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The History and Threat of Mustard Gas

Fritz Haber ushered the world of warfare into an unprecedented era. He brought about the use of chemical weapons. To be sure, there had been isolated incidents throughout history of soldiers using smoke, tear gas, or other means to aid their fight, but it was the work of a single man—a German chemist known for his humor, loyalty, and pleasant conversation—who brought about an entire industry. He was just one man, but he changed the world.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Fritz Haber)

During the Battle of Ypres, chlorine gas was used in warfare for the first time. Haber’s wife killed herself with a gun soon after learning of her husband's role in the battle. The couple’s young son Hermann discovered his dead mother lying in a pool of blood.

(Image source: Image courtesy of The First Battle of Ypres)

But Fritz Haber didn’t have time to mourn the loss of his wife. He didn’t have time to comfort his son. There was a war going on, and the Allied forces had distributed gas masks across Europe, largely rendering chlorine and phosgene gas useless.

Hermann seems not to have ever forgiven his father for his role in chemical warfare, the death of Hermann’s mother, or Fritz’s reaction to her death.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Fritz Haber’s wife - Clara Immerwahr)

He refused to attend a ceremony honoring his father after his death, and Hermann’s wife wrote of the event, “One has no right to celebrate a person dead, whom one would not tolerate alive today.”

Haber was a huge believer in chemical weapons' role in warfare, believing them to be much more humane than traditional artillery shells. And so, he continued his work. He needed to develop a new chemical weapon that would cause harm even if its target were wearing a gas mask.

The end result of Haber’s work?

Mustard gas.

In this article, we will be covering the origins of mustard gas, its historical use, its deadly effects, and how to protect against it.

For more information regarding other chemical warfare agents, be sure to check out our Top Ten Deadliest Chemical Weapons article.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • 01

    The King of the Battle Gasses

  • 02

    What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Mustard Gas Exposure?

  • 03

    Is There a Cure for Mustard Gas Exposure?

  • 04

    Mustard Gas Likes to Stick Around

  • 05

    Is Mustard Gas Still a Threat Today?

  • 06

    What Can I Do to Protect Myself from Mustard Gas?

  • 07

    Mustard Is Hot Stuff

  • 08

    Frequently Asked Questions

Barrels of mustard gas used by the Japanese against China in WW2

The King of the Battle Gasses

While the chemical weapons used up to that point had been choking agents, Haber knew that the Germans needed something that targets a different body part. He needed something that could target the skin. What Haber needed was a blister agent.

Haber knew what the Allies' uniforms looked like. He knew they were made of porous material that gas could easily penetrate. He knew that the neck and hands were exposed. So why not attack those chinks in the armor of the everyday soldier? Why not go directly for their Achilles’ heel?

If the Allies were going to stay in their trenches, machine-gunning every German that poked up his head, launching artillery at German emplacements, and making themselves largely immune to chlorine and phosgene, why not hit them in a way they wouldn’t expect?

British troops in the trenches in WW1

To Haber, it only made sense.

And, after all, he was a scientist.

A New Weapon Enters the Scene

On July 12, 1917, Germany launched the first mustard gas attack in history, once again tying Haber’s name to infamy. Roughly 2,100 Allied casualties ensued, mainly Canadian soldiers, and though the weapon was new, the Germans knew they had discovered something with amazing potential. The Germans continued launching mustard gas over the next several weeks via specialized artillery shells.

Mustard gas burns on an American soldier

Within the warheads of the artillery shells was a glass vial filled with liquified mustard gas. Once the warhead made contact with the earth, the glass vial shattered, allowing the gas to evaporate and form a deadly cloud.

Mustard gas is heavier than air, so it quickly found its way into the hidden recesses of every nearby Allied trenches. The boots on the ground were terrified. They knew they were in a war of chemical weapons. They knew this was a fight like nothing the world had ever seen. They had held their friends from boot camp in their arms as those friends asphyxiated from clouds of chlorine or phosgene gas.

The Allies knew what an incoming chlorine or phosgene attack looked and smelled like.

But now, as a thick smell of garlic permeated the air, they knew that this was something different. A terrifying new weapon had entered the scene, and though they weren’t quite sure what it was, they knew it was no friend.

Within three weeks after the christening of mustard gas on the battlefield, Allied casualties due to mustard gas were the equivalent of those from the entire year prior for all chemical weapons.

Man with mustard gas burns

In other words, mustard gas worked.

And the Allies were scrambling for a solution.

Dulce et Decorum Est
by WW1 soldier Wilfred Owen
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Wilfred Owen)

The Allied Response to Mustard Gas

The Allies rapidly began research and development on their own mustard gas artillery weapons at American University in Maryland and Catholic University in Washington, DC. Soon, 10% of America's artillery shells were fitted with mustard gas warheads. And within just a year after the first use of mustard gas on the battlefield, the Allies responded in kind in June 1918.

(Image source: Image courtesy of The Hindenburg Line)

Had it not been for mustard gas, which the Allies affectionately referred to as “Hot Stuff,” the war could have raged on for years. But the Allies were able to turn the Germans’ weapon against them, proving that if you’re willing to raise the stakes, you best be ready to play by the new rules you created.

By the war’s end, up to 100,000 people had been killed and 1.3 million injured by chemical weapons. While 85% of these deaths were due to phosgene, mustard gas caused more casualties than any other chemical weapon used in the war. Some estimates place the figure as high as 120,000 casualties due to mustard gas. For this reason, mustard gas has long been dubbed by troops as the King of the Battle Gasses.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Mustard gas ambulances, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

One victim of this retaliatory mustard gas attack was a young German soldier whose job was to deliver messages among the trenches. Trapped on a hill south of Ypres on October 13 as the mustard poured in, he was later evacuated to a military hospital in the German province of Pomerania.

He later wrote of the attack, “My eyes were transformed into glowing coals, and the world had grown dark around me.”

His name?

Adolf Hitler

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Mustard Gas Exposure?

In World War 1, the first sign of mustard gas exposure was redness and itchiness of the affected skin several hours after exposure. This itchiness progressed to pain within hours. Typically, it took 2–24 hours (with a mean of 10–12 hours) for signs and symptoms to appear, so a soldier could potentially be exposed for hours, increasing the dosage, without having a clue.

If the gas contacted the eyes, redness, increased tear production, and eye pain resulted. Depending on the dose received, temporary blindness could also set in.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Blinded mustard gas victim)

Within hours after symptoms develop, massive, fluid-filled blisters begin to form on the skin. Because mustard attacks moist areas of the body with particular aggression, the genitals and armpits of victims were a mass of blisters. As the pus inside these lesions increases, it separates the top layer of skin from the bottom layer, causing excruciating pain.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Mustard gas burns)

These blisters then burst, oozing a stream of yellow pus and creating the risk of a dangerous infection. During World War 1, many soldiers ended up with dangerous infections as a result of these blisters bursting. A battlefield is far from a sanitary environment, and this was part of what made mustard gas such a dangerous weapon.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Mustard gas blisters)

If the victim breathes the gas, they develop severe dyspnea as the damaged mucous membranes in their respiratory system produce fluid. If the dosage is high enough, the patient asphyxiates as blood and fluid fill their lungs.

If the dose to the eyes is strong enough, permanent blindness results.

Horses and mules were used extensively throughout WW1. Here, mustard gas has injured a horse.

Is There a Cure for Mustard Gas Exposure?

As noted above, mustard gas was first used in 1917 before robotic surgery, modern antibiotics, or life support systems. There was absolutely nothing a doctor could do to treat a mustard gas case other than offer palliative care (calamine lotion seemed to provide some comfort).

And the frightening thing?

We’re in exactly the same situation today.

Despite over a hundred years of scientific advancements, we still haven’t figured out a way to keep mustard gas from killing people—a testament to the inherent dangers of chemical weapons. By the time a patient begins to develop blisters, all a doctor can really do is watch and monitor vital signs. If the patient survives past days three and four, when most mustard victims die, they stand a relatively good chance of pulling through.

Even then, the patient will experience lifelong consequences from their exposure. For starters, they will be more sensitive to mustard gas in much the same manner as somebody who has a compromised immune system will be to the common cold. A smaller dose of mustard can produce similar results as the former large dose the next time the victim is exposed.

In addition, the patient will have an increased risk of infection for the rest of their life, a higher risk of cancer, and a good chance of permanently losing all of their body hair. They may also experience issues with nausea and vomiting due to mustard gas’s ability to impede DNA replication in the gut (it also does this in the bone marrow).

Research suggests that there may even be psychological effects from mustard gas exposure. One study found that Iranians exposed to mustard gas in the Iran–Iraq War exhibited increased levels of hostility, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsiveness, and manifestations of physical pain due to psychological issues up to 20 years after exposure.

This author believes that these psychological health effects are likely due to PTSD, but the fact remains that mustard gas caused this mental health issue in the first place.

Mustard Gas Likes to Stick Around

One of the dangers of mustard gas is that it is almost sticky. Not that if you get some on your fingers, they’ll feel as if they’ve been rubbed with a glue stick. Rather, mustard gas tends to stay in place once it lands on something.

In other words, mustard gas is environmentally persistent. This is one reason why it has plagued soldiers on the battlefield for decades. Just hopping into an abandoned Jeep on the battlefield—even weeks later—can result in toxic exposure if mustard gas was sprayed heavily in the area. Imagine a WW1 soldier grabbing his rifle or gas mask with his bare hands after making it through an attack in one piece. Within hours, they would be a mass of excruciating blisters.

Painted surfaces, in particular, seem to have a particularly troublesome relationship with mustard gas. They absorb any mustard gas that comes into contact with them, only to release it later.

The point?

If you’ll be moving through a post-attack environment, you must be properly protected.

Is Mustard Gas Still a Threat Today?

The best way to answer this question is to look at mankind’s track record.

Let’s start by analyzing the 1899 Hague Convention. In it, countries around the globe decided that it was illegal to poison wartime combatants. Few would argue that using chemical weapons doesn’t constitute using poison against an enemy soldier.

Yet, the Hague Convention didn’t stop chemical weapons from being used in World War 1.

Then, in 1925, nations around the world signed the Geneva Protocol, which specifically banned the use of chemical weapons in war.

Just a few years later, in1935 and 1936, Bennito Mussolini used mustard gas extensively in Ethiopia against Emperor Haile Selassie. The League of Nations, the group of nations that developed the Geneva Protocol, did nothing. Of note, Italy had signed the Geneva Protocol.

Ethiopian soldiers running through a cloud of mustard gas

It didn’t work.

After World War 1, Germany was forced to sign a peace treaty with the Allied nations. In this 1919 treaty, they were banned from producing chemical weapons.

Yet, Fritz Haber helped the Germans develop chemical weapons in secret for years following the treaty. He improved the process of making mustard gas by creating a one-step system and assisted Soviet Russia in constructing its own chemical warfare plant.

The 1919 treaty didn’t work.

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919

Then World War 2 happened, highlighting the failures of the 1919 German peace treaty. During this war, both the Axis and Allied powers produced mass amounts of chemical weapons. The Germans developed nerve agents during this time. Technically, this was legal under the Geneva Convention (which allows chemical weapons, just not their use), but the point is that chemical weapons proliferated.

After the Nazis sank the SS John Harvey in 1943, people in the area began to fall ill with the telltale signs of mustard gas poisoning. General Eisenhower had kept 100 tons of the gas at the ready for rapid deployment in the event of an Axis chemical strike.

Autopsies revealed lymphopenia and other biological factors of interest that caused American doctors to realize that mustard gas may have anti-cancer properties. The United States lifted its ban on publishing mustard gas research, and researchers soon discovered that mustard could destroy tumor cells.

The sinking of the John Harvey inadvertently led to the birth of modern oncology.

From 1963 to 1967, Egypt dropped mustard on Yemen (with the bombing of Al-Kawma of particular note) to assist in dethroning the Yemeni king. Interestingly, Egypt signed the Geneva Convention in 1952, agreeing not to use chemical weapons in war. They didn’t keep their promise.

In the 1980s, the Iran–Iraq War took place, and the world watched in horror as chemical weapons were used to an extent that hadn’t been seen in decades. Iran was heavily hit with not only mustard gas but several other chemical weapons. Iraq signed the Geneva Convention in 1956.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Iranian soldier during the Iran-Iraq War; image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. )

In the early 1990s, fighting once more broke out in the Middle East with the start of the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein and Iraq still had a massive chemical weapons industry. The cases of Gulf War Syndrome from that war are likely the result of chronic exposure to low levels of chemical weapons in the environment as American missiles blew up Iraqi weapons infrastructure left and right.

(Image source: Image courtesy of American jets mopping up in The Gulf War )

Then, in 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention was signed by several nations around the world. Anyone who has read Soviet defector Ken Alibek’s memoir Biohazard knows how laughable the claim is that chemical (or biological) weapons are no longer being manufactured.

So, you decide. Is mustard gas–one of the easier chemical weapons to manufacture–still a potential threat in the modern day?

What Can I Do to Protect Myself from Mustard Gas?

If you’re concerned about mustard gas, there are two concrete steps you can take to protect yourself. These two steps were learned the hard way in World War 1, but they work. First, have an appropriate gas mask and filter, and second, have protective garments.

We at MIRA Safety have you covered on both counts (and then some).

Wear a Gas Mask

During World War 1, roughly 2% of all mustard gas casualties were wearing a gas mask at the time of exposure. If the victim wasn’t wearing a gas mask, that rate rose to as high as 50%. In short, you need a quality gas mask and filter if you want to survive a mustard gas attack.

For this, we recommend our CM-7M Gas Mask. The bromobutyl rubber of this mask will protect your eyes, face, and lungs from CBRN threats. The tapered cheek allows you to shoulder a rifle without your mask getting in the way, and it's wearable with both ballistic helmets and ear protection.

We recommend attaching one of our NBC-77 filters to this mask. We specifically tested these filters against a wide array of chemical weapons, and we have to say, these are some of the best quality filters out there. Not only will they protect your lungs from mustard gas, but they’ll keep you from breathing phosgene, radioactive particles, VX, viruses, herbicides, and a wide array of other airborne threats.

During World War 2, Hitler wanted everyone in Germany outfitted with a gas mask in the event of an Allied chemical strike. Other than the lack of German industrial ability, one reason this wasn’t accomplished was that officials concluded that mustard gas largely rendered widespread gas mask distribution pointless.

If people couldn’t protect their skin as well, Germany would largely be rendered helpless.

Wear Protective Clothing

When it comes to protecting your skin, we recommend our brand-new release, the MIRA Safety MOPP-1 CBRN Protective Suit. This is the first hazmat suit of its kind available to civilians. One of the problems with traditional hazmat suits is they are impermeable, and thus, they retain a rather formidable amount of moisture and heat. If you’ll be outside for extended periods of time or you live in the Deep South, this can be potentially dangerous.

Our new MOPP-1 will keep you safe from CBRN threats, and it’s breathable, allowing the wearer to shed some of the excess heat traditional hazmat suits retain. This is a complete game changer in the world of civilian CBRN preparedness, and we highly recommend you take advantage of this product before it’s too late.

Because mustard gas can also saturate equipment, later causing toxic exposure, it is essential for anyone out in the field to be able to protect his ruck and any other gear that he may be carrying with him. That’s where the MIRA M4 CBRN Military Poncho comes into play. Not only will its Serbian digital camouflage pattern help keep you hidden, but its puncture-resistant polyamide construction will also help keep mustard gas at bay.

An Ounce of Prevention

What if you can’t don your MOPP-1 suit in time? What do you do then? This is where another exciting new MIRA Safety product comes in: The MDG-1 Personal CBRN Decontamination Glove. Originally developed for the Serbian military, these gloves contain a nontoxic ultra-fine powder that is proven to remove upwards of 90% of common CBRN threats, including mustard gas.

Remember, by the time the blisters form, it’s too late. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and our MDG-1 Gloves can provide that extra protection you’ll wish you had after the fact.

Mustard Is Hot Stuff

Though we haven’t seen it used (that we know of) on the battlefield in the past 30 years, mustard gas is still a valid threat. The last time an atomic bomb was used was in World War 2. Does that mean the threat of a nuclear strike is now nil?

Mustard gas demands your respect, but thankfully, there are solid, actionable steps you can take to protect yourself from it.

The only question is, will you?

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was the inventor of mustard gas?
What is a mustard gas grenade?
What was the result of the use of chemical weapons during World War I?
How does mustard gas kill you?
When was mustard gas invented?
Can you survive mustard gas?
Did the Allies use gas in WWI?