Throughout 2014, historians were kept busy by the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Now we're in 2015, many people are wondering what happened exactly a century ago. Among 1915's historical milestones were the beginning of large-scale chemical warfare; the arrest of William Sanger; the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan; the Vanceboro Bridge bombing; and Yuan Shikai's failed attempt to make himself the emperor of China.

By the end of 1914, both the Allied Powers (principally France, Great Britain and its Empire, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) had lost hundreds of thousands of soliders, and the conflict had degenerated into static yet costly trench warfare. Yet The Great War was soon to take an even more horrifying turn. 

Poison gas debuts in World War I

Chemical warfare is now so rare as to be shocking. When the United Nations confirmed that sarin, a nerve gas, had likely been used in Syria on five occasions between March 19 and August 25, 2013, outrage in Western nations made it seem likely that the USA and UK would launch air strikes against the Syrian government.

In the first few weeks of World War I, the French Army used tear gas against German ground units, but it proved ineffective. On January 2, 1915, the German Army attacked British positions with chlorine, a gas which isn't poisonous as such but which can cause death by asphyxiation and severe injury because, when it comes into contact with water, it turns into an acid. The first large-scale use of chlorine came that spring, during the Second Battle of Ypres. German soldiers carried 5,730 gas cylinders, each weighing around 40kg, to the frontline, then opened them when the signal was given. The prevailing wind blew the gas westward, toward positions held by North African soldiers in the French Army, yet more than a few of the German troops died or were incapacitated by the chlorine. Allied survivors spoke of a  greenish-yellow mist which rolled across the countryside and quickly killed around 5,000 of the French colonial troops. The others abandoned their positions, leaving a gap in the Allied defenses which the Germans were unable to take advantage of because they hadn't expected the gas attack to be nearly so effective.

Soldiers in gas masksCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Although they had signed the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, both of which prohibited the use of "poison or poisoned weapons" on the battlefield, Germany, France and Great Britain set about devising more potent chemical weapons. For the remainder of the war, phosgene and mustard gas were everyday weapons as the two sides try to break the trench deadlock. Phosgene, a gas which smells somewhat like freshly-mown grass, was later used by the Japanese Army in China during World War II. Mustard gas became notorious for the horrific blistering it caused on those who came into contact with even tiny amounts; many victims took weeks to die. However, because of improvements to gas masks (like those worn by the soldiers pictured above), chemical warfare became less deadly as the war ground on. According to some estimates, around 4% of those killed in combat on the Western Front died because they were gassed.

War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda
Amazon Price: $18.95 $7.81 Buy Now
(price as of Nov 26, 2016)

William Sanger goes to jail

Margaret Higgins Sanger (1879-1966) is remembered as the woman who brought the term "birth control" into everyday language, and who fought hard so women could have access to contraception. She faced powerful opposition in the form of conservative politicians and the US Postal Service, which had the power to refuse to handle "obscene materials" (a category deemed to include contraceptive information and devices, as well as sex toys and pornography).

In 1914, Margaret Sanger was indicted for sending leaflets containing detailed contraceptive information through the mail. Before her trial, she fled to Canada and then onto the United Kingdom, where she visited like-minded individuals such as Havelock Ellis. Ellis was an extremely interesting person in his own right: A pioneer in the field of transgender studies, he married a woman he and everyone else knew to be a lesbian, and suffered from impotence until the age of 60!

By early 1915, Margaret Sanger's marriage to William Sanger was breaking down, but her husband remained a devoted supporter of the birth-control cause. William was arrested for distributing one of his wife's publications, convicted of an obscenity offense, and jailed for 30 days. His trial and punishment generated a great deal of publicity and a surge of support for Margaret Sanger's ideas. The following year she opened the first birth-control clinic in the USA. She again ran into legal trouble, but by the end of 1918 court rulings were beginning to shift to her favor. Nonetheless, contraception remains an emotional issue in the US, as seen by the outcry in 2012 when, following the implementation of President Barack Obama's health-care reforms ("ObamaCare"), it appeared Catholic institutions would be forced to cover the birth-control costs of those they insured.

Natural Birth Control Made Simple
Amazon Price: $17.95 $1.95 Buy Now
(price as of Nov 26, 2016)

Racists reform the Ku Klux Klan

Just as Mel Gibson's 1995 epic Braveheart gave Scottish nationalism a shot in the arm, a smash-hit movie helped revive the notoriously racist Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The Birth of a Nation, made by D. W. Griffith, depicted the original KKK as Southern heroes. 

The KKK was first established in 1865 by ex-soldiers who'd fought for the losing Confederate side in the just-ended US Civil War. They hoped to reverse reforms enacted after the Civil War which gave black Americans far greater politicial and social rights. Klansmen showed a willingness to do this "by any means necessary" (to use one of Malcolm X's best-known phrases). KKK members also attacked "carpetbaggers" - businesspeople who moved to the South after the Civil War to take advantage of economic opportunities - Roman Catholics, and supporters of the Republican party. For various reasons, the KKK was fading fast by 1872, although lynchings and other forms of gross discrimination blighted the lives of African Americans in the South for decades.

The KKK was dormant until The Birth of a Nation began playing to packed theaters more than forty years later. Commercially, it was one of the most, if not the most, successful film made in the silent era, even though Griffith went massively overbudget. He spent US$112,000 on the production, but more than recouped this by charging moviegoers an unprecedented US$2 each. Within months of the movie's opening, men in the Atlanta area had recreated the Klan. Soon they'd agreed on the famous hooded white uniform, initiation ceremonies and code words. Throughout the 1920s they burned crosses and held parades intended to intimidate non-whites and non-Protestants. They also helped enforce Prohibition, often using violence against bootleggers and drinking establishments. By 1926, there were KKK branches throughout the continental USA plus a few in Canada.

The reestablished KKK also hated Jews. Anti-semitism in the South was nothing new, as obvious from the lynching of Leo Frank in 1913. Frank, a Jewish New Yorker, had been convicted of murdering a teenage girl working at the Atlanta factory where he was a superintendant. After his death sentence was commuted by Georgia Governor John M. Slaton, on the grounds the conviction was perhaps unsafe, a mob removed Frank from jail and hanged him from a tree.

The movie is now in the public domain and can be viewed on YouTube. Here's a trailer:

A German saboteur bombs a bridge in Maine

The Vanceboro Bridge Bombing is one of the less well-known episodes of World War I, which isn't surprising because no one was hurt and the damage wasn't significant. It occurred in a place which even today has fewer than 150 residents. Yet it's a curious event, in part because of the identity of the instigator.

In 1915, the USA had yet to enter the Great War. It wasn't until April 2, 1917 that President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany following the sinking of several US-flagged merchant ships. But from the outset of the war in Europe, the Germans paid great attention to North America. They were keenly aware that shipments of materials from the USA and Canada were crucial to the Allied war effort, and did their best to disrupt supplies. The German Embassy in Washington DC was given a slush fund with which they purchased goods and raw materials, simply to stop the British or French benefiting from them.Franz Von PapenCredit: Wikimedia Commons

The Vanceboro Bridge Bombing was a more direct attempt to undermine the Allies, an attack on the main rail link between Montreal and Saint John in New Brunswick, from where merchantmen set out for Western Europe. Canada, being part of the British Empire, was already at war with Germany. The Canadian authorities, therefore, were guarding the railroad. However, the railway takes a shortcut through the US state of Maine, and it was here that the mastermind behind the bombing, Franz von Papen (1879-1969; pictured here), decided to strike. Von Papen was the military attache at the German Embassy, and if his name is familiar, it's on account of his later political career. Von Papen became Germany's vice chancellor (deputy prime minister) in early 1933, naively believing he could manipulate Adolf Hitler, who had just risen to the chancellorship. Within a year and a half, von Papen had been forced out. The Nazis were in complete control of the government, and Europe was headed for disaster. Just after World War II, Von Papen was a defendant at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, but he was found not guilty of "conspiracy to commit crimes against peace" and released.

Von Papen chose Oberleutenant Werner Horn for the mission. Horn, a reserve officer in Germany's army, was running a Guatemalan coffee plantation when war broke out. He contacted the German Embassy for assistance returning to his homeland so he could rejoin his unit, but instead was given the job of placing a bomb on the railroad bridge at Vanceboro, in northeastern Maine and within sight of the Canadian border. Pretending to be a Danish citizen, Horn traveled to Maine in late January and eventually placed the explosive device on a freezing evening. It went off at 1.10am on February 2, 1915, waking townsfolk and breaking windows, but not causing serious damage to the bridge.

Horn was arrested within hours and served 18 months in jail after pleading guilty to transporting explosives on a vehicle also carrying passengers. After the end of the war, he was extradited to Canada and received a ten-year prison sentence (it seems the "double jeopardy" principle" didn't apply). However, after less than two years in Canada he was declared insane and sent back to Germany.

In China, an attempt to revive the empireTemple of HeavenCredit: Wikimedia Commons

As anyone who's seen Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 movie The Last Emperor knows, China's ancient system of dynastic rule came crashing down in the winter of 1911-1912 when the final head of the Qing Dynasty, the infant Puyi, was deposed and the Republic of China (ROC) was established. Puyi wasn't quite three years old when he became emperor, and just six years and five days old when his abdication was forced on the imperial court. Later in life he became a puppet ruler for the Japanese then in control of northeastern China. As "emperor of Manchukuo" he reigned from 1934 to 1945. This collaboration led to a ten-year jail sentence for war crimes, served in Chinese Communist prisons. He died in 1967.

However, in a sense Puyi wasn't China's final emperor. Yuan Shikai (sometimes spelled Yuan Shih-kai) attempted to bring back imperial government in 1915 with himself as supreme ruler. Yuan is a major figure in late 19th-century/early 20th-century Chinese history. A general, he helped engineer the removal of Puyi from the throne in return for the presidency of the ROC. Yuan succeeded the ROC's first president, Sun Yat-sen, and was sworn in on March 10, 1912. By 1915 he was manipulating politicians and newspapers to make it appear as if public opinion favored a return to monarchy because democratic government was proving ineffective.

In preparation, Yuan spent scarce government money on robes, porcelain and other trappings of office. He planned to conduct the traditional accession rites at Beijing's Temple of Heaven (pictured here) on January 1, 1916, but a groundswell of opposition - including armed uprisings in places - forced him to postpone and then abandon his imperial dreams. He died that summer, and China's political instability continued until the 1949 Communist takeover.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of China
Amazon Price: $49.99 $31.98 Buy Now
(price as of Nov 26, 2016)