Seeking Victory on the Western Front: The British Army and Chemical Warfare in World War I


Seeking Victory on the Western Front examines how, in the face of the devastating firepower advantages that modern weapons offered the Germans, the British army developed the means to reclaim the offense and break the stalemate of the western front to defeat their enemy. Within this context, Albert Palazzo demonstrates the importance of gas warfare to Britain's tactical success and argues that it was a much more efficient weapon than past historians have suggested. Despite British notions of tradition, ...

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Seeking Victory on the Western Front examines how, in the face of the devastating firepower advantages that modern weapons offered the Germans, the British army developed the means to reclaim the offense and break the stalemate of the western front to defeat their enemy. Within this context, Albert Palazzo demonstrates the importance of gas warfare to Britain's tactical success and argues that it was a much more efficient weapon than past historians have suggested. Despite British notions of tradition, gentlemanly conduct, and fair fighting, the high command realized that the war was to be won by employing new technologies and techniques to counteract the defensive advantages their well-fortified and entrenched opponent enjoyed on the western front. Through his study of the evolution of chemical warfare, Palazzo demonstrates that the British made the necessary transformation by successfully incorporating new weapons and tactics into their existing method of waging war. As a result, they created a new operational system that allowed the attacker to negate the defender's firepower advantage at all levels.

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Editorial Reviews

Palazzo history, Australian Defense Force Academy demonstrates the importance of gas warfare to Britain's tactical success in World War I, arguing that it was a much more efficient weapon than past historians have suggested. In this volume, he traces the evolution of chemical warfare and examines the incorporation of new technologies into the established methods of waging war. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
The Wilson Quarterly
"Though World War I has been written about exhaustively, Palazzo offers a genuinely fresh dimension by focusing on the British Army's extensive and imaginative use of gas. The Germans may have pioneered its use in 1915, but the British developed it, devised and put into mass production the most lethal chemicals, and provided their troops with by far the better gas masks."—The Wilson Quarterly
The Journal of Military History
"A major contribution to the goal of rescuing the reputation of the army from the 'donkeys' school of historiography. Palazzo's examination of the way in which the army incorporated gas into its armory underlines the conclusions of Tim Travers, Trevor Wilson, Robin Prior, and Paddy Griffith, that despite the obvious shortcomings of some prominent individuals, the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] was remarkably successful at recognizing the utility of new technologies and exploiting their military potential. . . . The author has examined a wide range of primary and secondary sources in Britain, Canada, and Australia and they are carefully set down in his copious notes. . . . It is squarely aimed at scholars interested in the war on the Western Front, but it deserves to be read more widely."—The Journal of Military History
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803287747
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2002
  • Pages: 245
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Albert Palazzo is a research fellow in the School of History at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Sydney, Australia.
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Chapter One

Confronting the Western Front

The conditions are not at present normal ... they may become normal some day — Sir William Robertson

The conditions of modern, industrial war presented enormous obstaclesto commanders in charge of operations on the western front. Thestalemate of the trenches, the continuous and therefore unflankable linestretching from Switzerland to the English Channel, and the attacker'sfrustration at not being able to achieve a quick and war-winning decisivevictory were all symptoms of the scale and complexity of conflictthat no commander had ever faced. However, the most significant impedimentthat leaders had to overcome to achieve victory was the defender'suse of firepower to dominate the battlefield and thereby preventthe attacker from achieving a favorable decision. It was thedefender's ability to interdict no man's land with a barrier of bullets andshells that made the attacker's task so difficult. One can therefore expressthe conduct of the campaign on the western front, the litany offailed or inconclusive attacks, and the great toll of dead and wounded intheir most simple form: the quest for the means by which to reestablishthe potential of the attack and thus to restore decisiveness to battle.

    Although the problem of the superiority of defensive firepower wasan extremely complex one, its existence did not come as a total surpriseto the combatants. One of the more important factors in the Anglo-BoerWar was the greatly increased killing power of modern rifles, machineguns, and quick-firingartillery. Commenting on the war inSouth Africa, Col. C. E. Callwell noted that it was not the mode ofBoer fighting—mounted infantry—that was significant. Rather, thelessons lay in the weapons the Boers employed and their increased firepower.The events of the Russo-Japanese War added to the growing debatewithin the British army over the efficiency of modern weaponsbut, unfortunately, the lessons derived from that conflict served moreto obscure rather than illuminate the best future course of action. InManchuria, Japanese successes appeared to many British observers tobe as much a result of boldness and determination as of superior firepower.However, while the ensuing analysis over the effectiveness ofinnovation and adaptation. It will explore the cultural background ofthe British army's decision-making process and place gas operationswithin a cultural context that demonstrates the institutional ethos thatguided commanders in the selection of gas options. It will then addressthe practical side of chemical warfare's evolution within the Britisharmy—the invention of devices, substances, and tactics—and the integrationof gas into the army's operations.

    It should therefore be clear that the following is more than just astudy of chemical warfare; it is an attempt to use gas as a means to studybroader issues affecting the complexity of warfare on the western front.It touches on a number of concepts: innovation, adaptation, tradition,technology, culture, and the quest for victory. However, each of thesethemes is really a single thread of a more subtle fabric: how the seniorleadership of the British army interpreted the problems of combat onthe western front, the solutions they devised to address those problems,and how they incorporated these solutions into their method ofwaging war. It was the successful completion of these three steps thatcreated the British fighting machine of 1918 that was able to secure victorythrough the defeat of the German army on the field of battle.

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modern weapons shifted the British focus, in part, to the intangible factorsof war, it did so in the context of using, for example, superior moraleas a means to counter the effect of defensive firepower.

    By August 1914 all the combatants of the Great War were still only atthe earliest stages of understanding the effects of modern weapons onthe battlefield and in finding a solution to the superiority of defensivefire. As the combatants soon discovered, the means to counteractingthe benefit that these weapons provided for the defender required notonly time and blood but also the development of new tactics, technologies,and weapon systems, as well as the incorporation of these featuresinto an army's intellectual framework for waging war. The Britisharmy's eventual success at adapting to the realities of modern weaponsand developing methods for employing offensive firepower to destroyor neutralize defensive firepower led to the end of stalemate betweenthe attacker and the defender and in 1918 resulted in the British defeat ofthe German army on the field of battle.

    Prewar observations had also suggested that modern war could degenerateinto a struggle of attrition if a combatant failed to secure victoryin a conflict's opening campaign. The armies in World War I hadbuilt into their mobilization schedules plans for massive, decisive offensivesat the commencement of hostilities. The failure of these operationsmeant that the opponents had to face the titanic and exhaustingstruggle they feared. Although the British employed attrition, theydid not believe it was the only way to achieve victory. Instead, throughoutthe war they struggled to establish the conditions by which theycould restore to war the characteristics that they perceived as "normal."Robertson believed, as his comment above suggests, that the dominanceof the defender was an aberration, a temporary impasse whoseresolution lay in the application of methods that would return war to its"natural" condition, wherein the attacker could win a decisive victory.By mid-1918 the British, through the integration of new means and approachesin their method of waging war, succeeded in Robertson's goalof returning conflict to a more "normal" condition.

    This chapter will address the British perception of the nature ofmodern war and the methods by which they intended to wage the conflict.It will establish the intellectual framework surrounding the Britishdecision-making process by defining and exploring three key concepts:ethos, decisive victory, and superiority. The chapter will also examinethe principles which governed the British method of war-making andwill demonstrate that Britain's military strategists never wavered fromtheir prewar conception of how to wage a modern conflict. The chapterwill thus lay the foundation for subsequent chapters by establishing theinterpretive limits of the British army's approach to war. It will alsoshow that all the operational decisions of the army's leaders conformedto an established and unchanging code of conduct and to a universallyaccepted perception of the nature of modern war.

Doctrine or Ethos

All military institutions, if they are to deal successfully with the evolvingnature of war, must possess an intellectual structure that facilitateschange. Military professionals and scholars identify doctrine as the underlyingsystem that an army uses to modify its methods and disseminatenew ideas throughout its corporate culture. Further, military commentatorsgenerally insist that an army's possession of a well-conceivedand universally accepted doctrine is mandatory for the preparation andwaging of war. Its absence is a damning condemnation of that militaryinstitution's leadership and effectiveness.

    The identification of doctrine as the standard by which to measurethe professionalism of a military institution is particularly troubling forscholars of the British army because, as a number of historians have observed,the British did not have a doctrine prior to or during the courseof the Great War. Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham commenton its absence in Fire-Power, as does Tim Travers in The KillingGround. In fact, as late as 1992 a senior British officer could point outthat the army had only recently accepted the need for doctrine. The officercorps of the World War I era would not have objected to this conclusion.During the years before the war the general staff weighed the possibilityof developing a doctrine and actively decided against it. Yet thearmy's lack of a doctrine was not the result of accident, neglect, or ignorance,but was a deliberate policy decision.

     Doctrine is a military concept that is difficult to define, although certainkey principles are evident. Bidwell and Graham identify doctrineas the "study of weapons and other resources and the lessons of history,leading to the deduction of the correct strategic and tactical principleson which to base both training and the conduct of war." In a recent essayBrian Holden Reid suggests that the aim of doctrine is not to createrigid dogma but rather to attempt to inculcate a military institutionwith a common framework of tactical understanding. Jack Snyder seesdoctrine as a "set of beliefs about the nature of war and the keys to successon the battlefield." Snyder continues that doctrine "helps to providea simple, coherent, standardized structure both for strategicthought and for military institutions." John Gooch considers doctrineto be "the bridge between thought and action. It interprets the higherconceptualization of war, embodied in strategic theories and operationalplans, into working guidelines for action. In a word, doctrine articulateswar." Timothy Lupfer defines doctrine as "guidance for theconduct of battle approved by the highest military authority."

    Each of these scholars has identified doctrine as the distillation ofideas into a framework that an army uses to train its forces to achievemaximum battlefield potential. They stress uniformity and an acceptancethat commanders must train the entire army within a consistentsystem following standardized goals, so that the degree of success duringtraining exercises is measurable and readiness reports are comparable.The British did not use such terms in their training, nor in analyzingthe capabilities of their forces. Yet, despite the absence of doctrine,the British did succeed, and it was their army that dealt the Germansthe terminal blows that led to the Armistice. Historians have beenshortsighted in their insistence on doctrine and perhaps could haveprobed more deeply to determine whether it is possible for an army tobase its intellectual structure on a foundation other than doctrine. Insteadof doctrine one must identify a different, and perhaps more important,construct to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Britisharmy and its leaders. Indeed, the army had no doctrine, but it possessedinstead a unifying philosophy, or, more accurately, an ethos, that providedan equivalent structure for the decision-making process and wasthe basis for all operations. In ways much more dramatic and all-encompassingthan doctrine, ethos provided the British with effectiveoperational and tactical guidelines around which they developed, modified,and inculcated their method of waging war.

    In practical terms, ethos obviated the need for doctrine. Ethos providedthe continuity of thought that welded the army into a whole; itwas based upon the cultural values of the nation and was accepted bymembers of the officer corps, not only among the senior ranks and generalstaff but also among junior officers, NCOS, and those of otherranks. Culture played a particularly important role in the British armyfor it was culture, rather than doctrine, that determined the Britishmethod of war-making. Castigating the British army for its failure tocreate a doctrine obscures the fact that the British did have the meansfor interpreting the war and guiding their responses to its challenges.

    Ethos can be defined as the characteristic spirit and the prevalentsentiment, taste, or opinion of a people, institution, or system. To beidentifiable, a people's ethos must meet several criteria: it must berepresentative of the values of the society; it must include a significant partof the population, particularly those in positions of power and influencewho are able to shape the culture; it must be enduring; and thestate must possess the desire to maintain it and instill similar values inthe next generation. While there is a temptation to equate ethos withtradition, ethos is not a static state of irrational beliefs that isolate asociety or prevent the evolution of ideas. Only in extreme cases does ethosact as a barrier to change—usually in cultures that are determined to resistchange at all costs, or in leaders who see a political benefit in excludingthe outside world, as the government of Japan during the Tokugawaperiod did when it isolated the country from western influencefor nearly 250 years.

    The hallmark of British society in the years before World War I wasthe challenge to the existing order by new ideas, inventions, and experiences,as modernism made its assault upon British culture. It was a tumultuousperiod, and issues such as Irish separation, the women's vote,and the reform of the House of Lords convulsed the nation. Conservativesresisted but generally, if reluctantly, gave way. Samuel Hynes hasidentified a standardized response to the introduction of the new theoriesof modernism. During those tense years before the war, wheneverthey appeared the pattern was the same: "the New behaved brashly, insolently,or violently, and the Old responded with an arthritic resistance."One part of society sought stability while the other fought forchange. Yet Britain did slowly change, for its ethos was not rigid;change gave the nation a mechanism to assess new genius and to shapethe adaptation of novel ideas into a recognizable and comfortable formso they could be incorporated into the existing order.

    The institution of the army also contained the necessary elements tocreate a viable, sustainable, and dynamic ethos, thus the army mirroredsociety by also undergoing a struggle with change during the yearsleading up to the war. The army derived its ethos by borrowing itsvalues from the broader culture, institutionalized it by imposing itupon the vast majority of the officer corps, particularly at the seniorlevels, and assured its continuance by incorporating mechanisms topass it on to the next generation. The army's ethos revolved around certainintangible qualities such as a preference for amateurism, a parallelaversion to professionalism, and an emphasis on the character of the individual.More directly, the army identified particular values such asloyalty, self-confidence, physical courage, obedience, moral virtue,and sacrifice as representative traits of its ethos. This emphasis comesthrough repeatedly in the testimony of Maj. Gen. Sir Hugh SandhamJeudwine, who proudly listed the traits the British brought to the waras "courage, devotion to duty, determination, and endurance." Gen.Sir Henry Rawlinson believed victory was the result of the invinciblewill to conquer in every officer, noncommissioned officer (NCO), andman. One gunner, W. H. F. Weber, observed that technology mightachieve temporary success but victory depended upon national character.J. F. C. Fuller described the officer corps as being composed of"men of honour, men who could be trusted, who were loyal to King,country, their men and to their caste." Last, the Field ServiceRegulations (FSR) concluded that "skill could not compensate for the want ofcourage, energy, and determination."

    During the prewar debate about doctrine, the army's stated rationalefor rejecting doctrine also helps to reveal the nature of the army's ethos.At a conference of staff officers in 1911, Capt. C. A. L. Yates suggestedthat the army should produce an officers' manual of applied tactics. Theguide would provide a series of situations and solutions to tacticalproblems for the benefit of junior officers. Many officers at the conferenceloudly condemned the proposal as the first step toward creating anofficer corps imbued with standardized responses to potential situations.Maj. Gen. F. S. May believed that the idea was dangerous becauseofficers would study it to the exclusion of works of a more generalinterest. He believed that it would lead to stereotypical responses,which he considered a liability since Britain might have to fight anywherein the world under greatly differing circumstances. Another officer,Brigadier General Davies, objected as well. He feared officerswould become tempted to seek answers to tactical problems in a bookrather than using their intelligence. After brief consideration, the generalstaff directors opposed the suggestion, supporting the argumentsof Davies and May and citing the additional difficulty of keeping theFSR current with other manuals and their additional concern that itcould not possibly be sufficiently comprehensive to cover all potentialsituations. An article in the Army Review announcing the publicationof a new edition of Infantry Training reinforced this viewpoint. Itstated that "considerable latitude in applying principles and instructions tolocal conditions has been left to commanders," and that due to differencesof training programs throughout the empire, strict adherence toone method would be impossible. Finally, while this insistence upongeography provides one explanation, another author simplified the issuewith the suggestion that all an officer needed to solve any situationwas common sense. J. F. C. Fuller, certainly among the most eruditeof British officers, made the same observation. Writing in the Journal ofthe Royal United Service Institution in 1914, he concluded: "I have nodoctrine, for I believe in none. Every concrete case demands its own particularsolution, and ... all that we require is skill and knowledge, skill inthe use of our weapons, knowledge of our enemy's formations." Hecontinued, "if there is a doctrine at all then it is common sense, that is[,]action adapted to circumstances." A leading proponent of professionalism,Fuller did not belong to the school of thought that advocated anamateur army. He strongly believed that success in war required practiceand study, yet he, too, saw no need for doctrine and preferred to letcommanders, properly trained, find their own solutions to local situations.

    In part, the rejection of doctrine was a continuation of the debate betweenadvocates of a professional versus an amateur army that TimTravers and others have described. However, such a rejection alsorepresents the recognition of structural realities that made ethos a moreviable intellectual structure to follow. As an imperial army with widelydifferent theaters of responsibility and an organization structure basedupon the regiment, the British army's emphasis was on unit commandersmaking their own decisions with reference to the local environment.John Terraine noted that the British forces were not so much asingle army as a reservoir of imperial garrisons, lacking the organizationalunity and common doctrine to bind the regiments into a whole.John Keegan describes membership in the army not in terms of a militaryorganization but rather as a large Victorian family, complete withornate silverware in the mess and photograph-laden histories. The regimentcontained all the components of upper-middle-class society, includingan ancient lineage, connections to the gentry through an emphasisupon country life, and associations with the court through thepractice of naming members of the Royal family as honorary colonels.

    For ethos to be effectively followed, however, an institution mustdisseminate its values widely, a requirement that the British readilyachieved. Facilitating the dissemination and integration of the army'scode was the fact that the officer corps recruits were traditionally drawnfrom a narrow, cohesive layer of society. Class stratified the nationinto a series of well-defined groups, and the army drew its officers fromstrata that shared its values and assumptions on the nature of societyand their role in the military. Originally the preserve of the nobility,military families, and some clergy, the officer corps extended itself,over the course of the nineteenth century, to include the gentry andprofessionals. This relatively narrow pool of candidates encouraged asimilarity of outlook and station.

    Class barriers, however, while critical to one's acceptance as an officerwere not totally impermeable, and it was possible for outsiders tocross the divide that separated the officers from the other ranks (witnessWilliam Robertson's rise from private to field marshal). During thewar the permeability of the caste system became critical, as the army'srapid expansion and high number of officer casualties greatly increasedthe need to draw leaders from beyond the traditional sources of supply.When pressed by the needs of war, the army broadened the acceptablecriteria of membership. The most important trait that determined acandidate's acceptance into "the circle" then became whether or not theindividual was "a gentleman." Throughout the war the British stroveto maintain the social exclusiveness of the officer corps. While they resortedto a number of expedients, such as shortening training periodsand speeding up the process of commissioning, the army consistentlymade "gentlemanly qualities" a prerequisite for obtaining a commission.Initially the universities and public schools provided a readysource of material, but after casualties forced the army to promotefrom the ranks it selected first from soldiers belonging to the professionaland managerial classes and not the working class.


Excerpted from Seeking Victory on the Western Front by ALBERT PALAZZO. Copyright © 2000 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii
List of Tables ix
Acknowledgments xi
List of Gas Abbreviations xiii
Introduction 1
1. Confronting the Western Front 6
2. Introduction and Reaction 41
3. Experimentation 78
4. Institutionalization 111
5. March to Victory 154
Conclusion 190
Notes 201
Index 233
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2006

    British Use of Poison Gas In World War I

    The standard version of World War I history is that generalship on both sides of the trenches was uninspired, and that in the end, generals resorted to launching head on attacks that gained little and cost much in terms of soldier¿s lives. For the British, the Somme and Passchendaele are tragic examples of these types of battles. In many cases, new ideas and weapons were ignored or misused. Poison gas is dismissed as being ineffective once protective measures were introduced. In his book Seeking Victory on the Western Front, The British Army & Chemical Warfare in World War I, author Albert Palazzo focuses on the British use of poison gas to support his contention that the British military were very innovative, cleverly adapting new tools, including gas, as they developed a solution to the deadlock on the Western Front. Eventually, by combining better use of artillery, gas and tanks, by the middle of 1918, the British armies had developed their technique of attack to a point that they had found the means of overcoming the German defenses the Western Front. In the summer of 1918, they applied these techniques to gain ascendancy over the Germans, and it was this ascendancy that led to the German collapse and the Allied victory in November. The author presents an interesting picture of how the British Army experimented and developed its methods for using chemical weapons. From the first primitive release of gas at the battle of Loos in 1915, the British evolved tactics and methods of delivering gas to kill and wear down enemy forces. By the end of the war, the British were skilled at using gas not only to cause casualties in the German trenches, but also to suppress enemy artillery and to prevent reinforcement or counter attack. The author is successful in presenting his case that overall, the British were masters of innovating and incorporating new ideas and tactics into their military operations. However, I feel he gives too much credit to the British in bringing an end to the war. No doubt, they were carrying the largest burden on the Western Front in 1918, and their successful attack at Arras did create a panic by the German generals. However, there were a number of other factors contributing to the German collapse: the expensive failures of the Ludendorf offensives earlier in the year, the surrender of Germany¿s allies, the growing presence of a fresh American Army on the front, the impact of the blockade, and the subsequent unrest on the home front. In addition to this book, I would recommend Chemical Soldiers, British Gas Warfare in World War I by Donald Richter. While Seeking Victory deals more with strategy and tactics, Chemical Soldiers is a narrative of the activities of the Special Brigade, which was the arm of the British Army responsible for handling the chemical weapons. Together, they give a comprehensive look at the British chemical effort in World War I.

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