by Andrew Arnett

With the December release of the major motion picture 1917, the public has turned its attention once again to the horrors of World War One. Originally dubbed “the war to end all wars,” World War One turned out to be anything but, opening a Pandora’s box on to more lethal and vicious methods of killing.

With the passing of time, World War One has acquired the more accurately descriptive monicker of ‘Chemist’s War.’ Aside from military hardware upgrades which define modern warfare to this day, including the use of airpower, machine gun, and tank, World War One will always be associated with having introduced the use of chemical weapons to the world.

Lethal gas is a particularly nasty weapon. The mere mention of it strikes dread in the hearts and minds of soldiers. It blurs enemy lines. Contaminates the battlefield. Even combatant’s faces are hidden behind a surreal mask. The fog of war has never been so deadly as when it contained poison gas. Here now is a look back at some of the chemical weapons used in the past century of warfare.


Australians at First Battle of Ypres (1915).

Chlorine gas was introduced by the German military at the First Battle of Ypres on April 22, 1915. It was the first mass use of poison gas on the Western Front.

Two Allied divisions containing French and Algerian troops were decimated when the poison gas wafted over their trenches. It is said that the German troops where so shocked by the effects of the gas upon the Allies that they failed to advance, allowing the Allies to hold their positions, albeit with a corps of corpses. Following this battle, France, Britain and the United States began developing and stockpiling their own arsenal of chemical weapons.


Phosgene was a killing agent upgrade from chlorine, being deadlier and almost odorless. Developed by French chemists, it was introduced into the war theater in 1915.

Not as notorious as mustard or chlorine, it nonetheless accounted for the bulk of casualties from chemical weapons, some 85% of the 100,000 deaths in World War One.

In Death’s Men (1978), Denis Winter describes the effects of phosgene attack as “shallow breathing and retching, pulse up to 120, an ashen face and the discharge of four pints of yellow liquid from the lungs each hour for the 48 of the drawing spasms.”


Mustard gas was introduced by the Germans in 1917. Being heavier than air, it could linger on the battlefield for weeks or even months depending on weather conditions. It caused the skin to blister, eyes to sore, and induced vomiting. It stripped bronchial tubes of mucous membrane and the fatally injured could wait up to five weeks to die a painful death.

As an aftermath of the horrors of World War One, the League of Nations drafted the Geneva Protocol in 1925, banning chemical and biological warfare. Today, over 100 countries are signatories.

Victim of mustard gas during World War One.

Zyklon B

Because of the Geneva Protocol, poison gas was not utilized on the battlefield during World War Two. Ironically, more people died from lethal gas during the second World War than during the first.

Over a million people were gassed to death in the privacy of Nazi German extermination camps during the Holocaust. The gas of choice was Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide manufactured by the German chemical conglomerate IG Farben.

Agent Orange

Agent Orange is an herbicide and defoliant developed by the U.S. and British during the 1940’s and 1950’s, and was utilized by the U.S. during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1971.

In 1966, resolutions were introduced to the Untied Nations charging the U.S. violated the Geneva Protocol by utilizing Agent Orange. However, the U.S. defeated most resolutions, claiming that the chemical was not used to target humans but rather, used in an effort to destroy plants and foliage for the purpose of depriving the enemy of cover.

Nonetheless, the Red Cross estimated up to three million Vietnamese people were affected by Agent Orange. These numbers included up to 400,000 killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects due to exposure to the noxious chemical.

In addition, studies have shown that U.S. veterans who served in Vietnam have increased rates of cancer, and nerve, digestive, skin, and respiratory disorders. The U.S. Veterans Administration has determined a list of conditions that may be associated with exposure to Agent Orange/dioxin and thus, eligible for treatment and compensation.

Napalm strike, Vietnam (1966). Public Domain


Developed in a laboratory at Harvard University in 1942, napalm was first used in the European theatre and the Pacific War on Japanese cities during World War Two.

Made from a mixture of polystyrene and benzene, creating a jellied gasoline, it was extensively utilized during the Vietnam War by the U.S. When used as an incendiary weapon, napalm causes severe burns, asphyxiation, unconsciousness and death.

Napalm’s use is not restricted by the Geneva Protocol, because International law does not prohibit the use of incendiaries against military targets, though its use against civilian populations was banned by the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in 1980.

Napalm will always be associated with the Vietnam War, due in part to the iconic photograph taken by Nick Ut of Kim Phuc burned from a napalm attack.

VX, Sarin, and the Organophosphates (Nerve Agents)

The Organophosphate group of chemical weapons are referred to as nerve agents, because they target the central nervous system of the human being.

The first nerve agent, called Tabin, was created by German scientists in the 1930’s. Though not used on the battlefield, the Nazis produced 12,ooo tons of Tabin between 1942 and 1945, as well as Sarin, another form of nerve agent.

In the 1950’s, the deadlier nerve agent VX was developed by the British. In minute amounts (30 micrograms), VX can cause nausea, convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure and death within minutes of exposure.

In the 1960’s, the U.S., as a deterrent to the Soviet’s own brand of nerve agents, manufactured and stockpiled 4400 tons of VX, an amount sufficient to kill every person on the planet. However, in 1969, President Nixon agreed to ban the manufacture of chemical weapons, placing the remaining stockpile in storage.

Fighting in Iran-Iraq War.

Iraq, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), became the first country to use nerve agents on the battlefield. It is estimated that Iran suffered over 50,000 casualties from nerve gas attacks. In addition, it is reported that Saddam Hussein used nerve agents against his own people in Halabja, killing 5000 Kurds, with a mixture of sarin and VX.

In 2003, the U.S. launched the Iraq War on the pretext of securing Saddam Hussein’s WMD’s, yet non were found during that eight year occupation. Here is an indication of the psychological power of chemical weapons, with their ability to conjure fear and panic, with the mere suggestion thereof.

On August 21, 2013, Ghouta, Syria, was struck by rockets containing sarin gas, killing almost 2000 people. The Syrian government and rebel opposition blamed each other for the attack. As a result, the Syrian government agreed to have their stockpile of nerve agents destroyed.

On August 13, 2014, the U.S. Navy announced that it had destroyed all of Syria’s precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of sarin gas. However, any comfort that can be derived from this fact may be short lived. Recently, former Pentagon official John A. Shaw claimed that it was possible that some of Syria’s chemical weapons may have been moved to Iraq, and is being hidden by ISIS.

This is an updated story first published by Andrew Arnett on August 15, 2014 @ Medium


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