Charles Howard Foulkes, the son of a government chaplain, was born in India, on 1st February 1875. After finishing his education in 1894 he received a commission into the Royal Engineers in 1894. Foulkes served in the Second Boer War and in 1902 he became Assistant Commissioner for the Anglo-French Boundary Commission in the East of Niger. His biographer, John Bourne, has pointed out: "As a junior officer he showed himself to be an energetic, ambitious and independent-minded."
In 1904 Foulkes became Commander of the Ordnance Survey of Scotland. A keen sportsman, he represented Heart of Midlothian and was a member of the bronze medal-winning team for the field hockey in the 1908 Summer Olympics. He went on to be Commander of 31st Company in Ceylon in 1909 and Commander of L Company at the Royal Engineers Depot in Chatham in 1913.
On the outbreak of the First World War Major Foulkes served on the Western Front. In April 1915 the German Army used chlorine gas cylinders against the French Army at Ypres. Chlorine gas destroyed the respiratory organs of its victims and this led to a slow death by asphyxiation. General William Robertson recommended Foulkes to General John French as the best man to organise the retaliation. Foulkes accepted the post and on 25th September, 1915, the British Army launched its first gas attack.
In 1917 Brigadier General Foulkes became General Officer Commanding the Special Brigade responsible for Chemical Warfare and Director of Gas Services. He worked closely with scientists working at the governmental laboratories at Porton Down near Salisbury. His biographer, John Bourne, has argued: "Despite Foulkes' energy, the ingenuity of his men and the consumption of expensive resources, gas was ultimately disappointing as a weapon, despite its terrifying reputation."
Foulkes came under pressure from Winston Churchill, the Minister of Munitions, to provide him with effective ways of using chemical weapons. In November 1917 Churchill advocated the production of gas bombs to be dropped by aircraft. However, according to Churchill's biographer, Clive Ponting, this idea was rejected "because it would involve the deaths of many French and Belgian civilians behind German lines and take too many scarce servicemen to operate and maintain the aircraft and bombs."
On 6th April, 1918, Churchill told Louis Loucheur, the French Minister of Armaments: "I am... in favour of the greatest possible development of gas-warfare." In a paper he produced for the War Cabinet he argued for the widespread deployment of tanks, large-scale bombing attacks on German civilians and the mass use of chemical warfare. Churchill hoped that he would be able to use the top secret "M Device", an exploding shell that released a highly toxic gas derived from arsenic. Foulkes called it "the most effective chemical weapon ever devised". The scientist, John Haldane, later described the impact of this new weapon: "The pain in the head is described as like that caused when fresh water gets into the nose when bathing, but infinitely more severe... accompanied by the most appalling mental distress and misery."
According to Giles Milton, the author of Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot (2013): "Trials at Porton suggested that the M Device was indeed a terrible new weapon. The active ingredient in the M Device was diphenylaminechloroarsine, a highly toxic chemical. A thermogenerator was used to convert this chemical into a dense smoke that would incapacitate any soldier unfortunate enough to inhale it... The symptoms were violent and deeply unpleasant. Uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up blood and instant and crippling fatigue were the most common features.... Victims who were not killed outright were struck down by lassitude and left depressed for long periods."
Brigadier General Foulkes developed plans to use this new weapon against the German Army. His proposed strategy was "the discharge of gas on a stupendous scale". This was to be followed by "a British attack, bypassing the trenches filled with suffocating and dying men". However, the war came to an end in November, 1918, before this strategy could be deployed.
After the First World War Churchill was appointed as Minister of War and Air by David Lloyd George. Foulkes continued to advise Churchill on the use of chemical weapons. In May 1919, Churchill gave orders for the British troops to use chemical weapons during the campaign to subdue Afghanistan. When the India Office objected to the policy, Churchill replied: "The objections of the India Office to the use of gas against natives are unreasonable. Gas is a more merciful weapon than high explosive shell and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war. The moral effect is also very great. There can be no conceivable reason why it should not be resorted to."
Churchill now took the controversial decision to use the stockpiles of M Device (diphenylaminechloroarsine) against the Red Army who were involved in fighting against invading forces hostile to the Russian Revolution. He was supported in this by Sir Keith Price, the head of the chemical warfare, at Porton Down. He declared it to be the "right medicine for the Bolshevist" and the terrain would enable it to "drift along very nicely". Price agreed with Churchill that the use of chemical weapons would lead to a rapid collapse of the Bolshevik government in Russia: "I believe if you got home only once with the Gas you would find no more Bolshies this side of Vologda."
In the greatest secrecy, 50,000 M Devices were shipped to Archangel, along with the weaponry required to fire them. Churchill sent a message to Major-General William Ironside: "Fullest use is now to be made of gas shell with your forces, or supplied by us to White Russian forces." He told Ironside that this "thermogenerator of arsenical dust that would penetrate all known types of protective mask". Churchill added that he would very much like the "Bolsheviks" to have it. Churchill also arranged for 10,000 respirators for the British troops and twenty-five specialist gas officers to use the equipment.
Some one leaked this information and Winston Churchill was forced to answer questions on the subject in the House of Commons on 29th May 1919. Churchill insisted that it was the Red Army who was using chemical warfare: "I do not understand why, if they use poison gas, they should object to having it used against them. It is a very right and proper thing to employ poison gas against them." His statement was untrue. There is no evidence of Bolshevik forces using gas against British troops and it was Churchill himself who had authorised its initial use some six weeks earlier.
On 27th August, 1919, British Airco DH.9 bombers dropped these gas bombs on the Russian village of Emtsa. According to one source: "Bolsheviks soldiers fled as the green gas spread. Those who could not escape, vomited blood before losing consciousness." Other villages targeted included Chunova, Vikhtova, Pocha, Chorga, Tavoigor and Zapolki. During this period 506 gas bombs were dropped on the Russians.
Lieutenant Donald Grantham interviewed Bolshevik prisoners about these attacks. One man named Boctroff said the soldiers "did not know what the cloud was and ran into it and some were overpowered in the cloud and died there; the others staggered about for a short time and then fell down and died". Boctroff claimed that twenty-five of his comrades had been killed during the attack. Boctroff was able to avoid the main "gas cloud" but he was very ill for 24 hours and suffered from "giddiness in head, running from ears, bled from nose and cough with blood, eyes watered and difficulty in breathing."
Major-General William Ironside told David Lloyd George that he was convinced that even after these gas attacks his troops would not be able to advance very far. He also warned that the White Army had experienced a series of mutinies (there were some in the British forces too). Lloyd George agreed that Ironside should withdraw his troops. This was completed by October. The remaining chemical weapons were considered to be too dangerous to be sent back to Britain and therefore it was decided to dump them into the White Sea.
Churchill created great controversy over his policies in Iraq. It was estimated that around 25,000 British and 80,000 Indian troops would be needed to control the country. However, he argued that if Britain relied on air power, you could cut these numbers to 4,000 (British) and 10,000 (Indian). The government was convinced by this argument and it was decided to send the recently formed Royal Air Force to Iraq.
An uprising of more than 100,000 armed tribesmen took place in 1920. Over the next few months the RAF dropped 97 tons of bombs killing 9,000 Iraqis. This failed to end the resistance and Arab and Kurdish uprisings continued to pose a threat to British rule. Winston Churchill suggested that the RAF should use chemical weapons on the rebels. Some members of the Cabinet objected to these tactics: Churchill argued: "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas... I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gases against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum... Gases can be used which cause great inconvenience and would leave a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent affect on most of those affected."
Foulkes was appointed as Director of Irish Propaganda in 1921. He went on to be Commander, Royal Engineers in Northumbria in 1922, Deputy Chief Engineer at Southern Command in 1924 and Chief Engineer at Aldershot Command in 1926 before retiring in 1930.
Foulkes published Gas: The True Story of the Special Brigade in 1934. In the book Foulkes argues that the total British casualties due to gas amounted to 181,053 of which 6,109 were fatal. However, he admitted that this did not include the men who died after the war due to the effects of gas poisoning. He added that the German Army had not published details of their gas casualties.
Charles Howard Foulkes died on 6th May 1969.
Trials at Porton suggested that the M Device was indeed a terrible new weapon. The active ingredient in the M Device was diphenylaminechloroarsine, a highly toxic chemical. A thermogenerator was used to convert this chemical into a dense smoke that would incapacitate any soldier unfortunate enough to inhale it... The symptoms were violent and deeply unpleasant. Uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up blood and instant and crippling fatigue were the most common features.... Victims who were not killed outright were struck down by lassitude and left depressed for long periods....
Major-General Foukes had originally hoped to use his deadly new weapon against the German Army... The war came to an end before Foukes could use his weapons. He was left with a stockpile of chemicals and thermo-generators. Churchill now wanted the British forces stationed in small numbers in the ports of Northern Russia to deploy this stockpile against the Bolsheviks.
The objections of the India Office to the use of gas against natives are unreasonable. Gas is a more merciful weapon than high explosive shell and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war. The moral effect is also very great. There can be no conceivable reason why it should not be resorted to.
Secrecy was paramount. Britain's imperial general staff knew there would be outrage if it became known that the government was intending to use its secret stockpile of chemical weapons. But Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, brushed aside their concerns. As a long-term advocate of chemical warfare, he was determined to use them against the Russian Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1919, 94 years before the devastating strike in Syria, Churchill planned and executed a sustained chemical attack on northern Russia.
The British were no strangers to the use of chemical weapons. During the third battle of Gaza in 1917, General Edmund Allenby had fired 10,000 cans of asphyxiating gas at enemy positions, to limited effect. But in the final months of the first world war, scientists at the governmental laboratories at Porton in Wiltshire developed a far more devastating weapon: the top secret "M Device", an exploding shell containing a highly toxic gas called diphenylaminechloroarsine. The man in charge of developing it, Major General Charles Foulkes, called it "the most effective chemical weapon ever devised".
Trials at Porton suggested that it was indeed a terrible new weapon. Uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up blood and instant, crippling fatigue were the most common reactions. The overall head of chemical warfare production, Sir Keith Price, was convinced its use would lead to the rapid collapse of the Bolshevik regime. "If you got home only once with the gas you would find no more Bolshies this side of Vologda."The cabinet was hostile to the use of such weapons, much to Churchill's irritation. He also wanted to use M Devices against the rebellious tribes of northern India. "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes," he declared in one secret memorandum. He criticised his colleagues for their "squeamishness", declaring that "the objections of the India Office to the use of gas against natives are unreasonable. Gas is a more merciful weapon than [the] high explosive shell, and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war."
He ended his memo on a note of ill-placed black humour: "Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze?" he asked. "It is really too silly."
A staggering 50,000 M Devices were shipped to Russia: British aerial attacks using them began on 27 August 1919, targeting the village of Emtsa, 120 miles south of Archangel. Bolshevik soldiers were seen fleeing in panic as the green chemical gas drifted towards them. Those caught in the cloud vomited blood, then collapsed unconscious.
The attacks continued throughout September on many Bolshevik-held villages: Chunova, Vikhtova, Pocha, Chorga, Tavoigor and Zapolki. But the weapons proved less effective than Churchill had hoped, partly because of the damp autumn weather. By September, the attacks were halted then stopped. Two weeks later the remaining weapons were dumped in the White Sea. They remain on the seabed to this day in 40 fathoms of water.
Winston Churchill authorised the use of the “most devastating chemical weapon ever devised” against the Russian Bolsheviks at the end of the First World War, a noted historical author has revealed.
Giles Milton, who was speaking to The Telegraph following his appearance at the Wigtown Book Festival to promote his new book, Russian Roulette, said: “Churchill, who was secretary of state for war at the time, wanted to really go hard against the Bolsheviks in Russia. He wanted to support the White Army in their fight against the Red Army but the Government simply refused to countenance that.
“The British had developed this highly secret chemical weapon called the M Device, which is like a shell with a canister of gas on the end. It was developed at Porton laboratories in Wiltshire and described by the head of munitions as the most devastating chemical weapon ever devised. It had been invented but not used.
“Churchill’s idea was to use the M Device against the Russian Bolsheviks. 50,000 of them were taken up in planes and then dropped on the Bolshevik Red Army positions and Bolshevik controlled villages in Northern Russia between August and September 1918.”
Milton, 47, illustrated Churchill’s commitment to the use of chemical weapons, explaining that he had also supported their use against rebellious tribes in North India. “What I found really shocking was when he wrote this internal memo to the India Office, along the lines of ‘we should use it against the tribes on the North West front. They’re really troublesome, let’s gas them.’
“There’s a line in the memo that says, ‘I really don’t understand this squeamishness about poison gas.’ Today that reads pretty badly.”
Milton, who has written a number of non-fiction historical books as well as two novels, explained that he had been researching his new book when he discovered a little known document in the National Archives compiled by British scientists who had been sent to Russia to record the effects of the M Device on the Bolsheviks. “You can imagine it’s not exactly nice stuff. If you breathe it in, you start vomiting blood and you become unconscious - it’s all pretty hideous. There were endless incidents. It’s fascinating, if slightly queasy.
“The British play it down and say the fatalities were very limited but when you look at the Russian version of events, one soldier said that all 50 of his comrades were wiped out. It’s difficult to know how many fatalities there were but they dropped thousands of these things on various villages.”
Due to the autumnal weather conditions, however, the M Device was not as devastating as Churchill had initially hoped and because they were too unstable to fly home, thousands were dumped in the White Sea, on the north-west coast of Russia.
Asked what impact this revelation could have on the image of Churchill as one of Britain’s greatest historical figures, Milton said: “He’s a great Briton but there are other sides to his character. He was advocating the mass use of chemical weapons.”