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N°33 I quarterly I april 2014 Focus | 25 It was 6:00 p.m. on April 22, 1915, when tragedy struck Ypres, a small town in southern Belgium. The medic of the French army’s First African Battalion recalls: “The sky was suddenly obscured by a yellow-green cloud, as though a storm was coming in. Then the asphyxiating mist was all around us. It was like looking through green-tinted glasses. We soon started feeling its effects: throat burning, then chest pains, shortness of breath, dizziness, spitting blood. We thought we were all going to die... A few moments later, I saw the Jerries only 15 meters away. They were marching past calmly, their weapons slung over their shoulders, without firing a shot. One of them saw me, took aim—and missed me from that short distance. A stroke of luck!” “Much science was needed to kill so many” Few of his comrades had such luck: when the gas cleared, more than 5000 of the 15,000 entrenched French soldiers in that sector lay on the ground and another 5000 were captured. The Ypres gas attack was the first of its kind, but sadly not the last. The trauma was such that it haunted entire generations in France, Germany, and the world, and remains a vivid memory to this day. Like in a dystopian vision, World War I saw scientists join the hostilities. And not just any scientists, but chemists, who left their mark on a conflict that was considered to be “the war to end all wars”—just as physicists would later affect the outcome of World War II. The learned men, who before 1914 were simple dreamers dedicated to selfless studies, came to look like the evil schemers of the new century. The poet and philosopher Paul Valéry, acknowledging in 1919 the vulnerability of civilization,1 soon turned his thoughts to the scientists: “Doubtless, much science was needed Laboratories at War From wide usage of machine guns to poison gas attacks, World War I was the first conflict that showed the importance of scientific leadership, for the best and for the worst. 09 Laboratory testing of asphyxiating gas during WWI in France. 08 Intended for armies, this collective tank system with gas masks was meant to save soldiers from deadly chemical attacks. 08 09 © CNRS Photothèque/Fonds historique/colorisée pa r Arma nd Colin © J. Boyer/Roger-Viollet


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