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Weapons of World War One:
Specialized Weapons  pt2


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Although the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907 forbade the use of “poison or poisonous weapons” in warfare, more than 124,000 tons of poison gas were produced by Germany, France, and Great Britain combined by the end of World War One. It seems that all could oppose it when it was too ineffective to properly used, but once technology caught up with its problems, rules were discarded in the face of convenience. The first gas used was Xylyl bromide, a type of tear gas, initially placed in French grenades Suffocantes in August of 1914. It worked as an irritant that might hamper the effectiveness of the enemy on the attack or on the defense, but it did not maim. In October 1914 the Germans found a way to place a gas inside of artillery shells that would cause sneezing fits, and used it effectively at Neuve Chapelle.

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The use of gas turned deadlier by April of 1915 when the Germans released a cloud of poisonous chlorine from canisters that flowed down toward the British trenches at Ypres. Thinking it was a smoke screen for an impending attack, the trenches were quickly manned. Chlorine gas will destroy the respiratory system in a matter of seconds, and here in the packed trenched the gas had an effect so devastating it even surprised the Germans. Troops held back to exploit the gap created by the gas then became reluctant to charge through it. The Germans may have won a substantial victory if they were prepared to follow up on the unexpected havoc they created.

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The British also released chlorine gas from canisters at the Battle of Loos in September of 1915. While it had some effect in clearing German trenches, they too were unprepared to take advantage of it. British efforts were further hampered when the wind changed direction and thousands of their own men fell ill or were killed by their own gas. This variable was a constant danger that followed the use of poison gas throughout the war, and it often had unintended consequences on all parties.

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Despite all the difficulties involved in using poison gas on the battlefield, other forms of it were developed. Phosgene, introduced by the French, was far less irritating but that is where its danger lay; more of it could be breathed in without notice, slowly shutting down the pulmonary system until suffocation took hold. Symptoms rarely arose before a day or two, when it became too late to receive treatment. This gas was not the most widely used but it proved to be the most deadly. Artists confounded with representing ethereal substances with little physical attributes often relied on allegory to get their message across. The most effective scenes depicting the use of gas are artist renditions that appear on German and French made cards.

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Mustard gas (Yperite), first used against the Russians at Riga in September of 1917, quickly caused extreme blistering wherever it came into contact with flesh. This could cause suffocation if inhaled or blindness if the surface of the eye was exposed to it. Its chemicals also stayed active in the soil for weeks, settling into trenches and retaining the ability to cause blistering of the skin at the slightest disturbance. Though not particularly deadly it was very debilitating especially since gas masks only offered protection against inhalation, not skin contact. Exposure could cause a lifetime of chronic illness. Mustard gas eventually became the most widely used in the War. The Americans came up with a colorless form of Mustard gas known as Lewsite, but it was still in the production phase when the War ended.

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Poison gas was originally transported in cylinders that pioneers or special gas units connected to a system of pipes and valves for release. It was less than fool proof as problems often occurred as valves would not open or pipes would leak gas. Gas generators transported on wagons could produce large quantities of poison gas right on location but these were even more problematic to use. They were too bulky to bring up to the front lines where there were elaborate mazes of trenches to navigate. All these devices were incredibly dependent on the cooperation of the wind.

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Eventually a way was found to inject poison gas into artillery shells. This not only allowed gas to be placed closer to the enemy, it could more accurately pinpoint the delivery site and was not dependent on favorable winds. Even so the dispersal of gas released through bombardment was not completely reliable as it was still subject to weather. In winter campaigns on the Eastern Front, the gas agent within the shell did not always vaporize due to the cold. Despite these problems artillery became the primary method of delivering poison gas. By the end of the War one third of all German shells contained poison gas. It became an added hazard when disposing of unexploded bombs.

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A more effective way to disperse gas were through projectors known as Livens, introduced by the British in September 1916. Though sometimes referred to as gas mines, they were basically a wide tube set into the ground or in racks at a 45 degree angle that would propel a gas projectile a short distance when set off by an electrical charge through a wire. They were not at all accurate but when fired in mass they could suddenly and unexpectedly envelop an entire area with a poisonous cloud before the enemy could get their masks on. In July 1917 the Germans developed their own gas projectors.

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Early in the War, when it was discovered that alkaline solutions neutralized chlorine, soldiers used urine soaked rags as a quick defense against gas attacks for lack of other options. This method was abandoned when army issue gear made its appearance, but the first of these were nothing more than cotton mouth pads attached to a long cloth that could be tied around the head, which were only effective for about five minutes.

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Simple cloth masks that dulled the effect of chlorine gas were eventually replaced with chemically treated flannel sacks equipped with mica eye pieces. More elaborate designs had been introduced in the 19th century to aid miners and firefighters, but now there was a sudden need for a device that could be massed produced quickly. Even though these hypo helmets or smoke hoods were produced in the millions, not all soldiers on all fronts had the luxury of being issued one. Smoke hoods are depicted on many postcards and give the soldiers wearing them a ghoulish look.

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Eventually both the British and the Germans made more effective gas masks that were equipped with chemical neutralizing agents, but few manufactured in other nations were considered reliable. The United States began studying, manufacturing, and equipping its troops with gas masks before sending them overseas. As with other innovations, soldiers wearing these masks came to be pictured on many postcards. Many times solders donned their masks en-mass when posing for a photographer.

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A gas attack could be very deadly if it caught soldiers unaware, so it was sometimes allowed to quietly drift into an enemy trench. An alarm would be quickly sounded at its first sign signaling solders to put on their masks and man their positions for an impending attack. It first however had to be detected and animals who were more susceptible to gas like birds were often used. They and other animals were not really convenient to use because their high maintenance requirements were not easily filled in a trench environment. Many times troops just depended on the ever present rat who would usually flee in numbers with their first contact with gas. It was eventually discovered that the common garden slug was perfect for this role for it would close its breathing aperture to protect its delicate lung membrane when gas was present. Not only was this creature easy to care for, it could survive multiple exposures. In June 1918, slugs were issued to American troops deployed in trenches.

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Gas had primarily been introduced to help break the stalemate of trench warfare. While it was certainly deadly and it reduced the effectiveness of soldiers not wearing masks; it did not alter the strategic balance on the field. Sometimes the Battles of Riga and Caporetto are cited for the decisive role that gas played in each, but in both cases it was used against an enemy that was already highly demoralized. Ultimately gas worked best as an agent of terror causing many soldiers to suffer from a variation of shell shock. Such fear was instilled in some soldiers that any unusual smell could set off panic.

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Because gas can be visually indistinguishable from smoke, it is impossible to tell if the postcards that claim they are depicting gas truly are. It is rather doubtful that a photographer would set himself up to compose a shot under such dangerous circumstances when they generally tended to avoided combat. Non-toxic smoke for screening purposes also saw its first extensive use in the Great War; it could be laid in many of the same ways as gas and was usually done so by the same troops. The neutralizing agents in a gas mask were only effective for about thirty minutes, so sometimes smoke was laid down first so the protective properties of the mask would vanish by the time poison gas was released.

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The Germans eventually perfected new artillery tactics (fire waltz) that incorporated a coordinated mixture of high explosives with gas shells. They would begin their attacks with a barrage of phosgene filled shells, but these were intermingled with those containing a new element, biphenyl chloramine. This would clog the filter in a British gas mask, and once removed the soldier would be forced to breath air filled with poison. Mustard gas was also heavily used but only in bombardments of artillery batteries and command posts far to the rear so not to interfere with the attacking soldiers. These tactics were used to great effect in opening the Allied line in the spring of 1918.

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Photography usually adds to the credibility of an image, as opposed to one that is artist drawn. This however is no guarantee to whether the card is expressing anything close to reality. Not only can photographs be retouched and montaged, we cannot assertion the context in which they are taken. The printed narrative on cards was often manipulated not to present the truth but a particular message to the publishers liking. While it is not possible to decipher all postcards, it is easy to guess that some situations were staged by weighing the probability that such a shot would be taken.

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While postcards could not capture the whispering men who had lost their voices in gas attacks, there are a number of cards to be found showing soldiers with eyes bandaged as the result of chemical burns. It was a more acceptable way to portray the horrors of war without having to show torn bodies.

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Toward the end of the War all of the belligerents were using poison gas despite its inability to prove decisive in battle. Its value was that it did not just kill and maim but inflicted deep psychological wounds on the enemy. While soldiers had to learn how to cope with it, they could never get used to it. It would remain one of the most unsettling weapons introduced, and perhaps the most dreaded. The deployment of gas was so commonplace that it became one of the basic elements used to symbolize the barbarity of this conflict.

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While the use of poison gas was more than a serious matter and the use of gas masks was often depicted in battle scenes, the subject was also often poked fun at on postcards. Those wearing masks had the ability to gain perfect anonymity, and they used the ghoulish configurations of mask designs to scare children and pets. They were even employed for protection against offending odors emanating from fellow soldiers. It was not uncommon for postcard artists to try to lighten the horror that most fighting men found themselves in since it was inescapable.




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The value of such devices was not overlooked by the military. They were soon added to coastal defense systems and the fortifications protecting inland cities. The Belgians had equipped all their forts with searchlights, and their ability to create artificial moonlight greatly aided gunners in detecting and mowing down storming parties at night. While searchlights were placed in armored turrets for their protection, they were not invulnerable to incoming fire. Since each fort was only allotted one light because of their expense, once destroyed the fort was blind.

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While the use of poison gas was more than a serious matter and the use of gas masks was often depicted in battle scenes, the subject was also often poked fun at on postcards. Those wearing masks had the ability to gain perfect anonymity, and they used the ghoulish configurations of mask designs to scare children and pets. They were even employed for protection against offending odors emanating from fellow soldiers. It was not uncommon for postcard artists to try to lighten the horror that most fighting men found themselves in since it was inescapable.

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By World War One, searchlights had been added to the equipment used on the battlefield, usually placed in the hands of pioneer units. Special emplacements were built for them accompanied by electrical generators. This type of deployment was most common on the Western Front once trench warfare set in. These lights became obvious targets for enemy artillery fire, but they were not as easy to pinpoint as it might seem. German manuals indicate that these lights should be used in groups and no light should remain on for long to prevent the enemy from calculating their exact location. Even so it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of such delicate equipment when placed in combat situations.

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Smaller searchlights with wheels were also designed so they could be more mobile. Others were simply mounted on the backs of wagons and trucks. Their ability to move made them less easy to target, and it also allowed them to be quickly brought up to where they were most needed on a fluid battlefield.

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While there are postcards that illustrate searchlights as individual pieces of equipment, most are only referenced through artist drawn renditions of beams of light traveling across a battlefield. The strange lighting effects created by searchlights on postcards may also be more an attempt by artists to create visual drama than actual historic depictions. Very often a beams sharp edge over a very long distance is a giveaway, but some of these cards at least present plausible renderings of their use. Since dust and moisture in the air can dramatic alter the appearance of a light beam, there was no standard model to draw on.

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On most postcards the beams of light generated by searchlights are pure fantasy. This lack of accuracy may have been due to the artist simply being unfamiliar with this type of effect since opportunities to experience it first hand were limited. Aiding this deception was the general public’s own limited experience with searchlights, so artists could just fill in expected stereotypes. At this time it was also nearly impossible to obtain a detailed photograph taken at night. Most photo-based cards depicting the night were photographed during the day to gain clarity. They were then turned into night scenes with illuminated beams from searchlights drawn in by retouchers. Publishers went through this trouble because they thought that dramatic lighting would ad to the appeal of a card and increase sales.

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Searchlights had also been placed on ships before the Great War. They were used for spotting other ships out in the dark seas and for signaling. They saw their first real test in combat during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Besides their obvious uses in night warfare, Japanese torpedo boats used them to blind the gun crews of the Russian ships they were advancing on. By 1907 searchlights had become standard equipment on most naval ships. The visual effects of searchlights at sea could be as potent as those used on land, and were also incorporated into many postcards.

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The introduction of aerial warfare provided a new role for searchlights. To reduce the chances of being shot down, most bombers performed their raids by night, but if caught in a high beam of light they became an easier target for anti-aircraft fire to hit. If the beam could lock onto a target it might also blind the pilot enough for him to be unable to sight his target. These high beams became a common sight in certain cities and have since become synonymous with air raids.

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Searchlights were also important in detecting Zeppelins as they came in silently before dropping their first bombs. While ant-aircraft fire had little effect on airships when flying at high altitudes, they were able to pinpointed them for attack by squadrons of planes that were held in reserve for defense. In addition to artist drawn scenes, there are also many photo-based postcards that depict Zeppelins caught in multiple beams of light. Besides offering drama, these images must have provided some comfort in that they show these silent monsters that come in the dark were not immune to being spotted.

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As the threat of attack from the air by night grew, searchlights became a more common sight on the home front. While they served a practical purpose in spotting aircraft for anti-aircraft gunners, they played an important psychological role as well. The presence of these highly visible beams of light in the night sky was assuring to civilians that their armed forces were protecting them and that government officials were listening to their needs. Their efficiency in spotting planes was not nearly as important as the comfort they gave. Many photographers and artists captured the lacework of beams created from multiple searchlights both for the propaganda value of projecting a sense of safety and for the pure abstract beauty of them.

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A beam from a searchlight contrasted against the night sky was such a dramatic sight that illustrators could not pass up using them in their work. The public’s familiarity with then ensured their recognition no matter how far artists abstracted their appearance. Their boldness made them a prime element in the design of many posters and postcards such as war loan poster drawn by V. Taburin for the Russian State Bank pictured above. Again accuracy did not matter, only the visual effect.




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