Chemical weapons in World War I

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A poison gas attack using gas cylinders in World War I.

Chemical weapons were a major part of World War I. It was the first time that chemical weapons were widely used in warfare. The gas was very harmful to both sides because the gas would often blow back into the attackers front lines. For this reason the use of gas was feared by both sides. Gas masks were used to stop the gas by preventing it from traveling to the lungs. The first masks were big and clumsy. This caused them to be hated.

The soldiers and the public had been told that the First World War would have been over by December of 1914. In 1916 the war was still going on, and a stalemate had been reached. ‘The Triple Alliance’ and ‘The Triple Entente’ had to compete to create better technology to break the stalemate and to win the war.

Gas was a very effective way of attacking the enemy without direct contact. The first use of gas in the war was in 1914, when the French used tear gas grenades against the Germans. This sparked an idea for the Germans, and on 31st of January 1915, they first used Gas on a large scale. Over 18,000 shells filled with gas were launched towards the Russians. Chlorine Gas saw its first use on the 22nd of April 1915 by the Germans against the French. The French thought it was tear gas so took not so much notice of it. As it hit them, they fled in fear and some were overcome with the poisonous gas. A big opportunity had opened up for the Germans. They however had not thought Chlorine Gas add such deadly effects, so retreated, missing a huge opportunity.

Britain’s first use of gas was in December of 1915. This caused public outcry. People saw it as inhumane. This lasted during and after the war. The factories that manufactured the gases were not allowed to call them gases. An act had been signed years before forbidding the use of poisonous gases in combat. The gas was referred to as an accessory.

In WWII, Hitler refused to use gas against the enemy, as he was a victim of a gas attack in the past.

Types of Gas:

Tear Gas: First used by the French in 1914. It was effective but not deadly.
Chlorine Gas: First used by the Germans. It was a highly visible cloud of green. It damaged the eyes, throat, nose, ears and lungs. Death was caused by asphyxiation.

Phosgene Gas: First used by the French. Some symptoms appeared nearly 24 hours after exposure. It was colourless and smelt like stale hay. Sometimes it was mixed with Chlorine.

Mustard Gas: First used by the Germans in 1917. It was the most effective and most publicized gas in the war. It was very painful. It caused huge yellow blisters on contact with skin. It wasn’t as good as killing as the others. What made it so effective was that gas masks were ineffective. It was a heavy and dense mist. It sunk to the bottom of the trenches and into cracks and crevices and stayed there for weeks or even months.

Many soldiers suffered from gas attacks but only 3% of those affected actually died. However blindness was a common side effect of exposure. Death was slow and very painful. Most soldiers were sent home to die. Some took many months to die.

Russia suffered the most casualties, adding up to a total of 57,000. Gas attacks were the thing soldiers in the trenches feared over anything. 

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