Blogs > Cliopatria > A question answered

Oct 26, 2009 9:00 am

A question answered

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

A few days ago, a new article popped up in my RSS reader: R. M. Douglas, 'Did Britain use chemical weapons in mandatory Iraq?', Journal of Modern History, 81 (December 2009), 1-29. This was slightly odd, because it's only October and the rest of the December issue isn't online yet. The editors of JMH clearly think they've got an unusually significant paper here, one worth publishing early and with an accompanying press release. And I agree.

The question in the article's title is one I've asked before. After the First World War, Britain gained control of Iraq (or Mesopotamia) from the Ottoman Empire, not as an outright possession but under a mandate from the League of Nations. Some of Iraq's inhabitants disapproved of British rule and from 1920 rebelled. A new form of colonial policing known as air control eventually suppressed the revolt, but in the meantime the (rapidly demobilising) Army and the Royal Air Force had their hands full just containing the situation. Hence the attraction of using chemical weapons such as mustard gas against tribesmen with no experience of and no protection against this new form of warfare.

But did Britain actually use gas in Iraq? Certainly, some historians and journalists have claimed that it did, delivered by either artillery shells or aerial bombs. They have usually done so in a remarkably casual fashion, offering little or nothing in the way of primary sources. Douglas shows that the only documentary evidence available -- a 1921 letter by an Air Ministry official stating that the Army had used tear gas (then considered to be a chemical weapon, even if not a poison gas) against Iraqi rebels the previous year -- was officially contested at the time, and the claim was soon withdrawn by the Air Ministry. Inquiries on the ground in Iraq turned up no evidence that gas had been used either by artillery or aeroplane.

So much for that. Something which has confused matters (and which Douglas clears up admirably) is the role of Winston Churchill, who as War Minister (and Air Minister) in 1920 did authorise the use of gas by the Army in Iraq. Again, in late 1921, now as Colonial Minister, he authorised the transfer of gas bombs to the RAF in Iraq. In both cases he was pushing the boundaries of his authority by not consulting with his Cabinet colleagues; but nothing came of either episode. In 1920, the shells arrived in Iraq too late to be of use; in 1921-2, the disarmament negotiations in Washington DC meant that Britain had to switch to a 'no first-use' policy regarding poison gas. So once again, there is no evidence that gas was used. But what these events do show is that there those in both government and in the military who were quite prepared to use chemical weapons against an enemy. And why not? After all, they had done so in the recent war in Europe.

Of course, public attitudes towards gas warfare were changing. As Douglas suggests, there may well have been an outcry against Churchill if his soldiers and airmen had gassed unprotected tribesmen, even if only with tear gas. That nothing like this did happen is why I've been sceptical of the gas-in-Iraq claim for a while now: as far I can tell, nobody claimed publicly at the time that British servicemen were again undertaking gas warfare. I would expect somebody like L. E. O. Charlton -- who had been the RAF's chief of staff in Iraq in 1923-4, who effectively ended his career because of his moral objections to air control, and who in the 1930s wrote a series of books warning of the danger of gas warfare to British civilians -- to have at least hinted at the practice. But he didn't, and neither did anyone else that I've come across.

Anyway, thanks to Douglas, this is one historical puzzle we seem to have solved. Now to get the message out ...

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