The latest allegations that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria has been using chemical weapons against rebel targets got me thinking.
What does it take?
It takes a particular type of person or a particular state of desperation to use these sorts of weapons. As far as I can recall, Saddam Hussein was the last to try it when he gassed his own people in Northern Iraq, and the Iranian army. Now it’s being claimed that the CIA was involved in helping him do this (they really do have trouble choosing sides those people).
For decades after the mass gas attacks of World War One, no soldier was sent into the field without a gas mask, and with good reason. The victims of the chlorine and mustard gas attacks on both sides of the trenches in France died particularly horrible deaths or, if they survived, suffered permanent disfigurement, damaged lungs and in many cases, blindness.
The French were the first to try it, using tear gas in the first month of the war, but it didn’t take long for lethal gases to make their appearance, and the Germans launched the first big chlorine gas attack in April 1915.
Ugly, and militarily useless
It was certainly effective, in that the French troops hit by the cloud abandoned their positions, but the German troops were understandably reluctant to follow up into the cloud, so no military objective was achieved. If the wind changed direction you ran a risk of it blowing back into your own positions as well, as happened to the British the first time they tried it at the Battle of Loos in September 1915.
This didn’t stop either side trying though, and the counter-measures (such as gas masks) got better and better until it became almost useless as a weapon. The exception was mustard gas, which burnt the skin horribly and didn’t need to be breathed in to be effective.
By the time World War Two came around, everyone had massive stockpiles of the stuff, but it was rarely used. Why?
Yet not in World War Two…
World War Two saw extensive use of phosphorus grenades by both sides, and of napalm (jellied gasoline named after napthenic acid and palmitic acid used to make the original recipe), mostly by the US Air Force in the Pacific and in bombing raids on Japan. Yet gas made virtually no appearance on the battlefields of this war at all. Given the extremes to which both sides were driven, it seems extraordinary that the Russians didn’t resort to it in 1941, nor the Germans in 1945. Of course, the Germans were busily using it to murder millions of people behind the lines.
One theory posed by a question put to Hermann Goering, was that the Germans used mostly horse-drawn transport and couldn’t invent a functioning horse gas-mask. This seems to me to be absurd; the Germans had enough trucks to move the stuff if they wanted to badly enough, yet they didn’t.
Was it a case of Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD)? The Germans would have known that if they used gas it would surely be used against them, possibly by British and American bombers against German cities, with no hope of retaliation. It was just too risky.
Perhaps the leaders of the countries involved, some of whom (Hitler and Churchill for example) would have witnessed its effects first-hand in World War One, were simply morally unable to use it? It’s highly doubtful that Hitler would have had a scruple like that, perhaps he was motivated by fear?
But effective against civilians
Saddam Hussein, and now allegedly Al Bashar Assad, seem to be confirming what Hitler worked out: that poison gas is effective against a target that has no way to counter it and no way to fight back: civilians.
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