The crude use of chemical weapons is documented in written and
visual form as early as 600 BC. That year, the Athenian general
Solon contaminated the water supply of the besieged Greek city of
Cirrha with black hellebore root. Crippled by severe diarrhea, the
Cirrhaeans were defeated. This may have been the first known use
of incapacitating agents as chemical weapons. During the Peloponnesian
War (420 BC), Spartan forces overran an Athenian stronghold by using
irritating fumes created by the burning of sulfur, coals, and tars.
Nearly a millennium later, this practice evolved into a common military
tactic referred to as “Greek fire,” the formula
that has forever been a secret, but is thought to be a precursor
to napalm involving burning a mix of sulfur, resin, pitch, naphtha,
lime, and saltpeter. Greek fire was used in large scale first by
the Byzantines in naval wartime. They would place the materials
in bronze tubes, ignite the materials, and direct the flame through
the tube at enemy fleets.
The great Carthaginian general Hannibal (184 BC) used belladonna
plants to induce disorientation in opposing troops during the Punic
Wars. In 1672 AD, the Bishop of Muenster used crude grenades filled
with belladonna to attack the city of Groningen. In 1881, men conducting
a railway survey in North Africa became ill after eating dried dates
offered to them by local tribesmen. It turns out that the fruit
had been tainted with Hyoscyamus falezlez,
a plant containing a scopolamine-like chemical. In 1908, a troop
of French Colonial soldiers stationed in Hanoi were poisoned with
a phytotoxin that induced hallucinations and acute mental status
Depiction of the use of Greek fire as documented in
the Madrid Skylitzes, an illustrated historical text of the Byzantine
empire at the end of the first millenium.
Courtesy of University of North Florida/Paul Halsall.
The Industrial Revolution included in its momentum a revolution
in the development of chemical weapons. Although there had been
threats of use during the Civil and Napoleonic Wars, it wasn’t until
WWI that chemical weapons were actually utilized. Ironically, a
Nobel Prize–winning scientist, Fritz Haber, is largely
responsibility for their development and implementation (Fig. 22–2). The
irony lays within Haber’s having won a Nobel Prize for
discovering a process for extracting nitrogen out of air. This discovery
led to the industrial production of fertilizer, which allowed Western
agricultural output to increase immensely, resulting in an abundance
of food for a hungry world. Many view this as one of the most valuable
discoveries in human history.
Nobel Prize–winning chemist Fritz Haber, later
charged with crimes against humanity.
Courtesy of Saskatchewan Department of Learning.
Haber, who considered himself a great German patriot, knew that
the war was at a stalemate. He knew, ...