Slow Burn — 11 Terrifying Facts About Mustard Gas

Mustard gas wasn't the most lethal chemical weapon of the First World War, but it was perhaps the most feared.

Mustard gas wasn’t the most lethal chemical weapon of the First World War, but it was perhaps the most feared.

“Here are some little-known facts about one of history’s most terrible weapons of mass destruction.”

TO THE MILLIONS OF MEN FIGHTING IN FLANDERS in 1917, it would be hard to imagine how the hell of trench warfare could be made any worse. But worse it would get that year, thanks to the introduction of a new and especially horrifying chemical weapon.

On July 12, German gunners lobbed more than 50,000 artillery shells containing an experimental poison gas into the British and Canadian lines near Ypres. Unlike the widely used chlorine or phosgene agents, which attacked the eyes and lungs, this new terror burned its victims bodies both inside and out. And because of the unmistakable pungent aroma that accompanied its release, soldiers in the trenches began soon began calling the the weapon mustard gas.

At first, those in the path of the unfamiliar and faintly yellow vapour had little idea they were even in danger. But within hours, the gas’ lethal effects would be all too obvious. Shortly after its first use, dressing stations up and down front were overflowing with more than 2,000 victims suffering from excruciating and untreatable blisters on their arms, legs and torsos. Most were blinded; others were slowly suffocating. Nearly 100 of the casualties succumbed to their wounds within a few days. Over the next several weeks, 1 million mustard gas shells would land on the Allied lines near Ypres leaving thousands writhing in agony, disfigured and unfit for duty. More than 500 deaths would be recorded. [1]

By the autumn, mustard gas was in use up and down the Western Front. It would continue to be released right up until the Armistice, eventually becoming one of the most powerful symbols of the horrors of trench warfare. Here are some little-known facts about this terrible weapon of mass destruction.

British army gas victims, circa 1918. (Image source: WikiCommons)

• Sulphur Mustard or mustard gas was originally called “LOST” in reference to the last names of the German chemists that first engineered it — Wilhelm Lommel and Wilhelm Steinkopf. [2] It was also code named “Yperite” after the Belgian town where it was first used, “Yellow Cross”, “Mustard T” or simply “H”.

• The gas is classified as a “cyotoxic” agent, meaning that it attacks all living cells in comes into contact with. Made of sulphur dichloride and ethylene, the thick, oily, brown liquid gives off a weak garlic, horseradish or mustard odour when released.

• Although introduced to the battlefield in 1917, the nasty effects of sulphur mustard were known as far back as the 1860s. A German chemist named Albert Niemann (the same individual who discovered cocaine in 1859), was among the first to document the poison’s characteristics. In 1913, British and German civilian researchers studying sulphur mustard were accidentally exposed during lab work and had to be hospitalized. The German military obtained the notes about the incident and promptly explored weaponizing sulphur mustard. [3]

• Germany eventually developed an array of delivery systems for mustard gas including artillery shells, mortar rounds, rockets, free fall bombs and even land mines. According to one estimate, the British army alone suffered 20,000 mustard gas casualties in the last year of the war.

A Smithsonian Institute image of the effects on the human body of mustard gas.

A Smithsonian Institute image of a typical mustard gas casualty.

• According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the first sign of mustard gas poisoning is a mild skin irritation that appears several hours after exposure. Affected areas gradually turn yellow and eventually agonizing blisters form on the skin. Eyes become red, sore and runny — extreme pain and blindness follows. Other symptoms include nasal congestion, sinus pain, hoarseness, coughing and in extreme cases respiratory failure. Sustained exposure can produce nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Fatalities typically occur within a few days, but it can take weeks, even months for survivors to fully recover. And some never do; permanent blindness, scars, long-term respiratory damage and heightened risk of cancer are just some of the long-term effects of mustard gas poisoning. To this day, there is no antidote for mustard gas. The CDC reports that treatment options are limited to “supportive care.”

A photo of a military experiment studying the effects of mustard gas on exposed skin. A test subject’s arm is exposed to trace amounts of the toxin. The effects are startling.

• Amazingly, mustard gas wasn’t the deadliest poison gas to be used in the First World War. Only between 1 and 5 percent of those exposed to the agent died as a result. [4] Nevertheless, it terrified soldiers because unlike other chemical weapons, victims were often unaware they were being poisoned. What’s more, gas masks and respirators only protected the lungs from the toxin; everything else burned, even skin beneath clothing. Once discharged On the battlefield, sulphur mustard could take days to dissipate. Since it was heavier than air, vapours would settle into shell-holes, craters and trenches and taint the water that collected in No Man’s Land. According to veterans, men frequently tracked contaminated mud back into their dugouts before turning in and unknowingly poisoned themselves and their comrades while they slept.

• Despite the outrage that followed Germany’s use of mustard gas in 1917, the Allies immediately engineered their own stockpiles of the stuff. By November, the British were dropping sulphur mustard onto German trenches at Cambrai. In fact, the breakout through the Hindenburg Line in 1918 was aided by a massive Allied mustard gas attack. America’s Dow Chemical manufactured the poison during the last year of the war. [5]

• Although the use of mustard gas was universally condemned after the war and later banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1925, armies the world over continued to use it long after 1918. British forces participating in the intervention in Russia used sulfur mustard shells against the Bolsheviks. Both the Spanish and French air corps dropped the agent from planes onto Rif insurgents in Morocco during the 1920s. Italians used mustard gas against Abyssinian guerrillas while the Japanese gassed Chinese armies and civilians alike in Manchuria during the 1930s.

A World War Two-era training poster about the signs of a mustard gas attack.

A World War Two-era training poster about the signs of a mustard gas attack.

• During World War Two, the Allies stockpiled millions of tons of mustard gas and other chemical weapons just behind the frontlines in the event of an Axis gas attack. In December of 1943, an American supply ship laden with 2,000 mustard gas shells was damaged in an air raid off Bari, Italy. Much of the deadly cargo seeped into the waters. More than 600 American personnel were exposed to the gas and 60 died. An unknown number of Italian civilians also perished. Allied commanders suppressed the whole story for fear the Germans might resort to chemical weapons in response.

• Mustard gas was used in anger during the 1960s in the North Yemen civil war. Twenty years later, Saddam Hussein outraged the world by dropping it on both the Iranian army and Iraq’s own Kurdish population. More than 5,000 civilians died in a mustard gas attack on the city of Halabja in 1988.

• Mustard gas continues to do harm to this day. Abandoned stockpiles of the agent are frequently discovered and often injure those who stumble across it. In 2002, archeologists unearthed a lost consignment of mustard gas while performing an excavation at the Presidio in San Francisco. In 2010, a fishing trawler inadvertently dredged up some vintage gas shells from the bottom of the Atlantic off New York. Several of the crew were burned by the toxin and hospitalized.

• Despite it’s fearsome reputation as a weapon, mustard gas has also saved lives. After World War Two, medical researchers who were aware of sulfur mustard’s cell-destroying properties fashioned the first cancer-fighting chemotherapy treatments from mustard gas. [6] Yet, these limited benefits hardly outweigh the weapon’s legacy of horror.

1. Gilbert, Martin. “The First World War. 1994. Pg. 346.