The Tactical Operations Center
Chemical Warfare Operations during World War 1
World War 1 introduced new types of warfare on a grand, horrendous scale; including submarine warfare, tanks, aircraft and machine guns. Chemical warfare was perhaps the most insidious because it violated the soldiers code of fair play and was difficult to train and equip soldiers to fight effectively in that kind of environment.

The use of chemical warfare in the military did not begin in World War One. The use of smoke and certain chemicals mixed together to create a debilitating effect on an enemy has been noted as far back as the Grecian wars. In World War One, the Germans, due to technological advancements and a more bold inventiveness, took the lead in chemical warfare. Thus, when the Germans introduced gas during their offensive at Yrpes (pronounced Wipers) on 22 April 1915, the Allies were forced to rush their research and development along in order to catch up. It can be generally said that the Allies lagged about a year behind the Germans in the development, production and operational use of any particular agent.

The British were able to retaliate in kind to the Germans for the first time during the Battle of Loos on 24 September 1915. Both sides used chlorine in their first experiments with chemical warfare. However, because of the unknown effects of gas, neither of these attacks, despite their success, were followed up with enough force to cause decisive action. The Germans were also ahead of the Allies in determining doctrine for the employment of chemical agents. They used gas zones to: protect the flanks of advancing infantry; neutralize known enemy strong points; deny key terrain to the enemy; block supply routes; and to render enemy artillery batteries ineffective. The Germans realized very quickly that without tactical doctrine regarding the employment of chemicals, the technology is worthless.

The Allies, again playing catch up, adopted the same doctrine. The British put a twist on their doctrine in an effort to maximize the psychological effect of gas warfare. They relied on intelligence reports and would attack specific divisions in order to weaken and demoralize them. The Special Brigade would follow targeted units around the battlefield and gas them only.

When the American Expeditionary Force landed in France to join the Allies, they were woefully unprepared for chemical warfare. The use of gas was new to the Americans. So, in spite of the British and French experiences, the Americans made the same mistakes again. The AEF had no protective masks, no protective clothing, and no decontamination equipment. Throughout the war, the Americans relied on the French and the British to supply them all of the above. Additionally, the leadership was not prepared to make the necessary adjustments to compensate for gas warfare. American commanders were not willing to accept the fact gas warfare could have such a horrendous effect on the battlefield.

Only after Congressional hearing on the subject and a report by the War Department's Board of Ordnance and Fortifications did the Secretary of War direct the Army to start making preparations. Then began a game of "hot potato" in the Army. The conflict was over who would be responsible for chemical warfare. At first, responsibility was given to the Surgeon General for the development and design of protective equipment, mainly, masks. However, the Surgeon General dragged his feet, and the Adjutant General shelved the whole matter. Finally, in February 1917, an anxious Quartermaster General prodded the Adjutant for the name of the branch responsible for providing the masks. Now, discussion went on between the Quartermaster, the Ordnance Chief, and the Surgeon General as to who was responsible.

Meanwhile, the Interior Department's Bureau of Mines director, Van H. Manning, began to discuss possible protective measures with the Army. Despite this, the Army took no concrete action on chemical warfare. When the United States declared war on 6 April 1917, the Army was not prepared with any offensive measures. The Army was only concerned with protective measures. In on 31 August 1917, the Medical Department finally took positive action. The Surgeon General created a Gas Defense Service.

As the Service began to organize, it ran into not only command and logistical problems, but it hit personnel snags. Army officers were still not convinced that chemical war was around to stay. The future of the Gas Service was an unknown. Also, officers and soldiers assigned to the Service had absolutely no knowledge of their new career field. They were forced to study and copy British methods, doctrine, and equipment. Training of Service officers remained a problem throughout the war. Many times, infantry lieutenants pulled double duty as platoon leaders and chemical officers. In January, 1918 when the first six divisions of the thirty that would eventually fight in Europe arrived in France, none of the troops had received any chemical training. The units had to be trained and outfitted in rear areas by Allied officers until they were deemed fit for combat.

Training of soldiers remained a problem throughout the war. Unit commanders were unwilling to allocate precious training time to chemical war subjects. Many this training was carried out aboard troop transports during the cruise to Europe. Overall, the Army's response to the threat of chemical warfare was extremely slow. It was a case of too little, too late. Without the benefit of French and English experience, guidance, and equipment, far more Americans would have been killed or injured during the war as a result of chemical warfare.

Chemical warfare places its' own special burdens on soldiers, as the AEF soon learned. Operating in a chemical environment was extremely uncomfortable, especially in the primitive protective gear used during WW I. Physical exertion by soldiers only increased their risk of being contaminated. Mask discipline was a serious command problem. Soldiers grew so uncomfortable that they would sometimes tear off their masks and/or their protective suits even when they knew they were in a contaminated environment. Command and control was also difficult. Voice commands could not always be heard from behind a mask. The noise of a battlefield did not make this any easier. It was also difficult to recognize leaders.

Soldiers would take cover in shell craters, low ground, underbrush, and in trees to protect themselves from enemy observation and fire. Unfortunately, these places were areas where gas collected and persisted. The primary chemical agents used during WW I were: chlorine, phosgene, diphosgene, and the "king of gases"- mustard gas. Blister, nerve, and tear gases were the most commonplace. Chemical warfare was extremely effective during the Great War. Of all AEF casualties, 31 % were gas inflicted. This percentage rates second behind shelling as the leading casualty inflictor. If chemical training and equipment are not given to the American soldier prior to next conflict, he will have been a victim of fratricide.

REFERENCE:Heller, Charles E. Chemical Warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918. Leavenworth Papers no. 10 Fort Leavenworth, KS, CSI, USACGSC, 1984.