The ugly history of chemical warfare

The Syrian civil war is about to enter its apparently final phase, with the Syrian military preparing an assault on Idlib province in the north of that country — the last stronghold of the Syrian rebels. 

Reports suggest that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intends to use chemical weapons, such as chlorine and/or sarin gas, against residents of Idlib.

Two million people live in the province, many of them refugees from former rebel areas that have been overrun by the Syrian military. 

An all-out attack could prove to be the most devastating humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century. Some 70,000 rebel combatants are among the residents of Idlib.

The effective use of chemical weapons — particularly poison gas — dates back almost exactly 100 years ago to the trenches of World War I. 

Germany comes to mind in connection with poison gas weaponry in that war, particularly chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas.

But no major combatant emerged from the war with clean hands when it came to poison gas. Gas warfare was strictly illegal under international law at that time, with Hague conventions of 1899 and 1907 outlawing its use.

That cut no ice with any warring nation in World War I. 

The French were the first to trot out tear gas, in August 1914. Germany followed with its own tear gas shells in October of that year. 

Both experiments proved ineffective.

But that all changed in early 1915, when Germany switched to chlorine gas on both the Eastern and the Western fronts. Hundreds of British troops died from the weapon in April in the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium, and Russian deaths numbered more than 1,000 in August south of Warsaw.

Reaction by both the British and the Russians was swift. 

Russia organized a commission to study the implementation of chlorine gas weapons technology. The British expressed outrage at German use of poison gas, but promptly opened their own development of chlorine weaponry.

In the words of Lt. Gen. Sir Charles Ferguson, commander of II Corps: “It is a cowardly form of warfare that does not commend itself to me or other British soldiers. ... We cannot win this war unless we kill or incapacitate more of our enemies than they do of us, and if this can only be done by copying the enemy in his choice of weapons, we must not refuse to do so.”

But chlorine gas proved relatively ineffective as a weapon. 

It could quickly be countered by holding a damp pad over the mouth and nose, as troops quickly discovered. 

Something more lethal was needed.

Phosgene gas met that need. Denser than chlorine, it was usually mixed with it to make it more effective. More deadly than chlorine, phosgene was first used by the French in 1915, and shortly thereafter in combination with chlorine by Germany in December of that year.

Manufactured phosgene gas by all combatant nations in World War I totaled 36,600 tons, out of a grand total of 190,000 tons of all poison gas manufactured during the war. Only chlorine gas surpassed it with 93,800 tons. Germany made 18,700 tons of phosgene, France 15,700 tons, and Great Britain and the United States 1,400 tons each.

Phosgene killed about 85 percent of the 90,000 poison gas fatalities in World War I. Russia sustained by far the most deaths from poison gas.

The Germans introduced the use of mustard gas in July 1917, and Great Britain responded accordingly in November of that year. In the war’s later years of 1917 and 1918, the Allies undertook more gas attacks than Germany because of their stronger manufacturing capacity. Germany tried, but couldn’t match the Allies’ output.

When the United States entered the war in early 1917, American industrial plants added greatly to the Allies’ poison gas production, particularly mustard gas.

In addition, the Allies were more effective in employing gas attacks because the prevailing winds in Europe blew from west to east. The Germans had to wait for winds from the east, which were not all that common.

After World War I, European nations continued to develop and use poison gas on occasion, usually against rebels in their colonies. 

Public opinion worldwide, however, had revolted against chemical weaponry. 

A new, expanded international ban, the Geneva Protocol, was negotiated in 1925 against lethal gas and biological weapons. Most of the World War I combatant nations signed it.

The United States was also a signatory to the Geneva Protocol. But the Senate did not ratify it until 1975.

Poison gas was used extremely sparingly in World War II, with only a few instances recorded. But the major combatants stored large stockpiles of mustard gas: Germany 25,597 tons, the British 40,719 tons, the U.S.S.R. 77,400 tons, and the United States more than 87,000 tons.

The British planned to use mustard gas on its beaches in case of a German invasion in 1940, and the United States considered employing it for its planned invasion of Japan.

While very little poison gas was used in combat in World War II, Germany of course employed a significant amount — Zyklon B — in the Holocaust’s death camps.

Later on, Iraq used sarin gas against Iran and its allied ethnic groups in the eight-year war between those two nations in the 1980s, most notoriously in Saddam Hussein’s attack against the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq in 1988. Up to 5,000 people, mostly civilians, died in that attack, with 10,000 more injured.

Sarin is much more lethal than any gas used in World War I. It is 28 times more deadly than mustard gas, 43 times more deadly than phosgene and 543 times more deadly than chlorine. A nerve agent with horrible effects on the human body, it was developed in Germany in 1938. 

It’s not the most lethal gas. 

There are others many times worse than sarin. And there are biological agents equally deadly. 

Whether they can be used on a widespread scale is one of the nightmares the future of our planet is forced to contemplate.

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