On the brutally cold morning of Sunday, January 31,1915 World War I gave birth to a new horror. Close to the village of Bolimov, in what is today central Poland, a German force of seven divisions, 100,000 men strong, prepared to mount an attack on the lines of the Russian Army. Strategically, the Germans were trying to push eastward, with their overall goal to take Warsaw. This was easier said than done, stalemate had set in, along with an ice cold winter. Whereas the Germans were bogged down in the knee deep mud of Flanders on the Western Front, in the east they found themselves in waist deep snow. Bitter cold, compounded by numbing winds left the army frozen and static.
The battle about to ensue was in many ways not much different from others of similar size and scope which had occurred all along the Eastern Front during the first six months of World War I. The problem, as it would be throughout the war, was how to achieve a breakthrough. In this case, the Germans decided to first pound the Russians with artillery. Along a seven mile front they massed 600 guns, an incredibly dense amount of shot. Every twenty yards a gun was poised to unload deadly projectiles. The bombardment was to unleash a blizzard of shellfire in order to soften up the Russian positions. This tactic in and of itself was nothing new. Yet 18,000 of the shells contained a lethal new weapon. The Germans had packaged xylyl bromide, a tear gas, into canisters within 15 centimeter artillery shells. When a shell landed a charge of TNT would blast open the canister and the gas would begin to mist. It would then vaporize, causing extreme irritation to both the nose and eyes. With the enemy blinded and suffering, the Germans would be able to punch through the Russian line, get into their rear, where they could kill, wound or capture large numbers of troops. Would it work?
From the German perspective they had nothing to lose. Breakthrough was their only real hope of winning the war. Stalemate for the German Army was not a long term strategy. They were outnumbered and out supplied in comparison to the allied opposition. The longer the war went on, the greater likelihood they would lose. They would have to innovate their way to victory, by any means necessary. Thus, in the early morning of the last day of January, on the frozen soil of the Polish plains, the Germans brought a new form of warfare into existence. The barrage took place in below zero temperatures, unleashing a torrent of shot, shrapnel and gas. This lasted all day and continued into the next morning. On February 1st, the infantry slowly moved forward, wading through the snow. What did they find? Were the Russian forces succumbing to icy tears? Were they in shock? No, the Russians were ready for the attack. The gas had been useless. Following the shell explosions it had frozen into a thick, useless liquid.
The Russians did yield some ground in the nearly week long battle. This was not due to poison gas, but instead to bombardment. Nonetheless, the Russians fought hard, more at home in the bone chilling cold. The Germans did achieve some limited objectives, advancing several miles and taking a handful of villages, but there was no breakthrough. The Russians showed no signs of being affected by the gas. It was warfare as usual. Crack Siberian troops were brought in for what became a successful counterattack, taking back the villages that had been lost just a few days earlier. By February 6th, less than a week after the battle had begun, the Germans were right back where they had started. The attack had been a costly failure. German casualties totaled one-fifth of their initial attacking force of 100,000, while the Russians had suffered upwards of 40,000 casualties. The result seems to have been just another stalemate in a seemingly endless series of battles that achieved next to nothing. That may have been so, but it set a deadly precedent, one that has lasted up to the present day.
The first large scale use of chemical weapons may have been an abysmal failure, but it provided enough of a trial run to give the Germans confidence that with refined tactics it just might work. The precedent was set. Just a couple of months later, in the late afternoon of April 22, 1915 at the second battle of Ypres the Germans once again unleashed poison gas, in this case chlorine to deadly effect. Allied forces saw a gray green cloud floating towards them, the ranks broke and ran. This left a four mile wide gap in the Allied line, but the Germans were taken by surprise at the effectiveness of the gas. They failed to exploit the breach. An opportunity had been lost. It would not be the last time. For the next three and a half years, both sides would use a variety of chemicals in a vain effort to break the deadlock. These attacks only served to further degrade the landscape, men and the war. Poison gas became more a weapon of terror than it did an effective tactic. And so it has largely remained that way up to the present. A case in point is its recent use in Syria. Once again it failed to turn the tide of war in the Assad regime’s favor. Instead it led to outrage, and reminded the world that ninety-eight years later chemical warfare is still with us and for that matter will always be with us. It cannot be un-invented.
For many historians the use of poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres is seen as the singular event that inaugurated the use of weapons of mass destruction. Historians have overlooked its use at Bolimov months before. Even today, there is a distinct focus on the western front when it comes to the use of poison gas during the First World War. This is a sad irony and not just because Bolimov was the first place these deadly weapons came into the modern consciousness, but also because more Russian soldiers died and were casualties of chemical weapons than any other nation’s soldiers during the war. This fact is virtually unknown as is the Battle of Bolimov.
The name does not have the historical resonance of an Ypres or Hiroshima. And why should it? There were no mass casualties, there were no scars left on the landscape. It was an unknown event on an obscure field of battle. How can we be haunted by what we do not have knowledge or memory of? It is silent, it is hidden and precisely because of this it is also deadly. It lurks not among us, but within us. It is the fear that we dare not contemplate. It is the fear that we have sowed the seeds of our own destruction by creating these lethal weapons. It really does not matter whether we acknowledge it or not, because it is there, it will always be there and it will come to us again and again and again. That is the real nightmare of history. And as for Bolimov, it may be forgotten, but it just might be this singular event that is the beginning of our end. We would do well to remember not only the event, but also the words of poet T.S. Eliot, “this is the way the world ends, with not a bang, but a whimper.”