These Horrible Chemical Weapons Were Created & Used During the First World War

British troops blinded by tear gas during the Battle of Estaires, 1918.

Often referred to as the “Chemists War,” World War I saw the rise of chemical weapons being used on the battlefield. It all began with the French Army, who used tear gas in the form of small grenades.

These small grenades didn’t hold much gas, and were largely undetected by German forces. The French issued a redesign on the tear gas, and from here, weapon use expanded to other gases and agents such as mustard gas, phosgene, and chlorine.

Chemical weapons were dangerous, as they could be undetectable as well as deadly. Because of this, they were a popular choice on the battlefield. Whether used to cause nuisance or pain, chemical weapons played a large role in World War I.

Types of Gases Used

British infantry advancing through gas at Loos, 25 September 1915.
British infantry advancing through gas at Loos, 25 September 1915.

There were three primary types of gases used in World War I.

Asphyxiant gases, mainly mustard gas. Mustard gas is particularly dangerous as it can take several hours to appear. Soldiers who were burned by the gas would see large blisters form where the chemical had touched them. The blisters would fill up with blood and puss, and turn yellow. If a soldier’s body was over 50% burned, the chance for survival diminished rapidly. When inhaled, mustard gas caused internal burns and blisters and could lead to breathing issues.

Sternutator Gases such as phosgene, chlorine, and diphosgene. These gases caused pain in the chest as well as pain in the eyes and nose. They could also cause choking, nausea, vomiting, coughing and sneezing.

Lachrymator, or tear gas. Tear gas caused irritation to soldiers’ throats and eyes. The gas was more of a nuisance than anything and was virtually ineffective with a gas mask.

Development and Early Chemicals

Football team of British soldiers with gas masks, Western front, 1916.
Football team of British soldiers with gas masks, Western front, 1916.

The French were the first to employ chemical weapons, using tear gas in August of 1914. The gas was filled in 26mm grenades and contained a very low amount of tear gas, which made it unnoticeable to troops. Because of this, the active ingredient was changed from bromine to chloroacetone in the second wave of tear gas grenades that were issued to French troops. This made the gas a little stronger, but not by a substantial amount.

1915 would bring about a lot of changes to the chemical weapons being used in attacks. The Germans were the first to use gases on a large scale attack in January of 1915, when they dropped 18,000 chemical shells, loaded with xylyl bromide, on Russian lines near Rawka River west of Warsaw. This attack was a disappointment, however, as the chemical froze instead of vaporizing.

The Germans would find more success just a few months after the attack, using a different gas. German scientist Fritz Haber, who had overseen the production of chlorine as a chemical weapon, pushed for the chemical to be used in warfare.

Loading a battery of Livens gas projectors.
Loading a battery of Livens gas projectors.

Haber’s chlorine would be used for the first time on April 22nd, 1915. The gas was deployed from 5,730 cylinders which lined a road just north of Ypres in Belgium. At first, the deployment appeared to be unsuccessful, but as the winds shifted, the gas began to spread across the land. This lead to both Germans and Allied troops being affected by the poisonous gas. It was the first major use of poisonous gas and lead to the research of over 3,000 gases that could be used in war.

Haber’s success garnered him the name ‘Father of Chemical Warfare,’ as his use of Chlorine led to widespread advancements in chemical use. He also helped develop the gas mask, which helped aid in the amount of casualties caused by the very chemical weapons he had worked to create.

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