Fritz Haber and WWI Gas Warfare – a summary

On 22 April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, French and Algerian soldiers, fighting together, noticed a strange yellow-grey-coloured cloud floating across no man’s land in their direction. As it descended over them, many collapsed, coughing and wheezing, gasping for air, frothing at the mouth. Men nearby watched as their colleagues fell to the ground in agony yet there were no gunshots to be heard and they appeared not to be visibly wounded in any way. Seized by panic, they bolted, throwing away their rifles, and even their tunics so that they might run faster, leaving a hole some four miles wide. But the Germans, wary of stepping into the cloud of poison gas protected only by their crude gasmasks, felt unable to exploit the opportunity. This, with 400 tones of chlorine gas, was the world’s first successful chemical weapon attack, resulting in the deaths of some 6,000 Allied soldiers.

GassedThis new terrible weapon was inhumane, cried the Allied generals, only to be using it themselves within five months. Britain’s first use of chlorine gas, at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, was not a great success. Sir John French and the British commanders had banned the use of the word ‘gas’, believing it too provocative a word; instead they called it the ‘accessory’, a vague euphemism if ever there was one. Having waited for a favourable wind, they released the gas from cylinders. But the wind turned and the gas ended up causing greater causalities among the British than it did the Germans. (Pictured, segment of the painting Gassed by John Singer Sargent. Click to enlarge).

Fritz Haber

Fritz HaberThe pioneer of poison gas was a German called Fritz Haber, a Jew who, conscious of the anti-Semitism already prevalent in fin-de-siècle Germany, had, in 1893, converted to Christianity. Haber had developed the means to convert nitrogen in a way that it could be used to produce cheap and effective fertilizer, which, of course, improved and revolutionized agricultural efficiency. His work won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

The use of poisonous gas in war was prohibited by the 1899 Hague Convention yet as soon as the First World War broke out Fritz Haber and his team worked on developing gas as a weapon. Haber, as a Jew, was determined to prove his devotion and loyalty to Germany. “During peace time,” Haber once said, “a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country”. Killing enemy troops with gas was, according to Haber, no worse than blowing their heads off with artillery. For his work, Haber was personally made an honorary captain by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Clara Immerwahr

Clara ImmerwahrThe successful use of chlorine gas at Ypres in April 1915 was, for the Germans, and Haber in particular, an occasion for celebration. But not so for Haber’s wife, Clara. Clara Immerwahr, who herself had been a successful chemist, had been appalled by her husband’s work, which she saw as a perversion of science. On 2 May, at their Berlin home, Haber hosted a party. While he and his friends toasted his success, Clara took her husband’s service revolver, went into their garden and shot herself in the heart. She died the following morning in the arms of her 13-year-old son, Hermann.

Despite the setback of his wife’s suicide, Haber was buoyed by his success with chlorine at Ypres but conscious of its limitations. He developed a new, more effective gas, called phosgene, which omitted a smell akin to hay. Its first use, on the Eastern front, in January 1916, proved successful. Those inflicted often showed no immediate ill effects but then would succumb, violently, some 48 hours later.

In 1917, the Germans introduced mustard gas, so named because of its odour, which could penetrate clothing and be absorbed through skin. Gas had become a common feature by the end of the war and although it was effective at incapacitating troops and causing long-term illness, gas accounted for only three per cent of fatalities.

Post-war

Following the war, Fritz Haber continued his work. But, despite his Christian conversion, and despite his efforts on behalf of Germany’s war efforts, he was still a Jew, and hence felt very vulnerable once, in 1933, Hitler had come to power. On seeing many of his Jewish colleagues harassed, mistreated and dismissed, Haber resigned. He emigrated to England in 1933 but, after only four months, decided to start afresh in Palestine. Stopping off in Basel in Switzerland, Haber, aged 65, died of a heart attack on 29 January 1934.

His son, Hermann, later emigrated to the US where, apparently ashamed by his father’s work, committed suicide in 1946.

Zyklon B

But the most tragic irony was that in his agricultural research, Haber helped develop pesticide gases, which included a cyanide-based pesticide called Zyklon B, indeed one of his assistants was credited as the official inventor of Zyklon B. Zyklon B was the main component used by the Nazis in their death camps. Among the six million killed in the gas chambers during the Holocaust were several members of Fritz Haber’s extended family, including his nieces and nephews.

Rupert Colley

World War One coverRead more about the Great War in World War One: History In An Hour and 1914: History In An Hour, both by Rupert Colley and both published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, a compelling tale set during the First World War, is now available.

The Debate on the Origins of World War One

Beginning with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Dr Annika Mombauer explores the opposing debates about the origins of World War One. Is it possible for historians to arrive at a consensus?

The hundred-year debate

How could the death of one man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated on 28 June 1914, lead to the deaths of millions in a war of unprecedented scale and ferocity? This is the question at the heart of the debate on the origins of the First World War. How did Europe get from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife to the situation at the beginning of August when Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war with Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, and Britain? Finding the answer to this question has exercised historians for 100 years, and arriving at a convincing consensus has proved impossible.

Cupidity‘Cupidity’, a satirical drawing showing the hands of men from countries involved in World War One, arguing for control of the world.

The need to fight a defensive war

Establishing the responsibility for the escalation of the July Crisis into a European war – and ultimately a world war – was paramount even before fighting had begun. The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary tried desperately to ensure that they did not appear to be the aggressor in July and August 1914. This was crucial because the vast armies of soldiers that would be needed to fight this war could not be summoned for a war of aggression. Socialists, of whom there were many millions by 1914, would not have supported a belligerent foreign policy, and could only be relied upon to fight in a defensive war. Populations would only rally and make sacrifices willingly if the cause was just – and that meant fighting a defensive war.The French and Belgians, Russians, Serbs and British were convinced they were indeed involved in a defensive struggle for just aims. Austrians and Hungarians were fighting to revenge the death of Franz Ferdinand. Germans were assured by their Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and their Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, that Germany’s neighbours had ‘forced the sword’ into its hands.[1] In 1914, Germans were certain that they had not started the war. But if not they (who had after all invaded Belgium and France in the first few weeks of fighting), then who had caused this war? Continue reading

Admiral John Fisher – a summary

When Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, he quickly grew to rely on the services of a former First Sea Lord, by then supposedly retired: Admiral John Fisher. Between them, Fisher and Churchill were to revolutionise the Royal Navy, just in time to facilitate its successful prosecution of World War One. Fisher had predicted a 1914 war with Germany as far back as 1911.

John FisherOnce war broke out, he returned to the position of First Sea Lord in a formal capacity, though he resigned after less than a year. He and Churchill had fallen out over the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign, about which he was never an enthusiast. Fisher is regarded as one of the most influential admirals of his generation. His partnership with Churchill is an often neglected aspect of the pre-war period.

John ‘Jacky’ Fisher came from a colonial family who had fallen into debt. He therefore joined the navy at the age of only thirteen, by when his father had died. He grew estranged from his mother. He married, and had four children, three of whom were in turn to marry admirals. He was a forward thinking, sometimes impatient man, frustrated by the conservatism and patronage that was rampant in the navy. He was also extremely religious, an aspect of his make up which could sometimes affect his judgement.

First Sea Lord

His first tenure as First Sea Lord had been between 1904 and 1910. It was a period of retrenchment and transformation. Amidst much outcry, Fisher freed up resources by scrapping or mothballing dozens of elderly ships, and instead invested in new technology. Modern turreted ‘Dreadnought’ battleships and the new concept of battlecruisers were the result.

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Victor Emmanuel III – a summary

On 29 July 1900, the king of Italy, Umberto I, was assassinated. The throne passed to his 30-year-old son, who, as Victor Emmanuel III, would reign until 1946, a period which saw both world wars and the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascists.

Victor Emmanuel IIIBorn in Naples on 11 November 1869, the future king was so short, the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, nicknamed him the dwarf, and, in private, Mussolini called him the ‘little sardine’. He ruled over an Italy that had been in existence as a unified nation only since 1871. Despite unification, Italy was a deeply-fragmented society, steeped in poverty and corruption, and ruled over by a succession of weak coalition governments. But, as a figurehead king, Victor Emmanuel III chose to ignore the affairs of state, preferring instead to focus on his vast collection of coins.

World War One

With the outbreak of war in July 1914, Italy initially adopted a position of neutrality despite having been in alliance, the Triple Alliance, with Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire since 1882. Victor Emmanuel favoured participation in the war, partly as a means of enhancing Italy’s reputation on the international stage. Italy duly entered the war in May 1915, not as allies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but on the side of the Triple Entente allies – France, Russia and Great Britain.

Mussolini

After 1918, Victor Emmanuel again retired to the sidelines as Italy struggled to cope with the post-war instabilities of demobilization, unemployment and inflation. Socialists, communists, anarchists and the newly-formed fascists fought on the streets and on the farms in a vicious cycle of ever-increasing violence.

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Karl Lody – a summary

Karl Lody was a German spy and the first to be executed in Britain during the First World War.

Karl LodyBorn in Berlin on 20 January 1877, Karl Hans Lody spoke perfect English with an American accent, having been married to an American and lived in Nebraska. Having obtained a US passport under the name Charles A. Inglis, which allowed him to travel freely, Lody arrived in Edinburgh on 27 August 1914. Staying in a hotel, he hired a bicycle and cycled each day to the docks at the Firth of Forth and Rosyth’s naval base, both of strategic importance during the First World War, in order to observe and take notes.

Snow on their boots

MI5, who had been monitoring letters sent abroad, intercepted Lody’s very first message back to the Germans. The address in Stockholm that Lody had used was well known to MI5, instantly arousing their suspicions. But they did not arrest him immediately, preferring, instead, to monitor his activities. Lody’s letters were usually signed ‘Nazi’, an abbreviation of the name Ignatz, the German form of Ignatius, and nothing to do with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party which did not come into existence until after the war. (‘Nazi’ was also a generic term for an Austro-Hungarian soldier, akin to ‘Tommy’ for a British soldier or ‘Fritz’ for a German one.)

Many of Lody’s letters, some of which were coded, contained misleading information, which MI5 were more than happy to allow through. One example was Lody’s assertion that thousands of Russian troops had landed in Scotland on their way to the Western Front, which may have led to the infamous ‘snow on their boots’ rumour that gained popular currency in wartime Britain.

DORA

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Rachele Mussolini – a summary

In 1914, in Milan, the future fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, married Ida Dalser, a 34-year-old beautician who soon bore him a child, Benito Albino Mussolini. The marriage lasted just a few months and on 17 December 1915, before the birth of Benito Jr., Mussolini, at the time at home on army sick leave, married Rachele Guidi in a civil ceremony. Guidi had been his long-term mistress and mother to his first child, Edda, who had been born in 1910.

Mussolini and Rachele Guidi shared the same place of birth – the town of Predappio in the area of Forlì in northern Italy. Guidi had been born 11 April 1890. She and Mussolini had first met when Mussolini appeared at her school as a stand-in teacher. Guidi’s father had warned her against marrying the penniless Mussolini: ‘That young man will starve you to death,’ he warned. After the death of her father, Guidi’s mother began a relationship with Mussolini’s widowed father.

In December 1925, ten years after their civil marriage, Rachele and Mussolini were married in a Catholic church. It was less a romantic gesture than an attempt by Mussolini to ingratiate himself with the pope, Pius XI. The Mussolinis were to have five children. As dictator, Mussolini preached about the importance of the family and liked to portray his own family as a model fascist household. But in truth, he had little time for his children and could number his lovers by the hundred. Rachele knew about her husband’s many indiscretions. In an interview with Life magazine in February 1966, Rachele said, ‘My husband had a fascination for women. They all wanted him. Sometimes he showed me their letters – from women who wanted to sleep with him or have a baby with him. It always made me laugh.’

A beautiful companion

Benito and Rachele MussoliniIn 1923, Rachele took on a lover of her own – according to Edda in an interview in 1995, shortly before her death, and only broadcast in 2001. Rachele, according to Edda, told Mussolini, ‘You have many women. There is a person who loves me a lot, a beautiful companion.’ Mussolini may have been shocked but he did nothing to stop the affair, which, apparently, lasted several years.

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John French – a summary

John French spent much of his early military career, like many of his contemporaries, in Africa and India. He was part of the failed 1884/5 mission to relieve General Gordon in the Sudan; and from 1891 served in India.

John FrenchIn India French first met his future rival, Douglas Haig, then a captain. Indeed, Haig later lent French a large sum of money to help the latter stave off bankruptcy. While in India, French had an affair with the wife of a fellow officer. The scandal almost ended his career.  He survived and went on to serve with distinction as a cavalry officer during the Boer War where, most notably, in 1900, under the stewardship of Frederick Roberts, he lead the force that relieved the British garrison besieged in the town of Kimberley.

French was appointed Britain’s army chief-of-staff in 1911 and given command of the British Expeditionary Force, the BEF. In 1913, French was promoted to the rank of field marshal.

1914

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the BEF crossed the Channel, landing on the continent on 7 August. (Consisting of little more than 90,000 men, only half of whom were regular soldiers; the other half being reservists, the BEF had famously, and allegedly, been dismissed by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, on 19 August, ordered his army to ‘exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.’ Hence British soldiers took pride in calling themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’.) French’s orders, from Horatio Kitchener, minister for war, were to work alongside the French but not to take orders from them. The BEF first saw action during the Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, Britain’s first battle in Western Europe since Waterloo ninety-nine years before.

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Thomas Highgate – first British soldier executed during World War One

On 5 September 1914, the first day of the Battle of Marne, Thomas Highgate, a 19-year-old British private, was found hiding in a barn dressed in civilian clothes. Highgate was tried by court martial, convicted of desertion and, in the early hours of 8 September, was executed by firing squad. His was the first of 306 executions carried out by the British during the First World War.

Shot at Dawn memorialThe only son of a farm worker, Thomas Highgate was born in Shoreham in Kent on 13 May 1895. In February 1913, aged 17, he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. Within months, Highgate fell foul of the military authorities – in 1913, he was he was upbraided for being late for Tattoo, and ‘exchanging duties without permission’. In early 1914, he was reprimanded for having a rusty rifle and deserting for which he received the punishment of forty-eight days detention.

(Pictured is the ‘Shot at Dawn’ Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire).

First Battle of the Marne

On 5 September, the first day of the Battle of the Marne and the 35th day of the war, Private Highgate’s nerves got the better of him and he fled the battlefield. He hid in a barn in the village of Tournan, a few miles south of the river, and was discovered wearing civilian clothes by a gamekeeper who happened to be English and an ex-soldier. Quite where Highgate obtained his civilian clothes is not recorded but the gamekeeper spotted his uniform lying in a heap nearby. Highgate confessed, ‘I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it’.

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Winston Churchill and the First World War

Winston Churchill rather enjoyed war. In July 1914, as Britain prepared for the oncoming catrastrophe, Churchill, at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to his wife, ‘I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?’ And in 1916, in a letter to David Lloyd George’s daughter, Churchill admitted: ‘I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment, and yet, I can’t help it, I enjoy every second of it’.

Winston Churchill 1904Churchill had been appointed to the Admiralty in October 1911, and had continued the policy established by his predecessor of keeping Britain ahead of the Germans and strengthening the navy by expanding the number of Dreadnoughts, the most powerful battleship of the time.

But despite these preparations, Britain suffered a number of setbacks during the first months of the First World War – on 22 September 1914, the German navy sunk a number of British ships at Dogger Bank (sixty miles off the east coast of England in the North Sea), killing 1,459 sailors; and on 16 December, German ships penetrated close enough to British shores to attack Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby causing 137 fatalities. Churchill, in his role at the Admiralty, took the brunt of the blame and the public’s anger.

Antwerp

In October 1914, with German forces bearing down on Antwerp, the British government dispatched Churchill to Belguim. Although, through his efforts, he helped delay the fall of the city by about a week, allowing the Belgian Army to escape and the vital Channel ports to be saved, he was still heavily criticised at home for failing to save Antwerp.

Stung by the criticism, Churchill offered to resign from the government in return for a post as an army officer in the field. His offer, met with derision and loud guffaws, was refused.

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Georges Clemenceau – a summary

Nicknamed the Tiger for his fiery temperament, Georges Clemenceau was not averse to settling personal feuds by duel. He was anti-monarchy, anti-socialist and anti-Catholic. His father, Benjamin, who himself had been imprisoned for his republican views, was a doctor and although Clemenceau completed his medical studies, he didn’t take up the profession, being drawn instead to politics.

A staunch republican and troublemaker, like his father, Georges Clemenceau was once imprisoned for 73 days (some sources state 77 days) by Napoleon III’s government for publishing a republican newspaper and trying to incite demonstrations against the monarchy. In 1865, fearing another arrest, and possible incarceration on Devil’s Island, Clemenceau fled to the US, arriving towards the end of the American Civil War. He lived first in New York, where he worked as a journalist, and then in Connecticut where he became a teacher in a private girls’ school. Clemenceau married one of his American students, Mary Plummer, and together they had three children before divorcing seven years later. (Of his son, Clemenceau, known for his wit, said, ‘If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.’)

Five days after his divorce, Clemenceau returned to France and briefly worked as a doctor before returning to politics. In 1871, he witnessed France’s defeat to Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War.

‘A soldier of democracy’

An intellectual, Georges Clemenceau was fascinated by Ancient Greek culture, supported the work of the French Impressionists, wrote a book on Jewish history, and translated into French the works of English philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Following France’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, Clemenceau opposed France’s colonial ambitions, arguing that the country needed to concentrate its efforts on extracting revenge on the Germans and recovering Alsace Lorraine, territory it had lost to the Germans as part of the French surrender.

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