John Sargent, ‘Gassed,’ Oil on Canvas, 1919 –
Public domain via The IWM and Wikimedia.

18 June 1920

On 18 June 1920, Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill circulated to Cabinet ministers the comments of the chief of the imperial general staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. The Field Marshal hated any interference in military matters by mistrustful politicians he derided as ‘Frocks’ and he had been incensed on learning of a memorandum submitted to ministers a few days earlier, cautioning against the use of poison gas and written by the president of the board of education, Herbert Fisher. Six weeks earlier, Wilson had himself presented a proposal to the Cabinet [ 3 May], supported by Churchill, that Britain should continue to use gas as a weapon so it could ensure a technological edge over relcalcitrant tribes across the Empire. Fisher now warned that its use would be expensive, politically counter-productive to winning over hearts and minds and unethical when ‘used against an uncivilised enemy possessing little or no medical equipment.’

Churchill was not prepared to allow such sentimental idealism go unanswered. Nor was Wilson. He dismissed Fisher’s skepticism, countering that poison gas was in fact an economical method of counterinsurgency ‘with at least two or three times the casualty producing power of ordinary shell,’ that it was a grave mistake to make chivalrous considerations towards enemies, who ‘before killing our wounded perpetrate such horrors as it is unnecessary to dwell on here’ and reminded ministers that his opinions were shared by the General Staff, who considered the use of poison gas as ‘necessary to safeguard, as far as is humanly possible, the safety of the Empire.’1


  1. ‘Memorandum by the Secretary of State for War,’ 18 June 1920, The National Archives, CAB 24’107/97.

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