First reports of chemical weapons?

On 6th October 1914, The Brisbane Courier reported usage of a new and terrifying weapon – ‘Turpinite shells’, which utilised the powerful new explosive melinite. Inventor of the explosive, French chemist Eugéne Turpin, declared that his invention would ‘modify all present military tactics’ and negate all defensive strategies. He claimed that the enemy's forces would be annihilated by the use of this substance, which he christened ‘fatalement’. According to the paper, a recently published cable message stated that ‘fatalement’ had been used by the French once against the Germans ‘with paralysing effect, many soldiers being found dead in the trenches with their rifles in their hands in aiming position, as if overwhelmed by some sudden stroke, the only outward sign being a fine brown powder besprinkled over the bodies’.

A second article in The Brisbane Courier on 6th October 1914 further emphasised the effect of the weapon, reporting that French troops, on entering a chateau after it had been bombarded, found a number of Wurtemberg soldiers petrified, some men still at the windows taking aim with their fingers on their triggers.

The Wikipedia entry for turpinite suggests that it was actually a fictional gas, and that the strong chemical smell was in fact a side effect of the explosives used by the French and British during the War, and that many of the deaths attributed to turpinite were really caused by concussion. The German scientist Fritz Haber determined that the strong smell was caused by the incomplete combustion of Allied shell charges. While turpinite may not have been the chemical weapon at first suspected, it was certainly the sign of things to come.

Each week we will be sharing news stories from the week 100 years ago, and we invite you to add your thoughts and comments.

Want to join in and find and correct newspaper articles from 1914 and 1915? Here’s more information about how to get started text correcting newspaper articles on Trove as a Pitch In! digital volunteer.

If you find something you’d like to share we’d love to hear from you at discovery@slq.qld.gov.au.

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