Gas Warfare in World War I

(Reprinted from Army Nurses of World War I: Service Beyond Expectations)


One of the more unsavory aspects of the First World War was the introduction of chemical weapons.  In the late afternoon of April 22, 1915, German soldiers turned the valves on over 6,000 cylinders laid down on the ground facing the French lines near Ypres, Belgium.  The greenish-yellow cloud that drifted over the French positions caused an immediate panic among the Algerian colonial troops holding the line.  Choking on the chlorine gas, many died where they stood, while others, blinded and terrified, fled to the rear.  The advancing Germans took the position with hardly firing a shot, capturing some 2,000 French Colonial troops.

Employed by the German Army to break the stalemate of the trenches, chemical weapons were soon copied by the French and British.  Five months later, on September 25, 1915, the British released their own chlorine gas against the Germans at Loos, Belgium.  By now both sides had developed rudimentary protective masks, which in turn provoked the introduction of newer, more lethal gasses and better delivery methods using artillery shells instead of cylinders.  Each new development experienced the same cycle, however: initial panic over the new gas; the introduction of better training and protective clothing to counter the weapon; and the rise in morale by soldiers newly confident in responding to the threat.

Though both sides employed chemical munitions, the three gasses mentioned by Weaver were the most common used by the German Army in 1918.  Both chlorine gas and phosgene gas were lung irritants, and were intended to suffocate the unfortunate victim who breathed the agent. These the irritants would aggravate the soft tissues of the lungs and esophagus, producing mucus; within a short time, exposed soldiers would effectively drown in their own fluids.  Phosgene appeared in December 1915, used first by the Germans, then shortly afterwards by the French. Marked by a scent reminiscent of rotting grain, phosgene also had no immediate irritant effect on the eyes of exposed skin.  Combined with the general method of delivering the gas in combination with a high explosive barrage, this made the detection of phosgene more difficult.

Though less lethal, mustard gas was perhaps the most hated chemical agent used by either side in the war.  First introduced by the German Army at Ypres, Belgium on July 12, 1917, mustard gas caused severe burns on the skin and tissues.  Anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in a gas barrage without wearing their gas mask could risk death from breathing in the corrosive vapors, or be blinded for life as the gas destroyed their eyes.  Exposed skin would gradually blister with second-degree chemical burns, the blisters remaining for up to four weeks after exposure.  When the blisters burst, a serious risk of infection existed if not treated.  The danger posed by mustard gas was exacerbated by its ability to penetrate clothing and its ability to remain potent on the ground long after its immediate dispersal.

Though historians consider gas to have been a generally ineffective and overrated weapon, the American experience was quite traumatic.  In the A.E.F., 70,522 cases related to gas exposure were reported, 31.49 per cent of all casualties.  Of this number, 1,221 died, the majority from mustard gas exposure. An additional 2,853 officers and men were invalided home because of gas-related disabilities.  Gas may not have been as effective as originally hoped for as a war-winning weapon, yet it remained a serious threat to those soldiers facing it in the field until the end of the war.

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