Gas-fighting: from gasphyxiation to gaspirators

gas attack on western front
A German Gas Attack on the Western Front, photographed from the air. Imperial War Museum. Rights © IWM (Q 12286). Copyright Free Access – Rights Reserved.http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205247812;#sthash.t4RMRguA.dpuf

Gas-fighting was another new form which appeared in the wake of events in April 1915 when over 150 tons of chlorine was released by German troops at Ypres. Over  the spring and summer of 1915, language would, in turn, neatly construct what we now term chemical warfare into both offensive and defensive processes.These were aligned with equal neatness onto enemy and ally, perpetrators and victims. Only in September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, would the British appropriate gas-fighting as an offensive strategy (at which point, as we will see, the diction of gas, gas war, and gas-fighting would all shift in interesting ways).

Between April and June 1915, a range of new-forged compounds in the Words in War-Time archive such as gas-poisoners (used in the Scotsman in May 1915) and poison-dervishes (located in the Echo in April 1915) firmly draw attention to German agency, and the barbarism and immorality which this, by implication, involved. Dervish, seen from modern perspectives, offers a particularly loaded model of civilisation and otherness while collocations such as scientific savagery, scientific murder, and scientific torture confirm the departures at stake in rendering chlorine, documented  by Humphry Davy in 1809, into a lethal weapon. Here, too, meaning came to change under pressures of war. Continue reading

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