Nations always go to war expecting to fight the war of the previous generation. The Second Sino-Japanese War was no exception. When hostilities broke out between China and Japan in 1937, the main frame of reference was the carnage on the Western Front two decades earlier. What this meant was, perhaps more than anything else, one particular fear – the fear of gas.
In the trenches of Europe between 1914 and 1918 gas had come to be seen as the ultimate horror – worse even than the flamethrower, another product of the Great War – and as a result defense against chemical attack had become a major part of preparations as the world braced itself a new war in the 1930s.
Gas was indeed used again to a limited extent, especially in the early part of the Sino-Japanese War. But it is testimony to the almost universal reprehension that attached to this particular weapon that no combatant wanted to be caught in the act of deploying it. The cost in terms of lost international prestige was simply too big.
Consequently, gas became curiously absent from the battlefields of Europe and Asia during World War II, shunned by the powers even in their most desperate moments. But preparation remained to the last. Anyone familiar with photos from the war will know that the soldiers of the Wehrmacht carried their gas mask canister everywhere they went during six long years of war, from North Africa to Russia, while hardly ever facing the need to open it.
Japan, too, prepared for gas attack. Below is a sample of posters preparing the civilian population against attack, reproduced with a special thanks to visualnews.com for first having brought them to my attention.