Environmental History of the First World War

The International Society for First World War Studies sponsored a Presidential Panel at the last conference of the Society for Military History. Entitled World War I as a Global Conflict: New Directions in Cultural, Social, and Military History, the panel discussion took place in Lisle (IL) on 10 June 2011.

Though I was unfortunately unable to attend in person, the following presentation was read on my behalf.

My brief was to provide comments on Ryan Johnson’s paper entitled Suffocating Nature: Chemical Warfare and the Environment of the Western Front. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on the environmental history of the First World War.


Thompson’s paper is an excellent contribution to the fields of First World War Studies and environmental history. His work deals with what has now become one of the iconic aspects of the experience of the First World War: gas. Chemical warfare is indeed portrayed both in popular memory and in academic scholarship as one of the symbols of the modernization of warfare dramatically illustrated in the Great War by tanks, flamethrower and aeroplanes.

Though Thompson does not directly address the much debated issue of the modernity of the conflict, it nonetheless offers a fascinating exploration of the nature of warfare between 1914 and 1918.

Johnson first reminds us that the First World War saw a keen international contest over the development and deployment of chemical weapons on the battlefield. He reminds us that, in this respect, the Entente Powers showed little more respect for the established conventions of warfare than their enemies and did not shy away from resorting to a weapon universally acknowledged as a “frightful” arm. Across the belligerent nations, chemical warfare testified to the grisly contribution of scientists, whose patriotic mobilization did not merely produce stirring manifestos and mendacious propaganda.[1. Christophe Prochasson and Anne Rasmussen, Au nom de la Patrie. Les intellectuels et la Première Guerre mondiale (1910-1919) (Paris: La Découverte, 1996).] Chemists did apply their talents to gruesome ends in the name of the Fatherland. This audience needs not be reminded of the work of Fritz Haber, the 1918 Nobel Laureate.[2. Hanspeter Witschi, “Fritz Haber: 1868-1934,” Toxicological Sciences 55, no. 1 (May 2000): 1-2.] Thompson also demonstrates that the advent of chemical warfare also illustrates the contribution to the war made by the most advanced industries and largest conglomerates of the time; Bayer being here a case in point. Tracing back the poison does indeed reveal the nature of the mobilization of belligerent societies.

Interestingly however, Thompson’s work is one of very few – I am here reminded of Tait Keller’s work – which explicitly attempts to renew our understanding of the Great War through an environmental history approach. Environmental history has of course recently emerged as one of the most vibrant and exciting scholarly fields.[3. John McNeill, “Observations on the nature and culture of environmental history,” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (2003): 5-43; Sverker Sörlin and Paul Ward, eds., Nature’s end: history and the environment (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).] In this context, the elaboration of an environmental approach to the history of war has certainly been one of the most intriguing developments. To name but a few noted scholars in this fast-growing field, let us refer to Lisa M Brady on the American Civil War and on the Korean War, of John McNeill and Corinna Unger on the Cold War, and in the UK of Chris Pearson, Tim Cole and Peter Coates.[4. John McNeill and Corinna R. Unger, Environmental histories of the Cold War (Washington  D.C.  – New York: German Historical Institute – Cambridge University Press, 2010); Lisa M Brady, “The wilderness of war. Nature and strategy in the American Civil War,” Environmental History 10, no. 3 (2005): 421-447; Lisa M Brady, “Life in the DMZ: Turning a Diplomatic Failure into an Environmental Success,” Diplomatic History 32, no. 4 (2008): 585–611; Chris Pearson, Scarred landscapes: war and nature in Vichy France (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Chris Pearson, Peter Coates, and Tim Cole, eds., Militarized landscapes: from Gettysburg to Salisbury Plain, 1st ed. (London: Continuum, 2010).] Back in 2004, Richard Tucker and Edmund Russell’s excellent collection of essays – Natural Enemy, Natural Ally – had delineated the contours of a field in which Ryan Thompson is now making his own contribution.[5. Richard Tucker and Edmund P. Russell, eds., Natural enemy, natural ally: toward an environmental history of warfare, 1st ed. (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2004).] His paper draws on German, British and Canadian archives and investigates the environmental consequences of chemical weaponry. He is not only concerned with the deployment and impact of these weapons on the battlefield, but also considers the implications of their elaboration and mass production on the home fronts and in Germany in particular. His research addresses and illuminates a series of highly significant questions for the history of the First World War; these questions are raised by the very nature of weapons whose use reveals fundamental aspects of the nature of warfare and belligerence in WWI.

Early in the twentieth century, chemical weapons were indiscriminate weapons whose impact was often, as Thompson notes, the comprehensive destruction of all forms of organic life. Yet, the broad spectrum of targets potentially affected by gas was not its only characteristics. Crucially, as British expert Brigadier General Hartley, “gas is the only weapon that which can produce continuous effects both in time and space” (p.1). This of course is critical to military historians concerned with the operational dimensions of warfare. In this respect, Thompson reminds us of the difficulty and indeed precariousness of the deployment of these weapons, whose effectiveness depended on meteorological conditions as well as on the terrain. Those very pragmatic difficulties, the capricious nature of the weapon, highlights one of the defining features of the totalization of warfare; for those who launched these chemical assaults were not only perpetrators but could easily, within hours if not minutes, experience a reversal of roles and fall victim of their own chemical onslaught.

Johnson’s interesting developments on the operational impact of the gas points to the paradoxical and partial modernization of warfare witnessed in WWI. The corrosive effects of gas directly affected modern weaponry, including large artillery pieces. The vulnerability of WWI armies to this weapon also stems from their reliance on animal power.[6. See Edgerton’s incisive developments on war and technology in David Edgerton, The shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900 (London: Profile, 2006).] The efforts that armies devoted to the protection of their horses, dogs and pigeons underlined the persistence of archaism in this most modern of war. The effects of gas on men, material and animals allow us to envisage the cultural and psychological impact of the weapon. Thompson quotes Captain Simeon’s diary entry for 19 December 1915 to evoke a dystopian vision of the battlefield on which time stopped and where life was taken off an unearthly landscape churned out by artillery fire:

The gas was so strong that it turned all our buttons olive green, stopped our wrist watches and the turned the rats out of their holes by the scores.

The author’s attention then turns to the conditions of production of chemical weapons on the home front in Germany, where policymakers explicitly attempted to limit the exposure of the urban population. The exposure of civilians was however inevitable. The processes of production and the conditions of storage did leave the home front populations at risk. Interestingly, one is here reminded of Michael Geyer’s reflections on the socialization of violence.[7. Michael Geyer, “The Militarization of Europe, 1914-1945,” in The Militarization of the Western World, ed. John R. Gillis (New Brunswick, N.J and London: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 65-102; Pierre Purseigle, “Warfare and Belligerence. Approaches to the First World War,” in Warfare and Belligerence. Perspectives in First World War Studies, ed. Pierre Purseigle (Boston – Leiden: Brill, 2005), 1-37.] In this respect, the tension perpetrators/victims previously noted with regard to soldiers on the battlefield is also relevant to the experience of the home front populations whose contribution to the production of gas directly endangered them. Thompson’s history of chemical warfare and of its environmental impact allows us to deepen our collective reflection on the character of warfare in WWI. Thompson does indeed demonstrate on page 10 how environmental indicators, for instance the concentration of chlorine in the Rhine rive, revealed the intensity and intensification of operations on the battlefield.

Thompson is therefore to be commended for presenting us with a rich and significant study which will certainly raise a range of interesting questions from the audience and panel members alike. I will now simply suggest a few questions which will hopefully be of interest to Ryan and other colleagues.

Ryan’s work invites us to pay particular attention to the terrain in which these weapons were deployed and adopts a very fruitful pragmatic approach to the adaptation and use of new military technologies. This, I thought, raises interesting question about the attitude and responses to environmental destruction within the armies most familiar with that terrain and particular those fighting on home soil. I would suggest that the French army, whose own enthusiasm for chemical warfare was highlighted in Olivier Lepick’s work, would certainly provide an interesting area for further investigation.[8. Olivier Lepick, La Grande Guerre chimique, 1914-1918 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1998).] In other words, did the destruction of the national landscape and environment appear to be a source of particular concern for soldiers and commanders alike?

I would also, if I may, invite Ryan to speak further to the long-lasting impact of the environmental damage of chemical warfare and ask him whether he intends to take the story to the process of decontamination and reconstruction.

Last but not least perhaps, I would ask him to elaborate on the notion of environmental warfare itself. Though gas was deployed in a ruthless manner, one wonders whether the environmental impact of gas warfare was actually factored in the calculations of commanders at the operational and strategic levels. This, I would suggest, would constitute a defining feature of environmental warfare. Is there evidence of such calculations in WWI?

This finally leads me on the blurring of boundaries between front and home front that characterizes – to borrow John Horne’s phrase – the “totalizing logic” of the conflict. Does the significant environmental impact on the home front of preparation for chemical warfare in WWI warrant John McNeill’s suggestion that “much less was done in war than in the name of war?”[9. John McNeill, Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth-century world, 1st ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000), 344.]

© Pierre Purseigle – Do not quote or cite without prior permission

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