Light is the Shape Whose Source We Perceive

The evolution of the gas mask
Rubber Flutter Valves, Wittgenstein, The Mines of Chile, Purple Waving Hands, The Black Veil Respirator, Ninety Thousand Goggles, Muslin, The Calming Effects of War

Light is the Shape Whose Source We Perceive

Ashley Butler
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America’s first attempt to manufacture gas masks modeled on the British Small Box Respirator (SBR) failed when the mouthpiece was determined to be too large and too stiff and the soda-lime granules in the filter too soft. Improvements resulted in a fuller face-piece, increased dead space, celluloid eye-lenses that tended to fall out, and a tube of anti-dimming paste to prevent condensation. Secured to the head by elastic bands, the masks required the soldier to bite down on the mouthpiece connected to the canister, and, with nose clip attached to his nose, exhale through a ­rubber flutter valve. One soldier called it “smothering,” the “most torturous thing,” while another described the saliva that flowed from his flutter valves down the front of his uniform. In defense training, special troops wore the mask while constructing roads and digging ditches, and while carrying stretchers through the woods. They played baseball in their masks, walked through gas clouds in their masks. As they tended to breathe deeply at the sound of an alarm, they were first instructed to stop breathing. To sound the alarm, sentries used Strombos, steel triangles, shell casings, and church bells, though later they found Klaxon horns and police rattles most effective.

Although the gas mask originated in ma­terials developed for mining, World War I spurred the mask’s innovation, and the evolution of chemical warfare sped the process. While the Hague Convention of 1899 banned “the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases,” there was no specific restriction on gases released from a pressurized canister, or so claimed Germany in 1915. Only one officer, stationed at Ypres, agreed to deploy the first gas-cloud attack.

Ypres (known now by its Flemish name, Ieper) was not an ideal site. “Seen from a distance the landscape… appears smooth,” one historian of the battlefield writes, “but upon approaching, little undulations, tiny valleys, and minuscule rivulets can be observed.” The hills, as high as eight meters, formed troughs in which the gas might linger, creating potent concentrations capable of impeding a troop advance. The gas might settle in tree branches, too, or in the creases of a trunk. Heavy brush could hold the gas cloud in place.

Meteorologists at the time calculated wind speed at a height of ten meters above the ground. A gas attack, to be effective, worked best when the cloud contoured the earth in its cruel advance. The ideal wind speed for a gas-cloud attack was two to four meters per second, but the wind could change speed or direction, as it would, months later, at the Battle of Loos, September 25, 1915, turning back on British soldiers along the left flank of attack. Subject to such whims, the Germans risked poisoning their own troops, many of whom lacked gas masks. As a result, three died when Allied artillery exploded gas cylinders in their emplacement.


In his Remarks on Colour, Witt­genstein wonders what is seeing if it is not that which is known through the object on which it acts. What is it to behold and not behold something?

We have a tendency to see another as being nearer to us than the atmosphere that sustains us both.


The German chemist responsible for developing chlorine gas for warfare was present to witness the first gas-cloud attack on April 22, 1915. Fritz Haber hoped the cloud might more effectively kill those soldiers fighting from the depths of trenches who could not be targeted by the parabolic flight of bullets and bombs. He also hoped to alleviate the pressure on Germany’s dwindling artillery stockpiles. Lengthy preparations were completed on March 10 along the southern flank of the Ypres salient. Troops transported 1,600 large and 4,130 small cylinders containing 168 tons of chlorine to the northern flank. Three days later the first gas alert was ordered at 2230; it was canceled at 0145. On April 19, the second order was given at 1500 and canceled soon after. On April 21, the third order was given at 1700, postponed to 0400, 0900, and then later in the afternoon.

Heavy reliance on artillery, the threat of which drove soldiers twelve feet down into trenches, depleted German artillery stockpiles within the first two months of the war. It also exacerbated the nitrate shortage Germany suffered as a result of Britain’s control of trade routes with Chile. Gunpowder is made with nitric acid, which Germany had previously imported from Chile’s mines.

Without Fritz Haber’s discovery of nitrogen fixation, in 1909, Germany might have been forced to surrender only a few months into the war.

Employed for the first time on an industrial scale in 1913, Haber’s process supplied a foundation for the subsequent manufacture of nitric acid, which resolved Germany’s dependence on the mines in Chile for artillery. By May 1915, Germany was producing 150 tons of nitrate per day. Speaking before the kaiser, one chemist explained Haber’s process of breaking the triple bonds between nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere, allowing nitrogen and hydrogen atoms to bond, as taking fertilizer from the air. By applying enormous amounts of pressure and heat, which threatened the stability of his steel equipment, Haber bonded nitrogen and hydrogen almost irreversably. The ammonia that resulted from the reaction was later converted into either nitric acid, used for munitions during the war, or ammonium sulfate, used after the war for fertilizer.

The large-scale manufacture of inorganic fertilizers was born of this need for explosives. The large-scale production of both was made possible, however, by the physical and corporate infrastructure that already existed in Germany, a leader in the synthetic-dye industry.

In 1856, the British chemist W.H. Perkin inaugurated the industrial manufacture of dyes with his serendipitous discovery of the synthetic organic dye mauveine. Named for the wild mallow flower, mauveine represented man’s ability to produce colors found in nature. Of the people’s sudden in­terest in mauveine, the following was recorded in Charles Dickens’s periodical All the Year Round: “purple hands wave from open carriages—purple hands shake each other at street doors—purple hands threaten each other from opposite sides of the street.” Synthetic dyes were cheap, simple to apply, and offered consistent quality. Control of the manufacturing process meant the dyes could be easily replicated. By analyzing the chemical structure of certain dyes, soon the chemist could create colors not found in nature.

Germany quickly became the world leader in the production of dyestuffs. (Prior to 1877, lack of patent laws had allowed German companies to manufacture dyes discovered by other countries.) By 1878, Germany was responsible for 60 percent of the worldwide market; by 1913, 80 percent. It produced forty tons of chlorine per day before the war, for use as a bleaching agent, and for the manufacture of paper, textiles, and dyestuffs.

When war broke out, Germany had an invaluable source for the synthetic nitrates needed to maintain the country’s artillery stockpiles, and an established industrial infrastructure to efficiently mass-produce the chemicals needed for gas warfare. World War I fueled the consolidation of resources, and, in 1925, the major chemical companies of BASF, Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa, Griesheim-Elektron, and Weiler Ter Meer combined to form I. G. Farben, the dye-industry conglomerate that patented Zyklon B and whose constituents worked with Haber to ensure the effective delivery of chlorine gas at Ypres.

The Germans and the French had tried other gases, mostly lachrymators like xylyl bromide and chloroacetone. Six months prior to Ypres, at Neuve Chapelle, on October 27, 1914, the Germans fired three thousand rounds of 105 mm howitzer projectiles filled with black shrapnel embedded in dianisi­dine chlorosulphonate, a chemical derived from an azo dye intermediate, which caused violent sneezing.

Due to poor dispersal, the enemy failed to notice its presence.

Cold temperatures at the Battle of Bolimov, on January 31, 1915, caused vapors from a stock of eighteen thousand tear-gas shells to freeze and fall into the field.

Germany used tear gas again in March 1915, at Verdun and Nieu­port; in response, the French ordered ninety thousand goggles and more engins suffocants (hand grenades).

Finally, on April 22, 1915, at 1730, the German troops stationed at Ypres opened 5,700 cylinders of chlorine gas. A white cloud rose, six feet tall, becoming greenish yellow, and spread west, by a light wind, at a rate of one mile per hour. “What follows almost defies description,” field marshal Sir John D. P. French later stated. “Smoke and fumes hid every­thing from sight, and hundreds of men were thrown into a comatose or dying condition, and within an hour the whole position had to be abandoned, together with  about fifty guns.”

To cross the four-mile gap the gas left in the Allied lines, German soldiers stepped over dead bodies gnarled in protective embraces; other soldiers had forced their faces into the earth in an attempt to breathe through it.


Chlorine causes suffocation by stripping the lining of the lungs and bronchial tubes. Fluid from the inflammation fills the windpipe and lungs, if the lungs have not been ruptured by violent coughing. This is death by drowning, resulting from the body’s attempt to protect the throat. Some reports claimed as many as thirteen thousand gas-related casualties at Ypres, though in many cases the cause of death was difficult to determine. “It burned my throat, caused pains in my chest and made breathing all but impossible. I spat blood and suffered dizziness,” one French soldier said. “We all thought we were lost.”

After hearing of the Ypres gas attack, England’s Daily Mail called on women to gather cotton pads and send them in satchels made of muslin. Soaked in sodium hyposulphite, the pads were deemed ineffective when dry and were unable to be breathed through when wet. Black netting was added soon after in order to hold the thiosulphate-soaked pad in place over the mouth. This was the Black Veil Respirator. Soldiers wearing them in photographs appear gagged; the respirator failed. Woven fabrics proved more absorbent than the pads, and, in case of an emergency, one physiologist advised, one ought to breathe moist earth through a bottle with no ­bottom.

Even before the Black Veil was issued, work had begun on the Hypo helmet, named for the thiosulphate-soaked Viyella fabric, “the first branded fabric in the world,” soaked also in bicarbonate of soda, and, for comfort, glycerine. Picture a whoopee cushion made of wool and cotton and fitted with a rectangular plastic window, and that was pulled over the head and tucked into the collar. Carbon dioxide gathered in the hollows of the cheeks and ­under the chin.

On May 2, 1915, the night before Haber’s return to Ypres, his wife shot herself with his army pistol. Their son Hermann would commit suicide in 1946. Other relatives would die in the gas chambers, inhaling the hydrogen cyanide of Zyklon B, modeled on the insecticide Zyklon A, whose development Haber oversaw for the treatment of moths in flour mills and for the treatment of lice on soldiers. As a result of Haber’s use of nitrates for munitions, and the subsequent growth of the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing industry, the organic carbon in soil was depleted. To restore a sense of nationalism after the war, in the spring of 1920 Haber employed chemists to extract gold from the ocean to cover his country’s debt; however, when it was found he had inadvertently introduced gold from the surrounding environment, Haber’s initial measurements of the precious metal in water were proved inaccurate. “But now the war, with its dreadful images and constant demands on all my powers, has made me calmer,” Haber wrote after his wife’s suicide.


To behold and not behold something suggests that what is seen is not an end but a means—as any attempt to justify an experience is just another experience.

No longer did the soldier target a body as a system of sites in which a bullet might lodge. To elim­inate the enemy, one altered what sustained him. This shift in the conceptualization of killing created a distance between cause and effect, between one’s values and actions. Thus, a soldier might not immediately or definitively witness the result of his opening the gas canisters. As a result, personal responsibility became difficult to ascertain. The implications of one’s actions could be untraceable, could go on indefinitely. In other words, it is difficult to determine where one action ended and another began.


The gas mask must have felt like a second face that muted the soldier’s expression, hindered his ability to stage a response to the offense and thereby  to reaffirm his sense of humanity in the presence of his company. Made to protect a soldier from external threats, the mask determined his more-immediate sphere of existence, exacerbated an already present sense of alienation, incited fear, and made him feel as though he was not capable of affecting others. “The symptomology of gas poisoning is so complex,” claimed one officer, “and at the same time so indefinite.” Speaking before a group of German officers, Haber explained how battles are won “not through the physical destruction of the enemy, but rather because of imponderables of the soul that, at the decisive moment, undermine his ability to resist and cause him to imagine defeat.” To obtain more information, to identify the particular threat, a sentry could take a fatally long time tasting a gas.

A gas cloud represents the externalization of the soldier’s senses: that is the site of hindered breathing; that is the body set apart from the self. In 1915, Haber’s chlorine cloud bleached the battlefield yellow. On patrolling no-man’s-land at Ypres that winter, one intelligence officer looked across the fields and recalled “the ploughman driving his share,” “the windmills with their swinging sails,” then added, as if in afterthought, “there is no sound as we kneel.” 

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