New film tells forgotten history of how small Polish village became site for the first mass use of chemical weapons

Director Ireneusz Skruczaj said: “Clouds of Death is a film about memory and its guardians. A story about trauma, forgetting and truth. An account of the perversion of science in the service of mass murder.” Press materials

After the artillery barrage had stopped, the silence was pierced by a hissing sound as thousands of gas cylinders released their deadly cargo.

A poisonous cloud formed and moved towards the enemy trench line. Panicked soldiers dived for cover not aware that the deadliest concentrations were closest to the ground.

After the cloud had lifted and the German soldiers arrived, they were met with the gruesome sight of convulsing bodies struggling for a breath of air.

In January 1915, the German high command sent a special, recently formed sapper regiment to Bolimów situated between Łódź and Warsaw, where they fired 18,000 shells filled with Xylyl bromide, or tear gas.Obłoki Śmierci - Bolimów 1915/Facebook

This scene of a chemical weapon attack during the First World War was not from Ypres in France but Bolimów between Łódź and Warsaw.

For this was where the first mass attack using poison gas took place when the Germans tried to break the Russian trench lines.

While chemical weapons were first used when the Germans fired 3,000 shells filled with toxic gas against British troops at Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914,  the attack at Bolimów using 18,000 shells was the first mass attack using posion gas.

Though Poland was not on the map in 1915, many of the victims were Polish as they filled the ranks of both sides.

Obłoki Śmierci - Bolimów 1915/Facebook

After the cloud had lifted and the German soldiers arrived, they were met with the gruesome sight of convulsing bodies struggling for a breath of air.Obłoki Śmierci - Bolimów 1915/Facebook

A new documentary film telling the story of this almost forgotten episode of the carnage of the twentieth century will be released in cinemas at the beginning of November.

In 1915, the war had come to a standstill on both the western and the eastern fronts. The Polish State was not on the map of Europe at that time. On its territory the mighty armies of the three partitioning powers - the Russian Empire, the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire - clashed.

In the autumn of 1914 The First War came to a standstill. The enemy armies dug in on the Western and Eastern fronts.

In mid-May 1915, the Germans once again decided to use chemical weapons on the same section of the front. This time they would use a much more deadly gas, chlorine, which they would release straight from the cylinder.Obłoki Śmierci - Bolimów 1915/Facebook

The Germans implemented a scientific solution, loading chemical shells into the guns. They hoped that this would allow them to break through the Russian line and reach Warsaw.

In January 1915, the German high command sent a special, recently formed sapper regiment to the Bolimów area, which fired 18,000 shells filled with Xylyl bromide, or tear gas.

The results were not as expected. In the low winter temperatures, the gas did not expand properly, and many of the shells got stuck in deep snow not releasing their poison.

Though Poland was not on the map in 1915, many of the victims were Polish as they filled the ranks of both sides.Public domain

Even if there was an explosion, contact with the snow made it difficult for the gas to evaporate. The gas irritated the skin and eyes, and its inhalation led to swelling of the upper airways. It could cause drowsiness, headache and dizziness, muscle cramps and, under certain conditions, agitation or a state similar to narcosis.

The attack did not cause wide-scale death, but it remains a footnote in history as the first mass gas attack.

In mid-May 1915, the Germans once again decided to use chemical weapons on the same section of the front. This time they would use a much more deadly gas, chlorine, which they would release straight from the cylinder.

The material for these attacks came from the work of the brilliant German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, who believed that his terrible inventions would shorten wars and therefore save lives.Public domain

In this ‘wave attack’ the gas would be carried to the enemy by wind. Chlorine had the advantage that, being heavier than air, it was well suited for penetrating trenches. If absorbed in large quantities, it could cause death.

On 31 May at 2.45 a.m. chlorine from 12,000 cylinders was released.

Though not as effective as the German high command hoped the wind was too strong, the Russian losses were 1,200 killed and 3,100 wounded.

Fifty-six Germans were also poisoned by the gas.

During the First World War, Poles were forced to serve in the armies of Germany, Russia and Austria.Press materials

Later, in June, there was a third attack. After a sustained artillery barrage, the release of gas began. However, due to a sudden change of wind direction, the valves were turned off after only 5 minutes. In this short time, one in three of the 4 500 cylinders had already been emptied.

The German command eventually gave up on using gas to break the line and finally achieved a breakthrough using conventional techniques later in the year.

The material for these attacks came from the work of the brilliant German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, who believed that his terrible inventions would shorten wars and therefore save lives.

Over three million Poles fought in those days, more than half a million died and around 800 000 were wounded, often in fratricidal fighting.Press materials

After the war, he developed a new pesticide called Zyklon A, which his student Bruno Tesch would refine to produce Zyklon B.

Clouds of Death - Bolimów 1915 is a project of passion by the director Ireneusz Skruczaj, a local of the Bolimów region.

He received no funding from traditional sources, and making the film was only possible thanks to the passion of him and his team to tell the story. Many involved in the making of the film worked for free.

Clouds of Death - Bolimów 1915 is a project of passion by the director Ireneusz Skruczaj, a local of the Bolimów region.Press materials

Skruczaj and his team needed five years to make the film and the project hung in the balance several times due to a lack of cash. An appeal on fundraising site PolakPotrafi.pl got them over the finish line.

At a press screening last week Skruczaj said “Clouds of Death is a film about memory and its guardians. A story about trauma, forgetting and truth. An account of the perversion of science in the service of mass murder.”

He was keen to stress that while Poland was not a country in 1915, the events at Bolimów have a strong Polish angle.

“People say the First World War was not a Polish war, because there was no Poland then, but they fought on both sides, conscripted into the German, Russian and Austrian armies,” he said.

Obłoki Śmierci - Bolimów 1915/Facebook

Skruczaj and his team needed five years to make the film and the project hung in the balance several times due to a lack of cash. An appeal on fundraising site PolakPotrafi.pl got them over the finish line.Obłoki Śmierci - Bolimów 1915/Facebook

During the First World War, Poles were forced to serve in the armies of Germany, Russia and Austria.

Over three million Poles fought in those days, more than half a million died and around 800 000 were wounded, often in fratricidal fighting.

Clouds of Death – Bolimów 1915 will open in cinemas in Poland on 5 November 2021.