Churchill backs gas warfare to preserve the Empire

Soldiers with gas masks -1917
Photo by Captain Frank Hurley – public domain – cropped – Wikimedia.

3 May 1920

On 3 May 1920, Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill wrote a covering letter of support to a Cabinet memorandum by the Chief of the Imperial Staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, on gas warfare. Churchill declared that he was ‘in entire agreement with the views put forward by Sir Henry Wilson that gas should definitely be accepted as a weapon of war’ and that the British government’s ‘indeterminate position’ was ‘placing us at a serious disadvantage, as compared with the other Great Powers.’

Wilson’s memorandum highlighted the army’s particular concern about being able to deploy poison gas against rebels fighting British rule. He considered chemical weapons essential in preserving ‘the British Empire whose widely extended frontiers have been held in the past not by large numbers of soldiers – for their numbers were few – but by the superiority of their arms and equipment.’  He warned that a ‘refusal to make use of modern scientific weapons (meaning in this case poison gas) may be fraught with the gravest consequences. The tribes on our frontiers possess today quick firing guns, and understand how to use them. We have no longer a monopoly of such weapons, and we must turn to science to help us maintain our technical superiority. ‘

Wilson concluded with four proposals. ‘ 1. That gas be definitely accepted as a weapon of war. 2. That the Government’s policy should be to educate public opinion in favour of the use of gas as a weapon instead of against it. 3. That no limits ( other than financial ) should be placed to our activities in studying and developing gas as a weapon. 4. That, once at war, the War Office should be empowered to use gas when and where they consider that the military situation demands it.’14

FOOTNOTE

  1. ‘Gas Warfare: Memorandum by the Secretary of State for War,’ The National Archives, CAB 24/105/11

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