Mustard Gas

Mustard Gas (Yperite) was first used by the German Army in September 1917. It was one of the most lethal of all the poisonous chemicals used during the war. It was almost odourless and took twelve hours to take effect. Yperite was so powerful that only small amounts had to be added to high explosive shells to be effective. Once in the soil, mustard gas remained active for several weeks.

British soldiers blinded by mustard gas
British soldiers blinded by mustard gas
British Gas Casualties: 1914-18

Deaths

Non-Fatal

Chlorine

1,976

164,457

Mustard Gas

4,086

16,526

The skin of victims of mustard gas blistered, the eyes became very sore and they began to vomit. Mustard gas caused internal and external bleeding and attacked the bronchial tubes, stripping off the mucous membrane. This was extremely painful and most soldiers had to be strapped to their beds. It usually took a person four or five weeks to die of mustard gas poisoning. One nurse, Vera Brittain, wrote in her autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933): "I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Vera Brittain describing a field camp hospital in Etaples in 1918 in her book A Testament of Youth.

Sometimes in the middle of the night we have to turn people out of bed and make them sleep on the floor to make room for the more seriously ill ones who have come down from the line. We have heaps of gassed cases at present : there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case - to say nothing of 10 cases of mustard gas in its early stages - could see the poor things all burnt and blistered all over with great suppurating blisters, with blind eyes - sometimes temporally, some times permanently - all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, their voices a whisper, saying their throats are closing and they know they are going to choke.

The strain is very, very great. The enemy is within shelling distance - refugee sisters crowding in with nerves all awry - bright moonlight, and aeroplanes carrying machine guns - ambulance trains jolting into the siding, all day, all night - gassed men on stretchers clawing the air - dying men reeking with mud and foul green stained bandages, shrieking and writhing in a grotesque travesty of manhood - dead men with fixed empty eyes and shiny yellow faces.

(2) Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est (1917)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering 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.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in.

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

(3) In 1918 Kingsley Martin had to treat soldiers that had been attacked by German mustard gas.

It was our first experience of mustard gas. The men we took were covered in blisters. The size of your palm most of them. In any tender, warm place, under the arms, between the legs, and over the face and neck. All their eyes were streaming, and hurting in a way that sin never hurts.

(4) In 1917 Guy Chapman was badly affected by a mustard-gas attack.

The Boche dropped half a dozen mustard-gas shells round headquarters. I had heard them, but since I had smelt nothing had neglected to put on my gas-mask. Now my eyes had begun to run, and as soon as I opened them fountains of water gushed down my cheeks. Doctor Toulson washed them and washed them. It was no use. The flood continued.