Chapters
diaries

First-hand Accounts of the First Chlorine Gas Attack

Diary of a German soldier who participated in the first chlorine gas attack

Listen to Jörg Emes narrate German soldier Willi Siebert’s letter to his son about the first gas attack.

Finally, we decided to release the gas. The weatherman was right. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining. Where there was grass, it was blazing green. We should have been going on a picnic, not doing what we were going to do. …

We sent the [German] infantry back and opened the [gas] valves with the strings. About supper time, the gas started toward the French; everything was stone quiet. We all wondered what was going to happen.

As this great cloud of green grey gas was forming in front of us, we suddenly heard the French yelling. In less than a minute they started with the most rifle and machine gun fire that I had ever heard. Every field artillery gun, every machine gun, every rifle that the French had, must have been firing. I had never heard such a noise.

The hail of bullets going over our heads was unbelievable, but it was not stopping the gas. The wind kept moving the gas towards the French lines. We heard the cows bawling, and the horses screaming. The French kept on shooting.

They couldn’t possibly see what they were shooting at. In about 15 minutes the gun fire started to quit. After a half hour, only occasional shots. Then everything was quiet again. In a while it had cleared and we walked past the empty gas bottles.

What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive.

All of the animals had come out of their holes to die. Dead rabbits, moles, and rats and mice were everywhere. The smell of the gas was still in the air. It hung on the few bushes which were left.

When we got to the French lines the trenches were empty but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable. Then we saw there were some English. You could see where men had clawed at their faces, and throats, trying to get breath.

Some had shot themselves. The horses, still in the stables, cows, chickens, everything, all were dead. Everything, even the insects were dead.

— Willi Siebert, a German soldier who witnessed the first chlorine gas attack, wrote this account of the event for his son in English.
Courtesy of In Flanders Fields Museum,Ypres, Belgium.

Diary of a Canadian Soldier, who witnessed the first chlorine gas attack

Listen to Josh Devins narrate the diary entry of Canadian soldier A. T. Hunter about the first use of chlorine gas as a weapon in WWI.

The French troops “saw none of this installation of premeditated murder. Looking across to the German trenches at about five in the afternoon, they saw a series of sharp puffs of white smoke and then trundling along with the wind came the queer greenish-yellow fog that seemed strangely out of place in the bright atmosphere of that clear April day. It reached the parapet, paused, gathered itself like a wave and ponderously lapped over into the trenches.

“Then passive curiosity turned to active torment – a burning sensation in the head, red-hot needles in the lungs, the throat seized as by a strangler. Many fell and died on the spot. The others, gasping, stumbling with faces contorted, hands wildly gesticulating, and uttering hoarse cries of pain, fled madly through the villages and farms and through Ypres itself, carrying panic to the remnants of the civilian population and filling the roads with fugitives of both sexes and all ages.”

— A.T. Hunter, Canadian Soldier, who witnessed the first chlorine gas attack. Excerpt from “Canada in the Great World War” (1919), The Second Battle of Ypres.

read more:

6 Replies

    • Chemical Warfare has been used both before and after the first World War.
      Before WW1, poisonous weapons have been used on and off for millennia: They have been deployed in ancient Greece. The Chinese used them against Genghis Khan; and indigenous people in South America had long used plant extracts as poison on their darts. After WW1,there were more inventions of chemical gas. For example Fritz Haber and his team invented Zyklon B. Gerhard Schrader and his team also stumbled across the Nerve Gas Tabun. Both very deadly and very painful. Both much more potent than any of the gases that went before them. Both of these have been used in various wars. These are just some of the chemical gases used in some of the wars in history, both before and after WW1 that had devastating affects. Saying that chemical gases were a singular horror exclusive to WW1 is a niave statement that isn’t factually correct. I hope that this information can help clear things up a bit.
      Regards, Ali.

  1. Sadly, there were some incidents of use of chemical weapons leading up to and including WWII. The Italians used chemical weapons against the Ethopians, and the Japanese experimented with chemical and especially biological weapons against the Chinese (Unit 731).