Document 11: Gertrud Woker, The Next War, A War of Poison Gas (Washington, D.C.: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, [before 1927]). Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Collection, IV-7-14, Archives, University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries, WILPF Papers, 1915-1978 (Microfilm, Reel 112, frames 1133-1136).


        This publication by Dr. Gertrud Woker was used by national sections to enlist support for the continuing campaign against chemical warfare. Woker, a Swiss professor, described in this pamphlet the horror she had felt at demonstrations of the power of poison gas when she visited a United States arsenal in 1924. That demonstration had initiated her leading role in the formation of the Committee Against Chemical Warfare at the Fourth International Congress of WILPF, held in Washington D.C. that year. The pamphlet, with its horrific descriptions of what chemical weapons could do in a future war, was distributed in German, English, and French. In 1927 a German WILPF co-worker, Frida Perlen, described the significance of this pamphlet: "To us in our struggle this work is so infinitely valuable and will make Gertrud Woker's name immortal. She will stand beside a [Harriet] Beecher-Stowe, who with her work, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' offered the prelude to the liberation of the slaves."[19]

Publications for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

The Next War, a War of Poison Gas.

By Dr. Gertrud WOKER

Docent and head of the Laboratory for biological chemistry
at the University of Berne

        There can scarcely be a greater contradiction than that between the far-reaching protection which the state guarantees its citizens in their civil rights and the brutality with which the same state exposes the same citizens to absolute annihilation whenever it follows in its relations with other states the robber and murder-instincts of wild tribes. Moreover, the modern so-called civilized state has many advantages over a savage tribe in methods of killing. It kills in a wholesale manner, and the enemy army is not the only goal of attack, but the industrial centers as well, and ultimately the entire civil population, --in other words the whole people, whose only crime lies in the fact that they were born beyond the boundaries of the attacking country.

        The agent which plays the principal part of exterminator in the war of self-destruction waged by the white race is poison gas used in conjunction with the development of modern aircraft. Naturally attempts are made to veil the situation, but they are transparent enough to show that they are designed to lull the awakening public conscience and the fear for personal safety that stirs increasing numbers of the population. We may answer these attempts at concealment as follows:

        1) Observations made during the war have shown sufficiently the terrible effects of poison gas. On the Austrian Alpine front trenches were frequently found in which all the soldiers had died from the poison gas of the Italians. No less horrifying are the reports of the doctors who went with the Austrian troops into the Italian lines where poison gases were employed; this was at the time when cyanide gases were first used. The dead held the exact positions they were in when attacked by the cyanide gas. There sat men turned to stone at the games, the cards in their hands, motionless; an indescribable picture!

       2) Since the war the science of poison gases has developed to such an extent that their effect is a hundred times more deadly than it was during the war. Irwin has said for example that twelve large bombs filled with the American vesicant Lewisite gas and thrown from and airplane will destroy in a very brief time all life in a town the size of Chicago or Berlin. Not even cellars will afford any protection in this case, for the gas is heavy, it sinks to the ground, penetrates into all hollows and follows the line of the pipes under the city. Even vegetable life is killed; springs and water in the ground are poisoned.

        And to bring about this terrible result is not even necessary to use airplanes whose crew would be endangered. We know that already there are airplanes carrying no pilot, guided with exactitude by wireless from a great distance. The death-bearers of the future will work more accurately than any human agency could. I myself saw in the "Bureau of Standards" at Washington, that splendid technical achievement of American science and money, a little instrument, which, as the inscription showed, can be used for this sort of destructive work. I could not but shudder and think that here science was digging its own grave.

       3) We can assert that the production of poison gas bombs has increased during and since the war to such an extent that we can hardly suppose we have to do with a private entertainment for military men only.

        As an illustration I need give only one example, which will particularly interest Americans, and that is the enormous development of the Edgewood Arsenal, the seat of the American Warfare Service since war. Before 1918 this department was only an unimportant affair. It can only awake painful feelings in Americans of high ideals to know that it is today an arsenal of 1000 acres, whose buildings are estimated to have cost 30 million dollars.

        My Swedish colleague, Dr. Sahlbom, and myself had the opportunity of being guests of the Conference of the American Chemical Society, which took place at Washington, in the last week of April 1924, and of visiting this arsenal, where we were able to observe the terrible effects of the different uses of poison gases combined with white phosphorus and a "smoke screen." Two airplanes circled above the field and gradually neared the ground. Suddenly they expelled dark grey clouds that descended and covered everything within range with impenetrable grey. A tank which threw out thick clouds of gas, produced a similar effect. Then followed a demonstration of the effect of modern poison gas shells and shrapnel. Wherever they exploded, a rain of fire, clouds and whitish smoke descended. A wonderful sight for those who see in this only beautiful fireworks of a new sort, but unspeakable horror for all who can imagine living human beings in the places thus turned into hell. After that we saw the same effects in the demonstration of a struggle from trench to trench, with all is horrible, inconceivable details. Troops with hand grenades stormed the nearest trenches and the troops posted farther away were attacked by guns charged with poison gas and phosphorus bombs, bursting in jets of fire and smoke. Finally some soldiers advanced form the lines and lighted infamous "candles," which within a few moments covered the whole place with poison and tear gas. No wonder that even experiments with these gases and their preparation cause serious casualties among the soldiers, as is well enough known. I myself, Dr. Sahlbom and many of the American chemists were suddenly enveloped in a cloud of tear gas, owning to a change of wind.

        The poisonous gases own their tremendous powers to their chemical as well as to their physical properties. They have the physical property of liquefying and even solidifying at a given temperature and under a given pressure. This property is common to all gases. Hence they take up only a small space, so that a large quantity of the poisonous material can be introduced into a small projectile. The bursting of the shell does away with the great pressure on the gas, and on account of this, as well as of the rise of temperature due to the explosion of the shell, the poisonous material enclosed changes from a solid or liquid into the gaseous form--a change which is accompanied by an enormous increase in the volume of the original material.

        Gas molecules can be compared with tiny projectiles which traverse space in all directions until they come to some object where they can work their specific effect--in this case poisoning.

        At first it was on the respiratory canals that poison gases acted--such gases as free bromine and chlorine or chlorine and fluorine derivatives, phosgene, especially had the property of destroying the tissues of the lungs, which for the unfortunate victims means terrible living death dragging on for days and weeks.

        It is said that hatred was stirred by nothing so much as by the suffering of these poor souls, their agony of suffocation and the terrible appearance of their twisted, purple, bloated faces. When protection was obtained by the use of gas masks, the poison gases then acting only by inhalation, a new means of entrance into the system had to be found. The new gases had to be prepared so that they could exert their deadly effect on any part of the skin. The first necessity for this purpose was an enormous intensification of the poisonous action . . . .

* * *

        These compounds are in many cases remarkable in that the mixture contained in the air, the ground, the breath or the skin reacts on them and liberates the deadly hydrocyanic acid, of which the most minute quantities are poisonous.

        In the first case, hydrocyanic acid and non-reacting carbon dioxide is formed in addition to hydrochloric acid gas, and by the use of carbonylflouride in place of phosgene, hydrofluoric acid gas is formed, instead of hydrochloric acid. These compounds possess extremely corrosive properties and create painful wounds in the skin. It can easily be understood that such corrosive action greatly favours the penetration of hydrocyanic acid into the body.

        Double compounds of hydrocyanic acid and hydrogen haloids act in a similar manner. Such double compounds decompose easily into their components, allowing corrosive and poisoning action to take place simultaneously. Wounds caused by burns are even more favorable for the entrance of hydrocyanic acid. Hydrocyanic acid alone is combustible and easily imflammable. Any one of the compunds mentioned above could produce burns in the conditions under which their liberation takes place, because the heat of the explosion would cause ignition. Under such circumstances hydrocyanic acid is particularly violent in its action. For this purpose, trihydrogen cyanide (HCN)is especially virulent. This polymerized hydrocyanic acid is under ordinary conditions a solid which can easily be introduced into a projectile. As soon as temperature of 180 degrees is reached on explosion, the trihydrocyanic acid melts, explosive decomposition takes place, and the three molecules of hydrocyanic acid are formed. This substance is a liquid at less than 26.5 degrees, but at higher temperatures it is a gas.

        The inflammability of hydrocyanic acid can be increased by combination with phosphorus, either in the free of the chemically combined form. Free white phosphorus is used in phosphorus bombs intended to spread unquenchable fire on an army or a city. In many cases, phosphorus is combined with a substance capable of splitting off hydrocyanic acid, such as phosgene, cyanidine of thiophosgene cyanide, or an oxynitrile; phosphorus can also be brought into combination with the poisonous part of hydrocyanic acid, namely the cyanogen group. The white chrystalline phorphorus tricyanide unites in itself the properties of phosphorus as well as of hydrocyanic acid. It ignites by gentle heating in the air, and burns with a brilliant white flame. When it comes into contact with water, hydrocyanic gas is given off.

        Volatile compounds of arsenic and probably also of mercury may act as toxic agents as do substances throwing off hydrocyanic acid. E.g. the dreaded gas known in America as Lewisite is considered by a chemical expert, quoted by the American periodical "Unity" as being most probably dichlorarsenicvinylchlorid . . . It acts as a blistering agent, developing its deadly effect on any part of the body. The same is true of the American mustard gas which in all probability corresponds to the German gas called "yellow cross war gas"; this according to Haber, is of the same combination as dichlorodiacthylsulfide. In regard to this effect, Haber, the responsible German expert in questions of gas warfare, says: "The yellow cross war gas can be conveyed by clothes or by shoes into closed, heated rooms; evaporated and inhaled, it causes illness. As it is hardly perceptible, it is almost impossible to prevent its being thus conveyed. The means of prevention which would seem effective are in practice not applicable. Objects which have been sprinkled with "yellow cross" could be made harmless by sprinkling them with powdered chloride of lime; one could in this way free certain tracts of ground from the toxic substance, but there are no effective means for preventing the action of it."

        It is but an incomplete picture that I have drawn of the many possibilities in the science of poison gas.

        But a few instances are enough to make us conscious of the deadly peril that lies in the use and development of poison gases. And special danger lies in the fact that no great preparation is necessary for the production of these gases. Every dye factory possesses the necessary material and apparatus, so that in a few hours it can be transformed into a poison gas factory.

        We have the agonizing question before us: "Will this terrible possibility become a fact?" No dream pictures of an overwrought imagination, no chimeras are these--no, unfortunately they are only the realities of a future war! Shall humanity in its suicidal folly choose the bridal dress of Kreusa, the Nessus cloak of Hercules, to destroy itself by the most cruel death imaginable? And why should we thus sacrifice ourselves, we who are bound to this wonderful earth by the thousand ties of happiness and joy? Is it so difficult to choose between a hell of poison and fire--in which we may recognize with shuddering horror the quivering, burnt and torn remains of our very selves--and a little humanity, a little common sense--those good angels who beg as firmly reject that militarism which creates a hell on earth?


| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |