Document 4: "Moral Aspects of Asphyxiation," Literary Digest, 50 (12 June 1915), p. 1393.

Document 4: "Moral Aspects of Asphyxiation," Literary Digest, 50 (12 June 1915), p. 1393.


       This Literary Digest article, reporting on nearly universal Allied condemnation of chemical warfare six weeks after the initial German gas attack at Ypres, reflected American public opinion of gas warfare as inhumane. The article argued that the use of chemical weapons was immoral not only because of Germany's violation of the Hague Convention, but also because the effects of inhaling poison gas seemed more painful and long-lasting than wounds from traditional artillery. The cartoons reprinted from foreign publications at the end of the article represented poison gas as a means that Germany used to bring about mass and indiscriminate death.


"A MOST DAMNABLE INVENTION," is the unvarnished phrase used by the Bishop of Pretoria when writing to the London Times regarding the use of asphyxiating gases as a weapon. The English and French papers are filled with bitter denunciations of the Germans for employing this means to obtain a military advantage, but on the German side it is alleged that the Allies have only themselves to blame, as they first set the example in this method of warfare, which is admittedly a breach of the Hague Convention. Field-Marshal French deals with this charge in an official dispatch published in the Manchester Guardian, and says:

       "A week before the Germans first used this method they announced in their official communiqué that we were making use of asphyxiating gases. At that time there appeared to be no reason for this astounding falsehood, but now, of course, it is of the deliberate nature of the introduction by the Germans of a new and illegal weapon, and shows that they recognized its illegality and were anxious to forestall neutral and possibly domestic criticism.

       "The effect of this poison is not merely disabling, or even painlessly fatal, as suggested in the German press. Those of its victims who do not succumb on the field and who can be brought into hospital suffer acutely, and, in a large proportion of cases, die a painful and lingering death. Those who survive are in a little better case, as the injury to their lungs appears to be of a permanent character, and reduces them to a condition which points to their being invalids for life."

       The Belgian Government has also issued a report on the subject, and we quote its graphic phrases as found in the columns of the Paris Temps:

       "Clouds of this gas were projected and descended on the trenches occupied by the Allied troops. The gases formed a low-lying cloud of dark-greenish color, which turned yellow as it streamed upward to the height of about 100 yards. A minute and a half after the gases reached them the men in the trenches were seized with vomiting and spat blood, their eyes and the inside of the mouth grew sore, and they were then stricken by a sort of stupor lasting for hours."

       The Bishop of Pretoria, an eye-witness of these results, paints a vivid picture of the agonies endured by the sufferers in his letter to the London Times, the vigorous language of which is typical of all English comment on the subject:

       "I have just come in from visiting some of our men in a clearing-hospital at the front who have been 'gassed' by this latest and most damnable invention of the German Imperial Staff, of which the Kaiser is the head. A more cruel and diabolical method of conducting war it would, I believe, be impossible to conceive. If the gas used merely knocked the men out for the time being, so that the Germans could walk over their cowardly method of making war; but when as a fact, in a large percentage of cases, it kills men by a slow and torturing death, no language that I am master of can express what I am convinced every man, woman, or child would feel who saw what I have seen of the obvious agonies of great, fine, healthy men and lads under the ghastly effects of this poisonous gas.

       "There in that one clearing-hospital were scores of men (and they only a small percentage of the total number who had been 'gassed') suffering in varying degrees from suffocation--the worst cases fighting desperately for every breath in ghastly pain, and many of them had been going through this torture for days."

       The Italian papers, like the English and the French, denounce the use of this weapon and emphasize the fact that Germany has, in so doing, violated the Hague agreement on this subject which she signed in 1899. The Milan Corriere della Sera, in a picturesquely sarcastic article, says:

       "The Germans do not deny the use of these bombs; they deny their excessive perniciousness, they say they can be evaded because they emit a dense smoke . . . . In the progress of scientific ferocity the Germans predominate once more. Do they not claim to be, and are they not admittedly, the only really great scientists in the world?. . . Oh, German system, what method! Everything in due order: murder, arson, pillage, all harmonized in the philosophy of war. Barbarians? No! The triumphs of science and philosophy have robbed the word of all meaning to-day. In an outburst of indignation one might shout at them -- 'Philosophers!' But perhaps the term is too strong."

       The Kolnische Zeitung frankly admits the use of gases and says that it was only to be expected, as Germany is fighting for her existence, but the Rhenish organ is annoyed at Field-Marshal French's protests:

       "It is delightful to read Sir John French's tale of wo over the employment of projectiles with asphyxiating gas. It sounds particularly well in the mouth of the commander-in-chief of a nation which, for centuries, has trampled in the dust all the principles of international law."

"The poisonous gas: Germany's newest and most glorious means of conquest."
--De Amsterdammer.
German poison-clouds in Flanders.
"The vernal breezes softly play,
Speeding all men upon their way."
--Kladderadatsch (Berlin).

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