From Leeds Lab Bench to Flanders Field Trench

Words by Dr Alan Flintham

The first significant use of poison gas in warfare occurred 100 years ago this year, when chlorine gas was used against unprepared and inexperienced Allied troops during the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915.  Its unexpected use caused panic in the trenches and consternation at home.  Within a month of the news from Ypres and as a result of a spirited press campaign, frenzied activity by thousands of volunteer seamstresses had resulted in the production of almost a million home-made cotton pad respirators (incidentally resulting in a cotton wool and butter muslin shortage) and a rush of civilian advisors from the scientific community offering specialist help.

Detail from the Ypres Memorial to the 18,000 Canadian troops who withstood the first Canadian gas attacks, 22-24 April 1915. Image courtesy of Alan Flintham

Detail from the Ypres Memorial to the 18,000 Canadian troops who withstood the first Canadian gas attacks, 22-24 April 1915. Image courtesy of Alan Flintham

Among them was Arthur Smithells, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Leeds (and latterly Pro Vice-Chancellor).  Having initially volunteered his services as a peripatetic civilian lecturer to Northern Command, Smithells set about ‘demystifying’ the science underpinning gas warfare by educating the troops in effective responses to its use.  Horrified by what he termed the scientific and chemical ‘illiteracy’ he found, and speaking out against the prevalent unthinking reliance on ‘gas discipline’ rather than on an understanding and sensible application of the basic principles involved, he eventually found himself appointed in 1916 to the role of Chief Chemical Advisor for the Home Command.

When gas had first been used in 1915, the instinctive reaction of the troops had been to flee or to cower at the bottom of the trench, whereas ironically it was those who stayed at their posts rather than those who ran away with the gas cloud following them, and those who remained on the fire step rather than at the bottom of the trench where the gas was at is densest, who suffered the least.  Smithells designed simple graphic illustrations to reinforce these points. His practical demonstrations were designed to show how gases heavier than air hug the ground and are driven by the prevailing wind to flow into depressions and trenches, how the potency of different gases bore no relationship to the unpleasantness of their smells and (following the use of liquid ‘mustard gas’ in 1917) how poisonous liquids evaporate more readily in sunlight than in the dead of night.

He discovered that an unthinking adherence to ‘gas discipline’ often took precedence over the application of scientific common sense.  For example he found that men who had been trained to ‘light fires’ to clear gas from dug-outs after an attack were being ordered to light fires during an attack in the erroneous belief that this would improve the situation.  A special order had hastily to be issued to explain that fire did not ‘kill’ gas but rather it created a convection current of air to remove it, and that if the air was driven out of the chimney during an attack, gas would come in at the door!

Without the application of such basic scientific knowledge, heroism under gas attack had to become a substitute for common sense.  In a letter (in the University of Leeds archives) written in 1918 to Major-General Sir Cecil Lowther who was Military Secretary at General Headquarters in France, Smithells protested that it was “nothing less than appalling to a man of science to watch the sacrifice of life, to see suicide figuring as heroism, all the time knowing that as little knowledge of science as corresponds to what an adverb is in grammar, the capital of Austria in geography, the date of the Norman Conquest in history, or the rule of three in arithmetic, would have saved all this”.

Nor was it only among the troops that Smithells discovered this inability to apply basic scientific principles.  The officers equally had retained little of value from their schooldays: “They might still remember the formula of water as they remember other tags of formal and indigestible learning.  They have no recollection of ever having been brought to see the application of science in the things and phenomena of common life, or industry, or war, or other matters of ordinary human interest”.

In seeking to rectify this state of affairs, Smithells devised written materials to train officer-instructors in anti-gas measures, setting out the underlying scientific principles for actions to be taken during and after gas attacks.  His materials argued for a simplicity of approach, a paucity of technical language and for the primacy of practical demonstration and experience.  He described this publication as the first ‘educational’ pamphlet ever issued to the British Army, translating as it did the scientific principles of the laboratory bench to the horrors of the trenches of the Flanders fields.