Article by Wojtek Grojec and Carlos Coelho

On April 22, 1915, a stiff wind outside of Ypres helped loose the first systematic poison-gas attack in history.

On a sunny afternoon in April 1915, outside the Belgian city of Ypres, the wind began blowing in the direction the German troops wanted – toward the French lines. German soldiers set up over 5,000 barrels of chlorine gas along their position, and let loose a rolling cloud of thick, yellow death. More than 6,000 French troops died in what was the first systematic use of poison gas on the battlefield. Its effectiveness caught even the Germans off guard. Willi Siebert, a German soldier, noted in his diary, "When we got to the French lines, the trenches were empty, but in a half mile the bodies of French soldiers were everywhere. It was unbelievable." Just over 99 years later, on June 17, 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed chlorine gas was used by the Syrian government in an attack on its own people.


Origins and evolution

In 1918, a German chemist named Fritz Haber won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for a method of extracting ammonia from the nitrogen in the atmosphere. The process made ammonia abundant and easily available. Haber's discovery revolutionized agriculture, with some calling it the most significant technological discovery of the 20th century – supporting half of the world's food base.

German chemist Fritz Haber.

Haber was also a staunch German patriot who quickly joined the war effort at the outbreak of World War I. He was insistent on using weaponized gases, despite objections from some army commanders about their brutality, and treaties prohibiting their use. He personally oversaw the first use of chlorine gas at the front lines at Ypres. The next morning, he set out for the eastern front to deploy gas against the Russian army.

Chemical weapons quickly became a mainstay of warfare, public condemnation notwithstanding. They were employed by the militaries of Italy, Russia, Spain, and Japan, among others.

Timeline: chemical weapons use

During the Cold War, the United States and the U.S.S.R. made major advances in chemical-weapons technology. Their breakthroughs were accompanied by innovations in nuclear-weapons technology. It was during this period that the third generation of chemical weapons was invented: nerve agents.

Within a century of their devastating debut at Ypres, chemical weapons have increased in lethality a thousandfold.


Use in Syria's Civil War

Sources

  • Organization For The Prohibition Of Chemical Weapons (background, locations, types of weapons, stockpiles, number of weapons destroyed)
  • United Nations Human Rights Council (Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic)
  • National Institutes Of Health (effects, history, and lethality)
  • Smithsonian Institute (history)
  • Violations Documentation Center in Syria (fatalities)
  • Human Rights Watch (types of weapons, attack locations)
  • U.S. Defense Department (types of weapons)

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.