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Interpreting the Evidence

Account from a Gas Victim

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Global History and Geography
    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Account from a Gas Victim, World War I, Nov. 4, 1918 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
November 4, 1918 newspaper account of a letter from Elmira resident Harry Howe about his experience with mustard gas in World War I.
Historical Context
Weaponry introduced during the First World War forever changed the face of war.  Although many believe that poison gas was developed by the Germans, it was actually first used by the French in the form of tear gas grenades. The Germans, however, used the first “real” poison gas in the Second Battle of Ypres. As the gas was released, the French and Algerian troops fighting in this battle noticed a yellowish green cloud approaching their lines. Thinking it was some sort of cloud being used to mask an incoming attack by the Germans, the Allied troops were ordered to stand where they were. The unsuspecting troops were reduced to choking fits within seconds of breathing the chlorine gas and eventual death.  After this first real use of poison gas, Germany’s standing with neutral nations like the U.S. was greatly reduced.  The Allied nations responded with their own versions of poisonous gas. The use of poison gas grew throughout the war.  Other chemicals started being used like phosgene, sometimes with delayed reactions for those who inhaled the chemicals.  Poison gas was inserted into shells by both the Central Powers and the Allied Powers and the use of mustard gas was taken up by both sides, causing victims to develop internal and external blisters after being exposed to the gas. Even though poison gas caused many deaths initially, once it became more commonly used, steps were taken to create protection against the gas. Cotton pads were used at first to protect the face, later being replaced with actual gas masks (filter respirators.)  If caught without protection, troops were urged to use urine soaked clothes to cover their faces to combat a chlorine gas attack.  By the end of the war, the Germans had used the most poison gas, an estimated 68,000 tons, followed by the French with 36,000 tons, and the British with 25,000 tons.  The resulting casualties are estimated at 1,250,000 with 91,000 of these being fatalities (50% of which were Russian.)  However, it is unknown how many men may have died from gas related injuries after the war came to an end.  At the war’s end, the disgust over the use of poison gas helped outlaw its use in 1925.
Essential Question
How does the discovery of new scientific knowledge impact war strategies?
Check for Understanding
Summarize the main idea of the article and evaluate the impact of the article on public opinion.
Historical Challenges
How has poison gas been used since WWI? Have all countries abided by the outlawing of poison gas? What are the dangers of introducing a tactic like this in war?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Chemistry: Compare/contrast the components/effects of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas.