In 1915, when German forces executed the first successful gas attack of World War I, the world watched in horror as the boundaries of warfare were forever changed. Cries of barbarianism rang throughout Europe, yet Allied nations immediately jumped into the fray, kickstarting an arms race that would redefine a war already steeped in unimaginable horror.
Largely forgotten in the confines of history, the development of the U.S. Chemical Warfare left an indelible imprint on World War I. In 1917, the War Department harnessed the scientific prowess of the civilian Bureau of Mines to research gas warfare, while assembling military units devoted solely to chemical weaponry, outfitting regiments with hastily designed protective gear and recruiting scientists and engineers from around the country into the fight, including an infamous German spy and saboteur.
As the threat of new gases and more destructive chemicals grew stronger, the War Department created the Chemical Warfare Service, transforming the chemists’ secret work in the laboratories into an explosive fusion of steel, science, and gas on the battlefield. Drawing from years of research, Theo Emery brilliantly shows how World War I quickly spiraled into a chemists’ war, one led by the companies of young American engineers-turned-soldiers who would soon become known as the Hellfire Boys. As gas attacks began to mark the heaviest and most devastating battles, these brave and brilliant men were on the front lines, racing against the clock—and the Germans—to develop and unleash the latest weapons of mass destruction.
“Though squarely a crackling history, “Hellfire Boys” is also a relevant primer on the past 100 years and on a kind of total warmaking that continues to haunt us — sometimes from another hemisphere, sometimes in our own back yard…. Emery’s reporting is vast and meticulous, and his storytelling is focused and clean.”
“Through dogged reporting and a clear-eyed journey back through a world of secrets that are literally toxic, Theo Emery has dispassionately constructed an astonishing narrative of the scientists and soldiers who were tasked with winning a horrible war a century ago. Refusing to allow our modern revulsion of chemical weapons (however well-founded) to shape his extraordinary narrative, Emery–like all good historians–is determined to let the era of his subject speak for itself.”
―Hampton Sides, New York Times bestselling author of In the Kingdom of Ice, Ghost Soldiers, Hellhound on His Trail, and Blood and Thunder
“A fascinating and deeply researched account of how America reinvented its military–and itself–in its first modern global war. Theo Emery combines science, history, and character-driven drama to illuminate some of the darkest aspects of our national past.”
―Beverly Gage, author of The Day Wall Street Exploded and Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University
“Even military buffs will learn from this intensely researched, often unnerving account…. Readers will share Emery’s lack of nostalgia for this half-forgotten weapon, but they will admire this satisfying combination of technical background, battlefield fireworks, biographies of colorful major figures, and personal anecdotes from individual soldiers.”
“Journalist Emery offers a useful and absorbing reminder that, a century earlier, it was a different weapon of mass destruction that terrified both soldiers and civilians… This is a timely and often unsettling examination of a previously well-hidden government program.”