Remembering the Launch of Lethal Chemical Warfare during World War One

Posted: 22/04/2015 | Scottish War Blinded

On 22 April 1915, rumours began circulating on the Western Front about a deadly, pale yellow fog leaving a devastating scene of hysteria, suffering and death on the British trenches at Ypres.

Confirmed by reports from medical field hospitals and the lines of soldiers slowly walking hand on shoulders to clearing stations, the impact reverberated across the world; a new horror had been introduced to World War One, poisonous gas.

The awfulness of watching men struggle for breath was described by a medical officer working at No.2 Casualty Clearing Station where many of the gassed casualties were taken for treatment:

“To see those men tearing at their throats, rending their tunics, screaming to us in hoarse rattling voices to put them out of their misery. Many were in a semi-comatose state and as fast as we laid them down on their stretchers in the great ward here on the ground floor with all the windows open to let in the air, they slipped down from the pillows propping them up and began to struggle. It took us all our time to go from stretcher to stretcher to prop them up again.”

Treatments consisted of skin ointments such as bleaching powder and white petroleum jelly and flushing the eyes with saline solution. For respiratory symptoms, a menthol solution was administered via a metal breathing mask. Early detection and the rapid development of gas mask protection proved crucial in reducing gas attack casualties.

Poisonous gas attributed to 188,706 British casualties during the Great War. Many who survived faced permanent blindness, respiratory problems and psychological disorders. Scottish War Blinded was founded in 1915 in an attempt to meet the long-term support needs of these soldiers returning to Scotland.

Scottish War Blinded’s World War One exhibition ‘Silhouettes in the Fog & Guiding Lights’ describes the development of chemical warfare in World War One, trauma care on the Western Front as well as attitudinal change in the UK and the rehabilitation and training provided to blinded soldiers by Scottish War Blinded.

The exhibition is currently touring community libraries in the Lothians and Scottish Borders. Find out more