Keynote speach at the CONDENsE Conference, Ypres, Belgium, 29 August 2019
(Cross-posted from The Trench)
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends,
It is a real pleasure to be back in Ieper, Ypres, Ypern or as British Tommies in the trenches used to say over a century ago, Wipers. As the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate reminded us yesterday evening, this city suffered heavily during the First World War. Raised to the ground during four years of combat, including three major battles – the first one in the autumn of 1914, which halted the German advance along this stretch of the frontline and marked the beginning of trench warfare; the second one in the spring of 1915, which opened with the release of chlorine as a new weapon of warfare; and the third one starting in the summer of 1917 and lasting almost to the end of the year, which witnessed the first use of mustard agent, aptly named ‘Yperite’ by the French – Ypres was rebuilt and, as you have been able to see to, regain some of its past splendour.
Modern chemical warfare began, as I have just mentioned, in the First World War. It introduced a new type of weapon that was intended to harm humans through interference with their life processes by exposure to highly toxic substances, poisons. Now, poison use was not new.
However, when the chlorine cloud rose from the German trenches near Langemark (north of Ypres) and rolled towards the Allied positions in the late afternoon of 22 April 1915, the selected poisonous substance does not occur naturally. It was the product of chemistry as a scientific enterprise. Considering that the gas had been CONDENsE-d into a liquid held in steel cylinders testified to what was then an advanced engineering process. Volume counted too. When the German Imperial forces released an estimated 150–168 metric tonnes of chlorine from around 6,000 cylinders, the event was a testimonial to industrial prowess. Poison was not a weapon the military at the start of the 20th century were likely to consider. Quite on the contrary, some well-established norms against their use in war existed. However, in the autumn of 1914 the Allies fought the German Imperial armies to a standstill in several major battles along a frontline that stretched from Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast to Pfetterhausen – today, Pfetterhouse – where the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland then met just west of Basel. To restore movement to the Western front, the German military explored many options and eventually accepted the proposal put forward by the eminent chemist Fritz Haber to break the Allied lines by means of liquefied chlorine. 22 April 1915 was the day when three individual trends converged: science, industrialisation and military art.
This particular confluence was not by design. For sure, scientists and the military had already been partners for several decades in the development of new types of explosives or ballistics research. And the industry and the military were also no strangers to each other, as naval shipbuilding in Great Britain or artillery design and production in Imperial Germany testified. Yet, these trends were evolutionary, not revolutionary. They gradually incorporated new insights and processes, in the process improving military technology. The chemical weapon, in contrast, took the foot soldier in the trenches by complete surprise. It was to have major social implications and consequences for the conduct of military operations, even if it never became the decisive weapon to end the war that its proponents deeply believed it would.