How World War I Also Became Known as The Chemist’s War

Today’s post is the second in an occasional series where we will highlight some of the work of our volunteers. Jean Onufrak is a volunteer with the Volunteer Office at the National Archives at College Park. 

When you think of the term “chemical weapons”, you probably think of their use nowadays in terrorist actions or contentious military operations.

In fact, the use of chemical weapons in warfare goes back as far as ancient times.  Chemical weapons enjoyed a huge resurgence during the trench warfare of World War I.   WWI came to be known by many as the “Chemist’s War” because of the widespread use of chemical weapons, mainly in gas form, by both sides.

Recently, in my work with Record Group 120: Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (WWI), I encountered some documents which described two gas attacks and their aftermaths on the 1st Division, 18th Regiment in France. The attacks took place on February 26, and again on May 3-4, 1918 [see 201-33.6, Box 73 from Records of Divisions, ca. 1918 – 1942 (NAID 301641). War Department. Army War College. Historical Section. World War I Branch. RG 120]. These fascinating accounts of what happened during and immediately after the chemical bombardments remind us how devastating the use of chemicals were both to the impacted troops as well as the local countryside and its civilians.

Beginning at about 1:38 a.m. on February 26, 1918, the 18th Infantry Regiment’s Third Battalion was bombarded with gas projectiles.  Many of the affected servicemen did not get to their gas masks quickly enough or removed them too soon. According to the report, at least two enlisted men were “panic stricken” and did not put on their gas masks.

Another surprising result of the gas attack was that some rice which had been prepared for the men’s breakfast and was in the frontline trench was permeated by the gas.  The Commanding Officer believed that some of those gassed were actually made ill by eating the rice.

The casualties of the February 26 attack on the Third Battalion were listed as:  one enlisted man dead, one ‘severely gassed’ and twenty ‘gassed’.  Of the officer ranks, one was ‘severely gassed’.   Follow up records indicate that there were additional deaths from the effects of the gas attack over the next few days.

The records of the gas attack on May 3-4, 1918, (written by the Regimental Gas Officer) tell us that soldiers took many precautions during a gas attack.  The most well known countermeasure was to place a gas mask on at once when alerted of a gas attack by audio signals called klaxons or by the call in the trenches of “gas, gas”.  Soldiers worked to protect the dugouts (roofed shelters within trenches), by dropping “gas blankets” (blankets or tarps infused with anti-gas chemicals), in front of entrances and by using gunnysacks to fan the gas away, and fire to burn it out.  Also, chloride of lime was sprinkled in the shell holes where the gas had landed and at the entrances of the dugouts.

After a gas attack, the persistence of the mustard oil that remained caused many ongoing hazards for the soldiers, animals, and possibly civilians, in the surrounding countryside. Mustard gas would remain on hay and manure piles, and in mud that the infantry soldiers and medics needed to walk through. A pond was contaminated by shells that had contained gas. Well water was also suspect after the gas attack. In the report written for the 18th Regiment, it was recommended that the pond be drained and filled in since the water was unusable.

The detailed kind of information that we can gain from accounts like this, the little details to deepen our knowledge of that time and the way war was waged, is what makes volunteer work with these records so worthwhile to me.

5 thoughts on “How World War I Also Became Known as The Chemist’s War

  1. I hate my job but, fortunately there is the internet, thanks for giving me something to do.

  2. I haven’t checked in here for ages since I thought it was getting dull, yet the last handful of posts are actually quality so I guess I will add you back to my everyday bloglist. You are worthy of it my friend.

  3. I think I finally found out what happen to my great grand father. Long story but he had to move to CA because of gas attack that effected his lungs during ww1. Never got the story of his unit or where he was at and don’t have much information on him. It was very interesting thank you.

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