cover image Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys! 
How Chemistry Changed the First World War

Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War

Michael Freemantle. History/Spellmount (U.K.) (IPG, dist.), $29.95 (240p) ISBN 9780752466019

Were it not for “advances in chemistry,” the First World War “would have been much shorter and the death toll substantially reduced,” argues Freemantle in this solid, accessible survey. The British science writer, who has a number of academic chemistry–centric titles under his belt, demonstrates how much of the technology used during WWI, including explosives, propellants, and grenades, depended on chemistry. But when most folks talk about chemistry in WWI, they think of gas warfare. It remains one of the great, horrific legacies of the War to End All Wars. Freemantle analyzes the spectrum of chemical agents and discusses the pros and cons of chemical warfare—gas caused relatively few casualties, but it devastated morale. Mustard gas, he insists, was “the worst of the chemical warfare agents used in the First World War... and at least the most effective” in terms of incapacitating soldiers. But Freemantle is quick to note that for all the suffering inflicted by chemical warfare, chemistry also brought about antiseptics, anesthetics, and disinfectants, each of which played a crucial role in battlefield care and beyond. War chemistry was indeed a sharp double-edged sword. Photos. (July)