The Troubled History of Chemical and Biological Warfare

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Troubled History of Chemical and Biological Warfare


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THE controversy over Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction is simply the most recent in a long line of events in the troubled history of chemical and biological warfare. This article examines two events that show that the Germans and British also have some skeletons in their own closets. The Germans pioneered chemical (or 'gas') warfare in World War I and the British experimented with anthrax, a form of biological warfare, in World War II.

'A Higher Form of Killing'

The man who invented modern gas warfare received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and he called his invention 'a higher form of killing'. Fritz Haber's invention was first used on 22 April 1915 against the French and their Algerian colonial troops at Ypres in Belgium. The green chlorine gas rolled over the Allied frontline and created panic. The chlorine burnt the lungs and the Allied soldiers died slowly. Two days later, the gas was used against the Canadian lines with similar results. Allied casualties in the two days of gas attacks were estimated at 5,000 dead, with 10,000 more disabled, half of them permanently.

But Haber was not happy. The German high command had not believed that the gas attacks could be so effective and so did not make the most of their opportunity to storm the Allied frontlines. Indeed, they were reluctant to use gas at all. When the war began in August 1914, the Germans expected a quick victory. It was only when the Western front had become bogged down in a stalemate, running from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, that they listened to his suggestion. The two front lines were so close that it was often risky to fire shells, in case they fell short and landed on one's own line. Haber thought that gas warfare could end the stalemate. If the German high command had listened fully to his strategic advice, then the war could have had a very different outcome. Instead, the German high command did not have enough troops ready to follow up the gas, and those that they did have, did not have enough gas masks.

Meanwhile, the Allies soon developed their own gas weapons and so the stalemate became even more deadly. Many thousands of people continued to suffer from the effects of the gassing for the rest of their lives. They may have survived the war alive but they often did not have a life worth living. One of Haber's victims, a British soldier named Fred Cayley, was gassed in 1917. He had to visit a doctor every week of his life until his death in 1981. The coroner recorded that he had been 'killed by the King's enemies'--the statement that would have appeared on his death certificate if he had been killed outright 64 years earlier.

Dr Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, in eastern Germany in 1868 of a wealthy family. He was a brilliant pioneer in the German chemical industry. In the first decade of the last century, the rapidly increasing demand for nitrogen fertilizer greatly exceeded the supply (most of which then came from sea bird droppings in Chile). Germany was Chile's biggest customer, with the United States as the second largest.

Haber looked for other ways of meeting the demand and helped invent a chemical fertilizer. Indeed, his artificial fertilizer may have been an even greater contribution to the German war effort than the chemical weapons because with it he helped Germany become more self-sufficient in agriculture. His invention has gone around the world and many millions of people have been able to feed themselves because of his brilliance.

He also helped Germany overtake Britain in engineering. He was able to build bridges between the worlds of science and finance, while he claimed that the British financiers lacked an interest in science and how it could be mobilized to improve production. He encouraged German financiers and scientists to see how each could help the other. Were it not for his invention of gas warfare, he would have a far greater public standing today. …

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