In the Great War we saw the use of Poison Gas as a weapon for the first time. Prior to this armies had used all manner of weapons, this had included the use of poisons, mainly as a siege weapon. The attacking army would endeavour to contaminate the enemy's water supplies or quite literally throw rotting animal carcasses into the enemy's castles in the hope of introducing disease and infections.

In early 1915 warfare changed forever when the German army used poison gas as an offensive weapon on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. Over the next 4 years both sides were to develop numerous different forms of gas as offensive weapon. The gases used in the Great War fell into 6 distinctive groups;

  1. Lung irritants. The main characteristic of these is that they cause irritation and damage to the deeper respiratory passages, and especially to the alveoli of the lungs, with resulting inflammatory exudation of fluid, and the production of acute pulmonary oedema and death by asphyxia.
  2. Nasal irritants. These cause sneezing and irritation of the nose and throat, even in very low concentrations, without causing any material effects on the lungs.
  3. Lachrymators. Extremely low concentrations exert an intense irritant action on the eyes, and cause so profuse a flow of tears and so much pain that vision becomes impossible. In stronger concentrations they may act as lung irritants.
  4. Vesicants. These cause inflammation and blistering of the skin, associated with acute conjunctivitis, and intense inflammation of the respiratory passages.
  5. Direct poisons of the nervous system. In sufficient concentration these act with great rapidity, causing a cessation and finally a total abolition of the functions of the central nervous system.
  6. Gases, which act by interfering with the respiratory properties of the blood. These may act in various ways. Thus arseniuretted hydrogen causes destruction of the red corpuscles, accompanied by haemoglobinuria and jaundice; some gases cause alteration of haemoglobin into methaemoglobin; carbon monoxide takes the place of oxygen in combining with haemoglobin.(1)

With the advent of the use of poison gas on the battlefields emergency measures were taken to try and prevent its effects. The first protection used was urine soaked handkerchiefs and goggles. The next development was the introduction of gas hoods that were tucked into the collars of the men's shirts. Eventually the gas mask, as we know it was introduced. The air was drawn through a chemical filter, which attempted to neutralise the gas. However the gas masks offered no protection to mustard gas. This would soak clothing and attack the skin on contact. No effect protection was found to counter this threat during the war.

Chemical weapons also had a major effect on the moral of the troops. With its initial use it had caused widespread panic. Soldiers from both sides came to hate it as the unseen enemy. If you were on the offensive side of the attack you were just a prone to its effects as those who you were attacking. It was a weapon, which once released could not be controlled. All that was needed was a change of wind direction and the offensive troops would then fall to its barbaric effects.

The gas was introduced to the battlefield initially from cylinders held in the front line trenches. Just prior to the attack it would be released onto the prevailing wind. This was never the preferred option of the front line troops or the generals who commanded them. As the war progressed the main delivery method for gas was by way of artillery shells and trench mortars.

During the war the Germans used the largest amounts of gas, some 68,000 tons. France used almost 37,000 tons and Great Britain just over 25,000 tons. Almost 90% of the gases used were the acute respiratory irritants. However as this form of warfare developed and the troops became more aware of the effects of the various forms of gas the irritants would be mixed with the gases that caused a complete failure of the central nervous system. Thus causing many more battlefield casualties.

The types of gas varied greatly, some of the more common ones used were;

  1. Benzyl bromide: a German lachrymator used in March 1915.
  2. Bromacetone: a powerful lachrymator used by the allies and Austria, moderately persistent, introduced in 1916.
  3. Chlorine: used by both sides this is an acute respiratory irritant. It was first used in 1915. This formed hydrochloric acid on contact with moisture, induced vomiting, fatal in concentrated doses.
  4. Chloromethyl chloroformate: a respiratory irritant delivered by shells. First used in 1915.
  5. Chloropicrin: a more concentrated form of chlorine, introduced in 1916.
  6. Cyanogen compounds: immediately fatal in concentration, but only mildly incapacitating when weaker. Causes dizziness, headache and pulmonary pains, leaves no permanent damage. Introduced in 1916 by the allies.
  7. Dibrommethylethylketone: a fatal lachrymator when used in concentration. Used by Germany and Austria in 1916.
  8. Dichlorethylsulphide: (Mustard Gas). Used by all sides, introduced in 1917. Caused burning and blisters to the skin, causing temporary blindness. If inhaled would cause bronchial pneumonia resulting in a death. Delivered by shell.
  9. Diphenychloroarsine: this was a solid chemical delivered in a shell. It was dispersed in clouds of fine powder, a powerful sternutator, causing vomiting and headaches, introduced in 1917 by the Germans.
  10. Diphenylcyonarsine: a stronger form of diphenychloroarsine, introduced in 1918.
  11. Ethyldichlorasine: a German sternutator similar to diphenychloroarsine, but milder. First used in 1918.
  12. Ethyl iodoacetate: a powerful British lachrymator highly persistent, introduced in 1916. Its effects ceased on leaving the gas-affected area.
  13. Monobrommethylethylketone: a German and Austrian lachrymator, used in 1916 more powerful than bromacetone.
  14. Phosgene: (carbonyl chloride). First used in 1915 an acute respiratory irritant. Especially dangerous because of its delayed action causing sudden death after as long as 48 hours after exposure. Many of those who died did not know they had been in contact with the gas.
  15. Trichloromethylchloroformate: (diphosgene). A similar effect as phosgene. First used by the allies and the Germans in 1916.
  16. Xylyl bromide: a powerful German lachrymator first used in 1915.(2)

Gas was seen by most of the combatants in the Great War as one of its greatest evils. It spread fear to a previously unknown level. It was viewed in many quarters as being unfair and below the pail. It was viewed as a dirty form of warfare. One surprising fact to come out of the war about gas is that only an estimated 3% of those exposed to it lost their lives. However those figures do not and should not conceal its true form. The war poets penned many words about its vile nature. Premiere amongst these poets is Wilfred Owen with the famous:

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limping on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

GAS! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or limeā€¦
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.

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.(3)

(1) Memorandum on Gas Poisoning in Warfare [S.S. 452]
(2) The Great War Source Book - Philip Haythornethwaite.
(3) The Poems of Wilfred Owen - Published by Chatto & Windus London

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