Earth, Wind & … Gas! The Western Front (and Charles Foulkes) at war with the elements

By Dr Manuela Pallotto Strickland | Metadata and Digital Preservation Coordinator

There is a certain, peculiar, elemental materiality in a war, which is not only made of the blood of those who perish, nor is it just shaped by the weapons used in the battles – by their odours, their residues. Rather, it comes from the natural world that pre-existed and survived the overall devastation. World War One was a war of air and earth, better still, of wind and mud. The impact of the ever-changeable atmospheric conditions on both the offensive and defensive warfare on the Western Front is still difficult to gauge without a brave imaginative effort, a sympathetic look into written and visual accounts left by army personnel, of deep trenches, dug and secured into the ground, which turned over night into a grid of shallow canals of liquid mud, spoiled miniatures of rivers where rats, not fish, swam freely. Mud was the matter that shaped the core vocabulary describing most activities going on in the trenches, variations on the main theme of digging (and digging out).

Soldiers in trenches, Western Front, c1915. Foulkes 6/86.

Coeval meteorological accounts agreed on defining the years 1914 and 1915 as exceptionally wet; the question ‘Why is it raining so much?’ was publicly asked, and the answer ‘Maybe it is because of the war’ was occasionally given,[i] albeit with some incredulity at connecting the un-connectable: weather and mortars. The connection between climate and warfare, however, ran deeply. Even though there could hardly ever be any use for brollies at war, the need to assess and control the impact of mutable, and often adverse, atmospheric conditions led, in the UK, to the creation in 1915 of the Meteor Royal Engineers division. Meteorological forecasts, expected to provide useful insights on visibility, atmospheric pressure, and wind speed and direction, turned weather prediction into a source of intelligence informing military strategic plans. Forecasting, however, was still undertaken using observation balloons, the same type of balloons deployed in military aerial reconnaissance activities (spherical balloons, balloon ships, balloon kites), which ultimately depended on the occurrence, and the permanence, of fine weather.[ii] Insofar as the predictions remained based on the direct observation of the current weather and the comparison of current conditions with similar ones detected in the past, forecasting was at the mercy of the very same meteorological factors that were being observed and, therefore, remained relatively serendipitous and experimental in essence.[iii]

Left – French observation balloon, c1915, Foulkes 6/89; Right – Observation balloon, c1899, Hamilton 17/5.

But it was not just because of the impact of the extraordinary rainfall that the armies turned their attention towards the work of meteorologists. As soon as the first, dense, slow-moving, gas clouds were released by the Germans at Ypres during the Spring of 1915, it became clear that the effects of those newly implemented, ‘inhumane’, chemical weapons greatly depended on the whim of the wind, on its temperamental and unfathomable force. Under the command of the Gas Adviser Major General Charles Foulkes (later Director of Gas Services), the Special Brigade observed and studied from behind the trenches the unfolding of the enemy’s first gas clouds.[iv] Internal military documents held in the Foulkes Collection vividly describe the spectacle of the German gas waves slowly approaching from No Man’s Land, unrolling low above the ground under the nudge of the wind, seeking for passages, fissures, and craters to insinuate into, and, thus, roll forward.[v] By analysing the psychological and ‘moral’ impact that, depending on the density, smell, and colour of the cloud, gas appeared to have on the troops, these documents articulate ante litteram phenomenological descriptions recorded on the field, of the impressions left on trench soldiers of the earliest, unfamiliar, manifestations of chemical warfare. The analysis of the experiences thereby described was aptly used to strategically maximise the effect of the allies’ own gas attacks on the enemy; whether by using a mixture of smoke and gas,[vi] or by manipulating its smell and colour, alteration of the gas appearance was generally recommended as a means to deceive the enemy as to what chemicals were being used and, therefore, undermine the effectiveness of their defence.

Copy letter from General William Robertson to General Sir Stanley Von Donop, 1915. Foulkes 6/1

The knowledge thus acquired of the novel chemical weapons proved that natural elements could be put to good use in modern offensive warfare, if accurate predictions of their future behaviour could be obtained. A systematic daily forecasting service was requested by the British army after the battle of Somme in 1916,[vii] when the need for regular weather information became necessary to support the relentless execution of the gas cloud attacks planned by Foulkes, and also to make educated guesses about the enemy’s own chemical plans. Gas released in a cloud needed the push of the wind to be effective, which prevented it from hanging heavily in mid-air over or near the trenches of provenance. In the absence of the long-awaited wind, carefully planned gas attacks had to be abandoned. Pauses in gas cloud discharges due to unfavourable weather conditions could last for months. When the wind rose, knowing in advance the direction in which it was going to blow was critical.[viii] Even with forecasts at hand, though, involuntary self-gassing due to unpredicted changes in the wind’s direction, or leakage after the gas was released from cylinders, remained frequent on both sides of the front. Casualty rates from self-gassing incidents were often as high as rates suffered from enemy’s gas attacks.[ix]

It is not a rhetorical stretch to say that gas clouds were at the mercy of the elements – and so were, indirectly, gas casualties. In the official reports written or signed off by Foulkes, the numerous references to the wind’s behaviour noted next to the enemy’s activities bore no idyllic effect: acting as a capricious character, whimsically indifferent to, and unconcerned by, the strategic plotting of the humans, which, however, it kept unravelling, the wind had to be reported about in detail. As if the erratic and unpredictable behaviour of the wind were not enough, there was also the effect of the heavy rain to be reckoned with. Rain turned the operational activities required to transport the heavy, cumbersome, gas cylinders across the trenches, and securely cast them inside their walls, into helpless routines of ineffective object-manipulations, with the overall wetness, mud, and gravity making it impossible to hold on to the cylinders and keep them in place. In these circumstances, the always present gas leakage could become unmanageable.

Papers relating to the Livens Projector, 1915-1921. Foulkes 6/5.

Despite the evident challenges and obstacles brought about by rain and wind, and although alternative gas-release devices promising to reduce the hazards concomitant to cloud discharge were available and in use, such as the 4’’-Stokes Mortars and the Livens Projectors,[x] gas cylinders remained in Foulkes’ eyes a strategy “most effective for inflicting casualties and by far the most profitable to employ.”[xi] Whether his resolute, wilful, unshakeable advocacy of cloud attack strategically underpinned Foulkes’ aspirational claim of the uniqueness of the Special Brigade’s remit and aimed to justify the creation of a novel 5th Arm[xii] dedicated to gas warfare under his direct command, is difficult to evidence – but it is not hard to speculate on.

In 1962, the War Studies Department of King’s College London was founded by Sir Michael Howard, lecturer in Military Studies and one of England’s foremost military historians. Two years later, Howard established a Centre for Military Archives at King’s to complement the new department. The Centre’s remit was simple: it would collect the papers of senior defence personnel of the twentieth century. The official launch of this archive was timed for 1964, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. In 1973, the archive was renamed the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives in honour of Sir Basil Liddell Hart, whose own extraordinary collection of over 1000 boxes of papers is still the single largest, and one of the most often used, in the LHCMA.

2024 thus marks the LHCMA’s 60th anniversary. In those intervening years we have gathered the personal papers of over 800 senior defence personnel, and we thought this birthday year was a great opportunity to showcase just some of the items from the collection. Every month this year we will be publishing a blog post spotlighting one item or collection chosen by a member of staff. We hope you enjoy celebrating with us!

You can read last month’s post about Admiral Sir Edward Charlton by clicking here.

[i] McAdie, A. (1916). Has the War Affected the Weather? The Atlantic Monthly, September, pp.392-395.

[ii] Military observation balloons activities relied on photography amongst other means, to collect data with geographical and tactical value. Before the war, Foulkes, a proficient photographer himself, strongly advocated for the use of cameras to conduct military reconnaissance (FOULKES 3/2).

[iii] After the war ended, the need for more accurate and reliable predictions eventually led to devising numerical and computational approaches to weather forecast. See Richardson, L.F. (1922). Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[iv] Enemy’s respirators left behind in the trenches were also captured and studied, to test the effects of differently prolonged and sustained gas releases, and accordingly plan the sequences of discharges. The development of gas mask technologies was undertaken in direct response to the experimental use of chemical agents in the enemy’s attacks. Foulke’s detailed account of such evolution shows that the history of warfare can be told from the sole point of view of defence objects, when a narrative is adopted that directly maps offensive weapons to defensive mechanisms. Foulkes’ narrative, however, provides an account of the history of this technology from the point of view of the allies, yielding information only about the chemicals used against the allies by the enemy.

[v] FOULKES 6/2.

[vi] FOULKES 6/2.

[vii] National Meteorological Library and Archive (s.d.). The Met Office in WW1. Ernest Gold and the First Operational Military Forecast 24 October 1916. Online at

[viii] FOULKES 6/21.

[ix] FOULKES 6/4.

[x] FOULKES 6/13 and 6/5.

[xi] FOULKES 6/13 and 6/21.

[xii] FOULKES 6/1.