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Their Great War
Whoever you are, wherever you are, someone like you was affected by the First World War
General Amos Alfred Fries
A Career Officer and a New Weapon of War
Tue 04 March 14
Amos A. Fries was born in Wisconsin in 1873, but spent his childhood on his parent’s farm in Missouri and moved with them to Eugene, Oregon just before finishing high school. As a boy, he expressed an interest in some day going to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and joining the Army. In 1894 Fries got his chance, securing a commission to West Point from Congressmen Binger Herman. He graduated four years later and was commissioned an officer in the Corps of Engineers. Fries and his classmates all matriculated from West Point a few weeks early because the Army wanted them to fight in the Spanish American War, which had been declared that April. He spent the war across the Pacific Ocean building roads, bridges, and other things to help fight the insurgency in the Philippines, and at one point served under then-Captain John J. Pershing.
After Fries traveled back to the United States, he remained in the Corps of Engineers building infrastructure for the National Park Service and harbor projects along the west coast. He was part of the team of military engineers who built Los Angeles Harbor and, when the United States joined World War I in 1917, Fries was building roads in Yellowstone National Forest. He was sent to France to serve as Director of Roads for the American Expeditionary Force, when his career took an unexpected turn.
“I had been in France five days,” Fries recalled, “when I was informed—I think on the night of the 17th or 18th of August—that I probably would be named chief of the gas service.” General Pershing, now in command of the U.S. Army in Europe, remembered Fries from the Philippines and ordered him to lead the newly-organized Chemical Warfare Service. Poison gas was a pervasive feature of the fighting in WWI—the first war in modern history to involve the use of chemical weapons so extensively. The fact that Fries was saddled with responsibility for coordinating U.S. chemical warfare operations, with no background in chemistry or gas warfare, speaks to the shortage of experienced military personnel the United States was suffering as a relative latecomer to the war. Under the circumstances, however, Fries took up his new responsibilities with determination and diligence. He organized gas warfare research and training activities at a large test range outside Chaumont—called Hanlon Field, consistently worked to improve and expand the role of the Chemical Warfare Service, and became a tireless gas enthusiast. He served as gas chief for the war’s duration, receiving the French Legion of Honor, the British Companion of St. Michael and St. George, and the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal.
Once WWI ended Fries was offered an assignment with the Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, Louisiana, but he chose instead to continue with the Chemical Warfare Service. He took over administration of the chemical warfare facility at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, and remained the leading figure of the Army’s chemical warfare program until his retirement in 1929.
“Brigadier General Amos A. Fries,” Chemical Warfare 3:2 (Feb 26, 1920), 3–8.