22/2/1917 The continuing food crisis in Germany and Austria-Hungary

Germany and Austria-Hungary are having problems feeding their people. Before the war Germany was able to import food from overseas to feed its industrial workforce. Now the British navy cuts off the granaries of the world. Domestic food production has fallen, partly due to the agricultural labour force having been drafted into the army. The loss of fertilisers is also a factor. Germany can no longer import nitrates from Chile. What nitrates are available (largely thanks to the work of the gifted chemist Fritz Haber, who has developed a process for their synthesis) are being used to manufacture explosives. And the most recent potato harvest has failed, because copper is no longer available for the anti-blight sprays. Germans are now feeding themselves on turnips or Kriegsbrot, an unappetising bread substitute.

The Allies meanwhile have further contributed to German food woes by buying up the entire output of the neutral states bordering the Reich. Thus the Germans are denied the cheese of the Netherlands or the fish of Scandinavia.

Austria-Hungary should be in a better position, as a more agricultural country. However the situation here is worse. The authorities are less organised and regional politics compound the problems of food distribution. Prime Minister Tisza of Hungary is blocking food exports to Austria, feeling that his position is dependent on his people feeling that they are the best fed. As a result food is going very short in the cities of Austria, with starvation a real threat to many.

In Germany the food situation is causing a breakdown of social solidarity. City folk grumble about farmers hoarding food, while country folk complain about ‘hamsters’, the urbanites who come out to the countryside looking for food to buy or steal. Within the cities, everyone complains that everyone else is getting more than they are. Traditional hierarchies are inverted, as manual workers in war industries are now receiving much larger rations than their middle class betters. Everyone complains about profiteers. In Austria-Hungary meanwhile the food crisis inflames ethnic antagonisms.

Most worrying for the regimes in both countries, the food crisis in both countries leads to grumbling about the authorities, with people blaming the shortage of food on their government’s inadequate response to the problem. It is fear that this grumbling could lead to revolutionary unrest that has driven the German leadership to pursue their U-boat strategy, in the hope that this will be the last winter of the war.

image source:

Turnip ration card from Erfurt

2/5/1915 The sad death of Clara Immerwahr

As a young woman Clara Immerwahr studied chemistry in Breslau, carrying out her own chemical researches after graduation. She married the chemist Fritz Haber in 1901. Social expectations meant that she gave up working outside the home. Immerwahr largely abandoned chemistry, though she did contribute to some of her husband’s work, albeit without receiving any public credit for so doing.

With the passage of time, Immerwahr has become somewhat estranged from her husband. Haber’s work on Germany’s chemical warfare programme (which he largely summoned into being) proves the final straw. She sees gas warfare as a perversion of science and an abomination that runs against the humanist values she holds dear. She quarrels with her husband and then kills herself with his service pistol.

Fritz Haber does not stay to supervise his wife’s funeral. Leaving behind his thirteen year old son Hermann (in whose arms Clara Immerwahr has died), Haber leaves for the Eastern Front to supervise further poison gas attacks there.

Clara Immerwahr in her student days (Wikipedia)

22/4/1915 Chlorine death: Germany attacks at Ypres

Last year Falkenhayn threw German forces at the Belgian town of Ypres, trying to overwhelm the British and French defenders before pushing on to the Channel ports. The Germans were unable to break through and after a month of fighting Falkenhayn called a halt to the assault. Since then the Germans at Ypres have largely sat on the defensive.

That changes today. In the early evening, Falkenhayn launches another massed assault on the Allied line, this time targeting French troops in the vicinity of Langemark. The German attack is preceded by an intense artillery bombardment, which must have warned the defenders of what was coming their way. But the full horror is unexpected. At about 5.00 pm a strange yellow-green cloud starts to waft from the German positions, before being blown on the wind towards the French lines.
When the cloud reaches the French trenches its foul nature becomes apparent. The French and North African troops find themselves choking and gasping for breath, their eyes stinging and burning. The Germans are attacking them with chlorine, a poison gas. Chlorine is heavier than air, so it sinks into the French trenches. The defenders climb out of their positions to try and find clean air, but then they are cut down by German gunfire.

Some of the defenders flee for their lives, managing to get away before the gas kills them. Officers to the rear are shocked to see these men running as fast as they can, equipment and weapons abandoned in their desperate flight, but the faint pungent smell on the wind and the sight of the men coughing and spluttering with foamy mouths and starting eyes makes clear that something terrible has happened.

The architect of Germany’s chemical warfare programme is the chemist Fritz Haber. He sees gas as a weapon that can end the war and bring victory to Germany. Germany has signed international agreements repudiating the use of poison gas in war, but this is dismissed as no longer relevant; in any case, Germany had also signed treaties guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality.

Gas has already been used experimentally in the East, at Bolim├│w, but the cold weather limited its effect. In the Belgian spring it proves much more effective. On this day alone the chlorine cloud inflicts some 6,000 casualties on the French, many of whom are killed or blinded.
A hole has been cut in the Allied line, yet the Germans do not exploit this success by sweeping down to Ypres itself. Although they are equipped with gas masks, the Germans are wary of marching into the gas cloud (and with good reason, as they suffer many casualties from their own poisonous weapon). When they do push forward, they do so tentatively, not realising the weakness of the enemy in front of them.

Nearby Canadian troops attempt to plug the gap in the Allied line. They improvise gas masks by urinating on cloth rags and holding them to their faces. In confused fighting before and after the fall of night the Canadians are able to halt the German advance.

image sources:

Poison gas being released (Wikipedia; the picture is not necessarily of gas being released at Ypres)

Fritz Haber (Wikipedia)

The Gas Attack: 22nd April 1915 (Webmatters: First World War, Carte de Route)