gas masks

Poison Gas

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.

Among the great advancements of the 19th century was the development of the chemical industry. As the Industrial Revolution ticked on, Europeans learned how to produce and commercialize chemicals. Artificial fertilizers, soaps, dyes, petrochemical materials and more became cheap and commonplace as the chemical industry expanded first in Britain, and then in Germany and the United States. Chemistry had made life easier.

Of course, the military also pondered the use of chemicals in weaponry. Some junior soldiers and scientists suggested the utility of poison gas during the Crimean War and the American Civil War, but the trend did not catch on. It was “as bad a mode of warfare as poisoning the wells of the enemy,” announced the British Ordinance Department. The scientist who proposed the notion grumbled. “It is considered a legitimate mode of warfare to fill shells with molten metal which scatters among the enemy, and produced the most frightful modes of death. Why a poisonous vapor which would kill men without suffering is to be considered illegitimate warfare is incomprehensible.” Nevertheless, the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 banned the use of chemical weapons, one of the councils’ few achievements.

But military thinkers did not give up the idea, especially in the German army. By the spring of 1915 the Germans’ rampage across France had been checked, and a frustrating stalemate had developed. The soldiers turned back to the chemical industry. Germany had the largest chemical production in the world - and if it weaponized it, planners believed, the Entente would not be able to retaliate in kind.

Germans release gas from canister, 1915. This was a dangerous and unreliable method of using gas, and a change of wind could easily hurt the attackers as much as the enemy.

The Germans released poison gas for the first time on April 22, 1915, at Ypres. They released chlorine gas out of canisters, relying on the wind to carry it the Allied positions. The noxious clouds sent several French and Algerian divisions reeling in panic. Two days later the Germans tried it against Canadian soldiers who had plugged the hole in the line. The Canadians choked and gasped, but fought on, stemming the German wave. They had discovered that urinating on a handkerchief and tying it over their mouth and nose created a primitive gas mask. Three days later the British began rushing to the front cotton pads dipped in bicarbonate of soda, which neutralized the gas agent. 

French soldiers wear primitive gas masks.

The Entente loudly attacked the “Hun” for his barbarous use of gas, and then set to work creating their own gas weapons. Chlorine gas, and then phosgene gas, became common weapons. They were horrific weapons. Phosgene had no immediate effects, but within 24 hours soldiers would begin gasping as their lungs filled with fluid. The worst was mustard gas, which the Germans began using in 1917. It rotted the body from the inside and out, blistering skin, blinding, and stripping the mucous membrane off the bronchial tubes. The pain was unendurable.

Aerial photo of a large gas attack on the Western Front.

Using canisters to disperse gas with the wind was common at first, but a very unreliable and potentially dangerous method, so armies began using artillery shells filled with gas. It became normal to fire gas barrages before an attack, because it forced enemy soldiers and artillerymen to don their gas masks, which made fighting or loading guns hard. More sophisticated gas masks were created to protect soldiers, although the filters had to be changed every thirty minutes.

British troops with box respirators. The respirator had to be changed every thirty minutes but it was an effective mode of protection.

The shouts of “Gas! Gas!” and the rattle of gas alarms warned troops to put their gas masks on immediately. The thought of being incapacitated by gas terrified everyone. Yet it did not take long for men in all armies to get used to these drills, and gas actually did not cause a very high amount of casualties during the war, and relatively few deaths. On July 17, for example, the British fired 100,000 gas shells at the German lines at Ypres, but only killed seventy-five of the enemy. Still, gas caused around one million casualties during the war. Gas may have been more terrifying than effective, but the image of men choking and suffocating during World War One had been so horrific that European armies declined to use gas against each other during World War Two.

Types of German gas shells. Used by both sides from 1916, these contained liquid gas which evaporated on impact. This was a much more effective way of releasing gas agents on the enemy.

Looking ahead to the possibility that gas masks may some day be a necessary part of their ensemble, these University of Detroit students were trying out masks in a practice drill on the campus on June 23, 1942. Hidden behind the masks, which they soon learned to wear with a minimum of discomfort, are, from left: Mary Turner, Helen Williams, Evelyn Buss and Joan Joliet. FS/AP