World War I has been for the Defence Industry a unique opportunity to innovate: new materials, new techniques, and new methods. Throughout the duration of the war, armed forces and related industries have developed considerably. The air force experienced an unprecedented boom, and so did chemical warfare.
The first instance of use of poison gas during the “Great war” was on August, 1914, when French troops fired tear gas grenades against the Germans. ‘Xylil bromide’, the agent used in that incident, had been developed by the Paris police department.
Later on, all warring parties ran, throughout the whole fight, a race for the most effective chemical weapon, despite the prohibition of chemical warfare enacted by the ‘The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1097’. The German empire decided to use chlorine, a by-product of their chemical industry that was available in large quantities. The German Army would present it as an irritating agent in order to avoid it’s infringement of the agreements of The Hague.
Professor Fritz Haber, the German chemist who synthetized ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen in 1910, invented a process to propagate chlorine. On April 22, 1915, when the second battle of Ypres
had just begun, German troops used for the first time a poison gas based on chlorine. In a mere 6 to 8 minutes, about 150 to 180 tonnes of chlorine were released from about 6000 steel cylinders
placed within German lines. The cloud spread over 6 km and caused 15000 casualties and 5000 dead because of acute pulmonary oedema. Doctor Béliard, surgeon general of the 66th infantry regiment
described the horrors of this surprise attack: “Men were convulsing on the ground, vomiting, and spitting blood. Panic was extreme. We were suffocating in a mist of chlorine. As far as we could
see, the sky was dull, with a strange and gloomy greenish hue.” This first attack marked the beginning of the poison-gas warfare. During the whole conflict, chemical weapons would take many
forms: cylinders, shells, grenades… Gases will vary too: chlorine, phosgene, “Mustard gas”, arsine or chloropicrin. Detecting those gases was not always easy and their effects was sometimes only
noticed a few days after their use. The only possible counter-measure was prevention: the gas mask was developed and improved during the four years of war.
Deepening his research, Fritz Haber decided on the use of phosgene. This suffocating agent, 5 to 6 times deadlier than chlorine, was used on June 22, 1961 in Verdun. The French retaliated using
hydrogen cyanide. In 1917, Haber set the final touch to a product able to pollute battlefields, attack the skin and even reach the bronchial tubes. Shells filled with that new poisonous chemical
were shot during the night of 12 to 13 July 1917 from German lines near Ypres. The so called “Yperite” or “mustard gas” – because of its smell – brought the terror to its climax. Within 3 weeks,
14000 soldiers were crippled. Mustard gas was not a very effective killing agent but had a terrible disabling effect. Fritz Haber himself noted that “Any unusual feeling in the mouth worries the
Escalation of chemical warfare went on until the end of the war.
In October 1917, the Germans used phosgene on the Italian front and left no soldier alive.
In 1918, every industrial nation involved in the fighting had built up stocks of Mustard gas and as from the month of June of the same year, mustard gas shells represented 25% of the French artillery ammunition.
The same year, the United States began production of a gas known as Lewisite, an improved vesicant based on arsenic that had faster effects than Mustard Gas.
The estimated casualties due to chemical warfare between 1915 and 1918 raise to 91000. This is approximately 7% of the total losses of the First World War.
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