from ‘the War Illustrated’ 31st July, 1915
'the Horrors of Poison War'


Discussing the Use of Poison Gas

two pages from 1915 issues of 'Sur le Vif' showing early gas masks


The Horrors of the Poison War

While we read a great deal and hear even more about the horrible savagery of the Germans in their use of poison-gas and asphyxiating shells, there is much confusion in the public mind on this subject. The facts are even more abominable than is currently supposed, yet from certain points of view the ruthless Hun, who in his war methods has fallen in humanity as much below the untutored savage as his Herr professors are intellectually above the ape, is not without justification of a sort. It may be news to some that Britain was not a protester against asphyxiating shells, but it is the nature of the gases employed that marks the German for the inhuman brute he is. This little article puts the subject in a new light.

There is a considerable amount of confusion in the public mind regarding the manner in which the Germans have broken the conventions of civilised warfare. As a matter of fact, the enemy has either openly or secretly resorted to so many extremely savage methods that in one respect only has he anything still to learn from the head-hunters of the Solomon Islands or the Aztecs of ancient Mexico. He has not yet eaten his fallen or captured foes, but with the single exception of cannibalism the fellow-countrymen of Luther have completely resolved civilisation into a nightmare of scientific savagery. With however our characteristic slowness of mind we have selected for popular criticism the only point in German methods of warfare for which some justification might be found. The employment of asphyxiating gases has entirely preoccupied the public attention and the result is that in another direction the most dreadful, and the most deadly crime committed against the allied troops is being carried out almost without the knowledge of the British public. Until we clearly understand the main factor in the German poison war we cannot appreciate the continual sufferings of our heroic troops, and the urgent need there is for everybody in the British Empire to come to their help.

Use of Asphyxiating Gas Legitimate

First, let us clear our minds of cant. The use of asphyxiating gas is legitimate. The Germans have infringed no convention by employing methods of asphyxiation. At The Hague Conference Admiral Marian, the United States delegate, voted in favour of the use of asphyxiating shell, and our representative at the Conference, Lord Pauncefote, supported the vote of Admiral Mahan. Germany, on the other hand, agreed not to use asphyxiating gases against the armies of nations who also agreed not to do so, but it was plainly stated that:,.," The present declaration shall cease to be binding from the time when, in a war between the contracting Powers, one of the belligerents shall be joined by a non- contracting Power."

We were a non-contracting Power, and so was Turkey. Therefore the use of asphyxiating gases became legitimate. The only sound objection that can be raised against the enemy's use of asphyxiating gases is that he has adopted the most cruel method of overcoming his opponents. Instead of employing a painless method of stupefying or slaughtering, the allied troops, he obtained by long and careful experiments on tethered dogs, a mixture of heavy gases which produced a diabolical form of torture — a long, lingering, ghastly agony lasting at times for days. He deliberately caused unnecessary suffering in contravention of Article 23 The Hague Agreement of 1907, and his use of scientific torture was deliberately developed by him for the purpose of terrorising the allied troops.

The Germans did not, as we know, succeed in their purpose. Far from terrorising our men, their method of; torture only lifted the Canadian and British soldiers to a height of desperate heroism, which completely defeated the new German plan of campaign. But long before the Germans resorted to the .use of torture gas, they had broken their bond with civilisation by a general employment of poisoned missiles. , From the beginning of the war. the allied troops have been systematically poisoned by the Germans in a manner publicly unknown. But their secret use of the worst form of poison has at last been clearly revealed by a British man of science, Mr. A. A. Roberts, Member of the Chemical Society of France, and Member of the Society of Chemical Industry. His terrible little book, "The Poison War," published by William Heinemann, should be read by .every man and woman in our country.

The Brand of the "Blonde Beast"

Since the days when the Senate of ancient Rome laid down the famous rule : "War is to be carried on by arms and not by poison," the observance of this rule has been one of the grand landmarks of civilisation. It is the principal. convention of warfare, established before Christ was born. When the nations of Europe were linked together in a common faith, in divine brotherhood, the force of the old Roman rule was greatly increased. But at the present time when both the dogmas and sentiments of Christianity have been undermined by various schools of freethinkers, a vacuum has been made, especially in the German mind," which is emptied of both the fine pagan notion of honour and the noble Christian ideal of brotherly love. The directing intellects of modern Germany have neither the conventions of classical pagan civilisation nor the almost superhuman aspirations of Christian spirituality. The consequence is that in matters of urgent practice, during; a time of extreme national crisis, the German governing class has nothing left to guide it but the elemental brute instinct of self-preservation at any cost, which is the mark of the beast. The modern German freethinker, who looks upon life purely as a struggle for plunder and power, is really a new kind of savage of the mst ferocious type, armed with scientific instruments of destruction and organised for slaughter by highly scientific means.

The Poison War Prepared in 1911

As his country has become remarkable for its chemical industries, owing to its large natural resources of potash and other salts, the German has been able to engineer a subtle and deadly form of poison attack upon an unparalleled scale. The German poison war was prepared in 1911, four years after the signing of The Hague Convention ; for poison shells made at Dusseldorf and Hanau in 1911 have been found in thestores of German ammunition captured by the French after the conflict on the Marne. The first poison shells captured were shrapnel for the enemy's light field-guns. They contained the ordinary boxes of bullets, and the ordinary explosive charge, but at the base of each box was a quantity of violet or reddish- brown powder. Moreover, the shrapnel bullets, instead of being smooth, were especially holed and dented. When analysed by a French Government chemist the coloured powder was found to consist of a mixture of white and red phosphorus. The holes in th bullets were designed to carry the chemicals into wounded .bodies. The phosphorus powder has since been. found in common shell, shrapnel shell, high-explosive shell, and rifle cartridges used by the German Army in France, Flanders, and Russia. The German high-explosive shell, known to our men by the nickname of the " Woolly Bear," which detonates with a cloud of thick white smoke, is one of the latest forms of poison missiles,

White phosphorus is a powerful irritant poison of a highly deceptive nature. It gives off a poisonous vapour, and when mingled with the oxygen of the atmosphere white phosphorus is converted into phosphoric acid, which is also highly poisonous. The Germans could not use white phosphorus alone, as it ignites by mere friction and burns away too rapidly. So they combined it with red phosphorus, which is the stuff used on the striking sides of the ordinary safety matchbox. The red phosphorus prevents the mixture from igniting by friction, causes it to burn in a slow fashion, while it is itself at last transformed by the heat into the deadly white phosphorus.

Tragic After-effect of Phosphorus

The poison enters the body of the stricken victim by the wound made by the poisoned bullet or fragment of shell. In most cases the wound is slight, this being particularly the case in injuries from shrapnel bullets. There is at first considerable difficulty in getting even a slight wound of this sort to heal. Usually, however, it is when the wound is at last healed or healing, and when the soldier is resting and hoping to recover his strength, that the phosphorus introduced into his blood begins strongly to work. Soldiers have been known to depart from the hospital n leave, light-hearted and contented, and then to be stricken with terrible liver and kidney disorders, from which they may never recover; for the symptoms of phosphorus poisoning are generally very deceptive. Owing to its slowness of action, the patient may give the impression of being almost cured, and then be stricken with what seems a new illness, among the features of which are fatty degeneration of the liver, jaundice, and violent pains. For many months the doctors and surgeons in the allied armies were puzzled by the extraordinary outbreak of diseases among the wounded men they attended.' Small light wounds became gangrened in a frightful number of cases. It was at first thought that the highly-cultivated soil of France and Belgium, dressed for centuries with manure, was responsible for the alarming outbreak of poisoned wounds. The number of men in our R.A.M. Corps who had actual experience of phosphorus poisoning cases was very small.

Wounds that Shine in the Dark

But after the discovery of th store of German poison shells French surgeons became alert, and on January 6th 1915, Surgeon Figuiera sent a paper on the matter to the Societé de Chirurgerie, in which the question of the German crime was definitely solved. A French soldier was wounded in the arm by a fragment of German shell, and Figuiera who treated the case, noticed that the wound shone in the dark. The man died at the end of, seven days, after a continual terrible agony, although his wound was so slight that, if there had been no poison, he would soon have recovered.

There the matter at present rests, and perhaps it is best to make no comment upon it at the present time, except to point out that if things are allowed merely to drift, we may at last have to engage for many long, terrible, years in a war of extermination.

Edward Wright


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