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On this day: The yellowish-green killer

Instead of an ordinary infantry charge, Allied soldiers positioned near Ypres, Belgium, met the shocking sight of a yellowish-green cloud around 5 o’clock in the afternoon on April 22, 1915. The surreal phenomenon hovering in the air was caused by nearly 170 tons (168 long tons) of chlorine gas released from nearly 6,000 containers disguised as disinfectant bottles.

Although a German POW captured by the Allies had earlier confessed that a large-scale gas attack seemed imminent, no one believed him. Most of the defenders, predominantly French-Algerian units, fled their positions choking on the gas, but many of them were left dead in the trenches. Some minutes later nearly 6,000 soldiers had died and the positions of the Allies became deserted.

French Zouave infantry killed by gas, Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, 22 April 1915, (1929).

French Zouave infantry killed by gas, Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, 22 April 1915. 

The French had already used gas grenades filled with xylyl bromide against the Germans in August 1914. In response, with limited success, Germans used weapons containing different sorts of tear gases on the French at Neuve Chapelle in October 1914, and in January next year against the Russians. The mass use of poison gas first occurred at the Second Battle of Ypres. At Ypres, the Germans repeatedly delayed the deployment of chlorine gas because of the unfavorable wind. While they were waiting for the attack, Allied cartridges hit some containers causing the death of three soldiers and injuring many. Even in a low dose the compound could cause coughing, vomiting and breathing difficulties, but inhaled in high dose it induced excess fluid in the lungs that led to suffocation.

On April 22, the Germans could not perfectly take advantage of surprise; later, Allied soldiers – realizing that ammonia neutralizes the effect of chlorine gas – began to wear mouth –covering, urine-soaked rags. Soon gas masks appeared in the battlefields, providing better protection for the soldiers.

During the Great War, the British, the Russians and the French all used chlorine gas, which was followed by the deployment of phosgene and mustard gases. The usage of chemical weapons in the conflict claimed the lives of tens of thousands of troops and damaged the health of hundreds of thousands.

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World War I in the west

Beginning of the use of war gas by German forces in the Battles of Ypres in April 1915: British soldiers in a trench exposed to toxic clouds- drawing in the British magazine ‘The Sphere’ 

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