Centenary Plans for The First World War, Also Known as The Chemists' War

12/10/2012 09:35 BST | Updated 11/12/2012 10:12 GMT

At the Imperial War Museum in London yesterday, British prime minister David Cameron introduced plans to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and commemorate some of the battles that took place during the war. He called for "a commemoration that captures our national spirit in every corner of the country, from our schools and workplaces, to our town halls and local communities."

The war was fought between the Allied Powers and the Central Powers from 1914 and 1918. The Allied Powers consisted of Britain, France, Japan, Russia and Serbia, with Italy joining in 1915, Portugal and Romania in 1916, and Greece and the United States in 1917. The Central Powers consisted of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ottoman Turkey, with Bulgaria joining them in 1915.

Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Between then and Armistice on 11 November 1918 an estimated 15 million people died as a result of the war. The toll includes not only battlefield fatalities but also military and civilian deaths resulting from starvation, disease, and other causes.

This industrial-scale slaughter would not have been possible without the industrial-scale production of a vast variety of chemicals. They included high explosives such as lyddite and trinitrotoluene (TNT) for shells, cordite and other propellants for firing the shells, and poison gases such as chlorine and phosgene. In one battle alone, the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916), the British and Germany armies fired a total of 30 million shells at an average of almost 150 per minute.

In September 1917, Richard B. Pilcher, registrar and secretary of Britain's Institute of Chemistry, noted in a journal article that professional chemists provided "efficient service in the many requirements of the naval, military, and air forces." He explained that such service was essential for the manufacture of munitions, explosives, metals, leather, rubber, oils, gases, food and drugs. His list does not include but might well have included the manufacture of antiseptics, disinfectants, anaesthetics, synthetic khaki dyes, and photographic chemicals.

Pilcher called the war the "Chemists' War." He was right to do so. The Great War, as it is also called, and the military strategies employed in the war relied on chemistry, chemicals, and chemists more so than in any previous war. For example, the German chlorine gas attack at Ypres on 22 April 1915 was directed by Fritz Haber, a German chemist who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The assault not only marked the beginning of modern chemical warfare but also provided the first example in the history of warfare of the use of a weapon of mass destruction. The trench warfare and artillery bombardments would not have been possible without shells filled with explosives and other chemicals. The tunnelling operations on the Western Front relied on blowing up huge quantities of explosives such as ammonal - a mixture of ammonium nitrate, aluminium, and other chemicals.

Paradoxically, chemicals were used not just to kill, maim and destroy, they were also used to protect and heal the self-same troops. For example, steel, a material that contains the chemical elements iron and carbon, was used to make helmets and armour for tanks and battleships. Another chemical element, chlorine, was employed in the first gas attack and also used to purify water. Nitroglycerine was used not only as an explosive but also as a drug. Anaesthetics such as chloroform and ether, two relatively simple chemicals, and painkillers such as morphine, a chemical that occurs naturally in the opium poppy, were used extensively in the war.

The chemistry of the war therefore proved to be a double-edged sword. It not only killed, maimed, and destroyed, it also helped to protect troops and heal the sick and wounded. My book, Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War explores both aspects of this double-edged sword. The first part of the title is taken from a line in British war poet Wilfred Owen's famous poem about gas poisoning: Dulce et Decorum Est.

In his speech yesterday, Cameron anticipated that the centenary of the war would "provide the foundation upon which to build an enduring cultural and education legacy" for young people. Hopefully, that legacy will include an increased awareness of the futility of The Chemists' War and at the same time inspire students to study chemistry and its peaceful benefits.

Michael Freemantle's latest book Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War is available to purchase here.