A century ago, chemical weapons were used to terrible effects in the fields of France.
100 years ago, large parts of the globe were engulfed in one of the most devastating conflicts the world has ever seen. The Battle of Verdun, dragging on over most of the year 1916, was one of the First World War’s most devastating engagements. More than 300 000 French and German soldiers—possible a lot more—lost their lives in the hills of north-eastern France between February 21st and December 20th. As many other battles of the ‘Great War’, Verdun saw extensive use of chemical weapons—or ‘poison gas’—by both sides.
It is difficult to describe the consequences of chemical weapons use. While the effects of bullets and bayonets can be grotesque, there is something uniquely eerie—repulsive—about chemical weapons. The lethal gases most commonly used during the First World War—mustard gas, chlorine, and phosogene—kill primarily by asphyxiation and internal bleeding. Many of those who survived suffered permanent blindness and other irreversible injuries. Many of those who were killed in poison-gas attacks survived for several weeks after being exposed to the chemical, going through what must have felt like an eternity of indescribable agony.
Vera Brittain, who left her studies of English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford to volunteer as a nurse in the British Armed Services, described the consequences of mustard gas in the following terms: ‘Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.’
Another Briton, the front-line poet Wilfred Owen, described his experience of chemical warfare in his poem ‘Dulce et decorum est’. Owen’s vivid narration gives us some understanding of the tragic scenes that would have unfolded at Verdun, Ypres, and other battles of the First World War:
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
A haunting reading by actor Christopher Eccleston is available on YouTube. (Stay well clear of the rubbish reading by Jake Gyllenhaal.)
The humanitarian consequences of chemical weapons formed the backdrop for the adoption of the Gas Protocol in 1925. Although the Protocol did not provide for stockpile destruction or verification, it was instrumental in creating a norm against the use of chemical weapons. And although this norm has been violated on several occasions—Japan’s use during the Second World War and Iraq’s use in the Iran–Iraq War being two of the most egregious offenses—the 1925 Protocol was a crucial step towards stigmatising a form of killing many thought was unacceptable even in war.
100 years after Verdun, international law and cooperation between states has ensured that chemical weapons have been phased out of the arsenals of almost all states. At this centenary, let’s remember that although the human species has the capacity to inflict and sustain incalculable horrors, we should not readily accept what Charles Darwin called ‘the stamp of our lowly origin’. However implausible it may sound at a time when wars and insurgencies are raging in Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, Western Africa, and Ukraine, history shows a long-term decline in violence. As Steven Pinker has shown in The Better Angels of Our Nature, this decline is not due to changes in our genes, chance, or nuclear deterrence, but to the development and enforcement of international and domestic law.