Stink Vessels: Charles Stephenson Introduces a Plan for Chemical Warfare in the Napoleonic Navy, Devised by Thomas Cochrane, Lord Dundonald, the Model for Patrick O'Brien's Jack Aubrey

By Stephenson, Charles | History Today, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Stink Vessels: Charles Stephenson Introduces a Plan for Chemical Warfare in the Napoleonic Navy, Devised by Thomas Cochrane, Lord Dundonald, the Model for Patrick O'Brien's Jack Aubrey


Stephenson, Charles, History Today


MANY ACCOUNTS OF THE ORIGINS of chemical warfare claim that the practice was evolved in antiquity, usually citing references from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Later examples of where the method was applied often include the siege of Constantinople in 1453, and attempts to foil Cromwell's miners at Edinburgh Castle in 1650. More modern attempts are rather better documented: for example, the Playfair proposal to utilize 'cyanide of cacodyl' during the Crimean War, various schemes put forward during the American Civil War, threats to utilize 'grand chemical agents of wholesale destruction' during the 1870-71 investment of Paris, and the Japanese use of burning material 'soaked in arsenic' at the siege of Port Arthur.

Evidence suggests that the idea of what might be termed 'pre-chemical warfare chemical warfare' had crossed the minds of many over the centuries. Indeed, on occasion some ideas may have been realized on a small and confined scale; not least due to the profound technological and logistical difficulties of employing them on a large scale.

One figure in the Napoleonic era, however, addressed these issues and, at least to his own satisfaction, provided solutions. He was Thomas Cochrane, later the 10th Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860). Cochrane was a maverick, self-confident, inventive and aggressive towards the enemy but often unpopular with the naval establishment.

In 1809 he developed a plan to attack an enemy fleet as it lay in a protected anchorage, by sending in 'explosion vessels' ahead of fireships under cover of darkness in order to spread terror and confusion before the main asssault. The plan succeeded in his attack at the Basque Roads, in Normandy, but he felt he was not given the recognition due to him for his inventiveness and courage.

Two years later Cochrane's 'Secret War Plans' developed the notion, and in doing so he invented chemical or gas warfare.

He proposed the use of sulphur dioxide from ships, though while these were practically limitless in capacity in comparison with land-based load carriers, they were limited regarding the kinds of targets they could engage with. They were, however, ideally suited for operations against maritime fortifications from the sea; just the type of operations for which Cochrane had evolved them--that of attacking a fleet lying out of reach beneath shore-based defences.

The sulphur dioxide would be manufactured in situ by burning masses of sulphur aboard what he termed 'stink vessels'. In a favourable breeze the poisonous effluvia from this process would drift onto the object of attack with the dual purpose of providing a dense smokescreen and asphyxiating or driving off the defenders.

The idea of using the products of burning sulphur as a weapon came to him while on a visit to Girgenti (Agrigento) in Sicily in March 1811. There he witnessed the collateral effects of sulphur manufacture, one of the principal industries of Sicily at the time. As he later put it:

'I was indeed astonished to find that the open air ... was so impregnated with deadly fumes, that the country people are prohibited by law from residing within several miles of the mountain during the melting season ... a gentle breeze blew from the westward, and the vapour rolled slowly towards the east. ... it occurred to me that, if the open air could be thus deprived of its vital principle, the defenders of all marine fortifications, whether bombproof or not, might be expelled, by means quite irresistible.'

Accompanied at various times by saturation bombardment and dedicated, non-sulphur, smoke vessels, the 'stink vessels' sent in on the windward side of land-based defences formed the central plank of his 'Secret War Plans'. He conveyed his ideas in a 'Memorial' on the subject to the Prince Regent, on March 2nd, 1812. …

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