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German soliders wearing gas masks – chemical weapons received widespread use

CHEMICAL WEAPONS World War 1 saw the introduction of chemical weapons on the battlefi eld. Mustard gas, phosgene and chlorine were used by all sides – despite the horrors that these new weapons caused.

Released from cannisters and placed inside shells, the gas would drift across No Man’s Land, infecting and choking soldiers in its wake and preparing the way for an infantry assault.

Countries around the world were shocked by the use of poisonous gases along the Western Front, but neither side paid any attention to ethics. As the war escalated, so did the use of chemical weapons.

FLAMETHROWERS The fl amethrower – or Flammenwerfer – terrifi ed British and French soldiers when it fi rst appeared on the Western Front, spreading sheets of fi re across the battlefi eld. Each blast of burning oil lasted for up to 40 seconds, and fl amethrowers were used to clear a path for advancing soldiers at the start of a ground assault. In 1914 the Germans had two types of fl amethrower. One was small enough to be

The Western Front was controlled by machine guns, so when soldiers went ‘over the top’, they were more likely to be cut down in No Man’s Land than reach the opposing trenches

carried by one soldier, who had gas cylinders strapped to his back and lit nozzles attached to each one. The portable version was capable for projecting fl ames for up to 60 feet, while the larger model had twice the range but could not be carried. The Germans fi rst used fl amethrowers against French forces in October 1914, in the South-East corner of the Western Front. But the fi rst major Flammenwerfer attack was made against British troops in Flanders during the early hours of 30 July 1915 – the fl ames sweeping across the battlefi eld must have been terrifying during the hours of darkness. In 48 hours of severe fi ghting, 31 British offi cers and more than 750 soldiers were killed. These results inspired the Germans to introduce fl amethrowers right across the Western Front. German forces went on to launch more than 650 fl amethrower attacks during the course of the war. The British and French worked on a number of designs to catch up with German technology. In 1917, France introduced the Schilt, which translates as ‘scold’ – a light, portable fl amethrower used to attack enemy trenches. In 1916, in time for the start of the

Somme, Britain built four giant fl amethrowers, each weighing two tons, which sat in the trenches inside No Man’s Land, just 160 feet from the German front line. The idea was that they would clear German trenches before British infantry soldiers made their fi rst assault at the start of the Battle of the Somme.


When the tank made its fi rst appearance in the war, the Germans could hardly believe their eyes. This new British invention moved slowly onto the battlefi eld, hard-shelled, rhomboid-shaped and intent on destroying everything in its path. The tank seemed impossible to penetrate with conventional bullets and mortars as it edged its way towards enemy lines, at no more than four miles per hour. Only the terrible, muddy conditions along the Western Front had any effect on the effectiveness of the tank – clogging up its tracks and guns. By the end of the war, after British engineers refi ned its design and war generals developed new tactics for their use in battle, the tank emerged victorious. ■

WW1 Centenary Special ❯ 29

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