A trusty calendar of military events says that on this date in 1918, during The Great War, the Army's newest branch was one day old.
There have been other branches created in the ensuing 95 years, but no branch has been as feared or reviled as the one created on June 28, 1918.
That one was named the chemical corps, and it is still with us today, although the lethal weapons it possesses have not been used since by any civilized country except internally.
Gas warfare was not begun in WW I. According to a 110-page 1984 document titled Leavenworth Paper #10, Chemical Warfare in World War I: The American Experience, 1917-1918, by Maj. Charles E. Heller, chemical warfare did not begin with WW I.
The first recorded use was in a series of wars between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century B.C. The paper did not report the effectiveness of the unidentified chemical agents used so long ago.
Nor does it reveal the use by any combatant of such agents until WW I began. Most all major belligerents had some form of chemical warfare means in 1914, and some were tried several times, but without causing casualties due to several reasons.
The Germans used it against the Imperial Russian army on the Eastern Front in January 1915. More than 18,000 shells filled with xylxl bromide were fired on Russian positions. But when German infantry tried to overrun the Russian positions, the shells had had no effect due to the cold temperature of the Russian winter that had prevented vaporization of the bromide.
But technicians worked feverously to refine the use of gas, and by April 22, 1915, German artillery against French, Algerian, and British trenches in the Ypres sector of Belgium exploded and filled the air with blue and white wisps of haze that slowly turned a yellow-green color as it drifted across the terrain and into Allied trenches.
Terror-stricken Algerian troops ran from their trenches coughing and clutching their throats. French troops, with faces turning a purple color, were blinded, with chests heaving. Allied guns ceased firing as two French divisions were decimated. Chlorine gas had entered modern warfare, and with great success.
German infantry cautiously advanced into the breach with the first primitive type of gas mask, nothing more than cotton wadding tied over their noses and mouths. It didn't take long for all armies to develop and issue masks as some form of protection against the awful new weapon of war.
The earliest type of British gas mask is on display in the chemical warfare case at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, along with other European countries' masks, and alarm devices to alert troops to a gas attack.
A new, and horrible, era in modern war had dawned. And as Heller's book says at the beginning, "Of all the weapons employed in World War I, none stimulated public revulsion more than poison gas. The abhorrence of chemical warfare lingered long after the Armistice of 11 November 1918."
Page 2 of 2 - Indeed, my first boss at CGSC was a chemical corps lieutenant colonel whose first assignment in the early 1960s was at Verdun, France, where he and a sergeant would dispose of gas shells from WW I that were dug up in their sector. Unfired and or unexploded, the shells were still live, and very lethal, even though at the time they were more than 40 years old.
The most famous victim of gas in WW I was, ironically, a German private, who did not know for weeks if he would ever see again. He was Pvt. Adolf Hitler, and some historians contend that his experience is what caused him to forbid the German army from using gas in WW II.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.