Chlorine gas was used in the First World War in April 1915. Almost no one knew what the clouds were that rolled towards the trenches, and the human cost was terrible. Allied soldiers soon used cotton cloths held against their noses and mouths to diminish the effects of the gas.
Death from chlorine gas inhalation could be prolonged, and painful. It was a terrible weapon, and the rolling clouds of yellow-green smoke, with the smell of "pepper and pineapple," were also an effective psychological weapon.
Soon solders were urinating on cloth and then breathing through the urine, with the idea that it would counteract the chlorine. Other soldiers tried socks and other materials soaked in a solution of bicarbonate of soda. It wasn’t until July of 1915 that soldiers were given proper gas masks.
Chlorine was weaponized by a chemist named Fritz Haber. His wife, Clara Immerwahr, was the first woman to earn her PhD in Germany, and was a woman’s rights activist. She was also a pacifist, and ultimately took her own life with Haber’s service pistol to protest his work in creating one of the first weapons of mass destruction.
Haber later won the Nobel Prize in 1918, and his entry on the Nobel website only briefly mentions his work in chemical warfare. He was responsible for the Haber Process, which dramatically increases the efficiency of farm land. This work has saved an inestimable number of lives from famine.
"…Haber personifies too the tragedy of a Jew desperate to be a patriotic German, whose life was destroyed after the Nazis came to power," the BBC wrote. "And in the cruelest of all the ironies, his work was developed under the Nazis to create the gas used to murder millions in the Holocaust - including his relatives."
The BBC story also tells of his final days.
By the early 1930s he could see vicious anti-Semitism spreading around him, and his claim to be a German patriot was no protection.
"In early 1933", his daughter Eva told me, "he went to his institute. There was the porter, who said: 'The Jew Haber is not allowed in here.'"
Haber resigned, devastated, went briefly into exile, and died of a heart attack in 1934.
I’ve been reading about Fritz Haber for the past few days, because Valiant Hearts has an entry that mentioned the use of urine to counteract chlorine gas. What I found was the work of a complicated man whose work has helped the world in amazing ways, but who also directly helped spread the use of chemical weapons and would lead to the suicide of multiple members of his family out of shame.
Radiolab has an interesting story about Haber, if you're so inclined. How do you square the work of a man who saved so many with one aspect of his work, and killed so many with his wartime efforts?
"During peacetime a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time he belongs to his country," Haber stated.
"I did not see him often, but I always thought it a gift, when I could spend even an hour with him," Einstein wrote in a letter. "Haber's was the tragedy of the German Jew, the tragedy of unrequited love."
Where does one place such a man in history?
History in video games
Valiant Hearts is an interesting game, with an often-beautiful art style. The tone can be slightly inconsistent, but the puzzles are often enjoyable and the game is filled with interesting scenes and facts from the First World War. Most games portray the hero as something that happens to the war, a lone man who strikes major victories in battle through his ability to heal from gunshot wounds by hiding behind a crate for a few seconds.
Valiant Hearts portrays the war as something that happens to people, a force that tore apart families and ended countless lives. It takes place during a time that is often passed over in the world of gaming, and it attempts to deal with the subject with respect, even if it offers up a somewhat cartoonish villain.
As a game it does much more well than it does poorly, but it's powerful in that it opens a door into a part of history that is rarely discussed. There is no Band of Brothers-style HBO special about the First World War. There haven't been a flood of games that explore the conflict from every angle.
You can play Valiant Hearts as an adventure game if you'd like by skipping through the puzzles, but you get much more out of it if you read the diary entries and historical briefs that pepper the experience.
I learned that the word "tank" entered the lexicon due to British troops trying to hide the rolling weapon platforms as literal water tanks. Before the use of the word "tank" to describe the vehicles saying that a large number of tanks were moving to a certain location didn't seem very threatening. The original term for the weapon was "landship."
I've been reading about the wine ration for French soldiers creeped up throughout the war. "At the beginning of the First World War the daily allowance of wine per man was a quarter of a litre a day," one article stated. "By 1915 it was half a litre and by 1916, almost three quarters of a litre with the opportunity to buy more."
"The army was supplying its troops with 12 million hectolitres a year by 1916 – French vineyard owners from the Languedoc donated 20m litres for army use at the outbreak of the war and France’s North African colonies provided a great deal of wine by the end," the article continued.
There is no mainstream Band of Brothers-style HBO special about the First World War
This is why games with varied settings in different time periods are worth celebrating. Valiant Hearts is an interesting game that provides a number of interesting facts about the war, and it does a good job of showing a stylized look at what life was like on the ground for those taking part in hostilities, but it also provides unlimited jumping off points for further research and discussion.
Studying something as formidable as the First World War can feel impossible; there's no one place to start. It's too easy to slide off the sides of history and become overwhelmed by the amount of content written. If nothing else I want to thank Valiant Hearts for showing me interesting places to begin.