Chemical Warfare Service: Chemicals in Combat

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He spread the word that the poison gas was chlorine the evening of the attack, Morin-Pelletier says, as did a field ambulance doctor, Capt. Francis Scrimger. He told his staff to urinate on their handkerchiefs and use them as a face cover when they went into affected areas to rescue the wounded, she adds.

Scrimger knew that the ammonia in urine, a base, could help neutralize chlorine gas, which transformed into a strong acid in body tissue. Quick, Boys! These makeshift defenses helped defuse the new weapon—a necessary step because the German Army would deploy chlorine five times more on the battlefield near Ypres in the weeks after the first gassing. A variety of gas masks were soon devised and divvied out among Allied troops. Full-body, canvas cloaks with clear plastic viewing windows might have doubled as military-issue ghost costumes.

But eventually, more sophisticated respirators were invented. These hoods, often made from canvas or rubber, had plastic viewing windows and featured tubing that connected to a canister, which filtered the incoming air. The filter in the canister was of key importance, Freemantle says. As new gases were deployed on the battlefield, the filters had to evolve to deactivate all manner of poisons.


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Gas mask filters had three important components. The first was activated charcoal, which features a highly porous structure that allowed air to pass yet also trapped larger poison gas molecules such as phosgene. The filters also contained acid-neutralizing agents, namely strong bases such as sodium hydroxide and calcium hydroxide. And finally, the masks contained oxidizing agents, such as potassium or sodium permanganate, which indiscriminately attacked and destroyed many poisons.

Within a year of the first gas attack, the Allies had gas masks that were as protective as those worn by German soldiers, Freemantle says. A major challenge on both sides was ensuring soldiers actually kept their gas masks on. They hit on the idea of arsenic-containing compounds that could penetrate the filters.

The first thing the soldiers would do was take off the gas mask. Then they would fire the real poison.


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The soldiers might also have simply stayed the course and kept their masks on. Eventually, both of the warring parties in WWI realized that deploying poison gas from cylinders was an unreliable strategy. As a result, an overwhelming majority of chemical weapons used during the war were deployed in some form of artillery shell. But getting these poisons into the shells posed some major problems, from the danger to factory workers to the technical challenges of transporting the weapons to the front lines without leakage, Gal says.

Chemical weapons containing halogens, for instance, attacked the iron-containing shells of the steel artillery. To address this issue, workers would line the shell containers with lead, ceramic, or glass to prevent corrosion, Gal explains.

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Historians estimate that between 35 million and 66 million shells filled with chemicals were fired altogether, Gal says. As gas mask technology improved, both sides got better at surviving onslaughts of poison-filled artillery shells, and once again the two sides hit a stalemate. That is, until the summer of , when Germany introduced mustard gas.

Within a year, the Allies were also deploying the poison. This liquid produces a toxic vapor that goes beyond hurting the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, which are the standard gas target areas that can be protected with a mask.

The Chemical Warfare Service: Chemicals in Combat

Mustard gas also attacks the skin. And it has a delayed reaction. The skin blistered, the eyes became extremely painful and nausea and vomiting began. Worse, the gas attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane. The pain was almost beyond endurance and in most cases [victims] had to be strapped to their beds. Victims were often temporarily and sometimes permanently blind, and they took weeks, sometimes months, to recover, bogging down frontline medical facilities. Mustard gas was also persistent for weeks in the environment.

Troops could be marching through contaminated areas, unaware that they were being exposed. After returning to their trenches or barracks, they could then contaminate other soldiers many hours before their own blistering and blindness began. When armistice finally occurred on Nov. A vast majority of WWI historians argue that chemical weapons had no decisive effect on the outcome of the war.

Yet in the postwar aftermath, chemical weapons had some notable fans.


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  4. Until his death in , Haber also argued in favor of chemical weapons, contending that they were more ethical than conventional weapons. Postwar public perception of chemical warfare in the U. The public perception is that it is evil and unsportsmanlike. Many in the military also thought chemical weapons were unsportsmanlike. In the U. This was one small signal of a pivotal shift in warfare. France had experimented with tear gases first, on a small scale; but it was Germany, the world leader in chemistry, that had taken up chemical weapons with fervor.

    International treaties outlawed poison-gas shells in , but Germany argued that gas canisters were still permissible. Either way, once deadly gases entered the field of war, gas shells were adopted by both sides. Within a year of Germany first using chlorine gas, in April at Ypres, chemical weapons had become a key part of the arsenal for both the Allied and Central Powers. Stories of gas warfare still manage to shock and astonish us.

    If war is hell, the chemical attacks of World War I have come to seem worse than hell.

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    Church saw all this firsthand. Chemical weapons are remembered for the fear and suffering they brought to the battlefields, but they deserve just as potent a reputation for their transformation of civilian science. The United States had only experienced chemical weapons secondhand, through the reports of such men as Church. Yet thousands of miles from the front lines these weapons prompted Americans to mobilize a sprawling apparatus of laboratory research, factory production, and military training. Their impact on the home front persists to this day. In early Church and another observer were sent back to Paris to attend a French course on asphyxiating gases.

    Most of its high-ranking employees were engineers and chemists. By February American entry into the war seemed inevitable. President Woodrow Wilson sent a request for support to U. This request reached the desk of Van H. Manning, an inventive and stubborn man who directed the relatively new Bureau of Mines. Manning immediately called a meeting of his staff. In the previous year his bureau had worked on such problems as the determination of moisture in coke, the installation of electric lighting in mines, and the prevention of coal-dust explosions.

    It had also organized rescue operations after major mine accidents. At first glance these seem like the domestic concerns of a civilian agency—hardly relevant to a world war. At the meeting, however, an engineer named George S. Rice suggested that the bureau could build on its experience with toxic mine gases to counter the poison gases deployed against Allied troops. In a way mines were the trenches of the home front.

    History of United States' Involvement in Chemical Warfare

    They were cramped, claustrophobic, and often deadly, causing an average of 2, deaths annually between and Many miners died not from structure collapse but from poisonous gases that seeped out of the sediment or billowed from mine fires. Manning wrote to the secretary of the interior with his offer: the Bureau of Mines could immediately assist the military in developing defenses against toxic gases.

    For several years researchers at the Bureau of Mines had been developing gas masks that successfully filtered toxic air through porous activated carbon, at least for a few hours. In an era when miners still carried canaries into coal mines, these masks represented advanced technology. The Bureau of Mines was immediately placed in charge of gas defense.

    The National Research Committee created a special Subcommittee on Noxious Gases to consolidate military, medical, and chemical expertise. These were the seeds of an unprecedented partnership: vast swaths of civilian science were being mobilized in the service of war. He sent each one to a different part of the country to rally support. In only two months the Bureau of Mines obtained offers of material and research support from chemists at 3 corporations, 3 government agencies, and 21 universities.

    WWII Chemical Warfare

    Steadily they would be drawn into the war effort. Because the bureau was still seeking laboratory space, chemists began with independent research at their home institutions. At the University of Michigan researchers studied the effects of mustard-gas poisoning. Yale University built a toxicology laboratory beneath the bleachers of its athletic field. Elsewhere, scientists experimented with gas-mask design, mass-production techniques, and the synthesis of new toxic chemicals. Chemists hired by the bureau began to arrive even before the space was complete.

    They started their work surrounded by the racket of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. All this unfolded while the military pursued two other essential tasks. If chemical weapons were unfamiliar to chemists, they were even more unfamiliar to soldiers. They sought an initial cohort of privates, 30 fighting chemists, and various technical recruits. The troops, meanwhile, would need a reliable source of weapons, gas masks, and protective clothing.

    In Long Island City millions of gas masks were produced, largely by female workers. Meanwhile, in Edgewood, Maryland, just 50 miles from American University, the army built several airtight buildings for filling shells with gas. It centralized operations even further with a cluster of massive plants that synthesized toxic gases, from chlorine and phosgene to the infamous mustard gas. Washington was now the hub of American chemical warfare efforts, and the Bureau of Mines was the leading civilian organization in poison-gas research.

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