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Gas in Mesopotamia

It is suspected by some that the British might have used poison gas against the Kurds in Mesopotamia in 1920.

Henry B. Gonzalez, speaking in the United States House of Representatives on March 24, 1992 said that Britain used gas against the Kurds, and has often been quoted since: however a question remains over how well informed Mr Gonzalez was.

Additional recommended knowledge


Work of recent historians

The main source usually quoted in support of the idea that Britain used poison gas in Mesopotamia is Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam.[1] However, all that Simons actually says is that (a) the use of poison gas was considered and (b) aircraft were used, leading to the view that Simons may have been misread by those wishing to further this theory.

Another historian, Lawrence James, says "By September the local commander, General Sir Aylmer Haldane, was beginning to get the upper hand, although he was still desperate enough to clamour for large supplies of poison gas. It was not needed, for air power had given his forces the edge whenever the going got tough."[2]. On whether gas was used he writes that: "RAF Officers asked Churchill... for use of poison gas. He agreed but it was not used"[3]

Niall Ferguson, in his recent book, The War of the World writes: "‘’To end the Iraqi Insurgency of 1920…the British relied on a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village burning expeditions. Indeed, they even contemplated using mustard gas too, though supplies proved unavailable”[4]

Anthony Clayton, writing in the Oxford History of the British Empire: vol. four: The Twentieth Century that "[T]he use of poisonous gas was never sanctioned"[5]

British policy

Britain certainly considered the use of poison gas in situations such as that in Mesopotamia.

In the 1920s there was a general idea, which Britain shared, that the rules of war applied to only conflict "between civilized nations." It had earlier been stated clearly that "they do not apply in wars with uncivilized States and tribes" in the Manual of Military Law of 1914.[6]

In a War Office minute of 12 May 1919, Winston Churchill argued for the use of tear gas: "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. 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."[7]

British actions

It is known that in 1919, gas stocks were sent out from the UK to the N. W. Frontier Province; however, it is not at all clear that they were ever actually used.[8]

The argument against the view that the British used gas

The following general argument suggests that Britain did not actually use gas:

  • It is generally agreed that the Italians used gas in Abyssinia in 1935-36 and seems to have been the first time that gas was used from aircraft: had Britain really used gas in 1920, it would surely be equally well known and uncontested.
  • If the main terror weapon used against the Kurds in 1920 was machine-guns from aircraft, it seems highly unlikely that Britain could have used gas in 1920.


  1. ^ Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam (London: St. Martins Press, 1994), pp. 179-181
  2. ^ Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, p. 400
  3. ^ Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, p. 398
  4. ^ Niall Ferguson, The War of the World, (Allen Lane: 2006) p.412
  5. ^ Anthony Clayton, "'Deceptive Might': Imperial Defence and Security, 1900-1968" in Judith M. Brown & Wm. Roger Louis (eds.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: vol. four: The Twentieth Century, pp. 280-306
  6. ^ HMSO, 1914, p. 235
  7. ^ Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, (London: Heinemann, 1976), companion volume 4, part 1
  8. ^ Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), p. 44. It seems that Harris and Paxman do not mention Iraq.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Gas_in_Mesopotamia". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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