When Chemicals Became Weapons of War

by Sarah Everts, Chemical & Engineering News

Nobody expected the first chlorine gas attack on April 22, 1915, to be quite so successful, including Fritz Haber, the weapon’s main advocate. The German scientist had proposed using chlorine gas on Allied troops, overseen its development as a weapon, and gone to the front lines himself to supervise placement of 5,730 gas cylinders along a 4-mile stretch of road near the trenches outside the Belgian town of Ypres.

And then Haber waited at the front lines for weeks, until the prevailing wind turned northwest. This capricious breeze was the weapon’s weakness: It needed to blow the chlorine gas from the cylinders buried on the German side, across no-man’s-land, and into the Allies’ trenches.

Haber had fought his own battle to just get the opportunity to try out the gas. Most of the German High Command was skeptical of poison gas as a weapon. “They saw the first chlorine attack as an experiment at best, and at worst, a kind of stunt,” says Andrew Ede, a science historian at the University of Alberta. Six months into the war, Haber had managed to convince only one commander on the Western Front to try out chlorine gas. After this chlorine attack killed more than 1,100 soldiers and injured many more, the lack of support changed dramatically. Read the entire story.

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