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

Gezi Parkı Müdahale tear gas. ©Burak Su/WikimediaCommons

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.

Chlorine Gas

Chlorine gas leak. Photo from studiousguy.com

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.

Phosgene Gas

“Phosgene smells like musty hay” (OHA 365), National Museum of Health and Medicine. Photo from National Museum of Health and Medicine / Wikimedia Commons

Phosgene is a colorless, highly toxic chemical. It was first used by the French in 1915 and was responsible for around 85,000 deaths; the urine mask was no match for it. Like chlorine, it causes the lungs to fill with liquid, called pulmonary edema, at a more severe rate.

Mustard Gas

World War II Gas Identification Posters, ca. 1941-1945.

Also known as sulfur mustard, it’s more of a fine mist than an actual gas. It is a cytotoxic agent that causes severe blistering upon contact on the skin. It wasn’t easy to detect, so soldiers may be showered with the mist and their skin would soak up in the chemical without them being aware until they start itching in places that would, later on, develop into large blisters filled with yellow pus. Perhaps it’s another reason why it was called mustard gas?

Thanks to scientists like John Haldane, gas masks were invented. He was the first to develop masks that effectively keep the gasses out by experimenting in his home laboratory—on himself.

Now that’s a different level of dedication.

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