Mark Perry writes: On the late afternoon of April 22, 1915—in the midst of World War I—Algerian and French soldiers in trenches along the Western Front, near the Belgian town of Ypres, noticed a yellowish-green fog drifting toward them. Believing the cloud masked advancing German infantrymen, the soldiers prepared for an attack. In fact, the cloud was chlorine gas, released by the Germans from 6,000 pressurized cylinders. The gas crept forward, then lapped into the allied trenches in a ghostly tide. The effect was immediate: Thousands of soldiers choked and clutched at their throats, unable to breathe, before falling dead; thousands more fled in panic, opening a four-mile gap in the allied lines.
The Ypres attack was not the first time gas was used in the conflict (both the French and Germans had used tear gas earlier in the war), but it was the first time in the conflict that a poisonous gas was used in mass quantities. The effects of the attack were horrific, causing “a burning sensation in the head, red-hot needles in the lungs, the throat seized as by a strangler,” as one soldier later described it. More than 5,000 soldiers were killed in this first gas attack, while thousands more, stumbling to the rear and frothing at the mouth, suffered the debilitating aftereffects for decades.
What took place earlier this month, in Syria’s Idlib province, had the same effect as the gas used at Ypres, as Syrian-flown SU-22 jets released bombs filled with sarin gas near the town of Khan Shaykhun. The attack killed dozens of Syrian civilians, including 11 children. The effects of the sarin, a deadly nerve agent, were similar to those of 1915: The victims choked and vomited as their lungs constricted, then suffered through tormenting muscle spasms and eventual death.
In both cases, the use of gas was nearly universally condemned. After the Ypres attack became public knowledge, London’s Daily Mirror issued a banner headline describing the horror—“Devilry, Thy Name Is Germany”—then repeated the theme in bold type more than 100 years later, after Khan Shaykhun: “Assad Gassing Kids Again.” The “again” was a not-so-veiled editorial comment, for Khan Shaykhun marked the second time Assad had used sarin to kill civilians; the first incident took place in August 2013, when the Syrian regime used the nerve agent in an attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, killing an estimated 281 to 1,700 civilians (the numbers remain uncertain) while injuring thousands. The pictures of the victims, caught in the throes of their final moments, shocked the world. [Continue reading…]