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  • You're a soldier in the trenches of the Western Front in the Great War.

  • You and your unit are keeping your eyes peeled for any sign of enemy soldiers, but you seem

  • to be clear to advance.

  • Suddenly, there's a sound of a bang - but it's not the familiar sound of bullets.

  • It's different, and before you can react you see the trench filling with smoke.

  • But this isn't a simple visual hazard to make your advance more difficult.

  • It's a deadly weapon - and this gas may turn your trench into a tomb.

  • How did it come to this?

  • For ages, war was simple - the armies would charge at each other, and the side with more

  • manpower or tactical skill would win on the battlefield.

  • Sure, there were X-factors - like large animal mounts, familiar terrain, or even a wooden

  • horse disguising the enemy soldiers - but for the most part, armies knew what to expect

  • when it came to war.

  • That changed in the 16th and 17th centuries as gunpowder became more widely available,

  • and suddenly wars were more likely to be determined by the quality of one's weapons.

  • Killing from a distance became easier, and a well-armed platoon could take a weaker army

  • by surprise and end the battle quickly.

  • The arms race was on - and it was about to turn deadly.

  • Chemical weapons weren't a new idea, but until the 19th century they were rudimentary

  • at best.

  • Evidence of a battle site in the Syrian desert found evidence of chemical residue and sulfur

  • crystals indicating that toxic sulfur dioxide may have been used as a trap for Roman soldiers

  • invading the fortress.

  • The combination of pitch and sulfur would be lit, and create a cloud that would quickly

  • knock out the invading army.

  • But the industrial age would change everything.

  • Small and large wars broke out around the world in the 19th century, and many nations

  • were seeking an edge, sensing that something larger was right around the corner.

  • Many scientists, encouraged by their military leadership, began developing ways to mass-produce

  • deadly weapons that could asphyxiate or poison their enemies.

  • The reaction was swift - and the world was horrified.

  • While international law was still in its early phases and it was long before the United Nations

  • existed, a large group of national leaders met in The Hague, Netherlands in 1899 and

  • 1907 to outline laws that would govern warfare.

  • Among other decisions, they outlawed the use of poison or poisoned weapons in combat.

  • A third conference was scheduled for 1914.

  • It would never happen.

  • Tensions in Europe had been rising for a while, but they would explode in 1914 when Gavrilo

  • Princip, a radical nationalist from Serbia, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian

  • throne.

  • A war broke out between the two nations, quickly joined by Germany, and it soon swept across

  • the continent.

  • Great Britain, France, and Russia led one side, while Germany and Austria-Hungary led

  • the other, and the United States was eventually brought into the conflict several years in

  • by a series of sea attacks and diplomatic controversies.

  • It would be one of the largest and bloodiest wars in history, killing over twenty million

  • people total and leading to the mobilization of seventy million soldiers.

  • It would come to be known asthe war to end all wars.”

  • It would also be the war that led to the most significant use of chemical weapons in history.

  • The use of gas weapons in the war began quickly, only months after war broke out, but the first

  • ones used were anything but deadly.

  • France was the first country to experiment with gas, but their choice of tear gas didn't

  • have the impact they wanted.

  • The ethyl bromoacetate grenades dispersed quickly in the open air and were little more

  • than an annoyance to the German soldiers.

  • When the Germans tried their own chemical irritants months later, the results were the

  • same - and the British troops were far more worried about the bullets.

  • These basic weapons weren't considered a violation of any treaties.

  • But that was about to change.

  • It was 1915 when Germany deployed their next chemical weapon - a massive quantity of tear

  • gas made from xylyl bromide.

  • It targeted Russian troops near Warsaw, but they hadn't accounted for one thing - it

  • was the dead of winter, and the gas didn't vaporize.

  • It froze, and had no impact on the troops.

  • The use of tear gas became a dead end in the war, and the Germans turned their attention

  • to other - more deadly - chemicals.

  • It wouldn't be long before they found lethal success.

  • Chlorine has long been a dangerous gas, albeit one with a lot of uses.

  • It's used in keeping pools clean among other jobs, but every container on it comes with

  • a host of warnings - it's a dangerous irritant that can cause damage to the eyes, throat,

  • and lungs if it makes contact.

  • When turned into a gas, it can even cause respiratory distress and asphyxiation if it's

  • concentrated enough.

  • German companies produced chlorine as a by-product of creating industrial dyes, and they were

  • soon put to work weaponizing it for the German army.

  • It wasn't long before the first successful chemical attack of WW1 would take place.

  • Although historians differ on the date, what is known is that Major Karl von Zigler observed

  • a chlorine gas attack on British troops, and it was a world of difference between that

  • and the earlier tear gas attacks.

  • This gas was potent, and it reportedly killed 140 English officers.

  • While von Zigler was reporting a great success, even he was shocked at what he saw - referring

  • to it as a horrible weapon.

  • No one is sure why this gas was so deadly, but some suspect it may have been a hybrid

  • of Chlorine and another gas.

  • The arsenal of chemical weapons would soon expand terribly.

  • By April 22nd, 1915, chlorine gas was a regular weapon of the German troops.

  • The next brutal attack came when 168 tons of the gas was turned into a massive cloud

  • targeting French Colonial troops from Martinique and Algeria.

  • As the gigantic greyish-green cloud floated towards the soldiers, they panicked, abandoning

  • their posts and creating a massive gap in the Allied line.

  • There was only one problem - the German troops were hesitant to advance into it as well.

  • And that was the double-edged sword of chemical warfare - it didn't recognize your military

  • colors.

  • It killed everyone equally.

  • Chemical weapons were starting to define the war - and the other armies began to respond.

  • The first step was the nations opposing Germany issuing a formal condemnation of the attacks,

  • claiming they violated international law.

  • But Germany had a unique defense - the treaties only banned the use of chemical weapons in

  • shells or other weapons, but there was nothing regulating their use as a gas.

  • The Germans continued deploying gas regularly, including in a massive attack in Russia that

  • led to over a thousand fatalities.

  • This led to Russia opening its own division to study the mass delivery of chemical weapons.

  • But was there a way to neutralize this new deadly weapon?

  • It soon became clear that the ones who were overcome by poison gas were the ones who tried

  • to escape.

  • Moving made the effects of the gas worse, and the higher they stood, the less they were

  • affected.

  • The gas was denser near the ground, and it didn't take much to minimize the effects.

  • Chlorine gas was a potent irritant but not hard to defend against.

  • Because it was visible as it approached, troops were taught to find high ground, cover their

  • mouth and nose, and protect their eyes.

  • It was even found that using urine to wet the cloth might be more effective since the

  • compound urea reacted with chlorine and weakened it.

  • Effective, if not appealing.

  • But poison gas wouldn't stay on the German side - and it wouldn't remain as easy to

  • neutralize.

  • When German forces refused to stop deploying the weapons in violation of the treaties,

  • the British quickly started developing their own Chlorine gas.

  • Their initial attempt at deploying it was foiled by the win, even blowing it back on

  • them at times, and the flannel gas masks they used to protect themselves weren't effective.

  • The Germans were then able to shoot at the unused cylinders of chlorine, releasing it

  • against the British.

  • Chlorine was the first to be deployed, but it wouldn't be the most deadly.

  • It was 1915 when French chemists introduced phosgene to the world.

  • This was created in 1812 by synthesizing carbon monoxide and chlorine with sunlight, and it

  • had a few advantages over chlorine gas.

  • For one thing, it had a less distinct smell - described somewhat like moldy hay.

  • Second, it was actively poisonous.

  • Its effects aren't apparent like chlorine, and its poison levels are lower than many

  • deadly gases - but it can cause people to develop a pulmonary edema, resulting in a

  • potentially fatal reaction hours after the facts.

  • When combined with chlorine gas, it became a deadly weapon.

  • It would soon be produced by all of Germany, France, the UK, and the United States.

  • But it was 1917 when the deadliest gas would enter the fray.

  • It was known as mustard gas, but it was anything but a tasty topping for hot dogs.

  • A sulfur-based compound, it had a yellowish-brown tinge and its odor resembles mustard and horseradish.

  • Unlike chlorine, it was deployed in a fine mist rather than a gas, and its effects were

  • horrible.

  • While it could be fatal in high enough levels, for those who were exposed the pain would

  • be extreme.

  • Their skin would blister, their eyes would become painful and hard to open, and it would

  • cause uncontrolled vomiting.

  • If it settled in the lungs, it would attack the bronchial tubes and cause internal bleeding.

  • For those who were injured fatally, they could linger for weeks in agonizing pain.

  • But like all chemical weapons, it had its drawbacks.

  • Mustard gas would settle to the ground as an oily liquid, but it didn't disperse quickly,

  • and an army that used it would then have to advance into the same area they had gassed.

  • Mustard gas was so potent that the German army chose to saturate the area they attacked

  • with it rather than mount a conventional attack, letting the enemy forces retreat rather than

  • moving on them.

  • It wouldn't be long before the allied forces took on this deadly new weapon as well.

  • The United States even started developing a deadlier gas named Lewisite - but it wasn't

  • deployed in the First World War because hostilities came to an end in November 1918.

  • And when both sides looked at what these new weapons had done, they were horrified.

  • In total, these poison gases and chemical weapons had claimed a total of 1.3 million

  • casualties.

  • But by the end of the war, armies were using protective gear to minimize its effects, and

  • it had become more of a brutal accent to the fighting than a game-changing weapon.

  • While the hostilities between world powers were over, these same world powers started

  • using chemical weapons in various colonial conflicts - where the opposing armies usually

  • didn't have the resources to defend themselves.

  • This horrified the public when details got out, and momentum started to build against

  • poison gas once again.

  • But would it stick?

  • In 1925, most of the First World War nations had signed the Geneva Protocol, an expanded

  • ban on all poison weapons that closed the loophole that allowed the use of poison gas

  • clouds.

  • It also included all liquids, materials, or devices that were equivalent to the gases.

  • However, some nations - including the United States - did not officially sign it until

  • the 1970s.

  • It seemed like the mass use of chemical weapons was over.

  • But it would soon be seriously tested.

  • It would only be a few decades before war enveloped the world again - this one even

  • bigger and deadlier.

  • The nations, many of whom had been involved in both global conflicts, quickly stockpiled

  • chemical weapons, but there were only isolated uses in China and Ethiopia, and an accidental

  • mustard gas bombing of Warsaw in 1942.

  • While mustard gas in particular was stockpiled, it's likely every nation was waiting for

  • someone else to use it first - but few did, and the arms race of chemical weapons didn't

  • get out of control again.

  • It seemed like the horrible poison gas wars of the First World War had put this terrible

  • weapon on the shelf.

  • Of course, that didn't mean a far deadlier arms race wasn't about to begin

  • For more on that terrible weapon, check out “50 Facts About Nuclear Weapons You Didn't

  • Know”, or watch this video instead.

You're a soldier in the trenches of the Western Front in the Great War.

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Poison Gas in World War 1 - Weapons of Mass Destruction

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    Summer posted on 2021/07/17
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