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A Strange and Formidable Weapon

British Responses to World War I Poison Gas

Marion Leslie Girard

Publication Year: 2008

The advent of poison gas in World War I shocked Britons at all levels of society, yet by the end of the conflict their nation was a leader in chemical warfare. Although never used on the home front, poison gas affected almost every segment of British society physically, mentally, or emotionally, proving to be an armament of total war. Through cartoons, military records, novels, treaties, and other sources, Marion Girard examines the varied ways different sectors of British society viewed chemical warfare, from the industrialists who promoted their toxic weapons while maintaining private control of production, to the politicians who used gas while balancing the need for victory with the risk of developing a reputation for barbarity. Although most Britons considered gas a vile weapon and a symptom of the enemy’s inhumanity, many eventually condoned its use.
The public debates about the future of gas extended to the interwar years, and evidence reveals that the taboo against poison gas was far from inevitable. A Strange and Formidable Weapon uncovers the complicated history of this weapon of total war and illustrates the widening involvement of society in warfare.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Series: Studies in War, Society, & the Military


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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-25

On May 24,1915--Whit Monday and a month after the first gas attack of World War I--Sgt. Elmer Wilgrid Cotton of the Fifth Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, woke up when a gas alarm sounded. He described the scene in vivid terms: I got out of my dugout very quickly...

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1. The Political Challenge: Descent to Atrocities?

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pp. 26-50

Britain had long viewed herself as enlightened, ethical, and law-abiding in her actions abroad and at home. In the nineteenth century alone, the British abolished slavery, instituted reform legislation without revolution, and enjoyed Queen Victoria's reputation for rectitude. They had reason to be proud...

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2. The Army's Experience: New Weapons, New Soldiers

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pp. 51-75

The politicians were not the only ones surprised by the events of World War I. The conflict shocked the military long before gas appeared. The drawn-out war filled with novel weapons, enormous casualties, and global combatants did not match the popular vision of a war in which offensive spirit and élan...

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3. The Scientific Divide: Chemists versus Physicians

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pp. 76-101

Two other groups that became inured to many of the horrors of gas warfare were research chemists and army clinical physicians; they provided scientific expertise necessary to wage World War I, but their experiences with the weapon and its effects allowed them to see its dangers without becoming...

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4. Whose Business Is It?: Dilemmas in the Gas Industry

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pp. 102-125

On the home front, British chemical industrialists immersed themselves in the gas war by manufacturing toxins and respirators developed by scientists. Intimately involved in the specialized work, businessmen in this field, like the research chemists and physicians, developed a respect for the dangers of gas...

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5. Gas as a Symbol: Visual Images of Chemical Weapons in the Popular Press

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pp. 126-156

From the beginning of the chemical war in 1915, gas invaded Britain's home front. By word and image it appeared in the press, frequently bombarding the public with reminders of its existence and forcing the general population to confront the threats and implications of the new weapon...

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6. The Reestablishment of the Gas Taboo and the Public Debate: Will Gas Destroy the World?

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pp. 157-190

The chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, although frustrated that Britain's chemical warfare service was deteriorating because of lack of funding and support after World War I, indicated to the government that he understood some of its reluctance. He wrote to the cabinet...

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pp. 191-199

Chemical weapons have posed a menace to soldiers and civilians since their inception. The popular dislike of gas in Britain and other countries, which had subsided occasionally during World War I, grew during the interwar period and led to attempts to eradicate the danger from chemical weapons...


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pp. 200


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pp. 201-250


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pp. 251-262


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pp. 263-279

E-ISBN-13: 9780803222052
E-ISBN-10: 080322205X

Page Count: 400
Illustrations: 18 photographs
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Studies in War, Society, & the Military