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Chemical weapons were used by the United Kingdom in World War I, and while the use of chemical weapons was suggested by Churchill and others postwar in Mesopotamia and in World War II, it appears that they were not actually used, although some historians disagree. While the UK was a signatory of the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907) which outlawed the use of poison gas shells, the conventions omitted mention of deployment from cylinders, probably because that had not been considered.

The United Kingdom ratified the Geneva Protocol on 9 April 1930. The UK signed the Chemical Weapons Convention on 13 January 1993 and ratified it on 13 May 1996.

Use in World War I[edit | edit source]

During the First World War, in retaliation to the use of chlorine by Germany against British troops from April 1915 onwards, British forces deployed chlorine themselves for the first time during the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. By the end of the war, poison gas use had become widespread on both sides and by 1918 a quarter of artillery shells were filled with gas and Britain had produced around 25,400 tons of toxic chemicals.

Britain used a range of poison gases, originally chlorine and later phosgene, diphosgene and mustard gas. They also used relatively small amounts of the irritant gases chloromethyl chloroformate, chloropicrin, bromacetone and ethyl iodoacetate. Gases were frequently mixed, for example white star was the name given to a mixture of equal volumes of chlorine and phosgene, the chlorine helping to spread the denser but more toxic phosgene. Despite the technical developments, chemical weapons suffered from diminishing effectiveness as the war progressed because of the protective equipment and training which the use engendered on both sides.

Between the wars[edit | edit source]

After the war, the Royal Air Force dropped diphenyl chloroarsine, an irritant agent designed to cause uncontrollable coughing, on Bolshevik troops in 1919,[1] and Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war and air, suggested that the RAF use various chemical agents in Iraq in 1920 during a major revolt there; see Alleged British use of chemical weapons in Mesopotamia in 1920. Historians are divided as to whether or not gas was in fact used.[2]

Britain signed and ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1930 which banned the use of toxic gases and bacteria in war, although not the development and production of these weapons, and Britain carried out extensive testing of chemical weapons from the early 1930s onwards. In the Rawalpindi experiments, hundreds of Indian soldiers were exposed to Mustard gas in an attempt to determine the appropriate dosage to use on battlefields. Many of the subjects suffered severe burns from their exposure to the gas.[3]

Proposed use in World War II[edit | edit source]

Proposed use against German invasion[edit | edit source]

During World War II the British planned to use mustard gas and phosgene to help repel a German invasion in 1940-1941,[4][5] and had there been an invasion may have also deployed it against German cities.[6] General Brooke, in command of British anti-invasion preparations of World War II said that he "...had every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches" in an annotation in his diary.[7] The British manufactured Mustard, chlorine, lewisite, phosgene and Paris Green and stored it at airfields and depots for use on the beaches.[6]

Later plans[edit | edit source]

The mustard gas stockpile was enlarged in 1942-1943 for possible use by Bomber Command against German cities, and in 1944 for possible retaliatory use if German forces used chemical weapons against the D-Day landings.[4]

Winston Churchill issued a memorandum advocating a chemical strike on German cities using poison gas and possibly anthrax. Although the idea was rejected, it has provoked debate.[8] In July 1944, fearing that rocket attacks on London would get even worse and hoping to "shorten the war by a year",[9] Churchill wrote a secret memorandum asking his military chiefs to "think very seriously over this question of using poison gas." He said "it is absurd to consider morality on this topic" and that:

I should be prepared to do anything [Churchill's emphasis] that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany ..., and if we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent.

—Winston Churchill, 'Most Secret' PRIME MINISTER'S PERSONAL MINUTE to the Chiefs of Staff, 6 July 1944[9]

The Joint Planning Staff (JPS), however, advised against the use of gas because it would inevitably provoke Germany to retaliate with gas. They argued that this would be to the Allies' disadvantage in France both for military reasons and because it might "seriously impair our relations with the civilian population when it became generally known that chemical warfare was first employed by us." The JPS had similar concerns about public morale in Britain, fearing that people might become resentful if they felt a gas war could have been avoided. The Chiefs of Staff also warned that the Nazis would have no particular "difficulty in holding down the cowed German population, if they were subjected to gas attack," whereas the British population "are in no such inarticulate condition."[10]

Churchill responded to this advice by saying:

I am not at all convinced by this negative report. But clearly I cannot make head against the parsons and the warriors at the same time. [...] The matter should be kept under review and brought up again when things get worse.

At the same time, the JPS examined the case of using anthrax bioweapons against six large German cities but ruled this out on the grounds that the anthrax bombs were not yet available.[11] A large batch of aerial bombs were ordered, but by the time the US factory was ready to produce them, they were deemed unnecessary since the war in Europe was almost over.[12][13]

Robert Harris argues that as soon as another weapon of mass destruction—the atomic bomb—became available, and offered a chance to shorten the war, the Americans used it. "Why, from an ethical or political point of view, should germ warfare have been regarded any differently? [by British]."[14]

Post-World War II[edit | edit source]

From 1939 to 1989 experiments on chemical weapons including nerve agents and countermeasures were carried out at at the Porton Down research establishment. Although volunteers were used, many ex-servicemen complained about suffering long term illnesses after taking part in the tests. It was alleged that before volunteering they were not provided with adequate information about the experiments and the risk, in breach of the Nuremberg Code of 1947. This became the subject of a lengthy police investigation called Operation Antler. From 1950, a Chemical Defence Establishment was established as CDE Nancekuke for small-scale chemical agent production. A pilot production facility for Sarin was built, which produced about 20 tons of the nerve agent from 1954 until 1956. A full-scale production plant was planned, but with the 1956 decision to end UK's offensive chemical weapons programme it was never built.[15]

An inquest was opened on 5 May 2004 into the death on 6 May 1953 of a serviceman, Ronald Maddison, during an experiment using sarin. His death had earlier been found by a private MoD inquest to have been as a result of "misadventure" but this was quashed by the High Court in 2002. The 2004 hearing closed on 15 November, after a jury found that the cause of Maddison's death was "application of a nerve agent in a non-therapeutic experiment".

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes ans references[edit | edit source]

  1. [Simon Jones, "'The Right Medicine for the Bolshevist’: British Air-Dropped Chemical Weapons in North Russia, 1919,” Imperial War Museum Review 12 (1999): 78–88.
  2. British Relations with Iraq BBC, February 10, 2003
  3. Mustard Gas Tested on Indian Soldiers
  4. 4.0 4.1 Bellamy, Christopher (4 June 1996). "Sixty secret mustard gas sites uncovered". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/sixty-secret-mustard-gas-sites-uncovered-1335343.html. 
  5. "Chemical Warfare -Suffolk". Anti-Invasion defences Suffolk World War II. http://pillboxes-suffolk.webeden.co.uk/#/chemical-warfare/4543908803. Retrieved 18 June 2008. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Pears, Brian. "Chapter 5 Invasion". Rowlands Gill and the North-East 1939 - 1945. http://www.bpears.org.uk/Misc/War_NE/w_section_05.html. 
  7. Alanbrooke, 2001. Entry 22 July 1940.
  8. BBC2 Newsnight, 1/5/81; The Guardian, 7,9,13,20,30/5, 2/6/81; The Times, 11/5/81, 20/5/81, 15/6/81; The Listener, 25/6, 2/7, 17/8/81; Daily Telegraph, 18,21,25,29/5, 2,11/6/81; Encounter magazine, Vol.58-9 no.2; New Society, Vol.60; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.4 no.4 and 'Churchill's Anthrax Bombs - a debate', Vol.4 no.12, November 1987.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Paxman, Jeremy; Harris, Robert (2002-08-06) [1982]. "The War That Never Was". A higher form of killing: the secret history of chemical and biological warfare. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-8129-6653-4. OCLC 268949025. http://libcom.org/library/churchills-plans-drench-germany-poison-gas-anthrax-robert-harris-jeremy-paxman. "I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people" 
  10. "Paxman and Harris", p132-35.
  11. "Paxman and Harris", p131-5, 100-6.
  12. "Churchill's Anthrax Bombs - a debate" R.V. Jones and J.M. Lewis, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.4 no.4 p42-3.
  13. "Paxman and Harris", p101-3.
  14. "Paxman and Harris", p136-7, 103-15.
  15. "Nancekuke Remediation Project". Ministry of Defence (Archived by The National Archives). http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.mod.uk:80/DefenceInternet/AboutDefence/WhatWeDo/DefenceEstateandEnvironment/Nancekuke/. Retrieved 25 April 2012. 

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