The Beginning of Chemical Warfare: Important Events of World War 1

Chemical Warfare: The Beginning
Fritz Haber originally started the Chemical Warfare in 1914. This article discusses how it proceeded from there into the World War I, what chemicals were used, and how it affected the soldiers.
The history of Chemical Warfare traces down to Fritz Haber, who used it for Germany during the First World War. A world-famous chemist, Haber used his knowledge to extract nitrides from the atmosphere, which was used for fertilizers, and later on, he shifted towards making explosives. The war broke out in August 1914, and the Germans were confident of their victory. But their offensive was blocked down tremendously into a bottleneck of trench warfare in the West. Being patriotic to the Germans, Haber focused on what his contribution should be to bring them to victory, and began thinking about the possibilities of the Poison Gas and its effects in terms of accessing the deepest of the enemy trenches.

Introducing the Gas to The Germans

Poison gases were abundant, as they were mostly created as by-products in chemical factories. But their effects as a weapon of war were not yet tested. So, Haber began experimenting with various toxins and chemicals suitable for use in the war, and focused on the chlorine gas (diatomic chlorine), which was used in the dye industries. The main thing about Haber's work was that he took complete initiative in this project. He even approached the German Military in December 1914, to sell them his Poison Gas. The German Army had disrespect for scientists at that time, and moreover, implementing poison gas as a weapon meant stooping too low. However, Haber convinced them to see a demonstration, after which he was incorporated into the German Ranks and set to form a chemical corps.

The trench war was getting tougher day by day; and the Germans found it difficult to cross the trench-covered area, and finally decided to try Haber's Poison Gas.

Maiden Usage

According to certain sources, the Germans conducted the first chlorine gas attack before 2 January, 1915. However, by 22 April, 1915, the Army set up 5,730 cylinders of chlorine gas, and opened their valves against the French and Algerian troops facing them at Ypres, in Belgium. 200 tons of gas were released, forming a dense green cloud that smelled of bleach and rolled into the Allied lines.

[Chlorine Facts: At 30 parts of chlorine to a million parts of air, chlorine gas is a nasty irritant that causes harsh coughing. At 1,000 parts per million, it is lethal, caustically stripping the lining from the lungs, and causing victims to drown in their own fluids.]

Effects of the Gas

The results were horrifying, and devastated the French and Algerian troops on the front line. The soldiers choked and died with their lungs burning, while the remaining who were a little far fled the scene. A sickly green mist covered the whole area. On 24th April, 1915, the same gas was used again at the Canadian Border with similar results.

The casualties of the Allies were estimated as, 5000 people dead and about 10,000 people disabled, and half of them permanently. The attacks were extremely affective with the French and German troops firing tear gases in artillery shells. But tear gas proved nothing more than a mere tactical nuisance. The Germans launched a number of gas attacks during May 1915, with the last one taking place on 24th May. Then, they ceased their large-scale attacks for some time due to the change in direction of the prevailing winds.

The changes in winds were welcome by the Germans, as it gave them the opportunity to try their new destructive technique on the Russians. On May 31, 1915, a large-scale poison gas attack was carried out on the Russians. As they were poorly equipped, numerous number of soldiers were killed at the eastern front. The Russians suffered with the most number of casualties compared with all the others put together, and realized that any attempt to retaliate would be squashed.


The Allies were very outraged at the use of this gas by the Germans, and the British Army assigned Major Charles Howard Foulkes of the Royal Engineers to implement a response. Foulkes was energetic and capable, and he quickly implemented schemes for defense and offense. In June 1915, 2,500,000 "Hypo Helmets" were issued to the Allied troops. They were primitive gas masks that could only block low doses of gas attacks but at least they were better than nothing.

Use of Phosgene

On 9 December, 1915, with the winds again in their favor, the Germans launched another gas attack on the Allied lines, this time against the British at Ypres, in Belgium. They used chlorine and a new gas, "phosgene". Phosgene was another toxic chemical initiated by Haber and his company. It had a specific destructive interaction with the lung tissue, and its lethal concentration was only an eighteenth of that of chlorine. Its action was subtle and deadly. A soldier who inhaled a lethal dose of phosgene would feel some irritation at first, and then feel fine for a day or two.

In many cases, men would simply shrug off the gas attack as inconsequential, or hardly notice they had been victims of a gas attack. Then, the linings of their lungs would break down, and they would drown in their own lung fluids, coughing up a watery stream until they would choke and drowned. There is a story of a German prisoner who had been attacked with phosgene and mocked his captors for the ineffectiveness of their gases. He was dead within 24 hours.

Fortunately, the British were ready for phosgene and prepared a new and improved Phelmet, which decreased their own casualties tremendously. The British were quick to adopt the usage of this gas themselves. In June 1916, during the battle of the Somme, they poured out a huge cloud of phosgene and chlorine gas along a 17-mile front. The cloud penetrated up to 12 miles behind German lines, killing everything unprotected.

Soldiers hated poison gas more than they hated weapons. Soldiers were almost as scared of their own gas as they were of the enemy's, since blunders were common, and shifting winds made gas releases potentially dangerous to everyone. Their own gas killed 57 of Foulkes' men during the Battle of the Somme. Gas masks were extremely uncomfortable, and the terror caused by the gas was extreme, particularly after the introduction of phosgene.

In early 1916 both the British and the Germans grew wise on the use of Poison Gas and began to use artillery and barrages on a large-scale.

The Livens Projector

The next chemical weapon to come around was the "Livens Projector", invented by Capt. F.H.Livens of the British Army. It was simply a metal pipe about a meter or so long, that was buried in the soil at a 45-degree angle. Large numbers of the projectors were set up in banks. Each projector was loaded with a drum containing about 14 kilograms (30 pounds) of gas, and the bank of projectors was fired by an electrical charge, sending the drums tumbling through air for a range of over a kilometer and a half (about a mile).

Each drum contained a bursting charge to blast it open when it landed near enemy trenches, dousing the enemy with gas without any warning. The Livens Projector was cheap, crude, and extremely effective, as it could be used in mass numbers to produce an overwhelming, terrifying barrage. It was first used at the Battle of Arras on 9 April, 1917.

However, the Germans had another trick of their own. On the evening of 12 July, 1917, the Germans fired shells into British trenches at Ypres, but when they burst the shells, it released a brown oily fluid, not a gas. The stuff had a horrible smell, something like rancid garlic or mustard, but it otherwise didn't seem particularly offensive and caused only slight irritation to the eyes and throat.

Effects of the Projector

Given the panic over gas attacks, many British troops didn't bother to put on gas masks after this attack, and went ahead to observe the fallen weapon. As the night wore on, they began to feel pain rising in their eyes and throats; and gradually, they suffered swelling and huge blisters wherever their skin had come into contact with the noxious fluid.

The results were horrendous, with all the affected soldiers losing large patches of skin. Many of the men were blinded. Some died from the massive damage to the throat and lungs. The actual number of fatalities was low, but many of the victims were so badly hurt that they would not be fit to fight for months if they ever recovered their health at all. The new weapon was called "lost" or "Yellow Cross", and its formal name was dichloroethyl sulfide, with its mustard smell being just a coincidence.

Mustard Gas was known to be used extensively in this war between 1917 and 1918. It did not dissipate like the other gases. The oily fluid could persist for a long time, and continue to cause misery and pain to anyone who came in contact with it. For example, accidentally getting some of it on one's boots may lead to getting it on his hands and face. It would freeze during the winter, and still be toxic when it is thawed again in the spring.

Gas could be highly effective if it were used against opponents that were not equipped to deal with it. As mentioned, the Germans used it with great effect against the Russians, inflicting what is now broadly estimated to be about 600,000 casualties, and in October 1917, they used phosgene to break the Italian defensive line in Northern Italy, at Caporetto. The unprepared Italians were sent into terrified flight, and decisively defeated.

Finally, The End

An armistice was declared in November 1918, and the shooting stopped. Gas was estimated to have killed about 100,000 men and injured a million. The number of men killed was small compared to the number killed by other means, but gas had played a particularly unpleasant role in the conflict. Gas shells and other delivery systems had been refined, as had defensive technologies and procedures. All the combatants had been preparing even nastier chemical weapons when the war ended.

Fritz Haber was devastated by his country's defeat. However, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1919 for his prewar development of the Haber process.

To summarize, we can say that four classes of agents were created during the war.

1) Asphyxiants or "choking agents", which attacked the lungs and could cause victims to drown in their own lung fluids. The classic agents were chlorine and phosgene, but other agents were used during the war (e.g. :- Diphosgene, Chloropicrin, also known as "vomiting gas", "Aquinite" by the French, and "Klop" by the Germans).

2) Blistering agents, consisting of several different forms of mustard gas. The original German chemical agent was "sulfur mustard", but after the war, "nitrogen mustard" agents were synthesized and manufactured as well. Nitrogen mustard was easier to manufacture and more persistent than sulfur mustard.

3) Blood agents, most specifically aqueous "hydrogen cyanide (HCN)", also known as "prussic acid" or "hydrocyanic acid", which blocked the absorption of oxygen in the blood. Cyanides had been used in combat by the Allies to an extent; but though deadly in enclosed spaces, they tended to dissipate quickly in open air, and they had little useful effect in low concentrations.

4) A wide range of "nonlethal", or more correctly "less lethal", gases, including tear gases and vomiting agents. Such substances are now known as "riot control agents (RCAs)". Many different tear gases were used during World War I, such as chloracetone and bromacetone, and after the war new tear gases were developed, including chloracetophenone (CN) and ortho-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, the second being an aerosol powder, better known as "CS" after its inventors, Corson and Stoughton.