Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service. . .
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World's Deadliest Weapons

by Theo Emery
Little, Brown and Company, 2017

Signal Corps Doughboys Donning Advanced Gas Protection Gear on the Western Front

The widespread use of chemical weapons is one of the unique and tragic storylines of World War I. General surveys on the use of gas in the war have been written and there are detailed histories of the Canadian and British gas services. A biography of the leading German scientist, Fritz Haber, sheds much light on Germany's chemical war. But up to now, to my knowledge, we have not had a detailed retelling of the American effort to develop and deploy chemical weapons. Thanks to Theo Emery and his new book, Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World's Deadliest Weapons, we now have that account.

The Hellfire Boys was the name given specifically to doughboys of the 30th Engineer Regiment (Gas and Flame), the first organization in the American Army tasked with using chemical weapons. The author however, uses the term in a broader sense to include all the civilian scientists and soldiers who had a hand in creating and using chemical weapons.

The author claims three main strands to his story: the research and the development of chemical weapons in American laboratories, the combat stories of the Hellfire Boys sent to France to use chemical weapons, and the story of a German chemist and spy who was captured and then forced to work for the U.S. war effort designing chemical incendiaries.

There are several other important story lines in this book. One is the development of Lewisite, a super-toxic chemical, and America's contribution to the pantheon of poison gases that combined the characteristics of an asphyxiating gas like phosgene with the blistering qualities of mustard gas. Another is the bureaucratic struggle between the U.S. Army and civilian scientists for control of the research and production of chemical weapons. Finally there is the heroic story of the mobilization of American industry to produce these weapons. In April 1917 the United States had virtually no capability to produce chemical weapons, but by the fall of 1918 the U.S. was poised to become the world's chemical weapons superpower. In many ways, this effort has many similarities to the Manhattan Project of World War II.

Parts of this book are more interesting than others. Chemistry can be dull, combat usually is not. Sometimes the author transitions from one story line to another rather abruptly. Nonetheless, there is a lot to be learned from this book. There are a lot of new names not generally known to students of the American war effort to be found here such as Vannoy Manning, George Hulett, Amos Fries, and Walter T. Scheele. There are a lot of long chemical names and terms to master like lachrymators, sternutators, asphyxiants, and vesicants.

Postwar Display of U.S. Army Gas Service Equipment

Did you know that in early 1917 the War Department outsourced the development of chemical weapons to the Bureau of Mines, because the Bureau had experience dealing with poison gas in coal mines? How did the American University, a then-struggling Methodist school in Washington DC, become the center of U.S. chemical research and development? Did you know there is a museum dedicated to the U.S. Army Chemical Corps at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where you can look at gas masks and mortars and Livens projectors from World War I, as well as more modern chemical warfare equipment?

Hellfire Boys is a well-researched and well-documented book that provides a lot of interesting information for students of the American war effort.

Clark Shilling


  1. Fascinating.
    Seems like largely forgotten history.

  2. A story about poison gas appeared in the June 16, 1918, New York Herald. Written by my grandfather Don Martin based on his visit to a chemical weapons facility, it unveiled the major role that ghastly “gas” was playing in the war.
    On a table in a large room in which were several American officers—until recently professors of chemistry and noted scientists connected with prominent American corporations—were several shells, jars of liquid, small containers filled with powder and every imaginable thing connected with the business of “killing and safeguarding with and against gas attacks.” For gas has become the big element of warfare and there is no telling how gigantic it may be before the war comes to an end.
    To sit with these experts in killing and listen to their simple statements about the possibilities of destruction, and at the same time to know them as men of finest sensibilities and humane impulses is a sort of grim revelation of the terribleness of this war and the appalling transformation that is overcoming at least a part of humanity. Of course everyone knows that Germany started the use of gas. She has forced the rest of the world as a means of self protection, to enter upon this cold, calculating, merciless work of human destruction. Germany realizes that if she insists upon carrying on her war with gas she will be met with the spirit of a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye, and it is not unlikely that it may be two for one.
    One of the big projectiles on the desk in the room referred to was a gas dud-- a shell which did not explode. It was one of 500 hurled simultaneously into American lines. The projectile is 9 inches in diameter, about eighteen inches long, weighs about seventy-five pounds and has a rather blunt nose. It contains about two gallons of the deadly phosgene gas.
    “Isn’t it a rather dangerous thing to keep around as an office pet?” I asked.
    “We took the fuse out. It’s quite harmless,” was the reply.
    This dud is hurled by minenwerfers. The Germans have a system of attaching a long string of these weapons so that they are fired with the touch of a button. This chorus firing is continued for perhaps fifteen minutes and sends a veritable shower of the big projectiles into the selected spot and releases a great quantity of the deadly gas. If the range is right and the wind at all favorable, the result is likely to be serious. The fumes are shot out with terrific speed over a small area by the explosion of the shell and a few seconds delay in getting on a mask may spell peril for the soldier.
    There were some smaller shells filled with a new gas used by the Germans. This is not poisonous but is calculated to pave the way for a genuine gas attack. The little shells contain a quantity of the chemical, which is in powdered form and a surrounding layer of TNT which causes an explosion which suggests shrapnel and high explosives rather than gas. The powder is widely spread and is intended to irritate the membranes of the throat and nose just enough to cause the person reached by it to sneeze. When he begins to do this the supposition is that he will remove his gas mask and the apparently harmless powder shells are followed by a blast of mustard gas or phosgene.
    “Suppose,” I asked one of the distinguished experts, “a gas shell should explode in a city street on a perfectly still day, how far would the fumes penetrate and how long would they take to cover a given area?”
    The expert opened a jar containing about a quart of dark liquid. When the air touched it a white smoke arose slowly. The expert blew this softly into the room and it settled with about the speed of a ring of smoke from a fragrant cigar.
    “That’s about the way the gas would travel if the air were perfectly still. One shell would probably cover an area of fifty feet in circumference and the gas would remain for a half hour or more.”

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