While researching my latest book Churchill Master and Commander, one of the more bizarre things I discovered was Churchill’s undying enthusiasm for the use of mustard gas. Britain at the start of the Second World War had 500 tons of the stuff, by the end Churchill had seen to it that this had risen to 41,000. The country also had 14,000 tons of phosgene and tear gases. By modern standards its existence was an abhorrence and yet he wanted to deploy mustard gas on numerous occasions even before 1940. Luckily most of the time wiser counsel prevailed. Churchill always felt that mustard gas was actually a more humane weapon, on the basis that it killed less than 10 per cent of its victims. Privately though he acknowledged that it was a ‘hellish poison’.
When he became Minister for Munitions in 1917, during the First World War, he was made responsible for the manufacture of chemical weapons. However, it should be pointed out that he was in no way responsible for their deployment, which first happened two years before his appointment when the Germans unleashed chlorine, followed by mustard and phosgene gas. The Allies then resorted to such weapons. Churchill’s factories produced 100 tons of mustard gas, which were deployed in September 1918. He had written rather glibly to Clementine his wife ‘The hamper of mustard gas is on its way.’
In his role as Secretary of State for War and Air in the wake of the First World War he ordered the use of mustard gas by the RAF in support of the pro-Tsarist White forces fighting to contain the Bolsheviks. This was after the Bolsheviks employed captured German gas shells against the Whites. When news of his intentions broke in Parliament there was uproar. ‘I do not understand why, if they use poison gas,’ he told the House of Commons, ‘they should object to having it used against them.’ When the raucous objections had died down he retorted, ‘it is a very right and proper thing to employ poison gas against them.’ Six Bolshevik targets were bombed by the RAF with little effect.
When Afghanistan invaded British ruled India in 1919 Churchill urge the use of mustard gas against the marauding Afghan tribesmen. This according to Churchill was on the grounds that ‘Gas is a more merciful weapon than high explosive.’ When the India Office in London objected pointing out that this would set a dangerous precedent with the Muslim population on the Northwest Frontier and in India generally, the idea was quietly dropped. Instead conventional bombs were deployed and the invaders driven back over the border. Likewise, the following year when the widespread Iraq Revolt broke out in Mesopotamia, Churchill once more authorised the use of gas. However, as all the mustard gas bombs had been sent to Russia none were available. Undeterred he ordered the army to despatch 15,000 gas shells that were stockpiled in Egypt. Again though only conventional means were used to crush the rebels. A vexed Churchill wrote to his colleagues ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.’ Subsequently the use of chemical weapons was banned internationally in 1925 under the Geneva Protocol. Churchill seems to have taken very little heed of this. Nor did it prevent Mussolini from using mustard gas against the Ethiopians during his invasion of Abyssinia in the mid-1930s.
Churchill, during the Second World War, even contemplated using mustard gas in Britain and Ireland for defensive purposes should the Germans invade. On 24 June 1940 a draft directive was issued to the RAF commander in Northern Ireland to use gas not only against the Germans, but also any members of the Irish Republican Army supporting them. In England if the Germans had set foot ashore mustard gas was to have been sprayed onto the beaches. This undoubtedly would have sparked immediate retaliation by Hitler.
Perhaps somewhat hypercritically, in 1942, Churchill warned Hitler if he used chemical weapons against the Soviet Union, then Britain would retaliate in kind. Germany was known to have poison gas but refrained from using it. Churchill issued a similar warning regarding biological weapons and stockpiled anthrax for use against Germany’s livestock. Thankfully Hitler did not resort to such weapons otherwise the world would have entered a new era of warfare. Churchill’s resolve to employ mustard gas was never put to the test in the Second World War, but it is very doubtful he would have ever hesitated.
Anthony Tucker-Jones is the author of Churchill, Master & Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895-1945 published by Osprey.