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Poison Gas in WWI

Poison Gas in WWI


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First Usage of Poison Gas

On April 22, 1915 at 5 p.m. a wave of asphyxiating gas released from cylinders embedded in the ground by German specialist troops smothered the Allied line on the northern end of the Ypres salient, causing panic and a struggle to survive a new form of weapon.

The attack forced two colonial French divisions north of Ypres from their positions, creating a 5-mile gap in the Allied line defending the city. This was the first effective use of poison gas on the Western Front and the debut of Germany’s newest weapon in its chemical arsenal, chlorine gas, which irritated the lung tissue causing a choking effect that could cause death.

A British officer described the effect of the gas on the French colonial soldiers:

“A panic-stricken rabble of Turcos and Zouaves with gray faces and protruding eyeballs, clutching their throats and choking as they ran, many of them dropping in their tracks and lying on the sodden earth with limbs convulsed and features distorted in death.”

There was no technology to protect the soldiers from this new weapon an operational gas mask was not available, so the Allied soldiers improvised with linen masks soaked in water and “respirators” made from lint and tape.

Stunned by their overwhelming outcome of the attack, the Germans tentatively advanced, losing an opportunity to exploit their success.

After this initial use of poison gas, the technology and operational tactics of gas warfare quickly developed and were implemented by the Germans and the Allies throughout the war, including various gases and liquids, practical gas masks and gas alarm equipment. Combatant nations created chemical warfare units and schools to train them in the tactics of offensive and defensive gas warfare.

An archival collection (viewable through the Museum's online collections database) recently acquired by the Museum examines this new warfare from the experience of a German officer and gas school instructor. Kurt Eduard “Fritz” Sabersky was the commanding officer of Sanitary Company 3 of the Prussian Guard Reserve Corps from 1915-16 and then an instructor at the Royal Prussian Army Gas School in Berlin from March 1917 to the end of the war.

  • Sabersky’s identity card for his instructor position
  • Draft of an instructional sheet “Gas Defense in the Trenches” listing instructions to prepare for an attack including “The sentry must also look out for suspicious odors” and “protect the telephone device.”
  • Week long class schedules with subjects including:
    • “artillery gas shooting”
    • “mortar gas shooting”
    • “gas defense weapons
    • “first aid for gas illnesses"
    • “exercises for handling of gas masks and oxygen-protection devices”
    • “weather forecasting on the front” (the air pressure and wind direction were very important measurements to determine the effectiveness of a gas attack)
    • “animal protection"
    • “conduct during an enemy gas attack”
    • “gas drill in the field”

    In one weekly schedule there is a class on “Warfare agents” that discusses gas mixture formulations such as percentage of chlorine to percentage of phosgene and “Tactic for gas emission” discussing with measurements for the optimum length of gas cloud and amount of gas in tons.

    By the end of the war the Germans produced the most poison gas with 68,000 tons, the French second with approximately 36,000 tons and the British produced approximately 25,000 tons. About three percent of gas casualties were fatal, but hundreds of thousands suffered temporary or permanent injuries.

    More than 97 percent of the objects and documents from the Museum’s collection are donated. Learn how you can support the Museum with a donation.


    Gas in The Great War

    Every war brings to the fore a new way of maiming and killing soldiers. Gun powder in the 16th and 17th centuries meant that - finally, sadly - one could eliminate many of his enemies with one agent of offensive effort, an artillery round. Ultimately, in WWII it was demonstrated that a single atomic weapon could kill more than one hundred thousand of the enemy with a single use of a single weapon. While the efficiency of maiming and killing steadily advanced from the 17th to the 20th centuries it accelerated by an order of magnitude in WWI with the use of inhaled poison gasses.

    One of the enduring hallmarks of WWI was the large-scale use of chemical weapons, commonly called, simply, &lsquogas&rsquo. Although chemical warfare caused less than 1% of the total deaths in this war, the &lsquopsy-war&rsquo or fear factor was formidable. Thus, chemical warfare with gases was subsequently absolutely prohibited by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. It has occasionally been used since then but never in WWI quantities. Production of some of these dangerous chemicals continues to this day as they have peaceful uses &ndash for example, phosgene (carbonyl dichloride) is an industrial reagent, a precursor of pharmaceuticals and other important organic compounds.


    Masked soldiers charge through a cloud of gas.

    Several chemicals were weaponized in WWI and France actually was the first to use gas - they deployed tear gas in August 1914. The agent used was either xylyl bromide, which is described as smelling &lsquopleasant and aromatic&rsquo, or ethyl bromoacetate, described as &lsquofruity and pungent.&rsquo Both are colorless liquids and have to be atomized to be dispersed as weapons. As lachrymatory agents, they irritate the eyes and cause uncontrolled tearing. Large doses can cause temporary blindness. If inhaled they also make breathing difficult. Symptoms usually resolve by 30 minutes after contact. Thus, tear gas was never very effective as a weapon against groups of enemy soldiers.

    The German gas warfare program was headed by Fritz Haber (1868 &ndash 1934) whose first try for a weapon was chlorine, which he debuted at Ypres in April 1915. Chlorine is a diatomic gas, about two and a half times denser than air, pale green in color and with an odor which was described as a &lsquomix of pineapple and pepper&rsquo. It can react with water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, which is destructive of tissue and can quickly lead to death, or, at least, permanent lung tissue damage and disability. At lower concentrations, if it does not reach the lungs, per se, it can cause coughing, vomiting, and eye irritation. Chlorine was deadly against unprotected soldiers. It is estimated over 1,100 were killed in its first use at Ypres. Ironically, the Germans weren&rsquot prepared for how effective it would be and were unable to exploit their advantage, gaining little ground.

    Chlorine&rsquos usefulness was short-lived. Its color and odor made it easy to spot, and since chlorine is water-soluble even soldiers without gas masks could minimize its effect by placing water-soaked - even urine-soaked - rags over their mouths and noses. Additionally, releasing the gas in a cloud posed problems, as the British learnt to their detriment when they attempted to use chlorine at Loos. The wind shifted, carrying the gas back onto their own men.

    Phosgene (carbonyl dichloride) was Haber&rsquos next choice, probably used first at Ypres by the Germans in December 1915. Phosgene is a colorless gas, with an odor likened to that of &lsquomusty hay&rsquo, but for the odor to be detectable, the concentration had to be at 0.4 parts per million, or several times the level at which harmful effects occur. Phosgene is highly toxic, due to its ability to react with proteins in the alveoli of the lungs, disrupting the blood-air barrier, leading to suffocation.


    Allied soldiers pose for a picture while wearing their gas masks.

    Phosgene was much more effective and more deadly than chlorine, though one drawback was that the symptoms could sometimes take up to 48 hours to be manifest. The minimal immediate effects are lachrymatory. However, subsequently, it causes build-up of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema), leading to death. It is estimated that as many as 85% of the 91,000 gas deaths in WWI were a result of phosgene or the related agent, diphosgene (trichloromethane chloroformate).

    The most commonly used gas in WWI was &lsquomustard gas&rsquo [bis(2-chloroethyl) sulfide]. In pure liquid form this is colorless, but in WWI impure forms were used, which had a mustard color with an odor reminiscent of garlic or horseradish. An irritant and a strong vesicant (blister-forming agent), it causes chemical burns on contact, with blisters oozing yellow fluid. Initial exposure is symptomless, and by the time skin irritation begins, it is too late to take preventative measures. The mortality rate from mustard gas was only 2-3%, but those who suffered chemical burns and respiratory problems had long hospitalizations and if they recovered were thought to be at higher risk of developing cancers during later life.


    Windswept gas spreads across a battlefield in Europe.

    Chloropicrin, diphenylchlorarsine, American-developed Adamsite (diphenylaminechlorarsine), and others were irritants that could bypass gas masks and make soldiers remove their masks, thus, exposing them to phosgene or chlorine.

    Gases often were used in combinations. Most gas was delivered by artillery shells. The agent(s) were in liquid form in glass bottles inside the warhead, which would break on contact and the liquid would evaporate. Shells were color coded in a system started by the Germans. Green Cross shells contained the pulmonary agents: chlorine, phosgene and diphosgene. White Cross had the tear gases. Blue Cross had the &lsquomask breakers&rsquo like chloropicrin. Gold (or Yellow) Cross had mustard gas.


    John Singer Sargent's 'Gassed' depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on British troops.

    In retrospect it is sad to know that warfare by poisoning soldiers - so brutal, highly personal, and used with such little restraint by both sides in WWI - had been previously outlawed by the Hague Convention in 1899. The ironies of gas warfare are vividly focused in the life of Fritz Haber, the German chemist who invented phosgene and also the &lsquoHaber Process&rsquo which allowed fixation of atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia-based fertilizer. A German Jew who converted to Christianity, he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919 for the Haber Process. Though long dead before The Holocaust, he was one of the chemists who perfected the hydrocyanide-based insecticides Zyklon A and Zyklon B, the latter gas used to kill millions of Jews and others, including some of his relatives.


    Delivery systems

    The first system employed for the mass delivery of gas involved releasing the gas from cylinders in a favourable wind such that it was carried over the enemy's trenches. The main advantage of this method was that it was relatively simple and, in suitable atmospheric conditions, produced a concentrated cloud capable of overwhelming the gas mask defences. The disadvantages of cylinder releases were numerous. First and foremost, delivery was at the mercy of the wind. If the wind was fickle, as was the case at Loos, the gas could backfire, causing friendly casualties. Gas clouds gave plenty of warning, allowing the enemy time to protect themselves, though many soldiers found the sight of a creeping gas cloud unnerving. Also gas clouds had limited penetration, only capable of affecting the front-line trenches before dissipating.

    Finally, the cylinders had to be emplaced at the very front of the trench system so that the gas was released directly over no man's land. This meant that the cylinders had to be manhandled through communication trenches, often clogged and sodden, and stored at the front where there was always the risk that cylinders would be prematurely breached during a bombardment. A leaking cylinder could issue a telltale wisp of gas that, if spotted, would be sure to attract shellfire.

    A British chlorine cylinder, known as an "oojah", weighed 190 lb (86 kg), of which only 60 lb (27 kg) was chlorine gas, and required two men to carry. Phosgene gas was introduced later in a cylinder, known as a "mouse", that only weighed 50 lb (23 kg).

    Delivering gas via artillery shell overcame many of the risks of dealing with gas in cylinders. The Germans, for example, used 5.9 inch artillery shells. Gas shells were independent of the wind and increased the effective range of gas, making anywhere within reach of the guns vulnerable. Gas shells could be delivered without warning, especially the clear, nearly odorless phosgene &mdash there are numerous accounts of gas shells, landing with a "plop" rather than exploding, being initially dismissed as dud HE or shrapnel shells, giving the gas time to work before the soldiers were alerted and took precautions.

    The main flaw associated with delivering gas via artillery was the difficulty of achieving a killing concentration. Each shell had a small gas payload and an area would have to be subjected to a saturation bombardment to produce a cloud to match cylinder delivery. Mustard gas, however, did not need to form a concentrated cloud and hence artillery was the ideal vehicle for delivery of this battlefield pollutant.

    The solution to achieving a lethal concentration without releasing from cylinders was the "gas projector", essentially a large-bore mortar that fired the entire cylinder as a missile. The British Livens projector (invented by Captain W.H. Livens in 1917) was a simple device an 8-inch diameter tube sunk into the ground at an angle, a propellant was ignited by an electrical signal, firing the cylinder containing 30 or 40 lb (14 or 18 kg) of gas up to 1,900 meters. By arranging a battery of these projectors and firing them simultaneously, a dense concentration of gas could be achieved. The Livens was first used at Arras on 4 April, 1917. On 31 March, 1918 the British conducted their largest ever "gas shoot", firing 3,728 cylinders at Lens.


    Why Are Chemical Weapons So Bad?

    Thomas I. Faith is a historian at the U.S. Department of State. His book Behind the Gas Mask: The U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service in War and Peace, 1917–1929 is forthcoming from The University of Illinois Press. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.


    Present-day opposition to chemical weapons is rooted in the experience of poison gas warfare in World War I. While poison has been considered a treacherous method of killing since ancient times, the unprecedented manufacture and use of chemical weapons during WWI contextualizes the present debate in the United States about the morality of chemical weapons. WWI-era proponents of chemical warfare argued that poison gasses were not inherently less moral than conventional weapons, but humanitarian concerns for the victims of chemical weapons have dominated public opinion and resulted in international agreements restricting their use.

    Poison gas weapons were forbidden by the laws of war in the nineteenth century, because of preformed, negative opinions about chemical warfare. The Hague Declaration of 1899 required that nations “abstain from the use of projectiles the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gasses.” As justification, it referenced the terms of the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration which acknowledged “the technical limits at which the necessities of war ought to yield to the requirements of humanity,” and denounced “the employment of arms which uselessly aggravate the sufferings of disabled men, or render their death inevitable.” Despite the Hague Declaration’s affirmation that poison gas projectiles were inhumane, however, such weapons were used by all of the belligerent nations in World War I.

    The first successful gas attack of the war occurred on April 22, 1915 at Ypres, when the German Army released a cloud of toxic chlorine gas and allowed the prevailing wind to carry it to British, Canadian, French, Moroccan, and Algerian soldiers. The attack was devastating, and the other nations of World War I denounced the moral violation that it represented even as they rushed to manufacture their own poison gas weapons to retaliate. U.S. propagandists likewise characterized Germany’s use of poison gas as inhumane. At a patriotic rally in June 1918, Ohio Governor James M. Cox said that “Germany violated her solemn compact with other nations never to use poisonous gas in warfare,” and that “the shame of that nation will not soon be forgotten.” The notion that Germany’s use of gas was shameful reinforced the idea that poison gas weapons were barbaric, while it simultaneously justified their use against the Germans by the United States and allied nations.

    First hand experiences with the widespread use of poison gas during World War I caused many soldiers to support an end to chemical warfare once the war was over. They opposed the future use of chemical weapons not only because of the suffering that gas warfare had caused fellow soldiers, but also because of its potential to harm innocent civilians. In 1925 John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France, wrote a letter to the Senate urging that they ratify the Geneva Protocol, a treaty that outlawed poison gas weapons. “To sanction the use of gas in any form would be to open the way for the use of the most deadly gasses and the possible poisoning of whole populations of noncombatant men, women, and children,” Pershing wrote, “it is unthinkable that civilization should decide on such a course.”

    While most sought an end to chemical warfare after WWI, however, there were some in the military who urged the continued use of poison gas weapons. Chief of the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service Amos A. Fries wrote in 1919 that “there is a popular notion that gas warfare is the most horrible method of warfare ever invented, and that it will be abolished because it is so horrible. And yet it is not horrible.” Fries and other chemical warfare experts in the United States believed that the war had proven that the suffering experienced by the victims of chemical warfare was not quantifiably worse than that experienced by the victims of more conventional weapons. They orchestrated a public relations campaign in an attempt to change public opinion on the subject after World War I, and they claimed that chemical weapons were as humane as, if not more humane than, conventional weapons.

    Fries and others like him viewed the popular rejection of chemical weapons as an illogical, emotional reaction against the suffering poison gas was perceived to have caused soldiers and civilians during the war. They recognized a contradiction in the public’s apparent disdain for poison gas, and their acceptance of other methods of warfare. The commander of the U.S. 1st Gas Regiment during World War I, Earl J. Atkisson, described this contradiction in 1925. He wrote that “war is abhorrent to the individual, yet he accepts blowing men to pieces with high explosive, mowing men down with machine guns, and even sinking a battleship in mid-ocean with its thousand or fifteen hundred men being carried to certain death. However, to burn the skin of a man outrages all his civilized instincts.”

    Atkisson, Fries, and other chemical warfare proponents believed that this contradiction would eventually be resolved in favor of chemical weapons. They anticipated that, over time, the use of poison gas would become acceptable, just as bayonets, bullets, and bombs had. Instead, the belief persisted that casualties caused by gas were somehow more barbaric than those caused by bullets or other weapons of war, and the nations of the world continued to craft international agreements prohibiting chemical weapons on humanitarian grounds.

    Attitudes toward chemical weapons should be assessed in light of the complex legacy of poison gas use in World War I. The fact that experts of the time believed that there was no moral difference between chemical weapons and conventional ones should not lead one to conclude that chemical warfare is humane. The inherent inhumanity of all methods of warfare should be measured by the relative destructive power of the methods involved and their potential to harm noncombatants. Those following the conflict in Syria should note the destruction caused by all of the weapons employed to determine, in the words of the St. Petersburg Declaration, “the technical limits at which the necessities of war ought to yield to the requirements of humanity.”


    WW1 Gas Attacks: When Poison Was Released in 1915

    In 1915, the Central Powers and Allies dug in their heels and tried desperately to break the stalemate of the war, still hoping for a short conflict on the scale of a few months. Poison gas was used for the first time. Germans experimented with flamethrowers and armored shields, while the French began using hand grenades. In April, Germans began the Second Battle of Ypres and used 168 tons of chlorine gas. On the Eastern Front, Austria launched three offensives against Russian forces in the Carpathians. All three failed miserably. As many as 100,000 Austrian soldiers froze to death. Further north, Russian forces began to retreat from Warsaw and Riga. In Poland, Russian forces adopted a “scorched earth policy.” They forced Poles and other residents of Poland and western Russia to burn their crops and abandon their homes. This created millions of refugees. In December, the remains of the Serbian Army, along with several hundred thousand civilians, fled through the freezing mountains of Montenegro and Albania to the coast. 200,000 died along the way (out of 700,000 initially). Finally, the Ottomans began the forced deportation of Armenians to Syria, which was actually a death march. It became known as the Armenian Genocide in which 1.5 million were slaughtered.

    Winter Offensives: Joffre wanted to push the Germans back and help prevent them from sending more troops to the East. So they launched a series of offensives in late 1914 and 1915

    First Battle of Artois (17 Dec 1914 – 13 Jan 1915)

    First Champagne Offensive (20 Dec 1914 – 17 March 1915). 93.000 French casualties and 46,000 German.

    Jan 31: Poison gas used for first time – it had little effect due to cold weather. In March, Germans experimented with flamethrowers and armored shields, while the French began using hand grenades.

    March 10: British First Army (let by Sir Douglas Haig) attacked Germans at Neuve-Chappelle. His policy was “bite and hold,” which meant quickly taking a piece of the enemy’s line and forcing them to counterattack it, suffering many casualties.

    April 17: The British launched an attack at Hill 60, in which they used mines to undermine the German position.

    April 22: Germans began the Second Battle of Ypres and used 168 tons of chlorine gas. This time it had devastating consequences. The British used makeshift respirators, including cloths draped in urine. The Allies held the town. The battle lasted just over a month.

    May 8: The British and French launched a combined offensive (first time) at the Second Battle of Artois. The battle lasted 6 weeks. The French lost 100,000 casualties, while the Germans lost 75,000.

    In late September, the British and French launched offensives at Loos, Artois (Third Battle), and Champagne (Second Battle). The British used poison gas for the first time. The British and French initially took their objectives, but a stubborn German defense caused massive Allied casualties. Germans used phosgene gas (worse than chlorine). These ended the first week of November. Neither side gained anything.

    On December 19, Sir John French was replaced as the BEF commander by Sir Douglas Haig.

    Austria launched three offensives against Russian forces in the Carpathians. All three failed miserably. As many as 100,000 Austrian soldiers froze to death.

    Przemysl fell to the Russians on March 23. 126,000 prisoners and over 700 big guns fell to the Russians.

    May 1: A combined German-Austrian army launched an offensive against the Russians at Gorlice and Tarnow. The Russians had to retreat, and they lost all the land they had gained since the start of the war. 30,000 Russian prisoners were taken. Austrian forces recaptured Przemysl on June 3 and Lvov on June 22.

    Further north, Russian forces began to retreat from Warsaw and Riga. In Poland, Russian forces adopted a “scorched earth policy.” They forced Poles and other residents of Poland and western Russia to burn their crops and abandon their homes. This created millions of refugees.

    Warsaw fell to the German Army on August 5. Soon after Ivangorod, Kovno, Novogeorgiev, Brest-Litovsk, Bialystock, and the Grodno fortress fell. 1.5 million Russian prisoners had been taken by the end of August. Soon after, Austrian and German forces linked up to form a single line.

    On September 5, Tsar Nicolas removed the Grand Duke Nikolai from command and assumed personal command of the army.

    On September 18, the Germans took Vilnius and drove its Russian defenders completely out of Poland and Galicia. Russia had lost 300 miles of territory. But the ground became muddy and the Russians improved their defenses. This stopped the German advance.

    After Christmas, the Russian army launched major offensives in Bessarabia, Eastern Galicia, and also attacked in other places, including the Prippett Marshes. None of these attacks succeeded.

    By the end of 1915, Russia had suffered 3.4 million casualties and there were 2 million Russians displaced by the war.

    In January, 1916, Russia successfully attacked through the

    In March, a typhus epidemic broke out, killing many Serbs and Austrians. The outbreak prevented any attacks on Serbia for a while.

    On April 1, a force of Bulgarian Turks attacked Valandovo, in Macedonia (then part of Serbia). Serb forces repelled the invasion.

    On September 6, Bulgaria joined the war on the side of the Central Powers. Along with Austria-Hungary and Germany, they invaded Serbia the next month (beginning October 6). Belgrade fell on October 9. (Bulgaria would end up sending 25% of its entire population to war…that’s the highest percentage.)

    On November 5, Nis fell, giving the Central Powers a direct rail link from Berlin to Constantinople. At the end of the month, the Serbian army was defeated and forced to retreat.

    In December, the remains of the Serbian Army, along with several hundred thousand civilians, fled through the freezing mountains of Montenegro and Albania to the coast. 200,000 died along the way (out of 700,000 initially). Allied naval forces evacuated them from the Albanian coast to Corfu.

    French and British forces tried to help the Serbian army but were pushed by the Bulgarian army out of Macedonia into Greece. They established a base at Salonika (over the objections of the Greek government, which was neutral).

    In January 2016, the Austrian army invaded Montenegro. The government surrendered, but the army fled into Albania. The Austrians pursued them.

    February: Turkish attacked British forces in Egypt in an attempt to take the Suez Canal. They were soundly defeated.

    Turkey began the forced deportation of Armenians.

    British troops defend Basra and advance up the Tigris Valley toward Baghdad. In December, they became trapped at Kut-al-Amara., which the Turks put under siege.

    The next month, a rescue operation tried but failed to relieve them. Repeated attempts to rescue them would also fail, and the British force would eventually surrender in April 1916.

    May 23: Italy joins the war on the side of the Allies and attacked Austria-Hungary at the Isonzo River. For the next few months, they fought multiple battles there but made no gains. The fighting finally ended on December 10 due to winter weather.

    In the summer, Italy raided the Adriatic coast in several places.

    December 14, 1914: German ships bombarded the cities of Scarborough, Whitley, and Hartleypool. This killed several civilians (first time since 1690!), but it increased popular British hatred for the Germans.

    Feb: Germans begin Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

    Mar: British start a sea blockade of Germany. Later they mine the North Sea.

    May 7: A German U-boat sinks the Lusitania (1200 people, including 120 Americans are killed).

    The Dutch inventor Anthony Fokker invents (for the Germans) developed interrupter gear, which led to German domination of the skies (the “Fokker Scourge”).

    On April 1916 the Germans began a policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare.


    First Large Scale Use of Lethal Gas in World War I

    On April 22, 1915, the Imperial German Army used chlorine gas in large quantities for the first time at Ypres, in Belgium, targeting French colonial troops. Previous use of irritant (tear gasses) substances had previously been attempted by both side with little practical effect. The shift to gas that could disable and kill people was a tremendous escalation in the chemical war aspect of World War I (1914-1918), then known as “The Great War.” (Not so “great” if the enemy uses lethal gas against you!)

    Digging Deeper

    While people have engaged in warfare for thousands of years, and the ingenuity of people dreaming up new and terrible ways to kill each other seems to be limitless, World War I was unprecedented at the time for its terrible cost in lives and disruption of civilization, and for its eventual widespread use of chemical weapons, notably poison gasses. Despite the best efforts of humanitarians to discourage or outlaw the use of chemical and biological weapons, warmongers just have to keep producing the stuff and trying to “improve” it, making it even more deadly and terrible. Residue from chemical weapons used in World War I occasionally resurfaces when old battlefields are plowed by farmers, sometimes with horrific consequences. In other cases, experimentation with potential chemical or biological weapons have resulted in unintended consequences as well, including an incident where the United States accidentally killed a farmer’s flock of 6000 sheep in 1968, or when the Soviets accidentally released Anthrax from a bio-weapons facility in 1979, killing 64 people (at least) and injuring more. Even on the battlefield, the use of poison gas during World War I has shown itself to be a two-edged sword when the wind decides to blow in the opposite direction and friendly troops become subjects to the nightmare chemicals!

    Prior to the German use of chlorine, both sides had used tear gas with disappointing results. When the Germans had amassed a considerable stockpile of chlorine, they decided they had enough of the stuff to affect the battlefield in a decisive way. With a massive trove of 168 tons of chlorine contained in 5,730 metal cylinders, German troops at the front siphoned the deadly liquid out of the cylinders toward the French colonial troops from Martinique and Algeria, with a cooperative wind that blew a horrible grey-green cloud of gaseous chlorine toward the French. Immediately finding the gas to be burning and choking their eyes and lungs, the French troops left hastily for the rear in an absolute panic, a reaction that was unequivocally the right thing to do under the circumstances. This sudden rout left an 8000 meter gap in the French lines, a gap that should have/could have been exploited to great effect by the Germans. The German troops, unfamiliar with the use of poison gas in warfare, had not prepared with enough assault troops to exploit the break in French lines, and in any case, the German troops were quite wary of the gas, knowing instinctively that rushing into the deadly cloud of chemical poison was not a good idea. Thus, what could have been a shocking German victory instead became a disconcerting portend of things to come, as the chemical war in Europe was about to take a steep increase in the widespread use of poison gas and in the lethality and variety of chemical combinations used.

    World War I era soldiers at first were faced with no real defenses against poison gas, and some hit on the idea of urinating on a handkerchief or other cloth and holding it over their nose and mouth as a makeshift gas mask, a method that had some success. Quartermasters then began issuing gauze and cotton pads and a solution of bicarbonate of soda to wet the pad for front line soldiers to use when gassed. When gas masks were widely issued to both sides, the development of chemicals that could attack and incapacitate or kill people without even having to be inhaled necessitated the development and issuance of complete chemical resistant suits that covered the soldier’s entire body, a cumbersome but necessary method.

    Both sides in World War I continued to use and develop new chemical weapons, including improving the form of delivery from merely opening valves on the front lines of containers of the stuff to launching artillery shells filled with the deadly gas and liquids to strike deeper into enemy ranks and keep the deadly effect farther away from friendly troops. Phosgene and then Mustard weapons were developed, greatly increasing the lethality and disabling ability of the chemical weapons. Estimated casualties attributable to chemical weapons on all sides during World War I include over 90,000 deaths and over 1.2 million non-lethal casualties. One such non-lethal casualty was German Corporal Adolf Hitler, who went on to lead Germany during World War II and is sometimes claimed to have refused the use of chemical weapons because of his personal experience.

    In the wake of the horrible use of chemical weapons during World War I, the civilized world joined in the Geneva Protocol of 1925 (officially called “The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare”) to ban chemical and biological weapons. Thankfully, widespread use of chemical weapons has been curtailed since then, although during World War II serious consideration to using such weapons was contemplated by both sides. Since World War I, there have been at least a dozen conflicts in which chemical weapons have been used, notably by the Japanese in China during World War II by their diabolical Unit 731, including against civilians.

    Facing the prospect of countless thousands of Allied casualties in the coming invasion of Japan, US planners had to rule out the use of chemical weapons as a method of saving many American and Allied lives. A similar discussion over whether or not to use the new Atomic bombs on Japan also took place, and unlike the decision to not use chemical weapons, American war planners went ahead with the Atomic bombs after all. Were lives saved by the use of Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or was that use a cruel and unnecessary show of force for propaganda reasons? The debate continues to this day, as does the debate over the propriety of using massive fire-bombing raids against German and Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. At least we do not have to debate about the mass use of poison gas on the Japanese.

    Note: The subject of biological warfare is even more insidious than that of chemical warfare, and in this year of 2020, the world is wondering if the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2) was actually a man made engineered virus in a Chinese biological weapons lab. In fact, the US government intelligence agencies are seriously examining that possiblity.

    Question for students (and subscribers): Is the use of chemical weapons ever justified? How about in retaliation for their use? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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    Historical Evidence

    For more information, please see…

    The featured image in this article, a depiction of the German gas attack launched on French Territorial and soldiers of the Troupes coloniales, which was launched on 22 April, is in the public domain in Canada, because its copyright has expired due to one of the following:

    1. it was subject to Crown copyright and was first published more than 50 years ago, or

    it was not subject to Crown copyright, and

    2. it is a photograph that was created prior to January 1, 1949, or 3. the creator died more than 50 years ago.

    About Author

    Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.


    Weaponry: Use of Chlorine Gas Cylinders in World War I

    Poison gases share with nuclear weapons various unhappy distinctions. They not only occupy a significant place in the defensive and offensive planning of nations, but for many years they have also threatened mankind’s future on an apocalyptic scale. Once unleashed, they are uncontrollable–indiscriminately killing both soldier and civilian.

    Contrary to general belief, the combat use of asphyxiating, or at least irritating, gases did not begin with World War I. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, described the use of sulphur and arsenic dust as a fill for shells fired at naval targets. Going back quite a bit earlier in history, the Athenians and the Spartans used sulphur fumes in the 5th century bc when attacking fortified cities. The Germans, moreover, as early as 1762 used bombs that emitted asphyxiating fumes during the siege of the Austrian-held Silesian fortress of Schweidnitz.

    Closer to our own time, however, Germany, along with Britain, France and Russia, entered the Hague Convention of 1899, which specifically prohibited ‘the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases. Between the time Britain entered this convention in 1907 and the outbreak of war in August of 1914, the British government decided that although a dual-purpose projectile containing an explosive charge and a tear gas would not violate the literal terms of the convention, it nevertheless was contrary to the convention’s spirit and thus would not be used by the British army or navy.

    In contrast to the fair play attitude of the British, the Germans–and to a lesser extent the French–began to douse each other with tear gases almost as soon as the misery of trench warfare took hold on the Western Front late in 1914.

    When the war began, the French had held a small supply of tear-gas cartridges and possibly some tear-gas hand grenades. That stockpile was depleted by the fall of 1914, and in November of that year a resupply order was placed. The resupply order came about despite the apparent fact that the tear gas had gone completely unnoticed by the Germans!

    The Germans, in turn, first used an irritant on October 27, 1914, in the capture of Neuve Chappelle. That day, the Germans fired 3,000 rounds of 105mm howitzer projectiles filled with sneezing powder against some Indian troops and French cavalry. The shells contained shrapnel embedded in the sneezing powder. It was thought that the explosion would grind and disperse the irritant. In practice, the barrage was so ineffective that the French and British failed to realize that chemical munitions had been used until the fact was uncovered in a postwar investigation.

    Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, the Germans collected a stock of 18,000 T-Stoff tear-gas shells for use against the czar’s army at Bolymov as both an experiment in gas ammunition and to support an attack designed to improve the German position in that particular sector.

    The result was another relatively harmless fiasco. The attack began on January 31, 1915, in extremely cold weather. Because of the cold, the T-Stoff fill for the shells failed to volatilize and disperse. Consequently, the anticipated results did not materialize, and the attack produced only a local improvement in the German tactical position.

    The Germans, like the French, continued using tear gas in spite of unsatisfactory results. There is evidence, for instance, that in March 1915 tear gas was used to bombard the French at Verdun and at Nieuport. Again, the effects were so trivial that the gas went unnoticed.

    At that point, one of the great chemists of the 20th century, Fritz Haber, a German reserve sergeant major of cavalry and artillery–and soon to be given an unheard-of direct promotion to captain–enters the narrative. Haber’s greatest scientific contribution, for which he won a Nobel Prize in chemistry, was the invention of a process for nitrogen fixation.

    With respect to chemical munitions, Haber, as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry, knew of the T-Stoff projectile work that was being carried out among members of his staff.

    He saw a test for those projectiles in December of 1914 and was convinced that the weapon was quite useless. With typical creative insight, he suggested to the supreme command that a barrage of gas rounds fired from trench mortars might be more effective. The army staff, however, told him that the production capacity needed for the proposed new ammunition was not available.

    It then occurred to Haber that gas, particularly chlorine, discharged from cylinders, would form a cloud. Haber recognized from the outset that the gas cylinder-gas cloud combination had serious weaknesses and was less than the best choice for a delivery system.

    As the chief of staff to the German Eighth Army on the Russian Front, Maj. Gen. Max Hoffman later would write: The digging in of the [gas] apparatus was very complicated, and at any moment there was the danger of the enemy noticing the work of digging in and by strong artillery fire destroying the apparatus, and the gas would stream out in our own trenches. Besides this, the weather conditions of our theatre of war were very unfavorable for such gas emission in the East we required a West wind–in the West an East wind, but as on our front the wind was mostly contrary, the employment of this invention was rendered still more difficult.

    In spite of such clearly unsatisfactory characteristics, the German army’s supreme command decided to proceed with the new weapon. The passage from tear gas to chlorine was not made without some soul-searching by the supreme command. Tear gas–and sneezing powder–could be viewed as non-asphyxiating and not deleterious (at least with respect to a long-term physical effect on its victims), and therefore not in violation of Germany’s obligation under the Hague Convention. Although chlorine unquestionably is an asphyxiant, the relevant provision in the convention was specifically limited to projectiles for diffusing the gas. Thus, Haber’s gas cloud proposal did not violate the express wording of the convention–it was not a projectile delivery system.

    In any event, chlorine and commercial compressed gas tanks were at hand in Germany, and the combination could be made available quickly and in large quantities without significantly interfering with other war-production activity.

    The important salient around Ypres in Flanders was chosen for Germany’s first essay with a weapon of mass destruction. There were other, potentially better sites, but the army commanders responsible for those locations all rejected the new weapon only Duke Albrecht of Württemburg, commanding the Fourth Army before Ypres, agreed to its use. The choice of Ypres, almost through default, would not be a happy one for the Germans. The terrain, although generally flat, is replete with shallow undulations and valleys of not more than 10 meters in depth. That topography disrupted the progress of the gas cloud and created local gas concentrations that impeded the progress of the riflemen advancing behind the cloud, many of them not equipped with gas masks.

    Perhaps Ypres’ worst feature for a gas-cloud attack was its unsatisfactory prevailing wind. Generally, the wind in Flanders blew from the Allied side of the line to the German side–the wrong way, obviously. A favorable wind speed, also an important consideration, was capriciously unpredictable across the salient’s front. Those considerations notwithstanding, work went forward.

    The Ypres salient formed a V in which the apex pointed almost directly east, into the German lines. The city of Ypres was located about in the middle of the open gap between the two arms of the V, the arm that formed the northern flank being held by French Algerian and Belgian troops, who then joined near the apex of the V with the Canadian and British troops manning the southern flank.

    The first gas batteries were dug in for use against the British occupying the southern flank as of March 10, 1915. The batteries, in general, were organized in banks of 10 commercial gas cylinders, each cylinder about 5 feet tall and weighing, when filled, approximately 190 pounds. Each bank of 10 cylinders, under the control of one German pioneer, was joined through a manifold to a single discharge pipe. Emplacing these batteries in the front line, without alerting the other side, was not a simple undertaking, but a strenuous task that involved a great deal of physical labor. Interestingly enough, the first gas casualties on the Western Front occurred among the Germans, who lost three soldiers to gas from cylinders ruptured by Allied shelling.

    After the batteries were in place, it was decided that wind conditions and the ragged configuration of the front line in that sector made it unsuitable for a gas discharge. New batteries of gas cylinders then were dug in along the northern flank of the salient, the batteries being concentrated at Bixschoote, near the junction between the northern flank of the salient and the front north of Ypres, and at Poelkapelle, near the apex of the salient. On April 11, the batteries were in place on the north flank, ready to deliver about 150 tons of chlorine gas on order. An attack was planned to follow behind the gas cloud, along a southern axis to sweep across the base of the salient, with the Bixschoote-Poelkapelle front as the line of departure for the German assault force.

    After several postponements, always awaiting suitable wind conditions, the attack finally was ordered at 5:30 p.m. on April 22, 1915. What followed staggers the imagination.

    As seen by the Canadians, who stood to the right of the Algerians, two greenish-yellow clouds formed on the ground and spread laterally to form a terrifying single cloud of bluish white mist. Blown by light wind, the cloud moved down on the Algerian trenches. The Canadians noticed a peculiar odor, smarting eyes, a tingling sensation in the nose and throat, and heard a dull, confused murmuring underlying everything.

    Soon, Algerian stragglers began to drift toward the rear, followed by horses and men pouring down the road and finally by mobs of Algerian infantry streaming across the fields, throwing away their rifles and even their tunics. One Algerian, frothing at the mouth, fell writhing at the feet of the British officer who tried to question him.

    Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, later said: What happened is practically indescribable. The effect of the gas was so overwhelming that the whole of the positions occupied by the French divisions was rendered incapable of any resistance. It was impossible at first to realize what had actually happened. Fumes and smoke obscured everything. Hundreds of men were thrown into a stupor, and after an hour the whole position had to be abandoned with fifty guns.

    As seen by the Germans, the effects of the attack were horrible, the dead lying on their backs with clenched fists, the whole field bleached to a yellow color. The Germans advanced until dusk, when the assigned objectives for that day were reached. With the attack renewed on April 23, however, the Germans found Canadians filling the gap in the line left by the gassed Algerians during the preceding afternoon. Resistance was stiff, and, in classic Western Front style, the attack bogged down with no further significant gains. Poison gas was used five more times in this Second Battle of Ypres, but the Allied soldiers adapted well to the new weapon. When the gas cloud was low-lying, some would stand on a parapet to be able to breathe in the air above the lethal fog. Others soaked cloth in water and even in urine, and breathed through the cloth to prevent asphyxiation.

    By April 26, Gas Masks, Type I, rather useless patches of blue flannel mouth covering, were being distributed to the Canadian and British troops in the line. Thus, almost within hours of its first use, the new weapon was well on its way to being checkmated.

    For all their disadvantages, the ungainly German gas cylinders almost worked in that attack of April 22, 1915. Why were the Allies found in such a deplorably unprepared condition? The Allies had captured two German soldiers in Flanders, one on March 28 and the other on April 15. Both prisoners gave detailed information about the forthcoming gas attack, the prisoner taken on April 15 even having been captured with his respirator. There were quite a few other indications that a chemical attack was forthcoming, the most striking being the discovery on April 17, during a British attack from the salient’s southern flank, of German gas cylinders in position. Nothing was done the cylinders were not even reported. Perhaps the idea of gas warfare still seemed so alien to Western tradition that the Allies simply could not believe it would happen.

    As a result, by 7:30 in the evening, little stood between the Germans and victory. They had achieved their breakthrough on the Western Front, but, for reasons that still elude posterity, they failed to follow it up. The opportunity–and any future hope of using gas as a surprise weapon–passed them by.

    The first round of lethal gas used at Ypres by the Germans led to further gas attacks by both the Germans and the British all the way through the Battle of the Argonne at the end of the war in 1918, when John J. Pershing’s American doughboys had to contend with German mustard gas.

    This article was written by John P. Sinnott and originally published in the April 1994 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!


    Pesticides, Tear Gas and History | From WW1 to Today’s Streets

    When I entered the Office of Pesticide Programs of the US Environmental Protection Agency in May 1979, I knew practically nothing about pesticides. Though I had taken classes in chemistry in college and had even written my first book about industrialized agriculture, nothing prepared me for the secrets I uncovered during twenty-five years of work in a bureaucracy designed and brought up to keep secrets.

    My colleagues opened my eyes to the secret world of chemical sprays deceptively known as pesticides. They kept answering my questions and, more than that, they started giving me their memos, briefings, and scientific papers. They did not see much controversy in the “regulation” of pesticides. Most thought pesticides were necessary for farming.

    Anna Feigenbaum: Tear Gas

    In fact, EPA economists always defended pesticides, suggesting that without them food prices would go through the roof. Other EPA scientists like biologists, ecologists, chemists and toxicologists monitored those chemicals for ecological and health effects. They had read the pesticide law — The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act — and, some of them, were authors of regulations for their use on farms, lawns, homes, factories, and the natural world.

    Who was going to object to the killing of “pests” like insects, rodents, fungi, and weeds?

    It did not take me long to object to the use of pesticides, however. My knowledge about these chemicals increased rapidly. The writings of my colleagues and the discussions I had with them convinced me pesticides were more than pesticides. They are petrochemical biocides. They kill everything.

    But there was something particularly insidious about certain farm sprays that were born about a century ago in the heat of WWI. The organophosphates parathion and malathion, for instance, are nerve gases related to chemical weapons. They are chemical weapons in diluted form.

    I remember how EPA ecologists reacted to the news that parathion was killing honeybees in droves. They were very upset and urged senior officials to prohibit any more approvals of the deleterious nerve gas. The senior officials did no such thing. Honeybees continued to die from parathion poisoning for decades. EPA banned ethyl parathion in 2003. In 2015, the White House Energy-Climate Czarina and former EPA administrator, Carol Browner, announced the banning of methyl parathion on “all fruits and many vegetables.” Now, in 2018, honeybees die primarily from another version of neurotoxins, known as neonicotinoids, and manufactured in Germany.

    Yet I don’t remember hearing EPA scientists connecting parathion and other neurotoxic pesticides to warfare agents. I found that strange because one heard of the horrible consequences they had in common: pinpoint pupils, sweating, convulsions, vomiting, asphyxiation, and death.

    The military connection of many pesticides made their origins obscure and very difficult to decode. It was as if there existed a universal pact among experts in industry, academia and government not to question these extremely toxic compounds.

    If Americans knew their food is contaminated by neurotoxic agents, what would they say and do? And how would the environmental movement act on the evidence of nerve poisons in conventional food?

    According to Anna Feigenbaum, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University, modern tear gas also operates in the same mist of ignorance and fear that surrounds neurotoxic pesticides. Tear gas is not a gas at all. By tear gas we mean groups of chemicals, which are lachrymatory agents. This in Latin means they cause tears. Popular tear gases include CS (2-chlorobenzylidene malonitrile), CN (chroroacetophenone) and CR (dibenzoxazepine) – irritants released as smoke, vapor or liquid sprays. Another tear gas is pepper spray or OC (oleoresin capsicum). This is an inflammatory substance triggering tears.

    Feigenbaum chronicles the history of tear gas intelligently and with passion in her “Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today” (Verso, 2017).

    According to Feigenbaum, tear gas started its warfare career in August 1914 when French troops fired grenades filled with methylbenzyl bromide into German trenches. The effect was to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Tear gas forced the German soldiers to run out of their protective trenches, only to be mowed down by French machine guns. This was the Battle of the Frontiers. In April 1915, at Ypres, the Germans retaliated with chlorine gas. The war of asphyxiating gases was in full swing.

    Daan Boens, Belgian soldier-poet lived through this nerve gas war. In 1918, he published a poem, “Gas,” in which he caught the barbarism of chemical warfare. Feigenbaum cites the poem:

    “The stench is unbearable, while death mocks back.
    The masks around the cheeks cut the look of bestial snouts,
    The masks with wild eyes, crazy or absurd,
    Their bodies drift on until they stumble upon steel.
    The men know nothing, they breathe in fear.
    Their hands clench on weapons like a buoy for the drowning,
    They do not see the enemy, who, also masked, loom forth,
    And storm them, hidden in the rings of gas.
    Thus in the dirty mist, the biggest murder happens.”

    Like the pesticide merchants and lobbyists, tear gas advocates have buried this murder. They, according to Feigenbaum, reject the effects of their product: tearing, gagging, miscarriages, burning of the eyes, blindness, and death. They paint the military origins and use of tear gases into oblivion. The result of this successful propaganda is that tear gas faces none of the prohibitions against chemical warfare agents. A straightforward war gas – tear gas – has become a peacemaker. Innocent of harm.

    Feigenbaum laments in particular the difficulties she faced in tracking sales and use of tear gas:

    “There are just too many secrets and too many lies. The international trade in tear gas is buried under bureaucracy and often classified beyond the reach of Freedom of Information requests. There are files upon files that have been shredded and burned, deleted, altered and falsified.”

    That’s to be expected of a chemical warfare agent dressed in civilian clothes.

    Yet Feigenbaum succeeded eventually in her task. Her book is a lucid history that puts tear gas on trial. She exposed the profiteers, scientists, military buyers, arms dealers, police suppliers and editors trying to put a humane face on a dangerous weapon.

    Neurotoxic pesticides are connected to tear gas by neurotoxicity. They are also products of chemical warfare. They kill by nerve poisoning and asphyxiation. They should be banned.

    As Feigenbaum sees it, in its civilian life, tear gas does more than killing. It is designed “to torment people, to break their spirits, to cause physical and psychological damage.”

    Read Feigenbaum’s book. It’s timely, well-written, and very important.

    Evaggelos Vallianatos worked on Capitol Hill for 2 years and at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of hundreds of articles and 6 books, including “Poison Spring,” with McKay Jenkins. This article first appeared on Independent Science News. Its is reprinted here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License See link below to original article. (The title has been changed to reflect the pesticide content of the article)


    Chemical Warfare: Poison Gases in World War 1

    Click to enlarge

    I’ll be accompanying some of the students from my school on a history trip to Ypres and a few other World War 1 battlefields in a few weeks’ time. Obviously, they’d much rather be learning chemistry, so I’ve been reading up on the different chemical agents used during World War 1, and this graphic is a byproduct of that. As it turns out, several of them were used for the first time at Ypres, so it’ll even be topical!

    A range of different chemicals were used as weapons throughout the conflict. The French were actually the first to utilise them in conflict, when they attempted to use tear gas against the German army in August 1914. The precise agent used seems to be uncertain, with both xylyl bromide and ethyl bromoacetate being mentioned both are colourless liquids, with the former having an odour described as ‘pleasant and aromatic’, and the latter being described as ‘fruity and pungent’.

    These tear gases weren’t designed to kill rather, to incapacitate the enemy and render them unable to defend their positions. They are all lachrymatory agents – that is, they cause crying, due to irritation of the eyes. They also irritate the mouth, throat and lungs, leading to breathing difficulties. Exposure to larger concentrations can lead to temporary blindness, but symptoms commonly resolved within 30 minutes of leaving affected areas.

    In practice, the use of tear gas on the battlefield wasn’t extraordinarily effective. However, it opened the door to the use of more harmful gases. The first of these was chlorine, first used on a large scale by the German forces at Ypres in April 1915. Chlorine is a diatomic gas, about two and a half times denser than air, with a pale green colour and a strong, bleach-like odour which soldier described as a ‘mix of pineapple and pepper’. It reacts with water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, which can quickly lead to death. At lower concentrations, it can cause coughing, vomiting, and irritation to the eyes.

    In its first uses, chlorine was deadly. Against soldiers not yet equipped with gas masks, it wreaked havoc, and it’s estimated over 1,100* were killed in the first large scale attack at Ypres. The German forces weren’t prepared for just how effective it would prove, and their delay in pressing into the gap formed in enemy lines actually meant they gained very little ground initially.

    However, chlorine’s effectiveness was short-lived. Its obvious appearance, and strong odour, made it easy to spot, and the fact that chlorine is water-soluble meant that even soldiers without gas masks could minimise its effectiveness by placing water-soaked rags over their mouth and nose. Additionally, the initial method of its release posed problems, as the British learnt to their detriment when they attempted to use chlorine at Loos in France. The released gas changed direction as the wind changed, engulfing the British lines instead of those of the enemy, and leading to a large number of self-inflicted casualties.

    Phosgene was the next major agent employed, again used first at Ypres by the Germans in December 1915 (although some sources state the French were the first to employ it). Phosgene is a colourless gas, with an odour likened to that of ‘musty hay’. For this odour to be detectable, the concentration of phosgene actually had to be at 0.4 parts per million, several times the concentration at which harmful health effects could be expected. It is highly toxic, due to its ability to react with proteins in the alveoli of the lungs and disrupt the blood-air barrier, leading to suffocation.

    Phosgene was much more effective and deadly than chlorine, though one drawback was that the symptoms could sometimes take up to 48 hours to manifest. Its immediate effects are coughing, and irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract. Subsequently, it can cause the build-up of fluid in the lungs, leading to death. It’s estimated that as many as 85% of the 91,000 deaths attributed to gas in World War 1 were a result of phosgene or the similar agent diphosgene. It’s hard to put a precise number on, since it was commonly used in combination with chlorine gas, along with the related chemical diphosgene. Combinations of gases became more common as the war went on. For example, chloropicrin was often used for its irritant effects, and its ability to bypass gas masks, causing sneezing fits which made soldiers remove their masks, exposing them to poison gases.

    Along with chlorine, the most commonly known poison gas used in the conflict is mustard gas. Sulfur mustards are actually a class containing several different compounds in their pure forms, they are colourless liquids, but in warfare impure forms are used, with a yellow-brown colour and odour akin to garlic or horseradish. Mustard gas is an irritant, and also a strong vesicant (blister-forming agent). It causes chemical burns on contact with the skin, leading to large blisters with yellow fluid. Initially, exposure is symptomless, and by the time skin irritation begins, it is to late to take preventative measures.

    The effectiveness of mustard gas was due to its debilitating effects. Its mortality rate was only around 2-3% of casualties, but those who suffered chemical burns and respiratory problems due to exposure were unable to return to the front, and required extensive care for their recovery. Those who did recover were at higher risk of developing cancers during later life due to the chemical’s carcinogenic properties.

    Overall, though the psychological factor of poison gas was formidable, it accounted for less than 1% of the total deaths in World War 1. Though their use was feared in World War 2, and they were employed in some cases, they were never employed on as large and as frequent a scale as seen in World War 1. Use of poison gas as a weapon was later prohibited by the Geneva Protocol in 1925, which most countries involved in the First World War signed up to. However, the chemicals used still have their uses – for example, phosgene is an important industrial reagent, used in the synthesis of pharmaceuticals and other important organic compounds.

    *Note: the article and graphic originally stated that the first use of chlorine gas at Ypres resulted in approximately 5000 deaths. However, recent recalculations suggest by the Flanders Fields Museum suggest that 1,100 is a more realistic estimate, albeit perhaps a slight underestimate.


    Watch the video: Poison Gas Warfare In WW1 I THE GREAT WAR Special (October 2022).

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