An estimated 113,000 tons of various chemical warfare agents were used in World War I. By 1918, one in four shells on the western front was a gas shell. At least 1.3 million men were injured by gas, and 91,000 of them died as a result. If the war had lasted longer there is no doubt that these figures would have been much greater. Both the United States and Britain had developed new, more deadly and faster-acting gas. The Germans had developed more effective ways of putting poison gas into action.

Chemical warfare had come a long way from simple tear-gas grenades. Weapons which four years earlier had been thought barbaric, were now acceptable. Now, to produce them, huge numbers of scientists, technicians and soldiers were employed in extensive research-and-development installations and factories.

The effects of poison gas prompted some governments to try to ban them. (These governments were apparently less disturbed by the equally devastating effects of shells and machine-guns.) In 1925, the League of Nations agreed on a treaty for the 'Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare'. This treaty is better known as the Geneva Protocol.

The Protocol did not actually ban the manufacture of chemical weapons or threats to use them. No sanctions were provided for, should any country break the Protocol. Some countries, including the United States, merely agreed that they would not use such weapons first: they still reserved the right to use them in retaliation.

In the 1930s, chemical weapons were used by Italy in what is now Ethiopia and by Japan in their war against China. In World War II, both sides stockpiled chemical weapons but did not use them. Nor were chemical weapons included in military planning. This may have been partly because of the aversion to gas warfare felt by some political and military leaders, reflecting the post-World War I reaction and the ensuing 'prohibition' Protocol.

But there was another, more likely, reason: there were no obvious military situations in which chemical weapons would have been more effective than the weapons already in use. Chemical weapons would actually complicate and delay operations because of the contamination they cause. All the same, after World War II the British, Russians and others took away chemical weapon stocks found in Germany and started up production plants of their own.

…it may be several weeks or even months before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it, let us do it one hundred percent. In the meanwhile, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uninformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there.
Winston Churchill in a ‘Most Secret’ minute to the chiefs of staff.

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