The industrialized nature of the Great War brought with it numerous nicknames for the war, known to historians, and largely forgotten by the general public, including “The Engineers’ War”, “The Mechanical War”, and notably, “The Chemists’ War”. It is this latter aspect I’ll focus on today – because one of the omnipresent threats from the begging of the war through its bitter end was the relentless use of various lethal gasses – a direct violation of the Hague Convention of 1899, which was ratified by all major powers except the United States.
Gas was a fact of life in the trenches, so much so that even in practice trenches, men would practice getting their masks on as quickly as time permitted. Here’s a stereoscopic view of troops far away from combat, posing as if a maelstrom of “chlorine green” was incoming:
Needless to say, this being a Realistic Travels card, the “Hun trench” was a practice trench far from the front – note the lack of bodies, lack of damage to the neat and seemingly undamaged trench, lack of dirt on the men, et cetera. But it does what it was meant to do as an image, if failing to realistically represent the situation – it depicts men standing at the edge of a trench, more worried about toxins in the air than the “retreating enemy”, and is representative of what many soldiers – especially some of the most shell-shocked after the War – felt about gas: that it was more terrifying than any bullet or enemy combatant.
All sides used gas, although revisionist history generally paints it as a device of the Central Powers. It began relatively innocuously, at least in terms of not being a war crime per se – the first large-scale gas attacks during the war used tear gas, which as a non-lethal irritant, was not a war crime. Incidentally, it was the French who first employed this gas, and it failed to cause more than minor annoyance to the German enemy. But worse gasses were to come:
- Chlorine gas: The first, and among the most prominent, lethal gasses used during the First World War were forms of chlorine. Chlorine gas was easily manufactured, but also easy to detect – they created a dense, slow-moving green cloud that floated around the battlefield and had a significant odor, allowing soldiers plenty of advance warning to get their masks on. Even primitive masks like the canvass ones shown above (the stereoview likely dates to around 1915) could block the gas, especially if drenched with water, or – when available – urine; the urea would help bind the gas. The effect of unchecked chlorine gas were unmistakably horrible, however – first, they would incapacitate a soldier, causing him to experience irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat; his lungs could start bleeding or releasing fluids, and, unchecked, the chlorine gas would lead to death by asphyxiation over a period of about 15 minutes as the gas caused the soldier’s throat to constrict and then caused him to choke on his own bodily fluids.
- Phosgene: The French developed one of the most brutal sorts of gas, phosgene, in 1915. Thick and heavy, colorless, and having an odor not unlike moldy hay, phosgene gas slowly went to work on the body’s internal organs, almost invariably leading to death at high enough doses. One of the insidious things about this gas was the fact that it could take 24 hours to kill a man – on the “minus” side for the attacker, this meant that the soldier could still fight for another day. But in the “plus” column, it meant that it could slow a regiment down as the soldiers who had breathed the gas deteriorated – and slowing the enemy was, in many cases, better than killing him – as it would halt an advance on the lines. Phosgene was by far the biggest killer gas of the Great War, being responsible for nearly 100,000 deaths. More importantly, soldiers dreaded it so much that they would in some cases rather face court martial for cowardice – which often meant the firing squad – than face this killer substance.
- Mustard Gas: While by far the most recognized of First World War gasses, mustard gas entered the game relatively late, first used by the German army in July 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres. Mustard Gas was insidious, in that it was not meant to kill the enemy. Rather, it would cause horrible blistering, the slaking away of the mucous membranes of the lungs, and other horrible disfigurements. When it did kill, it often took weeks for death to occur. Additionally, when the thick, oil-based gas settled, it would contaminate the battlefield for days – or even weeks, given the right conditions, as oil floated on water. This could slow an enemy advance significantly. While it was soon realized that mustard gas was extremely effective – moreso than killers like chlorine and phosgene – at halting enemy advancement, it came late in the war, by which point improvements in gas filtration masks, suits when necessary, and so forth, had improved to the point that gas warfare was not nearly as effective as it had been only a couple of years earlier. Although mustard gas is the most notorious of Great War lethal gasses, it was the least utilized, and responsible for less fatalities than either chlorine or phosgene.
By the end of the war, the improvements in masks, which could be quickly put in place, and less-and-less hampered the vision of soldiers, let to its being outmoded; although most countries still stockpiled it for years after the war, it was barely used again, and by the Second World War, it was hardly used at all.
The Chemists’ War was unique for many reasons; one of those that stands out the most is the horror of gas warfare.