The first World War has been reported to be one of the most brutal wars in the history of time for many reasons. One of those reasons was strategic usage of chemical warfare. Chemical gas was used on both sides of the line, which turned out to be fatal for many. World War I was mostly fought in the trenches, where soldiers lived in deep, v-shaped holes or underground bunkers. Both sides would occupy these trenches in order to escape from the constant stream of bullets. These battles often ended in a standoff, or tie, which helped the introduction of a different, brand new style of fighting that included the use of chemicals.
These chemicals had a range of effects. These effects ranged from a simple tearing agent, to causing a slow, painful dead by asphyxiation or heart failure. Some believe it was the Germans who started chemical warfare but it was the French who really started it. It was the first month of the war, August 1914 and the Germans were rapidly advancing through Belgium, and were approaching the French border at an incredible velocity. As defense, the French fired tear gas grenades (these contained bromide vapor) on their own troops to scare the Germans and have them hesitate until the gas had dispersed.
Nevertheless, the Germans were the first to seriously study chemical weapons, create and use fatal chemicals, and the first to use gas in a large scale. The second chemical warfare incident was the Germans who fired shells at the French that contained a chemical irritant that resulted in a sneezing fit in October 1914. Before World War I, when chemicals were first being introduced, many countries, including France and Germany, signed the Hague Convention in 1899. By signing this convention, nations banned the use of projectiles whose sole purpose was to asphyxiate or eliminate soldiers.
The Hague II reinforced these rules and added more specifics like banning the use of poison gas and to not use projectiles, weapons, and materials that would cause unnecessary suffering. The French were the first to break the convention, but the public did not hear very much of it. The Germans were actually the ones to get burned by the press and newspapers for their perpetration of the convention. German officials immediately responded, saying that the French broke the convention first, and that they did not use a projectile to disperse the gas, so technically, their attack didn’t count.
The first instance of poisonous chemical gas was chlorine gas on April 22, 1915 at the start of the second battle of Ypres. This happened by a man against the Germans who ran for almost ten miles and into German territory for another five miles to shoot the chlorine gas into their territory. The effects of chlorine gas were severe and horrible. Within seconds of inhaling its vapor it destroyed the victim’s respiratory organs, bringing on choking attacks and asphyxiation, which eventually led to death.
After the Germans used their first chemical attack, the world publicized their opinion, saying that Germany broke the Hague Convention first. That is how they have been blamed for breaking the treaty. One the first German attacks, allied troops held cotton pads soaked in their own urine to give some sort of protection against the chlorine gas. It was found that the ammonia in the pad neutralized the chlorine. These pads were held to the soldiers’ faces until they were able to escape the area infected with the poisonous fumes.
Because this idea disgusted many soldiers, they preferred to use handkerchiefs, a sock, or flannel material. These materials would be dampened with a solution of bicarbonate, and tied across the mouth and nose until the gas passed over. The soldiers found that it was very difficult to fight with fabric on one’s face, so attempts were made to develop better means of protecting their men against these fatal gas attacks. By July 1915, soldiers were given efficient gas masks and anti-asphyxiation respirators as a standard issue.
Lachrymator or tearing agent was much like today’s tear gas or mace in World War I. This gas may cause temporary blindness and inflammation of the nose and throat of the victim. A gas mask would easily offer good protection against this gas. This chemical and any chemical with bromide were quite popular during World War I since it was easily brewed. Asphyxiates are the poisonous gases which include chlorine, phosgene, and diphosgene. Chlorine inflicts damage by forming hydrochloric acid when it comes in contact with moisture such as what is found in the lungs and eyes.
It is lethal at a ratio of 1:5000 (gas/air), whereas phosgene is deadly at 1:10,000 (gas/air) – twice as toxic! Diphosgene, first used by the Germans at Verdun on 22 June, 1916, was deadlier still and could not be effectively filtered by standard issue gas masks. Blistering Agents, like mustard gas, were seen as the most dreadful of all chemical weapons in World War I. Unlike the other gases which attacked the respiratory system, this gas acts on any exposed, moist skin, which makes it extremely dangerous. This includes, but is not limited to, the eyes, lungs, armpits and groin.
Obviously, a gas mask that covered one’s face could offer very little to no protection whatsoever. The oily reacting agent would produce large burn-like blisters wherever it came in contact with skin. It also had a way of hanging around in low areas for hours, even days, after being dispersed, which could make an area completely unusable to the soldiers on either side. A soldier jumping into a shell crater to seek cover could find himself blinded instantaneously, with skin his blistering and his lungs bleeding before he even had time to react.
Mustard gas was used in chemical warfare and was made in large amounts during World War I and II. It was also used in the Iran-Iraq was in 1984-88. It is presently use in the U. S. for research purposes. The U. S. secretary of Defense was instructed to destroy all remaining stocks of lethal military chemical agents, including mustard gas, by 1997. Mustard gas has been a favorite chemical weapon in wars because it can be fairly delivered via conventional bombs, rockets, and artillery shells and because mustard gas contamination can render an area unusable by enemy forces.
Mustard agents, as known as blistering agents, produce wounds that look like burns or blisters when they come into contact with the skin. These agents may also cause severe damage to the other organs on the body such as the eyes, the respiratory system and other internal organs. This gas received its name from an early production method that yielded a mustard-smelling agent in 1822, where it was invented. Symptoms don’t actually occur until 2 -24 hours later from the first contact point, resulting in severe cell damage before the patient may even know they have been exposed.
Mild symptoms consist of: eye pain, lacrimation, irritation of the mucous membranes, inflammation of the skin, hoarseness, and coughing and sneezing. Severe symptoms consist of: blistering, blindness, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory complications. The leading cause of dead is lung injury. Lung injuries start off mild and gradually increase until they result in chemical pneumonia and pulmonary edema, and the bone marrow and lymphatic tissue look similar to radiation exposure and also a drastic reduction in the number of the body’s white blood cells within 5-10 days after exposure.
Decontamination is the most important treatment that can be done for a mustard exposed patient. Removal of clothing, bathing, flushing of the eyes, and washing of the hair are key initial management steps. Some people go as far as to say you should shave hair completely of as if exposed to lice. Treatment beyond this is primarily includes antibiotics and pain medication. Phosgene is an odorless gas that is now used to make plastics and pesticides, but at room temperature can be fatal.
Often the effects of phosgene gas tend to not show up for almost 2 days and by that time it would be too late for treatment. To ship this agent, it must be cooled, pressured, and put into a liquid form, before it can ever be safely distributed. Unfortunately, if released from said pressure, it quickly turns back into a gas that stays frighteningly close to the ground like fog because in gas form, it is heavier than air and spreads quickly. Depending on the type, phosgene gas may appear as a pale yellow, white, or even colorless cloud.
With low concentrations, it has an aroma of fresh cut grass or green corn or has no sent at all, but at high concentrations, its odor may be very unpleasant and pungent. This was used mostly as a choking agent that was responsible for a large majority of the chemical deaths in World War I. Phosgene is used today to form a base for other chemicals such as pesticides. The risk of exposure all depends on how close in proximity one is to an area with phosgene. If in its gas form, people may be exposed through skin and eye contact and/or through inhaling air that is polluted with phosgene.
If in its liquid form, people may be exposed by touching, drinking, or eating things that are contaminated with this intense poison. Phosgene poisoning can cause damage through irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Immediately after exposure to dangerous concentrations of phosgene, the following symptoms may develop: coughing, burning sensation to throat and eyes, watery eyes, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, lesions to skin similar to frostbite or burns, coughing pink tinted mucus, low blood pressure, and heart failure.
One way to protect ones self from exposure is to run to higher ground. If one believes they are exposed, remove all clothing and wash entire body with soap and water. After one is away from infected area, seek medical attention immediately. As a result of all the different types of chemicals being produced and used against the enemy, countries like Britain began testing and creating defenses for chemical gases like the gas mask. One of the first gas masks looked like a crude sack with a rectangular cutout for the eyes, which was covered with an eye-piece.
Its only real protection was that it was dipped in anti-gas chemicals such as: sodium hyposulphite, glycerin, and water. This proved to be quite weak and the eye piece was easily broken, which made the whole mask moot. Later, the British box respirator was first introduced in April 1916, and by January of the next year, it become standard issue for all soldiers, especially ones in the trenches. The gas mask has made many reforms to get to the standard of what it is today, but in the early 20th century, the gas mask was at the peak of the new technology, especially because it was saving soldiers.
In conclusion, many of the chemical gas used in World War I was invented as a terror weapon to cause panic and confusion towards the enemy. It was also a psychological weapon, with the use of non-lethal tearing agents sent first to have the enemy remove their gas masks thereby making them more vulnerable to a later attack with one of the more deadly types. This fact and many of the other facts written above are some reasons why many believe that the first World War was one of the most vile and brutal wars.
Courtney from Study Moose
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