One hundred years ago, on April 22, 1915, German troops near the village of Gravenstafel along the Ypres Salient in Belgium released 170 tons of chlorine gas in an attack against the trenches occupied by French forces including units from Morocco and Algeria. The gas was released from canisters along the German line and allowed to drift with the wind toward the French line where it settled into the trenches. Soldiers scrambling out of the trenches to escape asphyxiation were hit with a withering fusillade from the Germans.
|John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1919)|
The French and colonial forces suffered approximately 6,000 casualties with many of the wounded being blinded and suffering serious lung damage. A four-mile wide gap in the defensive line was opened up by the attack, but the Germans were unprepared to exploit it fully.
Adam Hochschild's description of the attack in To End All Wars (pp. 140-41) is worth quoting at some length:
On April 22, 1915, near the battered city of Ypres, French soldiers and troops from French colonies in North Africa noticed a strange, greenish yellow mist billowing out of the German positions and blowing toward them in the wind. An unfamiliar smell filled the air. When the acrid cloud reached them, it was so thick that they couldn't see more than a few feet. Soldiers quickly found themselves gagging and choking, yellow mucus frothing out of their mouths. Hundreds fell to the ground in convulsions. Those who could still breathe fled, staggering into first-aid posts blue from suffocation and coughing blood, speechless but pointing desperately to their throats. In the next few days, Canadian troops fell victim as well. Whatever this mysterious cloud might be, it was heavier than air and sank into the trenches, hugging the earth and forcing soldiers to stick their heads out into a hail of bullets. "The chaps were all gasping and couldn't breathe," a sergeant remembered later. "And it was ghastly, especially for chaps that were wounded--terrible for a wounded man to lie there! The gasping, the gasping!"
The spring leaves just coming out on the trees shriveled; grass turned yellow and metal green. Birds fell from the air, and chickens, pigs, cows, and horses writhed in agony and died, their bodies rotting and bloating. The ever-fatter rats that normally swarmed through the trenches, keeping men awake by running over them in the dark on the way to feast on soldiers' corpses, themselves died by the thousands.
This was the first widespread use of poison gas--chlorine--on the Western Front. Deadly and painful as it could be, later forms of gas would be still worse. Like so much else about the war, chlorine was the product of an industrial economy, in this case made by a complex of eight large chemical firms in Germany's Ruhr region known as the IG cartel. Chlorine and its compounds had a long history in manufacturing, but its new use in warfare was an ominous landmark, seeming to open up a range of horrifying possibilities that had previously existed only in the realm of early science fiction.
Chastened by the experience of World War I in which even the Allied Powers eventually deployed chemicals, the international community attempted to close off the "range of horrifying possibilities." In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was adopted to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons in international conflicts. Significant gaps in the coverage of the Geneva Protocol were closed with the adoption in 1993 of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), to which 190 states are party. The CWC prohibits not only the use but the manufacture and stockpiling of chemical weapons.
Credible evidence indicates that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons--including chlorine gas--with devastating effects on civilians in recent attacks conducted in violation of Syria's obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013). Acting on the basis of findings by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Security Council, on March 6, 2015, adopted Resolution 2209 threatening enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in the event of further use of chemical weapons.
It seems unlikely that the Security Council will be able to back up its threat to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons given the continued intransigence of Russia and China on matters related to Syria's civil war. However, both states voted for Resolution 2209. Both are also paying a diplomatic price for their grossly immoral position.