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The First World War was the first conflict on a global scale that involved the modern weapons of today. The lack of rules governing the use of chemical weapons led to their employment in the war. Chemical weapon warfare on a large scale was a relatively new tactic and thus the technology of chemical weaponry deployment was a relatively new affair (Girard 48). However, the weapons’ effect was a significant implication on the outcome of the war.
The chemical weapons employed during the First World War were primarily gaseous compounds. Some of the weapons had a limited capability of causing death. They served to incapacitate or slow down the enemy. Chemists christened the First World War as “the war of chemists” because of the weapons used. Poisonous chemicals were a formidable weapon that used fear associated with them as the most potent tool.
The French were the earliest combatants in the war to use chemical weapons of any kind. The application of a small volume of gas through explosive shells failed to have any significant effect on the enemy (Brown 40). Later, Germany decided to employ chemical weapons in large scale, but their plan failed because the weapons designers did not account for the weapons environmental effects. The gas failed to deploy properly due to low temperatures. Germany, which was determined to win battles through the employment of the poisonous gases, defended them against the accusation that they were using an illegal weapon.
The Geneva Convention of 1898 prohibited the use of gases that would cause asphyxiation or would cause any kind of poisoning. Germany argued that the convention prohibited the use of shells laced with poison alone. Gradually, the Germans advanced in chemical warfare in the course of the war and later applied the weapons inflicting a significant number of casualties on the enemy (Haber 24). Although the poisonous gas warfare deterred the enemy from advancing, it had a similar effect on the people using it. This resulted in counter effective results.
Military personnel were not used to the effects of the gases and often resulted in panic. The gases employed inflicted more damage when the victims tried to escape the effect of the gases. The armies of the time resulted to use of cotton pads or garments wet with an appropriate solvent to counter the effect of the gases (Brown 58). These protective measures were improved to gas helmets and eventually gas masks in the cause of the war.
Chlorine was the most common agent used as a poison gas during the beginning of the war. Chlorines high density made its movement very slow and often turned back on the deplorer. The first attempt by British forces to deploy the chlorine gas in a battlefield was against German troops. The gas turned back on them and failed to drift towards the German lines. In addition, the chlorine gas was colored and had a strong odor making it easier to detect. Successive failures of the poison gases led to development of more lethal and effective gases. The poison, phosgene, was developed to improve on chlorines shortcomings. The phosgene gas was denser but highly lethal and more potent than the traditional chlorine agent was. Phosgene was deadly, and easily caused death although it took a longer time for the effects to be observed. In addition, the phosgene gas resulted into more deaths than the precious application of chlorine gas. Mustard gas was another agent used in the warfare with little resulting fatal casualties. The gas seared skin and the respiratory system inducing a slow and painful death when inhaled in large quantities (Tucker 39). Furthermore, the chemical action of the agent was active for a long time from the time of deployment. The aim of using the mustard gas was to disrupt the enemy and facilitate discord in the organization of the enemy troops. Simple devices improvised to help avoid inhaling the gas fumes sometimes suffocated the user particularly after saturation with the product of combination of poison gas and the solvent reagent (Haber 38). Protective measures to counter the effects of the gases were developed and eventually succeeded in alleviating fatalities of the gas warfare towards the end of the war. Although most methods of protection failed, a significant positive effect of protective measures was recorded in later stages of the war.
Precision deployment of the poison gases in the First World War was a difficult feat to achieve. Crude methods such as relying on the prevalent weather condition were common in the early days of the war. Transportation of the gas cylinders was a clumsy affair since most of the cylinders exceeded the capabilities of average men to carry heavy load. Soon technology advanced enough to encase a significant amount of gas in a metallic shell for more accurate deployment (Shephard 54). The shells were through conventional guns making the effective range of the gas longer. Soon, the method of projecting gas cylinders for long distances developed such that complete gas cylinders could be propelled for distances in excess of three kilometers. The British army was advanced in the technology of propelling the gas cylinders than their German enemy. The gas cylinders were more effective since they could achieve higher concentration of the poison gas.
The poison gas use in the First World War was used as the basis of condemnation of the side that was employing the gas. The British, in an effort to gain international support and to win the support of the civilian population, depicted Germany as a satanic force with wanton disregard to fundamental human values. The extensive deployment of chemical weapons throughout the war by Germany despite the international treaties outlawing the use of poisonous agents in conventional war facilitated this propaganda (Shephard 68). In addition, the prospects of the poison gas warfare becoming an accepted as a conventional warfare tactic became dim after the disastrous effects on civilian population witnessed in the war. The use of gas would often backfire and result in reversal of the desired effects. In addition, the poison gases resulted in an almost equal number of casualties on both sides. Painful and slow death was a consistent characteristic of the poison gases. Unnecessary death of non-combatants made the gas lose favor with military planners.
The use of gas I warfare I the First World War did not give a decisive victory to any of the combatants. In any case, the most active users of the chemical warfare were German forces who lost the war. However, the employment of poison gas helped the Germans endure the military campaign by the mobilization of the allied forces (Tucker 46). In addition, the chemical warfare prevented them from being totally subdued by the allied forces since they still had a significant military might even with the eventual defeat at the end of the war. The fatalities of the war led to concessions immediately after the war, which were a part of the armistice, struck between Germany and the allied nations. The concessions outlawed application of poisonous chemical in a combat situation and sought to reduce Germany’s stockpile of the weapons. Other than the atrocities that were evident during the war, chemical weapons did little to facilitate the success of any side.
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