Developments in chemical warfare during World War One were significant in driving the progress of medical advancement. Humanity has known for centuries about the impact that chemical weaponry has on casualties of war. In 1675, the Strasbourg Agreement was signed to prevent the extensive brutality of chemical warfare that was subsequently seen in World War One. France and the Germanic states as signatories of the agreement understood the far-reaching destruction that chemical warfare can cause. As a consequence of the international treaties introduced between 1874-1907, directly prior to the conflict, poisonous weapons were banned in the Western world. Countries started to develop their arms in secret; they were free from regulation, and so were able to develop the weaponry to the dangerous levels seen in World War One. As military historian, James Patton, argues, the gases which had the largest impact were phosgene, a short to medium term gas with extreme mortality rates, and mustard gas, which had a significantly longer-lasting impact on soldiers exposed to it.
As chemical gases were constantly being developed and released throughout the war, medical advancement was needed to combat the unknown gases of the future. July of 1915 was significant in providing preventative and mitigating techniques for the impact of chemical gas warfare; British medical corps invented protective head gear which would be referred to as a “hypo helmet”, using wool immersed in specific mustard-neutralizing chemicals as a base, an experimental measure to mitigate the impact of mustard gas. While these were only the first gas masks and would be significantly enhanced over time, this as a first attempt in response to the enemies’ use of chemical weaponry demonstrates that significant medical innovation and advancement had already occurred, and this invention proved to be effective for troops like British and German who put such resources into their gas masks. Gas masks were very significant for medical advancement in the mitigation of the impacts of chemical gases, particularly for a gas like phosgene which was one of the first, most widely used gases in World War One. Most masks (depending on their relative efficacy) were able to limit the amount of gas going in, or completely prevent the gas from entering the respiratory system.
Phosgene was developed by the German Army and was first recorded used in December 1915, at the Battle of Ypres. It was an ideal choice as a chemical weapon, because it was colourless and extremely lethal; it was fast-acting (within 48 hours of exposure) and created “irreversible tissue injury”, culminating in the victim dying from suffocation. Phosgene was so effective that some soldiers were significantly more afraid of the impact of chemical warfare than traditional weaponry; Private John Hall recalled his war experiences, saying, “I was more frightened with gas than I was with shell fire.” Though it was clearly a significant development in the use of chemical weaponry throughout the war, it was unable to drive any success in medical innovation, as no antidote could be developed that would save its victims. Patton’s research documented that as much as “85% of the 91,000 gas deaths in WW1, were a result of phosgene or the related agent, disphogene.” As a result of the quick onset and sudden death, researchers were not able to mitigate the impact of phosgene gas once it had infected the soldiers; however, the impact of preventative methods – the use of gas masks – as a direct result of the mass use of chemical weaponry was later seen as medical advancement.
Comparatively, research into mustard gas and the subsequent creation of preventative strategies and remedies to limit its impact did significantly drive medical innovation. Mustard gas helped to evolve the gas mask technique that had been created as a response to earlier gases like phosgene. Later advancement of the gas masks, in 1916, would allow for modification of the respirator, arguably the most important section of a gas mask, to combat new gases. This did protect against the release of mustard gas, but was particularly more beneficial when the soldiers saw that gases were coming. The casualties resulting from mustard gas were due to its chemical properties, as the gas was odourless and colourless. By the end of the war, gas masks were no longer worn in response to an attack; they were worn in preparation, because it was unknown when mustard gas would strike. By changing the soldiers’ habits and having them wear masks in preparation, the percentage of casualties from mustard gas decreased.
Other effective solutions were put into action for when mustard gas had already come into contact with the skin, by further changing the attitudes of the soldiers; they were encouraged to to wash more, be careful of upsetting the ground as the gas could easily be re-exposed into the atmosphere, and to change into new uniforms if they had been affected by mustard gas. This treatment, however, could only do so much; in-depth research into the impacts of mustard gas demonstrated that, because of its potency, there would be a long term impact on the infected. There were few resources to fund long term treatment, as in the majority of cases, the gas had created injuries but not deaths. As a blistering agent, the physical impacts on soldiers created a need for further research on the physiological, psycho-social and socio-cultural effects of the gas.
The development of mustard gas and the research that went into it changed opinions and increased medical knowledge towards the end of the war, which led to a decrease in the number of soldiers who suffered long term consequences from exposure.
Overall, developments in chemical warfare – particularly in phosgene and mustard gas – were substantial in driving the progress of medical advancement. Significantly, gas masks were created to reduce the amount of gas being inhaled, and in some cases entirely prevented it. However, there was no medical advancement for the treatment of the extremely lethal phosgene, arguably one of the most commonly used chemical gases for weaponry in World War One. While there was some cultural change which acted as partial treatment for those who had already inhaled mustard gas, there was (and still is) no long term treatment, and its effects can be felt for months, years and even decades.