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Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?
Author(s): R. M. Douglas
Source: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 81, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 859-887
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/605488
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Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?*
R. M. Douglas
Colgate University

Like Sherlock Holmes’s supposed use of the expression “Elementary, my dear
Watson” or the notion that Humphrey Bogart instructed Dooley Wilson to
“Play it again, Sam” in the film Casablanca, the proposition that the British
were the first to use chemical weapons in Iraq in the 1920s has attained the
status of common knowledge. Scholarly works, newspaper articles, innumerable Web sites, and even tourist guidebooks agree that Saddam Hussein was
a relative latecomer to the field of gas warfare in the region and that the
dubious honor of having introduced weapons of mass destruction to Iraq
properly belongs to Great Britain. The unanimity on this point notwithstanding, a remarkable degree of uncertainty seems to exist as to the particulars of
this early chemical offensive. In some versions, the Royal Air Force (RAF) is
alleged to have dropped gas bombs from airplanes against rebellious Iraqis in
the course of what was euphemistically known as “air policing.” In others, the
British Army is held to be the responsible party, employing gas-filled artillery
shells. Similar disagreements exist about the nature of the chemical agents
used, the location of the attacks, and the year or even the decade in which they
took place. Nor do any of these accounts venture an explanation of how the
gassing operations were successfully concealed from both the world’s press
and the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, in
contrast to the global uproar that attended Benito Mussolini’s mustard gas
offensive against Abyssinia in 1935. But the notion that the fundamental
premise underlying all these various narratives might itself be flawed, and that
Britain’s chemical pedigree in Iraq rests upon no firmer basis in fact than
Holmes’s or Bogart’s supposed catchphrases, has thus far been allowed to go
unexamined.
Chemical warfare has from its inception been a controversial and emotionally charged subject. Since Germany’s first successful use of chlorine gas at
Ypres in April 1915, a tactic promptly denounced by the Times as a “felon
method of warfare,” the few countries to resort to such weapons other than in
retaliation against similar attacks have been branded as international pariahs.1
* I am grateful to my colleague Bruce Rutherford of Colgate University and to Peter
Sluglett of the University of Utah for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.
1 Times, June 15, 1915. The Ypres attack was not the first occasion that chemical
weapons had been used on the battlefield, although previous deployments had had no
The Journal of Modern History 81 (December 2009): 859 – 887
© 2009 by The University of Chicago. 0022-2801/2009/8104-0004$10.00
All rights reserved.

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860

Douglas

Claims that chemical munitions were nearly always less deadly and often
caused less suffering than “conventional” weapons, usually advanced by
military men, gained little popular purchase during the twentieth century.2 In
view of the enduring public revulsion against this form of warfare, it is
unsurprising that accusations of chemical weapons used by one side or another
in various conflicts should have proliferated almost as rapidly as the weapons
themselves. The Soviet Union and China, for example, accused the United
States of using gas in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.3 The Americans, in
their turn, charged the Soviet Union and its allies with attacking civilians in
Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan with air-dropped mycotoxins between 1976
and 1979 in the so-called yellow rain episode.4 In the past quarter century, few
protracted conflicts have failed to generate claims and counterclaims of
chemical weapon use by one or both parties. The series of border clashes
between Libya and Chad, the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over
Nagorno-Karabakh, the Yugoslav and Sudanese civil wars, and the IsraeliPalestinian imbroglio have been accompanied by dozens of such allegations,
all of which to date remain unverified. But it was the large-scale employment
of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, culminating in the drenching of
the town of Halabja in April 1988 with vesicant (blistering) and nerve agents
as part of Baghdad’s al-Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds, that catapulted
the question of gas warfare in general, and its employment in the Middle East
in particular, to the forefront of public consciousness worldwide. The U.S.
invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the chief justification for which was Saddam
Hussein’s purported possession of weapons of mass destruction, including
chemical weapons, has drawn even greater attention to the topic.
The argument that the British were the first to employ chemical weapons in
Iraq— or Mesopotamia, as the area was known before the creation of the

effect. See Rolf-Dieter Mu¨ller, “Total War as a Result of New Weapons? The Use of
Chemical Agents in World War I,” in Great War, Total War, ed. Roger Chickering and
Stig Fo¨rster (Cambridge, 2000), 96 –97. Spain was unusual in escaping significant
international censure for its apparent use of chemical weapons in Morocco during the
1920s, perhaps because of claims that the Rif rebels against whom they were deployed
had been the first to resort to gas warfare, using munitions obtained from Germany.
See, e.g., Times, July 26, 1919, October 20, 1925; New York Times, September 2, 1923.
2
See Richard M. Price, The Chemical Weapons Taboo (Ithaca, NY, 1997); Tim
Cook, “‘Against God-Inspired Conscience’: The Perception of Gas Warfare as a
Weapon of Mass Destruction, 1915–1939,” War and Society 18, no. 1 (2000): 47– 69.
3 See, e.g., Milton Leitenberg, “New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: Background and Analysis,” Cold War International History
Project Bulletin 11 (1998): 185– 86; New York Times, March 27, 1965.
4 See Jonathan B. Tucker, “The ‘Yellow Rain’ Controversy: Lessons for Arms
Control Compliance,” Nonproliferation Review 8, no. 1 (2001): 25– 42.

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Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?

861

mandate at the San Remo Conference in April 1920 — has evolved more or
less in parallel with the unfolding of events in the region since Operation
Desert Storm. One of the most important pieces of evidence adduced in
support of the contention, however, had appeared in print several decades
previously. The fourth volume of Martin Gilbert’s massive biography of
Winston Churchill, published in 1975, dealt with its subject’s tenure as
secretary of state for war and air between 1919 and 1921. Gilbert briefly noted
Churchill’s desire that the RAF experiment with mustard gas bombs to find
out whether these could “inflict punishment on recalcitrant natives without
inflicting grave injury upon them.”5 The companion volume, which appeared
two years later, included a minute written by the war secretary on May 12,
1919. This document, a characteristically trenchant Churchillian defense of
the legitimacy of using chemical weapons against rebel tribesmen in India and
Mesopotamia, has become so central a component of the indictment against its
author that it is necessary to reproduce it in full.
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 gas retention 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.6

At the time, neither this minute nor Churchill’s Mesopotamian policy in
general attracted scholarly attention. The reviews of Gilbert’s biography and
its companion volume had little to say about Iraq; Joseph M. Hernon was
alone in remarking upon Clementine Churchill’s warning to her husband that
his chemical enthusiasms were fast earning him notoriety as “a Mustard Gas
fiend.”7 So little relevance did Iraq seem to have to the question of chemical
5
Churchill to Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, August 29,
1920, AIR 5/490, Public Records Office, Kew (hereafter PRO); Martin Gilbert,
Winston S. Churchill, 1874 –1965, vol. 4, 1916 –1922 (London, 1975), 494.
6
Quoted in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, 1874 –1965, vol. 4 companion
documents, “January 1917–June 1919” (London, 1977), pt. 1:649. Gilbert cited the
document as “Churchill Papers 16/16” (properly “Chartwell Papers 16/16A, fol. 196”);
the original is at PRO, WO 32/5184.
7 See reviews by Walter L. Arnstein (Political Science Quarterly 91, no. 3 [1976]:
550 –51), Joseph M. Hernon (American Historical Review 81, no. 4 [1976]: 865– 66),
and Kenneth Lindsay (Contemporary Review 232, no. 1347 [1978]: 218 –19). For
additional particulars of Churchill’s fascination with chemical weapons, see Marion

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Douglas

weapons that the first attempt at a comprehensive treatment of the subject,
Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman’s A Higher Form of Killing (1982), contained no mention of the country.8 In 1986, though, an essay by Charles
Townshend of Keele University provided what seemed to be the first concrete
evidence of British chemical weapons use in Iraq. According to the author, a
September 1921 letter by J. A. Webster, assistant secretary at the Air Ministry,
“point[ed] out that the army had used SK gas shells in quantity against the
Mesopotamian rebels in 1920 with ‘excellent moral effect.’”9
Even though Townshend’s brief summation of the Webster letter contained
two significant mischaracterizations—the expression “in quantity” was Townshend’s own, appearing nowhere in the original document, and the reference
to “excellent moral effect” was in fact the Air Ministry’s estimation of what
gas bombs dropped from aircraft, if used, could be expected to achieve, rather
than what gas shells had already achieved—and even though it did not make
it as clear as it might have done for nonspecialist readers that SK (ethyl
iodoacetate) was a tear gas rather than an asphyxiating agent, the document
certainly seemed to show that there was a case to answer.10 David Omissi of
the University of Hull, in Air Power and Colonial Control (1991), after

Girard, A Strange and Formidable Weapon: British Responses to World War I Poison
Gas (Lincoln, NE, 2008), 41– 42.
8 Harris and Paxman did muddy the waters by asserting that the RAF “is alleged to
have used gas bombs against the Afghans” shortly after the Great War. No evidence
was provided by the authors in support of this claim, nor has any emerged since then.
As Edward Spiers was to show in an article published the following year, the story
almost certainly originated in Italian “black propaganda” intended to justify Mussolini’s chemical warfare campaign in Abyssinia in 1935–36. See Robert Harris and
Jeremy Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Gas and Germ Warfare
(London, 1982), 44; Edward M. Spiers, “Gas and the North-West Frontier,” Journal of
Strategic Studies 6, no. 4 (1983): 94 –113. For an example of allegations of British use
of gas bombs in Afghanistan as a means of diverting attention from Italian atrocities,
see Virginio Gayda, “La nuova manovra,” Giornale d’Italia, April 9, 1936.
9
Charles Townshend, “Civilization and ‘Frightfulness’: Air Control in the Middle
East between the Wars,” in Warfare, Diplomacy, and Politics: Essays in Honour of
A. J. P. Taylor, ed. Chris Wrigley (London, 1986), 148.
10
The relevant passage reads: “A possible substitute [for innocuous lachrymatory
cartridges then under development by the Air Ministry] is to be found in the 4.5⬙
how[itzer] SK gas shell, of which the Army holds stocks in Iraq. This gas is definitely
classified as nonlethal and is far less noxious than even mustard gas, but at the same
time it may have serious and permanent effects on the eyes, and even, under certain
circumstances, cause death. These shells were used by the artillery during the recent
rebellion with good effect, and could readily be adapted locally for use by aircraft. . . .
In view of the excellent moral effect that should be produced by the employment of
these shells, the [Air] Council are anxious that the Royal Air Force shall be in a
position to use them in the event of a crisis of sufficient gravity.” J. A. Webster, Air

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Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?

863

remarking that the use of gas bombs in Iraq by the RAF was found to be
impractical, relied upon Townshend for his assertion that gas shells had been
employed in 1920, again reproducing the misconstrued “excellent moral
effect” formula.11 Omissi also drew attention to Churchill’s full-throated
encouragement at this time of the development of chemical weapons. Geoff
Simons, in turn identifying Omissi as his source, restated the claim about the
army’s use of gas shells in his much-cited 1994 study of Iraqi politics.12
The period surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw the appearance of a fresh crop of books and articles dealing with Iraq’s chemical warfare
history, although these did little to clarify the nature of the agents used, the
means of delivery, the dates of the attacks, or their targets. A representative
example of the nature of these claims as well as of the apparent fluidity of the
character of the gas attacks is provided in a 2003 article by the BBC’s world
affairs editor, John Simpson. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Simpson
asserted that “Winston Churchill advised the RAF to bomb recalcitrant Kurdish villages with poison gas, which it duly did, thereby establishing a dubious
historical precedent.” After the head of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch
challenged this version of events, Simpson offered a revision four weeks later.
“It was tear gas that was used, and according to the Kurds it killed dozens of
children and old people.”13 His journalistic colleague Robert Fisk, Middle East
correspondent of the Independent—who holds a PhD in modern history from
the University of Dublin—also adverted to “the RAF’s use of gas on Kurdish
rebels,” although he dated this to the 1930s.14 In his most recent work, The
Great War for Civilisation, however, Fisk maintains that “in Iraq, Churchill
urged the use of mustard gas, which had already been used against Shia rebels
in 1920.”15
Recent scholarly contributions on the subject have, if anything, served to
increase the degree of confusion as to specific details rather than helping to
diminish it. William R. Polk, founding director of the Middle East Studies
Association (MESA), states that “poison gas” was used in the suppression of

Ministry, to J. E. Shuckburgh, Colonial Office, September 15, 1921, PRO, CO
537/825.
11
David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919 –
1939 (Manchester, 1991), 160.
12
Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, rev. ed. (1994; repr., Basingstoke,
2004), 179.
13 John Simpson, Sunday Telegraph, November 16, December 7, December 14,
2003.
14 Robert Fisk, Independent (London), February 15, 2003.
15 Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East,
rev. ed. (London, 2006), 178.

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the 1920 rebellion in the middle Euphrates.16 Juan Cole, professor of Middle
Eastern history at the University of Michigan and past MESA president, also
opts for this earlier date as the moment when the British put down rebellion
“from the air . . . employing poison gas for the first time in Iraq.”17 However,
according to Saad Eskander, director of the Iraqi National Library, “the
deliberate use of gas bombs . . . against civilian targets” was aimed at the
population of southern Kurdistan between 1922 and 1925, a periodization in
which he is joined by Johan Galtung.18 Thabit Abdullah of York University in
Toronto agrees that the RAF “used mustard gas,” but he maintains that this
was directed against “tribal armies” rather than civilians.19 Sebastian Balfour
of the London School of Economics holds the British Army rather than the
RAF responsible for launching “shells filled with mustard gas at Arabs
fighting against the British occupation of most of the country.”20 Bruce
Lawrence of Duke University and Derek Gregory of the University of British
Columbia are more circumspect about the delivery method, referring only to
“the liberal use of poison gas . . . by Winston Churchill in the 1920s” and to
“pulverizing bombing raids, heavy artillery bombardments, and gas attacks,”
respectively, against Iraqi insurgents.21 Ephraim Karsh of King’s College,
London, and Michael Mann of the University of California, Los Angeles,
likewise surmount difficulties of chronology and targeting by contending that
British chemical offensives continued throughout both of the interwar decades
and that Kurds as well as Iraqi Arabs were their victims.22
Regardless of the precise details involved, many authorities remain convinced that Britain’s chemical operations had a major impact upon Iraq’s
immediate circumstances and future development. Positing a connection
across the decades between Churchill and “Chemical Ali” (Ali Hassan alMajid), Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield suggest, “Perhaps the extensive
16

William R. Polk, Understanding Iraq (New York, 2006), 83.
Juan Cole, “ The Three State Solution?” Nation, March 29, 2004.
18
Saad Eskander, “Southern Kurdistan under Britain’s Mesopotamian Mandate:
From Separation to Incorporation, 1920 –23,” Middle Eastern Studies 37, no. 2 (2001):
176; Johan Galtung, “September 11, 2001: Diagnosis, Prognosis, Therapy,” in The
West, Europe, and the Muslim World, ed. Arno Tausch and Peter Herrmann (New
York, 2006), 50. Galtung dates the use of gas bombs against Iraqi civilians to 1922.
19
Thabit A. J. Abdullah, A Short History of Iraq: From 636 to the Present (London,
2003), 129.
20
Sebastian Balfour, Deadly Embrace: Morocco and the Road to the Spanish Civil
War (Oxford, 2002), 127.
21
Bruce Lawrence, ed., Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden
(London, 2005), xix; Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine,
Iraq (Malden, MA, 2004), 148.
22 Ephraim Karsh and M. Navias, “Israeli Nuclear Weapons and Middle East
Peace,” in Between War and Peace: Dilemmas of Israeli Security, ed. Ephraim Karsh
(London, 1996), 82; Michael Mann, Incoherent Empire (London, 2003), 247.
17

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Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?

865

British use of chemical weapons against rebellious Kurdish tribes during the
1920s provided the model for the Anfal campaign.”23 Saı¨d Aburish, a leading
biographer of Saddam Hussein, contends that Britain’s “willingness to resort
to . . . chemical warfare administered a shock to [Iraq’s] social system from
which it has never recovered.”24 For Francis Ghile`s of the European Institute
of the Mediterranean, Britain’s use of mustard gas against “old men, women
and children” in Iraq helps explain “why, for many people in southern-rim
Mediterranean countries, fear of military domination by America and Europe
remains paramount.”25
In light of the degree of historical uncertainty surrounding all aspects of this
question beyond the common core assertion that some British forces attacked
some Iraqis with chemical weapons of some description somewhere in Mesopotamia at some time between the world wars, it is hardly surprising that the
picture painted by nonscholars should have been even more mystifying and
inconsistent. Congressman Henry Gonzalez (D-TX), for example, stated in the
U.S. House of Representatives in 1992 that “the first one to use gas against the
Arabs was Winston Churchill, the British, in the early 1920s. They were Iraqi
Arabs they used them against.”26 Tony Benn, a Labour member of Parliament
and former cabinet minister, claimed that it was the future head of Bomber
Command, Sir Arthur Harris, who in 1920 as “an RAF squadron leader, came
up with the idea of bombing the area, and mustard gas was used by the Royal
Air Force.”27 A briefing document by the environmental organization Green23 Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield, The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy, or Division? (New York, 2005), 23. In this work, Anderson and Stansfield
misattribute the excellent-moral-effect formula to Churchill himself.
24 Saı¨d K. Aburish, Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge (London, 2000), 6.
25 Francis Ghile
` s, “Bridging Cultural Divisions,” NATO Review, Spring 2005, http://
www.nato.int/docu/Review/2005/issue4/English/art2.html.
26
Congressional Record, 102d Cong., 2d sess., 138 (March 24, 1992): H 1684.
27
Tony Benn, “Religion, War and the Gulf ” in Religion in Public Life, ed. Dan
Cohn-Sherbok and David McLellan (Basingstoke, 1992), 34. In reality, Harris was not
posted to Iraq until two years after the Euphrates Rebellion. See Henry Probert,
Bomber Harris: His Life and Times (London, 2001), 50. The impulse to place Harris
at the center of gas bombing operations in Iraq can also be found in the scholarly
literature, although this has been accomplished only by means of inaccurate quotation.
Thus, Kim Coleman quotes Harris as stating 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 wiped out and one-third of its inhabitants killed by bomb or gases.”
Although no citation is provided for this quotation—the relevant endnote reads merely,
“Wing-Commander [sic] Arthur Harris, later known as ‘Bomber Harris,’ speaking in
1920”—the passage in question clearly is derived from a 1924 report submitted by
Harris, then commanding officer of No. 45 Squadron at Hinaidi: “Where the Arab and
Kurd had just begun to realise that if they could stand a little noise, they could stand
bombing, and still argue; they now know what real bombing means, in casualties and
damage; they now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village, vide attached

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Douglas

peace, issued in February 2003, alleged that “the first use of weapons of mass
destruction in the Middle East was by British forces in 1917, at a time when
Britain occupied territory that was later to become Iraq. Chemical weapons
were used in the process of welding the Kurdish north, the Shia south and the
Sunni tribes around Baghdad, into an invented Iraqi ‘kingdom’ to control the
region’s oil.”28 An immense number of journalists and other commentators,
both in print and on the Internet, have drawn a direct line from Churchill’s
“squeamishness” minute of May 12, 1919, to the Air Ministry’s misinterpreted “excellent moral effect” letter two years later to establish a chain of
causation that, in their view, requires no further proof.29
To dispel the confusion that continues to exist, it is necessary to obtain
answers to three questions. The first is whether official sanction was ever
given to the use of chemical weapons in Iraq. The second is whether chemical
weapons were indeed available to British air and ground units there—for if the
munitions did not exist, or were not provided to the expeditionary forces, they
could hardly have been used. The third is whether the Air Ministry’s belief,
as expressed in the Webster letter of September 1921 (the only piece of
documentary evidence ever cited in support of Britain’s use of chemical
weapons), that the Army had in fact fired gas shells in Iraq the previous year
was well founded.
There can be no question that the idea of using chemical agents to suppress
colonial insurgencies had many influential supporters in military circles at the
end of the Great War. Although gas had accounted for a very small proportion
of battlefield casualties on the Western Front, it had proved its worth both as
a harassing weapon and as a means of forcing the enemy to relinquish a
particular piece of territory, rendering the exposed troops more vulnerable to
conventional attacks.30 Had the war continued into 1919, these munitions

photos of Kushan-Al-Ajaza, can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants
killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no
opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape, and little chance of
retaliation or loot such as an infantry column would afford them in producing a similar
result.” The four concluding words attributed to Harris in the edited Coleman version—“by bomb or gases”— do not appear in the original document. Kim Coleman, A
History of Chemical Warfare (Basingstoke, 2005), 44, 170 n. 18; extract of a report by
Harris, covered by a letter from the Air Officer Commanding, Iraq, March 6, 1924,
PRO, AIR 5/338.
28
“Iraq Is Not the Only Country in the Region with Weapons of Mass Destruction
(WMD),” Greenpeace Briefing, February 2003, http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/
content/international/press/reports/iraq-is-not-the-only-country-i.pdf.
29 See, e.g., Jonathan Glancey, “Our Last Occupation: Gas, Chemicals, Bombs;
Britain Has Used Them All in Iraq,” Guardian, April 19, 2003.
30 L. F. Haber, who has made the most careful study of the casualty rates attributable

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