The Use of Poison Gases in the First World War

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The Use of Poison Gases in the First World War


It is estimated that there were a million casualties from the use of poison gases in the First World War. Official figures list 180,983 British soldiers as being gassed, of whom 6,062 died in the trenches, but these figures are often considered to be an under-estimate. Apart from the difficulties of accurate reporting from the trenches, there developed a debate towards the end of the First World War and in the years before the Second World War about the ethics of using these materials as a weapon.


At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was director of the newly established Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry at Berlin-Dahlem, having held the professorship of physical chemistry and electro-chemistry at Karlsruhe from 1906 to 1911. The son of a dye manufacturer, Haber was born in Bresslau, Silesia (now in Poland). He married Clara Immerwahr, the thirty-year-old daughter of another respected Jewish family in 1901. Although the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 stipulated that warring countries would "abstain from all projectiles whose sole object is the diffusions of asphyxiating or deleterious gases," German scientists developed poison gases and used them by 1915. The earliest gases were derived from the work Fritz Haber did, which was designed to synthesize ammonia from the nitrogen in the air. This work also led to the development of synthetic fertilizers which greatly helped the agricultural expansion of the twentieth century. Haber received the Nobel Prize for this work on ammonia in 1918. But by that time he had proceeded to the development of chemical weapons for use by the German Army against its opponents in the First World War.

Haber's first "war gas" was chlorine, which he installed in the German trenches in 1915 and released when the wind was blowing towards the enemy trenches, thus getting around the prohibition on "projectiles" or gases that were thrown at the enemy in containers. In April 1915 almost 6,000 cylinders of chlorine gas were simultaneously released, and 150 tons (136,200 kg) of the poison spread along 4.3 miles (7,000 m) of the front line within about 10 minutes. Soldiers from France and Algeria breathed the gas and began to choke. This first gas attack caused 15,000 Allied casualties, of whom 5,000 died. Haber returned to his family in Berlin but on the night of May 1, 1915, his wife shot herself because of her opposition to his work. Within weeks the Allied forces were also using chlorine gas. The French developed a phosgene gas based on carbonyl chloride which was found to be 18 times as powerful as the chlorine gases. Phosgene gases were first used at Ypres on December 19, 1915.

By 1917 the Germans under Haber's direction had developed mustard gas (dichloroethyl sulphide) and used it on the Ypres front in July 1917, where it was delivered from 75- and 105-mm shells against the British 15th and 55th Divisions. The British and Americans followed soon after. Some prominent scientists such as J.B.S. Haldane (1982-1964) argued that these weapons were more humane because unlike bullets they disabled more men than they killed. His father, J.S. Haldane (1860-1936), was a physiologist whose study of oxygen and carbon monoxide in the lungs was an important part of the development of the gases. The Haldanes believed in their duty to experiment on themselves and often asked their children and friends to participate in investigations into the toxicity of different chemicals and their gases. Some observers have suggested that the argument that chemical warfare was more "humane" than bullets and bombs was based on weak statistics, because the number of deaths attributable to the poison gases was not accurately recorded during the First World War, and because there were no long-term studies of what happened to the men who had been gassed once they returned home.


Over the years poison gases have been classified by the way in which they enter the body—through the skin, causing blisters (vesicant gases); through the eye, causing tears and irritation (lacrimators); into the stomach, causing vomiting (sternulators); and those that affect the nervous system (nerve gases) or attack the lungs (respiratory gases). Some gases combine more than one effect. The effect on the victim can be acute and result in rapid death, or chronic, resulting in long-term disabilities such as eye problems, skin sensitiveness, or breathing difficulties. The gases tend to settle in the moist parts of the body, and penetrate clothing even to the genital areas. They can cause huge blisters and intense itching. If they get in the eye they cause relatively minor conditions such as conjunctivitis but also severe burns and loss of fluids. Victims who survive the first impact of the gases might be out of action for a month or more, which was considered to be the main purpose of using the poison gas—to disable the troops. Many men would recover from their first exposure after a few weeks away from the trenches only to be sent back and subjected to another attack. The sensitivity of the human to these poisons increases with exposure. Nurse Harap made the following diary entry on November 8, 1918. It described what happened to the men who were gassed in the First World War:

"Gas cases are terrible. They cannot breathe lying down or sitting up. They just struggle for breath, but nothing can be done. Their lungs are gone—literally burnt out. Some with their eyes and faces entirely eaten away by gas and their bodies covered with first-degree burns. We must try to relieve them by pouring oil on them. They cannot be bandaged or even touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst of wounds. But gas cases invariably are beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out. One boy today, screaming to die. The entire top layer of his skin burnt from his face and body. I gave him an injection of morphine. He was wheeled out just before I came off duty. When will it end?"

Mustard gas was so named because it smelled to the men of mustard or garlic, but some of the other gases were odorless. Often the first awareness of being subject to attack was to see a brown or white cloud coming over the trenches. Some gases had a slightly delayed effect so that it was several hours later before the victims began to suffer nausea, blindness, or skin burns. Some men who did not seem to be seriously injured at the time of the attack suffered for the rest of their lives from chronic chest conditions or other health problems. There was no real attempt to study the long-term effects of being exposed to these gases after the end of the First World War. The global influenza pandemic, which broke out in the early post-war years, confused the picture, and it was never certain whether the effects of the poison gases complicated these other illnesses. Similarly the relationship between exposure to poison gases and psychiatric problems suffered by soldiers has not been closely investigated.

Scientists during the First World War were more efficient at developing poison gases than in devising means to protect the soldiers from them. The earliest gas masks could not be mass-produced quickly enough to be supplied to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides of the trenches, and protective clothing had not yet been thought of. The gas masks purify and filter the air being breathed in, often through very simple filters made from charcoal. The apparatus covers the nose and eyes and is attached to a canister containing the filtering material, through which the air is passed before reaching the face.

By the end of the First World War all the major countries had well-established chemical warfare agencies such as Porton in the U.K. and the Chemical Warfare Service at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, in the U.S. The years leading up to the Second World War would see the development of new gases and techniques. Some of these new techniques of mass production of chemicals were applied in useful spheres, such as the development of fertilizers, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Haber became National Commissioner for Pest Control in Germany and developed new pesticides combining some of the chemical war agents with sweeteners to attract their victims. But one of the ironies of the early development of chemical war agents was that some of Fritz Haber's discoveries led to the manufacture of Zyklon B, which was used to gas fellow Jews in the German concentration camps of the Second World War.


Further Reading


Haber, L.F. The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Harris, R. and J. Paxman. A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Gas and Germ Warfare. London: Chatto & Windus, 1982.

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The Use of Poison Gases in the First World War

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