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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

it is 100 years since Chlorine gas attack .... chemical warfare

Tomorrow  22nd Apr marks the centenary of a sad event in the history of mankind !

The battle of Sarmin (or Battle of Tell Danith)  was fought in Sept 1115,  when Prince Roger of Salerno's Crusader army surprised and routed the Seljuk Turkish army of Bursuq bin Bursuq of Hamadan.  Sarmin, a small town in northwestern Syria is in news, albeit for wrong reasons. 

Chlorine is a chemical element with symbol Cl and atomic number 17 is  a yellow-green gas under standard conditions, where it forms diatomic molecules. Chlorine has the highest electron affinity and the third highest electronegativity of all the reactive elements. For this reason, chlorine is a strong oxidizing agent.  The most common compound of chlorine, sodium chloride (common salt), has been known since ancient times. Around 1630 chlorine gas was first synthesized in a chemical reaction, but not recognized as a fundamentally important substance. Characterization of chlorine gas was made in 1774 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele.  In 1809, chemists suggested that the gas might be a pure element, and this was confirmed by Sir Humphry Davy in 1810, who named it  "pale green".

Elemental chlorine is commercially produced from brine by electrolysis. The high oxidizing potential of elemental chlorine led commercially to free chlorine's bleaching and disinfectant uses, as well as its many uses of an essential reagent in the chemical industry.  As a common disinfectant, elemental chlorine and chlorine-generating compounds are used more directly in swimming pools to keep them clean and sanitary.  The municipal water that comes through taps is treated with chlorine. 

Reports  suggest that U.N. Security Council members were moved to tears as an eyewitness to suspected chlorine gas attacks on civilians in Syria gave a graphic account of dying children. A Syrian doctor who treated victims from half a dozen attacks over the past month, Mohammad Tennari was helped out of the country by the United States, which arranged for the closed-door briefing. He is the first witness to describe the attacks. He showed a video of a suspected chlorine attack on March 16 in his town of Sarmin in Idlib province, with images of three children, ages 1 through 3, dying despite attempts to resuscitate them. The medical area was so cramped that one of the children was lying on top of their grandmother, who also died. The U.S. and other council members have repeatedly blamed the Syrian government for such attacks, saying no one else fighting in the grinding civil war has helicopters to deliver the toxic chemicals.

This is no post on Syrian trouble but on the grim anniversary of 100 years since first use of chemical weapons in chlorine gas attack which left thousands of victims 'drowning in their own lungs'.  MailOnline reports that way back on 22.4.1915, German forces launched attack using  150,000 tons of gas – around one million soldiers were exposed to gas and 90,000 killed !!

It was on this day Chlorine gas was used for the first time to disastrous effect  — carried by favourable winds over Flanders Fields from German positions.   It was new element in warfare - psychological terror as the chlorine seeped into body fluids and ate away at eyes, throat and lungs. Some 1,200 French soldiers were killed in the chaos of that first five-minute gas attack.

On Tuesday i.e., 22nd Apr,  the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will hold a commemorative meeting close to the fields. A century ago German forces were gathering at army headquarters in Tielt, some 30 miles (50km) behind the front line, for a momentous discussion. Commanders had already been waiting 10 days for favourable winds, huddled in a patrician mansion lined with maps and dotted with landscape models.  They were bent on breaking the stalemate of trench warfare and all options were open.  Some soldiers,  argued deploying more troops would achieve a bigger breakthrough than using gas. Fritz Haber, a chemical expert and future winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, preached for more gas for more shock and awe.

Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn decided they would use the gas the next day or not at all. Across the line Lamour's French forces said there was nothing to report. Had they been able to peer a bit further across no-man's land they would have seen how German troops had dug in, under cover of night, more than 5,000 gas cylinders with tubes pointing their way. Historians estimate that more than 1million soldiers were exposed to gas.

The plan was to release the chlorine in the frosty morning hours, when it would cling best to the surface and give soldiers a full day to advance. A windless morning came and went. The breeze only picked up in the afternoon - and at 5pm the gas cylinders were opened with devastating effect.  Once the gas cleared, the soldiers jumped out and made more progress than they had in months. Men, horses, rats, even insects lay dead or choking before them.  German troops and certainly the German generals were completely astonished.' 

In 1925, 16 of the world's major nations signed the Geneva Protocol, thereby pledging never to use gas in warfare again.  Sadly like so many breached protocols, gas continues to be used, even 100 years after the first attack. Seven years after signing the Protocol, Italy dropped mustard gas in bombs during the invasion of Ethiopia.  Activists now have accused the Syrian regime of using chlorine - a toxic agent that can be considered a chemical weapon - on civilian areas in the past. There is also evidence to suggest ISIS is using chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in its battle, Kurdish authorities have claimed.

Sadly, man’s avarice knows no bounds and killing fellow-humans continues unabated.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

21st Apr 2015.
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