The Second Battle of Ypres by Richard Jack was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to commemorate the first major action of Canadian troops at the Western Front during the First World War.

The First World War — which destroyed global empires and the reigns of kaisers and kings — has many monikers, from ‘The Great War’ to ‘The War to End All Wars.’ It has another sobriquet, ‘The Chemists’ War,’ acknowledging it as the first conflict to unleash the insidious power of chemical weapons.

The First World War was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Frank Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 and ended four and a half years later on Nov. 11, 1918. Ten months into the hostilities, the Germans began using their huge stockpiles of chlorine — a byproduct of dye manufacturing — as a weapon against the Canadian, French, African and British troops ensconced north along the Western Front. Chemical poisoning from chlorine and, later, phosgene (used in manufacturing dyes, insecticides and pharmaceuticals) was gruesome and agonizing; if the chemicals didn’t kill outright, survivors suffered blindness and severe respiratory ailments.

Retired Simon Fraser University history professor Hannah Gay, who holds a PhD in chemistry, described these dramatic years in a public lecture at SFU’s Vancouver campus this past October. Titled “The Chemists’ War: Academic Science and the British War Effort, 1914-1918,” Gay told of the urgent rush by English chemists to identify the gases being used by the Germans as well as find ways to protect soldiers from the effects. Although conventional weapons, such as bombs, artillery shells and firearms were more efficient killers than chemical agents (about three percent of soldiers died of gas poisoning), Gay said that the “poison gas was seen as a singular horror and its use was regarded as an unchivalrous departure from tradition.”

After the first major gas attack at the Second Battle of Ypres, which was fought from April 21 to May 25, 1915, the “extraordinarily well disciplined and brave” 1st Canadian Division held its position east of Ypres despite a greenish gas that floated 1.5 metres above ground, moving fast at 3.7 metres-per-second due to the prevailing winds, said Gay. Of the 18,000 Canadian troops, 2,000 died and 4,000 were wounded.

Herbert Brereton Baker, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Imperial College London, was sent to the front to identify the gas. Baker confirmed the presence of chlorine by analyzing the tarnished metal buttons taken from the uniform of a Canadian soldier. He returned to London to research how to make an effective respirator that could be mass-produced, Gay said. The first respirator prototype was little more than a flannelette bag soaked in sodium thiosulphate, which at the time was best known as an agent for developing photographs. It was called “hypo” from its original chemical name, hyposulphite of soda. The chemical would have reacted with the chlorine gas to form sodium chloride, which is harmless table salt.

A medical officer, Dr. Cluny MacPherson of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, together with two Imperial College scientists, created the first serviceable gas mask by fitting together a helmet and a chemical-absorbing fabric that offered protection to the eyes and included a respiratory system. Later innovations by the British included the use of activated charcoal as an absorbent, which was used in the so-called ‘small box respirator’ mask. Nonetheless, MacPherson is still honoured as someone who saved many lives during ‘The War to End All Wars.’