Chemical Weapons before 1900

In 1456 an alchemist who prepared a poisonous mixture saved Christian Belgrade from the attacking Turks.

Chemical weapons are not a new method of warfare, they have been in recorded use since about 2000 BC. However, science and technology have refined these weapons and now their potential is awesome. It was the rise of the modern chemical industry at the end of the nineteenth century that first made feasible the use of significant quantities of toxic chemicals on large-scale battlefields and, indeed, chemical weapons were first used on a significant scale by both sides in the First World War. They were then used immediately after the war by Britain in Iraq (1920), and Spain in Morocco (1921). They were also used by Italy during its invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935-1936, Japan during its war against China in 1937-1943, and by the United States in Vietnam in 1965-1975. Both sides in the Iran-Iraq War used them in 1980-1988, and in a particularly high-profile attack they were deployed by Iraq against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988.

However, the use of poisons that could be considered chemical weapons dates back to antiquity. The wars of ancient India in about 2000 BC were fought with smoke screens, incendiary devices and toxic fumes that caused sleep. Thucydides tells of the use of gas during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC); also the use of an incapacitating agent, one which caused incessant diarrhoea, is recorded by Polyaenus, Fronto and Pausanias. The Spartans used arsenic smoke, comprised of pitch and sulphur, during the sieges of Plataea and Delium. The pitch and sulphur were ignited and the consequence was `a fire greater than anyone had ever yet seen produced by human agency’, the Greek historian wrote. There is some debate concerning the effect of this new weapon on the final outcome, but it is unequivocally true that even the crudest chemical weapon will create fear and panic. Undoubtedly, this was exactly what happened during both sieges, making the way then clear for the Spartan Army to seize the advantage presented to them by the incapacity of their enemy, an opportunity they did not squander. Between 82-72 BC the Romans used `toxic smoke’ against the Charakitanes in Spain, causing pulmonary problems and blindness not dissimilar to the effects of phosgene centuries later. In this case the effects of this chemical weapon are clear – the Charakitanes were defeated in two days.

Almost a millennium later at the siege of Constantinople (AD 637), the Byzantine Greeks employed `Greek Fire’, a weapon invented by an architect, Callinus of Helipolis, which became decisive at this time and was used with success by the Byzantines in their campaigns up to the thirteenth century. Indeed, it can be argued, its effectiveness was a prime reason for the long survival of the Byzantine Empire. The exact composition of Greek Fire is still a mystery but naphtha or petroleum is thought to have been the principle ingredient, probably with sulphur or pitch and other materials added. Indeed, Greek Fire, it can be assumed, was the forerunner of Napalm. It is not clear, however, how it was ignited, but quicklime was probably used, mixed with the main ingredients at the last moment. Once lit, the substance was very hard to extinguish; water was useless, sand or vinegar was the only solution.

In the Middle Ages, chemical warfare was put to similar use as at the siege of Delium and such usage continued through to the fifteenth century. In 1456 an alchemist who prepared a poisonous mixture saved Christian Belgrade from the attacking Turks. The Christians dipped rags in the chemical and burned them, creating a toxic cloud that was not dissimilar to the chlorine clouds on the Western Front in 1915. This drifting cloud attack with an arsenical smoke is described by the Austrian writer, von Senfftenberg, with the comment: `It was a sad business. Christians must never use so murderous a weapon against other Christians. Still, it is quite in place against Turks and other miscreants.’

The `Notebooks’ of Leonardo da Vinci reveal a design for a chemical weapon which comprised a mixture of powdered arsenic and powdered sulphur packed into shells and fired against ships. Such a weapon was indeed developed and deployed, and as such is the first recorded usage of a chemical weapon. This use provided a precedent for the use of poison bullets against enemies and also led to the first attempt to prohibit the use of chemical weapons. This was elaborated in the Strasbourg Agreement (27 August 1675), a bilateral French and German accord which directed that neither side should use poison bullets and, as such, constitutes the first international agreement in modern history in which use of such weapons was prohibited.

As chemistry advanced during the nineteenth century, many new proposals for chemical weapons were made; for example, organoarsenical bombs and shells at the time of the Crimean War and a chlorine shell and other devices during the American Civil War. Indeed, Napoleon III is said to have put hydrogen cyanide to military use in 1865. An influential figure in the nineteenth-century history of chemical warfare was Thomas Cochrane. In March 1812 Britain’s prince regent, the future George IV, received from Cochrane a proposal aimed at undermining the power of Napoleon in a manner guaranteed to revolutionise the rigid customs of warfare. At that time the Duke of Wellington was struggling through Spain and the strength of the Royal Navy was being sapped by the need to maintain a tedious blockade of the key ports where Napoleon’s warships waited for an opportunity to escape into the Atlantic. Cochrane’s proposals, which the prince turned over to his advisors, offered a radical scheme by which a beachhead on the coast of France could be gained quickly and decisively. Cochrane detailed two new innovative weapons systems, the `explosion ship’ and the `sulphur ship’ or `stink vessel’. The plan stipulated that the two weapons were to be used in conjunction with each other. First, the explosion ship would be towed into place at an appropriate distance from anchored enemy ships, heeled to a correct angle and anchored. When detonated the immense explosion would cause debris to fall onto the enemy causing mayhem. Then the follow-up, the sulphur ship would be towed into place and when the wind blew windward charcoal covered with sulphur would be ignited. The resulting clouds of `noxious effluvia’, as Cochrane termed them, were expected to be pungent enough to reduce all opposition as the defenders ran away to escape the choking gas. A quick landing by the British could then secure an otherwise unattainable position and clear the way for the establishment of a beachhead. Thomas Cochrane had prefaced his plan thus: `To the Imperial mind, one sentence will suffice. All fortifications, especially marine fortifications, can undercover of dense smoke be irresistibly subdued by fumes of sulphur kindled in masses to windward of their ramparts.’ He had, in fact, been partly anticipated by a good two millennia. The Peloponnesians had attempted to reduce the town of Platea with sulphur fumes in the fifth century BC. At length, an expert panel decided there was merit in this unusual scheme, but fear of the implications that such radical devices would have on warfare stifled their enthusiasm. What would happen, they asked, if the enemy gained knowledge of this new technology and turned it against Britain’s defences? The proposal was rejected on the grounds, `It would not accord with the feelings and principles of civilised warfare.’

Nearly 40 years later, in July 1853, Cochrane, now 79 years old, urged the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir James Graham, to reconsider the King’s 1812 decision and use the explosion and sulphur ships at Sevastapol as the possibility of war in the Crimea increased. Again, the idea was quickly dismissed. A year later, in July 1854, Cochrane again urged Graham to employ his vessels to force the Russian troops away from the fortifications of the harbour at Krondstadt. He said that once the ships had exploded and the enemy was scattered a British landing could be made and the enemy’s guns, once captured, could be manned and turned on the Russian ships anchored below the batteries. Once more, however, the scheme was rejected and the British sailed to the Baltic where they eventually failed to subdue Krondstadt.

Throughout the debate, the details of the scheme remained secret. In the boardroom at the Admiralty, the plan showed the sulphur ships with layers of coke and sulphur ready to emit their choking fog. Added to the scheme was the intention to create a smoke screen by pouring naphtha onto the surface of the harbour and igniting it with potassium, perhaps a nineteenth-century version of Greek Fire. Cochrane was convinced that a few hours would accomplish what months of debilitating conventional warfare had failed to achieve. Palmerstone’s government appeared to be close to sanctioning the strategy when Sevastopol was taken in September 1855, followed soon by the end of the war. All discussion of the revolutionary weapons was dropped, and the plans were sealed away on the shelves reserved for confidential matters at Whitehall. Cochrane died in 1860 and his secret war plan remained secure until 1908 when Palmerstone’s correspondence was published. Less than a decade later the sulphuric yellow clouds of mustard gas ravaged thousands in the trenches of France.

A few years after Cochrane’s death, as the American Civil War drew to an end, Ulysses Grant’s army was stalled outside Richmond during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia (1865). A plan was devised to attack Confederate trenches with a cloud of hydrochloric and sulphuric acids. This plan was not acted upon but this idea, along with Cochrane’s proposals, proved to be a prerequisite for the Declaration of St Petersburg (1868). This declaration renounced the use of explosive projectiles charged with fulminating or inflammable substances in war. Additionally, it prohibited `material of a nature to cause unnecessary suffering’. Twenty signatories participated of which Britain, France and Germany are still adherents.


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