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German Chemists Invent a Lifeline

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 84th installment in the series.

September 9, 1913: Germany’s Lifeline, the Haber-Bosch Process

Saltpeter, the active ingredient in gunpowder, is actually a group of chemically similar compounds such as potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate, whose common component can be guessed from their names: nitrogen. Until the early 20th century these nitrate compounds, which are also key ingredients in fertilizer, could only be found in big amounts in natural deposits, the largest of which were found in South America. But on the eve of the Great War, German chemists discovered a way to synthesize nitrates artificially – a momentous achievement that allowed Germany to fight on for four long years after its overseas sources of nitrates were cut off by the British blockade.

At first glance it might seem easy to find nitrogen, since it is a very common element, making up just over 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere. But even though it’s in the air we breathe, atmospheric nitrogen is so stable when bonded to itself in a “diatomic” state (N2) that it just won’t react with other chemicals under ordinary conditions – in short, you can’t do anything with it because there’s no way to get it out of the air. And that was how it stayed until German scientists, armed with the resources of the world’s most advanced industrial state, applied themselves to the problem. 

By the turn of the 20th century Germany was the undisputed world leader in the new chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing industries, the legacy of Prussia’s early lead in industrial production of dyes. Not coincidentally, Germany also led Europe in electricity production, which fueled the new industries. These factors converged in 1909, when the German chemist Fritz Haber figured out how to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen using large amounts of energy under very high pressures.

By raising the pressure to around 200 atmospheres, boosting the temperature to 450 degrees Celsius, and using iron as a catalyst, Haber was able to trigger a reaction in which one molecule of atmospheric nitrogen (N2) split and recombined with three molecules of atmospheric hydrogen (3 H2) to form two molecules of ammonia (2 NH3). Then, using a separate process developed by Wilhelm Ostwald in 1902, the ammonia could be converted to nitric acid (HNO3), which can in turn be used to produce nitrate compounds.

Executives from BASF immediately grasped the huge potential of the discovery when Haber demonstrated the process for making ammonia them in 1909: aside from the whole munitions issue, the Haber process stood to revolutionize fertilizer manufacturing and make agriculture more productive. Playing for high stakes, BASF went all in, wagering its financial future on the invention.

Making a Lot of the Ammonia You Buy Better

After buying the formula from Haber, BASF turned to another chemist, Carl Bosch, to figure out how to begin producing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen on an industrial scale. After four years of work (and a very substantial investment in facilities and equipment, including high-pressure, high-temperature blast furnaces) on September 9, 1913, a BASF plant in Oppau, Germany, began producing ammonia at the rate of several tons per day, increasing to 20 tons per day by the following year. During the war the German government frantically scaled up capacity to an awesome 500,000 tons of ammonia per year, although actual production was only about half this.

While the Haber-Bosch Process lengthened the Great War by enabling Germany to fight on, its benefits for humanity are undeniable. Currently it is estimated that about half the protein in our bodies is made up of nitrogen fixed using the Haber-Bosch Process, while one third of the planet’s population depends for most of its nutrition on food grown using artificial fertilizers produced with the process. Haber and Bosch both eventually received Nobel prizes for their work (Haber in 1918, Bosch in 1931).

Of course, even when intended for a good purpose, nitrates can be incredibly dangerous: on September 21, 1921 a giant explosion leveled a large part of the Oppau plant (pictured above, after the explosion), killing 600 people and leaving a massive crater on the site.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: The British Capture Jerusalem
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 296th installment in the series.

December 11, 1917: The British Capture Jerusalem

Located in the western Judean hills, Jerusalem’s strategic importance was exceeded only by its symbolic value as the ancient capital of the Holy Land, revered by three faiths and home to religious shrines including the Dome of the Rock, Western Wall, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Possession of the city would open the way to northern Palestine and Syria for the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force—but its loss would be an even bigger blow to Ottoman prestige.

Indian artillery in World War I
Library of Congress // Public Domain

After conquering Gaza in early November 1917, General Edmund Allenby decided to move on Jerusalem at once. The EEF pushed the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth Armies back at the Battle of Mughar Ridge on November 3, followed by the Battle of Nebi Samwil from November 17-24. The initial British efforts to capture Jerusalem failed, however, primarily due to a lack of heavy artillery as well as inclement weather. Oskar Teichman, a British medical officer, noted the challenging conditions when crossing a seasonal stream, or wadi, around this time:

On reconnoitering, we found the Warwicks crossing a swollen wadi, which had washed away the railway, and whose presence could not be discovered, as it was part of a great lake, until a horseman, who was riding through 2 or 3 feet of water, became suddenly submerged. It was an extraordinary sight: Several horses were swimming, and also men, some of the former disappearing altogether and being drowned in the swift current … On consulting my map, it was discovered that that the wadi in question was described as dry!

The British laboriously brought up artillery over muddy roads while holding off continuous Turkish counterattacks that attempted to recapture the village. On December 7, 1917, the British returned to the attack, prompting the Turks to withdraw from Jerusalem—forever, as it turned out—on the night of December 8. The Spanish consul in Jerusalem, the Conde de Ballobar, described the sad scenes as the beaten Turkish army evacuated the city:

The poor Turkish soldiers! The injured men that were passing by in front of my house were on foot, holding their wounds with their hands, full of blood, haggard. An officer came by on horseback with his arm bandaged and his body sustained by three soldiers on foot. The officer’s face expressed the most horrible suffering. He, just as the soldiers and wounded, went with his head down and looking sad, very sad.

Later the withdrawal turned into a chaotic race to leave the city, according to Ballobar. "I went back to the consulate, witnessing scenes of panic that cannot be described: Officers were running their horses at a gallop, soldiers as fast as their legs would carry them, women and children crying out loud,” he wrote. The inhabitants of the holy city didn’t comport themselves particularly well during the period of nonexistent government that followed, he noted:

The instincts of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were palpably shown. Everything that was capable of being stolen was disappearing into the hands of thieves of every caste, religion, and nationality that was swarming around there. Telegraph wire, half-destroyed cars, wood, old cans, etc. The scene was not very uplifting. From one of the balconies of the Hotel Kaminitz I saw an armoire being lowered down by ropes. And the Turkish police were watching all this without turning a hair.

On December 9, the city’s civilian mayor, hoping to prevent damage to its holy places and artifacts, visited Allenby under a white flag of truce and officially invited the British to enter. On December 11, Allenby, a savvy politician and diplomat as well as a skillful general, humbly entered Jerusalem on foot, instead of on horseback, to show respect as well as to convey the fact that the British didn’t view the inhabitants as conquered enemies, but rather victims of Turkish oppression. He immediately moved to reassure Jerusalemites that their lives, and the city’s treasures, would be protected:

Lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption. Furthermore, since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of these three religions for many centuries, therefore, do I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.

View of Jerusalem, 1917
The New York Times photo archive, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The people of Jerusalem, having endured Turkish misrule as well as hunger and disease over the last three years, naturally greeted the British as liberators, Ballobar wrote in his diary:

And here one can apply all the wildly enthusiastic phrases that the newspapers utilize on grand occasions. Really, I have never seen a popular enthusiasm so spontaneous and great. Every British soldier that passed by was followed and escorted by a throng of admirers that touched his uniform, caressed his horse, talked to him in all the languages of the Orient and admired him like a hero … The balconies were full of people. Many people were hugging each other in the street, others were mutually congratulating each other and all were walking around in their best clothes.

The fall of Jerusalem was a huge propaganda win for the British and their allies, with Prime Minister David Lloyd George memorably describing it as a “Christmas present for the British people.” Meanwhile T.E. Lawrence, who happened to be visiting Allenby’s headquarters when Jerusalem was captured, was embarrassed that the Arab Army hadn’t participated in the battles or liberation of the holy city, and vowed that the next time, at Damascus, the Arabs wouldn’t be bystanders, noting: “The ceremony of the Jaffa Gate gave me a new determination.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: Horror in Halifax
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 295th installment in the series.

December 6, 1917: Horror in Halifax

In addition to all the deliberate destruction, the First World War generated enormous collateral damage in the form of accidents, usually resulting from the movement of large numbers of people and dangerous material in unfamiliar environments—plus a lack of safety precautions that would be considered truly shocking by modern standards.

One of the worst accidents of the entire war occurred far from the European war zone, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an important stopover for cargo ships carrying munitions from factories in Canada and the United States to Europe.

Around 8:45 a.m. on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship packed with explosives and high-octane fuel, the Mont-Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium in Halifax Harbor (below, the Imo after the blast). The collision started a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, which quickly grew out of control. Twenty minutes later the deadly cargo ignited, unleashing a blast of phenomenal power, estimated to be equivalent to around 2.9 kilotons, or about a fifth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A ship involved in the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The explosion completely destroyed Halifax’s Richmond district, killing approximately 2000 people and injuring 9000 more. The strength of the blast was illustrated by the fact that a 3-ton anchor was thrown a distance of 2 miles, while a sailor’s decapitated head is said to have smashed church windows 1.5 miles away. A tidal wave created by the explosion killed every member of a community of Mi’kmaq people, a local First Nations tribe.

Barbara Orr recalled growing panic as the fire spread aboard the Mont-Blanc in plain view of people on shore who were helpless to stop it, followed by the cataclysm, then darkness and a huge wall of water:

It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst—but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen. Suddenly the explosion went off. … I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness … There was this tidal wave—it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbor. Well, this tidal wave … took a lot of people back into the harbor on the way down … but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way.

A cloud formed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

Another victim, Ethel Mitchel, was at home when the blast destroyed most of the structure:

When mother went down she was on the stairs when the explosion occurred. The cellar stairs were below the stairs going up to our rooms. The stairs, carpet and all went to the basement with mother on top of them. She was horribly cut. All I know is that this deafening roar occurred and the windows, both the windows went out towards the door on each side of me, and my cat was at the foot of the bed, killed. And yet I was not touched. I was totally unhurt. I was in that only corner of the house that was intact. Now here is the amazing thing. The stairs were taken completely away. How did I get down from that room to the next floor? I had glass in the soles of my feet, from running across the room. If I had jumped I would have gone right to the basement. And nobody knows yet how I got down. But I was found later sitting on a biscuit box way over on a corner, at the grocery store. Yes, and I had a man’s overcoat on, it didn’t belong to us, I don't know where I got it, and a man’s boots on, and nobody knows where I got them. Somebody recognized me, and took me back home.

Destruction resulting from the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The disaster—still considered one of the worst maritime shipping accidents ever—gave ordinary people a taste of the horror of war, and soldiers a disturbing preview. Two weeks after the explosion, Briggs K. Adams, an American soldier who stopped in Halifax en route to Europe, wrote home on December 22, 1917:

We all read about the disaster at Halifax, but you had to see it to form any conception of how terrible it must have been. At the farther distances, just windows and chimneys were broken; nearer, roofs and walls were caved in, and then in the immediate area, a whole hillside was stripped as flat as if it had been raked, not even heaps of wreckage—everything level. It must have been incredibly terrific.

The Canadian government hurried to first deliver tents and then build temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless in the middle of winter, while concerned citizens across the U.S. and Canada donated huge amounts of food, clothing, and other necessities for the victims. However, major reconstruction efforts would continue until 1922, and a number of factories destroyed in the disaster were never rebuilt, leaving many unemployed.

Halifax Memorial bell tower
Jesse David Hollington // CC BY 2.0

Today the disaster is commemorated by the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (above). The memorial recreates the appearance of a wrecked house; the bells were donated by Orr, who lost her entire family in the blast, including her parents and five siblings.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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