Benito Mussolini declares himself dictator of Italy


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Year
1925
Month Day
January 03

Similar to Adolf Hitler, Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini did not become the dictator of a totalitarian regime overnight. For several years, he and his allies worked more or less within the confines of the Italian constitution to accrue power, eroding democratic institutions until the moment came for them to be done away with entirely. It is generally agreed that that moment came in speech Mussolini gave to the Italian parliament on January 3, 1925, in which he asserted his right to supreme power and effectively became the dictator of Italy.

Mussolini had been a schoolteacher and an avowed socialist, but after World War I he became a leader of the nascent Fascist movement. Like much of Europe, Italy was rife with social turmoil in the wake of the war, with paramilitary groups and street gangs frequently clashing over their competing visions for the new political order. A close confidant of Mussolini formed a Fascist paramilitary group, known as the Blackshirts or squadristi, as Mussolini led the political party, and they found that government fears of a communist revolution allowed them to operate without state intervention. By 1921, Mussolini had been elected to parliament as the leader of the growing National Fascist Party.

Soon after Mussolini’s election, armed Blackshirts marched on Rome, demanding that the king install Mussolini as Prime Minister. In a decision that utterly changed the course of Italian and European history, King Victor Emmanuel III ignored Prime Minister Luigi Facta’s pleas that he declare martial law, leading to Facta’s resignation and Emmanuel’s invitation to Mussolini to form a new government. The Fascists and their moderate allies set about dismantling Italy’s democratic institutions. He was proclaimed dictator for a year and increasingly merged his party and its paramilitary wing with the state and the official military. He also undertook a program of privatizations and anti-union legislation in order to assure industrialists and aristocrats that fascism would protect them from socialism.

Despite these reforms, many Fascists felt Mussolini was moving too slowly. In 1924, assassins with ties to Mussolini killed socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti, leading most of the parliamentary opposition to boycott Mussolini’s legislature. The Fascists felt that their moment had come. On December 31, they issued an ultimatum to Mussolini. Three days later, he addressed the remainder of parliament, declaring “I, and I alone, assume the political, moral, and historical responsibility for all that has happened,” obliquely referring to the assassination of Matteotti. In doing so, Mussolini dared prosecutors and the rest of Italy’s democratic institutions, as well as the king, to challenge his authority. None did. Thus, from 1925 onward, Mussolini was able to operate openly as a dictator, styling himself Il Duce and fusing the state and the Fascist Party. Two decades of suppression and brutality followed, culminating in Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the Second World War.

READ MORE: Mussolini’s Final Hours

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British Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps is officially established

Year
1917
Month Day
July 07

On July 7, 1917, British Army Council Instruction Number 1069 formally establishes the British Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), authorizing female volunteers to serve alongside their male counterparts in France during World War I.

By 1917, large numbers of women were already working in munitions factories throughout Britain, serving the crucial function of supplying sufficient shells and other munitions for the Allied war effort. The harsh conditions in the factories were undeniable, with long hours spent working with noxious chemicals such as the explosive TNT; a total of 61 female munitions workers died of poisoning, while 81 others died in accidents at work. An explosion at a munitions factory in Silvertown, East London, when an accidental fire ignited 50 tons of TNT, killed 69 more women and severely injured 72 more.

In early 1917, a campaign began to allow women to more directly support the war effort by enlisting in the army to perform labors such as cookery, mechanical and clerical work and other miscellaneous tasks that would otherwise be done by men who could better serve their country in the trenches. By March 11, 1917, even Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, had come around to the idea, writing to the British War Office that “the principle of employing women in this country [France] is accepted and they will be made use of wherever conditions admit.”

The establishment of the WAAC in the summer of 1917 meant that, for the first time, women were to be put in uniform and sent to France to serve as clerks, telephone operators, waitresses and in other positions on the war front. Women were paid less than their male counterparts: 24 shillings per week for unskilled labor and up to twice that for more skilled labor, such as shorthand typing. 

As the stated purpose behind the WAAC was to release British soldiers doing menial work in Britain and France for active service at the front, the War Office set the restriction that for every woman given a job through the WAAC, a man had to be released for frontline duties. None of the female volunteers could become officers–according to traditions in the British army–but those who rose in the ranks were given the status of “controllers” or “administrators.” 

By the end of World War I, approximately 80,000 women had served in the three British women’s forces—the WAAC, the Women’s Relief Defense Corps and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry—as non-combatants, but full-fledged contributors to the Allied war effort.

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Germany declares war on Portugal


Year
1916
Month Day
March 09

On March 9, 1916, Germany declares war on Portugal, who earlier that year honored its alliance with Great Britain by seizing German ships anchored in Lisbon’s harbor.

Portugal became a republic in 1910 after a revolution led by the country’s military toppled King Manuel II (his father, King Carlos, and elder brother had been assassinated two years earlier). A liberal constitution was enacted in 1911, and Manuel JosÉ de Arriaga was elected as the republic’s first president.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Portugal became increasingly anxious about the security of its colonial holdings in Angola and Mozambique. In order to secure international support for its authority in Africa, Portugal entered the war on the side of Britain and the Allies. Its participation was at first limited to naval support. In February 1917, however, Portugal sent its first troops—an expeditionary force of 50,000 men—to the Western Front. They saw action for the first time in Belgium on June 17 of that year.

One notable battle in which Portuguese forces took part was the Battle of Lys, near the Lys River in the Flanders region of Belgium, in April 1918. It was part of the major German offensive—the last of the war—launched that spring on the Western Front. During that battle, one Portuguese division of troops was struck hard by four German divisions; the preliminary shelling alone was so heavy that one Portuguese battalion refused to push forward into the trenches. 

All told, the victorious Germans took more than 6,000 prisoners in that conflict and were able to push through enemy lines along a three-and-a-half mile stretch. By the time World War I ended, a total of 7,000 Portuguese soldiers had died in combat.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

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Battle of the Somme begins

Year
1916
Month Day
July 01

At 7:30 a.m., the British launch a massive offensive against German forces in the Somme River region of France. During the preceding week, 250,000 Allied shells had pounded German positions near the Somme, and 100,000 British soldiers poured out of their trenches and into no-man’s-land on July 1, expecting to find the way cleared for them. However, scores of heavy German machine guns had survived the artillery onslaught, and the infantry were massacred. By the end of the day, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded. It was the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history. The disastrous Battle of the Somme stretched on for more than four months, with the Allies advancing a total of just five miles.

When World War I broke out in August 1914, great throngs of British men lined up to enlist in the war effort. At the time, it was generally thought that the war would be over within six months. However, by the end of 1914 well over a million soldiers of various nationalities had been killed on the battlefields of Europe, and a final victory was not in sight for either the Allies or the Central Powers. On the Western Front—the battle line that stretched across northern France and Belgium—the combatants had settled down in the trenches for a terrible war of attrition. Maimed and shell-shocked troops returning to Britain with tales of machine guns, artillery barrages, and poison gas seriously dampened the enthusiasm of potential new volunteers.

READ MORE: Why Was the Battle of the Somme So Deadly?

With the aim of raising enough men to launch a decisive offensive against Germany, Britain replaced voluntary service with conscription in January 1916, when it passed an act calling for the enlistment of all unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41. After Germany launched a massive offensive of its own against Verdun in February, Britain expanded the Military Service Act, calling for the conscription of all men, married and unmarried, between the ages of 18 and 41. Near the end of June, with the Battle of Verdun still raging, Britain prepared for its major offensive along a 21-mile stretch of the Western Front north of the Somme River.

For a week, the British bombarded the German trenches as a prelude to the attack. British Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, thought the artillery would decimate the German defenses and allow a British breakthrough; in fact, it served primarily to remove the element of surprise. When the bombardment died down on the morning of July 1, the German machine crews emerged from their fortified trenches and set up their weapons. At 7:30 a.m., 11 British divisions attacked at once, and the majority of them were gunned down. The soldiers optimistically carried heavy supplies for a long march, but few made it more than a couple of hundred yards. Five French divisions that attacked south of the Somme at the same time fared a little better, but without British success little could be done to exploit their gains.

After the initial disaster, Haig resigned himself to smaller but equally ineffectual advances, and more than 1,000 Allied lives were extinguished for every 100 yards gained on the Germans. Even Britain’s September 15 introduction of tanks into warfare for the first time in history failed to break the deadlock in the Battle of the Somme. In October, heavy rains turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, and on November 18 Haig called off the Somme offensive after more than four months of mass slaughter.

READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I

Except for its effect of diverting German troops from the Battle of Verdun, the offensive was a miserable disaster. It amounted to a total gain of just 125 square miles for the Allies, with more than 600,000 British and French soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in the action. German casualties were more than 650,000. Although Haig was severely criticized for the costly battle, his willingness to commit massive amounts of men and resources to the stalemate along the Western Front did eventually contribute to the collapse of an exhausted Germany in 1918.

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John Maynard Keynes predicts economic chaos

Year
1919
Month Day
June 28

At the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, Germany signs the Treaty of Versailles with the Allies, officially ending World War I. The English economist John Maynard Keynes, who had attended the peace conference but then left in protest of the treaty, was one of the most outspoken critics of the punitive agreement. In his The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in December 1919, Keynes predicted that the stiff war reparations and other harsh terms imposed on Germany by the treaty would lead to the financial collapse of the country, which in turn would have serious economic and political repercussions on Europe and the world.

By the fall of 1918, it was apparent to the leaders of Germany that defeat was inevitable in World War I. After four years of terrible attrition, Germany no longer had the men or resources to resist the Allies, who had been given a tremendous boost by the infusion of American manpower and supplies. In order to avert an Allied invasion of Germany, the German government contacted U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in October 1918 and asked him to arrange a general armistice. Earlier that year, Wilson had proclaimed his “Fourteen Points,” which proposed terms for a “just and stable peace” between Germany and its enemies. The Germans asked that the armistice be established along these terms, and the Allies more or less complied, assuring Germany of a fair and unselfish final peace treaty. On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed and went into effect, and fighting in World War I came to an end.

READ MORE: How the Treaty of Versailles and German Guilt Led to World War II

In January 1919, John Maynard Keynes traveled to the Paris Peace Conference as the chief representative of the British Treasury. The brilliant 35-year-old economist had previously won acclaim for his work with the Indian currency and his management of British finances during the war. In Paris, he sat on an economic council and advised British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, but the important peacemaking decisions were out of his hands, and President Wilson, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau wielded the real authority. Germany had no role in the negotiations deciding its fate, and lesser Allied powers had little responsibility in the drafting of the final treaty.

It soon became apparent that the treaty would bear only a faint resemblance to the Fourteen Points that had been proposed by Wilson and embraced by the Germans. Wilson, a great idealist, had few negotiating skills, and he soon buckled under the pressure of Clemenceau, who hoped to punish Germany as severely as it had punished France in the Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Lloyd George took the middle ground between the two men, but he backed the French plan to force Germany to pay reparations for damages inflicted on Allied civilians and their property. Since the treaty officially held Germany responsible for the outbreak of World War I (in reality it was only partially responsible), the Allies would not have to pay reparations for damages they inflicted on German civilians.

The treaty that began to emerge was a thinly veiled Carthaginian Peace, an agreement that accomplished Clemenceau’s hope to crush France’s old rival. According to its terms, Germany was to relinquish 10 percent of its territory. It was to be disarmed, and its overseas empire taken over by the Allies. Most detrimental to Germany’s immediate future, however, was the confiscation of its foreign financial holdings and its merchant carrier fleet. The German economy, already devastated by the war, was thus further crippled, and the stiff war reparations demanded ensured that it would not soon return to its feet. A final reparations figure was not agreed upon in the treaty, but estimates placed the amount in excess of $30 billion, far beyond Germany’s capacity to pay. Germany would be subject to invasion if it fell behind on payments.

READ MORE: Germany’s World War I Debt Was So Crushing It Took 92 Years to Pay Off

Keynes, horrified by the terms of the emerging treaty, presented a plan to the Allied leaders in which the German government be given a substantial loan, thus allowing it to buy food and materials while beginning reparations payments immediately. Lloyd George approved the “Keynes Plan,” but President Wilson turned it down because he feared it would not receive congressional approval. In a private letter to a friend, Keynes called the idealistic American president “the greatest fraud on earth.” On June 5, 1919, Keynes wrote a note to Lloyd George informing the prime minister that he was resigning his post in protest of the impending “devastation of Europe.”

The Germans initially refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles, and it took an ultimatum from the Allies to bring the German delegation to Paris on June 28. It was five years to the day since the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, which began the chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War I. Clemenceau chose the location for the signing of the treaty: the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles Palace, site of the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War. At the ceremony, General Jan Christiaan Smuts, soon to be president of South Africa, was the only Allied leader to protest formally the Treaty of Versailles, saying it would do grave injury to the industrial revival of Europe.

At Smuts’ urging, Keynes began work on The Economic Consequences of the Peace. It was published in December 1919 and was widely read. In the book, Keynes made a grim prophecy that would have particular relevance to the next generation of Europeans: “If we aim at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare say, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the later German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilisation and the progress of our generation.”

Germany soon fell hopelessly behind in its reparations payments, and in 1923 France and Belgium occupied the industrial Ruhr region as a means of forcing payment. In protest, workers and employers closed down the factories in the region. Catastrophic inflation ensued, and Germany’s fragile economy began quickly to collapse. By the time the crash came in November 1923, a lifetime of savings could not buy a loaf of bread. That month, the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler launched an abortive coup against Germany’s government. The Nazis were crushed and Hitler was imprisoned, but many resentful Germans sympathized with the Nazis and their hatred of the Treaty of Versailles.

A decade later, Hitler would exploit this continuing bitterness among Germans to seize control of the German state. In the 1930s, the Treaty of Versailles was significantly revised and altered in Germany’s favor, but this belated amendment could not stop the rise of German militarism and the subsequent outbreak of World War II.

In the late 1930s, John Maynard Keynes gained a reputation as the world’s foremost economist by advocating large-scale government economic planning to keep unemployment low and markets healthy. Today, all major capitalist nations adhere to the key principles of Keynesian economics. He died in 1946.

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American pilots engage in first dogfight over the western front

Year
1918
Month Day
April 14

Six days after being assigned for the first time to the western front, two American pilots from the U.S. First Aero Squadron engage in America’s first aerial dogfight with enemy aircraft. In a battle fought almost directly over the Allied Squadron Aerodome at Toul, France, U.S. fliers Douglas Campbell and Alan Winslow succeeded in shooting down two German two-seaters. By the end of May, Campbell had shot down five enemy aircraft, making him the first American to qualify as a “flying ace” in World War I.

The First Aero Squadron, organized in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I, undertook its first combat mission on March 19, 1917, in support of the 7,000 U.S. troops that invaded Mexico to capture Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Despite numerous mechanical and navigational problems, the American fliers flew hundreds of scouting missions for U.S. Brigadier General John J. Pershing and gained important experience that would later be used over the battlefields of Europe in World War I.

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Zimmermann Telegram presented to U.S. ambassador


Year
1917
Month Day
February 24

During World War I, British authorities give Walter H. Page, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, a copy of the “Zimmermann Telegram,” a coded message from Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign secretary, to Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Mexico. In the telegram, intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence in late January, Zimmermann stated that in the event of war with the United States, Mexico should be asked to enter the conflict as a German ally. In return, Germany promised to restore to Mexico the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

After receiving the telegram, Page promptly sent a copy to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who in early March allowed the U.S. State Department to publish the note. The press initially treated the telegram as a hoax, but Arthur Zimmermann himself confirmed its authenticity. The Zimmermann Telegram helped turn U.S. public opinion, already severely strained by repeated German attacks on U.S. ships, firmly against Germany. On April 2, President Wilson, who had initially sought a peaceful resolution to end World War I, urged the immediate U.S. entrance into the war. Four days later, Congress formally declared war against Germany.

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Second Battle of the Somme ends

Year
1918
Month Day
April 04

During World War I, the Second Battle of the Somme, the first major German offensive in more than a year, ends on the western front.

On March 21, 1918, a major offensive against Allied positions in the Somme River region of France began with five hours of bombardment from more than 9,000 pieces of German artillery. The poorly prepared British Fifth Army was rapidly overwhelmed and forced into retreat. For a week, the Germans pushed toward Paris, shelling the city from a distance of 80 miles with their “Big Bertha” cannons. However, the poorly supplied German troops soon became exhausted, and the Allies halted the German advance as French artillery knocked out the German guns besieging Paris. On April 2, U.S. General John J. Pershing sent American troops down into the trenches to help defend Paris and repulse the German offensive. It was the first major deployment of U.S. troops in World War I. Several thousand American troops fought alongside the British and French in the Second Battle of Somme.

By the time the Somme offensive ended on April 4, the Germans had advanced almost 40 miles, inflicted some 200,000 casualties, and captured 70,000 prisoners and more than 1,000 Allied guns. However, the Germans suffered nearly as many casualties as their enemies and lacked the fresh reserves and supply boost the Allies enjoyed following the American entrance into the fighting.

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Mussolini founds the Fascist party


Year
1919
Month Day
March 23

Benito Mussolini, an Italian World War I veteran and publisher of Socialist newspapers, breaks with the Italian Socialists and establishes the nationalist Fasci di Combattimento, named after the Italian peasant revolutionaries, or “Fighting Bands,” from the 19th century. Commonly known as the Fascist Party, Mussolini’s new right-wing organization advocated Italian nationalism, had black shirts for uniforms, and launched a program of terrorism and intimidation against its leftist opponents.

In October 1922, Mussolini led the Fascists on a march on Rome, and King Emmanuel III, who had little faith in Italy’s parliamentary government, asked Mussolini to form a new government. Initially, Mussolini, who was appointed prime minister at the head of a three-member Fascist cabinet, cooperated with the Italian parliament, but aided by his brutal police organization he soon became the effective dictator of Italy. In 1924, a Socialist backlash was suppressed, and in January 1925 a Fascist state was officially proclaimed, with Mussolini as Il Duce, or “The Leader.”

Mussolini appealed to Italy’s former Western allies for new treaties, but his brutal 1935 invasion of Ethiopia ended all hope of alliance with the Western democracies. In 1936, Mussolini joined Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in his support of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, prompting the signing of a treaty of cooperation in foreign policy between Italy and Nazi Germany in 1937. Although Adolf Hitler’s Nazi revolution was modeled after the rise of Mussolini and the Italian Fascist Party, Fascist Italy and Il Duce proved overwhelmingly the weaker partner in the Berlin-Rome Axis during World War II.

In July 1943, the failure of the Italian war effort and the imminent invasion of the Italian mainland by the Allies led to a rebellion within the Fascist Party. Two days after the fall of Palermo on July 24, the Fascist Grand Council rejected the policy dictated by Hitler through Mussolini, and on July 25 Il Duce was arrested. Fascist Marshal Pietro Badoglio took over the reins of the Italian government, and in September Italy surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Eight days later, German commandos freed Mussolini from his prison in the Abruzzi Mountains, and he was later made the puppet leader of German-controlled northern Italy. With the collapse of Nazi Germany in April 1945, Mussolini was captured by Italian partisans and on April 29 was executed by firing squad with his mistress, Clara Petacci, after a brief court-martial. Their bodies, brought to Milan, were hanged by the feet in a public square for all the world to see.

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Germans introduce poison gas

Year
1915
Month Day
April 22

On April 22, 1915, German forces shock Allied soldiers along the western front by firing more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas against two French colonial divisions at Ypres, Belgium. This was the first major gas attack by the Germans, and it devastated the Allied line.

Toxic smoke has been used occasionally in warfare since ancient times, and in 1912 the French used small amounts of tear gas in police operations. At the outbreak of World War I, the Germans began actively to develop chemical weapons. In October 1914, the Germans placed some small tear-gas canisters in shells that were fired at Neuve Chapelle, France, but Allied troops were not exposed. In January 1915, the Germans fired shells loaded with xylyl bromide, a more lethal gas, at Russian troops at Bolimov on the eastern front. Because of the wintry cold, most of the gas froze, but the Russians nonetheless reported more than 1,000 killed as a result of the new weapon.

READ MORE: Tech Developments of World War I 

On April 22, 1915, the Germans launched their first and only offensive of the year. Known as the Second Battle of Ypres, the offensive began with the usual artillery bombardment of the enemy’s line. When the shelling died down, the Allied defenders waited for the first wave of German attack troops but instead were thrown into panic when chlorine gas wafted across no-man’s land and down into their trenches. The Germans targeted four miles of the front with the wind-blown poison gas and decimated two divisions of French and Algerian colonial troops. The Allied line was breached, but the Germans, perhaps as shocked as the Allies by the devastating effects of the poison gas, failed to take full advantage, and the Allies held most of their positions.

A second gas attack, against a Canadian division, on April 24, pushed the Allies further back, and by May they had retreated to the town of Ypres. The Second Battle of Ypres ended on May 25, with insignificant gains for the Germans. The introduction of poison gas, however, would have great significance in World War I.

Immediately after the German gas attack at Ypres, France and Britain began developing their own chemical weapons and gas masks. With the Germans taking the lead, an extensive number of projectiles filled with deadly substances polluted the trenches of World War I. Mustard gas, introduced by the Germans in 1917, blistered the skin, eyes, and lungs, and killed thousands. Military strategists defended the use of poison gas by saying it reduced the enemy’s ability to respond and thus saved lives in offensives. In reality, defenses against poison gas usually kept pace with offensive developments, and both sides employed sophisticated gas masks and protective clothing that essentially negated the strategic importance of chemical weapons.

The United States, which entered World War I in 1917, also developed and used chemical weapons. Future president Harry S. Truman was the captain of a U.S. field artillery unit that fired poison gas against the Germans in 1918. In all, more than 100,000 tons of chemical weapons agents were used in World War I, some 500,000 troops were injured, and almost 30,000 died, including 2,000 Americans.

In the years following World War I, Britain, France, and Spain used chemical weapons in various colonial struggles, despite mounting international criticism of chemical warfare. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons in war but did not outlaw their development or stockpiling. Most major powers built up substantial chemical weapons reserves. In the 1930s, Italy employed chemical weapons against Ethiopia, and Japan used them against China. In World War II, chemical warfare did not occur, primarily because all the major belligerents possessed both chemical weapons and the defenses–such as gas masks, protective clothing, and detectors–that rendered them ineffectual. In addition, in a war characterized by lightning-fast military movement, strategists opposed the use of anything that would delay operations. Germany, however, did use poison gas to murder millions in its extermination camps.

Since World War II, chemical weapons have only been used in a handful of conflicts–the Yemeni conflict of 1966-67, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88–and always against forces that lacked gas masks or other simple defenses. In 1990, the United States and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to cut their chemical weapons arsenals by 80 percent in an effort to discourage smaller nations from stockpiling the weapons. In 1993, an international treaty was signed banning the production, stockpiling (after 2007), and use of chemical weapons. It took effect in 1997.

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