Chemical weapons were widely used by the United Kingdom in World War I, and while the use of tear gas was suggested by Churchill and others postwar in Mesopotamia and in World War II, it appears that they were not actually used, although some historians disagree. While the UK was a signatory of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 which outlawed the use of poison gas shells, the conventions omitted mention of deployment from cylinders, probably because that had not been considered.

The United Kingdom ratified the Geneva Protocol on 9 April 1930. The UK signed the Chemical Weapons Convention on 13 January 1993 and ratified it on 13 May 1996.

Use in World War I

A World War I-era British gas bomb
A World War I-era British gas bomb

See also: Chemical weapons in World War I

During the First World War, in retaliation to the use of chlorine by Germany against British troops from April 1915 onwards, the British Army deployed chlorine themselves for the first time during the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. By the end of the war, poison gas use had become widespread on both sides and by 1918 a quarter of artillery shells were filled with gas and Britain had produced around 25,400 tons of toxic chemicals.

Britain used a range of poison gases, originally chlorine and later phosgene, diphosgene and mustard gas. They also used relatively small amounts of the irritant gases chloromethyl chloroformate, chloropicrin, bromacetone and ethyl iodoacetate. Gases were frequently mixed, for example white star was the name given to a mixture of equal volumes of chlorine and phosgene, the chlorine helping to spread the denser but more toxic phosgene. Despite the technical developments, chemical weapons suffered from diminishing effectiveness as the war progressed because of the protective equipment and training which the use engendered on both sides.

Mustard gas was first used effectively in World War I by the Imperial German Army against Commonwealth soldiers in the Battle of Passchendaele near Ypres, Belgium, in 1917 and later also against the French Second Army. The name Yprite comes from its usage by the German army near the town of Ypres. The Allies did not use mustard gas until November 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai after the armies had captured a stockpile of German mustard-gas shells. It took the British more than a year to develop their own mustard gas weapon, with production of the chemicals centred on Avonmouth Docks.[1][2] (The only option available to the British was the Despretz–Niemann–Guthrie process). This was used first in September 1918 during the breaking of the Hindenburg Line with the Hundred Days' Offensive.

The use of chemical weapons in warfare during the Great War was in violation of the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, which explicitly forbade the use of "poison or poisoned weapons" in warfare.[3][4]

Between the wars

To maintain a stockpile of Adamsite, the British Ministry of Munitions established Sutton Oak Chemical Defence Research Establishment (CDRE) in 1919.[5] The plant was able to manufacture up to 20 tons of mustard gas per week in the late 1920s.[6]

After the war, the Royal Air Force dropped diphenylchloroarsine, an irritant agent designed to cause uncontrollable coughing, on Bolshevik troops in 1919,[7] and Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war and air, suggested that the RAF use tear gas in Iraq in 1920 during a major revolt there. However, historians are divided as to whether or not gas was actually used.[8]

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.

— Winston Churchill, Departmental minute (1919)

Usage of the term "poisoned gas" by Churchill in a way suggesting he promoted lethal chemical warfare was circulated in 2000's in response to British criticism of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War.[9]

In 1937 ICI began to build a new factory for Mustard Gas at their Randle plant on Wigg Island, Runcorn, Cheshire.[10]

Britain signed and ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1930, which banned the use of toxic gases and bacteria in war but not the development and production of such weapons. Britain carried out extensive testing of chemical weapons from the early 1930s onwards. In the Rawalpindi experiments, hundreds of Indian soldiers were exposed to mustard gas in an attempt to determine the appropriate dosage to use on battlefields. Many of the subjects suffered severe burns from their exposure to the gas.[11]

Proposed use in World War II

In the late 1930s the Chamberlain Government planned that the United Kingdom should be in a position at the beginning of any war to retaliate in kind if the Germans, as expected, used mustard gas and phosgene. to help repel a German invasion in 1940–1941,[12][13] and had there been an invasion may have also deployed it against German cities.[14] General Brooke, in command of British anti-invasion preparations of World War II said that he "...had every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches" in an annotation in his diary.[15] The British manufactured mustard, chlorine, lewisite, phosgene and Paris Green and stored it at airfields and depots for use on the beaches.[14]

M. S. Factory, Valley

In the late 1930s the Chamberlain Government planned that the United Kingdom should be in a position at the beginning of any war to retaliate in kind if the Germans, as expected, used mustard gas. In April/June 1939 the Alyn Valley in Rhydymwyn was surveyed by the Department of Industrial Planning on behalf of the Ministry of Supply and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) who were tasked with managing this programme. This resulted in M. S. Factory, Valley as United Kingdoms main chemical weapons plant.

Forward Filling Depots

To able to retaliate quickly if Nazi Germany used chemical weapons, a number of Forward Filling Depots were built so that the mustard gas stockpile was dispersed and ready to use.[16]

Later plans

The mustard gas stockpile was enlarged in 1940-1941 to help repel a possible Nazi German invasion in 1940–1941,[12][13] and had there been an invasion may have also deployed it against German cities.[14] General Alan Brooke, in command of British anti-invasion preparations of World War II said that he "...had every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches" in an annotation in his diary.[15] The British manufactured mustard, chlorine, lewisite, phosgene and Paris Green and stored it at airfields and depots for use on the beaches.[14]

Winston Churchill issued a memorandum advocating a chemical strike on German cities using poison gas and possibly anthrax. Although the idea was rejected, it has provoked debate.[19] In July 1944, fearing that rocket attacks on London would get even worse and that he only use it if it was "life or death for us" or would "shorten the war by a year",[20] Churchill wrote a secret memorandum asking his military chiefs to "think very seriously over this question of using poison gas." He said "it is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint..." and that:

I should be prepared to do anything [Churchill's emphasis] that would hit the enemy in a murderous place. I may certainly have to ask you to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany ..., We could stop all work at the flying bombs starting points.... and if we do it, let us do it one hundred per cent.

— Winston Churchill, 'Most Secret' PRIME MINISTER'S PERSONAL MINUTE to the Chiefs of Staff, 6 July 1944[20]

The Joint Planning Staff (JPS), however, advised against the use of gas because it would inevitably provoke Germany to retaliate with gas. They argued that this would be to the Allies' disadvantage in France both for military reasons and because it might "seriously impair our relations with the civilian population when it became generally known that chemical warfare was first employed by us." The JPS had similar concerns about public morale in Britain, fearing that people might become resentful if they felt a gas war could have been avoided. The Chiefs of Staff also warned that the Nazis would have no particular "difficulty in holding down the cowed German population, if they were subjected to gas attack," whereas the British population "are in no such inarticulate condition." Also that the German might also use Allied prisoners as workers in contaminated areas causing "great public concern".[21]

Churchill responded to this advice by saying:

I am not at all convinced by this negative report. But clearly I cannot make head against the parsons and the warriors at the same time. The matter should be kept under review and brought up again when things get worse.

At the same time, the JPS examined the case of using anthrax bioweapons against six large German cities but only ruled this out on the grounds that the anthrax bombs were not yet available.[22] A large batch of aerial bombs were ordered, but by the time the US factory was ready to produce them, they were deemed unnecessary since the war in Europe was almost over.[23][24]

Novelist Robert Harris and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argue that as soon as another weapon of mass destruction – the atomic bomb – became available, and offered a chance to shorten the war, the Americans used it. "Why, from an ethical or political point of view, should germ warfare have been regarded any differently? [by British]."[25]

As the end of the war was sufficiently in sight, British poison gas production was terminated following a request from the Chiefs of Staff Committee in February 1945.[21]

Post-World War II

From 1939 to 1989 experiments on chemical weapons including nerve agents and countermeasures were carried out at the Porton Down research establishment. Although volunteers were used, many ex-servicemen complained about suffering long term illnesses after taking part in the tests. It was alleged that before volunteering they were not provided with adequate information about the experiments and the risk, in breach of the Nuremberg Code of 1947. This became the subject of a lengthy police investigation called Operation Antler.

From 1950, a Chemical Defence Establishment was established as CDE Nancekuke for small-scale chemical agent production. A pilot production facility for Sarin was built, which produced about 20 tons of the nerve agent from 1954 until 1956. A full-scale production plant was planned, but with the 1956 decision to end the United Kingdom's offensive chemical weapons programme it was never built. Nancekuke was mothballed, but was maintained through the 1960s and 1970s in a state whereby production of chemical weapons could easily re-commence if required.[26]

In the early 1980s the government took the view that the lack of a European chemical weapons retaliatory capability was a "major gap in NATO's armoury". However the political difficulties of addressing this prevented any redevelopment of a British chemical weapons capability.[27]

An inquest was opened on 5 May 2004 into the death on 6 May 1953 of a serviceman, Ronald Maddison, during an experiment using sarin. His death had earlier been found by a private Ministry of Defence inquest to have been as a result of "misadventure" but this was quashed by the High Court in 2002. The 2004 hearing closed on 15 November, after a jury found that the cause of Maddison's death was "application of a nerve agent in a non-therapeutic experiment".

See also


  1. ^ Edited by David Large. The Port of Bristol, 1848–1884.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. ^ "Photographic Archive of Avonmouth Bristol BS11". Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  3. ^ Telford Taylor (1 November 1993). The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-3168-3400-9. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
  4. ^ Thomas Graham, Damien J. Lavera (May 2003). Cornerstones of Security: Arms Control Treaties in the Nuclear Era. University of Washington Press. pp. 7–9. ISBN 0-2959-8296-9. Retrieved 5 July 2013.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Hammond, P.; Carter, Gradon (15 April 2016). From Biological Warfare to Healthcare: Porton Down, 1940-2000. ISBN 9780230287211.
  7. ^ Simon Jones, "'The Right Medicine for the Bolshevist': British Air-Dropped Chemical Weapons in North Russia, 1919," Imperial War Museum Review 12 (1999): 78–88.
  8. ^ Derek Hopwood "British Relations with Iraq" Iraq: Conflict in Context , BBC History 10 February 2003
  9. ^ "Leading Myths: "Churchill Advocated the First Use of Lethal Gas"". The International Churchill Society. 18 March 2015. Retrieved 25 December 2019.
  10. ^ Jones, Tim (2001). The X Site: Britain's Most Mysterious Government Facility. ISBN 9780952275558.
  11. ^ Jennifer Rosenberg "Mustard Gas Tested on Indian Soldiers" 4 September 2007
  12. ^ a b Bellamy, Christopher (4 June 1996). "Sixty secret mustard gas sites uncovered". The Independent.
  13. ^ a b "Chemical Warfare -Suffolk". Anti-Invasion defences Suffolk World War II. Retrieved 18 June 2008.
  14. ^ a b c d Pears, Brian. "Chapter 5 Invasion". Rowlands Gill and the North-East 1939 – 1945. Archived from the original on 6 August 2006.
  15. ^ a b Alanbrooke, 2001. Entry 22 July 1940.
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ BBC2 Newsnight, 1/5/81; The Guardian, 7,9,13,20,30/5, 2/6/81; The Times, 11/5/81, 20/5/81, 15/6/81; The Listener, 25/6, 2/7, 17/8/81; Daily Telegraph, 18,21,25,29/5, 2,11/6/81; Encounter magazine, Vol.58-9 no.2; New Society, Vol.60; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.4 no.4 and 'Churchill's Anthrax Bombs – a debate', Vol.4 no.12, November 1987.
  20. ^ a b Paxman, Jeremy; Harris, Robert (6 August 2002) [1982]. "The War That Never Was". A higher form of killing: the secret history of chemical and biological warfare. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-8129-6653-4. OCLC 268949025. I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people
  21. ^ a b "Paxman and Harris", p132-35.
  22. ^ "Paxman and Harris", p131-5, 100–6.
  23. ^ "Churchill's Anthrax Bombs – a debate" R.V. Jones and J.M. Lewis, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol.4 no.4 p42-3.
  24. ^ "Paxman and Harris", p101-3.
  25. ^ "Paxman and Harris", p136-7, 103–15.
  26. ^ "Nancekuke Remediation Project". Ministry of Defence (Archived by The National Archives). Archived from the original on 8 December 2010. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  27. ^ Edward Malnick (30 December 2014). "Thatcher government considered building chemical weapons stockpile". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 January 2015.