Discovery reveals WWI government ignored mustard gas warning

05 November 2008

If the Government during the First World War had heeded early advice from chemical scientists, British soldiers would not have been killed and injured en masse by mustard gas inflicted upon them by the Germans on the Western Front.

An account written by a chemist after the war, which has been sent to the Royal Society of Chemistry, sheds new light on the way that scientists' advice was discounted by politicians, with dire consequences.

"This is a demonstration of the problem we still have today, where Government doesn't always recognise the significance of information placed before it by scientific specialists," said Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The document, entitled "Some memories of the Activities of the R.E. Anti-Gas Establishment during the Great War", was marked for 'private circulation' by chemist Leonard Levy.

In the foreword Levy says that his account had been compiled as a memento of an anniversary dinner of the association of ex-officers of the Anti-Gas Establishment.

"The account is in no sense to be regarded as an official or semi-official history of the Establishment though a few of the historical facts of general interest have been included," he wrote.

The 31-page narrative includes a section on Mustard Gas which might have ethical reverberations in today's world. Levy wrote: "It is a matter of considerable interest that had the advice of the Anti-Gas Establishment been taken, it would have been quite possible for the Allies to have employed Mustard Gas before it was used by the Germans, instead of being apparently taken completely by surprise, and being unable to make extended use of this material in the field, until a year after its first use by the Germans."

It continues: "The late major Dudley, who was working in Emil Fisher's laboratory in Berlin before the War, had first-hand evidence of the potency of dichlorethyl-sulphide. A fellow student working in Fischer's laboratory with this substance evidently split (sic) one drop if it on his waistcoat. This caused extensive vesication over the whole of his stomach, as a result of which he very nearly lost his life. 

"The fact naturally impressed Major Dudley and he mentioned it to the Anti-Gas Department. A few trials were made and the use of this substance was suggested to the War Office; but nothing further happened. This was at the beginning of 1916."

Later, during the latter end of 1916 and 1917, Levy acted as liaison officer between the gas services in England and France and was sent for one day to go to St Omer immediately where he was told by Gas HQ that the Germans had employed a new type of gas shell which had a small bursting charge and contained a liquid which had the smell of mustard and which had a very powerful vesicant action.

"I stated that I thought it was dichlorethyl-sulphide, but did not claim any credit for this suggestion, as I had heard about this substance from Major Dudley and the behaviour of the new gas seemed to be very similar."

He was told that one dud shell had been collected and was instructed to take it back immediately, with no delay, for examination in London. "The shell was packed in a wooden box and to the best of my belief was not even defused."

A remarkable journey to London followed, during which, to prevent somebody knocking the box, he sat on it all the way by ship and train. In the laboratory it was ascertained that the shell's contents were dischlorethyl-sulphide.

"The report on the shell filling in due course reached the War Office. They were informed that the dischlorethyl-sulphide was not a new substance which had been invented by the Germans for chemical warfare but was a known substance which had been investigated and described by Victor Meyer many years before.

"The Anti-Gas Department therefore received a 'snorter' from the war Office to the effect that the shell filling was a known substance and as such could have been used by the Allies long before and that the neglect to advise its use might have the most serious consequences, even perhaps the loss of the war.

"The Department replied to the effect that 'we did tell you, see our memorandum of such and such a date'."

He added: "The result of this episode was to cause a complete reorganisation of the British gas services. Considerable changes were made at the War Office and the offensive and defensive sides were unified and made a branch of the Royal Engineers."

In its work to design and get into mass production an effective gas mask for the Allied forces, members of the anti-gas unit put their own lives at risk regularly by entering chambers during tests, causing some of them to faint.

Its leader, the remarkable chemist Lt-Col Edward Harrison, undermined his own health so badly that he died a week before the end of the war on 4 November 1918, having worked night and day, against medical advice, to achieve his goal of protecting millions of men from agonising death and disability.

In May this year a handwritten letter from munitions minister Winston Churchill was discovered by the Royal Society of Chemistry in which he offered condolence and admiration to Harrison's widow, adding that he had only just decided to promote her husband to Brigadier-General in charge of all Britain's chemical warfare work.

Related Links

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Image of Edward Harrison Memorial Prize

Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prizes

Awarded for the most meritorious and promising original investigations in chemistry and published results of those investigations

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