Britain’s chemical responsibility


To truly understand the need for Britain to make peaceful inroads with Syria, we must look back to the tragedies handed down to us by our predecessors.

Flickr/UK Ministry of Defence. Some rights reserved.

On 29 August 2013, David Cameron’s motion to go to war in Syria was voted down in the House of Commons by 285 to 272. According to the Guardian, Cameron was “outraged” by the Assad regime, and his “voice cracked with emotion” as he spoke of Syrian victims of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the House of Commons. Despite the defeat, the Prime Minister has continued to push for a “robust response” to the Assad regime.

The British establishment has no ground to intervene militarily in Syria and pretend that indiscriminate aerial bombardment and other assaults against Syrian civilians serve humanitarian purposes. It is worth recalling that Britain was an advocate for the use of poison gas against Arabs and Kurds in the early twentieth century.

There is an obvious parallel between Cameron’s ‘humanitarian’ arguments for war in Syria and the justifications for the British conquest of the Near/Middle East in 1917.

In a cabinet memorandum dated 5 December 1917 Foreign Secretary Lord George Curzon explained why Britain was duty-bound to preside over the Near East. In his words, “our Empire was already large enough”. Britain did not enter war for territories. “Indeed, the only party that entered the war with a policy of territorial aggrandisement… was Germany” [i]. He added: “there is not a civilised State or a thinking individual anywhere who is not aware that such a [German] dominion will be a menace… to mankind.” There was no hint from this official document that the motive behind the conclusion of the Sykes-Picot agreement boiled down to territorial aggrandisement. Curzon asserted that it was shown to the world that “infected with the virus of German militarism,” “the Turkish Empire” sought to “extirpate the subject races of Armenians…since the war began.” Crimes perpetrated by the Turkish Empire reached the level of “almost incredible brutality”. Given this, the real question about the captured territories was “not how much it will be necessary to retain” them “but whether [to do so] for the sake of humanity” [ii].

Britain retained Turkish territories, Curzon claimed, “for the sake of humanity”. To understand the humanity of Britain, one needs to contrast it with German and Turkish crimes denounced by Britain. Cabinet memoranda on the studies of poison gas (for the defence of Britain’s informal empire) showed this comparison. The President of the Board of Education Herbert Fisher wrote on 17 May 1920 that “it is a duty which the British Government owes to civilisation” to further “modernis[e]” the research of gas warfare. He claimed that “gas is humane” and it would be “peculiarly valuable to the British Empire in its numerous conflicts with uncivilised foes” [iii]. “The humanity of this new weapon,” he observed, was that “the use of poison once admitted, its extensions are infinite” and “the populations of large cities might easily be destroyed.” He also suggested “it is impossible to prohibit its use or the scientific exploration of its possibilities.” The only concern Fisher had was that the use of poison gas by Germany elicited “universal horror and disgust”, as the British populace had a low opinion of gas warfare. The use of gas by Britain against “an uncivilised enemy possessing little or no medical equipment” would be “open to special objections” [iv].

In contrast to Fisher, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Sir Henry Wilson and War Secretary Winston Churchill saw no reason for qualms and championed the widespread use of gas as a humane weapon. In Wilson’s words, the British Empire had “widely extended frontiers”; “a refusal to…use… scientific weapons may be fraught with the gravest consequences.” “The tribes on our frontiers possess to-day quick-firing guns, rifles…and we must turn to science to…maintain our…superiority.” While this “form of warfare…was started by the Germans” and had “the reputation of being barbarous,” “the humanitarian side of gas warfare” used by Britain was that gas would be “far more merciful than…high explosive” [v]. Poison gas inflicted “the necessary punishment to make an enemy sue for peace” and provided “a means of ‘doping’ an opponent and thus putting him hors de combat” [vi].

Wilson cautioned that the British government should “educate public opinion in favour of the use of gas as a weapon instead of against it” [vii]. He continued that “[while] we…do not…embark upon [wars, they]…may be forced on us… it is our duty to study the question [of gas warfare] from the defensive point of view” and “to safeguard, as far as is humanly possible, the safety of the Empire”[viii]. This particular reference to humanity was rather revealing. The words humanity, civilisation and peace rested upon the assumptions that Britain had benevolent intent that no other imperial powers had and hence reserved for itself the right to bomb, maim, and kill. Atrocities perpetrated by the Turks and the Germans whom the British disliked were barbarous and the same violence meted out by Britain was humane.

How, then, did British officials justify the continued occupation of the Near East and the brutality of British imperialism? On 21st June 1922, the Lord President of the Council Arthur Balfour asserted that “It is through the expenditure largely of British blood, by the exercise of British skill and valour, by the conduct of British generals, by troops brought from all parts of the British Empire--it is by them in the main that the freeing of the Arab race from Turkish rule has been effected.” Instead of trying to expel British liberators, the Arabs should accept what was best for them and recognise what they owed to the Empire. Phrased differently, Britain bombed, maimed and gassed because they (the Arabs) were against us, not because we were against them.

Throughout the 1920s, Britain bludgeoned native populations in the Near East into submission by the extensive use of aerial bombardment and/or gas warfare. Major of the Royal Air Force Arthur Harris, also known as ‘Bomber’ Harris, claimed that “the Arab and the Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within 45 minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of the inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors,” and “no effective means of escape” [ix]. In plain words, Britain had a right to subjugate the Arab people. Conversely, the Arab people had a right to nothing except a total capitulation.

History repeats itself. British officials have not moved away from the warmongering position of their predecessors. They shed crocodile tears for the Syrian victims of the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime whose alliance with Iran Britain has detested. Yet British officials never blinked when it came to the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium by Israel (who Britain considered to be an ally) in densely populated Gaza and war crimes perpetrated by al Qaida-linked Syrian rebel forces.

As Edward Said indicated in Culture and Imperialism, British imperialism in the Middle East was never “a simple act of accumulation and acquisition.” Rather, it was buttressed by Orientalist discourse that came to justify that “certain territories and people require and beseech domination.” Since Cameron’s plan to invade Syria has only been delayed, it is important to agitate and mobilise against all Western military options and grasp why Britain’s humanitarian mission may be the last place to look for peace and justice.


[i] George Curzon, “German and Turkish Territories Captured Memorandum by Lord Curzon”, CAB 124/4/G182, 5 December 1917.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Herbert Fisher, “Gas Warfare. Memo: by Dr H. A. L.Fisher.”, CAB 24/106/CP 1301, 17 May 1920.

[iv] Winston Churchill, “Gas Warfare, Note by Mr Churchill covering a Memo: by the C.I.G.S.”, CAB 24/105/CP 1211, 16 April 1920.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid, emphasis in the original.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Winston Churchill, “Gas warfare. Memo: by the C.I.G.S. on C.P. 1301”, CAB 24/107/CP 1494, 18 June 1920.

[ix] David Omissi, ‘Baghdad and British Bombers,’ The Guardian, January 19, 1991.