Poison Gas Attack and Protection
Why Poison Gas?
Whenever man goes to war he desperately searches for and invents the most effective means of defeating, demobilizing and demoralizing his enemy —- in any way possible. The WW1 armies were entrenched so it was theorized that gases would effectively kill and immobilize those forces.
Therefore despite the Hague treaty of 1899 (asphyxiating/poisonous gases were not to be utilized in warfare) the large German chemical industry was mobilized to manufacture chlorine gas for use against the Allied forces in the combat field. In total 20 gases were used during WW1 with the Allies using 13 and the Central Powers 14 of those.
The Attacks Begin.
The first, unsuccessful, deployment of gas was in Poland in January 1915. Then by April 1915 the Germans had stockpiled 168 tons of chlorine ready to be used against the Allies. At Ypres, the Germans used pressurized cylinders to produce a yellow cloud of chlorine gas. The French presumed this to be a smoke screen, retreated, thus enabling the forward movement of the German lines
Grenades, pressurized cylinders, canisters, artillery and mortar shells were used for delivery of the gases by both sides. The Allies decided that it was OK to use gas as a weapon since the enemy had demonstrated that they [the Central powers] were ‘not human’.
Wind and weather were utilized for dispersion often giving the allies an advantage, particularly on the European fronts. The Belgian and French theater was in a westerly air stream and broadly the Germans were in the east.
And the Results.
There were many problems encountered with delivery of the gases. Wind from the wrong direction resulting in the gas being dispersed on the troops firing the weapons. The weather was often too wet for the gases to disperse. Frequently shells did not detonate; the terrain was so wet and muddy that the impact was of insufficient force to detonate the charge.
The gases used were mainly; Tear gas, which is lachrymatory and disabling; Chlorine which asphyxiates; Phosgene is poisonous and Mustard gas, used after 1917. It was responsible for most gas related injuries….blistering on contact, worse in ‘moist’ areas, eyes, lungs, groin, not life threatening until subsequent infection set in.
Development Of Countermeasures
Much work, time and effort was put into the design, manufacture and dispense of the protection equipment. Cloth pads soaked in water or urine, masks impregnated with chemicals, i.e. bicarbonate of soda, goggles and bags.
Gas masks and respirators of many styles, evident in the pictures, were invented. The inhaled air is filtered and ‘cleaned’. The exhaled air is then discharged separately. The box respirator eventually became standard issue for troops stationed at the front.
The Animals used in the combat zones were also provided with protective gear. There’s is a great picture of this in the gallery.
No effective protection was found for mustard gas.
Results & Effects Of The Use Of Poison Gas
Only 3% of gas caused casualties in WW1 were fatal with 2% being permanently disabled. Only 3-4% of the war deaths were gas caused. Phosgene responsible for 85 % of those. It is questionable that the gas warfare used in WW1 was effective in determining who the winners were; it was certainly detrimental for both sides at differing times during the war.
The warfare technology advanced faster than the people who were directing the war tactical techniques; thus a bayonet provided little challenge to a cloud of gas.
The horrors encountered in the WW1 theater resulted in The Third Geneva Convention, ratified in 1925 wherein it states: “the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.”
It was noted that mustard gas very effectively killed cells and subsequent research resulted in the design of cancer chemotherapeutic agents now manufactured by the pharmaceutical industries.
An American soldier in the American Gas Company anonymously wrote the following;
“Then chemist, student, artisan answered Duties call;
Our arms, our arts, our fumes
Gained liberty for all.”