A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas

A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas

A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas

A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison Gas


The advent of poison gas in World War I shocked Britons at all levels of society, yet by the end of the conflict their nation was a leader in chemical warfare. Although never used on the home front, poison gas affected almost every segment of British society physically, mentally, or emotionally, proving to be an armament of total war. Through cartoons, military records, novels, treaties, and other sources, Marion Girard examines the varied ways different sectors of British society viewed chemical warfare, from the industrialists who promoted their toxic weapons while maintaining private control of production, to the politicians who used gas while balancing the need for victory with the risk of developing a reputation for barbarity. Although most Britons considered gas a vile weapon and a symptom of the enemy's inhumanity, many eventually condoned its use. The public debates about the future of gas extended to the interwar years, and evidence reveals that the taboo against poison gas was far from inevitable. A Strange and Formidable Weapon uncovers the complicated history of this weapon of total war and illustrates the widening involvement of society in warfare.


On May 24,1915—Whit Monday and a month after the first gas attack of World War I—Sgt. Elmer Wilgrid Cotton of the Fifth Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, woke up when a gas alarm sounded. He described the scene in vivid terms:

I got out of my dugout very quickly—then I donned my respirator….
The flat country all around was covered to a height from 5 to 7 feet with a
greenish white vaporous cloud of Chlorine gas…. Many, many men were
being carried or were staggering towards the Ypres Canal—they were all
suffering from the effects of gas poisoning…. [We] received orders to
move forward and reinforce the front line…. On the way up we passed
our own batteries, the artillery men were working like slaves and some were
overcome with the gas—further on we passed a dressing station—green
and blue, tongues hanging out and eyes staring. One or two were dead
and others beyond human aid, some were coughing up green froth from
their lungs. As we advanced we passed many more gassed men lying in the
ditches and gutterways…. The gas which I breathed in my dugout had told
on me…. I was forced to lie and spit, cough and gasp the whole of the day
in that trench…. That was a fearful day for the British—they sustained
3,000—gas—cases alone.

Later his diary contains an undated and unpaginated entry describing the horrors of chemical warfare: “Chlorine Gas produces a flooding of the lungs—it is an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land—the effects are these:—a splitting headache & a terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death) a knife edge pain in the lungs the coughing up of a greenish froth off the … lungs and stomach ending finally in insensibility & death—the colour of the skin from white turns a greenish black or yellow, the tongue protrudes & the eyes assume a glassy stare—it is a fiendish death to die.”

The frightening aspects of gas—the terror of the soldiers, the suffering of the victims, the helplessness of the men—were not unique to Cotton's . . .

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