How chemistry underpinned the First World War


Science writer
Basingstoke, United Kingdom


The industrial-scale death and destruction of the First World War could not have occurred without the industrial-scale production of a vast variety of chemicals. They included the high explosives used to fill artillery shells, the propellants for firing the shells, and highly toxic chemical warfare agents such as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas. Chemicals, however, were used not just to kill, maim and destroy, they were also used to prevent the spread of infection and help care for the sick and wounded.


The First World War was fought from late July 1914 to November 1918.  It pitted the armies and industrial might of the Central Powers, notably Germany, against the armies and industrial might of Britain, France, Italy, Serbia, Russia and other Allied Powers.
The war relied extensively on the mass production of artillery weapons, machine guns, rifles, ammunition, and other military supplies. Over the four years of the war, some ten million soldiers, sailors, airmen, medical officers and nurses died on the battlefields, in the trenches, in the tunnelling operations, in the air, at sea, and in the casualty clearing stations and military hospitals. Millions of civilians also died as a result of the war.
In addition, more than eight million horses died in the war. Some 7,000 horses were reported to have been killed on one day alone during the Battle of the Verdun. The battle between the French and German armies was fought at Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France from 21 February to 18 December 1916.
Chemistry played a major role in this carnage. When engaged in battle, the opposing armies spent much of the time bombar ...