When chemical weapons killed 90,000

World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that lingers, lethally, into the present day.In...

Posted: Nov 9, 2018 9:36 AM
Updated: Nov 9, 2018 9:36 AM

World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that lingers, lethally, into the present day.

Indeed, the German chlorine attacks against French, Algerian, British and Canadian troops around Ypres -- site of the war's most relentless fighting -- in April 1915 presaged a world in which weapons of mass destruction became at least a permanent background anxiety and often a source of intense terror.

Biological and chemical weapons

Conflicts and wars

International relations

International relations and national security

Military

Military weapons

Treaties and agreements

Unrest, conflicts and war

Weapons and arms

Weapons of mass destruction

World War I

World War I, which began nearly 100 years ago, linked science with mass killing and, despite preventative treaties such as the 1900 Hague Convention, created a lasting precedent. Scientific progress now brought new fears as well as hope.

The other combatant nations responded to their maximum extent, with rapidly developed mixtures of retaliation-in-kind and protective technologies and procedures. Perhaps 1 million chemical casualties were inflicted, to little overall military advantage. Although fatalities were eventually kept relatively low, at about 90,000 in total, there was, and remains, deep revulsion at slow, agonizing deaths from tissue damage through blistering of the skin caused by innovations such as mustard gas or drowning through destruction of the lungs.

Opinion: How a century-old war affects you

Many survivors were left blind or permanently disabled. Human distress, dread, "gas fright" and their long-term psychiatric consequences are impossible to calculate. They may have fatefully helped intensify Hitler's psychopathology as he lay brooding upon the Armistice in a military hospital, temporarily blinded by British mustard gas.

Later, in the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925, the world tried to address its WMD problem through a collective promise of "no first chemical or bacteriological use," backed by uncontrolled arsenals, which it was hoped would deter treaty breach by the hideously plausible and familiar threat of retaliation.

That gamble held precariously in World War II but not in hidden, or conveniently overlooked, one-sided campaigns conducted by Spain, Italy, Japan and Egypt in remote theaters such as Morocco, Ethiopia, China and Yemen. Continued secret research created still more efficient nerve gases, blatantly employed by Saddam Hussein's forces in the 1980s against Iranians and Kurds, without international response. However, the international honeymoon period after the Cold War allowed the negotiation of total, monitored and inspected elimination of all chemical weapons stocks and production facilities under the 1998 Chemical Weapons Convention.

But World War I and its aftermath have left discouraging precedents.

Opinion: The mighty women of World War I

Although banned, in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, from keeping any chemical weapons, Germany secretly maintained formidable capacities. Its specialists went on to set up joint trials and research facilities in the USSR and to pioneer the whole class of nerve agents. Cheating in arms-control treaties, especially with the assistance of third parties, has remained a lasting political anxiety and an intelligence priority ever since.

We now also know that during World War I, German agents tried systematically to infect Allied livestock with glanders (a serious bacterial disease, transmissible to humans but mainly affecting horses and mules). This was the insidious, but fortunately not then very successful, birth of covert scientific biological warfare -- which, despite the unverifiable and evidently broken Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1971, now persists as an uneliminable security nightmare.

So we are all still partially breathing the yellow-green poison cloud that Nobel laureate Fritz Haber determinedly developed and the generals of the German High Command, locked into the first scientific Total War, reluctantly authorized. (The suicides, apparently through shame and disgust, of both Haber's wife, Clara, and Hermann, one of his sons, seem to add further intimate casualties to his innovation.)

Haber's weaponization of chlorine for the second Battle of Ypres heralded a period of destructive technological dynamism in which we still live, when, repeatedly, as Bertolt Brecht observed:

"Out of the libraries come the killers.

Mothers stand despondently waiting,

Hugging their children and searching the sky,

Looking for the latest inventions of the professors."

And today, the news remains bad.

Mothers still scan the sky for incoming chemicals.

Chlorine is back.

After 1,400 people were killed with highly efficient sarin nerve agent in the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus in August, the Syrian government agreed to join the 1998 Chemical Weapons Convention and cooperate in its own chemical disarmament, as an alternative to U.S. punitive strikes.

Before completion of that process, reports repeatedly emerged in early 2014 of new attacks using chlorine, which as an industrial chemical used in water purification cannot be removed from the country, although employing it against humans is unquestionably forbidden. Chlorine's lethality, even against unprotected civilians, may be unimpressively low by modern standards, but it reliably continues to terrify.

And while German culpability in the gas attacks in Flanders 100 years ago was clear, the United Nations is still unable to agree, or even yet formally investigate, which side has been conducting chemical attacks of any kind in the long Syrian civil war.

Chemical warfare was universally criminalized in September under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2118. But finally eliminating or even punishing the homicidal employment of chemicals in organized violence is a diplomatic as much as a legal, technical or military problem.

It turns out that some international behavior over chemical killing remains as toxic as in 1915.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 307332

Reported Deaths: 7095
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20757248
Hinds19869408
Harrison17475302
Rankin13307275
Jackson13095243
Madison9886210
Lee9854169
Jones8289160
Forrest7522146
Lauderdale7185237
Lowndes6261144
Lamar610284
Lafayette6026117
Washington5279132
Bolivar4769129
Oktibbeha455297
Panola4440103
Pearl River4418139
Warren4277118
Marshall4267100
Pontotoc416472
Monroe4056132
Union403575
Neshoba3984176
Lincoln3869107
Hancock371985
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329389
Tate322681
Pike3177104
Scott310472
Yazoo304268
Alcorn297664
Itawamba296776
Copiah292965
Coahoma289677
Simpson287484
Tippah284668
Prentiss275659
Marion265679
Wayne261341
Leake260973
Grenada254882
Covington254380
Adams245882
Newton244859
George237647
Winston225981
Tishomingo222067
Jasper219748
Attala213273
Chickasaw204857
Holmes186471
Clay182354
Stone179131
Clarke176676
Tallahatchie175240
Calhoun163130
Yalobusha158636
Smith158534
Walthall130543
Greene129433
Lawrence126223
Noxubee125833
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120826
Amite119941
Webster113432
Jefferson Davis105332
Tunica102525
Claiborne101330
Benton97225
Kemper95126
Humphreys94332
Franklin81723
Quitman78916
Choctaw72817
Jefferson64828
Wilkinson64727
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 518588

Reported Deaths: 10712
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson753351487
Mobile37698798
Madison33829494
Tuscaloosa25245443
Montgomery23942565
Shelby23094238
Baldwin20617300
Lee15510165
Calhoun14277311
Morgan14137268
Etowah13660345
Marshall11952219
Houston10379278
Elmore9988200
Limestone9806147
Cullman9467188
St. Clair9422234
Lauderdale9208227
DeKalb8745181
Talladega8042171
Walker7087275
Jackson6753110
Autauga6715103
Blount6480135
Colbert6200130
Coffee5397112
Dale4766110
Russell428238
Franklin419882
Chilton4080109
Covington4053114
Tallapoosa3892146
Escambia387574
Dallas3526149
Chambers3499122
Clarke346360
Marion3065100
Pike305475
Lawrence295295
Winston272272
Bibb256258
Marengo248561
Geneva245875
Pickens232959
Barbour224755
Hale218675
Butler212266
Fayette208960
Henry187844
Cherokee182044
Randolph176741
Monroe171240
Washington163838
Macon154348
Clay149354
Crenshaw149257
Cleburne146041
Lamar139234
Lowndes136453
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109028
Perry107926
Sumter102932
Coosa99228
Greene90734
Choctaw58624
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
53° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 48°
Feels Like: 53°
Columbus
Clear
53° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 49°
Feels Like: 53°
Oxford
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 52°
Starkville
Clear
45° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 45°
High pressure brings sunny skies and dry conditions for Sunday with highs in the mid 70s. Rain chances build in during the week.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather