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100 Years On – Gas!

100 years ago today, the German Empire unleashed a new type of weapon.  German soldiers released chlorine gas from thousands of canisters in front of German trenches near Ypres, and the resulting cloud of poison floated across to trenches held by French Colonial troops.  The injuries to the Morrocan’s lungs and eyes caused them to panic, killing or blinding thousands in minutes.  The resulting 4 mile tear in the front line could have been disastrous to the Allies, but the Germans failed to take advantage of it.

A new era in warfare had begun.

Gas, in many forms, soon became a common affliction to the men fighting on all fronts in the war.  Gas shells were added to the mixture in bombardments, and new forms, including phosgene and mustard gas, were developed and fielded.  They were one more tool in the kit of military planners who were desperately trying to find a way to punch through the lines and end the slaughter.  In their efforts, they unleashed a demon that haunts us to this day.

How horrible is living through a chemical attack?  If you’ve never been in a chemical suit, try imagining putting on something thick and bulky, then putting a heavy cloth hood with foggy eyepieces over your head.  To get the idea of breathing through the filters necessary to keep the vapors and droplets out of the lungs, lay both your hands over your nose and mouth, then try walking and running while breathing through the tiny gaps between your fingers.

Now, stay that way for hours, maybe days.  Go through your day, doing all the tasks of life while in this garb.  Every so often, have someone make you run for your life.  While all of this is going on, watch people around you drop, gasping and screaming.

And remember, failure to do this will probably result in either a fast, horrifically painful death or a long, lingering, painful death.  If you’re lucky, all you’ll get is blindness, permanently injured lungs, and scars over a massive portion of your body.

All of these agents are the boogiemen that have haunted the dreams of military planners for generations.  To see how horrific these weapons were, please note that during World War II, the European powers and the United States were willing to bomb and strafe civilians, were willing to develop and use atomic weapons, but none used chemical weapons.

Update – A few people have pointed out that the Japanese were quite liberal in their use of gas against the Chinese, and of course the Germans used gas to murder helpless victims at their death camps.  I think what I was trying to say was that the European powers, who had all had gas used against them in the First World War, were careful to not use it against anyone who might reciprocate.

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  1. Hey DB,

    As I understand it, The Germans wouldn’t use gas in combat due to Hitler’s personal aversion to it. That being said…it didn’t stop them with the “final solution”…The Japanese also used gas against the Chinese….if memory serves. I remember in the Gulf, we figured that Saddam would use gas…so we spent a lot of time in MOPP 3/4, That sucked…it was hot and we were running around in MOPP gear…but he used it against the Kurds …Schwartzkopf figured he would use it against us..

    • Yeah, Mussolini used it against the Ethiopians and the Japanese were pretty liberal in using it against people who couldn’t reciprocate. Same with the Germans using gas against their death camp prisoners.

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