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On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Fritz Haber, the talented chemist, offered his services to the German Army. He began experimenting with chlorine gas to be used in Trench Warfare. His wife, Clara Haber disagreed that he should use his talents in this way. She later committed suicide in protest against his work.
The German Army first used chlorine gas cylinders in April 1915 against the French Army at Ypres. They also noticed its distinctive smell which was like a mixture of pineapple and pepper. At first the French officers assumed that the German infantry were advancing behind a smoke screen and orders were given to prepare for an armed attack. When the gas arrived at the Allied front-trenches soldiers began to complain about pains in the chests and a burning sensation in their throats.
Most soldiers now realised they were being gassed and many ran as fast as they could away from the scene. An hour after the attack had started there was a four-mile gap in the Allied line. As the German soldiers were concerned about what the chlorine gas would do to them, they hesitated about moving forward in large numbers. This delayed attack enabled Canadian and British troops to retake the position before the Germans burst through the gap that the chlorine gas had created.
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Chlorine gas destroyed the respiratory organs of its victims and this led to a slow death by asphyxiation. One nurse described the death of one soldier who had been in the trenches during a chlorine gas attack. “He was sitting on the bed, fighting for breath, his lips plum coloured. He was a magnificent young Canadian past all hope in the asphyxia of chlorine. I shall never forget the look in his eyes as he turned to me and gasped: I can’t die! Is it possible that nothing can be done for me?” It was a horrible death, but as hard as they tried, doctors were unable to find a way of successfully treating chlorine gas poisoning.
John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force at Ypres later recalled: "The effect of the gas was so overwhelming that the whole of the positions occupied by the French divisions were rendered incapable of resistance. It was impossible at first to realise what had actually happened. Fumes and smoke were thrown into a stupor and after an hour the whole position had to be abandoned, together with 50 guns."
It was important to have the right weather conditions before a gas attack could be made. When the British Army launched a gas attack on 25th September in 1915, the wind blew it back into the faces of the advancing troops. This problem was solved in 1916 when gas shells were produced for use with heavy artillery. This increased the army's range of attack and helped to protect their own troops when weather conditions were not completely ideal.
After the first German chlorine gas attacks, Allied troops were supplied with masks of cotton pads that had been soaked in urine. It was found that the ammonia in the pad neutralized the chlorine. These pads were held over the face until the soldiers could escape from the poisonous fumes. Other soldiers preferred to use handkerchiefs, a sock, a flannel body-belt, dampened with a solution of bicarbonate of soda, and tied across the mouth and nose until the gas passed over. Soldiers found it difficult to fight like this and attempts were made to develop a better means of protecting men against gas attacks. By July 1915 soldiers were given efficient gas masks and anti-asphyxiation respirators.
One disadvantage for the side that launched chlorine gas attacks was that it made the victim cough and therefore limited his intake of the poison. Both sides found that phosgene was more effective than chlorine. Only a small amount was needed to make it impossible for the soldier to keep fighting. It also killed its victim within 48 hours of the attack. Advancing armies also used a mixture of chlorine and phosgene called 'white star'.
We knew there was something was wrong. We started to march towards Ypres but we couldn't get past on the road with refugees coming down the road. We went along the railway line to Ypres and there were people, civilians and soldiers, lying along the roadside in a terrible state. We heard them say it was gas. We didn't know what the Hell gas was. When we got to Ypres we found a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only twenty so it was quite traumatic and I've never forgotten nor ever will forget it.
The effect of the gas was so overwhelming that the whole of the positions occupied by the French divisions were rendered incapable of resistance. Fumes and smoke were thrown into a stupor and after an hour the whole position had to be abandoned, together with 50 guns.
The Germans set fire to a chemical product of sulphur chloride which they had placed in front of their own trenches, causing a thick yellow cloud to be blown towards the trenches of the French and Belgians.
The cloud of smoke advanced like a yellow low wall, overcoming all those who breathed in poisonous fumes. The French were unable to see what they were doing or what was happening. The Germans then charged, driving the bewildered French back past their own trenches. Those who were enveloped by the fumes were not able to see each other half a yard apart.
I have seen some of the wounded who were overcome by the sulphur fumes, and they were progressing favourably. The effect of the sulphur appears to be only temporary. The after-effects seem to be a bad swelling of the eyes, but the sight is not damaged.
The French soldiers were naturally taken by surprise. Some got away in time, but many, alas! not understanding the new danger, were not so fortunate, and were overcome by the fumes and died poisoned. Among those who escaped nearly all cough and spit blood, the chlorine-attacking the mucous membrane. The dead were turned black at once.
About 15 minutes after letting the gas escape the Germans got out of their trenches. Some of them were sent on in advance, with masks over their heads, to ascertain if the air had become breathable. Having discovered that they could advance, they arrived in large numbers in the area on which the gas had spread itself some minutes before, and took possession of the arms of the dead men. They made no prisoners. Whenever they saw a soldier whom the fumes had not quite killed they snatched away his rifle and advised him to lie down "to die better".
Dusk was falling when from the German trenches in front of the French line rose that strange green cloud of death. The light north-easterly breeze wafted it toward them, and in a moment death had them by the throat. One cannot blame them that they broke and fled. In the gathering dark of that awful night they fought with the terror, running blindly in the gas-cloud, and dropping with breasts heaving in agony and the slow poison of suffocation mantling their dark faces. Hundreds of them fell and died; others lay helpless, froth upon their agonized lips and their racked bodies powerfully sick, with tearing nausea at short intervals. They too would die later - a slow and lingering death of agony unspeakable. The whole air was tainted with the acrid smell of chlorine that caught at the back of men's throats and filled their mouths with its metallic taste.
It produces a flooding of the lungs - it is an equivalent death to drowning only on dry land. The effects are these - a splitting headache and terrific thirst (to drink water is instant death), a knife edge of pain in the lungs and the coughing up of a greenish froth off the stomach and the lungs, ending finally in insensibility and death. The colour of the skin from white turns a greenish black and yellow, the colour protrudes and the eyes assume a glassy stare. It is a fiendish death to die.
British Outrage Turns to Retaliation
The British reaction to the German gas attack was “outrage,” says Marion Dorsey, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire and author of A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to WWI Poison Gas. 𠇍id [the Germans] technically violate the Hague Convention,” which only specifically banned projectiles filled with poison gas? “No. But did they violate the spirit of the ban? Absolutely.”
Sir John French, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, decried the attack as evidence of German barbarity: 𠇊ll the scientific resources of Germany have apparently been brought into play to produce a gas of so virulent and poisonous a nature that any human being brought into contact with it is first paralyzed and then meets with a lingering and agonizing death.”
Before British troops received proper gas masks with rubber seals called box respirators, they were equipped with stop-gap solutions, like thick gauze pads that were strapped tightly over the mouth. A stretcher bearer at Ypres named William Collins described the pads as more suffocating than the gas:
“I found that in using it in the gas cloud that after a couple of minutes one couldn’t breathe and so it was pushed up over the forehead and we swallowed the gas. And could only put the thing back again for very short periods. It was not a practical proposition at all.”
It wasn’t long before British military officers like French changed their stance on chemical warfare. If the Germans were going to sink as low as to use gas, then why should the Allies take the high ground? Soon after French made his public statement about the barbarity of German gas attacks, he wrote a private cable to Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War: “We are taking every precaution we can think of but the most effective would be to turn their own weapon against them & stick at nothing.”
Kitchener wasted no time in developing Britain’s own chemical arsenal. He founded Porton Down, a research facility in the English countryside dedicated to defending Allied troops against gas attacks and stockpiling their own gas weaponry for use against the Germans.
“The British policy was to respond in kind to German gas attacks but never to escalate the war,” says Dorsey.
In late September 1915, the British tried to give the Germans a dose of their own medicine at the Battle of Loos, with little success. The Royal Engineers released chlorine gas an hour before the infantry was scheduled to attack, but the winds shifted, sending clouds of chlorine back toward the British line and forming a toxic fog in no man’s land.
“The gas hung in a thick pall over everything, and it was impossible to see more than ten yards,” wrote one British officer at Loos. “In vain I looked for my landmarks in the German line, to guide me to the right spot, but I could not see through the gas.”
How is chlorine poisoning treated?
There is no antidote for chlorine poisoning. If contact with liquid chlorine occurs, immediate decontamination of skin and eyes with copious amounts of water is important. This should be done cautiously for patients whose exposure has resulted in frostbite. Chemical burns which result from chlorine exposure should be treated as thermal burns.
Inhalational chlorine poisoning is treated with supportive care and can include administration of humidified oxygen, bronchodilators and airway management. Pulmonary edema may be delayed and, therefore, patients should be monitored for up to 24 hours following severe inhalation exposures. It is important to maintain ventilation and oxygenation, monitor arterial blood gases and/or pulse oximetry, and consider positive airway pressure as a treatment option. Most people recover following exposure to chlorine gas.
Choking agents and chlorine gas – History, pathophysiology, clinical effects and treatment
Choking agent exposure, among them chlorine gas, occurs in household or industrial accidents, chemical warfare and terrorist attacks.
Review of published animal and human data regarding the history, pathophysiology, clinical effects and management of chlorine exposure.
Highly soluble agents cause quick upper respiratory tract symptoms. Chlorine gas has a medium solubility, also causing delayed lower airway symptoms, mainly due to its oxidizing potential by releasing hypochlorous and hydrochloric acid, but also by interacting with Transient Receptor Potential channels.
Eyes may show conjunctival injection, abrasions and corrosions. Burns of the oronasal mucosa and trachea can occur. Dyspnea, bronchospasm and possible retrosternal pain occur frequently. Glottis edema or laryngospasm are acute life-threatening emergencies. Chlorine gas can cause toxic pneumonitis, lung edema and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
General management includes physical examination, pulse oximetry and arterial blood gases. Eyes should be irrigated, humidified oxygen and inhalative bronchodilators administered. An EKG, cardiac enzymes and complete-blood-count should be obtained if there is retrosternal pain. Routine chest x-ray is not recommended – except if pulmonary edema is suspected. Laryngoscopy should be performed if glottis edema is suspected. Sodium bicarbonate inhalation after chlorine gas inhalation is discussed controversially. Mechanical ventilation with continuous-positive-airway-pressure or intubation/tracheotomy with high positive-end-expiratory-pressure may be necessary. Glucocorticoids for prevention of pulmonary edema should be applied restrictively. Prophylactic antibiotics are not recommended. In severe ARDS, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) can be considered.
Treatment is mainly symptom oriented. New and promising therapies are in development.
How chlorine became a chemical weaponChlorine gas. Credit: W Oelen/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA
New claims that the Syrian government have dropped barrel bombs full of chlorine on a suburb of Aleppo are the latest in a series of allegations of chemical weapon use. Although the Syrian government denies using chemical weapons, a recent UN-led enquiry found it had used chlorine on at least two occasions.
Here's what you need to know about chlorine and its use as a chemical weapon.
The chemical element chlorine is too reactive to exist on its own in nature, but some of the compounds that contain it are essential to life. We use hydrochloric acid (HCl) in our stomachs to break down food and destroy bacteria, while sodium chloride (NaCl) – the common salt we add to food – is so important that it was once used as a currency.
Pure chlorine was first isolated from hydrochloric acid by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1774. Within a few years, its bleaching properties were discovered and in 1810 Humphry Davy announced that it was a chemical element. At room temperature, it is a greenish-yellow gas with a choking smell, which is denser than air.
Dry chlorine gas won't bleach, but in water it forms hypochlorite, responsible for the bleaching action, and also responsible for its disinfectant action. It was first used to disinfect tap water at the time of a typhoid outbreak in Maidstone in 1897. Since then the process has been generally adopted.Credit: Compound interest., CC BY-NC-ND
Forty million tons of chlorine is manufactured a year, among other things for use in making many pharmaceuticals. Thousands of organic chlorine compounds occur naturally including vancomycin, which for many years was the antibiotic of last resort and is made in nature by a bacterium in the soil.
But chlorine itself is very reactive with the human body and very toxic. It irritates the eyes and skin and, even at quite low levels, can causes permanent lung damage even if it does not kill you. Breathing high levels of chlorine causes pulmonary oedema – fluid buildup in the lungs.
Accidents with chlorine do happen. In Graniteville, South Carolina, on January 6 2005, a railroad tanker full of liquefied chlorine gas was punctured killing eight people that day, with another fatality three months later attributed to inhaling the gas. More than 5,000 people were evacuated from its immediate vicinity and some have health problems more than ten years later.
Fritz Haber (1868-1934) knew about the toxicity of chlorine when he chose it as his agent of warfare in 1915. He had already come up with the Haber-Bosch process, patented in 1910, for the fixation of nitrogen as ammonia, which won him the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry. This made the manufacture of artificial fertilisers possible and the survival of millions of people today depends on it.
But it also enabled the mass production of nitric acid, source of the explosives that Germany used in World War I. Haber was an intensely patriotic German Jew. He was head of the chemistry section in the Ministry of War, coordinating the production of ammonia needed to fight the war. He was also in charge of chemical warfare, choosing chlorine gas as the agent.
Haber supervised the installation of the first chlorine gas cylinders in the trenches on the Western front, near Ypres. He and the specialist troops waited for the wind to blow from the east towards the Allied trenches and launched the first gas attack on April 22 1915. As clouds of chlorine drifted towards the Allies, panic set in. It was no good diving into a trench, as the dense chlorine was heavier than air and poured in. Of the 15,000 or more casualties, 5,000 soldiers were killed.
Haber's story ended tragically in several ways. He returned home to a celebration of the success of the attack on May 1 but that night his wife Clara committed suicide after an argument – possibly over the morality of what he was doing. A few years later he developed a system for getting rid of insect pests, using hydrogen cyanide. It became known as the Zyklon system. A derivative pesticide, Zyklon B, was used to exterminate millions in Nazi concentration camps, where many of Haber's close relatives died.
Gas masks were developed to protect against chlorine attacks and other chemical warfare agents were developed. But chlorine remains the simplest chemical weapon and reappeared on the battlefield during the Iraq War and allegedly now in Syria. In World War II, both sides of the conflict knew that the other side had weaponised chlorine and refrained from using it. Today in Syria, it sadly appears this may not have been the case.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Rock salt (common salt, or sodium chloride) has been known for several thousand years. It is the main constituent of the salts dissolved in seawater, from which it was obtained in ancient Egypt by evaporation. In Roman times, soldiers were partially paid in salt (salarium, the root of the modern word salary). In 1648 the German chemist Johann Rudolf Glauber obtained a strong acid, which he called spirit of salt, by heating moist salt in a charcoal furnace and condensing the fumes in a receiver. Later he obtained the same product, now known to be hydrochloric acid, by heating salt with sulfuric acid.
In 1774 the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele treated powdered black oxide of manganese with hydrochloric acid and obtained a greenish-yellowish gas, which he failed to recognize as an element. The true nature of the gas as an element was recognized in 1810 by English chemist Humphry Davy, who later named it chlorine (from the Greek chloros, meaning “yellowish green”) and provided an explanation for its bleaching action.
Discovery and naming
Chlorine compounds have been important to humans for thousands of years. Ordinary table salt, for example, is sodium chloride (NaCl). Still, chlorine was not recognized as an element until 1774, when Scheele was studying the mineral pyrolusite. Pyrolusite consists primarily of manganese dioxide (MnO2). Scheele mixed pyrolusite with hydrochloric acid (HCl), then called spiritus salis. He found that a greenish-yellow gas with a suffocating odor "most oppressive to the lungs" was released. The gas was chlorine.
Scheele found that the new gas reacted with metals, dissolved slightly in water, and bleached flowers and leaves. He gave the gas the rather complex name of dephlogisticated marine acid.
Chlorine occurs commonly both in the Earth's crust and in seawater.
The true nature of Scheele's discovery was not completely understood for many years. Some chemists argued that his dephlogisticated marine acid was really a compound of a new element and oxygen. This confusion was finally cleared up in 1807. English chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) proved that Scheele's substance was a pure element. He suggested the name chlorine for the element, from the Greek word chloros,meaning "greenish-yellow." (See sidebar on Davy in the calcium entry.)
Fire and Gas in World War
Fighters in France and Flanders using the deadliest means of destruction known to modern science.
In the July 1915 issue, Popular Mechanics reported on a deadly new warfighting trend: poison gas. On newsstands only a few months after the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium, where the poison gas was used for the first time, the world was still grappling with the horrible new reality of the war on the Western Front.
The primitive warrior who used poisoned arrows when he did not intend to eat his victim could never have given the modern fighter any lessons in savagery. Poisoned arrows are not being used in the European war, but apparently only for the reason that they are out of date and do not destroy life on a sufficiently large scale to meet the requirements of a twentieth-century war.
To get satisfactory results the modern science of chemistry has been called into service. Poison gases are used, and if the wind is not right for this, liquid fire is thrown into the enemy's trenches. With the conditions favorable, a dense volume of poison gas that follows the ground in a cloud fifteen feet or more in depth is sent down on the wind to the enemy's position.
Whoever may have been responsible originally for the resort to poison gas, there is little doubt that both the Germans and the allies are now using it. The Germans used it in their recent attack on Hill No. 60 near Ypres, Belgium. In the Argonne forest in France, each side attacks with gas at every opportunity. According to press reports the gas used by the French does not kill or permanently injure its victims, but renders them unconscious for a period of one or two hours.
In a recent number of this magazine, the new French turpinite bomb was described from information coming from an apparently reliable source. In the light of civilized standards, the best that can be said for turpinite is that it kills instantly. The use of such bombs may explain the reported recent successes of the allies in Flanders. For several weeks London has stood in fear of an attack in which the city might be overwhelmed by gas bombs thrown from Zeppelins.
Nor is the use of gas and liquid fire the only lapse from the standards heretofore thought to form an integral part of modern civilization. An American manufacturer has developed a shell which, according to the advertisement, is one of the most deadly ever produced. The principal merit claimed for this shell is that when it explodes, the fragments become coated with a poison that makes the slightest scratch fatal&mdashthat places the victim practically beyond the aid of medical science, so that he dies in agony within a period of four hours.
Just what will be the outcome, or the effect on civilization, of such methods of fighting, it is impossible to estimate. Judged by the standards of modern conscience as well as by the prohibitions laid down in The Hague conventions, they appear to be a reversion to barbarism. In the Fourth Hague Convention, which relates to the laws and customs of war on land, belligerents are forbidden "to employ poison or poisoned weapons," or "to employ arms, projectiles, or materials calculated to cause unnecessary suffering."
For several weeks London has stood in fear of an attack in which the city might be overwhelmed by gas bombs thrown from Zeppelins.
The stand taken heretofore by civilized nations is that the killing or disabling of the enemy accomplishes every needful and legitimate purpose. The use of gases that torture is evidently part of a system of terrorism, an attempt to make warfare as frightful as possible with the idea of discouraging the enemy. Except in the case of noncombatants the attempt is proving futile, as the army thus attacked simply equips itself with gas and fights chemical with chemical.
As a defense against gas the soldiers are being equipped with respirators of various kinds, and it is possible that as a result of this development in the war an army of fighters will soon look like an army of men engaged in mine-rescue work. Each of the French soldiers in the Argonne now has a felt mask that fits over the nose and mouth, and in the crevices of this mask is a whitish powder which neutralizes the German gas, thought to be chlorine. Thus protected, the soldier is able to stand against the clouds of gas that come floating down from the German trenches.
To this mode of attack, the French are replying in their own way. Several years ago when the French authorities were having trouble in suppressing automobile bandits, the military laboratories were called on to provide a bomb that would render the victim powerless without permanently injuring him. This is said to be the bomb that the French are using in the Argonne. When one of these bombs explodes, it gives out a gas that attacks the mucous membranes of every one within twenty yards, causing the eyes to fill with water to the point of blindness and the throat to burn as if fire had been applied. In an hour the victim is helpless and virtually blind. In another hour or two he recovers.
While the French use explosive bombs for scattering the gas, the Germans are employing an apparently less efficient method, that of releasing the gas from containers in the trenches and letting it float down on the enemy.
The German gas, however, is far the more deadly. The composition of this gas is unknown except to the Germans, but the British experts who have seen its effects are inclined to believe it is chlorine. Whatever it may be, its effects are such that death is sure to follow if it is inhaled in sufficient quantities, while a quantity too small to kill quickly will subject the victim to excruciating pains and will injure him so seriously that there is usually little hope of recovery. To escape the effects of the gas, the Germans engaged in handling it are said to wear oxygen helmets. In charging the French trenches near Ypres after an attack with gas, the Germans themselves wore masks or respirators to protect themselves.
An attack with liquid fire can evidently be carried out only at close range. Each soldier engaged in this form of attack has strapped to his back a tank containing an inflammable liquid under high pressure. Connected by a swivel joint with the bottom of the tank is a pipe, equipped with a valve, which projects several feet to the front of the user. With the valve opened and the stream lighted the oil is thrown forward in burning globules to a distance variously estimated at from ten to thirty yards.
How effective this device may be under favorable conditions is evident from the fact that in some places the trenches are less than 30 yd. apart, while in the continual process of attack and counter attack, different parts of the same trench are sometimes held by opposing forces. The soldier engaged in hurling the liquid at the enemy is himself in considerable danger of being blinded or fatally burned, and to give such protection as is possible, he is provided with goggles and a fireproof mask that entirely cover the face and throat.
Chlorine gas: A weapon of WWI
Chemical weapons have dominated the headlines recently — two Russians were exposed to the Novichok nerve agent in the UK, sparking an international incident the airstrikes in Syria were spawned from reports of a chemical attack on civilians. In Douma, Syria, the specifics aren’t exactly known about the agents used, but most sources say it was some sort of combination of chlorine and an unknown nerve agent, though sarin has been used in Syria in the past — in April, 2017 and August, 2013. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been granted access and is conducting an investigation in Douma right now.
The use of chlorine in chemical warfare dates all the way back to World War One. Typically delivered by artillery shells, the heavy gas proved to be both particularly useful and devastating as it was heavier than air — in trench warfare, there would be no escape from the gas as it permeated low-lying areas. Moreover, enemy troops didn’t need to breathe a whole lot of it to take them out of the fight, unlike other forms of gas that had been tested. The soldiers would report the smell of pineapple and pepper as the yellow-green gas crept for them in their trenches, and then it would be too late.
It was first used by the Germans on April 22, 1915. It was the Second Battle of Ypres, and the surprise use of chlorine gas was extremely effective, wiping out two Algerian and French divisions. It was so effective, that the Germans hadn’t planned on what to do with that big of a hole in the enemy lines. The Allies quickly made do and kept the Germans at bay.
The other countries soon fell in suit — the British used it in September of that same year. The Australians did the same in June, 1916. By the end of the war over 90,000 troops had been killed by gas (not necessarily chlorine), and over one million were wounded.
There were several reasons why chemical warfare like chlorine gas became unpopular after WWI. The obvious answer is the public disgust with such a brutal weapon, spurring the Geneva Protocol that banned the use of chemical weapons. Eventually, countries would band together and wind up destroying the vast majority of chemical weapon stockpiles around the world. However, it also quickly became a simply less effective weapon — with good equipment and a prepared military, the use of chemical weapons was less desirable than other weapons. It was also not entirely stable, as chemical warfare does not distinguish between one side or another, once it is released it is subject to changes in the wind and other unpredictable factors.
This file image made from video broadcast on Syrian State Television on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, purports to show a chemical weapons expert taking samples at a chemical weapons plant at an unknown location in Syria. | AP Photo/Syrian State Television via AP video, File
Chlorine gas was seen again in Al Anbar province, Iraq, in 2004. After refining the method of delivery, the chlorine gas attacks began to inflict some significant casualties, though it was extremely effective in instilling fear in the area — chemical weapons tend to have that effect. Now we are looking at reports of chlorine gas being used in conjunction with some sort of nerve agent — likely sarin — in Douma, Syria.
Read Next: The OPCW and their upcoming investigation into the Syrian chemical attack
As the OPCW continues their investigation, they have a lot of factors to consider. There are many players in the area with many agendas, and digging to the truth is rarely easy in field conditions such as Douma.