The Chemists' War

The Chemists' War : 1914-1918

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Within months of the start of the First World War, Germany began to run out of the raw materials it needed to make explosives. As Germany faced imminent defeat, chemists such as Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch came to the rescue with Nobel Prize winning discoveries that overcame the shortages and enabled the country to continue in the war. Similarly, Britain could not have sustained its war effort for four years had it not been for chemists like Chaim Weizmann who was later to become the first president of the State of Israel.


Michael Freemantle tells the stories of these and many other chemists and explains how their work underpinned and shaped what became known as The Chemists' War. He reveals:


* how chemistry contributed to the care of the sick and wounded and to the health and safety of troops;
* how coal not only powered the war but was also an important source of the chemicals needed for the manufacture of explosives, dyes, medicines and antiseptics;
* how Britain's production of propellants relied on the slaughter of tens of thousands of whales;
* how a precious metal played a critical role in the war;
* how poisonous chemicals were used as weapons of mass destruction for the first time in the history of warfare and how chemists developed gas masks for protection against these weapons;
* how the British naval blockade of Germany imperilled agricultural production in the United States.


The book will appeal to the general reader as well as the many scientists and historians interested in the Great War.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 358 pages
  • 152 x 228 x 22.1mm | 557g
  • Cambridge, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 87 Illustrations, black and white
  • 1849739897
  • 9781849739894
  • 876,911

Table of contents

More than Chemical Warfare; The Neglected Face of the War; A Single Round of Firearm Ammunition; Whaling for World War One; Acetone and the Birth of a State; An Element of War; The Synthesis of War; Khaki and Indigo; Chemistry and the Zepellins; Chemistry and the Sinking of the Lusitania; The Potash Problem; Bacilli Killed More than Bullets; The Chemists of War; War, the Mother of Invention?; Images of War; Periodic Table of War; The Scientific Legacy of the War; Subject Index
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Review quote

From the title of this book you might expect it to be a chronological history of the First World War told from the point of view of the chemists involved in it, most likely focusing on the chemical weapons that played such a controversial role in that conflict. But actually it's much broader in scope and more loosely structured than that. As the author says in his preface: 'It was not my aim to write a book that could be read from cover to cover but rather one for the reader to dip into. Each chapter is intended to be self-contained and can be read independently of the other chapters.' The result is a remarkably diverse collection of essays whose only common thread is some kind of connection with both chemistry and World War One.


I was surprised to find that only one of the chapters - Chapter 13: 'The World's First Weapons of Mass Destruction' - is focused entirely on chemical weapons and their use in WW1. The subject crops up in other chapters, but only as part of a broader context. For example, Chapter 12 is a 30-page biography of Fritz Haber, Germany's unrepentant 'father of chemical warfare', but only six pages of it deal with his activities during the war. Chapter 14, about mustard gas, starts in WW1 but then fast-forwards to WW2 and the Bari tragedy.


The title of Chapter 1 is 'Much More than Chemical Warfare', and that could really have been the book's subtitle. Explosives are chemicals too, after all, and chemists were in demand to keep a step ahead of the opposition in this area too. Sometimes the link between a problem and its solution was far from obvious, and it's here that the book can often become unexpectedly fascinating. Why did the British government suddenly urge children to collect conkers (horse chestnuts) for them? The answer was a state secret, but it came down to the fact that they could be converted into acetone - a key chemical needed in the manufacture of cordite. There was also a sudden upsurge in the demand for whale blubber, which could be used to make nitro-glycerine, and even chamber-pot urine, which proved to be a useful source of the nitre needed to make gunpowder.


Although the author is a professional chemist, this is very much a history book rather than a science book. 'Chemistry', as far as this book is concerned, simply means 'chemicals' - and chemicals are always referred to by name rather than formula. There is nothing about chemical reactions and no explanation of why certain chemicals have the effects they do. Personally I was disappointed by the lack of scientific explanation or insight the book provides, but I guess that for a general readership it's safer to err on the side of too little technical detail rather than too much.


The blurb on the back cover says 'The book will appeal to the general reader as well as the many scientists and historians interested in the Great War' - and I wouldn't disagree with that. -- Brian Clegg * Popular Science * "...a remarkably diverse collection of essays..."


"The book will appeal to the general reader as well as the many scientists and historians interested in the Great War" -- Brian Clegg * Popular Science * Michael Freemantle's book explores the key role of chemists in the Great War and clearly establishes that the colossal war effort would not have been possible without the work of scientists. He describes in great detail the need for power and chemicals to make the military ordnance that was consumed in huge quantities. A constant theme of the book is how chemists from both sides rise to the challenge of shortages of resources and develop new feedstocks and reactions to produce desired products. The book has many examples; the one that probably jumps out, however, is the use of huge quantities of whale oils to not only produce the more obvious nitroglycerine but also to combat trench foot. Soldiers to mud and water that can cause the medical condition known as trench foot, which in the most extreme cases leads to amputation of affected limbs. Better boots, a foot-care regime that still exists in the army today, and a good rubbing down the problem. The role of individuals is well covered throughout the book, including a chapter devoted to Nobel Prize winners. There is also a chapter on the oftendownplayed role of women in the war effort. We are all probably familiar with images of women driving buses and aware of the huge number of working class women working in munitions factories, often in very dangerous conditions. What is probably not well known is the contribution of women chemists. In particular, Freemantle highlights the contribution of May Sybil Leslie, calling her an unsung champion of the war. Freemantle also devotes a chapter to the career of Fritz Haber subtitled `Revered and Reviled'. In the early part of my teaching career we taught about Haber's work on the process named after him and its contribution to feeding the world via the production of ammonia-based fertilisers, but the other aspects of his research on chemical warfare were not mentioned. This highlights for me an important theme about the role of scientists in war related to the morality of personal action. Both sides developed and subsequently used chemical weapons on the so easy to decide who is good and who is bad. What often surprises people is the welldocumented willingness of ordinary people to engage in extreme activities. This is an interesting book offering a different view from the large number that have been written on the politics and strategies of the war. It is well written, extensively referenced and includes a useful last chapter on the top 50 chemicals of the Great War. There is a lot of interesting chemistry but the human story is also strong.


Alex Chaplin -- School Science Review - Alex Chaplin This is an interesting book offering a different view from the large number that have been written on the politics and strategies of the war. It is well written, extensively referenced and includes a useful last chapter on the top 50 chemicals of the Great War. There is a lot of interesting chemistry but the human story is also strong. -- School Science Review - Alex Chaplin In September 2013, the Government of Syria launched a chlorine gas attack on its own population, killing 1429, including 426 children. Since then, the humanitarian tragedy in the Middle East has reached epic proportions. Almost three hundred thousand have died, and the conflict looks likely to worsen. Reports come in of the use of a variety of chemical weapons. For over three years, the United States has led in helping dispose of Syria's declared CW stockpile, 1300 metric tons, and dismantling its 23 CW production facilities, and has overseen the neutralization of 600 metric tons of sarin, VX, and mustard gas. We have reports that as of October 2015, about 90% of the world's declared stockpile of chemical weapons had been destroyed. But the world remains unsure about the future use of what the US Senate Armed Services Committee has called "the world's worst weapons," and the April 2017 attack in Syria has demonstrated that stocks remain in active use.
What has become, we may ask, of modern society, of the legacy of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and its successor, the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which 190 states - including Syria - have given their assent? More generally, what has happened to the international prohibition of chemical weapons, the odium that surrounds their use, and the norms that this has inspired?
These norms were born from the use of chemical weapons in the Great War and the appalling legacy left to generations on both sides.
This is the legacy that formed the subject of Michael Freemantle's earlier book, Gas! Gas! Quick Boys!: How Chemistry Changed the First World War (Spellmount: The History Press, 2012) - his title drawn from Wilfred Owen's famous poem, and his subtitle perceptively suggesting "How Chemistry Changed the First World War." The present book returns to the subject, and re-captures the Great War in popular memory as "the chemists' war" - a sobriquet attributed to Richard Pilger, Registrar of the Institute of Chemistry in London.
Whilst historians now share chemistry's infamous fame with all the other sciences that contributed to the war effort, it is clear that chemical weapons, even more than the damaging effects of aerial bombardments, artillery barrages, submarine attacks, and the ravages of hunger and disease, have left an indelible impression on modem memory. In its narration, science lost its moral status, and was reduced to such memories that such author-soldiers as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen could parse and summon. But with Freemantle's earlier book, this book is not only about chemical warfare, but also about the war of applied chemistry and chemical industry. Behind the Front lay the mobilization of a vast international chemical industry, prominent in Germany, but soon dramatically impressive across France and Britain as well, and with everlasting consequences for the United States.
In twenty chapters, Freemantle builds upon his earlier work, and familiarizes the reader with the making of shells and explosives, and with the leading men and women chemists who shaped this aspect of modem warfare. In so doing, he does not fail to do justice to the increasing uses of chemistry in caring for the starving, sick and wounded, in fighting infection, and in killing pain. As such, the Great War (as other wars before and since) graphically stimulated the "dual uses" of science - a phenomenon well illustrated by a Gordon Cain Symposium held at the CHF in 2008, and attended by representatives of the State Department and policy studies institutes in the US and the UK.
As Freemantle writes, America's principal contribution to the materia chemica of gas warfare was chlorovinyldichloroarisine, better known as Lewisite, and subsequently dubbed by the US Chemical Warfare Service "the dew of Death." But, as always, there was another side. The "double-edged sword," with which Freemantle ends his story, sees chemistry in wartime use in protecting health and preventing disease. We know that chlorine, released to purify drinking water and sterilize swimming pools, has found appalling applications in barrel bombs. But we cannot mistake the value of lifesaving antiseptics and disinfectants.
Like Freemantle's earlier book, this is a highly professional account-like many, especially in Britain and Australia, deriving from family experience of the War. His professionalism as a science writer (of journalism and textbooks) shines through his prose as he explains-in approachable, layman's terms-the basic ingredients of wartime gas chemistry. Inevitably, the story focuses on organic chemistry, and on features that are - like the manufacture of acetone - comparatively well known. Readers will also recognize at least some of the many "fractured friendships," in Freemantle's phrase, which first soured, then destroyed Jong-standing relationships between British and American chemists and their German teachers and colleagues. At the end, whether by accident or design, the book ends poignantly with two chapters, one commemorating the sacrifice of the fifty-five British chemists memorialized in marble at the Royal Chemical Society in London; and the other, listing the leading "Fifty Chemicals of the Great War" that many of them helped produce.
Perhaps the book's most original contribution lies in drawing attention to the "metals of war", such as nickel, tin, tungsten, chromium, manganese, and zinc. In the emerging materials science of industrial war, such metals took a "starring role" on the battlefield-as did aluminum in the making of Zeppelins, and phosphorus in making the Pomeroy bullets that brought them down. The celebrated use of platinum as a catalyst-key to making sulfuric acid, thence nitric acid, ammonium nitrate, and high explosive-joins a story ennobled by the applications of silver, essential to photography, and of calcium and tungsten in medical X-rays. And so the chemical catalogue continues, through the history of the tank-made of iron, copper, nickel and zinc-with pistons of aluminum, machine guns housed in phosphor-bronze mountings, and shell cases packed with amatol. The les-son is clear-warfare had become a case of chemistry and industry compounded.
Like its predecessor, The Chemists' War is a good introduction to the subject in its widest dimensions. Just a few shortcomings might be mentioned. First, surprisingly little attention is given to the vast chemical-industrial corporations that contributed to the war, whether in Germany, Britain, France, or America. Just as the Great War was the making of modem chemistry, so did mod-em chemical industry emerge in its wake. Second, the structure of the book tends to recall a sequence of articles rather than an unfolding narrative. Some chronologies are reversed, and some topics are duplicated. But read-ers can easily take such matters into account. Both these books are well worth including in any working library on "The Chemists' War." -- Roy MacLeod * Bulletin for the History of Chemistry * "this is a highly professional account"


"he explains - in approachable, layman's terms - the basic ingredients of wartime gas chemistry"


"the book's most original contribution lies in drawing attention to the "metals of war", such as nickel, tin, tungsten, chromium, manganese, and zinc"


"such metals took a "starring role" on the battlefield"


"well worth including in any working library"


"Like its predecessor, The Chemists' War is a good introduction to the subject in its widest dimensions." -- Roy MacLeod * Bulletin for the History of Chemistry *
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About Michael Freemantle

Michael Freemantle is a science writer who has written numerous books and articles on chemistry, the history of science and related topics.
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