Evaluate the use and impact of chemical weapons in WWI. Were they an important weapon of war or were they used for terror and shock value?
World War 1 is described to be one of the most devastating wars recorded in history for a number of reasons. One of the reasons was the tactical use of chemical warfare, which was predominantly used as a weapon. Most of the course of this war was fought in trenches, strategically built for optimal leverage from either side of the line. Trenches offered substantial protection from artillery and small arm fire. However, this often resulted in a stalemate. This eventually led to a new era of weaponry involving the use of chemicals. These chemicals were specifically designed to hinder the physical capabilities of soldiers. They were capable of severely weakening and even killing soldiers. The sudden introduction of chemical warfare caught the military off guard as little was known about protection. The trauma caused by chemical weapons often remained as awful memories. The existing knowledge of chemical weapons resulted in a new class of warfare which was used primarily as a weapon.
Firstly, chemical weapons were effective during trench warfare and were capable of inflicting major injuries to soldiers from both sides. Prior to World War One, Germany and France were among the many countries that signed the Hague convention 1899. It stated that the use of chemicals or other projectiles were prohibited if they caused asphyxiation. It is often rumoured that the Germans were responsible for developing such weapons even after signing; however, it was actually the French who defied the convention first. The Germans were deemed culpable and got publicised by the press for breaching the convention. Both countries were aware of the potency of chemical weapons. Poison gassing was a major cause of the casualties that occurred. A German soldier who participated in an attack wrote “What we saw was total death. Nothing was alive.” (Willi Siebert, 1915) This demonstrates the sheer destruction that was caused due to chemical weapons. The second battle of Ypres April 22, 1915 is a pivotal example of the detrimental effects caused by chlorine gas. Once inhaled, the respiratory organs would be destroyed which eventually lead to suffocating, ultimately resulting in death. Many of the nations involved in the use of chemical weapons sustained collateral damage. This all justifies the proposition made that chemical weapons were strategically used as weapons during World War One.
Another aspect to point out is that during this time, chemical weapons were relatively new. Most scientists spent extensive periods of time designing chemicals. But what they did not focus on was developing protective measures against such chemicals. An article on poison gassing states “Scientists during the First World War were more efficient at developing poison gases than in devising means to protect the soldiers from them.”(Neil Schlager, Science and its times Vol.6, 2000, p.452) This supports the view that soldiers were not prepared to face chemical warfare. Poison gases such as Chlorine were irritants which had a devastating impact on the respiratory system. A common method of protection was wearing urine soaked handkerchiefs. It was later found out that the ammonia contained in urine neutralised chlorine. Scientists quickly designed specialised gas masks that deterred the effect of asphyxiation. It was not long until stronger, more potent chemicals were developed such as phosgene and diphosgene. Diphosgene, an extremely lethal liquid, was first administered by the Germans in Verdun 22 Jun 1916. Standard gas masks could not effectively filter it thus the substantial amount of deaths. Mustard gas, a blistering agent, took a different approach. Instead of attacking the respiratory system, it targeted exposed skin and caused agonising blisters and temporary blindness. The same German soldier wrote “We sent the German infantry back and opened the gas valves with the strings. About supper time, the gas started toward the French; everything was stone quiet. We all wondered what was going to happen.” (Willi Siebert, 1915) This indicates that even the Germans were unsure about unleashing a weapon of this class. This supports the thesis that chemical weapons were strategically used as weapons during the First World War.
It can be argued that chemical weapons had a devastating physical impact, but it also affected the mental wellbeing of soldiers. For example, if a soldier is fortunate enough to survive a chlorine gas attack, the trauma and suffering will remain throughout their life. An extract from Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est states “All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots”. (Wilfred Owen, 1920, l.6) This demonstrates how chemical weapons crippled the lives of many. The author of this poem describes his personal experience to be dreadful and frightening. An extract from a nurse’s diary entry during World War One transcribed “But gas cases invariably are beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out. One boy today, screaming to die. The entire top layer of his skin burnt from his face and body. I gave him an injection of morphine. He was wheeled out just before I came off duty. When will it end?” (Nurse Harrap, November 8, 1918) It is evident that this boy she was treating sustained tremendous amounts of pain and suffering. It also supports the viewpoint that chemical weapons had a physical and mental impact. The 1925 Geneva Protocol which took effect 8 February 1928 prohibited the use of poisonous, asphyxiating chemical or bacteriological means of warfare. This was implemented because of the massive death penalty and destruction caused by chemical warfare. Along with the evidences and reasoning provided, it is can be argued that chemical weapons were strategically used as weapons during the First World War.
In conclusion, chemical weapons were used as a weapon during World War One as they caused an enormous amount of casualties. They were capable of severely injuring soldiers and most armed forces did not anticipate such brutal warfare. Even if soldiers were lucky enough to survive such an inhumane attack, the distressing memories would permanently remain. Chemical weaponry was a massive breakthrough during the First World War due to the large scale of fatalities. The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of chemical weapons because of destruction caused. There is evidence to suggest that World War One was one of the fiercest wars fought in history.
Goodwin, B. 1998, Keen as Mustard: Britain’s Horrific Chemical Warfare, pp. 66
Harrap, 1918, Journal entry
Owen, W. 1920, Dulce et Decorum est, l.6
Schlager, N. 2000, Science and its times Vol.6, pp. 452
Siebert, W. 1915, Diary of a German soldier who participated in the first chlorine gas attack, viewed 7 July 2018,
United Nations, 1925 Geneva Protocol, viewed 14 July 2018,