Kremlin Forgets: One Century Ago Russian Soldiers Were Top Victims of Poison Gas

Posted August 31st, 2013 at 10:02 pm (UTC+0)

Russian politicians and analysts worked overtime this week trying to create a cloud of doubt around the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus.

Back to the future? Soldiers prepared for combat in World War I. One century later, will gas masks become necessary in Syria’s civil war?

On Friday, the White House report drew on extensive intelligence information to present this picture: Syrian forces carried out chemical weapons attacks on sleeping Damascus suburbs, killing 1,429 civilians, including 426 children.

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters: “While the Syrian army is on the offensive, saying that it is the Syrian government that used chemical weapons is utter nonsense.”

One century ago, Russia’s elites were better educated on the realities of poison gas as a military weapon.

In World War I, czarist officers drew on Old Testament analogies to warn their soldiers of “Dima Kaina” – “the Smoke of Cain.”

In contrast to the romance of this World War One recruiting poster, poison gas attacks became a major preoccupation for Russian soldiers and nurses. This one reads, “Eyes, not Bullets, Can Break a Heart.”

While the mustard gas of Ypres on the Western Front is far better known today, the first massive use of gas as war weapon took place against Russian soldiers in January 1915. German units fired 18,000 artillery shells filled with liquid xylyl bromide tear gas on Russian positions west of Warsaw, during the Battle of the Bolimov.

Gas masks were developed for Army dogs

By the time World War I ended, the biggest victim of poison gas attacks was Russia.

Russia lost 56,000 soldiers to gas – 63 percent of all WWI gas fatalities. Russia recorded 419,340 soldiers injured by gas, 34 percent of the total recorded by all nations. (Source: “Weapons of War – Poison Gas,” Michael Duffy,

During WWI, the Western Front had better painters than the Eastern Front.

Ninety-five years to the day before the Damascus attack, John Singer Sargent, an American painter, was with British soldiers on Aug. 21, 1918 when German units barraged the positions with mustard gas. From sketches and notes, he painted “Gassed.” This nearly life-size oil painting was voted picture of the year by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919. It now hangs in London’s Imperial War Museum.

In his oil painting “Gassed,” American painter John Singer Sargent captured British soldiers making their way to a field hospital after a German mustard gas attack on Aug. 21, 1918. In Damascus, 95 years later to the day, Syrian leaders gassed their own people, killing over 1,400. Photo: Imperial War Museum, London

Of equal impact on public opinion were Britain’s war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and his friend Wilfred Owen.

In 1917, while recovering from war wounds, Owen wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum est.’ He called it “a gas poem.”

Here is an excerpt:

“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”

After the war, in 1919, British soldiers fired poison gas against Bolsheviks in Northern Russia, and in 1921 the Red Army used poison gas against peasant militias in the Tambov Rebellion.

International revulsion over the use of gas in warfare prompted governments to meet in Geneva to draw up the one of the modern world’s first arms controls agreements. Known as the Geneva Protocol, the agreement went into effect in February 1928. It carried this formal title: Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.

Gas masks were improvised for horses.

Two months later, the protocol was signed by the Soviet Union, successor state to Czarist Russia, World War I’s largest victim of poison gas.

Forty years later, in 1968, the Geneva Protocol was signed by Syria. Syria’s defense minister at the time was Hafez al-Assad, father to Syria’s current president, Bashar al-Assad.

As president during the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad, presumably with Soviet assistance, built up a powerful chemical weapons arsenal.

In the last two years, his son, Bashar, has steadily escalated attacks on his political opponents – from beating demonstrators to shooting them, from shelling residential neighborhoods to dropping bombs from warplanes.

In recent weeks, Bashar al-Assad’s forces apparently carried out limited chemical weapons attacks. Response from the West was muted. Russia’s state-controlled TV and think tanks suggested that opposition forces were gassing themselves in order to win international support.

Now, Bashar al-Assad has taken the next step in his ruthless logic: checking the wind, and then gassing sleeping residents on the eastern edge of his capital.

If Washington undertakes punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s military, Russian chattering class might take a break from attacking the United States.

Instead, as Russia prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of Russia’s August 1914 entry into WWI, Russians might find it interesting to contemplate the fact that their own soldiers were the first victims of modern gas warfare.

In that case, the “fog of war” was real – and deadly.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

6 responses to “Kremlin Forgets: One Century Ago Russian Soldiers Were Top Victims of Poison Gas”

  1. William says:

    Is Putin’s evidence not available? Show him fast if it is there. If nobody knows what he wants that is an ugly picture and I am afraid of it.

  2. nava says:

    what did USa do when Saddam , backed by the west against Iran use chemical arsenal on his own and iranians. hypocrites !!!!.

    when he was not needed by the US and its cronies , then they dot rid of him .

    • navami says:

      provide specifics and proof of the chemical weapons used in syria, if
      america says they were used , it is the duty of the world to believe
      it to be true ????

      Just because usa has military might that , what they say is the truth.

      Just like a school bully , or a terrorist who says jihad to justify their path.

      My boy ,Its all manipulation and making the people a fool done by
      every politicians all over the world , even my own politicians
      If u believe them , than u r living in fools paradise

      For americans to be fooled is strange thing for me. instead of
      bringing development around the world with their technology , they are
      just causing turmoil .

      What if all that money we spend on fighting each other can be used to
      feed prople and give them a simple basic needs . No but we will go to
      mars , moon to find water but not use the tech to clean our own

      Before Iraq invasion collin powel in UNO gave the intelligence that
      iraq had nuclear weapons and we need to get rid of saddam !!! Did usa
      find any there ??, but usa destroyed the country .

  3. Tampa_Pirate says:

    Nava your comment defies logic. Using the old Soviet “What about…” argument makes no sense. So two wrongs make a right? What backing did the US provide Saddam Hussein exactly? I’ll use Putin’s line, “provide specifics, real data and facts”.

    Maybe you should READ Putin’s 1999 NY Times op-ed

    Talk about hypocrites.

  4. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    The UN report says Sarin gas was used to kill 100s of residents of opposition neighborhoods of Damascus on Aug. 21:
    Even the Russians agree on that.
    As a result of the report and international pressure — US, European and Russian — the Syrian government:
    1) acknowledged for the first time that it has chemical weapons arsenal and production facilities
    2) signed the chemical weapons control treaty
    3) delivered a preliminary chemical inventory on Friday to relevant Chemical Weapons control officials in The Hague
    4) President Assad seems to have agreed to destroy his chemical weapons stocks and production facilities
    This has come about because of: 1) fatal gassing of 1,400 civilians on Aug. 21
    2) American military pressure 3) Russian and American diplomacy
    So far, so good
    Jim Brooke, Moscow



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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