WarWeapons: Gas

The use of poison was a major military innovation of the First World War. Gases uses covered the full range, from tear gas to disabling chemicals like mustard gas to killing agents such as phosgene. While gas killed comparatively few, it did cause a significant number of non-fatal casualties and it was one of the soldiers greatest fears.

Germany was the first to make use of gas, firing 18,000 artillery shells filled with the irritant xylyl bromide tear gas at Russian positions in 1915. Unfortunately the chemical froze solid in the cold weather with no effect.

Chlorine was the first killing agent used, employed in 1915 against the French at Ypres. The green clouds of gas terrified the colonial troops holding that position, who fled, but nearby Canadian units were able to fill the gap before the Germans could exploit it.

Chlorine was inefficient as a killing agent, its colour and smell were obvious , but German industry soon came up with a replacement, phosgene. Deadlier than chlorine and difficult to detect being colourless and having virtually no odour, phosgene reacts with the water in the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, which dissolves the sensitive membranes there. Phosgene caused the most deaths of any agent in World War 1, though one disadvantage was the fact that it took 24 hours for the symptoms to become apparent, meaning that gassed victims could still initially at least put up a fight.

The most famous and effective gas was mustard gas, a blistering agent introduced in 1917 by the Germans at the Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele. Mustard gas rarely killed but in low concentrations could cause massive painful blisters on the skin. Higher concentrations could burn flesh to the bone. Death by mustard gas, when it came, was particularly horrific. A post mortem account by a British physician records the following :-

"Case four. Aged 39 years. Gassed 29 July 1917. Admitted to casualty clearing station the same day. Died about ten days later. Brownish pigmentation present over large surfaces of the body. A white ring of skin where the wrist watch was. Marked superficial burning of the face and scrotum. The larynx much congested. The whole of the trachea was covered by a yellow membrane. The bronchi contained abundant gas. The lungs fairly voluminous. The right lung showing extensive collapse at the base. Liver congested and fatty. Stomach showed numerous submucous haemorrhages. The brain substance was unduly wet and very congested.

A British nurse treating mustard gas victims recorded,

"They cannot be bandaged or 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 wounds but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out."

Gas never repeated its dramatic effects of 1915, but became a standard weapon in the trenches, used daily to sap morale of the enemy and in support of attacks. The universal horror with which chemical warfare was regarded, by all sides, led to gas being outlawed by the Geneva Protocol of 1925, and there has been no large scale military use of chemical agents since as a result.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Wilfred Owen, "Dulce Et Decorum Est", 1917.

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