Gassing the past

Ninety years after the British Government, gassed of civilians in Mesopotamia, Mark Hirst sheds light on this forgotten chapter of Britain’s imperialist past to highlight the hypocrisy of British foreign policy then and now

Any exposed, moist part of the body is vulnerable to it. Gas masks alone will not deter its menace or protect the wearer from its deadly effects. On contact it causes burn-like blisters on the skin, especially the eyes, armpits and groin. On inhalation the lungs begin to bleed resulting in wretched, froth filled coughing. Severe abdominal pain follows, then violent vomiting and shortness of breath. It has a tendency to linger in low areas for hours, sometimes days, waiting like a predatory animal for its next victim. By the end of the First World War the reputation of mustard gas as a battle field weapon was both feared and hated by ordinary soldiers on the front line. During that bloodiest of conflicts it is believed to have killed upwards of 100,000 soldiers on all sides, and left a further 1.2million struggling with the effects for the remainder of their often short lives. My own great grandfather was one if its victims and although he survived the initial gas attack, he suffered the rest of his days with serious respiratory problems and complications which, years after the war had ended, finally claimed his life.

Following the end of WWI, the Ottoman Empire was divided up and the British entrusted by the League of Nations with the mandate to run Mesopotamia, now modern day Iraq. From the outset it was clear that people throughout the country, north and south; Kurds, Sunnis and Shias were angry about the imposition of the British mandate. What had started off as a series of peaceful mass demonstrations calling for an end to British administration and the establishment of an independent Arab government for Iraq quickly turned violent. The reaction of the British was immediate and ruthless, as it had been in Ireland, India and other corners of the Empire where the indigenous people dared to question Britannia’s right to rule.

Major General Sir Percy Cox was the Colonial Administrator for Mesopotamia. In collusion with Churchill, Cox aimed to rule the region as cost effectively as he could but it appears that neither he, nor the Secretary of State for War, were prepared for the scale or the speed of revolt that began in that summer of 1920. Churchill had believed it would take 25,000 British and a further 80,000 Indian troops to control the country conventionally. But a strategy, dependent on using the RAF to ‘police’ the region, would allow the British to reduce the number of infantry needed to between 4,000 and 10,000 men. Churchill still had a watchful eye on the ongoing resistance to British rule in Ireland. He knew if the situation there escalated further then he would need at least 150,000 British troops to put down any intensified revolt at England’s back door. However within a few weeks of what Arabs called the Ath Thawra al Iraqiyya al Kubra, or the Great Iraqi Revolution as it later became known, the British realised too late that they were ill-equipped to put down an uprising that was spreading rapidly down the length of the Euphrates valley. An air of panic appears to have set in as commanders frantically reviewed how they could deal with the 100,000 Arabs who were taking part in the uprising.

An urgent reappraisal was needed by the British on how to deal effectively with the emerging crisis in the region. Amongst the documents held at the National Archive in Kew, in Surrey, are papers, telegrams and contemporaneous secret ciphers which the British Government had sealed and kept hidden for more than 50 years related to the use of gas by British forces in Iraq. Churchill, as Secretary of State for War, read and contributed to these reports and secret telegrams from General Headquarters in Baghdad and soon realised the situation was drastic. In one telegram to the War Office in London Sir Percy Cox and his Deputy Colonel Arnold Wilson ask if gas could be used and specifically if 15,000 artillery gas shells at the time stored in Egypt could be transported urgently to British forces in Iraq. The papers reveal that the British already had 19,500 Howitzer gas shells in Iraq, but evidently believed that would not be enough to tackle the numbers taking part in the insurgency. Churchill was unequivocal in his response to a request from Sir Percy who requested “earnest consideration of use of gas… by both Army and RAF”. Churchill writes:

”If gas shells for Artillery are available on the spot or in transit it should certainly be employed in the emergency prevailing. It is not
considered that any question of principle is raised by such an emergency use of the limited ammunition of various kinds. As no question
of principle is involved there is no need for a special declaration. The [Commander in Chief] should defend his positions with whatever
ammunition is to hand.”

In another declassified cipher from the War Office to Sir Percy, Whitehall unambiguously states it cannot send any more gas shells in addition to those it had despatched from Egypt. It reads: “We cannot send any more gas shells but you may use that in your possession”.

In more recent times American academics have sought to claim that whilst the use of gas was fully authorised at the highest level it was never actually deployed by the British due to “technical reasons”. However close examination of the contemporaneous papers demonstrates this is a distorted interpretation of the primary archive material from the period. As a result of the high dependency strategy on the RAF to ‘police’ Arab tribes there were experiments carried out to drop gas shells from aircraft, a technology that was very much in its infancy. British Commanders in Baghdad wanted this in addition to the use of artillery gas shells they already possessed. At the height of the revolt the technology for dropping gas shells from aircraft had not been perfected, due to various genuine technical obstacles. However it is clear from the documents that the gas munitions that the British had available in the region at the time and the additional stocks that were transported from Egypt were for use principally by the artillery, in support of RAF operations. The artillery had no technical difficulty in the use and deployment of gas having used it extensively in the trenches of France and Belgium since 1915.

When the US, in close collaboration with their UK allies established, funded and set the terms of reference for the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal that tried Saddam and his henchmen few Western ‘liberal’ commentators appeared bold enough to highlight Britain’s own genocidal legacy in Iraq

The reason for the revisionism by US scholars who claim that no gas was ever used by the British in 1920, academic opinion which has been widely reported by the main stream Western media is obvious. Use of such practices, especially against civilians, would expose the blatant hypocrisy of US/ UK foreign policy and undermine further the reasons given for the subsequent US/UK led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That campaign, the world was told, was to remove the ‘threat’ of Saddam’s chemical weapons programme and infrastructure which he had used, ironically when he was a firm ally of the US and UK, against Kurdish civilians in Halabja in March 1988. Revisionist American academics and their associates in the right wing press had to present a consistent moral case to justify the invasion, despite the overwhelming weight of evidence that gas was indeed deliberately used against civilian tribes 60 years before Saddam’s own horrific genocidal efforts. Like Saddam 68 years later there is absolutely no question that British forces were deliberately targeting civilians in 1920 using any and all munitions they could get their hands on. Many British commanders at the time believed it had an “excellent moral effect on the Arab”. The British estimate that around 10,000 Arabs were killed during the most intensive three month period of the revolt. An RAF Wing Commander at the time, J. A. Chamier wrote a year after the uprising:

”The best way to demoralise local people was to concentrate bombing on the most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe which
it is desired to punish. All available aircraft must be collected and the attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and
unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle.”

Even in 1920 the deliberate targeting of ‘non-combatants’ was regarded as a war crime under the terms of the 1899 Hague Conventions, to which Britain was a signatory. However British commanders in Mesopotamia concluded that the “Manual of Military Law” only applied to conflict “between civilised nations” and therefore any and all means could be used against Arab tribes and villages, and they were. “When we saw a group of villagers,” wrote one RAF Squadron Leader, “doing what they ought not to be doing, we just bombed them.” The attitude of commanders on the ground was not only shared, but encouraged and authorised at the highest level. Whilst some tentative questions of principle related to the use of gas were raised by some officers, the response from Whitehall was explict. In one War Office minute Churchill states: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”

Long after the rebellion against the British had been quashed, the punitive attacks and bombings by the Army and RAF continued against Iraqi civilians well into the 1920s. An eyewitness to one attack, Saleh ‘Umar al Jabrim, said a British raid on his village in Southern Iraq in February 1923 where Bedouin were celebrating a wedding left a woman, one girl and two young boys dead. Arthur Harris, ‘Marshall of the RAF’ during the Second World War who has been labelled by many an untried war criminal for his deliberate targeting of civilians in Dresden and other parts of Germany during the war, learned his ‘craft’ in Mesopotamia in the years following the uprising. As a young squadron commander Harris reported a mission he took part in over Northern Iraq in 1924 and wrote: “The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: They know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.”

When the US, in close collaboration with their UK allies established, funded and set the terms of reference for the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal that tried Saddam and his henchmen few Western ‘liberal’ commentators appeared bold enough to highlight Britain’s own genocidal legacy in Iraq. Nor did they seem eager to mention Britain’s horrific precedent as the first country to deliberately order the gassing of civilian populations.

Earlier this year Tony Blair sought to defend his actions in leading the UK into a clearly illegal war when he gave evidence to the Iraq Inquiry. Either he was, and remains hopelessly naïve about Britain’s historic and bloody role in Iraq, or he deliberately chose to overlook it. Either way Britain’s hypocrisy was not lost in the Arab world. In defence of his decision to invade Iraq Blair told the Inquiry that it was clear Saddam retained the “absolute intent” to use chemical weapons again, weapons he patently did not possess at the time of the invasion. In 1920, unlike Saddam 83 years later, Britain not only had the capability, but it had the clear and absolute intent of using chemical weapons, by means of thousands of gas shells. The response to the Great Iraq Revolution of 1920 was a ruthlessly violent and typically British response that resulted in civilian men, women, children and entire communities wiped out. The documents from that period barely conceal the implied racial supremacy behind British Imperialist thinking at the time. They reveal a mindset at the very highest level of Government, up to and including Churchill which, ironically popular public perception generally associates with Nazi Germany.

Recent British military adventurism indicates that such attitudes against “uncivilised tribes” have not gone away.