Was Churchill advocate of chemical weapons’ use in Mideast?

Churchill reportedly said chemical weapons were less deadly than conventional weapons

Peter Harrison

Published: Updated:

The Western condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in the Middle East, and further afield, is well documented. They have been used to justify threats - indeed even a justification - of strikes/even war against a number of nations, most recently in Syria and Iraq.

So it might still come as a surprise to some that the once highly respected British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the British to victory against Nazi Germany in World War Two, is said to have been an advocate of their use.

The recent use of chemical weapons in the Middle East is undeniable - it is known that Saddam Hussein used them against his own people in 1988 on the Kurdish village of Halabja. More recently a team of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors confirmed the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack on the agricultural belt around the Syrian city of Damascus, on the morning of August 21, 2013.

In both instances the world watched on, outraged as images of dead and dying men, women and children were broadcast around the world. Calls were made for those responsible to be brought to justice.

The second Gulf war in Iraq was justified at the time with claims that Saddam had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) - a claim that was later discounted. And the U.S. unsuccessfully lobbied some Western allies to carry out airstrikes against Syria after the sarin attack.

But in 1920 it is argued by some that Churchill considered the use of chemical weapons in Mesopotamia during the Iraqi Revolt. Historians are divided on whether the use actually occurred, or what he meant when he called for the use of poisonous gas.

He is documented as having said in May 1919: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.”

Churchill went on to argue: “It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas. I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.”
He went on to argue that the number of casualties suffered would be smaller, compared to the use of conventional weapons.

It’s a stance the British had taken when fighting the Bolsheviks in 1917, when M-Devices - shells with a canister of poisonous gas in the tip - were dropped on the enemy forces.

The British claimed that shortly after breathing in the gas Bolshevik soldiers coughed up blood and fell unconscious - but those on the frontline told a different story.

Giles Milton, had been researching a new book when he discovered a document in London’s National Archives compiled by British scientists who had been sent to Russia to record the effects of the M Device on the Bolsheviks.

He said in 2013: “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…one (Russian) 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.”

Whether Churchill actually got his wish to use chemicals against the revolting crowds in Iraq three years later, is still disputed by some and whether he meant the use of deadly chemicals is also under dispute.

The revolution in Iraq started peacefully in May 1920 with mass meetings and demonstrations held in Baghdad. Both Sunni and Shia communities opposed to British rule attended large gatherings. But their demands for Iraqi independence were dismissed by British officials, and an armed revolt broke out in June of the same year.

Churchill suggested that chemical weapons should be used “against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment.” He added “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes to spread a lively terror” in Iraq.

In the end both sides suffered heavy casualties, with up to 10,000 Iraqis killed as well as 500 British and Indian soldiers.

Churchill had personal experience of warfare, he had served on the frontline – he knew what it was like to come under intense fire from enemy positions. Arguably he had a realistic view of what frontline fighting was like.

When the Syrian sarin gas attacks of 2013 were reported, comparisons to Churchill’s comments on ‘poisonous gas’ were drawn. But Churchill historian Richard M Langworth says it is wrong to compare the two following his comments on Iraq in the 1920 revolt.

He said that the world’s media had made claims that “Britain and Churchill were not different from Syria and Assad: That Churchill favored, and/or used, initiating the use of ‘poisonous gas’ from World War One through World War Two, notably on the Indians, Bolshaviks in 1919 and the Iraqis in the 1920s.”

“After the war, with Churchill at the War Office, Britain was faced with the question of using gas against rebel tribesmen in northwest India and in Mesopotamia.”
In World War One the use of chemical weapons was widespread with soldiers in the trenches suffering agonizing deaths in the trenches as they scrambled – often too late – for their gas masks.

But said Mr Langworth, Churchill’s comments were largely misunderstood.

He said: “It was never proposed to use chlorine or phosgene, but Churchill confused the matter when he used the general term ‘poisonous gas’ in a departmental minute in 1919.”

British naval historian Iain Ballantyne who has written about Winston Churchill’s key interventions in shaping warfare, and author of the book ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion), said Winston Churchill would often make “wild suggestions” that “alarmed his fellow politicians as well as generals, air marshals and admirals,” yet were unlikely to ever happen in reality.

Mr. Ballantyne said: “When proposing schemes, Churchill would often use passionate language and advocate violent action. Some of them did happen and worked.”

But he said that he believed that often Churchill would not even take his own ideas or opinions seriously “other than as a vent for his frustration at inaction or an insoluble situation.”

Comparing the chemical war comments, Mr Ballentyne added: “From earlier in Churchill’s career – when he was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914 – was his view of submarine warfare against commerce, the lifeblood of the British empire.

“Churchill was so violently against any nation sinking merchant ships that he felt retaliation should include “the extreme resources of science” to spread “pestilence, poison the water of great cities” and even “assassination of individuals.”

Top Content Trending