There are days when you wake up to news that leaves you in deep introspection. One such day was 3rd February – when a freight train derailed in Ohio. The incident did set off evacuation orders, a toxic chemical scare and a federal investigation; but it set my mind in a whirlpool of thoughts and emotions…all of which revolved around weaponizing chemicals as a future of war.
We can’t go on much longer morally. We can’t go on much longer scientifically. The technology that was supposed to save us is ready to destroy us.
– Billy Graham
What is Chemical Warfare? The use of toxic properties of chemical substances as weapons is called Chemical warfare.
When was Chemical Warfare First Used?
Fritz Haber, is considered the ‘father of chemical warfare’ for his work in developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I.
But was it first used only during WW1?
- Some evidence of chemical warfare in western literature dates back to Ancient Greek myths, where Hercules uses poisoned arrows.
- In the Hindu epics Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’, chemical warfare is mentioned in some of the earliest surviving passages. Poison and fire arrows are forbidden in the “Laws of Manu,” (also called the Manava Dharma Shastra) a Hindu book on statecraft written around 400 BC.
History, Development and Use of Chemical Weapons in Warfare
According to ancient Greek historians, Alexander came into contact with poison arrows and fire incendiaries during his siege in India in the fourth century BC. There are also stories that Chinese were acquainted with arsenical smoke as far back as 1000 BC, and Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” (about 200 BC) recommends the usage of fire weapons. In the West, chemical warfare first appeared in writing in the fifth century BC, during the conflict between Sparta and Athens. During the Roman-Persian War, the oldest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare was discovered in the form of Bitumen and sulphur crystals. According to historian David Hume, quicklime, another name for calcium oxide, may have been employed in mediaeval naval battles, during the regime of Henry III in England.
Modern Era (World War I & II and in-between years)
Technically the French army first used toxic tear gas in WWI. In October 1914 Germany used dianisidine chlorosulfonate against British troops. Again, in January of 1915, it used xylyl bromide at Russian forces near Poland. On April 22, 1915, Germany orchestrated its most deadly gas attack in WWI. It released chlorine gas from canisters and with the help of wind the gas was carried into the trenches of French, Canadian and Algerian soldiers.
After WWI several countries started developing and stockpiling chemical weapons in the fear of chemical warfare.
- Allegedly in 1920, British troops used chemical gas in Mesopotamia against the Iraqi revolt, on the order of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Noam Chomsky, a historian, claimed that Winston Churchill at the time was keen on chemical weapons, suggesting they be used “against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment”, and that he stated to be “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes”.
- The Soviet Union used poison gas against the Tambov rebellion in 1921 in the order of Lenin. Again, it used mustard gas in Central Asia against Basmachi Rebels. In 1934, during the invasion of Xinjiang province, the Soviet forces used mustard gas from the air at the battle of Dawn Chang.
- From 1921 to 1927 the Rif war was fought between Spain and Morocco. Spanish forces used phosgene, diphosgene, chloropicrin and mustard gas against the civilian population, markets and rivers, with the help of 127 bomber aircraft. These attacks marked the first widespread employment of gas warfare in the post-WWI era.
- In January 1928, Italy used several poison gases with mustard gas against Senussi forces in Libya. Under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, Italy fought the 2nd Italo-Abyssinian war from 1935 to 1939 with Ethiopia. In these years Italy used chemical weapons on a massive scale, ignoring every treaty and international pressure. In February and March of 1936 Italian forces launched the most devastating attack not only on Ethiopian troops but also on the civilians, rivers and crop fields.
- Germany in the years after WWI accelerated itself in chemical warfare. In the 1920s it collaborated with the USSR in developing chemical weapons. However, chemical warfare was revolutionized by Nazi Germany’s discovery of the nerve agents tabun (in 1937) and sarin (in 1939).
Nazi Germany & Transformation of Chemical Warfare
Nazi Germany did not use chemical gases frequently to attack the Axis power in the fear of retaliation. However, it extensively used them on its minority citizens to feed and sustain its propaganda of “supreme race theory”. During Holocaust (a genocide committed by Nazi Germany) millions of Jews, Slavs, and others were gassed with carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide included with Zyklon B. This remains to be the most devastating use of poison gas.
The Nazis experimented on prisoners from concentration camps extensively – and some of these tests included the study of the effects of the nerve gas, Tabun. Not only were these prisoners used as guinea pigs for chemical testing, but Hilter also used them as his labour force to manufacture the gas in secret.
The western allies did not use Chemical weapons on the battlefield, and also avidly against their uses, except Winston Churchill. He on several occasions promoted the use of it but failed due to the discouragement of his allies.
Post-modern Era – The problem right now!
After the war, Britain and the US started developing much more potent nerve agents than Nazi Germany. However, those were thankfully never used in a war.
The most extensive post-World War II use of chemical weapons occurred during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), in which Iraq used nerve agents such as sarin and tabun, as well as riot-control agents and blister agents like sulphur mustard.
Iraq’s chemical weapons strikes claimed the lives of about 100,000 Iranian soldiers. Mustard gas struck many people. The children and relatives of soldiers, many of whom have experienced blood, lung, and skin ailments, as well as the civilian population poisoned in neighbouring towns are not included in the official estimate. According to the Organization for Veterans, 20,000 Iranian soldiers were instantly killed by nerve gas, according to official reports. Out of the 80,000 survivors, 5,000 consistently needed medical attention, and 1,000 still required hospitalisation for serious, chronic illnesses.
Prevention & Hope for a Safer Future
The first action taken to address this issue was a proposal that was passed Hague Conference in 1899. This proposal was followed by the Second Hague Convention, which forbids the use of “poison or poisoned weapons” in combat, become operative on January 26, 1910. Then came the Geneva Convention of 1925, which put forth and established severe prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons in war.
But the most significant decision came in April 1997, with the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)—the world’s first multilateral disarmament agreement. Under CWC, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was formed as an intergovernmental organisation and the implementing body. With 193 members, this organisation pledges to destroy and prevent the manufacturing of their chemical weapons.
India was the only country to meet its deadline for the destruction of chemical weapons and the OPCW inspection of its facilities by the year 2005 out of the six countries that had revealed their possession of chemical weapons. India was given an extension to destroy all of its chemical weapons and material stockpile by April 2009 after having already destroyed more than 75% of them by 2006. India informed the UN on May 14, 2009, that its chemical weapons stockpile had been eliminated.
There are still massive amounts of chemical weapons present at disposal of several countries. Though we see less and less use of chemical weapons in warfare nowadays, living in this volatile time, we still have a long way to go for a world free of Chemical warfare.