One of the most memorable chemical weapons of war is the gas first used in WWI – chlorine gas. The actual use of gas in warfare was not brand new; ancient Greek and Roman warriors used the battle tactic of throwing sulfur fumes into cities, and the British forces, at the beginning of WWI, even had tear gas at their disposal. However, chlorine gas achieved the feat of being the most deadly chemical weapon used in WWI at its introduction. Such a weapon deserves to be looked at in closer detail.
What is Chlorine Gas?
Chlorine gas, first invented by German sergeant Fritz Haber (who later received a Nobel prize for his work in chemistry, despite its lack of peacefulness), has a chemical composition of two chloride (Cl) atoms bonded covalently together, per molecule. Chlorine has an atomic number of 17, meaning that it needs one more electron in its valence shell in order to be stable. Because of this, chlorine gas is disastrous when it reaches the lungs; it reacts with electrons in the atoms that make up the cells in the lung tissue, particularly water molecules. Chlorine reacts with the hydrogen in water molecules to form hydrochloric acid , which effectively destroys the tissue in the respiratory system.
Effects of chlorine gas include:
- Sore throat
- Chest tightness
- Eye irritation
- Skin irritation
- Asphyxiation, and death
How and When Was It Used?
The Germans first used this deadly weapon against the Allied forces during the Second Battle of Ypres. On April 22, 1915, Allied soldiers breathed in the cloud of gas, unaware of the serious consequences. Then, soldiers fell to the ground frothing, while others ran to escape the cloud of death. Only some Canadian and British soldiers braved the noxious gas, wrapping water or urine-soaked cloths around their faces to avoid the worst of the gas. German forces had almost fully demolished their enemies, and were free to press forward for victory of the war; for reasons still being debated, German forces did not continue forward and change the course of the war.
Chlorine gas was used continuously throughout WWI, but with the invention of gas masks and other protection, it was not as effective as the its first use. Other toxic gases, diphosgene and mustard gas, were also used, to more effect than chlorine gas. Chlorine gas eventually became replaced by these more effective gases, which were then refined for WWII. However, the countries involved in WWII didn’t want to risk the chance of retaliation by using potent gases in warfare, or the enemy developing a more toxic version, and so these gases were not as popular during the second World War as they had been during the first.