By Professor Michael Neiberg, U.S. Army War College
Reviewed by James L. Abrahamson, contributing editor
Syria’s use of poison gas prompted a international response greater than a hundred thousand deaths and two million refugees: a threat of American missile attack on the Assad government and an agreement that the Syrian gas stockpile must be surrendered and disarmed. Accounting for the disproportionate responses suggests a need to explore the widespread revulsion to the use of poison gas that led to the legal prohibitions that emerged after the Great War of 1914-18. This essay by Professor Neiberg provides the needed background.
Though the postwar prohibition on the use of poison gas is now well known, the Hague Convention of 1899 had already banned the use of poisons in warfare. Even so the future warring powers had stockpiled poison gases prior to the Great War’s outbreak, suggesting the high commands were willing to violate the Hague ban but restrained in part by the difficulties of deploying them in combat. Even so, the French experimented with a tear gas—so weak the Germans did not detect it—in the early weeks of the war. In January 1915 the Germans fired 18,000 shells of another tear gas at Russian troops, who were protected when the gas froze rather than vaporized.
Gas warfare began in earnest in April 1915, when Germany released into the Ypres salient cylinders containing 168 tons of more deadly chlorine gas and panicked the French North Africans that defended it. German troops, however, refused to advance into the greenish cloud before Canadian troops, protecting themselves with urine-soaked rags closed the gap with significant losses. Soon more deadly gases—colorless and odorless phosgene and mustard gas—became available to clear openings in the front lines as it crept into the trenches and underground bunkers where it lingered. No one appeared to be safe.
Had the use of gas—the great powers manufactured over 200,000 tons before the armistice of 1918—accounted for most of the war’s casualties that might explain the new weapon’s rapid postwar international condemnation. In fact, however, artillery, machine guns, and bayonets remained combat’s major killers, and only 5% of soldiers exposed to gas died. Better gas masks and medical treatments also quickly put most of the gassed back into the line within a few weeks.
The manner in which gas injured soldiers—blindness and choking from the fluid arising from their own lungs—may account in part account for the particular horror of gas warfare. Having to wear masks for days at a time in hot weather made life in the trenches even more miserable.
Perhaps the worst of all fears was that an opponent might use gas—delivered by airplanes of zeppelins—on unprepared civilian communities far from the front lines. Some wartime artistry surely contrdibuted to such fears: Wilfred Owens’ widely read poem Dulce et Decorum Est included a passage about a soldier “guttering, choking, drowning.” John Signer Sargent’s giant canvas, Gassed, commissioned by the British government reflected the horror the painter felt when he observed a column of soldiers blinded by mustard gas and stumbling along guided only by placing a hand on the shoulder of the blinded man to their front.
Despite being less lethal, Neiberg concluded, gas, now proliferated worldwide, still carries a “sinister reputation” that has endured for a century, better able to rouse the world better known weapons of war.