In a war that had no shortage of evil men, it is surely difficult to maintain that one of them was more evil than the rest. But history indicates this is the case that can be made with German scientist Professor Fritz Haber. Whatever one's viewpoint, such was the horror evoked by his scientific research, it drove his young wife to suicide.

The scientist and the goal

Fritz Haber, born in 1868, was Germany's leading scientist at the outbreak of war in August 1914 and head of its premier scientific laboratory, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin.

Haber was a fervent patriot and was openly sponsored by an equally avid Prussian nationalist, Carl Duisberg. Duisberg was the powerful head of the world's leading chemical cartel, the Interessen Germinschaft or IG Cartel.

With Duisberg and the IG Cartel supporting him, Haber had almost unlimited financial and technical support. Also, Duisberg had actively canvassed the development of poison gas as a weapon of war from the outset of hostilities. Indeed, Druisberg had formally urged the use of chemical warfare on the battlefield at an early wartime meeting of the German High Command. He had also begun, on his own initiative and at his own expense, to investigate the potential of known toxic gases as weapons of war on the Western Front.

Haber strongly agreed with Duisberg's philosophy, and the two forged an on-going collaboration. In the Autumn of 1914, the Wilhelm Institute began the search to find the perfect toxic gas for use in land warfare. Haber and his team worked late into the night testing chemical after chemical. Such was the pressure to succeed that one rushed experiment ended in disaster when Haber's closest collaborator died in a laboratory explosion.

All the effort eventually bore fruit, and in January 1915 Haber had a chemical agent to offer to the German High Command.

Haber's toxic gas

Haber had chosen a well-known chemical, chlorine. It was a readily made product of which Germany already had a large stock and the 1914 daily production figures were already in excess of the pre-war figure of 40 tons. Haber intended to store and transport chlorine as a liquid under high pressure in steel cylinders. These cylinders would be secretly arranged in ranks in the front-line trenches opposite the enemy objective. At a given time, when the wind was in the right direction - i.e. blowing towards the enemy lines - the valves on all the chlorine cylinders would be opened simultaneously, and the heavy toxic cloud of chlorine gas would be blown by the wind over the trenches of the enemy troops. The concentration of the gas above and in the trenches depended on the wind speed, but with the lethal concentration calculated to be as low as 1:1,000, German expectations were high.

The effect would be that the chlorine would dissolve into the moisture on the enemies' skin and, particularly, the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. There it would be converted into hydrochloric acid (HCl) which is both highly caustic and poisonous. Any soldier breathing in the gas would be almost instantly incapacitated and many would die, sooner or later, from its effects. Even the survivors would be severely incapacitated, many for a long time, some permanently.

Earlier attempts at the use of poisonous gas in the Great War

Other attempts had been made to use milder forms poisonous gases in the Great War, although the Hague Declaration of 1899 forbade their use in principle.

  • The Germans: Used an irritant gas inside shrapnel shells at Neuve Chapelle in October 1914 and a tear gas (T- Stoff invented by Dr. Tappen) at Bolimov on the Russian Front in January 1915.
  • The French: introduced tear gas cartridges and grenades on the Western Front in 1914.
  • The British: experimented in 1914/15 with 'stink bombs' containing a compound known as SK for clearing dugouts.

Although all these gassing methods had a potential knockout effect, they were not essentially lethal and no great effect was noted when they were deployed. It was Duisberg and Haber who took that irreversible leap across the Rubicon and deliberately sought out a lethal poisonous gas as a weapon of war.

The first chlorine gas attack

The German commanders on the Western Front, under the leadership of General Erich von Falkenhayn, foresaw the use of the chlorine gas in a surprise attack that would be the lever that forced the way open for a war-winning advance on the Western Front. But, strangely, provision was not made to fully use the element of surprise that the first gas attack would present and to immediately effect a follow-up with an over-whelming offensive.

Haber and Duisberg were well aware in their own minds of what was at stake, even if the generals of the German High Command were not entirely convinced. Haber decided to be present when the gas was used and went himself to the Western Front to oversee the operation.

The chosen site for the gas attack was at Langemarck in the Ypres Salient where the Allied front-line was occupied by French Reservists, Algerian Colonial Zouavres and the Canadians Division. The date was 22nd April 1915.

One hundred and sixty tons of liquid chlorine gas, sealed in six thousand steel cylinders had been secretly located along a four-mile front in the forward German lines. Operatives wearing crude gas respirators opened the valves. The chlorine vaporised into a gas that was swept in a yellow/green billowing cloud toward the French trenches. Almost immediately, thousands of the defending French troops were enveloped in the cloud and collapsed in paroxysms of choking and blinding tears. Some of the defenders ran, but soon collapsed: their exertions had accelerated the effects of the gas. Literally drowning in their own body fluids, the defenders died in their hundreds.

Seeing the dramatic effect of the gas, the gas mask protected Germans left their trenches and advanced across a casualty strewn landscape. Most of the Algerians troops still able to do so had fled and an 800-yard gap had been torn into the Allied defences.

The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn was as astounded by the outcome of the gas attack as anyone was. What he saw as a little German experiment with toxic gas had turned out to be an unimaginable success: the Allied Channel Ports were potentially exposed and endangered. But he did not have sufficient reserves ready to exploit the turn of events. Accordingly, Falkenhayn followed the usual dictate when uncertainty arose on the Western Front, he dug in.

Falkenhayn's lack of fast movement gave the Allies time to regroup and, after much fighting by the reserves of the British Second Army, the breech in the defence line was eventually sealed. The Allies had suffered 15,000 casualties, 5,000 killed.

Falkenhayn tries again

On the 25th April 1915, the Germans struck again at Langemarck. This time against the Canadian 8th Battalion's part of the Front. Using primitive gas masks devised in the front-line on the technical advice of a chemist-cum-soldier, the Canadians, after another hard fight and 5,000 more casualties, held the line as the battle and more German gas attacks spread along the front.

An angry Field Marshal Kitchener quickly sought, and received, authority from the British Cabinet to retaliate; although he well knew he lacked the means to do so on a meaningful scale.

Sometime after the original German chlorine gas attack, it emerged that a German soldier had been captured a week before the gas attack carrying a gas-respirator. Upon interrogation, he said that the Germans were planning an attack with poisonous gas and his description of the dispersal of the gas cylinders was confirmed by Allied air reconnaissance. A report was prepared but it disappeared into the bowels of the Allied Command structure and no action was taken. Later, the French and British commanding generals later disavowed any knowledge of the report.

The failure of the Germans to follow up their initial surprise gas attack with a crushing mass offensive, left Haber bitterly disappointed. Added to this, was the realisation that himself, Duisberg, and the German High Command had all failed to appreciate just how quickly the Allies would respond to the hesitation of the German Army in pursuing the follow-up. Also, there could be no question of a complete surprise gas-attack/offensive on the Western Front anymore.

Haber continues the campaign

Haber returned to Germany to be greeted by his unhappy wife Clara who pleaded him to give up his research. He refused. In May 1915 he left for the Russian Front where another gas-led offensive was planned.

On the evening Haber left for the Eastern Front, Frau Clara Faber committed suicide

In Russia, Haber organised a series of three gas attacks on the Russian Front that had a shattering effect on the Russian Army: the Russians lost 25,000 men killed and whole regiments were virtually annihilated.

The Russian Army never did master gas-warfare. Gas played a considerable part in the eventual collapse of the Russian Army with a half a million casualties having fallen victim to the various kinds of German toxic gas.

The British response

On the Western Front, after the German's Second Battle of Ypres at the end of May 1915, there was a lull in the further deployment of toxic gas.

Then, on the 25th September 1915, the British launched their first gas attack on the Germans at Loos and, although the overall effect was rather shambolic, a certain amount of success was achieved. This was largely because the Germans had been complacent with their own gas drills and were generally caught unawares by the muddled British attack. Such a rapid response by the British was never expected by the Germans. Moreover, the British action clearly demonstrated that now the Allies too had large operational toxic gas units and access to operational quantities of toxic gas. That the Allies should be able to turn round the situation in only four months and have operationally large quantities of toxic gas available was quite against the expectations of Duisberg, Faber and the German High Command.

Faber's next product

Meanwhile, Faber and his laboratory had not been idle. In the summer of 1915 work was began by Faber's team at the Wilhelm Institute on another toxic gas - phosgene (carbonyl chloride).

But, it was already becoming realised by the Germans that their toxic gas campaign on the Western Front that was intended to produce the anticipated once-and-for-all break-through, had itself become a treadmill. It had turned into a race to produce another more potent gas before the Allies could retaliate in kind or produce something even more effective. A cycle of tit-for-tat toxic gas production was becoming evident, and it was not at all certain than the resources of the Central Powers would in the end be able to compete with the potential undeveloped resources of the Allies.

A new German Toxic Gas Campaign and the British response

On the 19th December 1915, after a six-month lull in German toxic gas operations on the Western Front, the Germans struck again this time with phosgene gas. As before, it was in the Ypres Salient. (The British had already identified phosgene as a potential candidate, but, as was to become the pattern, the Germans were first to deploy it).

In fact, the Germans deployed a mixture of chlorine and phosgene. Despite an elaborate gas alarm system that now extended across the whole British Front, the gas struck many soldiers before avoidance measures could be taken. Hundreds of British troops were affected by the chlorine, and even more in a delayed response to the phosgene: worse, men showing no symptoms suddenly collapsed and died hours, or days, after coming into contact with phosgene.

The British also chose to use phosgene, in combination with chlorine, at the First Battle of the Somme in July1916. The combination proved to be equally efficacious in British hands, and whole sections of countryside were rendered devoid of all life forms: it even affected the birds that nested in the highest trees of the many woods and copses. During the Somme Campaign the British used 1,500 tons of phosgene.

The development of the Livens Projector (a kind of mortar) enabled the British to more precisely target the gas, as the Projector hurled 30 gallon drums of phosgene into the German lines. The exploding drums greatly increased the local air concentration-rate of the phosgene beyond that obtained from gas cylinders, and thus enhanced the lethal effect.

The first mass use of the Livens Projector in a gas attack was at Arras on the 9th April 1917 and it caused panic in the German Lines.

Faber's ace card

Back in his laboratory, Faber and his colleagues worked on the development of even more pernicious toxic gases until a superior candidate - a real stealthy killer - was identified. This was a brown viscous liquid - dichlorethyl chloride - which smelled of somewhat of garlic, but more strongly of mustard, and slowly evaporated to produce a gas. The gas was quickly named mustard gas. Initially quite innocuous, once it got onto the victim's skin or mucous membranes the liquid produced enormous blisters. Then followed a whole cascade of distressing systems as the gas entered the nose, throat, lungs and eyes.

It had been determined that the most effective means of delivery for mustard gas was by explosive artillery shells.

Alerted by the shortages and deficiencies in the supply of toxic gas in their earlier deployments, the Germany Army by July 1917 had built up a stock of 1 million mustard-gas shells - coded Yellow Cross - containing 2,500 tons of the liquid.

At Ypres, on the 12th July 1917 the Germans rained down barrage after barrage of the mustard gas shells on the British positions. The British field ambulances and hospitals were immediately swamped with gas cases. British war artists memorably captured images of columns of helpless blinded soldiers being led away in child-like hand-on-shoulder 'crocodiles'. Within a month more than 15,000 British mustard gas casualties had been logged. And although the death rate was relatively low - around 2% - the disability effect was grave and often lasted months, or years.

From its first use in July 1917 to the end of the war, mustard gas produced well over 100,000 British casualties and around 2,000 deaths on the Western Front.

The Final Campaign

Despite Faber's and Duisberg's efforts to produce ever increasing quantities of mustard gas - in 1918 it rose to 1,000 tons a month and it was said that 'the enemy's streets were seen to run with mustard gas' - the initiative slowly passed to the Allies.

However, towards the end of the war the British tended to fore-swear the production difficulties of mustard gas - which were severe and caused many casualties amongst the toxic gas factory workers - and undertook large scale releases of phosgene managed on an industrial scale from gas cylinders stacked in railway wagons. Such huge releases of toxic gas produced poisonous clouds that extended far beyond the enemy lines and even effected the civilian population and their livestock.

As the war ended, even more dreadful toxic gases were in production of which the American invention Lewisite - a greatly more active form of mustard gas - was under large scale production in America and advance shipments were already at sea in transit to Europe. In their laboratories, the British had developed an arsenical smoke that could penetrate any known design of gas mask. Whilst the Germans had produced a Livens-type projector - the GasWerfer 1918 - that could hurl pumice stone granules impregnated with phosgene over vast areas of the countryside; truly producing 'a desert of toxic gas'. Fortunately, the end of the war pre-empted these horrors.

Faber's exit and reward

At the end of the war, Haber and Duisberg donned disguises and fled over the border into Switzerland where the Druisberg fortune protected them in the traditional way. Neither was ever tried as a war criminal nor as anything else.

To add insult to injury, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Haber his delayed Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for his contribution to the synthesis of ammonia - a compound that became essential for the war time production of agricultural fertiliser and high explosives and kept Germany in the war after 1915.

Fritz Faber died in Switzerland aged 65-years in 1934. In 1933, as a Jew, he had been chased out of the Third Reich of Germany by one of the German soldier victims of Allied gas warfare at Werwick, in Belgium in October 1918. The chlorine gas victim was the Nazi Fuhrer (former Corporal) Adolf Hitler.


Figures for the amount of toxic gas used in the Great War vary somewhat, as is usually the case, depending upon the source. But a realistic figure is that over 100,000 tons of toxic chemicals were used, mainly on the Western Front, with Germany using the most. This produced an overall total of a million gas casualties, with Russia suffering double that of the other major belligerent nations with around 400,000 cases.

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