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Chemical Warfare & Weaponry - Page 2

Chemical warfare in World War I

The first full-scale deployment of chemical warfare agents was during World War I, originating in the Second Battle of Ypres, April 22, 1915, when the Germans attacked French and Algerian with chlorine gas. Since then a total 50,965 tons of pulmonary, lachrymatory, and vesicant agents were deployed by both sides of the conflict, including chlorine, mustard gas, and phosgene gas. Offical figures decare about 1,176,500 non-fatal casualties and 85,000 fatalities directly caused by chemical warfare agents during the course of the war.

poison gas ww1

Unexploded WWI-era chemical ammunition, up to this day, is still commonly uncovered when the ground is dug in former battle or depot areas and continues to pose a threat to the civilian population in Belgium and France. The French and Belgian governments have had to launch special programs for treating discovered ammunition. The United States has a non-stockpile chemical materials program to identify former CW burial sites within the United States and to excavate, transport, and dispose of old chemical munitions.

Chemical warfare in the interwar years

After the First World War, the United States and many of the European powers attempted take advantage of the opportunities that the war created by attempting to establish and hold colonies. During this interwar period, chemical agents were occasionally used to subdue populations and suppress rebellion.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, the Ottoman government collapsed completely and the former empire was divided amongst the victorious powers in the Treaty of Sèvres. The British occupied Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and established a colonial government.

In 1920, the Arab and Kurdish people of Mesopotamia revolted against the British occupation, which cost the British dearly. As the Iraqi resistance gained strength, the British resorted to increasingly repressive measures, and Winston Churchill himself, in his role as Colonial Secretary, authorized the use of chemical agents, mostly mustard gas, on the Mesopotamian resistors. Mindful of the financial cost of supressing the dissidents, Churchill was confident that chemical weapons could be inexpensively employed against the Mesopotamian tribes, saying "I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes." Although opposition to the use of gas and technical difficulties prevented the gas from being used in Mesopotamia, the records of British consideration of poison gas, including Churchill's enthusiasm, were suppressed for many years until the records were released in 1980.

Chemical weapons had caused so much misery and revulsion in the First World War that their use had become the ultimate atrocity in the minds of most people at the time. So much so, in fact, that in 1925, sixteen the world's major nations signed the Geneva Protocol, thereby pledging never to use gas or bacteriological methods of warfare. While the United States signed the protocol, the Senate did not ratify it until 1975.

In 1935 Fascist Italy used mustard gas during the invasion of Ethiopia. Ignoring the Geneva Protocol, which it signed seven years earlier, the Italian military dropped mustard gas in bombs, sprayed it from airplanes, and spread it in powdered form on the ground. 15,000 chemical casualties were reported, mostly from mustard gas.

Chemical warfare in World War II

The chemical structure of sarin nerve gas, discovered by Germany in 1938.

During World War II, chemical warfare was revolutionized by the Nazi's accidental discovery of the nerve agents tabun, sarin and soman. The Nazis developed and manufactured large quantities of several agents, including the newly discovered nerve agents, but chemical warfare agents were not extensively used by either side. Recovered Nazi documents suggest that during that time, German intelligence incorrectly thought that the Allies also knew of these compounds, interpreting the lack of discussion of these compounds the Allies' scientific journals as evidence that information about them was being suppressed. Germany ultimately decided not to use the new nerve agents against Allied targets, fearing a potentially devastating Allied retaliatory nerve agent deployment.

Although chemical weapons were not deployed on a large scale during World War II, there were some recorded uses of them by the Axis powers, when retailiation wasn't feared:

The Japanese used mustard gas and the recently-developed blister agent Lewisite against Chinese troops. During these attacks, the Japanese also employed biological warfare by intentionally spreading cholera, dysentery, typhoid, plague, and anthrax.
In 1944, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, the senior Islamic religious authority of the Palestinian Arabs and close ally of Adolf Hitler, sponsored an unsuccessful chemical warfare assault on the Jewish community in Palestine. Five parachutists were supplied with with maps of Tel Aviv, canisters of a German-manufactured "fine white powder," and instructions from the Mufti to dump chemicals into the Tel Aviv water system. District police commander Fayiz Bey Idrissi later recalled, "The laboratory report stated that each container held enough poison to kill 25,000 people, and there were at least ten containers."

The Nazis used the insecticide Zyklon B, which contains hydrogen cyanide, to kill large numbers of victims in concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Madajnek during the Holocaust.

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