They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that includes the necessity to live and survive. That, for sure, was what pushed the American troops of WWI to pee on rags and towels (even socks) and use them as masks against poison gas attacks.
The large-scale use of toxic chemicals as weapons was prevalent during World War I. Common chemicals used were tear gas, phosgene, chlorine, and mustard gas, among all the others.
Tear gas was among the first gas poisons used. As the name suggests, it causes irritation, coughing, burning sensations in the eyes, mouth, and nose, making you tear up. Still, it’s not lethal enough to kill people. Chlorine gas, on the other hand, is deadly. It can damage the tissues of the eyes, throat, and lungs upon contact. It could cause fluid in the lungs, drowning people while on their death beds. Even so, chlorine gas wasn’t that effective of a weapon, as it has a yellow-green color that announces its grand entrance. Troops instantly knew whenever it was deployed. The thing is, we didn’t have sophisticated technology back then to create masks that could effectively combat these poison gasses, like the M50 Joint Service General Protective Mask. The doughboys (nickname for the American infantrymen during WWI) had to improvise. Their solution: peeing on rags.
Our soldiers had to pee on rags, socks, or whatever piece of cloth they could find and use them to cover their faces to protect their lungs from the gas. The rationale behind this was that the ammonia from urine would somehow neutralize the chlorine gas and prevent it from killing them. What they didn’t know was that even though their trick was effective, it was unnecessary. You see, chlorine dissolves in water. So, they could’ve used regular water, and it would’ve still worked. Perhaps they wanted to save their drinking water? One sure sign that chlorine gas was being used is that it would discolor the brass buttons on soldiers’ uniforms. Not that you wanted to wait for that to occur to know what kind of gas you were being attacked with.