Large scale use of chemical weapons in warfare has been occurring for exactly 100 years, as of yesterday 22nd April. One hundred years ago, some of the best minds in chemistry, including one Nobel Laureate, used their skills and knowledge of science to build humanity’s first WMD (weapon of mass destruction).
The release of poison gas 100 years ago changed the face of World War I and gave humanity a new weapon of mass destruction.
Humans have been attacking each other with gases as far back as ancient Greece, but the chemicals available way back then were not effective enough to be considered weapons of mass destruction.
Gas cylinders used in a poison gas attack in WWI. (Image: Wikimedia)
Chlorine gas, 22 April, 1915
The first attack using chlorine gas on 22 April, 1915, took everybody by surprise, because it was so incredibly effective. Even the weapon’s main advocate, German chemist Fritz Haber (1868-1934) was surprised at the number of deaths and injuries.
Fritz had proposed using chlorine gas against Allied troops. He oversaw its development as a weapon and had been on the front lines himself to supervise the placement of 5,730 gas cylinders along a stretch of road four miles long near the trenches outside Ypres in Belgium.
He then waited for weeks at the front lines until the wind was just right.
Sarah Everts wrote in C&EN that the unpredictable breeze was the weapon’s main weakness. It had to blow the chlorine gas from the cylinders, which were buried on the German side, across no-man’s land into the Allies’ trenches.
From skepticism to enthusiasm
It took a lot of convincing to get the German High Command to agree to use poison gas as a weapon.
Ms. Everts quotes Andrew Ede, a science historian at the University of Alberta, who said:
“They saw the first chlorine attack as an experiment at best, and at worst, a kind of stunt.”
Six months into WWI, Haber had only convinced one commander on the Western Front to try out chlorine gas as a chemical weapon.
When the first attack killed over 1,100 soldiers and injured several thousand more, the skepticism turned into wild enthusiasm.
Ironically, Fritz Haber, a Jew, the scientist behind the first chemical weapon of mass destruction, was to lose many relatives who were gased in WWII in Nazi concentration camps.
A chemical arms race ensued
That first large-scale use of chemical weapons used in warfare sparked a chemical arms race. By the end of the First World War, about 3,000 different chemicals had been evaluated by scientists on both sides. Fifty of these toxins were actually tried out on the battlefield.
Chemical weapons used in WWI were responsible for less than 1% of deaths in the battlefield and about 7% of casualties. Its psychological impact, however, was far greater – it had soldiers and their commanders terrified.
Saddam Hussein ordered the use of poison gas against thousands of Iraqi Kurds.
It did not take long for both sides to develop protective gas masks that contained a variety of effective neutralizing agents.
Although poison gas was not a comparatively big killer on First World War battlefields, its adoption set a precedent for using chemicals in a large scale to kill people.
Over the last 100 years, it has killed millions of soldiers and civilians globally, including those incarcerated in German WWII concentration camps (as well as some of Haber’s own family, he was Jewish), commuters on the Tokyo subway, anti-government demonstrators in Syria, and several thousands of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Reference: “100 Years of Chemical Weapons.” C&EN.
Video – Dawn of Chemical Warfare