The First Gas Attack Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This document, taken from the second chapter of the book Chemical Warfare, was an attempt to keep poison gas warfare in the minds of the public and to convince them that this was not only a weapon to be used in warfare, but something that might serve other purposes. Thus, in this section of the book, in addition to a description of the horrendous results of the first gas attack, there is also an editorial section lauding the use of these chemical weapons as “most humane.” General Fries was a strong advocate of chemical warfare throughout his time in the army. This short essay presented 1) the military reason why gas attacks might be used in the future, 2) an opposite view as to why they would not owing to the terrible consequences of such attacks, and 3) strong advocacy for keeping chemical weapons in use by the person in charge of the Chemical Warfare Service of the United States Army.

Summary Overview

This document, taken from the second chapter of the book Chemical Warfare, was an attempt to keep poison gas warfare in the minds of the public and to convince them that this was not only a weapon to be used in warfare, but something that might serve other purposes. Thus, in this section of the book, in addition to a description of the horrendous results of the first gas attack, there is also an editorial section lauding the use of these chemical weapons as “most humane.” General Fries was a strong advocate of chemical warfare throughout his time in the army. This short essay presented 1) the military reason why gas attacks might be used in the future, 2) an opposite view as to why they would not owing to the terrible consequences of such attacks, and 3) strong advocacy for keeping chemical weapons in use by the person in charge of the Chemical Warfare Service of the United States Army.

Defining Moment

Although European agreements against using poisoned weapons go back to the seventeenth century, the scale on which poisonous gases were used in World War I exceeded anything that most people could have imagined. Although these weapons did not swing the tide of the war in either direction, they did inflict more than a million casualties–i.e., injuries or deaths. The images of the human destruction that had occurred affected many millions more. Even though in 1899 most nations had agreed not to use “asphyxiating or deleterious gases,” that agreement had not held. General Fries, as head of the Chemical Warfare Service, was charged with keeping the United States safe from gas attacks, as well as with using these weapons against potential enemies if it came to that. With the United States finally ready to sign a peace treaty with Germany in 1921, diplomats started to look at other areas where there might be cooperation. A new treaty outlawing the use of chemical weapons was one such area. Fries believed that it was necessary not only to give an accurate account of events during the First World War, but to advocate for continued research and preparation for the future use of chemical weapons. As a result, he and Clarence West wrote this book to convey their knowledge and views on the subject.

Because of the technical nature of the book, it is highly unlikely that leaders in the American government ever read the full text; but its publication did raise the issue of preparedness. The treaty proposed by the United States in 1922 was not accepted by all the European powers because it included provisions on the use of submarines in addition to chemical weapons. However, in 1925, the Geneva Protocol was accepted by all of the major nations of the world, thus outlawing the use of chemical weapons. While this might seem to have been a loss for Fries, and for those with similar mindsets, it was actually a victory. It allowed him to continue the work that had been his focus since World War I. The Geneva Protocol outlawed the use of such weapons, not any research, development, production, or deployment of them (e.g., as a deterrent). While Fries did advocate using gas, both militarily and in selected civilian applications, his point of view on preparedness did carry the day in Geneva. The United States, and other countries, were able to continue their chemical weapons research as they might desire. Articles and books such as this one by Fries and West resulted in a much more limited international agreement than many had sought.

Author Biography

Amos A. Fries (1873–1963) was a graduate of the US Military Academy and served more than thirty years on active duty. He was in the Army Corps of Engineers, and worked on diverse projects, such as roads in Yellowstone Park, a canal in Oregon, and the Los Angeles Harbor. In World War I, he was assigned to develop the emerging Gas Service Section, later the Chemical Warfare Service. From that time on, he advocated for the use of, and preparedness for, gas attacks. He also pushed civilian uses, such as in security systems, and he helped develop the gas chamber for criminal executions. He was an active anti-communist, viewing most who opposed him as communists. He was politically outspoken, including by his strong advocacy of chemical weapons.

Clarence Jay West (1886–1953) was a chemist pulled into what became the Chemical Warfare Service during World War I. West was a career employee of the National Research Council, ending up as director of the Research Information Service. For most of his career, he worked on technical issues and compiled lists/bibliographies of chemistry publications. His contribution would seem to have been more in the seventeen chapters (out of twenty-six) that dealt with the chemistry of chemical weapons and defenses, rather than in the sections like the one represented by this document

Document Analysis

This document had two major purposes. One was historical, in retelling some of the observations that were made on the day of the first gas attack by the Germans. The second was to advocate for the continued preparations to defend against, and to use, chemical weapons. However, Fries and West were better able to achieve the first than the second. Although part of a book that contained additional material related to both goals, the horrors of the first attacks were always easier to convey than was the ultimate utility of the weapons.

While Germany had used tear gas in 1914, that nation had been working on a way to use lethal chlorine gas as a weapon, contrary to the 1899 agreement in The Hague that poison gas weapons would not be used in warfare. Although told of the impending attack by a German deserter, the British dismissed the warning. When unleashed, French troops from Algeria (Turcos) at the center of the German gas attack suffered heavy casualties, including death for all at the front of the trench. Although not mentioned in this document, this first attack was an experiment by the Germans, which meant that they were not prepared to take advantage of the situation by advancing their troops into the void left by the death of so many French troops and others “running wildly in confusion over the fields.” The words used to describe the situation in the first-hand accounts quoted by Fries and West are vivid and accurate. “Choking and agonized,” “panic,” and soldiers “blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple color” all indicate events that had never been imaged. If German leaders had thought that the results would be so dramatic, their troops could have moved uncontested through the Allied lines. At the end of this document, there is a brief reference to the initial defense used against the next chlorine attacks.

As gruesome as the images detailed by those who witnessed the first attack at a distance were, however, Fries and West paint a different vision in the closing paragraphs of the document. Fries, as head of the CWS service until the end of the 1920s, gave this vision repeatedly in the first decade after the war. For him, gas attacks were a perfectly acceptable form of combat, even more “humane” than conventional forms. He gives two conflicting arguments in this section, however, and the statistics differ from those appearing later in the book. Fries argues that chemical weapons should continue to be used because they are “humane,” with a low casualty rate. To gain support for such weapons, he argues this while ignoring the question of why the Army would want to continue to support what is, by Fries’ own account, a relatively ineffective weapon. In fact, however, as recorded in a quote from the Surgeon General later in the book, more than twenty-seven percent of American deaths were gas related. Considering that statistic, claims for neither the ineffectiveness of gas attacks nor their humaneness would be accurate. By the time the United States entered the First World War, Germany was mainly using mustard gas to incapacitate soldiers so that they could be killed more easily by other means, rather than deploying more lethal gases. The lack of permanent injury to those attacked with mustard gas is a point understated by Fries and West. The figures from the records demonstrated that the use of gas attacks was not entirely lethal, but neither was it particularly humane.

Essential Themes

Although it was not the authors’ stated intention, the stigma attached to chemical weapons is brought to light by them in the vivid recounting they give of the effects of the first gas attack on French forces. This was then and remains the image that many have had regarding the use of gas in World War I, even though, as made clear at the end of the article, most of the later attacks had less of an effect on the troops. That, for many, the non-lethal effects of gas attacks made life “miserable” is something of an understatement. In 1675, there had been a treaty outlawing poisoned bullets, and, in 1899, a declaration was accepted to extend this restriction to gas attacks. In response to what many soldiers had witnessed on the battlefield, and including documents such as this one that kept the image in people’s minds, the leading nations of the world met in Geneva in 1925 and developed the Geneva Protocol, banning chemical and bacteriological weapons. That ban was ultimately accepted by 137 nations. Images of World War I, as well as more recent uses of gas attacks in violation of the Geneva Protocol, have kept support for the ban of these weapons strong.

Fries’ and West’s assertion that these types of weapons are no worse than, and perhaps even better than, other types of weapons has never really been widely accepted. Their indirect argument in this document, however, an argument made more directly later in the book, is that the United States should continue to research chemical weapons and defenses against them; and this has largely been accepted. In the 1910s and 1920s, the cautious move by American leaders to retain the ability to attack with, and defend against, chemical weapons, was in line with standing military philosophy regarding the need to be prepared for any and all weapons during war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Addison, James Thayer. The Story of the First Gas Regiment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919. Print.
  • Fries, Amos A., and Jay West. Chemical Warfare. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1921. Print. Google eBook. Web. 3 June 2014.
  • Tucker, Jonathan B. War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006. Print.
  • Vilensky, Joel A., and Pandy R. Sinish. “Weaponry: Lewisite–America’s World War I Chemical Weapon,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. Weider History Network, 12 Jun. 2006. Web. 3 June 2014.
Categories: History Content