Poison Gas: Inter-war Era (1918-39)



Figure 1.--Here we see children at a Bulgarian secondary school learning how to use gas masks in 1935 at a school in Yambol. Click on the image to see the description on the back. A reader tells us, "I have been looking at the inscription on the back of this. I cannot make out the top line (I speak Russian, not Bulgarian), though it may refer to the activity being photographed, as the last 3 words appear to be "in the hour on/for", as if this may have been a regularly scheduled activity, or perhaps a one off activity scheduled for all schools. The next few lines read: "Gas protection" 7th Class (i.e. grade/year/form), 1935 town of Yambol."

Mustard gas was used by British forces which intervened in the Russian Civil War during 1919. We have no details at this time on the research and production prgrams for poison gas. The Germans were of course probited from manufacturing poison gas under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. After the NAZI rearmament program, poison gas was again produced. Subsequently international agreements prohibiting its use. I am not sure how this affected research and production programs. Even so poison gas was used in the inter-war period on a number of occassions. The Italians under Mussolini used it in their African campaigns in Libyia and Ethiopia. The Spanish also employed gas in their North African campaigns, both in Libya and Ethiopia. The Japanese used gas in China even before the beginning of World War II and were condemned by the United Nations. Despite the international conventions outlawing poison gas, there was widespread fear in Europe that it would be used. Advances in aviation brought the fear that gas would be used against civilian populations. One of the limitations of gas usage in World War I was the difficulty of delivering gas on enemy targets with the danger of your own forced being affected. Aerial delivery resolved this limitation.

World War I

Poison gas was first used in World War I. Poison gas was first been developed by a German Jewish scientist working for the Whermacht. Gas was widely used on the both the Western and Eastern Front during the War. Losses were especially severe on the Eastern Front where the Russians were not equipped to take the needed counter measures and were unable to reply with gas weapons of their own. The Germans first used poison gas at Ypres (April 1915) with devestating effect. The British and French followed suit. I don't think the Americans and Russians used it, but I think the Austrians did. Gas because of its stealth and horendous effects was perhaps, the most terror-inspiring of all the World War I weapons. Poison gas caused only a small fraction of total battlefield deaths, less than 0.1 million, but more than 1.3 million men received terrible wounds--many never fully recovered. Countermeasures were, however, rapidly developed which reduced gas to primarily a means of harassing the opposing forces. One estimate suggests that by the end of the War in 1918, about 25 percent of all artillery shells fired contained chemical weapons.

Poison Gas Outlawed

After the War, the major world powers outlawed the use of poison gas in war. This ban was included in several international agreements. Gas was prominently outlawed in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, formally ending World War I. There were also provisions outlawing the use of poison gas in the the 1922 Treaty of Washington and in the 1925 Geneva protocol signed by more than 40 countries, including the United States.

National Research and Production Programs

We have no details at this time on the research and production prgrams for poison gas. The Japanese initianted a major research program to produce chemical and biological weaons. later they also initiated a nuclear program. The Germans were of course probited from manufacturing poison gas under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. I'm not sure to what extent research was conducted in secret. After the NAZI rearmament program, poison gas was again produced. I am not sure how this affected research and production programs in different cuntries. I do not yet have details on the chemical weapons programs of the Allies (Brotain in France) during the inter-War era. Nor do I know about the United states yet.

Poison Gas Usage

Poison gas was used in several instances during the inter-War era. At this time I have only limited information. World War I stocks of Mustard gas were used by British forces which intervened in the Russian Civil War during 1919 before the international convention outlawed it Even after it was outlawed, poison gas was used in the inter-war period on a number of occassions. The Italians under Mussolini used it in their African campaigns in Libyia and Ethiopia. The Spanish also employed gas in their North African campaigns. I'm not sure that they had a domestic production caability. The Japanese used gas in China even before the beginning of World War II and were condemned by the League of Nations.

Public Fears

Despite the international conventions outlawing poison gas, there was widespread fear in Europe that it would be used. Many military and political leaders assumed that it would be and this time used on civilans. Advances in aviation brought the fear that gas would be used against civilian populations. Gas had been used against military targets in World War I. The great fear as Europe moved yoward war was that gs would be used agaunst civilians. One of the limitations of gas usage in World War I was the difficulty of delivering gas on enemy targets with the danger of your own forced being affected. Aerial delivery resolved this limitation to some extent. We note numerous images from the 1930s of both soldiers and civilians learning how to use gas masks. After the Germans created the Luftwaffe and developed a fleet of modern, albeit limited range, bombers, European countries were terrified at what the Germans night do to cities, especially after the Germans demonstrated their new planes in the Spanish Civil War. The film production of H.G. Wells' "Things to Come" (1936) is a good example about the wideky held horrors of war a poison gas. The terrible debilitating impact of exposure to poison gas made it especially terrifying to civilians. Numerous images from the 1930s show both soldiers and civilians learning how to use gas masks. Here we see a Bulgarian class in 1935 (figure 1). We are not sure just how widespread such classes were in Europe. Gas masks were produced in large numbers in several countries. This was especially true in Britain which gave considerable emphasis on civil defense as theywere convinced that the NAZIs would use chemical weapons when war broke out. When War finally broke out, masks were issued to civilians. The children were shown in school how to use them. When the British evacuated the children, every one carried a gas mask and already knew how to use it.

World War II

One of the unanswered questions about World War II is why poison gas was not used. Gas had been widely used on the Western Front in World War I. It had first been developed by a German Jewish scientist working for the German Army. The Germans first used it at Ypres with devestating effect (April 1915). The British and French followed suit. I don't think the Americans and Russians used it, but I think the Austrians did. After the War, the major world powers outlawed the use of poison gas in war. This ban was included in several international agreements. Even so, the Italians under Musolini used it in their African campaigns in Libyia and Ethiopia. The Japanese used gas in China even before the beginning of World War II and were condemned by the United Nations. Military planners in Britain assumed that the NAZIs would use it when war broke out. Every British citzen, incliding children were issued gas masks. There wee even masks for babies. They were also issued in France, Italy, and Germany. Major combattant countries (America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union) had large stocks of poison gas in their arsenals. The Japanesew were the only one of the combattant coubtries to employ chemical weapons. The employed chemical and biological weapons in China. The question arrises as to why it was not more widely employed in the War, especially in the European air war.






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Created: 6:59 AM 10/2/2004
Last updated: 4:53 AM 7/17/2011