Magazine article History Today

Chemical Warfare in the 1920s &Amp; 30s. (Frontline)

Magazine article History Today

Chemical Warfare in the 1920s &Amp; 30s. (Frontline)

Article excerpt

BETWEEN THE TWO WORLD WARS, Britain, Spain and Italy launched chemical offensives against their enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq and North Africa. Most of these wars have been kept secret for decades and official documents relating to them have still not been released. Politicians and military leaders in Europe were well aware of the effects of the deadliest of these chemicals, mustard gas. It had caused deaths and horrific injuries among soldiers in the battlefields of the First World War before they began to wear protective clothing. Yet this was the preferred chemical warhead used by European armies in these areas and their victims were often old men, women and children because they were easier to target and had no means of protection.

After Hiroshima and the Vietnam War, it may seem whimsical to suggest that war is anything else but barbaric. But in the aftermath of the Great War, in which military technology such as the development of deadly poisons overwhelmed the inherited rules of engagement, the European Powers agreed to re-affirm the principle that chemical and bacteriological weapons should be excluded from all future conflicts. Moreover, war was still considered a matter between men in uniforms. As late as 1938, Chamberlain insisted that civilians were not legitimate targets of war.

Yet the new standards that Europeans wished to apply to war were not extended to military action against their colonial enemies. Britain launched mustard-gas artillery shells against Afghans in 1919, shortly after signing the Treaty of Versailles prohibiting their use, and then in 1920-21 against Iraqis resisting British invasion of their lands. War Office documents on the build-up of these chemical warheads are available for consultation but none have yet been released about the chemical war itself, even 83 years later, and there is no guarantee that they ever will be made available.

Why this continued secrecy when the values that drove these chemical wars have been overturned? At the time non-whites in the Third World were regarded with paternalist racism. European expansion was justified on the grounds of civilisation. Natives were being brought the advantages of a superior society. Those who failed to embrace the benefits of Western values needed to be taught a harsh lesson, for their own good. As Colonial Secretary in 1919, Winston Churchill expressed impatience with the RAF's reluctance to drop mustard-gas bombs. `I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas', he wrote. `I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes'.

The deployment of chemicals was also justified because the `natives' did not behave with appropriate decorum on the battlefield. Yet among many military spokesmen, there was a wilful self-deceit about the effects of these chemicals. `If it is fair for an Afghan to shoot down a British soldier and cut him to pieces as he lies wounded on the ground', wrote one such officer, `why is it not fair for a British Artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze? It is really too silly'.

Of all these chemical wars, only the Italian use of mustard gas against Ethiopians in 1936 has been well documented (although the Italian historian who published the evidence has been hounded by the Right). …

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