A sad anniversary: 100 years since 1st mustard gas attack

This week it was 100 years ago since the Germans first used mustard gas as weapon. Mustard gas or sulfur mustard was not the most deadly, but certainly the most inhumane and debilitating weapon used in the First World War.

After the German chemist Fritz Haber carried out the first attack using chlorine gas in April 1915, reach into gasses that could be used on the battlefield continued at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut in Berlin.

In the autumn of 1916 two chemists, Wilhelm Lommel and Wilhelm Steinkopf, developed a gas that they named LOST, which was a combination of the first two letters of one of their surnames and the last two letters of the other.

LOST was in fact not a gas, but rather a liquid that vaporises at temperature of 217C°.

© IWM (E(AUS) 825)

Due to it yellow-brown colour that resembles that of a mustard plant, it was soon given the name mustard gas.

By 1917 grenades had already been used in gas attacks for some time, as they were able to neutralise the enemy more efficiently and more quickly than discharging clouds of gas from large cylinders when the wind was blowing in the right direction.

Grenades containing mustard gas were colour coded by the Germans with a yellow cross. This earned it the nick-name “Gelbkreuz”. As it was first used in battle, near to the West Flemish town of Ieper it is also known as Yperite.

A few days before the first mustard gas attack, the Germans used another new gas Blaukreuz that contained arsenic, chlorine and a dose of mustard gas on the battlefield near to Nieuwpoort.

Blaukreuz caused heavy sneezing and coughing fits making it impossible for the soldiers to keep their gas-masks on.

As soon as they had taken after their gas masks they fell victim to the pphosgene (also known as Grünkreuz) grenades that were fired soon after the Blaukreuz grenades had been launched.

The grenades spread poisonous droplets over a wide area, droplets that remained poisonous for days.

As the symptoms didn’t become immediately obvious, the British didn’t immediately realise how dangerous the Germans’ was. Straight after the attack, all seemed well. However, later red marks and blisters started to appear on the soldiers’ skin. More than 2,000 of them reported to the medical posts along the front.

Meanwhile, other symptoms were becoming apparent. Some soldiers had become blind. For the first few hours they were still able to breathe normally. However, as time wore on they experienced respiratory issues that in a later stage resembled bronchitis or a long infection.

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 4942)

59 victims died in the attack. Many more ended up in hospital with serious poisoning. The blisters were especially painful in the areas around the eyes, noise, arm pits and the groin. In high doses mustard gas can burn through the skin to the bone. A slow and painful death awaits those that inhale mustard gas.

Doctors, nurses and paramedics that inadvertently come into contact with mustard gas droplets on their patients also fall foul of its ill-effects.

The is no antidote for mustard gas poisoning. The gas remains etched in our collective memories as the prototype of an inhumane, almost apocalyptic weapon. Despite its reputation, mustard gas claimed far fewer victims than phosgene.

A total of 1,300,000 victims were killed by gas bombs during the First World War, 500,000 of whom on the Western Front.

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