cloud drifting across "No Man's Land" toward their position, they initially thought it was a smoke screen for an infantry attack and roused their comrades to man the line.  As the gas floated into their trenches and men began coughing and gagging, those not affected dropped their weapons and fled in terror, creating a seven-kilometer gap in the Allied line.

Had the German infantry reacted quickly, the final outcome may have been different.  However, caught off-guard by the sudden withdrawal and fearful of the presence of poison gas on the battlefield, they advanced cautiously across No Man's Land.  Their hesitation allowed British and Canadian troops to counterattack and close the gap through the night.  However, the precedence was set - poison gas had been used in combat.  By war's end, it had become a major component of weapon supplies on both sides.

Soldiers wearing primitive gas masks.
German forces released chlorine gas on three more occasions during the Second Battle of Ypres - against soldiers of the 1st Canadian Division on April 24, and British troops on May 2 and 5, 1915.  It was also used against Russian troops near Warsaw on August 6, 1915, inflicting 9000 casualties and more than 1000 deaths. 

Chlorine gas was a by-product of dye manufacturing and Germany therefore had access to sizeable quantities.  The gas irritates the eyes, nose, throat and lungs upon contact.  High concentrations and prolonged exposure result in death by asphyxiation.  However, the coughing induced by contact reduces the amount of gas ingested.  In addition, chlorine is most effective at ground level, where it is most concentrated.  Soldiers in a standing position or on higher ground were less affected than individuals in a prone position, such as wounded or sleeping soldiers.

Several factors reduce chlorine's effectiveness as a weapon.  Its yellow-green color makes it easy to detect.  As the gas is water soluble, covering the mouth and nose with a damp cloth reduces its impact.  Soldiers at Ypres quickly discovered that a urine-soaked rag was particularly effective, as the chlorine reacted with urea and lost much of its effectiveness.

In addition, after its initial use, the element of surprise was lost as Allied commanders prepared for subsequent attacks.  Within days, soldiers in the front lines received gauge pads filled with cotton, accompanied by bottles of bicarbonate solution.  In the event of a gas attack, the pads were dipped into the liquid and held to the face.  By July 6, all British forces were equipped with a 'smoke helmet' designed by Major Cluny MacPherson of the Newfoundland Regiment.  It consisted of a flannel bag with a celluloid window and covered the soldier's entire head.  While it obscured their vision and was somewhat uncomfortable, it did protect their health.

Australian soldiers wearing advanced gas masks.
It was not long before Allied forces responded in kind.  Shortly after the Ypres attack, Britain organized Special Gas Companies consisting of 1400 personnel, assigning them to strategic locations along the front.  When the first British gas attack occurred several months later, however, its outcome illustrated the challenges faced in effectively using poison gas on the battlefield. 

At 5:20 am September 24, 1915, British troops released 140 tons of chlorine gas into an initially favorable wind near Loos, Belgium.  As the cloud crawled across No Man's Land, however, the wind shifted and within forty minutes portions of the gas blew back into sections of the British line.  In addition, the gas in some cylinders could not be released, as soldiers were not issued with the correct turning key.  Subsequent German artillery shells struck several full cylinders, releasing more gas into the British positions.  It is estimated that the number of British gas casualties may have actually exceeded the number of victims in the opposing trenches. 

The Loos incident illustrated one of the greatest challenges in using poison gas as a weapon - finding an effective delivery system.  For several months, both sides experimented with inserting gas into artillery shells, a tactic that eventually proved highly effective.  More significantly, chemists addressed chlorine's shortcomings by developing a new, more effective poison gas by year's end - phosgene.

First produced by French chemists, phosgene is colorless and almost odorless, making it much more difficult to detect.  It does not induce coughing, increasing the amount of gas inhaled.  Phosgene does not immediately incapacitate its victims, requiring 24 to 48 hours to take effect.  However, inhalation of small quantities causes death.  As it is a denser gas, phosgene was usually mixed with equal amounts of chlorine to enhance its ability to disperse.  Allied troops called this deadly combination 'White Star', a reference to the symbol painted on the shells used to deliver the gas.

Poster highlighting phosgene's properties and effects.
The Germans launched the first chlorine - phosgene attack on British troops at Willtje, Belgium on December 19, 1915.  A total of 88 tons of gas was delivered by artillery shells, inflicting 69 fatalities and 1009 casualties.  British troops used the same weapon and technique during the Somme offensive launched in July 1916.  While only 36,600 tons of phosgene were produced during the war in comparison to 93,900 tons of chlorine gas, it was far more effective in inflicting casualties.  Estimates credit phosgene with approximately 85 % of the deaths caused by chemical weapons during the war.

By 1917, both sides were capable of launching gas attacks on one another's front lines, supply lines, support trenches and gun placements by means of chemical artillery shells, projectiles and mortars.  That same year, another deadly weapon made its debut.  Mustard gas, a chemical compound developed by the Germans, was first used during the Third Battle of Ypres (July 1917) on the Western Front and against Russian troops near Riga, Latvia (August 1917) on the Eastern Front.  Called "Yellow Cross" by the Germans after the identifying symbol placed on the shell casings, mustard gas is virtually odorless and colorless.  To the British, it was "HS" - "Hun stuff" - while the French called it "Yperite" after the Belgian city where it was first used. 

Unlike chlorine and phosgene, mustard gas does not have to be ingested.  Simple physical contact produces skin blisters, sore eyes and vomiting in addition to internal bleeding if inhaled.  The gas strips the mucous membrane of the bronchial tubes, leading to a slow, painful death as long as five weeks after contact.  Survivors often suffer blindness due to eye contact.  While not particularly effective at killing enemy soldiers, it did severely inhibit their ability to fight.  The gas also remained active in the soil for several days, depending on weather conditions, making contaminated trenches 'uninhabitable'.

While poison gas never succeeded in breaking the stalemate on either front, it became a standard part of the weaponry employed by both sides throughout the conflict.  At war's end, 35 % of French and German, 25 % of British, and 20 % of American ammunition stockpiles consisted of poison gas shells.  It was particularly suited to the static trench warfare that dominated fighting on the Western Front and was regularly combined with artillery fire in support of infantry attacks during the war's later stages.  Had the war continued into 1919, both combatants planned to insert poison gas into 30 to 50 % of newly manufactured artillery shells.

Artillery shells filled with poison gas.
While the Germans used the largest quantity of gas during the war - an estimated 68,000 tons - British forces actually launched more gas attacks during the last two years of the war than their opponents.  In comparison, French forces used 36,000 tons and British forces 25,000 tons of poison gas throughout the war.  During the war's later stages, Germany was unable to keep pace with Allied stockpiles, due to the cost of production and the entry of the United States into the war, an event that significantly increased Allied resources. 

In the final analysis, poison gas did not prove to be an effective weapon.  While it was deployed in 25 % of the artillery shells fired during the war, it caused only 3 % of its casualties.  This was due in large part to the development of filter respirators utilizing charcoal or chemical antidotes, although the masks remained cumbersome. 

Nevertheless, gas was responsible for thousands of casualties and deaths.  British forces suffered 188,706 casualties and 8,109 fatalities due to contact with poison gas.  An estimated 12,000 Canadian soldiers suffered from its effects.  Many victims never reported minor contact with gas and therefore were unable to obtain compensation if its effects produced health problems later in life.  Russian soldiers were most affected, suffering 419,340 casualties and 56,000 fatalities, although this was largely due to their military's failure to implement suitable precautions.

In total, poison gas accounted for 1,250,000 casualties and 91,000 fatalities, half of which occurred on the Eastern Front.  While significant, these figures represent only 10 % of the total number of casualties during the war, demonstrating its overall ineffectiveness as a weapon.  After the war, concern over future use of poison gas led to the creation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol.  This international agreement, eventually adopted by all of the war's major combatants, specifically prohibited the use of lethal gas and bacteriological weapons in combat, although production and stockpiling were permitted.  As a result, with the exception of a few isolated incidents, poison gas was not used to any extent during World War II or subsequent 20th century military conflicts.



Chemical Weapons in World War One.  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.  Available online.

Poison Gas.  Canada and the First World War.  Canadian War Museum.  Available online.

Poison Gas and World War One.  History Learning Site.  Available online.

Poison Gases.  Spartacus Educational.  Available at

Weapons of War: Poison Gas. - A Multimedia History of World War One.  Available online.