Historical Notes: The Nastier Aspects of Warfare

By Archer, Geoffrey | The Independent (London, England), November 24, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Historical Notes: The Nastier Aspects of Warfare


Archer, Geoffrey, The Independent (London, England)


THE PASSION for dangerously powerful men like Saddam Hussein to equip themselves with biological weapons has a pedigree dating back two thousand years at least, when Greeks and Romans used human and animal corpses to contaminate their enemies' wells.

In this millennium the Tartars had similar ideas, throwing the bodies of plague victims over the walls of cities under siege. They used it in Crimea in 1346 against the Genoese, spreading the black death to Italy.

The British copied the strategem in about 1760 when Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the British Commander-in-Chief in North America, battling to contain the American Indians, asked a subordinate, "Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among these disaffected tribes?" Two hostile Indian chiefs were duly presented with a gift of blankets and a handkerchief retrieved from a smallpox hospital. Humanity's fascination with biological warfare was honed by the wars of the 20th century. British interest grew strongly from 1934 onwards, but it wasn't until 1940 that a secret biological warfare laboratory was set up at Porton Down. Anthrax bombs were successfully tested against sheep over the Scottish Island of Gruinard in 1941 and 1942, contaminating the island for decades, and in a note to General Sir Hastings Ismay in May 1944, Churchill referred to an order for half a million anthrax bombs. In the event the war ended without such a weapon being ready. The only anthrax weapons left in Brtain's stockpiles in 1945 were five million infected cattle cakes for use against German livestock. The Japanese did extensive research on biological weapons before and during the Second World War, ending up with far larger stocks than any other nation. The notorious Unit 731 based in northern Manchuria killed some 3,000 human guinea pigs in biological weapons experiments, most of the victims being Chinese and Russian POWs. In 1942 Japanese forces used the biological weapons they'd developed against the Chinese in the Chekiang Campaign, causing "inestimable" losses.

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