The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

042 Fritz Haber and the yellowish-brown cloud at five o’clock

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

Germans use poison gas as a weapon

It is Sunday 11 April 1915. It is the 42nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Bulgaria agrees to a Serbian-Bulgarian committee that will investigate Macedonian border incidents.

The British experience great difficulties in repelling the Turkish-Arab attack near the port of Basra in present-day Iraq.

Pope Benedict XV informs American president Woodrow Wilson to be prepared to launch a joint peace initiative.

Fifteen allied airplanes bomb Ostend on the North Sea coast again.

The Germans decide to increase their efforts on the eastern front.

The British submarine E-35 tries in vain to reach the Sea of Marmara via the Dardanelles.

Russian troops, with additional Armenian volunteers under the command of general Andranik Ozanian, defeat the Ottomans in the Battle of Dilman.

The Germans see their attacks stranded at Notre Dame de Lorette.

British troops take Hill 60, a hill near the village of Zillebeke in West Flanders.

And a German prisoner of war tells the French that at Langemark bottles filled with gas are ready to be used, the poisonous experiment of Fritz Haber.

The story of the First World War is a random collection of contrasts. Take Fritz Haber, generally considered to be the ultimate promoter of chemical warfare, and Albert Einstein, especially known for his pacifism. It appears that Einstein, the apostle of peace, and Haber, the poisoner, were on friendly terms with each other before, during and after the war.

In 1914, just before the war, Haber got Einstein to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, which has been called the Fritz Haber Institute since 1953. Two brilliant scientists, Haber and Einstein, both of German-Jewish descent. But Haber will trade in the Jewish faith for Protestantism already at a very early stage, while Einstein will adopt the Swiss nationality long before the war. The world view of one is completely opposite to that of the other. Between ’14 and ’18 Haber wants to win the war for the Germans by putting poison gas in the hands of soldiers. Einstein persists in his anti-militarism, although it is he who in later years will be at the basis of the most horrible weapon of all time, much more horrible than Haber’s poison gas: the atomic bomb.

Both have to leave Germany in 1933, the year that the Nazis seize power. Especially Fritz Haber is getting a raw deal. He has worked hard for Germany as an ardent patriot all his life. Now the same Germany chases him away as the eternal Jew. In a letter Einstein expresses his sympathy with the exile Haber: ‘I can feel your inner conflicts. It is somewhat like having to abandon a theory on which you have worked for your whole life. It is not the same for me because I never believed it in the least.’

What then was this sacred faith of Fritz Haber?  Well, he formulated his scientific creed as follows: ‘Im Frieden der Menschheit, im Krieg dem Vaterland’ (‘In times of peace humanity, in times of war the fatherland’). Gas was his most manifest contribution to the German war effort, but the Germans also managed to keep the production of ammunition at the usual level thanks to Fritz Haber. After the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914 the German army ran the risk of having no more explosives. As a result of the British trade blockade Germany had no more access to the raw materials for nitric acid. The Haber-Bosch process offered a solution. Together with Carl Bosch Fritz Haber had succeeded in making ammonia of hydrogen and nitrogen already before the war. The Germans managed to convert this ammonia during the war into hundreds of thousands of tons of nitric acid, essential for the production of ammunition.

Haber was not the only scientist who dealt with poison gas, but he was indeed the man behind the first successful gas attack of the Second Battle of Ypres. To many historians this was the beginning of chemical warfare. At the end of January 1915, however, the Germans had already made an effort to this on the eastern front near Bolimów. In the Neuve Chapelle area in October 1914 a German experiment with gas that made its victims sneeze violently was mainly aimed at eliminating the enemy temporarily. Even earlier in August 1914 the French had already been carefully working with tear gas. So it is highly questionable to call Fritz Haber ‘the father of poison gas’.

Eric Wils, a Dutch chemist who has explored the First World War, eliminates the persistent misunderstandings about poison gas as follows: ‘There has been a discussion since 1915 whether the use of tear gas grenades in 1914 by French soldiers was the first use of poison gas in the First World War. The fact remains that on 22 April 1915, when the Germans released 150 tons of chlorine at Ypres, there was a completely new situation. For the first time  a chemical weapon had been developed which was used on a large scale to achieve a breakthrough in the trenchwar. Not just blowing some smoke or poisonous vapour in the direction of an opponent during a fight, but spreading 150 tons of chlorine. Especially produced for the fights in April 1915 in an industrial manner and stored in 6,000 cylinders. This chemical warfare escalated in such a way that in 1918 millions of poison gas grenades, including the ones filled with mustard gas, were fired by the fighting parties.’ So much for Eric Wils’ explanation.

Let us put it like this: Fritz Haber is responsible for poison gas to become a factor of importance in the war. According to estimates gas attacks proved fatal to 91,000 soldiers. That is not even one per cent of the 10 million who were killed in the First World War. But gas gave the war unprecedented and macabre dynamics. Statistics prove that, cynically speaking, bombs and grenades were deadlier and therefore less humane. But gas was so elusive and treacherous. It made the war in a certain sense inhuman. One of the German soldiers who had to dive into the hole that chlorine gas had made in the front on 22 April 1915, would say: ‘I am not very happy with the idea of poisoning people. All the dead lie on their backs with clenched fists.’

We can still feel the soldiers’ fear of the gas in their trenches when reading Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum est. The poet still hears his comrades call: ‘Gas! Gas! Quick boys!’ They reach for their gas masks, but one of them does not make it. The picture of this bloke, ‘choking and drowning’, ‘blood gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs’, that picture will never vanish from his dreams.

Such was the reality resulting from Fritz Haber’s laboratory. But it is not said to have haunted him. Also after the war Haber kept defending the chemical weapon as a higher form of warfare. He has recorded this as follows: ‘One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas.’ Besides, also a person like Winston Churchill will continue promoting the use of poison gas after the Great War. He intends to silence rebellious Arabs in Iraq with it.

And yet an overkill of combat gasses will remain reserved to the First World War. The Second has stayed deprived of it. It was a much too dynamic war for it. But gas also frightened both parties in World War II, just as a nuclear confrontation did not happen in the Cold War. In 1997 the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention agree to ban poison gas from the world. This is almost a century after all civilized nations of the world had promised to do  the same during the Hague Convention.

This promise, however, proved of little value in the Great War. Backed by government and army command scientists, led by Fritz Haber, experimented with the new weapon to their heart’s content. The gas escaped from cylinders and was blown towards the enemy by the wind or it was fired in grenades. After teargas at Bolimów and chlorine gas at Ypres there came attacks with phosgene, chloropicrin, hydrocyanic acid and arsenic compounds. The British and the French could only follow the Germans in their gas arms race with difficulty.

In July 1917 Ypres is again the backdrop for the release of mustardgas. It will appropriately be called Yperite. Mustard gas will prove to be the killer among combat gasses. Its victim is given the time to rot away from the inside and outside. The skin will be covered in blisters and the mucous membrane detaches from the trachea. The pain is infernal until finally death comes as the redeemer.

Likewise Fritz Haber’s wife seeks redemptive death. Ten days after the chlorine attack at Ypres she commits suicide using her husband’s service pistol. The night before hubbie had celebrated his promotion to captain with a dinner party. According to one theory another much younger woman is involved, the woman Haber will marry during the war, but whom he will also divorce again. A more plausible explanation is that Clara Immerwahr preferred death to life with a man who perverted science. As she herself had graduated as a chemist summa cum laude, she could not bear that her husband cultivated death and destruction in test tubes. She did not get through to him. Fritz Haber’s patriotism was immune to his wife’s pleading. The day after Clara’s suicide Fritz Haber travelled to the eastern front to disperse his poison gas. Others were left to arrange the funeral.

In the first months of 1915 Haber had to convince the generals of the power of the gas. But it did not turn out to be a magic formula. Gas could surprise the enemy, but when should their own infantry start chasing the cloud? Too early and the gas would turn against their own troops. Too late and the enemy would be extra prepared for the attack. As the war progressed, the quality of protective measures increased. Initially cotton rags, handkerchiefs and gauze dressings drenched in urine had to protect the breathing passages. But soon gas masks were passed around in the trenches. A gas alarm was given with rattles and whistles.

Gas could have meant a breakthrough on 22 April 1915 between Steenstraat and Langemark. Chaos on the side of the allies was complete. Thousands of Algerians and zouaves, gasping for air, fled from the yellowish-brown cloud that had come drifting in at five o’clock in the afternoon. A six-kilometre hole had been created in the front, but the Germans failed to push through. The following day Canadian troops flowed in to prevent a German advance. They, too, were treated to gas, but Ypres stayed out of reach of the Germans.


Yes, the story of the First World War is full of contradictions. But also the peace that follows makes you raise your eyebrows. In 1919 it is announced that the Nobel Prize for chemistry is awarded to … Fritz Haber. There are of course protests, but Haber will still be honoured in Sweden as the man who managed to bake ‘bread out of air’. Chemical fertilizers could be introduced because of Haber’s synthesis of ammonia. Behold the Janus face of scientist Fritz Haber: the number of people he saved from starvation far exceeds the number of soldiers whose breath he took away.

After the war Haber and his friend Albert Einstein make an effort to undo the boycott of German scientists. Haber feels responsible for Germany’s defeat, but dedicated himself fully to chemical insect control. This leads to Zyklon B, the gas the Nazis used to speed up the genocide of the Jewish people in the extermination camps.

Haber had no knowledge of this at all, having died in 1934 at the age of 65. He could not rest in German soil and that is why he is buried where he died, in Basel, Switzerland. Shortly before he passed away he required the ashes of his first wife Clara to be placed in his grave, which is what happened. It has remained a sober tomb though.

Next week: Anthony Fokker

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


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