First Large Scale Use of Lethal Gas in World War I

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A Brief History

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…

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

Heller, Charles. Chemical Warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918. CreateSpace, 2018.

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

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.