greatwar-1914: March 13, 1918 – Gas Attacks on…


March 13, 1918 – Gas Attacks on British Lines

Pictured – A sentry stands by with the gas gong, March 1918.

The British high command was sure a German attack was coming on the Western Front, but the Germans were doing their best to conceal where. Beginning on March 9 and continuing through the week, the Germans dropped a half a millions mustard and phosgene gas shells on the British lines. These had a particulrlary heavy effect on an exposed part of the line called the Flesquières Salient, where the 2nd Division had to be taken out of the line and the 63rd (Naval) Division suffered 2,500 casualties to mustard gas.

But they also attacked elsewhere, including further south where American troops had entered the line in the Salient du Feys. Colonel Douglas MacArthur, chief of staff of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division, was among the wounded. He had recently been awarded the first American Croix du Guerre of the war for aiding an audacious French trench raid. Now he added a Purple Heart to his collection, but his injury was classified as slight and he was back in the line within a week. The attacks succeeded, however, in deceiving the Allies. A heavy bombardment of Verdun convinced the French to shift troops south and away from the British, where they would be needed on March 21.

The Germans could not afford to let their casualties recuperate for long periods of time earlier. Every man who could be spared was being sent to the front line. The least trusted divisions were sent to garrison Russia while the most elite were filled with new troops and given refresher courses on open warfare. The German army also began a rule that any “alleged case of gas poisoning” was to be challenged if a soldier had no definite symptoms within 48 hours. If not, they would not even be admitted to a gas clearing station, but kept with their units in readiness for the coming attack.