A Century of Expanding Horizons: The British Army launch chlorine gas attacks during the Battle of Loos in September 1915

Posted: 29/09/2015 | Scottish War Blinded

In April this year, we commemorated the 100 year anniversary of the first poisonous gas attack launched by the Germans on French Colonial troops during the Second Battle of Ypres. British troops would experience German poisonous gas attacks two weeks later, on 5 May 1915, at Hill 60 where 148 died either in the trenches or subsequently in frontline first aid posts, a similar number survived living day-to-day with debilitating respiratory conditions.

Throughout the summer of 1915, British Command devised plans to respond to German use of poisonous gas. Special companies were formed, trained in the application of chemical agents on the frontline, and investments were made in the production of poisonous gas shells and canisters in the UK.

Scottish War Blinded Blog - Chemical WarfareIt was on 25 September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, that British Command decided to utilise poisonous gas within their strategic plans. Earlier that month, 150 tons of Chlorine gas compressed into 5,500 cylinders were secretly transported across the Channel in unmarked wooden boxes.

The unmarked boxes travelled across France by rail and, by the evening of 24 September 1915, had been secretly distributed along the front lines. The covert nature of the distribution was protected further with aerial patrols.

At 0550 on the morning of 25 September 2015, the gas was released across the British front lines despite less than favourable wind conditions in some sectors.

In the Northern Sector, the results proved less than favourable. The wind failed to transport the chlorine gas towards the Germans in some areas exposing waiting British infantry troops to the gas.

Some of the Special Company troops were issued with the wrong turning keys and, as a result, few of the gas cylinders were activated. By this time the Germans, fully alert, began opening fire and several chlorine canisters were hit exposing further numbers of British troops to the gas.

In the Southern Sector, results were better. The chlorine gas had successfully deployed and moved towards the German lines inflicting chaos, casualties and deaths. British infantry managed to gain ground as a direct result.

The London Illustrated News described the surreal nature of gas attacks:

“As they burst through the smoke on to the German front line, wearing their gas masks over their heads, they must have looked like hooded familiars of the Spanish inquisition.”

The battle effectively ended on 28 September 1915. The British Army failed to hold the ground gained, as a result of fierce German counter attacks, and narrowly avoided having to make a retreat having absorbed 50,000 casualties.