A throwaway remark by Richard Holmes at yesterday’s Poetry v History debate at the IWM – “Actually, not many people were killed by gas.”

Despite this it was still a useful weapon, because of its effect on morale.

Here’s a picture of a German messenger dog, wearing a canine gas mask.
Dog in gas mask

See more photos of gas protection for animals by clicking here. Horses and carrier pigeons, mostly.



  1. Anonymous
    Posted May 10, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Just for the record, my grandfather was exposed to mustard gas in the fall of 1918 in Argonne Forest. He had acute bronchitus all his life. He held a regular job, but also was entitled to a government pension. At one of the qualifying physicals, he weighed 137 lbs.

  2. Roger
    Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    J.B.S. Haldane, who developed poison gases for the British army and experimented on himself, maintained that it was a more humane weapon than bombs or bullets. That was one justification for its use against Iraqi tribesmen by the R.A.F. in the 1920s. As well as the effect on morale casualties needed immediate treatment. I think that fewer people were killed by gas in WWI, proportional to its use, than by other weapons, but that meant that coping with casualties was more expensive- in time money and man-power- for the people attacked.
    Nerve gases probably altered the proportion of lethal and non-lethal casualties, however.

  3. Julian Putkowski
    Posted March 12, 2015 at 8:33 am | Permalink


    The British press depicted the use of poison gas by the German Army on 22 April 1915 as a particularly ‘frightful’ outrage. It is a revulsion that endures in British war art and literature, mainly because the dominant images of death or injury by poison gas were unheroic and undignified. Some soldiers perished immediately; the fatally wounded, drowned in their own body fluids, spewing green slime from froth-corrupted lungs; many were disabled or blinded, sometimes permanently.[1]

    As well as drawing attention to Germany’s breach of international conventions governing (sic) civilised warfare, reporters and editors were no less heated after further enemy gas attacks. However, after Britain had manufactured the necessary ingredients and means of delivery for retaliation in kind, and after their own gas at Loos asphyxiated British troops in September 1915, ethical objections evaporated. The evolution of effective gas respirators was comparatively unglamorous and publicity about Britain’s development and deployment of chlorine, phosgene, mustard and other gases was muted.

    The valour of the gas dispensing Special Brigade has passed almost wholly unremarked in British official histories, though its total casualties virtually matched its total strength. [2] Even during the war, the unit’s lethal effectiveness was questioned via still-unresolved mathematical debates concerning the number of enemy gas casualties.[3]

    Beyond references to panic-stricken soldiers fleeing from gas clouds, the extent to which these poison gas attacks generated psychological injury has never been adequately appraised and remains incalculable. Still less attention has been paid to so-called “collateral damage”, which culminated in the gassing of over 5000 civilians, of whom an estimated 100 were killed. Although many were Belgian and French civilians living near the fighting zone, the majority were workers employed in the allies’ factories and shell-filling plants.[4]

    Producing poison gas, filling projectiles and cylinders was a highly profitable but far from trouble-free activity for the seventy or so British enterprises involved various aspects of the business. [5] The Castner-Kellner Alkali Co. at Runcorn and Electro Bleach & By-Products, Middlewich reported few difficulties but United Alkali Company’s plant at Gateshead generated “problems” as well as phosgene gas. In Hanley, between November 1916 and October 1917, 459 “minor incidents” were recorded by the local gas cylinder recycling and re-filling facility. [6] State –controlled manufacture of gas munitions was plagued by problems similar to those experienced by the private sector and further casualties were sustained. At Chittening, the rate was “never less than 28% per shift”; during June 1918 mustard gas incapacitated one worker for every nine shells produced at the plant. At Avonmouth, an average of 233 casualties per month were reported during the latter half of 1918.[7]

    As with injuries which occurred as a consequence of secret experiments involving chemical and biological weapons at Porton Down, the total number of war gas production workers who were killed, disabled or fatally weakened by toxic contamination remains unknown.[8] About these women and men, government ministers and chemical company bosses have remained silent, and war artists, poets and writers are uninspired by mundane industrial injuries.

    [1] See, for e.g., W. Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in J. Stallworthy (ed.) (1994) Wilfred Owen – the War Poems (London Chatto & Windus), p. 29; John Singer-Sargent’s painting Gassed (Imperial War Museum); V. Brittain (1978) Testament of Youth (London, Virago), p. 395.
    [2] At its zenith the Special Brigade comprised 258 Officers and 5832 men. Wartime casualties totalled 5384, all ranks. D. Richter (1992) Chemical Soldiers (London, Leo Cooper), p. 228.
    [3] L.F. Haber (1986) The Poisonous Cloud (Oxford, OUP), pp. 239 – 245.
    [4] Ibid., p. 245.
    [5] Ibid., p. 162 – 164.
    [6] Ibid., pp. 250- 251.
    [7] Ibid., p. 251; I. V. Hogg, The weapons that changed the world (NY, Arbor House,1986), p. 100
    [8] Ibid., Haber, p. 248; D. Easton, J. Peto, R. Doll ‘Cancers of the respiratory tract in mustard gas workers’, British Journal of Industrial Medicine, vol. 45, (1988) pp. 652 – 659. See also: G. Beebe ‘Lung cancer in World War 1 veterans – possible relation to mustard gas injury and 1918 influenza epidemic’, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol. 5, (1960) pp. 1231 – 1252; J.E. Norman ‘Lung cancer mortality in World War 1 veterans with mustard gas injury 1919 – 1965’, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol. 54, (1975) pp. 311 – 318; R.M. Case ‘Mustard gas poisoning, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer’, British Journal of Preventative Medicine, vol. 9. (1995) pp. 62 – 72

    Julian Putkowski

    • Posted March 12, 2015 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this, Julian.
      I think the British were keen on gas because they realised that at Second Ypres that first gas attack had so disoriented and demoralised British troops that the Germans could easily have broken through, had they realised. Haig was hoping to replicate this effect at Loos, but the Germans were prepared for it, and a real break-through never happened. The gas canisters used at Loos were also unreliable, and in later battles gas was sent over in shells, which made it less likely to affect one’s own troops.

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