The Wonders of Chlorine

So, our good friend chlorine is another element, that can do lots of different things. It’s puts the ‘alt’ into ‘salt’ and ‘the chlorine’ into ‘the pool’. However, it can also be used as a toxic poison. Read on, as I carefully weave a web of intrigue, distilled and plagiarised from the Wikipedian pool of knowledge…

Chlorine was one of the first chemical weapons used in warfare, and was first used by the Germans back in double-u double-u one. A German chemist, Fritz Haber, developed toxic chlorine gas for use at the front line. Earlier in his career, Fritz was assisted by his wife, Clara Immerwahr, who was also a chemist, but she couldn’t take any credit for her work because she was married. She also may have been a bit of a feminist (she was the first woman to receive a chemistry doctorate from a German university), and she was opposed to chemical warfare and pleaded with Fritz to cease working on gas warfare.

Chlorine gas was first used at the Second Battle of Ypres, at 5pm on the 22nd of April, 1915. To prepare for the attack, German troops carried approximately 233917 kilograms of chlorine cylinders to the Western front by hand. The German soldiers also opened the cylinders by hand, and because of this “a large number of German soldiers were injured or killed in the process of carrying out the attack” (wiki).

Ruins of the Ypres market square (from wiki).

Ruins of the Ypres market square (from wiki).

About 6000 French and colonial troops died within ten minutes of the gas being released, and many more were blinded. As the denser-than-air chlorine gas filled the trenches and was inhaled by the allied troops, the chlorine reacted with the droplets of water in the soldiers lungs to form hydrochloric acid and hypochlorous acid. Also, the chlorine displaced the oxygen in the air, causing asphyxiation (that’s death by low oxygen). The Germans hadn’t expected their new weapon to be so effective, so weren’t prepared to advance, but eventually they got their act together and fighting ensued.

Two days later, another chlorine cloud was observed wafting towards the Canadian forces further down the line. The Canadian troops were ordered to urinate on their handkerchiefs and to put this over their mouth and nose. Unfortunately, this was largely ineffective, although chemically the urea in urine should neutralise the poisonous chlorine gas. Perhaps the Canadians weren’t so keen on putting a soggy hanky of urine over their mouths. More fighting, etc.

After observing all this at the front line, Fritz, the chlorine developer, returned home. Soon after his arrival, his wife, Clara, shot herself in the chest with a revolver. Their marriage seems to have been fairly turbulent at this time, as Clara had previously openly opposed Fritz’s work in chemical warfare, and Fritz had accused her of treason.

Chlorine was soon replaced by more effective gases, such as mustard gas. Today chlorine is used in pools, in curry (in the form of salt), and plays an important role in the action potential. And Fritz was forced to  escape from Germany because of Jewish persecution by the Nazis in 1933.

The Second Battle of Ypres, by Richard Jack (from wiki)

The Second Battle of Ypres, by Richard Jack (from wiki)



5 thoughts on “The Wonders of Chlorine

  1. A fascinating and well plagiarised article! It’s well plagiared because you’ve distilled a Wikipedia entry I would never have read into a convenient and interesting article that I actually would read.

    But in the end I just felt sorry for Fritz’s wife. I’d really like to know more about their marriage, and the whole chlorine effect on it.

    • Yeah, the marriage bit was interesting. Wikipedia and the whole internet didn’t give many details, and didn’t elaborate upon the suicide. I think the answer is probably in a book somewhere…

  2. interesting that you mention salt. have you heard that the federal government is legislating a requirement for bakers to use IODISED salt in bread? because apparently there is a huge iodine deficiency in austraila. interesting.

    you didn’t actually explain how chlorine works as a weapon? what exactly does it even do?

    • Chlorine…
      1. displaces oxygen – oh no! you can’t breathe!
      2. turns the water in your lungs to acid. ahhh!

      Cl2(g) + H2O(l) HCl(aq) + HOCl(aq)

      HCl is hydrochloric acid, and HOCl is hypochlorous acid. I updated the paragraph after the picture to include some more details…

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