Object of the Moment Blog: ‘The Menace of Chemical Warfare to Civilian Populations’ Pamphlet by Arthur J. Gillian.

On the 7th May, to coincide with VE Day, The Peace Museum was supposed to open a new exhibition funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Bombs…Away! will explore the impact of civilian bombing against civilians during World War Two and how the peace movement responded to it. Whilst we have had to postpone the exhibition for now, we hope to be able to open it later in the year once it is safe to do so.

For now, our intern Emilia, has written this object of the moment blog about a pamphlet that will feature in Bombs…Away! which warned of the menace of chemical warfare, written in 1932, before the Second World War.

“New technologies changed international conflicts in 20th century. Chemical weapons were used on a large scale for the first time on 22nd April 1915. German forces buried 1,700 tons of chlorine along a four-mile stretch of the front in Ypres, in effect killing more than 1,100 people and injuring over 7,000. Even though we know some sorts of poisons were deployed as weapons for centuries (e.g. toxic smoke used in ancient China), this mass use during WWI shaped the world’s view of employing this kind of warfare.

Poisons or poisoned weapons were prohibited before the war by the Hague Declaration (1899) and Convention (1907), yet over 50,965 tons of chemical agents were deployed in WWI causing 85,000 fatalities and 1,176,500 non-fatalities.

Fritz Haber – who we associate the most with these weapons- claimed on his death in 1934 that chemical warfare is a more humane way of fighting than using regular artillery. Yet, an account of a British nurse who treated mustard gas cases suggests the opposite: ‘They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain even with the worst wounds, but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.’ [1] After WWI, Haber was convicted a war criminal, however his name was removed from the wanted list and he continued to work and promote chemical weapons.

The distribution of gas was not only limited to the front as wind would blow the poison gas to the nearby towns. Civilians rarely had a warning system to alert others and did not have access to gas masks, therefore the gas could easily get through the open window and doors, harming an estimated 100,000-260,000 people, from which tens of thousands died after the war from scarring of the lungs, skin damage, and cerebral damage. Certainly, those in the military were aware of the danger posed to civilians. British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig wrote in his diary: ‘My officers and I were aware that such weapon would cause harm to women and children living in nearby towns, as strong winds were common on the battlefront. However, because the weapon was to be directed against the enemy, none of us were overly concerned at all.’ Moreover, the military theory was not limited to that. ­­

This is how Italian general Giuilio Douhet imagined the future of the war: “… The guiding principle of bombing actions should be this: the objective must be destroyed completely in one attack, making further attack on the same target unnecessary. Reaching an objective is an aerial operation which always involves a certain amount of risk and should be undertaken once only. The complete destruction of the objective has moral and material effects, the repercussions of which may be tremendous. To give us some idea of the extent of these repercussions, we need only envision what would go on among the civilian population of congested cities once the enemy announced that he would bomb such centers relentlessly, making no distinction between military and non-military objectives. In general, aerial offensives will be directed against such targets as peacetime industrial and commercial establishments; important buildings, private and public; transportation arteries and centers; and certain designated areas of civilian population as well. To destroy these targets three kinds of bombs are needed- explosive, incendiary (fire), and poison gas- apportioned as the situation may require. The explosives will demolish the target, the incendiaries set fire to it, and the poison-gas bombs prevent fire fighters from extinguishing the fires.” The idea is well illustrated by the cover of ‘The Menace of Chemical Warfare to Civilian Populations’ pamphlet from our collection which was published in 1932 and will be featured in our upcoming exhibition Bombs…Away!.

After WWI, the use of chemical weapons was prohibited again. With consent of 16 countries, the Geneva protocol from 1925 stated: ‘the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.’

Yet again, this did not stop the development and production of chemical agents in various countries. In 2016 in Syria the amount of poisonous gas used equalled the amount used in 1916. Is chemical warfare becoming a norm again?”

[1] Cook, Tim (1999). No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War

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