British soldiers blinded by gas, April 1918

  • Gas was available in three basic varieties:

  • Lachrymator (tearing agent)
    • Much like today's tear gas and mace, this gas caused temporary blindness and greatly inflamed the nose and throat of the victim. A gas mask offered very good protection from this type of gas. xylyl bromide was a popular tearing agent since it was easily brewed.
  • Asphyxiate
    • These are the poisonous gases. This class includes chlorine, phosgene and diphosgene. Chlorine inflicts damage by forming hydrochloric acid when coming in contact with moisture such as found in the lungs and eyes. It is lethal at a mix of 1:5000 (gas/air) whereas phosgene is deadly at 1:10,000 (gas/air) - twice as toxic! Diphosgene, first used by the Germans at Verdun on 22-Jun-1916, was deadlier still and could not be effectively filtered by standard issue gas masks.
    • Chlorine gas destroyed the respiratory organs of its victims and this led to a slow death by asphyxiation. One nurse described the death of one soldier who had been in the trenches during a chlorine gas attack. "He was sitting on the bed, fighting for breath, his lips plum coloured. He was a magnificent young Canadian past all hope in the asphyxia of chlorine. I shall never forget the look in his eyes as he turned to me and gasped: I can’t die! Is it possible that nothing can be done for me?" It was a horrible death, but as hard as they tried, doctors were unable to find a way of successfully treating chlorine gas poisoning.
  • Blistering Agent (Mustard Gas)
    • Dichlorethylsulphide: the most dreaded of all chemical weapons in World War I - mustard gas. Unlike the other gases which attack the respiratory system, this gas acts on any exposed, moist skin. This includes, but is not limited to, the eyes, lungs, armpits and groin. A gas mask could offer very little protection. The oily agent would produce large burn-like blisters wherever it came in contact with skin. It also had a nasty way of hanging about in low areas for hours, even days, after being dispersed. A soldier jumping into a shell crater to seek cover could find himself blinded, with skin blistering and lungs bleeding.
  • Gas was spread in the early days by having containers of it and breaking them with rifle fire. Later it was mostly spread by artillery shell.
  • This table lists deaths and non-fatal casualties caused by gas during World War I.
Country Non-Fatal Deaths Total
British Empire inc Australia 180,597 8,109 188,706
France 182,000 8,000 190,000
United States 71,345 1,462 72,807
Italy 55,373 4,627 60,000
Russia 419,340 56,000 475,340
Germany 191,000 9,000 200,000
Austria-Hungary 97,000 3,000 100,000
Others 9,000 1,000 10.000
Total 1,205,655 91,198 1,296,853

Mustard gas is really a liquid and is not likely to change into a gas immediately if it is released at ordinary temperatures. As a pure liquid, it is colorless and odorless, but when mixed with other chemicals, it looks brown and has a garlic-like smell.


Mustard gas was used in chemical warfare and was made in large amounts during World Wars I and II. It was reportedly used in the Iran-Iraq war in 1984-1988. It's presently used in the United States for research purposes. The U.S. Secretary of Defense was instructed to destroy all remaining stocks of lethal military chemical agents, including mustard gas, by 1997.


Mustard gas has been a favorite chemical weapon in wars because it can be fairly easily delivered via conventional bombs, rockets and artillery shells and because mustard gas contamination can render an area unusable by enemy forces

This former soldier (Harry Milton Russell) shows the terrible scarring associated with mustard gas burns.  


Mustard agents, also known as “blistering agents” or “mustard gas,” produce wounds resembling burns or blisters when they come into contact with the skin. These agents may also cause severe damage to other organs such as the eyes, the respiratory system, and internal organs. They got the name “mustard agents” from an early production method that yielded a mustard-smelling agent.


Mustard gas was produced in 1822 and was first used as a chemical warfare agent in WWI.  Iraq also used large amounts of mustard gas in the war against Iran from 1979-1988. 


Symptoms are usually delayed between two and 24 hours resulting in severe cell damage before the patient may even know they have been exposed. Mild toxicity will result in symptoms such as eye pain, lacrimation, irritation of the mucous membranes, inflammation of the skin, hoarseness, coughing and sneezing.  Severe toxicity may result in blistering, blindness, nausea, vomiting and respiratory complications.  The leading cause of death after mustard agent exposure is lung injury.


Lung injuries start with mild symptoms and gradually increase and ultimately result in chemical pneumonia and pulmonary edema. A drastic reduction in the number of white blood cells is seen approximately 5-10 days after a large exposure and it’s effects on the bone marrow and lymphatic tissue look similar to radiation exposure.  This leaves the patient at significant risk of infection. 


Decontamination is the most important treatment that can be done for a mustard exposed patient.  Removal of clothing, bathing, flushing of the eyes, and washing of the hair are key initial management steps.  Some people go as far as to say you should shave hair completely off if it has been exposed.  Treatment beyond this is primarily supportive and includes antibiotics and pain medication.


This web page is a mirror of a site online. I am using it for research so that students can use information that is very valuable.



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