Chemical warfare is the use of chemical agents to injure, incapacitate, or kill enemy combatants. First seen during World War I (WWI), the devastating effects of widespread chemical warfare were eventually deemed inhumane by an international consensus and chemical agents were subsequently banned from use. Still, despite the tendency of the modern warrior to overlook antiquated tactics, the threat of chemical agents in the theater of war cannot be entirely discounted by today's Soldier. By analyzing the application, evolution, and overall legacy of chemical weapons in the Great War we can work to minimize the danger they pose in current conflicts and those of the near future. For it is only by understanding the past that we can understand the present and shape tomorrow.
Few could have foreseen that a chance encounter with a Serbian nationalist could’ve escalated into the largest war the world had ever seen. Yet that is exactly what happened on June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Princip happened upon the motorcade of Franz Ferdinand and shot the Archduke and his wife to death, instigating an international conflict that was to set the world ablaze. The war pitted the Allied Powers, Britain, France and so forth, against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and their allies. The United States, under the guidance of President Woodrow Wilson, remained neutral for most of the war. Despite being the closest trading partner of Britain, the United States held to the principle of maintaining affairs in its hemisphere and its hemisphere alone. That is until Germany's indiscriminate attacks on unarmed trade ships caused the destruction of the Italian liner Lusitania and the deaths of 27 Americans, the event that sparked America's growing interest in the war and eventually led to the president declaring war against the Central Powers on April 6, 1917.
The United States entered a war that had already seen the worse of human nature, including the use of chemical weapons. WWI was not the first time chemical agents were a factor in war. Chlorine based agents had been considered for use during the Civil War, but the idea was rejected as they were thought to be against the general rules of war. Indeed, the Hague Convention of 1899 and 1907 discussed the use of chemicals as weapons and contracting powers agreed to prohibit the use of poisons or poison weapons during war. That did not prevent the French from using tear gas against the Germans, becoming the first combatants to use a chemical weapon during WWI. Though this initial usage was largely ineffective, it made clear that chemical weapons fair play for the rest of the war.
The German's studied the French chemical weapons and delved into their own efforts to expand this new strategy. “Seeking to break the deadlock and regain the offensive, the Germans began to consider the use of toxic chemicals delivered by artillery shells to force the enemy out of his...