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Gas: the greatest terror of the Great War

Westmead Hospital, Westmead NSW Australia

Summary

The Great War began just over a century ago and this monumental event changed the world forever. 1915 saw the emergence of gas warfare- the first weapon of mass terror. It is relevant to anaesthetists to reflect on these gases for a number of reasons. Firstly and most importantly we should acknowledge and be aware of the suffering and sacrifice of those soldiers who were injured or killed so that we could enjoy the freedoms we have today. Secondly, it is interesting to consider the overlap between poison gases and anaesthetic gases and vapors, for example that phosgene can be formed by the interaction of chloroform and sunlight. Thirdly the shadow of gas warfare is very long and covers us still. The very agents used in the Great War are still causing death and injury through deployment in conflict areas such as Iraq and Syria. Industrial accidents, train derailments and dumped or buried gas shells are other sources of poison gas hazards. In this age of terrorism, anaesthetists, as front-line resuscitation specialists, may be directly involved in the management of gas casualties or become victims ourselves.

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