World War I started in 1914 and ended in 1914. It was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The conflict between the Allies and the Central Powers resulted in deaths of about 15 million combined military and civilian personnel (Gerd, 1977). The Allies consist of countries such as France, United Kingdom, and Russia. On the other hand, the Central Powers composed primarily of Austria-Hungary and Germany. In this war, mankind came to know and use chemical warfare. Initial chemicals used in warfare include gases such as tear gas, chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas. This short research paper attempts to explore and discuss the harmful effects caused by use of mustard gas in World War I (WWI). The use of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, in World War I resulted in about 1.18 million nonfatal cases and 85,000 deaths (Haber, 1986). This research is important to share so that people are acquainted with the dangers of chemical warfare, and to change their perception on its use during instances of war.
Chemical warfare was already practiced in the past through primitive poisoned arrows, and toxic gases in ancient China and Greece. It was also practiced in the medieval times through incorporation within bomb shells to produce intoxicating fumes. In the World War I, the French first utilized tear gas against the Germans in August 1914. Other gases such as phosgene and chlorine were used too. Table 1 summarizes the effects of the chemical gases used in WWI. A high percentage of deaths can be attributed to phosgene however; mustard gas is much more incapacitating in terms of its damaging effects to the victims.
Mustard gas, also know for its IUPAC name bis (2-chloroethyl) sulfide), is a widely used chemical warfare agent (See Figure 1 for its chemical structure). It has two chloroethane molecules attached to a sulfur atom. It is a colorless and odorless liquid substance. It is used as mixture to form a yellow-brown gas with odor resembling mustard plants (this is where it got its name), garlic, or horseradish. In particular, mustard gas only accounts 2-3 percent of the fatalities. However, the cases were debilitating and require intensive care. It is primarily known as a vesicant which causes blisters in the skin. This is because it forms intermediates that react with DNA causing cell death. Its effects further continue to the eyes, mouth and the respiratory tract due to its burning effect. Cases of first, second, and third-degree chemical burns were recorded (Palermo, 2013).
Figure 1: Chemical Structure of Mustard Gas [bis (2-chloroethyl) sulfide)]
One memoir of a certain nurse Macfie during WWI says:
The mustard gas cases started to come in. It was terrible to see them. The poor boys were helpless and the nurses had to take off these uniforms, all soaked with gas, and do the best they could for the boys. Next day all the nurses had chest trouble and streaming eyes from the gassing. They were all yellow and dazed. Even their hair turned yellow, and they were nearly as bad as the men, just from the fumes from their clothing (Van Bergen, 2011).
This statement reflects the agony of the victims of mustard gas during WWI. Mustard gas penetrates even with mask and clothing on. This makes it so hard to combat against in comparison with phosgene and chlorine where gas masks limited their effectiveness.
Mustard gas was first used in World War I by the Germans against British and Canadian soldiers near Ypres, Belgium in 1917. That is why it is also popularly called Yperite. Mustard gas has since been used in other wars such as UK against the Red Army in 1919, the Xinjiang War in 1937, and by Egypt against Northern Yemen (1963-1967). It is evident that the use of mustard gas continued even after the Geneva Protocol of 1925 which prohibits it use. In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention participated by different countries of the world agreed not to develop, produce, stockpile and sell chemical weapons.
Mustard gas production was already halted, however production of other chemical weapons continued in the United States until 1960 when President Nixon ordered the stop of production of all chemical weapons (U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency, 2012). In 2012, approximately 89.75% of the chemical weapons stockpile has been eliminated by the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency. Thus, a portion of chemical weapons still needs to be disposed properly due to contamination threats to soil and water. Mustard gas was formerly disposed in the seas and oceans such as in the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean (Bull, 2005). Some bomb shells containing mustard gas were also excavated underground. This just explains how people in the past are unaware of the proper disposal of these types of substances.
In summary, mustard gas is the most inhumane of the chemical weapons used in World War I. It resulted in fatalities and casualties during the war. It harmful effects are well documented in memoirs of medical and military personnel during the war. Although, chemical weapons production has been halted due to the unified agreement of the different countries in the world, ongoing activities are still being done to properly eliminate the chemical weapons that have been manufactured in the past. Also, portion of the weapons made are still lurking underneath the oceans and below the ground due to improper disposal practices. With these experiences in mind, people need to plan out on proper use of science and technology. With this short study, the researchers want to acquaint people on the dangers of chemical warfare, and to change their perception on its use during instances of war. People need to think holistically for the future and the people in there.
Van Bergen, Leo (2009). Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front, 1914–1918. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
Bull, John M.R. (October 30, 2005). Special Report: The Deadliness Below- Decades Of Dumping Chemical Arms Leave A Risky Legacy. Retrieved from http://articles.dailypress.com/2005-10-30/news/0510300001_1_chemical-weapons-army-chemical-materials-agency-mustard-gas
Hardach, Gerd (1977). The First World War 1914-1918: (History of World Economy in the Twentieth Century). Berkeley: University of California.
Haber, L.F. (1986). The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Elizabeth Palermo (August 28, 2013). What Is Mustard Gas? Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/39248-what-is-mustard-gas.html
Brunning, Andy (2014). Chemical Welfare: World War I. Retrieved from http://www.compoundchem.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Chemical-Warfare-World-War-1-Poison-Gases.png
U.S. Chemical Materials Agency (2012). Milestones in U.S. Chemical Weapons: Storage and Destruction. Retrieved from http://www.cma.army.mil/fndocumentviewer.aspx?docid=003676918