Interwar use of chemical weapons

Between the wars, it was a commonplace that poison gas would be used in the next war, would be used in large quantities, and would probably be used against civilians. This was a natural enough assumption; after all, it was used liberally enough in the Great War, and it was widely assumed that science would have discovered even more lethal gases.1 As for civilians, they were now in the front line, as the Zeppelins and Gothas had shown.

Of course, gas wasn't used in the Second World War,2 probably because of the fear of retaliation in kind, i.e., deterrence worked. This could not be assumed a priori, of course, particularly since it was in fact in use throughout the period 1919-39. The best known, and the most egregious, example was by the Italians in Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), in 1935-6. There were other instances too, but I don't think I've ever seen a comprehensive list (though this isn't bad).

So the other day, I dug out an old issue of Strategy and Tactics (July/August 1980).3 S&T is a wargaming and military history magazine, which has a complete wargame in every issue. But it also has well-written articles (or at least did, haven't bought an issue in many years), and in this particular issue I think the line "honestly, I only read it for the articles" is true, as the game in this issue was the much-maligned Tito, on a subject I don't recall having much interest in. And the articles in this issue include one on chemical war: "Chemical warfare: perspectives and potentials", by Austin Ray. Of interest here is a table on alleged uses of gas after the First World War. The source for the data is given as Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare, volumes 1 and 2 (New York: Humanities Press). So, here's the section up to 1939:

When Who Where Why What How Casualties
1919 UK vs. Red Army Archangel Tactical Sternutator M-device ?
1920 Red Army vs. White Russians Kakhovka ? ? Gas cylinder ?
1920? Red Army vs. ? Turkestan ? ? Aircraft ?
1920-5 UK vs. rebels Mid-East ? ? Aircraft ?
1925 France vs. Morocco Fez Terror Mustard Bombs ?
Early 1930s Govt. of Manchuria vs. insurgents Manchuria ? ? ? ?
1930s USSR vs. Basmatch tribes Central Asia Tactical, terror Mustard Aircraft spray ?
1935-6 Italy vs. Ethiopia Ethiopia Tactical, terror Various Air spray, bomb 15000 total
1936 Spanish Government vs. Fascists Guadarrama front Tactical Tear Artillery ?
July 1937 Japan vs. China Yangtze front ? Mustard ? 19
August 1938 Japan vs. China Juichang Tactical ? ? 600+ fatalities
July 1938 Japan vs. China Chou Wou Tactical DC Candles ?
September 1938 China vs. Japan Ch'ing Hua Chen ? Phosgene Captured Japanese artillery ?

A few comments and corrections are in order. A sternutator is a sneezing agent, i.e. just a harrassing or irritant gas. I'm not sure what an 'M-device' is -- I'm guessing something along the lines of a Livens protector or Stokes mortar. DC is methylphosphonic dichloride, which seems like an odd inclusion -- it seems that it is not a weapon in its own right, but a precursor chemical to various nerve gases. But I don't think Japan had nerve agents at this time -- only Germany did. So why Japan would be messing about with DC is unclear, unless it actually can be used as a weapon, or it means something else here. (It could even be a typo. The second-last entry in the table is out of chronological order -- it's not clear if the date is wrong or if the rows have just been mixed up or what.) And I'm not sure what a 'candle' is, in this context -- the name suggests burning something. In Abyssinia, Italy employed tear gas, mustard and phosgene.

The claimed British use of gas against 'rebels' in the Middle East (specifically Iraq) is hard to get a straight answer on. It was certainly advocated by Churchill (then War and Air Minister) but whether it was actually carried out is unclear. But if it did happen, it would have been perfectly consistent with French and Spanish use of gas against the Rif tribes in North Africa (and note that Spain is missing from the above table). The S&T article itself notes that the Red Army attack on White Russian forces was only planned, and not executed, but is included to represent many claims of 'Red Army chemical warfare preparations' (whatever that means). Another note says that China alleged more than 889 uses of poison gas by Japan; these are much more credible than similar claims during the Spanish Civil War (the one listed in the table is apparently reasonably firm, and that's only tear gas).

The other interesting point is that, other than Abyssinia, virtually all these uses of gas were for the most part ignored in the West, even while it was in other ways continually harping on the aero-chemical threat to civilisation. Maybe it was a combination of factors which led to Ethiopia being singled out: it combined a large scale of use, a relative closeness to Europe, and the involvement of an agressive, expansionist power -- none of the other cases had this trifecta. But the upshot is that these other gas attacks might as well not have happened as far as the military intellectuals were concerned.


  1. This is leaving aside the argument of those like the chemist J. B. S. Haldane, that the statistics showed that gas warfare led to relatively fewer fatalities than shells and bullets, and so was therefore more humane than conventional war, as well as the argument that all likely gases useful for warfare had already been discovered. The German discovery of nerve gases, had this been publicly known, would have put the lie to these claims. 

  2. There are some dubious claims to the contrary, such as that Germany used gas against Soviet troops in the Crimea in 1942. 

  3. I hasten to add that I'm old, but not THAT old! I bought it long after it came out. 

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27 thoughts on “Interwar use of chemical weapons

  1. From an Asian history perspective, the Japanese use of chemical weapons in China isn’t really “interwar,” as major combat operations began in late ’37 (leading to the Nanjing Massacre, etc.) and ran continuously through ’45.

  2. Chris Williams

    I’ve been looking for evidence that the gas used in Iraq was delivered by air for years, and I’ve yet to find any. Every time someone mentions it (and I spent a quite some time in the anti-sanctions campaign, where people mentioned it a lot) I challenge them to prove it. Nobody has yet. There’s documentary evidence that the Army used (poison, I think) gas shells, though.

    Sure WSC advocated it, but he also advocated a European political union, and we’ve not got one of those yet.

    PS Following the latest War Nerd column, a number of Nerd fans at the Blod and Treasure blog have been trying to think of left-wing fighter pilots. We have Mannock, Sholto Douglas, Benn, Bernard Williams, but we get stuck after that. Any ideas?

  3. Post author

    Jonathan:

    My answer to you got long, so I think I’ll work it into a post!

    Chris:

    It’s hard to think of many fighter pilots who were left-wing. Other sorts of pilots, sure … I see you already mentioned Charlton. Another who comes to mind is Philip Mumford, RFC flight instructor (and later RAF intelligence); judging from his Humanity, Air Power and War (1936) he was left-wing (not Marxist though). Who else … well, Mosley was in the RFC and the Labour Party before he was a fascist :) Getting further away from the air, Tom Wintringham was an RFC erk during the war … ok, I got nothing. Interesting question, though.

    On gas, if the Army used it in Iraq, then that would count for the purposes of this post. Do you have a reference? I also doubt that it was used from the air, because although air control was often discussed by my guys, none of them ever mentioned the use of gas. And you’d think that they would. Then again, in their (fewer and shorter) discussions of Spanish and French air control, they don’t seem to mention gas either. Maybe they actually didn’t use it either?

  4. Perhaps a killer argument regarding the Churchill/gas claim is when gas began to be delivered from planes. I don’t think it ever was in the First World War – am I right?

  5. In interwar France the Armee de l’Air was regarded by conservatives as ‘The Service of the Left’, because it had been created partly to counterbalance the reactionary Army. Pierre Cot, who was the Popular Front’s Air Minister, was probably the most influential holder of that position between the wars.

  6. Chris Williams

    My source appears to be the memoirs of General Aylmer Haldane , which were reprinted as INSURRECTION IN MESOPOTAMIA 1920 (ISBN: 1904897169) in 1990. Abebooks has one for £28 which is about twenty quid more than I’m prepared to pay for it. It’s in the BL, though, so I’ll check it out next time I’m there.

  7. There was an article in the AHR not long ago about the use of airpower in British Iraq, wasn’t there? Fascinating stuff, I thought, but I don’t remember if the use of gas was addressed.

  8. Post author

    Thanks, Chris. It’s in the State Library here … I can check it too, if I remember.

    And thanks Jonathan. I found it: Priya Satia, “The defense of inhumanity: air control and the British idea of Arabia”, American Historical Review 111 (2006), 16-51 — online here. The gas issue is mentioned in a footnote (82), where it is argued that the gas claim is based on a misreading of statements made by, e.g., T. E. Lawrence.

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  10. Post author

    Chris:

    I’ve had a look at Haldane’s The Insurrection in Mesopotamia now. I couldn’t see any reference to gas. But it’s actually all online, so have a look yourself!

    From a few hints online, it seems it might be the case that Haldane requested chemical munitions in around September 1920. Chapter 18 deals with his correspondence with Churchill, so might have been a likely candidate, but nothing there that I can see. The answer may be in the PRO.

    BTW, David Omissi did say that Haldane used gas in Iraq, and he should probably know …

  11. Ruy Aballe

    Hi Brett,

    I am an historian living in Portugal, with a strong interest on all things aviation during the inter-war era.
    Regarding the Spanish use of chemical weapons in Morocco during the Rif War, it is pretty well documented by aviation historians in Spain (I can provide sources if needed). They were quite enthusiastic users of chemical agents (mustard and iperite), dropped by aircraft over hamlets and rebel strongholds in the mountains. The events were first described, as far as I know, by gen. Hidalgo de Cisneros in his memories (“Cambio de Rumbo”, current edition: Vitoria, Ikusager, 2002), published long after the Civil War, when he was in exile. He recalls how the Spanish Air Arm used aviation bombs improvised from artillery shells, dropped by Farman F.60 Goliath bombers in 1924 (also the first time this large aircraft was operationally used). Cisneros remarks how ineffectual the use of gas in this guise was against well determined insurgents; he probably says so because it must have been difficult to assess the relative efficiency of the method in the ground. He also claims they have done it before the French.
    At first, the Spaniards used gas from surplused French stocks manufactured before 1918, but shortly afterwards they set up their own production at the chemical factory at La Marañosa, near Madrid. They also set a plant in Melilla to load artillery shells and aviation bombs with gas.
    Cheers,
    R. Aballe

  12. Post author

    Thanks, Ruy, for those details — it’s difficult to find out much about this subject in English. It makes sense that, initially at least, surplus gas artillery shells would be used. Conventional bombs followed the same route.

    Did the Spanish intentionally use gas on civilians? If so, do you know if there was any criticism of this by Spanish civilians?

  13. Ruy Aballe

    Hi Brett,
    You are welcome. I don’t want to sound pedantic, but it depends on what one considers intentional use. Although I feel inclined to think that gas was used to target guerrilas, the borders between these and the civilians that harboured them and onto which the former blended most of the time, were – and still are, in these sort of “low intensity” conflicts – indeed blurred.
    The use of gas by the Spaniards must be also seen in perspective: they were just licking wounds after the momentous military disaster of Annual (July 22, 1921), a defeat suffered at the hands of the Riffien irregulars led by Adb el-Krim so utterly humiliating and bloody that it came to be seen as a sort of colonial Caporetto by the Spanish military and the society as a whole, to the point that it was thereafter referred to as the Disaster of Annual. It also paved to way to dramatic changes in the Spanish politics of the era, namely the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the undermining of the Borbon monarchy and the ascendancy of a military clique of young, ruthless officers (the “africanistas”) forged in the war that ensued, which would ultimately provide the majority of the officers that sided with Franco, Mola and the rest of generals in the attempted coup against the Republican government on July 18, 1936, which escalated into the Civil War.

    As for the your last question, I doubt it was ever discussed in the papers given the outrage felt by the public in general after the atrocities done to Spanish prisioners by the guerrillas early in the war (just before Annual), but I can dig a bit more. I can add, however, that when Hidalgo de Cisneros (by the way, the first edition of his memories dates from 1961) mentions the use of gas, he does so in a very candid way but implying at the same time that it was a sort of dirty secret shared among comrades. Of course, it was ordered from above but it does not seem to have spurred much discussion – or any, for that matter – outside the military. I must ask a more knowledgeable friend about this. Anyway, the use of chemical weapons ocurred already during the dictatorship of Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera, which despite having been caractherized as a mild one, included full press censorship… this is the reason why I doubt any criticism by civilians could have reached the newspapers.

    P.S.: Colonial air policing is a pet subject of mine ever since I first read Chaz Bowyer’s “RAF Operations 1918-38″ some 12 years ago. Some interesting things have been published in Russia in the last few years about similar operations performed by the Soviet RKKA-VVS in Central Asia in the mid to late 1920s.

  14. Post author

    Thanks again, Ruy! You’re quite right about ‘intention’ being slippery. I think that military euphemisms about morale bombing and area bombing and so on were as much about preventing aircrew and even raid planners from having to think about what it was they were really doing. They are usefully imprecise.

    Very interesting background about Annual and the desire for revenge. I was thinking that as Spain did not fight in the Great War and had not experienced gas warfare itself, there was less revulsion at the idea of using it. But then again any such revulsion as existed in France and the USSR didn’t stop them from using it in air control operations. (Though perhaps it did play such a role for Britain.) I haven’t read Bowyer’s book; I must track down a copy. Philip Towle’s Pilots and Rebels is another one I’ve been meaning to look at. My main guide on air control has been Omissi’s Air Power and Colonial Control. It would be great to see a really transnational study of air control, though, I think these books are all very RAF-centric.

  15. Ruy Aballe

    No problem! Yes, indeed… your point is very true. And such imprecision seems to have worked well in the Spanish case, at least judging from Cisneros’ own recollections. Unfortunately, I do not know any specific reference on the similar air control missions performed by the French in Morocco around the same period, but I have a couple of bibliographic notes on air control and colonial air warfare in a separate Word file. Unfortunately, I don’t have it at hand right now, but I’ll be able to access it over the weekend and will post the titles.

    The Spanish Army followed gas usage during the Great War with great interest and the conflict in the Rif provided the right excuse to try the new weapon. I agree that the lack of actual experience with gas, coupled with a lack of direct public awareness of its horrible effects might explain the readiness to employ it.

    Of the two books you mention, I read only Towle’s “Pilots and Rebels” whose broader chronological approach somehow places it in a category of its own. I haven’t managed yet to track down a copy of Omissi’s “Air Power and Colonial Control”, but I intend to do so soon. In the meantime, I will dig the article about Soviet air control vs. muslim guerrillas in Central Asia. Witten by one of the foremost Russian experts – either M. Maslov or V. Kotelnikov – on interwar Soviet aviation, it was published a few years ago in the aviation history periodical “Aviamaster” (I have my “Aviamaster” collection archived in card boxes – will check it also next Saturday). The variety of aircraft employed in combat, support and liasion roles was amazing. Besides from the ubiquous Polikarpov R-1 (a local hybrid/derivative of the DH.4/DH.9 delivered from 1923 onwards), it included modern all-metal, licence-made Junkers designs and the Tupolev R-3. The Soviets also started their experiments with armoured aircraft then.

    I absolutely agree with what you wrote about a multinational study of air control between the wars. This could be an interesting editorial project for a brave enough small group (and also for an equally brave publisher).

  16. Ruy Aballe

    Hi again Brett,
    Just found the article on Soviet air control operations. It was published in “Aviamaster”, issues 4 and 5/2006, by Vladimir Kotelnikov as a large two-part feature: “??????? ?????? ??????????: ????????? ??????? ? ?????? ? ????????????” (“Red Stars over Turkestan: Soviet aviation in combat against the «basmachi»”). The text details operations performed from 1920 to 1939, but more than 85% of it revolves around the more or less open war fought against muslim insurgents between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s. From 1930/31 onwards, the operations (by then reduced to “muscled” air and land policing) dwindled in scale and became more and more the responsability of the OGPU and from 1934, of the NKVD which possessed border guard aviation units of their own. I will have to re-read the text as I don’t recall any mention to chemical weapons. The use of large quantities of conventional ordenance is well attested, however, and reminds me of some figures mentioned by Chaz Bowyer.
    I will post more details soon.

  17. Post author

    That’s okay, I can’t read them anyway! Seems like it was an important arena for the Soviets to test new aircraft and doctrine, much like the war in Spain was the following decade.

  18. Ruy Aballe

    Yes, it was: it worked as a sort of avant la lettre COIN scenario, where they could test ground attack tactics. Interestingly, strafing seems to have been quite the norm (Bowyer also mentions this in relation to British operations in Mesopotamia and the NWFP), not just with the synchronised guns but also with observers’ ones (most Soviet two seaters had twin gun mounts).

    I heard Mr. Kotelnikov was contemplating the idea of doing a book on Soviet air control and anti-guerrilla operations in the interwar era. Anyway, some of the articles penned by him and M. Maslov have been translated into French in the last two years or so, founding their way into periodicals like “Le Fana de l’Aviation” and “Avions”.

    The most interesting – and perhaps the closest to the subject being discussed – is a study of VVS operations during the Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1929, originally published in “Aviamaster”. The French translation was published this year and includes a few new photos the author has found in the meantime. Fascinating stuff!

  19. Post author

    That is interesting about strafing; it’s not something the RAF would have been keen to advertise, I think. Have you seen this film of Audaxes in the Waziristan campaign? There’s a mention of strafing in that.

  20. Ruy Aballe

    No, I hadn’t! Thanks so much for reminding me of it! As a matter of fact, I noticed it before, while browsing through your “air control” archives but I hadn’t had time to actually watch it. Amazing footage and some quite candid recollections, too… This feature was aired 30 years and it shows! Had it been recorded today, we could expect Group Cap. R. Lister to employ a less “colourful” language in the interview. And also some omissions, namely the part about bombing villages…

  21. Just a note to say what a fascinating area, and illustrating how much the ‘anglosphere’ can remain totally oblivious of parallel developments in history.

    It would be good to hear more details / examples of this other ‘air control’ work.

    Thanks!

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