Chemical weapons represent an interesting subject of historical analysis. They were actively used during World War One (WWI). The purpose of the present paper is to reconsider the impacts chemical warfare had on WWI. The paper includes a brief historical insight into the evolution of chemical warfare. Factors that justified the dramatic popularity of chemical weapons during WWI are considered. The paper evaluates the impact chemical warfare had on the military force in WWI. The creation of new chemical weapons and the invention of new defense mechanisms are discussed. The paper reviews changes in the military doctrines and tactics under the influence of chemical warfare during WWI. The main theme of the paper is that chemical weapons changed the course and direction of the First World War.
Keywords: chemical weapons, warfare, WWI.

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Effects Chemical Weapons Had during WWI

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The evolution of chemical weapons and their impacts for the course and outcomes of World War One have always been a popular topic of research and discussions. Different types of chemical warfare were used in the battlefield, including but not limited to phosgene and chlorine. The notorious gas attack organized by Germans on 22 April 2015 turned WWI into a large chemical experiment. Chemical weapons had profound and irreversible impacts during WWI, causing severe physical and psychological damage to soldiers, fostering industrial production of chemical warfare and defense items, and leading to the development of new tactical doctrines on both sides of the conflict.

WWI was not the first time humans used chemical weapons in the battlefield. “Poisons and chemicals had been a part of war in some form for centuries” (Hughes, 2016). Nevertheless, it is not before WWI that the use of chemical warfare became an accepted reality (Heller, 1984). Despite the ban on using chemical weapons passed at the Hague Conference in 1899, many countries accumulating chemical arsenals just in case another war broke out (Heller, 1984) Dramatic advancements in industrial production at the beginning of the 20th century became a foundation for the rapid evolution of chemical warfare. The outbreak of WWI coincided with the successes reported by countries in chemical and industrial engineering. Not surprisingly, chemical weapons quickly gained prominence in the strategy and tactics used by both parties of the conflict.

The first prominent gas attack was organized by Germans. It occurred on 22 April 1915 (Fitzgerald, 2008). Researchers treat the attack as the turning point in the evolution of chemical warfare during WWI (Fitzgerald, 2008; Heller, 1984; Heyl & McGuire, 2012; Hughes, 2016). The German Army used more than 6,000 steel cylinders with chlorine gas to fill in the trenches of the opposing French Army in Ypres, Belgium (Fitzgerald, 2008). More than 1,000 French and Algerian soldiers were killed within minutes and 4,000 more suffered injuries (Fitzgerald, 2008). The attack was an eye-opening experience for everyone involved in WWI: western armies suddenly realized the deadly potentials of chemical warfare and the effects it could have on their military successes and progress during the war.

Chemical weapons had profound and irreversible impacts on WWI, leading to thousands of deaths and casualties. Fitzgerald (2008) describes how thousands of soldiers could die within minutes in a single chemical attack. Chemical warfare was also a psychological weapon. The fear of a gas attack was pervasive (Fitzgerald, 2008). Hundreds of soldiers faced mental breakdowns because they could not accept the inhuman reality of chemical warfare (Fitzgerald, 2008). The use of chemical weapons during WWI undermined the stability and morale of the entire divisions to the extent that made it difficult for medical specialists to distinguish between real and imagined gas attacks (Fitzgerald, 2008). Both sides of the conflict celebrated the remarkable achievements made with chemical warfare, which turned chemistry into the primary weapon of war between 1915 and 1918. By the end of WWI, almost 125,000 tons of chemical agents would have been used on both sides (Heyl & McGuire, 2012). More than 66 million gas shells would have been fired to meet the military goals of the armies involved (Heyl & McGuire, 2012). WWI could be compared to a chemical feast that changed the direction of all military actions.

Chemical weapons changed the course and direction of the First World War. The German attack at Ypres turned WWI into a chemical and technological chess match, as the French, German, British and American armies were competing to develop the best and most effective chemical weapons (Fitzgerald, 2008). The Germans were the pioneers in using gas warfare on a large scale, creating special military gas units and investing huge resources in advancing their scientific and industrial base (Heller, 1984). Meanwhile, the British and French were launching their gas companies and creating their gas brigades (Heller, 1984). Delivery methods also evolved. The Allied forces sought to replace more traditional cylinders with more effective and innovative instruments (Heller, 1984). The Livens projector created at the beginning of the 1917 marked a turning point in the strategy and tactics used by the British (Heller, 1984).

In the meantime, new means of defense were being developed to mitigate the effects of chemical warfare on military units. The British were the first to propose a primitive gas mask that had to neutralize the deadly effects of chlorine on soldiers (Fitzgerald, 2008). They also used a “wool hood soaked in thiosulfate, sodium bicarbonate, and glycerin” to reduce soldiers’ exposure to chemical dangers (Fitzgerald, 2008, p. 618). Most trenches now had the gas mask drill, and most soldiers had to wear their gas masks, no matter what they were doing and where they were located (Fitzerald, 2008). It was a serious cultural and mental shift that distinguished WWI from all prior military conflicts.

Chemical weapons led to the development of an entirely new strategic and tactical doctrine during WWI. For all armies involved in the conflict, the use of chemical warfare became an ordinary experience. For instance, the British developed a separate doctrine managing the use of gas shells (Heller, 1984). Likewise, the Germans had their own doctrine for delivering artillery gas shells which opened plenty of opportunities to achieve the desired tactical and strategic goals (Heller, 1984). Due to deficiencies in command and poor coordination in the research and industrial efforts taken by the British, the French, and the Russians armies, chemical weapons did not always produce the desired results. Nevertheless, it is chemical warfare that determined the progress and outcomes of WWI toward its end in 1918.

In summary, chemical weapons had dramatic impacts on WWI. They turned a military conflict into a chemical, scientific and industrial competition. The use of chemical warfare became an inseparable component of the British, German, French, American and Russian strategies and tactics. Separate gas warfare doctrines were developed to guide military actions and decisions in the battlefield. It is possible to conclude that chemical weapons defined the way the First World War progressed toward its end.

  • Fitzgerald, G.J. (2008). Chemical warfare and medical response during World War I. American Journal of Public Health, 98(4), 611-625.
  • Heller, C.E. (1984). Chemical warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1917- 1918. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute.
  • Heyl, M., & McGuire, R.R. (2012). Analytical chemistry associated with the destruction of chemical weapons. NY: Springer Science & Business Media.
  • Hughes, D. (2016). Chemical weapons: The day the first poison gas attack changed the face of warfare forever. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/chemical-weapons-warfare- remembrance-day-poison-mustard-gas-first-world-war-ypres-isis-a7005416.html.