Sawdust bread, trenches with mud reaching up to your ankles, artillery pounding each other nearly 24/7, troops crossing no-man’s land only to be cut down by heavy machine gun fire...

Trench warfare truly was hell. Both sides in this conflict haven’t broken any of the rules of war yet, that is, until now. One side has developed terrible biological weapons. They deliver it through multiple methods: pounding the enemy lines with disease filled artillery shells, dropping said shells from bomber aircraft and dipping the infantrymen’s bullets into a special solution that contains the diseases.

It spreads through the air, it spreads through human contact and simply touching a surface infected with the diseases will guarantee your own infection.

Symptoms progress as follows:

  • Week 1: Mild stomach troubles and/or slightly irritated throat.
  • Week 2: Stomach troubles intensify, coughing fits.
  • Week 3: An infected individual has a slightly yellowish complexion, stomach troubles are really bad, coughing out blood and some sort of liquid
  • Week 4: Infected individuals scream out in terrible pain as the virus has eaten through the lining of their stomachs, unleashing acidic digestive fluids into the body.
  • Week 4 1/2: At this stage, infected individuals often ask to be euthanized, which we sorrowfully obliged.
  • Week 5: Those who survived this long often drown due to fluid suffocating their lungs.
  • Week 6: Some people have a really strong immune system and though they may have the symptoms of weeks 1-3, they survive with few consequences.

The side who invented the disease has the cure. They MIGHT share it but only if the other side surrenders unconditionally.

As is expected of a prideful nation, the other side didn’t give up that easily.

They will continue to engage in battle even with the disease on the loose and since the other side broke the rules of war, they plan to break it as well. By shelling the enemy lines with nerve gas they might break the gridlock of trench warfare.

What measures can be taken with WW I era medical and military technology to reduce the risk of infection to the soldiers manning the trenches?

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    $\begingroup$ Hague convention forbid uses of projectil filled with gases. Sure, this convention wasn't always followed, but it was more or less accepted because both sides use gases. Such an asymetrical use of poison would proably have huge diplomatic consequences $\endgroup$
    – Kepotx
    May 6, 2020 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ You speak of breaking the rules of war, the Geneva convention wasn't until 27. july 1929, so 10 years after the end of WW1. (it came about, because of how bad WW1 was, i believe) $\endgroup$ May 6, 2020 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ Main problem you face is: how, in 1914-1918, you gonna separate, create, modify, multiply, and then sucesfully load into containers acid resistant virus that will also be resistant to heat of explosion that properel it movement? It wasn't until late 1920's when idea of virus came to life. $\endgroup$ May 6, 2020 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ Looking at the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19, seems like a biological agent will spread to both sides quickly, widely infecting both military and civilian populations. That's the problem with biological agents - they reproduce and spread. Either the cure will be obtained by both sides (espionage or humanitarianism, take your pick), or the losing side will have the perfect pretext to re-fight the war a generation later. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    May 6, 2020 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ However large WWI was, there were still hundreds of millions of people not involved in it. If the disease is released at large, all those people are likely doomed, regardless of how the war goes. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 6, 2020 at 16:40

4 Answers 4


Obtain the cure.

It is not easier to do something if you know it can be done. But it is a lot easier to keep trying, try harder and pour resources into the endeavor if you know it can be done.

There are going to be cases of this dread disease on both sides. Both sides have the germ now. If I am attacked with germs, then I have people dying of the disease I have plenty of fomites / spores / whatever to load into shells and send back.

The inventors are going to have to ramp up their cure efforts to keep their soldiers fighting and make it available along their front. They will want the cure as close as possible to the front lines to keep well people well. That offers the possibility to capture the cure from its inventors. Or capture soldiers and ask them if they were treated with the cure; a soldier will not know molecules but can describe a pill, a shot, a soothing unguent etc. Or best: make it known that your side will pay handsomely for samples of the cure and count on a deserter to bring you some.

There was enough science in the 1910 to work on a project like that. A treatment that could cure infection would be one of three things: chemotherapy like Salvarsan as was being used against syphilis, or immune based therapies which would be either a vaccine or plasma from immune animals or individuals.

Medical science is not that exciting for a war fiction. More exciting is more war. Once the side without the disease captures and can make samples, that side can take germ warfare up a notch using techniques developed in later wars. Attacking crowded cities and civilian targets is something the inventors of this disease are not doing, according the the OP. But it would be a more effective use of germ warfare than painting it on bullets, and a surprise. By the time the disease makers understood what had happened they would have a scramble on their hands trying to contain the damage.

The biplane crop duster is pretty cool, but ideally this would be done covertly, and the epidemic in their cities blamed on the authorities of that country.

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    $\begingroup$ My fiction did need a bit of espionage... $\endgroup$ May 7, 2020 at 11:43

In the reality of WWI, once one side "broke the rules" the other side followed suit in a terrible tit for tat contest. German gas attacks provided the Allies the excuse to carry out retaliatory gas attacks. British flame throwers were rapidly copied by the Germans. So once word got out that one side or the other was using germ warfare, all the arts and sciences of the other side would be thrown into producing a cure for the existing disease, and new diseases to fling against the other side.

Of course, while Biological warfare is perfectly feasible, it is also uncontrollable, which explains why it hasn't been used in any formal sense since early modern times, and research has essentially stopped in the West in the 1970's. The current pandemic crisis of 2020 is a perfect illustration, it started in China (through whatever means) and rapidly spread through the country, then jumped over borders and rapidly spread throughout the world. Selectivity of the targeting is entirely non existent, and it attacked friend and foe without any sort of distinction. This is so uncontrollable and unpredictable in its effects that no sane or sensible polity would even consider this (consider the political and economic fallout against China that is happening regardless of how the virus jumped to human hosts. It could hardly be worse for them than if it was a deliberate release and attack).

So while biological warfare was known and understood in WWI, there was enough understanding about how it worked that no one would unleash it unless they were on the brink of total societal collapse or annihilation and wanted to use a "Sampson option" and bring everyone down with them. Any time before that, the side using bio weapons would risk having their society crippled or destroyed by the disease spreading out of control back into their own armies and population.

  • $\begingroup$ And it wasn't that one side started developing after the other had started it. They were all ready, chemical weapons at least were aptly stocked on both sides just waiting for the other side to use it first so they're the bad guys. So the "receiving side" from OP would very likely already be well into their research of their own disease/cure combo. And then you could just trade cure for cure, as was done with POWs sometimes.(Don't forget that in WWI Germany-Britain still had regular mail correspondence and some POW exchanges, so this isnt that far fetched) $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Jan 27, 2021 at 15:54

For the men in the trenches, there is likely little that can be done once they are exposed. Trenches were incredibly unsanitary places, despite the best efforts of the troops living there. With human waste due to poor sanitation, human and animal remains, cramped living conditions and difficulties maintaining personal hygiene, once the pathogen breaks out in a trench line it would undoubtedly spread very quickly as they did in real life

Once commanders become aware of this, it is likely that they would isolate battalions from each other to prevent the mixing of any troops between them. If a section of trench became infected, they would probably just be quarantined from any other units along the line and allow the illness to burn itself out. Considering how densely packed troops were, allowing any sick men back could decimate entire regiments.

On the bright side, once a section of the front has been infected, any attempt to attack by the enemy would be suicidal- any action as small as a trench raid could possibly bring the infection back to their side of no mans land. Trench raids by the few infected troops still capable of fighting could be done out of spite, with the aim of spreading the disease to them. (Lobbing cans of their human waste in to the trenches could easily take the place of grenades and mortars)

This would probably cause the front to grind to a halt- the side with biological weapons might choose to evacuate most of their troops from the foremost trenches, in case any artillery shells containing the disease fell short.

Work behind the line would continue on treatments for a cure, but at the front, ground engagements would probably cease as the disease burns through the trenches.


It MIGHT work, but...

It is possible that this would result in "victory," but I think the cost would be too high. I'll also freely admit this overlaps some of the other answers.

  • First, I question if the German high command would be willing to use a weapon like this specifically because it would be fiendishly hard to infect front-line troops, but almost impossible to stop it from spreading among civilians. In WW1, the generals still labored under the ideals of "clean" warfare, and only gradually lost morals and ethics in the face of grinding casualties.
  • IF the Germans had a treatment, it would have to be common and easy, and thus hard to keep secret. If it wasn't easy, they would have to stop the war as their own civilian populus started to die.
  • It would take a long time before the allied powers would give in to such a genocidal and terroristic strategy, giving it a chance to spread world-wide. Careful protocols with their troops would mean the spread of this could be contained. Armies were initially shocked by chemical weapons, but very quickly defenses and strategies were adopted to counter them.
  • Troops infected and knowing they would die would be willing to engage in the most suicidal attacks imaginable to get into the enemy trenches where a cure awaited. When they got there, there would be no mercy or quarter for someone willing to kill Mom, Dad, the kids, any your sweetheart back home indiscriminately.
  • This would massively widen the war, as every other nation on the planet was attacked by the disease.
  • Within a few months, the civilian populations of all of Europe rapidly followed by every nation in the world would have a massive death of civilians. An enemy would not consider itself bound by any moral conventions towards Germany after this, and WW2 would occur as soon as the rest of the world had a cure - and would be a genocidal war of extermination against Germany. You can't kill half the population of the world and expect to ever be forgiven, or even tolerated. We would jump right to the ethics of the end of WW2, where there would be indiscriminate killing of civilians.

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