British Gas Warfare in World War I
They were sometimes the butt of jokes, the "comical chemical corporals." Officially they were the British Special Brigade, sent to retaliate against German chemical warfare, selected, as one of their members said, almost willy-nilly. "They wanted chemists," a young recruit later recalled, ". . . so I looked up the formula for water and told them it was H2O and I was in."
Although the Brigade itself has received little attention since its disbandment following the war, chemical warfare in World War I has been mythologized, sentimentalized, and vilified. Its image has been distorted by legends and sensationalized by half-truths.
“It is refreshing to find a complex and emotive subject treated with such even-handedness. Richter makes particularly good use of personal narratives, most of them unpublished, but never lets the abundant detail swamp the story.”
—Times Literary Supplement
“Elegantly written and meticulously researched. Richter has mined numerous private collections and unpublished diaries as well as mastered the most recent books and articles pertinent to his subject.”
—American Historical ReviewSee all reviews...
“A valuable contribution to our understanding of chemical warfare in World War I.”
—Journal of Military History
“This book provides a detailed, accurate, and fascinating account of the British Special Brigade, a unit created to use chemical warfare against the Germans during World War I in retaliation for the Germans’ first use of this kind of weaponry . . . provides an excellent historical examination of its topic. The writing style is both gripping and compelling.”
—Armed Forces & Society
“A first-rate piece of military history.”
“Well documented and of the highest scholarship.”
“Drawing heavily on the diaries and letters of participants, [Richter] traces the recruitment, training and employment of the British “Special Brigade” (the gas soldiers) from mid-1915, through the Battle of Loos, to the end of the war, clearing away the thicket of myths surrounding this emotional subject.”
“A valuable corrective to propagandized tales of gas warfare.”
—Canadian Military History
“Richter dismantles the ‘gas myth’ of World War I. A convincing and highly readable account of a four-year experiment with scientific death that largely went wrong.”
—Samuel Hynes, author of A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture
“First-hand accounts provide a ‘smell of the grass’ feel for this unit. This book reveals new information on the problems of the Special Brigade at the battles of Loos and the Somme and on some of the technical problems of gas warfare.”
—Timothy Travers, author of The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front, and the Emergence of Modern Warfare, 1900–1918
“A significant contribution to our understanding of Britain’s conduct of the war on the western front. This book is the first to draw upon and make effective use of a wide range of primary source material. It is also a sustained and convincing critique of Charles Foulkes's own account of his brigade's activities.”
—David French, author of British Strategy and War Aims, 1914–1916See fewer reviews...
Taking a new look at the reality of poison gas warfare in World War I and the role of the Brigade, Donald Richter exposes the myths perpetuated over the years by novelists and misinformed sentimentalists and challenges prevailing views. He weaves data from official military records with personal anecdotes from diaries, letters, and memoirs to create a real-life account of the formation of the Brigade and the frustration, fear, boredom, pain, and day-to-day life that followed.
Richter presents new information about the details of all the varied methods of gas warfare, from airborne discharges by cylinders and projectors to flame-throwers, smoke screens, and "Beam" attacks. He also explores the ethical and moral scruples of gas soldiers concerning their novel methods of warfare.
To make the story complete, Richter takes a critical look at the Brigade's leader, Charles Foulkes, revealing a forceful and capable but stubbornly obstinate commander.
This is the first book on the Brigade since the 1934 publication of Foulkes's own Gas! The Story of the Special Brigade, a biased and self-justifying account of chemical warfare in which Foulkes exaggerated the unit's successes and ignored its failures.