01/31 – Gas at Bolimów

Imperial Russian troops care for wounded German prisoners after a battle on the Eastern Front. (Flickr)

On this day in 1915 – well into WWI – the German 9th Army launched an attack against Imperial Russian positions located near Bolimów, a small Polish town 50 km (31 miles) from Warsaw. The town was not of any real strategic importance, but German war planners envisioned the operation as a testing ground for their newly-developed Xylyl bromide (a crude form of tear gas). At dawn, 18,000 canisters of the gas were fired at Russian lines; the gas, however, was weakened by the cold weather, and a strong wind from the east blew it back in the attackers’ faces. Seizing the opportunity, Russian commander Vasily Gurko counter-attacked in force. The ensuing clashes left 60,000 men dead or wounded – and the lines remained the same.

This aerial photograph, taken at Flanders in Belgium, illustrates the terrifying effect of a gas attack during WWI. A similar attack took place at Bolimów much earlier. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Bolimów was just another brutal, pointless battle on the Eastern Front. It’s worth remembering, however, as the very first mass usage of poison gas in modern warfare. The failure of the gas attack meant that Russian command neglected to pass the information on their Allies on the Western front. The first successful usage of gas (in this case, chlorine poison) occurred soon after at the 2nd Battle of Ypres; Allied troops were completely caught off guard without gas masks, and the lines were only held by the determination of the 1st Canadian Division. The Canadians were instructed to soak rags with urine to breathe into, but soon after, gas masks were issued to all soldiers in the European theatre. Poison gas has seen relatively limited usage in the ensuing decades of warfare, but the legacy of Bolimów remains, and all modern soldiers are trained to counter the terrifying effects of chemical weapons on the battlefield.

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