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William P. Palmer
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A review of Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World War by Michael Freemantle
Reviewer: Dr Bill Palmer
The title of Michael Freemantle's book alludes to a poem Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, a great English poet, killed in World War I, just seven days before its end. A short extract is appended below:
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.
Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys! (ISBN: 978 0 7524 6601 9) is a book about the chemistry of warfare during the first world war, with the chapters, covering every conceivable angle of chemistry. Michael Freemantle is the author or co-author of about ten books that relate to chemistry including Chemistry in action (1987) which was a very useful school textbook.
Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys! is a scholarly work of patient endeavour providing great detail with thorough and accurate references. The author in his introduction considers that it is a work for the general reader and he does explain many of the chemical terms used and provides some definitions. However, it is a work mainly of interest to chemists, because, in my view, the general reader will find this book too technical. The book consists of eleven chapters (240 pages) and includes sixteen pages of black and white war photographs which assist the reader in visualising some of the situations referred to in the text.
In the first chapter entitled, The chemists’ war, the point is made that all warfare, throughout recorded history has relied on scientific and technological expertise to provide an advantage over the enemy. Antoine Lavoisier had assisted the French Government in improving the quality of gunpowder, but was nonetheless guillotined in 1794. After his death the role of the chemist in improving weapons, both for attack and defence, became increasingly important. Various chemists whose discoveries influenced the history of warfare are mentioned with particular attention being paid to Fritz Haber (1868-1934) and Carl Bosch (1874-1940). The portraits of both these scientists are included in the photographic section. Haber’s significance is detailed in the first chapter for his work on the fixation of nitrogen needed for agricultural production and also for the production of explosives. His role in the use of chlorine as a poisonous gas in trench warfare is explained in the sixth chapter, Gas! GAS! Quick boys! This chapter describes some of the history of the uses of poison gases in warfare, including the possibility that Adolf Hitler may have been gassed when serving in the first world war. There is a section on the pros and cons of chemical warfare. The different classes of agent, lachrymators, sternutators, choking agents, vesicants and blood agents are described. Examples of each of these classes are given, often with details of their chemistry, preparation and physiological effects. Attention is also focussed on Wilfred Owen’s poem, which provides the title of the book and of this chapter. Finally several sections of this chapter deal with methods of protection against poison gas attack including gas masks and their development and improvement. One positive feature of this book is that Michael Freemantle uses British, French, American and German references to provide an overall picture of how each nation viewed gas warfare.
Chapter 4, The highs and lows of explosives, can be seen as a chapter which involves details of the main explosives used in the first world war. Chemists may find this topic which mentions the manufacture of gunpowder, brown powder, fuses, gun-cotton, nitro-glycerine, dynamite, gelignite, ballistite and cordite, of particular interest. The explosives are followed by the actual chemicals used in explosive manufacture, such as the manufacture of acetone from grain, using a fermentation process discovered by Chaim Weizmann, later to become President of Israel. Acetone was an essential chemical in the manufacture of cordite. The huge quantities of explosive manufactured during the first world war is extremely impressive. New factories were built; work-forces were trained; the workers, previously inexperienced in safety procedures needed to change long established habits, such as wearing wooden rather than metal buttons to prevent accidental explosions, though these did occur.
Chapter 5, The metals of war, could also be of interest to many chemists, given the number and variety of metals and alloy used. It is not only the metals actually used in making guns, rifles and other obvious weapons of war that are explained, but also metals such as platinum, used as a catalyst in the manufacture of sulphuric acid, which is itself used in the manufacture of many other war related chemicals.
Chapters 8, 9, and 10 consider the use of chemicals used to preserve wounded soldier’s lives, to ease the pain of wounded soldiers and to fight infection, which was a major cause of the loss of soldier’s lives. It is good to see that the positive role that chemistry has to play in receiving human suffering is given such emphasis,
Different readers will find that different parts of the book are of specialist interest to them as they observe examples relating to organic, inorganic and physical chemistry. I find that extensive use of science’s history in every chapter added greatly to the relevance of the book for me. I did not observe any major factual errors. However, there were several typographical errors, which indicates that the book needed tighter editing.
The book, Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys! How Chemistry Changed the First World, is thoroughly recommended.
This review was published in:
Palmer, W. P. (2014). Review of 'Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! How chemistry changed the First World War' by Michael Freemantle, Chemistry in Australia, (February), p.33.