A Little Bit of History

The Evil Effects of Mustard Gas

There’s lots being done to commemorate the four years of World War One. Although I love history there’s nothing quite like a personal story to underline the horrific nature of war and the effects it had on the men who suffered because of it.

Chemical warfare is no new thing, even in our modern times. It goes back hundreds, even thousands of years, eg poisoned tipped arrows. Mustard gas was the first known chemical warfare of the 20th century. It was first used by the German army in 1917. Britain soon followed suit in 1918. The evil of this chemical is described vividly on Wikipedia as thus:

Because people exposed to mustard gas rarely suffer immediate symptoms, and mustard-contaminated areas may appear completely normal, victims can unknowingly receive high dosages. Within 24 hours of exposure to mustard agent, victims experience intense itching and skin irritation, which gradually turns into large blisters filled with yellow fluid wherever the mustard agent contacted the skin. These are chemical burns and are very debilitating. Mustard gas vapour easily penetrates clothing fabrics such as wool or cotton, so it is not only the exposed skin of victims that gets burned. If the victim’s eyes were exposed then they become sore, starting with conjunctivitis, after which the eyelids swell, resulting in temporary blindness. Miosis may also occur, which is probably the result from the cholinomimetic activity of mustard. At very high concentrations, if inhaled, mustard agent causes bleeding and blistering within the respiratory system, damaging mucous membranes and causing pulmonary edema. Depending on the level of contamination, mustard gas burns can vary between first and second degree burns, though they can also be every bit as severe, disfiguring and dangerous as third degree burns. Severe mustard gas burns (i.e. where more than 50% of the victim’s skin has been burned) are often fatal, with death occurring after some days or even weeks have passed. Mild or moderate exposure to mustard agent is unlikely to kill, though victims require lengthy periods of medical treatment and convalescence before recovery is complete. The mutagenic and carcinogenic effects of mustard agent mean that victims who recover from mustard gas burns have an increased risk of developing cancer in later life.

Typical appearance of bullae on arm caused by blister agent burns. (Photo from Wikipedia).

The amount of pain and discomfort suffered by the victim is comparable as well. Mustard gas burns heal slowly, and, as with other types of burn, there is a risk of sepsis caused by pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

A British nurse treating soldiers with mustard gas burns during World War I commented:

“They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain, even with the worst wounds, but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.”

My great uncle Ted North was born in 1892 in Hampshire and emigrated to Australia in 1913. He joined the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), which was a volunteer force, in December 1915.

Edward D North (Ted) 1892-1962
Edward D North (Ted) 1892-1962

In June 1917, whilst in Northern France (Étaples), he was exposed to mustard gas. Between 22-29 June 1917, he was transferred to three different field hospitals before being transferred to London General Hospital, where he stayed for 6½ weeks. He was then sent to an auxiliary hospital in Harefield, London for a few days before being sent to furlough for two weeks. Unfortunately he overstayed his furlough by 6½ hours and was forfeited seven days pay. He was declared medically unfit and discharged from the army January 1918. He must have suffered as those men described above and developed bronchitis as a result. I can only wonder what he went through. He lived the rest of his life in Australia, and died aged 69 in 1962. He received the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal  and the Victory Medal. These medals were referred (irrelevantly) to as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.


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