Mustard Gas in WWI: Effects and History

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the development and history of mustard gas. From its beginnings as an odd chemical experiment to its use by both sides during WWI, as well as its effects and uses, it's all here.

The Effects of Early Mustard Gas
mustard gas

Ever get this pain in your nose, and just as you stop sniffing it feels like some of whatever you smelled has reached your stomach? Suddenly all you want to do is vomit. Then you realize your friend is a little gassy and thinks it's funny. During World War I, the Germans developed something like that, only they wanted to overwhelm thousands of people at a time. Sounds disgusting, but that's what mustard gas does to most people. It was something that was meant to leave the Allied soldiers wrenching while the Germans took over.

A Fascination with Bad Smells

Mustard gas, or sulfur mustard, was in development for a while before World War I. In 1860, Frederick Guthrie was the first person to mix sulfur dichloride and ethylene together and record the unpleasant smell of garlic or mustard. Albert Niemann repeated the experiment and added that blisters occurred wherever the mustard gas made contact with skin.

The real difference was when scientists started tinkering with the formula. In 1886 Viktor Meyer changed the formula a little and created a more potent chemical than ever before. In fact, when Meyer tested the new version on rabbits, most of them died.

In 1913, Hans Thacher Clarke and Emil Fischer modified the gas again in Berlin but Clarke ended up in the hospital from unintended exposure. It was only a matter of time before the German Empire learned what had happened. The emperor recognized mustard gas as a great weapon and started funding research for it immediately.

A New Tool

Even with the government funding it, mustard gas took a while to get right. The Germans only decided to use it in 1917, three years into World War I and near Ypres, Belgium. The gas worked great, leaving the Allied soldiers feeling too sick to fight. The Germans didn't take advantage of what happened, though, because they hadn't realized how well the gas had worked.

A few months later the English came across several shells with mustard gas in them and shot the gas during a battle in Cambrai, France. When they saw how well it worked they began developing their own version. Mustard gas would help them break the main German line, the Hindenburg Line, at the end of the war.

One problem with using mustard gas on the battlefield was that it was a gas. If the wind was moving in the wrong direction or there was a light rain it might not get to the enemy. There was even a chance that the gas might hit an unprepared part of the dispersing side's own line.

The Gas Mask
Gas Mask

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