An illumination of the “little understood and…poorly documented” story of a significant piece of the “history of chemical warfare in the United States.”
Following the declaration of war against Germany in 1917, America scrambled to expand its minuscule infantry, artillery, and air force. Furthermore, the country’s poison gas infrastructure was nonexistent, so the government was forced to build a chemical warfare service from scratch. It’s an obscure aspect of a distant war, so even military buffs will learn from this intensely researched, often unnerving account by journalist Emery. Who in the government knew about gas? The answer, leaders decided, was the Bureau of Mines, an agency responsible for mining safety, which included protection against toxic underground gases. Its energetic director mailed 25,000 letters to chemists, engineers, and industries asking for contributions to the war effort. In a gush of patriotism similar to events after 9/11, enthusiastic responses poured in. By the end of 1917, thousands of researchers across the nation were busily analyzing existing gases, inventing new ones, and designing gas masks as the Army trained specialized units to hurl these chemicals at the enemy. By the end of the war, the Chemical Warfare Service was a full-fledged Army department with 20,000 members who fired more than 1,000 tons of gas at the Germans; they were supported by a massive network of factories and training grounds whose poisoned landscapes and buried but still deadly chemicals are still with us. The author concludes that poison gas was more trouble than it was worth, but, like germ warfare, it continues to fascinate fringe groups and rogue nations. The cast of characters at the beginning of the book is much-appreciated.
Readers will share Emery’s lack of nostalgia for this half-forgotten weapon, but they will admire this satisfying combination of technical background, battlefield fireworks, biographies of colorful major figures, and personal anecdotes from individual soldiers.