Gerard J. Fitzgerald, PhD
The economic and industrial forces that altered the face of Europe during the first decade of the 20th century were also instrumental in creating many of the technological innovations driving the war. In time, tanks, submarines, and aircraft revolutionized how World War I was waged on land, sea, and in the air. Chemical weapons were another new marvel of the war, and their successful research, development, and deployment reflected the increasing sophistication of scientific and engineering practice. At the same time, physicians and medical researchers (some of whom worked to create these weapons) struggled to create adequate defensive systems and medical procedures to limit casualties. By the time of the armistice on 11 November 1918, the use of chemical weapons such as chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas had resulted in more than 1.3 million casualties and approximately 90,000 deaths.
Although one could argue that primitive forms of chemical weapons were used in earlier conflicts, it was not until the 20th century that scientists, engineers, and physicians could predictably and consistently produce these weapons to inflict mass casualties. At the close of the 19th century, the various European powers became troubled by the potentiality of chemical weapons and began holding conferences and writing various treaties to limit or curtail the development and deployment of this new technology. Suspicion and self-interest among both allies and rivals generally limited the usefulness of these activities, an unfortunate political reality that continues to the present day. For instance, the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907 forbade the use of “poison or poisonous weapons” in warfare, yet more than 124 000 tons of gas were produced by the end of World War I.
The development of these war gases, like many of the other new weapons systems created during this period, depended on the work of academic and industrial scientists who increasingly served the military needs of the state. Germany, arguably the world’s leader in science at the time, and without question the guiding force in academic and industrial chemistry, moved decisively in the research and production of chemical agents once the war began.
The Germans started experimental work on chemical agents in late 1914 at the suggestion of University of Berlin chemist and Nobel laureate Walther Nernst. This early research quickly produced an effective tear gas artillery shell. Although the Germans fared no better than the French with tear gas as a debilitating agent, German chemists, now with a formal program led by Fritz Haber, continued to work on the chemical weapons problem. By 1915, scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute had developed an effective chlorine gas weapon. By placing chlorine into specially designed cylinders, chlorine gas could be discharged in a dense cloud that eventually settled into enemy trenches. Interestingly, the German High Command envisioned gas as an effective tool to draw soldiers out of their trenches so as to kill or wound them with conventional weapons rather than as a lethal weapon.
Fritz Haber, a prominent German chemist and future Nobel laureate, led the German program. Haber, the so-called “father of chemical weapons,” moved enthusiastically between the front and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry in Berlin. As he organized and led the German chemical warfare program, solving ongoing problems in chemical agent development and deployment, his activities anticipated a troubling pattern of behavior among future generations of scientists, engineers, and physicians.
The Germans’ first use of gas mirrored their initial emphasis on the offensive aspects of chemical weapons research and their belief that a technological fix would bring a decisive victory. Those on the receiving end, France and Great Britain, moved first on the defensive aspects of these new weapons. By war’s end, however, the national programs among the warring nations focused on both the offensive and defensive aspect of chemical weapons. These programs were often a result of the complete mobilization of their nations’ academic, industrial, and economic resources for war.
The expansion of research brought in an array of specialists from chemistry, physics, and engineering and, increasingly, from medicine, biology, and physiology, further blurring ethical demarcations in medical research. Throughout the war, the British armed forces enlisted scientists in many academic institutions—including Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, the Army Medical College at Millbrook, and the Lister Institute—to work on both aspects of gas warfare. The French government took a more direct approach to chemical weapons research by militarizing the chemistry, pathology, and physiology departments of leading medical schools and institutes. Additionally, it essentially absorbed the University of Paris in order to direct, coordinate, and research all aspects of chemical warfare.
Research conducted by Allied scientists on the nature of chemical warfare, and the observations and experience of their combat troops was employed by the United States with varying degrees of success when it joined the Allies. The United States had adopted a policy of formal neutrality at the beginning of the war, although ongoing Atlantic trade benefited the Allied cause. American sympathies for Britain, France, and other allies grew during the course of the war, aided both by the deadlock on the battlefield and the increasing menace of unrestricted submarine warfare by German U-boats. In 1917, a marked increase in U-boat attacks on commercial shipping, in addition to a potential German alliance with Mexico, led to a formal declaration of war on 6 April 1917.
The American response to chemical warfare is indicative of the growing sophistication of academic, industrial, and military research and development capabilities in the United States at a time when linkages between the federal government and science were becoming more pronounced. As the war intensified, increasing anxiety about possible entry into the conflict and the overall lack of military preparation prompted some in government, industry, and academe to begin planning. The origins of an organized program for chemical warfare in Washington came first from the civilian sector. On 8 February 1917, Van H. Manning, the director of the Bureau of Mines, offered the technical services of his agency to the Military Committee of the National Research Council. The familiarity of the bureau with research involving noxious gases, breathing apparatus, explosives, and gas detection technologies seemed well suited for the task.
On the same day as the American declaration of war, the National Research Council subcommittee on noxious gases was appointed to “carry on investigations into noxious gases, generation, antidote for same, for war purposes.” Within one year, research was under way at a number of prestigious universities and medical schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Yale, in addition to some of the country’s leading industrial firms. The chemical warfare program was directed out of offices and laboratories at American University in Washington, DC. During the course of the war, research programs involving gas investigations; defense problems; medical science problems; chemical research; gas mask research; pyrotechnic research; small-scale manufacturing; mechanical research; pharmacological research; [and] administration were carried out in Washington and across the country.
Research began as the first U.S. troops made preparations for combat. Fear of gas attacks against these members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) embarking for the European front initially focused research in the United States on defensive measures, with priority given to gas mask design and production.
As the American war effort intensified, research expanded to include offensive weapons, resulting in numerous discoveries, including the creation of one of the conflict’s only new chemical weapons, an arsenic-based agent similar to mustard gas called lewisite (β-chlorovinyldichloroarsine). Synthesized in his laboratory by Wilfred Lee Lewis, this deadly substance was soon mass-produced by the military under the direction of chemist and future Harvard president James. B. Conant. By July 1918, research and development on agents such as lewisite passed from civilian to military control as the entire chemical weapons program moved from the Bureau of Mines to the army’s newly organized Chemical Warfare Service.
At that time, chemical warfare research in the United States involved more than 1900 scientists and technicians, making it at that time the largest government research program in American history. By the time the war ended, historians estimate that more than 5500 university-trained scientists and technicians and tens of thousands of industrial workers on both sides of the battle lines worked on chemical weapons. Both the military use and industrial production of chemical weapons presented a number of health risks.
As the war progressed, the knowledge gained by British, French, and German military planners and scientists on the nature of gas warfare quickly evolved into a kind of technological chess match. New offensive threats were met by an evolving array of defensive countermeasures. Overall, the deployment of chemical weapons met with mixed results as the tactics, strategy, and military culture of all of the armies continually struggled to adjust to this new weapon. Aside from tactical and strategic consequences, chemical weapons heralded larger cultural changes for combatant and observer alike. In perhaps his most celebrated poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” British soldier Wilfred Owen captured in verse the horrors of this new form of warfare, a horror that he had witnessed first hand at the front.
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 on fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning . . .
Source: "Chemical Warfare and Medical Response During World War I", American Journal of Public Health, April 2008