1920-1939 | Chemical weapons | Churchill's crimes | Iraq



Troops blinded by tear gas 2 years earlier during the closing months of the First World War © IWM (Q 11586)

[ 18 August 1920 ]

On 18 August 1920, General Aylmer Haldane, commanding the British army in Mesopotamia, asked the War Office to supply chemical weapons which they could deploy against suspect insurgents in Iraq.  Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, was supportive of the general’s plan, despite Air Chief Marshall Hugh Trenchard’s insistence that the gas bomb trials being conducted by the RAF were only at an early experimental stage and that none were available for operational use.1

Churchill felt frustrated by the reluctance among some in the military to use maximum force, commenting in a War Office memo in May, ‘I don’t understand this squeamishness about the use of gas,’ and adding that he personally was ‘strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.’  He promptly approved Haldane’s request to deploy any gas-filled artillery shells that might be available, however it seems that the only available stocks were in Egypt and these were of far less toxic tear gas.2

Historians have not found conclusive proof as to whether or not any gas shells were used, but the absence of any such documentation may be due to the concern of either officers on the ground or Whitehall officials over keeping a long term record.  Individual officers might have looked to Britain’s Manual of Military Law for a pretext, as it claimed that the normal rules of warfare only applied to military operations against ‘civilized nations’ and ‘did not apply in wars with uncivilized states and tribes.’3  However, there was always the danger that public opinion might be scandalized if the use of chemical weapons was reported in the press.


  1. Barry Renfrew, The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, 2019, p. 75.
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Manual of Military Law, The War Office, H.M.S.O., London, 1914, p235 See also Brett Bowden, The Empire of Civilisation, The Evolution of an Imperial Idea, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2009, p. 182.

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