Gassing Up the Great War

The creepiest WWI equipment (Photo via World Atlas).

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

— Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum est”, 1917

Chemical warfare developed rapidly during World War I. Eager to attack their enemies fatally and quickly, scientists across Europe began isolating and packaging gaseous poisons to add to their arsenal. While gas only caused 1% of deaths overall, its fear-inducing effects were so psychologically impactful that the Geneva Protocol banned it in 1925 (Gas in The Great War). There were several kinds of gas used in the war, from relatively innocuous to life-ruining and deadly.

France was the first country to use gases as weapons of war. In 1914, they used xylyl bromide (C6H4(CH3)(CH2Br) and ethyl bromoacetate (CH2BrCO2C2H5) for their effects as lachrymators (Gas in The Great War). These compounds, known as tear gas when aerosolized, are irritants of the eyes and lungs — they cause tearing (hence the name), temporary blindness, and can restrict breathing. Symptoms clear within 30 minutes, so tear gas was overall not effective (Gas in The Great War). Tear gas is still commonly used today in various forms, such as pepper spray or mace, for self-defense or crowd control (“Tear Gas”).

Germans took the concept and ran with it. In April of 1915, German troops deployed chlorine (Cl) gas against the Allied forces in Ypres. British and French troops fled their frontline trenches because they had no countermeasure — at high concentrations, this chemical damages airways and leads to asphyxiation through pulmonary edema (“Chemical Weapons in World War I”). This is because chlorine reacts with water (H2O) to form hydrochloric acid (HCl). Pulmonary edema causes wheezing, blue lips, frothy spit mixed with blood, heart palpitations, and, of course, death (“Pulmonary Edema – Symptoms and Causes”).

One British soldier, according to, had this to say about chlorine gas: “A panic-stricken rabble of Turcos and Zouaves with gray faces and protruding eyeballs, clutching their throats and choking as they ran, many of them dropping in their tracks and lying on the sodden earth with limbs convulsed and features distorted in death (City et al.).” Chlorine is extremely conspicuous in both odor and color, and wind easily shifts its path, so its use quickly fell off (Gas in The Great War).

The next compound war-scientists turned to was phosgene (COCl2), a colorless gas with a slight odor. Although it is deadlier than chlorine, phosgene symptoms often took over 24 hours to appear. Phosgene is also an asphyxiating agent with toxicity caused by its effects on the -OH, -NH2, and -SH groups of proteins found in the alveoli of lungs, disrupting gas exchange and ultimately causing pulmonary edema (“Phosgene”). Its odor does not manifest until it is past lethal concentrations, so it was stealthier than chlorine (Gas in The Great War). Phosgene caused the most deaths by chemical warfare in WWI (“Chemical Weapons in World War I”).

The most infamous gas of the Great War was mustard gas (commonly given with the formula (ClCH2CH2)2S). Mustard gas gets its name from the presence of sulfur, a chemical known for its yellow color (“Mustard Gas”). Sulfur mustard is a blistering agent, and it creates oozing blisters on the skin and in the lungs (Gas in The Great War). While other war gasses killed its victims near-immediately, blisters from mustard gas exposure prevented soldiers from battling on the front lines (Fitzgerald). This gas is heavier than air and water, so it contaminated deep areas like trenches for extended periods of time. Treating blistered lungs was more difficult than treating phosgene and chlorine gas-affected lungs; the long-term effects are described by Harry L. Gilchrist as follows:

At first the troops didn’t notice the gas and were not uncomfortable, but in the course of an hour or so, there was marked inflammation of their eyes. They vomited, and there was erythema of the skin. . . . Later there was severe blistering of the skin, especially where the uniform had been contaminated, and by the time the gassed cases reached the casualty clearing station, the men were virtually blind and had to be led about, each man holding on to the man in front with an orderly in the lead. (Fitzgerald)

Many conflicts following World War I involved gas attacks against unprepared people (“Chemical Weapons in World War I”). Chemical warfare is terrifying, yet it remains used even in modern times. The astonishing willingness to use these messed-up tactics set precedents for a century and more to come — German scientist Fritz Haber’s work led to Zyklon B, a gas used against Jewish victims of the Holocaust (Gas in The Great War).

It was remarked as a joke that if someone yelled ‘Gas’, everyone in France would put on a mask. … Gas shock was as frequent as shell shock.

— H. Allen, Towards the Flame, 1934

Works Cited

“Chemical Weapons in World War I.” Wikipedia, 4 Feb. 2022. Wikipedia, City, Inscription on the Liberty Memorial Tower in Downtown Kansas, et al. “Collection Spotlight: First Usage of Poison Gas.” National WWI Museum and Memorial, 24 Mar. 2015, Fitzgerald, Gerard J. “Chemical Warfare and Medical Response During World War I.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 98, no. 4, Apr. 2008, pp. 611–25. PubMed Central, Gas in The Great War. Accessed 8 Feb. 2022. “Mustard Gas.” Wikipedia, 10 Feb. 2022. Wikipedia, “Phosgene.” Wikipedia, 4 Feb. 2022. Wikipedia, “Pulmonary Edema – Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, Accessed 14 Feb. 2022. “Tear Gas.” Wikipedia, 5 Jan. 2022. Wikipedia,

Does All Quiet On The Western Front have the same impact today

In the 12:30 section on Tuesday we mentioned briefly how this book was banned in Germany during WW2 for being anti-German/unpatriotic, along with showing the realities of war. I have not been able to stop thinking about how this book is no longer banned, and I wonder if a new war with that type of atrocity started, would it be banned again? Do banned books work? I was wondering what your thoughts were on how we can read and see the realities of war and conditions and yet still create them? This book was published in 1929 and people who served in WW1 had to turn around and see their children and families serve in WW2. We have so much access to media today but back in the 1930’s I can’t imagine how the portrayals of the battlefields would have been accepted.