by Dr. Burton Wright III
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, it had to prepare for a new type of combat of terrifying lethality: chemical warfare. This new warfare presented a host of challenges. The Army had to develop new weapons and defensive equipment, build a whole new production, testing, and storage infrastructure, and train personnel. It also faced an organizational challenge. Since there was no Chemical Corps as yet, much of the actual work of preparing for chemical warfare had to be performed by two existing branches, the Ordnance Corps and the Medical Department. Offensive warfare became the concern of the Ordnance Corps, while defensive matters were handled by the Medical Department.
Building Chemical Plants
In previous wars, the Army depended on civilian contractors to provide much of its materiel. However, there was a small problem with using this approach for chemical combat in World War I: civilian contractors did not like the idea of producing toxic gases. They could see no market for lethal chemicals after the war, and they regarded the production and handling of such materials as altogether too dangerous. The Allies (the British and the French) had developed their own system of supplying toxic gases, but American experts thought that system was too limited and costly for what they had in mind. So, as an interim measure, the U.S. Government had to set up its own chemical plants and develop its own capability to fill artillery shells with chemical agents.
With the help of Allied experts, a shell-filling plant was built at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, in September 1917, and it began producing shells the following January. This plant was quite a marvel of engineering for its day. Safety was the first consideration in its design. Showers and other decontamination devices were close at hand, as were fans. Each of the filling radials was entirely self-contained and separate from others in the plant, so that if an accident occurred, its effects would be confined to one area and no chemicals would leak into other parts of the plant.
When the Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) was created in 1918, it continued to count on support from the Ordnance Corps. It was the Ordnance Corps that helped to solicit a reluctant civilian manufacturing establishment to provide toxic agents to the Army. To do this, the Army had to build plants similar to the one at Edgewood and then find companies willing to run them. During the short time the United States participated in World War I (April 1917 to November 1918), the Army built 15 different chemical plants, mostly in the East and Midwest, and operated them with Army personnel or private contractors.
Producing Chemical Offensive Weapons
Chemicals in World War I were used only in the offense. So, for controlled production of toxic agents after the birth of the CWS, a Gas Offense Production Division was formed in June 1918. Its head, Colonel Allan H. Waller, was a former commander of Edgewood Arsenal, which gave him a unique insight into the demands of his new position.
All plants providing chemical agents were put under the direction of Colonel Waller. For the most part, this centralization was a fairly efficient organization. By the end of the war, the United States was, by itself, producing as many toxic agents and shells as were Britain and France combined.
Britain and France had arrived at a reasonable system for producing munitions that the U.S. Army used in Europe. One must remember that much of the equipment used by American troops, ranging from aircraft to artillery, was supplied by either the French or British. One factor that helped the United States, as well as Germany, to develop a powerful chemical capability quickly was that both countries had large, existing chemical industries.
Developing Defensive Measures
In addition to producing chemicals and filling shells for offensive operations, the U.S. Army was required to supply protective equipment for its own and other serv-ice personnel. This was done in a similar cooperative system between Government agencies and private industrya system that exists today in many forms.
Initially, the Medical Department set up its own system of mask development and production. It also received help from some of the finest universities in the country, including Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and Carnegie Institute of Technology. In addition to the faithful Bureau of Mines in the Department of the Interior, other Government agencies provided assistance, such as the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture. [The Bureau of Mines had conducted the initial research and development of gas warfare for the Army.]
Upon formation of the CWS, much of the Medical Department's work was transferred to the new organization, along with medical personnel like Colonel Bradley Surrey. He had worked for the Bureau of Mines, had been commissioned a colonel in the Medical Corps, and had worked first for it and then for the CWS in charge of gas defense production.
The first 25,000 gas masks produced by the Medical Department were a cooperative effort between the Army and companies such as B.F. Goodrich (which made the face plates of the masks) and the American Can Company (which made the gas canisters). Unfortunately, these masks were not of any use in Europe because they did not protect the wearer against Chlorpicrin, which was beginning to be used widely in combat on the Western Front. So it was back to the drawing boards for the CWS, which had to develop masks capable of protecting the wearer against all of the chemicals then in use.
Although the relationship between the Army and private industry was good on the whole, the Army attempted to maintain exacting standards, and the only way to do so was to build its own gas mask factories. Experience during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War had shown that civilian contractors were not always capable of adhering to exact quality standards. When developing chemical protective equipment, the Army's standards had to be maintained, or many lives would be lost.
To build gas masks on a large scale, the Government took over five large factory buildings in Long Island City, New York, and converted them to gas mask production. At full operation, the plant employed 12,000 workers, of whom 8,000 were women. By combining Government and private production, the Army believed that it could provide enough masks to outfit all troops heading to Europe.
Some inventiveness had to be used to obtain certain components for masks. One critical component was the charcoal used in the canisters to filter out toxic elements. So the War Department initiated a drive to obtain coconut shells, which could be burned to make charcoal. Some shells were obtained from Ceylon and shipped to the Philippines, where a charcoal plant was quickly established. This plant produced up to 1,300 tons of charcoal a month, of which 300 tons were shipped to the United States. The Army also sought fruit pits for burning to make charcoal. Even the Boy Scouts were enlisted to persuade Americans to contribute different types of pits (such as peach and apricot) for the war effort.
Testing Chemical Warfare
To test the weapons and equipment it developed, the CWS needed to establish some type of proving ground. The British Government already had built its own proving ground at a remote location in England called Porton Down. The United States had to build its proving ground in a similarly remote location. The British sent Major H.R. LeSuere, who had been instrumental in developing Porton Down, to provide his expert assistance.
The Army selected the pine forests of Lakehurst, New Jersey, to be developed into a proving ground. Laboratory buildings, barracks, observation points, impact ranges, and other facilities were quickly constructed. The Bureau of Mines provided William S. Brown to take charge of the testing program. Personnel of the Medical, Ordnance, and Quartermaster Departments and the CWS were assigned to Lakehurst to ensure that all aspects of the materiel were tested.
The first gas shells were tested at Lakehurst on 25 April 1918. The purpose was to develop an understanding of the bursting radius of particular types of shells, how the shells behaved in flight, how many shells it took to achieve an adequate concentration of chemicals, and so forth. This testing continued unabated until the end of the war.
The Army and the CWS performed remarkably well in so short a time. A fully functioning system that provided chemical testing, manufacture and shipping of weapons and equipment, and training of personnel was created in less than a year. By the end of that year, the U.S. chemical warfare effort could be compared very favorably with those of the British, French, and Germans.
The experience in chemical logistics in World War I was to help the CWS greatly in preparing for World War II. Again, the CWS had to build up a huge chemical supply system in a very short time. Even today, a similar system would have to be created to supply chemical protective equipment for a mobilizing military in the quickest possible time. One hopes such an effort will never again be required. ALOG
Dr. Burton Wright III is the command historian at the Army Chemical School at Fort McClellan, Alabama. He is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who graduated from the Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, the Armor Officer Advanced Course, the Army Command and General Staff College, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He has a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University.