Spartacus Blog

Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons

Tuesday, 11th February, 2014

John Simkin

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 Brigadier General Charles Howard 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.

Brigadier General Foulkes eventually received the title of 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."

In July 1917, David Lloyd George appointed Winston Churchill as Minister of Munitions and for the rest of the war, he was in charge of the production of tanks, aeroplanes, guns and shells. Clive Ponting, the author of Churchill (1994) has argued: "The technology in which Churchill placed greatest faith though was chemical warfare, which had first been used by the Germans in 1915. It was at this time that Churchill developed what was to prove a life-long enthusiasm for the widespread use of this form of warfare."

Churchill developed a close relationship with Brigadier General Charles Howard Foulkes. Churchill urged Foulkes to provide him with effective ways of using chemical weapons against the German Army. In November 1917 Churchill advocated the production of gas bombs to be dropped by aircraft. However, 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. Foulkes told Churchill that his scientists were working on a very powerful new chemical weapon codenamed "M Device".

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."

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." Foulkes argued that the strategy should be "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. 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."

Winston 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 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 uncivilized 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."

As soon as he gained power in May 1940, Churchill considered using chemical weapons. He changed his mind when informed by military intelligence that Germany was capable of dropping three of four times more chemical bombs than Britain. However, plans were put in place to use gas-warfare in Adolf Hitler ordered an invasion of Britain. On 30th May, 1940, he told the Cabinet "we should not hesitate to contaminate our beaches with gas". By the end of September, with the invasion scare over, he decided against first use of the weapon. He instructed General Hastings Ismay, his Chief of Staff, that stocks should be maintained: "I am deeply anxious that gas warfare should not be adopted at the present time... We should never begin but we must be able to reply."

In 1943 Churchill made a public statement that if Germany used chemical bombs against the Soviet Union he would order instructions that Britain would also use these weapons. Churchill told General Ismay "We would retaliate by drenching the German cities with gas on the largest possible scale." In March 1944 Churchill ordered 500,000 anthrax bombs from the United States. These bombs were to be dropped "well behind the lines, to render towns uninhabitable and indeed dangerous to enter without a respirator".

Churchill was also told by military intelligence in 1944 that the British had far larger stocks of poison gas than Nazi Germany. He wrote to Ismay on 6th July, 1944: "It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a nod of complaint from the moralists of the Church... It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women... One really must not be bound by silly conventions of the mind."

Churchill now sent a message to his chiefs of staff: "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 in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention... If we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent. In the meantime, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there."

On 28th July 1944, the chief of staffs reported to Churchill that gas warfare was possible and that Britain could drop more than Germany but they doubted whether it would cause many difficulties to the German authorities in controlling the country. However, they were deeply concerned by the possibility that Germany would retaliate as they feared the British public would react in a different way to those in Germany: "the same cannot be said for our own people, who are in no such inarticulate condition". After reading the chiefs of staff assessment Churchill concluded gloomily, "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."

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