The early years of the 20th century were a time full of controversy. In July 1914, what in the not too distant future would be known as the First World War. Initiated due to the assassination of a member of the royal family for some and for political interests for others, the truth is that the conflict faced the great empires of that time. These were, in short, times of blood, of rifles and, above all, of the so-called «trench warfare», a type of static combat that consisted of spending weeks or even months in a fortification dug into the ground from which it was defended. the enemy’s position.
combat, conventional weapons drastically diminished their effectiveness. And it is that, the trenches protected without difficulty the enemy soldiers from the shots, from the cannon shots and -of course- from the enemy machetes. In turn, the shortage of ammunition made it difficult for the soldiers to take an enemy position. The battle lines, therefore, hardly moved, causing life in these fortresses on earth to last, sometimes for months on end. This, together with the lack of hygiene and humidity, caused the death of thousands of soldiers without even having fought against the enemy.
All this caused the different countries to start a race to discover a definitive weapon that would allow them to expel – with the least possible casualties – the enemies of their defensive positions. A difficult task that, after much research, the Gauls achieved. «France was the first country to use chemical substances during the First World War. In fact, in 1912, France was already using ethyl bromoacetate -a substance with tear-producing activity- as a riot control agent in the civil sphere. In any case, it will be in August 1914 when the use of ethyl bromoacetate will be transferred to the military scene to force German troops out of their bunkers”, says René Pita in his work ‘Chemical weapons: science in the hands of evil ‘.
After this ‘miracle’ of modern warfare, a spectacular evolution of gases began, although, from then on, the purpose sought was to kill the enemy with it, and not stun it. The next big step was taken in 1915, the year the term began to be used. chlorine as the main agent in gas warfare. Once released, and if breathed in, this chemical caused the soldiers’ lungs to fill with fluid and, in the worst cases, death.
However, the death gas revolution came just two years later, in 1917. This was the fateful date on which a German created the deadly mustard gas, a weapon that ended the life of the victim when it was inhaled and that, in addition, caused serious injuries if it touched the skin of the soldiers. “Mustard gas is extremely dangerous and contact or exposure to it can cause severe eye burns, permanent eye damage, severe skin burns or blisters. If inhaled it can irritate the lungs causing coughing or shortness of breath. At higher levels it can cause fluid buildup in the lungs, a serious medical emergency,” states the New Jersey Department of Health and Services.
However, years before the king of gases (mustard) was created, the first chemical attack in history took place in Europe. This occurred on April 22, 1915 in the vicinity of the city of Ypres (located in northwestern Belgium). By this time, the Germans were fed up with not breaking the Gauls and, in an attempt to force them out of their trenches, they decided to use this new and macabre surprise against them.
So they waited until nightfall, and when the wind blew in the direction of the French positions, they threw all their chlorine reserves against the Gauls. “That night, in five minutes, the Germans unloaded 168 tons of chlorine, coming from 4,000 cylinders, against two French divisions. The effect of the gas was devastating, hundreds of men fell into a coma or died, the troops fled, leaving a gap in the allied line. The Germans took two thousand prisoners and seized 51 artillery pieces,” says Martin Gilbert in his book ‘The First World War’. The deaths caused by this agent are uncertain, although there is talk of a number greater than 5,000.
In that first attack, the Germans saw firsthand how useful the gases were, so they began to produce them and use them hand over fist against their enemies. Bad news for the allies, who lacked a concrete method to fight against the chemical warfare. In fact, the only solution the commanders found to prevent their soldiers from dying from chemical inhalation was to hand out gas masks, which were not very useful because they could not be worn constantly. Thus, it was not uncommon for the enemy to attack by surprise with chemical elements and the military died before they could put on the protection.
The war was going on between deaths and gases when a Polish scientist named Paul Bartsch he decided to take matters into his own hands and use his research to devise a new way to combat chemical warfare. Being a naturalist, he focused his studies on animals, and more specifically on one idea: to find some living being that, like canaries in the mines, reacted before humans in some visible way to contact with chemical weapons and In this way, it will notify you of its presence.
However, one day he unintentionally found the solution in the most curious way possible. Specifically -and according to what the renowned Smithsonian institute affirms in files made public several months ago- one afternoon Bartsch was doing a series of experiments with several common slugs of the type «limax maximus» when he noticed that they had escaped. After several minutes looking for them, he realized that they were near the boiler room of his home and that they had reacted negatively to the small amounts of smoke that were emitted from the place, a dose impossible for humans to perceive.
The solution was in front of him. And it is that, if they reacted in the same way to the chemical weapons created by the Germans, he would have found the perfect way to foresee a chemical attack. Knowing that dozens and dozens of soldiers died every day from the effect of mustard gas, he began the experiments that would corroborate or reject his new idea.
Fortunately for the soldiers of the time, Bartsch’s investigations were positive. The naturalist found that, while human beings are capable of detecting one part of mustard gas in four million parts of air (which left soldiers precious little time to put on their gas masks), slugs they could perceive one particle of this chemical weapon among twelve million parts of air. This characteristic meant that these animals could ‘smell’ danger before the military and warn them with their reactions that death was approaching them transported by air. Without a doubt, a revolution for the time.
After some final tests, Bartsch presented his conclusions to the United States government stating that the slugs could save hundreds of lives in battle. Apparently, his proposal was accepted because, for several months, the American soldiers carried as part of their equipment a box with several “limax maximus”, a cheap and conventional solution but that, between shots, could make them live to fight one more day for your country.