Use of Chemical Weapons

The deployment of chemical weapons has some ‘advantages’ for the military: Chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction can kill a significant number of people or soldiers in a more or less large area. By contaminating the terrain of the enemy, its operative mobility is vastly limited. Enemy soldiers will also have to wear NBC protective clothing, which additionally limits their versatility and endurance. Yet, in the case of a change of direction of the wind or the course of the battle, such weapons will not only affect the enemy but also one’s own troops. In planning such a deployment, the military will have to take into consideration the specific toxicity of the agent (LD50 or LCt50) and the environmental conditions at the location.

Chronology of deployment of chemical weapons (selection):

Ancient times

Historians point out that already in the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BC) did Sparta use incendiaries against Athens to poison the air with sulphur dioxide.

World War I

‘Modern’ chemical warfare began during World War I, with French troops using chemical weapons, albeit ‘only’ the tear gas ethyl bromoacetate, for the very first time - against German forces, in August 1914. The German army was aresponsible for the first deployment of deadly toxic gases:

• On 22 April 1915, at the start of the Second Battle of Ypres, the XV army corps under General Berthold von Deimling attacked the front line between Langemark and Ypres with chlorine gas. As the gas was heavier than air, it floated into the French trenches. It is estimated that this first attack cost 1,200 lives and wounded about 3,000 soldiers. German grenades containing different kinds of chemical weapons were marked with different colour crosses: green crosses represented choking agents, blue crosses represented blood agents, yellow represented blistering agents. German soldiers tersely referred to an attack in which multiple chemical agents were used as ‘a multicolour attack’ (Buntschießen).

• About 120,000 tonnes of 38 chemical warfare agents were deployed in the ‘gas warfare’ in World War I, killing approx.. 100,000 soldiers, wounding 1.2 million.

The 1920s

Despite the high losses incurred by the deployment of chemical weapons in the ‘gas war’, their proliferation was not stopped. On the contrary: World War I was hardly over when the victors began to deploy chemical weapons in colonial wars.

• In 1919, British forces deployed chemical agents against dissident Kurdish people in the city of Sulaymaniyah (today northern Iraq).

• In 1924, Spanish forces deployed chemical weapons that had been delivered by Germany against rebel Riffian in Morocco.

• From 1924 to 1930, the Italian government deployed war agents against rebels in Libya, which at that time was still an Italian colony.

• In the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, the Italians used 350 tonnes of mustard gas against Ethiopian forces near Debre Tabor, Makalle and Dagabur from December 1935 to April 1936. According to different estimates, between 15,000 and 50,000 Africans lost their lives from being exposed to chemical weapons.

World War II

Despite the experiences made in World War I and the provisions of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the great powers of that time had built up large stockpiles of chemical weapons by 1939. In World War II, the feared mass deployment of these weapons, however, did not take place, at least not in Europe. Only locally limited individual cases were reported, such as in Ukraine. Until today, it is unclear why a massive chemical weapons war was avoided even though there was high-intensity fighting on all fronts resulting in millions of fatalities. There were enough plans to deploy chemical weapons: In the case of a chemical weapons attack by the German army, the US armed forces were planning to retaliate by bombing 30 German cities with 36,521 tonnes of sulphur and nitrogen mustard, which would have resulted in approx.. 5.6 million deaths and 12 million injured.

In this context, it must be mentioned that ‘Cyclone B’, consisting of an absorbent stabilizer (diatomaceous earth) soaked with hydrogen cyanide, was used in the gas chambers of German concentration camps during the Holocaust. A lot of victims died of the agent in these chambers, most of them in Auschwitz. Originally, it had been developed as a pesticide.

In the Far East, Japanese troops deployed chemical weapons against the Chinese. During the Battle of Wuhan (August to October 1939), 400,000 Chinese soldiers died of chemical weapons. Further attacks with chemical weapons followed during the Battle of Changsha (autumn of 1939), the Battle of Zaoyang–Yichang (October 1941) and during the Battle of Changde (November 1943). In the latter, 50,000 soldiers and 300,000 civilians died from exposure to mustard gas and Lewisite.

Cold War

• From 1965 to 1967, the Egyptian government got involved in the Civil War in Yemen. Its air force deployed phosgene and/or mustard gas against the villages of Kitaf, Gahar and Gadafa.

• In the Vietnam War, US armed forces used multiple herbicides between 1962 and 1971, in particular the ‘Agent Orange’. The intention was to defoliate the jungle forests to discover the hiding places of the North Vietnamese Vietcong guerrillas (operation RANCH HAND). The chemical agent was contaminated with “2,3,7,8-TCDD”, a highly toxic carcinogenic dioxin that also damages the DNA. The bombardment with 40,000 tonnes of defoliant poisoned 38,000 m2 of earth, four million civilians were affected. If a Vietnamese woman who had survived the bombing gave birth years later, the baby often showed severe deformities even though the war had been over for many years. In 1980, 14,000 US soldiers attempted to sue their government and demanded compensation. In an out-of-court settlement, the producer Dow Chemical paid US $180 million.

• The Gulf War between Iraq and Iran (1980 to 1988) saw the last known deployment of chemical weapons in a conflict between two states. 100,000 Iranian soldiers and many civilians died from the Iraqi attacks.

• In the mid-1980s, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein carried out an attack to subdue the Kurdish minority and used chemical weapons about 40 times. The attack on the village Halalabja on 16 March 1988 killed 5,000 Kurds and injured up to 10,000 people.

After the Cold War

Since the end of the Cold War, chemical weapons have only been deployed in the framework of terrorist attacks:

• On 20 March 1995, the Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo carried out a poisonous gas attack at the subway station of the government district in Tokyo. The sarin that they had produced themselves was heavily contaminated; this is why there were ‘only’ 12 casualties and more than 5,000 injured. Numerous employees of the hospitals were amongst them who were only insufficiently prepared for the treatment of victims of a gas attack and who poisoned themselves by propagating the substance.

• It is said that in April/May 2007, the Islamist terror organization “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” (very early manifestation of so-called Islamic State) repeatedly used chlorine gas against US-American soldiers and Iraqi government forces. The gas originated from a factory in Karma, close to the Iraqi city of Falluja. There were reports of an attack on a police station in Ramadi on 6 April 2007 with 27 casualties and the village market of Abu Sayda on 15 May 2007 with 45 casualties.

• The Turkish government is alleged to have repeatedly used chemical weapons on 22 October 2011 in its fight against the Kurdish PKK. The attacks took place near Cukurca.

• In the Afghan Civil War, the Taliban allegedly attacked girl’s schools in Kunduz and Talokan repeatedly with poisonous gas in April / May 2012. Several hundred girls complained of headaches, chills and nausea.

Sources and further information:

  • Grümmer, Gerhard (1990): Giftküchen des Teufels – Ereignisse, Tatsachen, Zusammenhänge, Berlin(-Ost). (German)
  • N.N. 2012. Chemical Warfare, Wikipedia.
  • Stöhr, Ralf und Kießlich-Köcher, Harald (1987): Chemie des Todes – Geschichte, Perspektiven, Abrüstungsperspektiven, Berlin(-Ost), Militärverlag der DDR. (German)

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