• Send page
  • Print page

World War I: the ICRC's appeal against the use of poisonous gases

08-02-1918 Statement

Full text of the appeal to the belligerents, issued by the International Committee on 8 February 1918.

One of the most distressing characteristics of the war at present causing so much misery to the human race is the daily violation of the most solemn undertakings, of what are known as the laws of war, of the agreements made in the hope of diminishing war's cruelty. Far from alleviating the evils which war brings in its train, it may be said that scientific progress in aeronautics, ballistics and chemistry have merely aggravated the suffering and, above all, extended it to the whole population, so that war from now on will be nothing but a ruthless work of destruction.

Today we wish to raise our voices against a barbarous innovation which science is in the course of perfecting, that is, making it more murderous and more refined in its cruelty. We are speaking of asphyxiant and poisonous gases, the use of which, it seems, is growing to a scale hitherto unsuspected.

The Regulations adopted at The Hague respecting the laws and customs of war on land contain the following: " It is especially forbidden to employ poison or poisoned weapons " , and to employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering " . Asphyxiant or poisonous gases are without any doubt one of the poisons forbidden under the Convention. Medical personnel who have recovered troops affected by these gases from the battlefield, not to mention the nurses who have treated them in the hospitals, are all unanimous in testifying to the terrible suffering caused by these gases, which is more harrowing to see than that resulting from the worst of wounds " .

The fact that such procedures have become common practice in war is in itself intolerable. But we insist that anyone who at tempts to render this method of combat still more cruel will carry a steadily increasing weight of responsibility for having driven warfare in a direction contrary to the humane ideas which seemed to be gaining ground, the living proof of which appeared to be the Red Cross. For this is not an act that an army can spurn as being repugnant, since its own existence is at stake. A combatant confronted by an enemy using these gases is forced, despite himself, to do the same; and, if he does not want to be in an inferior position which might be fatal to him, he will try to outdo his enemy, to concentrate all his efforts on ensuring that the poisons are ever more harmful and more widespread in their effects. Each side will compete with the other in the race to invent the deadliest and the cruellest methods.

We are now being told of new volatile poisons, which can be manufactured all the more easily in abundance since the raw material from which they are produced is readily accessible. We are shown projectiles loaded with these poisonous gases scattering death in atrocious form, not only among the combatants but also behind the lines, among the non-combatants population, over a wide area in which every living creature would be annihilated. We protest with all the strength of our being against this method of warfare, which we can only describe as criminal. And, if, as is probable, the adversary is obliged to resort to counter-attacks or reprisals to force his enemy to relinquish this abhorrent practice, we can foresee a struggle the ferocity of which will exceed the greatest barbarity the world has known.

For this reason, we of the Red Cross, we whose flag is the emblem of that feeling of humanity which seemed of late to be emerging even in battle, call upon the Sovereigns, the Governments and the generals, first of all, and then upon the nations now ranged against one another. We appeal to this same feeling of humanity, which we do not believe is extinguished ev en after three years of war.

Do you wish your victory to be only the complete destruction of those fighting against you? Do you wish your triumph to turn to shame because it is no longer due to the valour and steadfast courage of your children? Do you wish to salute, on his return, not a brave man who has unhesitatingly risked his life for his country, but a man who, at no danger to himself, has succeeded in eliminating his enemies with the help of poisons, thereby inflicting abominable suffering on his victims?

We are unable to believe that decent people in every country are not repelled by this prospect, and for this reason we unhesitatingly demand a ban on this appalling method of waging war. This requires an immediate agreement which the various armies must undertake to observe faithfully. If the International Red Cross succeeds in bringing about this agreement, if it could be signed under the Red Cross flag, it would be a return to the principles which prompted the Conventions of Geneva and The Hague, and such a document, able to save thousands of lives, would do great honour not only to the armies but also to the nations which sign it.

IN THE NAME OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS:

Edouard NAVILLE, Acting President 

Adolphe D'ESPINE, Vice-President 

Dr. F. FERRIERE, "  "  

Alfred GAUTIER "  "  

Adolphe MOYNIER, Treasurer 

Horace MICHELI

Edmond BOISSIER

Frédéric BARBEY

William E. RAPPARD 

Paul DES GOUTTES, Secretary General 

Ref. DP 1918-001-ENG