Poison gas was used for the first time in war (April 22, 1915) - History Key

Poison gas was used for the first time in war (April 22, 1915)

The chemical weapons were used for the first time on a large scale during the World War I, a conflict also known as the “Chemists War”. On April 22, 1915, Germans used poison gas at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres. They spayed 180 tons of chlorine into the atmosphere, killing about 3,000 people. By the end of the First World War, more than 50,000 tons of chemical agents had been used, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, killing about 1.3 million people.

The first scientist working for an army

Chemist Fritz Haber
Chemist Fritz Haber © The Nobel Foundation/Image Source: Wikipedia

Broadly speaking, a chemical weapon is a toxic substance transported in a container. Substances used to create the chemical weapon are divided into several categories: choking substances, substances that cause blood disorders, burns and substances that attack the nervous system. Fritz Haber, a German chemist discovered the effects of liquid chlorine, which could be used as a strategic weapon in wars. He is considered the first scientist that put his knowledge in the service of army. Haber discovered that chlorine is a high-toxicity gas that focuses on the small heights above the ground and he knew that it irritates the mucous membranes, causing suffocation and ultimately death. In addition, chlorine was quite cheap, being a waste of the chemical industry. Haber won the Nobel Prize in 1918 for synthesis of ammonia.

Germans failed to take advantage

The Germans deployed around 180 tons of chlorine at north of Ypres. The gas was deposited in 5,730 cylinders, weighing 41 kg each (90 pounds). Each cylinder was opened by hand. Because of the method of dispersal, some German soldiers were injured or killed while performing the attack. On April 22 1915 at evening, the gas was released into atmosphere, forming a grey-green cloud that floated over the French army. Many French soldiers died in less than 10 minutes and many of them were blinded. Because the chlorine is denser than air, it quickly filled the trenches forcing the French troops to abandon their positions. Their movement uncovered a 7 km gap in the front line. However, the German High Commander didn’t expect to see such high effectiveness of the new weapon and most part of the German troops was in Russia. German reserves from west, attacked and advanced on the battlefield, but the Canadian troops came in and defended the flank. To counter the effects of the gas, Canadians urinated in their cloths and hold them to their faces. In the end, Germans failed to take advantage of their new weapon, the Allies succeeded to maintain most of their positions.

Chemical weapons are a global threat

Belgian troops wearing early gas masks, 1915
Belgian troops wearing early gas masks, 1915 © Image Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately right after the initial attack, French and British army began developing their own chemical weapon. By the end of the war chemical weapons were also used by US, Austrian, French and British troops. By the end of the First World War more than 1.3 million people died. Of these, approximately 250,000 were civilians.  Nevertheless the usage of chemical weapons started an unprecedented negative effect. It created a panic state across civilians, armies and politicians.

Despite the fact that panic was settled, chemical weapons were used in many wars and battles. However, even today chemical weapons are a serious threat to humankind. Therefore, the usage of chemical weapons (even in war) is prohibited under Geneva protocol and international humanitarian law.

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