Chemical weapons as we define them today are a product of the 20th century, and were widely used in the First World War. However, the use of chemicals as weapons of war is as old as war itself.

In Strasbourg in 1675, the French and Germans agreed not to use poisoned bullets. This was the first international agreement to limit the use of chemical weapons.

Contrary to popular accounts, the first use of chemical weapons in the First World War was not outside Ypres on April 22 1915, but at Bolimov in Poland the previous January. As at Ypres, the spot is marked by a cross commemorating the event.

The British had set up a blockade to prevent Germany from importing nitrates, needed for arms manufacture, from South America. A German chemist called Fritz Haber developed a process which meant that German factories could still produce armaments in large quantities. Fritz Haber did something else for the German war effort, too: he pioneered the development of poison gas.
'In no future war will the military be able to ignore poison gas. ‘It is a higher form of killing’. said Haber, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919

Many people condemned him for his part in the war. His wife Clara, who was also a chemist, opposed his work. After Haber personally oversaw the first use of chlorine gas at Ypres, she committed suicide, using her husband’s service gun.

Clara Haber called her husband’s work a ‘perversion of science’. She tried to stop him training soldiers to use chemical weapons. Her suicide in May 1915 was portrayed as the ‘act of despair of a woman that was genetically predisposed’ to suicide. It was not reported in the press, and no autopsy report was produced.

After the war Fritz Haber set up a successful chemistry Institute. During the 1920s he developed the gas Zyklon B, intended as an insecticide. The anti-Jewish decrees of 1933 forced him to resign and leave Germany, and he died the following year. His invention, Zyklon B, was used during the Second World War to gas concentration camp inmates.

‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.’ said Winston Churchill in 1922, while Colonial Secretary. British armed forces in the Middle East were in the process of creating a compliant state – Iraq – out of disparate groups of Kurds and Shia and Sunni tribes. 7 decades later Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, used poison gas in war against Iran and also to attack Iraqi Kurds.

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