A Brief History of Chemical Warfare (2023)

Know your WWI chemical weapons

Three substances were responsible for most injuries and deaths from chemical weapons during World War I: chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas.

Chlorgas, used on the infamous April 22, 1915, produces a greenish-yellow cloud that smells of bleach and is immediately irritating to the eyes, nose, lungs and throat of those exposed to it. At high enough doses, it kills by asphyxiation.

Phosgen, which smells like moldy hay, is also an irritant but six times more deadly than chlorine gas. Phosgene is also a much more stealthy weapon: it's colorless, and at first the soldiers didn't realize they'd received a lethal dose. After a day or two, the victims' lungs filled with fluid and they slowly suffocated to an agonizing death. Although the Germans were the first to use phosgene on the battlefield, it became the Allies' primary chemical weapon. Phosgene was responsible for 85% of chemical weapons deaths in World War I.

Senfgas, a potent bladder agent, has been dubbed the king of battle gases. Like phosgene, its effects are not immediate. It has a strong odor; some say it stinks of garlic, gasoline, rubber, or dead horses. Hours after exposure, a victim's eyes will become bloodshot, begin watering, and become increasingly painful, with some victims becoming temporarily blind. Worse, the skin begins to blister, especially in moist areas like the armpits and genitals. When the blisters burst, they often become infected. Mustard gas could also contaminate land where it has been used. exposure-sensitized victims; further exposure, even at lower doses, resulted in symptoms. Mustard gas caused the most chemical weapons casualties - some estimates in excess of 120,000 - but it caused few direct deaths, as concentrations in the open air on the battlefield remained below the lethal threshold.


Since the beginning of warfare, people have been looking for new ways to kill each other. Here are some notable moments in chemical warfare over the centuries.

600 v. Chr

The Athenian military poisons the water supply of the besieged city of Kirrha with poisonous Hellebore plants.

479 BCE

Peloponnesian forces use sulfur fumes against the city of Plataea.


France and Germany sign the Strasbourg Convention, the first international treaty to ban chemical weapons, in this case banning the use of poison bullets.


During the French conquest of Algeria, French troops force more than 1,000 members of a Berber tribe into a cave and then kill them with smoke.


During the American Civil War, civilians and soldiers on both sides propose using chemical weapons. Among a variety of unrealized ideas, New York schoolteacher John Doughty recommends firing chlorine gas projectiles at Confederate troops, and Confederate soldier Isham Walker suggests dropping canisters of poison gas from balloons.


A series of international treaties signed by most western nations prohibit the use of poison and poisonous weapons in war.


During the first month of WWI, the French use tear gas grenades, first developed for police use in 1912.

(Video) A Brief History Of Chemical Weapons | Mach | NBC News

German forces fire 3,000 shells containing dianisidine chlorosulphate, a lung irritant, at the British army at Neuve-Chapelle. The British are unaware that they were under chemical attack because the chemical is burned off by the explosive charge.


The Germans fired 18,000 grenades filled with the irritant xylyl bromide at Russian troops near Bolinow. The Russians are unharmed because the extreme cold prevents the liquid from evaporating.

22. April
The German military launches the first large-scale use of chemical weapons in the war at Ypres, Belgium. Nearly 170 tons of chlorine gas in 5,730 cylinders are buried along a four-mile frontal stretch. In the end, the attack kills more than 1,100 people and injures 7,000.

The British military used chemical weapons against the Germans for the first time at the Battle of Loos. They release chlorine gas from cylinders.

19. December
Six days before Christmas, the Germans used phosgene on Allied troops for the first time. More than 1,000 British soldiers are injured and 120 die.


July 12
Mustard gas is used for the first time by German armed forces; it causes more than 2,100 victims. During the first three weeks of the mustard gas operation, Allied casualties equaled the chemical weapons casualties of the previous year.


US research on mustard gas is being moved from an American University lab in Maryland to a site called the Edgewood Arsenal, operated by the newly created Chemical Warfare Service. Soon 10% of American artillery shells contain chemical weapons.

Allies begin using mustard gas against German troops.

13.–14. October
A young Adolf Hitler, a corporal in the trenches at Werwick near Ypres, is momentarily blinded during a gas attack. Hitler is evacuated to a military hospital in East Germany and spends the rest of the war recovering.

11. November
World War I ends with 1.3 million casualties from chemical weapons, including 90,000 to 100,000 fatalities, mostly from phosgene.


The Geneva Protocol is accepted by the League of Nations. The treaty prohibits the use of chemical and biological warfare agents in war, but does not prohibit the development, manufacture or stockpiling of such weapons. Many countries are signing the treaty with reservations that allow them to respond in kind in the event of a chemical weapons attack.


Benito Mussolini drops mustard gas bombs in Ethiopia to crush Emperor Haile Selassie's army. Although Italy is a signatory to the Geneva Protocol, the League of Nations does not stop using chemical weapons.

(Video) The Horrific History Of Chemical Warfare | War Machines | War Stories


German chemist Gerhard Schrader completes the synthesis and purification of tabun, a potent neurotoxin. His intention is to build a pesticide, not a chemical weapon. The chemical he makes is so strong that Army researchers call it Tabu, or Tabu in German, from which it gets its name.


During World War II, poison gases are used in Nazi concentration camps to kill civilians and by the Japanese army in Asia. Nerve agents are stockpiled by the Nazis, but chemical weapons are not used on European battlefields.


The Nazis force prisoners in the Dyhernfurth concentration camp to create tabun. Workers are often denied medical attention when exposed to lethal doses of the poison.


British soldier Ronald Maddison dies of sarin poisoning after being intentionally exposed to the poison at the Porton Down military facility.


The United States used napalm and the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, sparking national and international protests.


Egypt uses mustard gas and a nerve agent in Yemen to support a coup d'état against the Yemeni monarchy.


The Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention is concluded. Together with the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the new treaty bans the development, production and possession of biological weapons. The agreement has no mechanism to ensure compliance.


During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq uses chemical weapons, including Tabun, against Iran and Iraq's Kurdish minority. United Nations experts confirm Iraq's use of chemical weapons, but there has been little international outcry. Iran launched its own chemical weapons program in retaliation.


The Chemical Weapons Convention is signed. From 1997, the disarmament agreement bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons.


Syrian military uses sarin gas against civilians during Syrian civil war; Hundreds are killed. Bashar al-Assad's government is abandoning its arsenal of chemical weapons after threats of US airstrikes.

Fritz Haber, Life and Death

In the early evening of April 22, 1915, a greenish-yellow mist rolled over the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, startling and suffocating unprepared French troops. This inaugural act of chemical warfare had been planned for months and carried out by many people: the installation of the almost 6,000 gas cylinders alone required many German hands.

Yet Fritz Haber - and he alone - is the person we most identify with these weapons, and rightly so. Although many throughout history have invented, developed, or used chemical weapons, Haber used his considerable intelligence to militarize chemistry in World War I; in April 1915 in Ypres he saw the first fruits of this work, the first large-scale use of chemical weapons in contemporary warfare. He remained a tireless ambassador of such weapons, arguing until his death in 1934 that they were a more humane form of weaponry than modern artillery.

(Video) The History of Chemical Warfare

After World War I, Haber was classified as a war criminal by the Allies for his work, and he briefly went into hiding in Switzerland until his name was removed from the wanted list. Haber also researched and promoted chemical weapons after the war. As Dietrich Stoltzenberg describes in his comprehensive biography of the man, after World War I Haber helped improve a one-step process for making mustard gas; helped Russia develop its first chemical weapons factory by recommending a colleague to Russian emissaries seeking advice; and supported the German military in its secret chemical weapons armaments and research program until 1933, in direct violation of the peace treaty signed in 1919.

But Haber's work has also profoundly benefited humanity. His discovery of the Haber-Bosch reaction underpins the green revolution: the Nobel Prize-winning strategy for synthesizing ammonia paved the way for low-cost fertilizers with huge benefits for agriculture. He also helped lay the foundations of 20th-century electrochemistry and physical chemistry.

Haber's Janus-faced academic achievements were reflected in his personal relationships. For some he was a good friend. According to one of his closest confidants, chemist and Nobel laureate Richard Willstätter, Haber was loyal, devoted, and entertaining. “The most beautiful trips were those with Fritz Haber,” Willstätter wrote in his memoirs. "These were hours of friendship in which I got to know and understand his individuality, his noble mind, his kindness of heart, his wealth of ideas and his limitless, extravagant drive." Haber also maintained strong ties with Albert Einstein, despite their great differences of opinion about everything from German politics and national pride to the ethics of chemical weapons. During his travels, he wrote Einstein postcards in rhyme—as he did for many of his close friends—which were often humorous, ironic, or both.

But Haber's strong ego led to two failed marriages and rocky family relationships. Haber's second marriage to Charlotte Nathan ended in divorce; his first, Clara Immerwahr, ended when she committed suicide. Her son Hermann discovered his mother in a pool of her own blood, but Haber soon after left the boy for the Eastern Front to help use the chemical weapons he had invented. In this way, Haber often put his intellectual offspring ahead of his biological offspring. No wonder that years later, according to historian Ute Deichmann, Hermann and his wife declined an invitation to a scientific memorial for Haber. In a letter, Hermann's wife remarked: "One has no right to celebrate a personuntilthat would not be toleratedalivetoday."

Haber's failures as a family man may stem from his own bumpy childhood and poor father figure. As Stoltzenberg notes, Haber's mother died in childbirth, and his father blamed the son for the loss of his new bride. The father-son relationship never recovered. Despite Haber's inclination towards science, his father disapproved of his son's "chemical games" and wanted him to join the family dye business. Haber obeyed, but the two just didn't get along. In the end, Haber was freed from his domineering father's influence and allowed to pursue his dream.

Haber's life ended cruelly. He identified deeply as German and used his skills and intelligence to aid his country in war and in peace. His Nobel Prize made him famous and he was proud of his status as a war hero. But by the end of his life, his country considered him an expendable Jew, even though Haber had converted to Christianity as a young man.

In 1933 Hitler ordered that Jews be removed from public service. After Haber tried but failed to help many of his Jewish colleagues, he resigned from his founding position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry. He spent the last year of his life wandering around Europe heartbroken – both literally and figuratively. He died of a heart attack in Basel in 1934.

Terrible ingenuity

The German soldier with the worrying story was captured by Allied forces in Tunisia on May 11, 1943. He told British interrogators he was a chemist, a long way from the Berlin laboratory where he was working on a new chemical weapon with "amazing properties." The poison was colorless and almost odorless and could suffocate its victims in less than 15 minutes – a story that sounded straight out of a crime thriller. But interrogators believed the story and sent a 10-page classified report to British military intelligence, Jonathan Tucker notesWar of the Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda. But British intelligence officials doubted the report's truth and took no action - a mistake that could have had deadly consequences for the Allies in World War II.

Not only had the Germans discovered a new family of chemical weapons - nerve agents called tabun, sarin, and soman - that were far more powerful than anything the Allies had at their disposal; After the defeat of the German Wehrmacht in Stalingrad in the winter of 1943, Hitler had been close to approving their use by the Allied forces. The Nazis had also converted the Dyhernfurth forced labor camp in present-day Poland to produce thousands of tons of Tabun.

Although many senior military officers encouraged Hitler to use their powerful new chemical weapon, he was hesitant, probably for two reasons. First, as a victim of gas poisoning during World War I, Hitler balked at using chemical poisons on troops—although he had no qualms about using poisons on concentration camp inmates. Second, German military intelligence was unsure whether the Allies had also discovered nerve agents, since some of the basic research had been done in England. Any Allied retaliation against German civilians could have been disastrous. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in June 1943 that “any use of gas by an Axis power will be followed immediately by the greatest possible retaliation against munitions centers, seaports and other military installations throughout the territory of such Axis power. ”

But the Germans overestimated the capabilities of the Allies: The Allies did not have any nerve agents. The Germans had only acquired the new family of chemical weapons by accident. In 1936, a chemist named Gerhard Schrader first synthesized tabun at the German chemical company IG Farben. His goal was to develop an insecticide that would allow Germany to increase its food production. But after Schrader nearly poisoned himself and his lab colleagues with mere drops of his newly synthesized insecticide, the company realized Tabun was better suited for military applications and passed the discovery on to German military researchers. Schrader suffered from eye irritation, pinpoint pupils that obscured the surrounding world, a runny nose, and shortness of breath. Luckily for him, he avoided the next stage of neurotoxin poisoning: profuse sweating, stomach cramps, muscle spasms, unconsciousness, and asphyxiation.

By 1943, a team of German military scientists developing Tabun had also developed another nerve agent called sarin, which was six times more potent than Tabun. German Nobel Prize winner Richard Kuhn was asked to find out why the new poisons are so deadly. He soon discovered that these nerve agents interfere with a crucial enzyme called cholinesterase. In the process, Kuhn also discovered a third nerve agent: soman.

(Video) Brief history of chemical weapons

When the Nazis expanded production of Tabun in Dyhernfurth, they used 20 prisoners from the camp as guinea pigs in experiments with nerve agents; a quarter of them died in agony. Dyhernfurth prisoners were also forced to travel alongside train deliveries of the nerve agents - effectively used as human canaries to detect leaks of the poison gas. By the end of the war, after two and a half years of production, the Dyhernfurth factory had produced almost 12,000 tons of Tabun. About 10,000 tons were loaded into bombs for the Luftwaffe and another 2,000 tons locked into artillery shells. Meanwhile, Tucker writes that hundreds of forced laborers who worked in Dyhernfurth "died of exhaustion, malnutrition and poisoning."

When the Russians marched towards Berlin in February 1945, the Nazis quickly left the Dyhernfurth plant. Hundreds of forced laborers were moved on foot and in open wagons to another concentration camp, Mauthausen. Two-thirds of them died from the freezing temperatures. The Gestapo tracked down the survivors in Mauthausen and killed them to get rid of witnesses.

To prevent the Red Army from capturing nerve agent know-how, the Luftwaffe tried unsuccessfully to destroy the Dyhernfurth factory from the air. The Soviets discovered the Tabun plant and a sarin pilot plant and carried the plant's machines home. British and US military personnel panicked when they learned of the existence of these nerve agents and that the Russians had snapped up an entire Tabun manufacturing factory. They hunted down German scientists skilled in making nerve agents and used their expertise to create and stockpile these new weapons. Thus began a chemical arms race that would run parallel to the nuclear arms race for decades.

The Dark Side of British Chemical Weapons Research

On May 6, 1953, Ronald Maddison, a 20-year-old British soldier, agreed to take part in a medical experiment at the Porton Down military research facility. The promised compensation was tempting: a three-day pass and 15 shillings, which Maddison intended to use to buy his girlfriend an engagement ring. But Porton Down officials did not say they intended to use him as a human guinea pig to study the effects of the deadly nerve agent sarin.

Scientists placed 200 milligrams of pure sarin on a piece of flannel attached to Maddison's left forearm. Within half an hour Maddison was drenched in sweat and had lost his hearing; he then passed out. At this point, scientists injected him with atropine, an anti-nerve drug, and took him to the hospital; but Maddison soon stopped breathing and was pronounced dead. Officials at the highest level rushed to cover up the death. According to an inquiry conducted decades later, the Home Secretary had advised the coroner that a “closed inquiry [i.e. H. private] should take place for reasons of national security. May not be published.”

Maddison was just one of thousands of people used in chemical weapons experiments at Porton Down. The facility was built by the British military in September 1915, just a few months after the surprise poison gas attack on Ypres. Built on 3,000 acres about 85 miles southwest of London, Porton Down's aim was to test and research chemical weapons. Scientists at Porton Down, desperate to catch up with their German colleagues, studied 200 substances during the First World War. Many of these experiments relied on living beings, including dogs, goats, and humans.

By modern standards, the tests seem absurdly irresponsible: They often took place outdoors, and given the nature of gases, the toxic chemicals tended to leak out of the facility's confines and into civilian areas, notes Rob Evans, author ofgassed. Another test required a light-footed cross-country runner to stand in a field near a plume of arsenic smoke. His job was to judge the strength of the cloud by sniffing and, when the wind changed direction, running behind and ahead of the cloud.

There is evidence that many people were tested without consent or without full awareness of what was contained in the Porton Down studies. Major General Charles Howard Foulkes, commanding officer at Porton Down, wrote that during the station's first six months "the greatest difficulty was finding sufficient men to carry out the experimental work". Cooks, orderlies, and employees were diverted from their usual jobs to participate in the experiments, Evans notes.

By the end of World War I, Britain had studied the effects of 96 compounds on humans. But the end of the war did not end the use of human guinea pigs. Instead, their numbers increased rapidly. During the 1950s, more than 18,000 people - mostly soldiers, often referred to by the sanitized euphemism "observers" in official reports - were exposed to a variety of established and potential chemical weapons and psychoactive drugs. The nature and risk of the experiments were often withheld from these subjects.

In 1970 the secret records of Porton Down began to come to light. Maddison is the only known fatality, but many human subjects experienced health problems after exposure, either immediately (e.g., falling into a coma) or years later (the subjects had a higher rate of cancer). In 2004, the jury of a public inquiry into the Maddison case concluded that the young man was "unlawfully killed" at Porton Down. More than half a century after his death, Maddison's family received £100,000 in compensation.

"The death of Maddison was an accident awaiting under-disclosure and an underestimation of the risks, although there was widespread consensus in the UK that the principles of the Nuremberg Code should govern this type of experimentation," notes Ulf Schmidt, the historical expert commissioned with the investigation.

"None of the evidence I've seen indicates that any of the subjects, including Maddison, were ever informed of the specific goal of the experiments," adds Schmidt. "And I think it's pretty unlikely that a man in his right mind would have volunteered for such an experiment."

(Video) The Ultimate Guide to Chemical Weapons


1. The History Of Chemical Weapons
2. History of chemical weapons in World War 1 (FULL DOCUMENTARY)
3. History of Chemical Warfare
4. The Rise of Chlorine Gas: The First Mass Use of a Chemical Weapon
(Into the Shadows)
5. The Dawn of Chemical Warfare
6. Chemical Weapons
(Joe R)


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