Russia Watch: Kremlin forgets – a century ago Russian soldiers were top victims of poison gas

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

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.”


Gas masks were designed for army dogs
Gas masks were designed for army dogs

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.”

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.

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 1970s and 1980s, Hafez al-Assad, 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 VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

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 last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.