The Horrifying Threat Of Chemical Weapons Captured In WWI Photographs

Almost all UN members have signed a treaty that prohibits the use of chemical weapons ... all except for Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan

War irrevocably changes the lives of millions and the faces of entire nations. The Great War, or World War I, not only became historically known for being a destructive plague that took away the lives of many, but also became a dark chapter in history were modern-warfare weaponry was changed forever. I’m talking about the implementation of chemical weapons and its development as a quick and effective death-machine. According to the Chemical & Engineering News, from 1914 to 1918, government funded experiments explored over three thousand chemical agents that led to the implementation of 50 toxic substances in war zones across Europe. Deaths connected to chemical warfare reached over 100 thousand.

So, the constant threat of chemical weapons spurred the creation of gas masks, which became a crucial item to have, if you were in the trenches or just a civilian heading to school.

British soldiers affected by the gas during the Battle of Estaires (1918).

Two soldiers playing while wearing gas masks.

Photo by @horosanu_g, "Gas masks used during the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April–25 May 1915)."

Chemical weapons have been used since then many times but the first time the world saw its effect was when the German troops released chlorine gas in the Battle of Gravenstafel in 1915. After this, the face of warfare was changed forever and all players began to experiment and develop their own deadly chemical agents. But first, they had to develop gas masks that would protect their own soldiers from their deadly fumes. Gas masks became widely used throughout Europe by soldiers and sometimes civilizans who were caught in the middle of the struggle, especially after Germany broke the treaty signed in the Hague Convention in 1907. 

British gas mask with hood used during WWI (1915)

Masks' designs varied as they kept on being innovated (WWI)

Photo by @rarewrap, "British military industry was dominated by women after men had been deployed (1914-1918)"

As chemical weapons improved, so did gas masks. The first instructions soldiers received before battle was to urinate on cotton masks since it was proven that the ammonia in the urine could neutralized gas –but it was later found that baking soda had the same effect. Yet, the cotton mask didn’t protect the face well enough, so many changes were applied to masks as designers came up with better ways to protect soldiers. This drove the British army to develop the "hypo helmet," which covered a soldier’s entire face and the helmets were soaked on sodium hyposulphite and glycerine to neutralize other chemicals. Finally, “respirators” were invented by 1918 and they were a mix of soaked fabric, metal pieces, and glass lenses for the eyes (todays’ versions are similar but may include rubber materials). Respirators also had a tube connected to the pockets and they were even used on animals to protect them from the deadly gases.

German soldier with dogs wearing masks (WWI)

Gas masks were also adapted to animals (WWI)

As of 2016, 192 countries had agreed to the terms of the Chemical Weapon Convention (CWC) treaty, in which the use, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons is completely prohibited. This modern treaty now came to form part of many other treaties that were broken as the war exploded across the continent. For example, in 1925 (a couple years after WWI) there was a global convention in which all countries had agreed to the “prohibition of the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and bacteriological methods of warfare;” this is known as the Geneva Protocol. Yet the treaty was found to have loopholes in which it didn’t prohibit the development, production, or possession of such lethal weapons. Thus, despite having seen the catastrophe and destruction that chemical weapons had caused on soldiers and civilians, chemical weapons were again used in WWII.

Soldiers crossing though a cloud of gas

Families seeking shelter from the chemical gas threat

These photographs of gas masks show the crippling fear caused by chemical weapons and how the fear wasn't only physical but psychological as well. The symptoms included “blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, either pink and white liquid or standard vomiting, lesions on the skin, an accumulation of liquid in the lungs, otherwise known as a pulmonary edema, and a burning sensation in the nose, throat, and eyes.” Unfortunately, regardless of the many testimonies and wars that have tainted humanity, we still see nations employing these weapons without any regard for the civilians. A history lesson that is forgotten by many, and worse yet, by those in power.

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