A New Era of Biological Warfare

29 August 2013 by Annelie Wendeberg, posted in Biological Warfare

Poison gas, tanks, drones, and mobile X-Ray machines - the Great War motivated a technological revolution. With the germ theory being widely accepted and Koch’s and Pasteur’s groundbreaking work on isolation and characterization of deadly germs, the next step came only naturally: A systematic bacterial weapon.

Gas Mask for Man and Horse, World War I (Source: Veterinary Corps and Remount Service)


Anton Dilger (Source: Robert Koenig: The Fourth Horseman. PublicAffairs 2006. ISBN 1586483722)

Anton Dilger grew up on the Greenfield farm in Virginia as a son of German immigrants. At the age of seven, his parents sent him to Germany to prepare for a university education. “Continue to be a good little man,” his mother wrote him. A few years later, he enrolled at the University Heidelberg to study medicine.

As the Great War broke out, Dilger had received training in medicine, microbiology, and tissue culture research; he worked as an assistant at the surgical clinic in Heidelberg and as a field surgeon during the Balkan War. Watching the neutral America providing Allied forces with ammunitions to kill German soldiers, and with draft horses to pull big guns, he chose sabotage as his course of counteraction.

Early October 1915, Anton Dilger, now 31, arrived in New York. He noticed the change in climate: Americans did not perceive him as the well-educated German anymore. Now he was one of the “huns” who - according the newspapers - cut off children’s heads, raped Russian women, and rendered soldiers for oil.

Another reason for him to be careful was the small case he brought from Berlin. His final destination: Washington DC.

A treatise upon the true seat of the glanders in horses, together with the method of cure. (Source: Étienne-Guillaume La Fosse, London: T. Osborne, 1751).

As Anton Dilger opened the small case, he had already moved into a house in the new Chevy Chase neighborhood, six miles from the White House. Four phials were carefully wrapped inside the velvet padding - one labeled “B” for Bos (Latin for cattle) and one labeled “E” for Equus (Latin for horse). His basement would serve as workspace for himself and his brother Carl, a professional beer brewer. All was set up to grow large amounts of Bacillus anthracis (causing anthrax) and Burkholderia mallei (then called Bacillus mallei, causing glanders). Dilger aimed his bacterial weapons at the Allied forces' means of transportation:

Head of a man infected with glanders (wax) (Source: French School, (19th century) / Musee de l'Ecole Nationale Veterinaire d'Alfort, France / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library)

During the course of the Great War, the British bought nearly three quarters of a million horses from North America. Ships packed with 500 to 1000 draft animals each, left American harbors every one to two days. Without horses and mules, transporting injured soldiers, provisions, medical equipment, guns, and ammunition would be painfully slow, if not impossible.

Dilger’s footmen and allies used liquid bacterial cultures of B. mallei to infect equines just before they were shipped to European ports. This was no easy task. Glanders can be transmitted to humans and a number of men with boils all over their faces would not only be suspicious, it would also reduce the flow of volunteers. The deadly bacteria had to be packed so that an untrained man could handle them safely, pour them into fodder, or jab a horse without infecting himself. Dilger and his men even developed a box of sugar cubes; entirely harmless to the onlooker, but deadly to any horse that would bite down on the tiny ampoule hidden inside the sweet thing, filled with anthrax or glanders germs.

With disease having claimed more lives than were lost in combat, it is hard to tell what impact Dilger’s work had on the number of equine fatalities. However, after the Great War had ended, the disarmament regulations didn’t mention biological weapons, indicating that Dilger’s efforts either showed insignificant results, or the governments had no knowledge of them.


Source: The Fourth Horseman by Robert Koenig

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