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Winston Churchill's Secret Poison Gas Memo
[stamp] PRIME MINISTER'S PERSONAL MINUTE
[stamp, pen] Serial No. D. 217/4
[Seal of Prime Minister]
10 Downing Street, Whitehall [gothic script]
GENERAL ISMAY FOR C.O.S. COMMITTEE [underlined]
1. I want you to think very seriously over this question of poison gas. I would not use it unless it could be shown either that (a) it was life or death for us, or (b) that it would shorten the war by a year.
2. It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women.
3. I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay us to use poison gas, by which I mean principally mustard. We will want to gain more ground in Normandy so as not to be cooped up in a small area. We could probably deliver 20 tons to their 1 and for the sake of the 1 they would bring their bomber aircraft into the area against our superiority, thus paying a heavy toll.
4. Why have the Germans not used it? Not certainly out of moral scruples or affection for us. They have not used it because it does not pay them. The greatest temptation ever offered to them was the beaches of Normandy. This they could have drenched with gas greatly to the hindrance of the troops. That they thought about it is certain and that they prepared against our use of gas is also certain. But they only reason they have not used it against us is that they fear the retaliation. What is to their detriment is to our advantage.
5. Although one sees how unpleasant it is to receive poison gas attacks, from which nearly everyone recovers, it is useless to protest that an equal amount of H. E. will not inflict greater casualties and sufferings on troops and civilians. One really must not be bound within silly conventions of the mind whether they be those that ruled in the last war or those in reverse which rule in this.
6. If the bombardment of London became a serious nuisance and great rockets with far-reaching and devastating effect fell on many centres of Government and labour, I should be prepared to do [underline] anything [stop underline] that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany in such a way that most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention. We could stop all work at the flying bomb starting points. I do not see why we should have the disadvantages of being the gentleman while they have all the advantages of being the cad. There are times when this may be so but not now.
7. I quite agree that it may be several weeks or even months before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent. In the meanwhile, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there. Pray address yourself to this. It is a big thing and can only be discarded for a big reason. I shall of course have to square Uncle Joe and the President; but you need not bring this into your calculations at the present time. Just try to find out what it is like on its merits.
[signed] Winston Churchill [initials]
Source: photographic copy of original 4 page memo, in Guenther W. Gellermann, "Der Krieg, der nicht stattfand", Bernard & Graefe Verlag, 1986, pp. 249-251
Winston S. Churchill: departmental minute (Churchill papers: 16/16) 12 May 1919 War Office
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.
I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.
from Companion Volume 4, Part 1 of the official biography, WINSTON S. CHURCHILL, by Martin Gilbert (London: Heinemann, 1976)
Henry Gonzalez, US Congressman, referred to this in the House of Representatives on March 24, 1992:
"But there again, where is the moral right? The first one to use gas against Arabs was Winston Churchill, the British, in the early 1920's. They were Iraq Arabs they used them against." http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/congress/1992/h920324g.htm
"Moral right" is of course the reason this piece of history has now been dredged up again - by people who see contradictions in the pious arguments of Messrs. Bush, Blair et al. And this seems only fair. In 1998 Clinton denounced opponents to his planned attack on Iraq for "not remembering the past".
> I remain unconvinced that the UK used chemical weapons > in the middle east in the 1920s.... > but I'm open to correction.
Not easy. And if you'd rather not...
Churchill thought of it as poison gas - and so, apparently did everyone else. The idea of using it was his alone. And he is also is also to have given the authorization to the RAF. He wanted gas to be used in addition to regular bombing: "against recalcitrant Arabs as experiment". According to Simons, gas was not dispensed in bombs.
The intention was to quell a growing rebellion in remote villages. He met with objections but maintained that "we cannot in any circumstances acquiesce in the non-utilisation of any weapons which are available to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails on the frontier".
It seems Churchill wanted to cause "disablement", "discomfort or illness, but not death".
In any case, to Churchill this was not a moral issue. Here is part of a memo, so you can see it through his eyes. He wrote this during WWII, when he contemplated using poison gas, but never did:
Excerpts below by www.informationwar.org
BACKGROUND: In 1917, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the British occupied Iraq and established a colonial government. The Arab and Kurdish people of Iraq resisted the British occupation, and by 1920 this had developed into a full scale national revolt, which cost the British dearly. As the Iraqi resistance gained strength, the British resorted to increasingly repressive measures, including the use of posion gas.] NB: Because of formatting problems, quotation marks will appear as stars * All quotes in the excerpt are properly footnoted in the original book, with full references to British archives and papers. Excerpt from pages 179-181 of Simons, Geoff. *IRAQ: FROM SUMER TO SUDAN*. London: St. Martins Press, 1994:
Winston Churchill, as colonial secretary, was sensitive to the cost of policing the Empire; and was in consequence keen to exploit the potential of modern technology. This strategy had particular relevance to operations in Iraq. On 19 February, 1920, before the start of the Arab uprising, Churchill (then Secretary for War and Air) wrote to Sir Hugh Trenchard, the pioneer of air warfare. Would it be possible for Trenchard to take control of Iraq? This would entail *the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death...for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes.*
Churchill was in no doubt that gas could be profitably employed against the Kurds and Iraqis (as well as against other peoples in the Empire): *I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.* Henry Wilson shared Churchills enthusiasm for gas as an instrument of colonial control but the British cabinet was reluctant to sanction the use of a weapon that had caused such misery and revulsion in the First World War. Churchill himself was keen to argue that gas, fired from ground-based guns or dropped from aircraft, would cause *only discomfort or illness, but not death* to dissident tribespeople; but his optimistic view of the effects of gas were mistaken. It was likely that the suggested gas would permanently damage eyesight and *kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes.*
Churchill remained unimpressed by such considerations, arguing that the use of gas, a *scientific expedient,* should not be prevented *by the prejudices of those who do not think clearly*. In the event, gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with excellent moral effect* though gas shells were not dropped from aircraft because of practical difficulties [.....]
Today in 1993 there are still Iraqis and Kurds who remember being bombed and machine-gunned by the RAF in the 1920s. A Kurd from the Korak mountains commented, seventy years after the event: *They were bombing here in the Kaniya Khoran...Sometimes they raided three times a day.* Wing Commander Lewis, then of 30 Squadron (RAF), Iraq, recalls how quite often *one would get a signal that a certain Kurdish village would have to be bombed...*, the RAF pilots being ordered to bomb any Kurd who looked hostile. In the same vein, Squadron-Leader Kendal of 30 Squadron recalls that if the tribespeople were doing something they ought not be doing then you shot them.*
Similarly, Wing-Commander Gale, also of 30 Squadron: *If the Kurds hadn't learned by our example to behave themselves in a civilised way then we had to spank their bottoms. This was done by bombs and guns.
Wing-Commander Sir Arthur Harris (later Bomber Harris, head of wartime Bomber Command) was happy to emphasise that *The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.* It was an easy matter to bomb and machine-gun the tribespeople, because they had no means of defence or retalitation. Iraq and Kurdistan were also useful laboratories for new weapons; devices specifically developed by the Air Ministry for use against tribal villages. The ministry drew up a list of possible weapons, some of them the forerunners of napalm and air-to-ground missiles:
Phosphorus bombs, war rockets, metal crowsfeet [to maim livestock] man-killing shrapnel, liquid fire, delay-action bombs. Many of these weapons were first used in Kurdistan.
Excerpt from pages 179-181 of Simons, Geoff. *Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam*.
London: St. Martins Press, 1994.
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