July 12, 1917 – First Use of Mustard Gas
Pictured – Tommies blinded by mustard gas hold tight to each other. Unlike previous chemical weapons, mustard gas burns not only the lungs, but also the skin. It penetrates clothing, causing large blisters and temporary blindness.
The Germans had begun the use of chemical weapons in World War One near Ypres in 1915. Two years later, they began the use of a new agent: mustard gas. More than 50,000 shells landed in the British lines south of Ypres on July 12, releasing a yellow vapor. It was mustard gas, and even wearing gas masks was not always enough to stop it from harm.
Unlike chlorine and phosgene gas, mustard gas affects the skin as well as the lungs. It rarely kills, but it causes temporary blindness and horrific burns. Eighty-seven British soldiers died and 2,000 were incapacitated. Long lines of blinded men, gripping on to the soldier in front, could be seen making their way to first-aid stations. Mustard gas also lingers, settling down in low places like trenches and shell-holes. Days after an attack, a soldier might fall into a ditch or enter a dug-out still filled with the gas. At low doses it was not always immediately perceptible, but within 24 hours massive lesions and blisters would start to form on the skin. Nevertheless, repeated use of gas that week failed to break the British lines.