A Brief History of WMDs before 1900

This is a Mongol style siege but not the siege of Kaffa [Caffa] from the early 14th century Jami al-Tawarikh  (Compendium of Chronicles) by Rashid ad-Din.  Edinburgh University Library

Transmission from Kaffa. (Wheelis, 2002)

In terms of referring to nuclear, chemical-and by inference, biological-weapons, the term “weapons of mass destruction” first came into use in 1956 when it was used in a speech by Soviet Red Army Marshal Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov. In fact, it was this speech that highlighted for U. S. policy makers the real or perceived threat from the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of the latter’s presumed arsenal of chemical and biological weaponry. As such, Zhukov’s speech invigorated United States Cold War research into WMD, including biological weaponry. During the Cold War, the United States-and, to a much greater extent, the Soviet Union-amassed large chemical and biological weapons stockpiles. The threat posed by these stockpiles has diminished greatly since the crumbling of the Berlin wall.

Regional threats posed by state-funded militaries from chemical and biological weapons also have declined. By the end of 2003, the U. S. government had admitted that there was little evidence that Iraq had possessed large chemical or biological weapon stockpiles after the mid-1990s. This has since led both the United States and British governments to begin inquiries into the faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq that was in large part the basis for justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. Other regional threats, however, still remain. Among these, states such as Syria and North Korea are suspected of possessing chemical and biological weapons. Their bellicose posture regarding their immediate neighbors and regional rivals, as well as their possession of long-range delivery systems (such as Scud missiles), make these threats impossible to ignore. By contrast, Libyan leader Mohamar Qaddafi stated in early 2004 that he would renounce the possession of WMD, which demonstrates how quickly the threat of weapons of mass destruction seems to rise and fall on the global agenda.

The historical record shows that mass poisonings and the occasional plot to spread disease among armies and civilian populations go back many centuries. Still, chemical and biological warfare (CBW)-sometimes referred to in military parlance as “bugs and gas”-is essentially a modern phenomenon. It is modern in the sense that the science and industry required to produce these types of WMD have only existed since the early 1900s. However, there may indeed have been designs to use chemical or biological agents as a means of warfare (or possibly terrorism) before the Industrial Revolution. Before the late nineteenth century (the time of Louis Pasteur and many developments in chemistry), however, the requisite scientific knowledge and engineering capacity were insufficient to bring any such ideas to fruition. Obviously, this is no longer the case.

Many books and articles that discuss CBW often introduce the subject by bringing up past examples of chemical or biological warfare. In an excellent introduction to chemical weapons, a short book published by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army discusses a case of CW (chemical warfare) from China’s early history: In the Zuochuan, it is written that in the sixth century to about the fifth century B. C. E., “An official of the noble princes of the Xia, came from the Jin to attack the [forces of] Qin, and poisoned the Jing River, killing more than a division of men.” Another case is cited: “In the year 1000 [ C. E.], there was one named Tangfu, who made poi- son fire grenades and gave them to the Chao court of the Song dynasty. The poisonous smoke ball, containing arsenic oxide (As 2 O 3 ) and a type of poison derived from crotonaldehyde, looked a bit like a precursor to a chemical gas grenade. After alighting, this weapon would issue forth smoke to poison the enemy and thus weaken their ability to fight.”

These same authors also point out that this is a far cry from what one expects in modern times, for back then chemical warfare “was just in its infancy, and not only were its methods crude but its utility in actually killing people was limited. Because of this, chemical weapons were regarded as a method to generally assist in conducting warfare, and at the time did not draw any particular attention. Coming into the recent era, as the developments in technology continued, chemical weapons then really began to demonstrate their real menace.”

Another premodern military tactic that is often described as a form of BW (biological warfare) is the siege of Kaffa (1346 C. E.), in modern Feodosia, Ukraine. During a campaign by Mongol forces to defeat a heavily defended city of mostly Genoese merchants, bubonic plague struck the area: “The Tartars died as soon as the signs of disease appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating humors, followed by a putrid fever. The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. . . .” We note here that “stench” was considered in the pre-germ theory era to be responsible for disease. Thus, miasmas, “noxious effluvia,” or “corrupt vapors” (febres pestilentiales) were synonymous with the spread of deadly epidemics-plague (causative organism: Yersinia pestis) being among the most notorious.

The suggestion later made by historians that the Mongols were in fact able to spread bubonic plague by hurling disease-ridden corpses over the fortress walls is an intriguing one. During the fourteenth century, however, a germ theory of disease did not exist. How would the people of that era have known exactly how the disease could spread? What they could not have known is that bubonic plague is spread by fleas, which collect the bacteria Yersinia pestis (the causative organism of plague) through feeding upon infected rats. Fleas do not linger near the body once the temperature of the host (be it rodent or human) cools following death, making it rather unlikely that the cadavers would have done much to spread the plague. In the end, it was not the use of projectile cadavers, but more likely the exceptionally large rat population around the Black Sea that led to a pandemic throughout the region (and indeed much of Europe). One could probably conclude, however, that the Mongols did have the intent to spread disease among their enemy, and at least in this respect they conducted an early form of BW.

Sixth Century B. C. Assyrians reportedly used ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) to poison their enemy’s water wells

431-404 B. C. Spartan armies use sulfur and toxic arsenic smoke during Peloponnesian War

Fourth Century B. C. Chinese engineers use arsenic against underground sappers.

Circa 200 B. C. Officers in Hannibal’s army adulterate the wine of African rebels with mandrake, which contains belladonna alkaloids causing hallucinations.

187 B. C. Ambraciots (Greece) employ irritating smoke against Roman soldiers

7th Century C. E. The Byzantine architect, Callinicus (“Kallinikos”), reportedly invents the first liquid incendiary-“Greek Fire.”

Circa 1040 Scottish king poisons wine using a belladonna-like (“sleepy nightshade”) herb and gives to Norwegian enemies as “provisions” under pretense of surrender. Scots then slaughter the incapacitated Norwegians.

1347 Mongolians lay siege to Kaffa (in modern Ukraine) and throw corpses over city walls to spread bubonic plague. May have contributed to Black Death, which killed approximately 50 million people through the fourteenth century.

1672 Bishop of Münster attempted the use of atropine-like drug in grenades in siege against city of Groningen. Attack backfires.

1767 British plot to supply cloths from a smallpox hospital ward to American Indian tribes in hopes of spreading disease. Unknown if this strategy was ultimately successful.

1855 Sir Lyon Playfair suggests using cyanide-containing chemicals against Russian troops during Crimean War, but this tactic never found approval by the British High Command.

29 July 1899 First Hague Convention signed, prohibiting “the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.”(Mauroni, p. 81)


The Mongol siege of the Crimean city of Kaffa in 1346 is often cited as one of the first recorded incidents of biological warfare-and perhaps even the cause of the spread of bubonic plague to Europe.

The city of Kaffa (or Caffa, now Feodosija, Ukraine), established in 1266 by agreement between the Mongols on the Black Sea and the Genoese, was an important trading hub between Genoa and the Far East. In 1289, the city fell under the suzerainty of the Khan (Toqtai) of the Golden Horde. The relationship between the Genoese and the Khan, however, was an uneasy one. Kaffa was first besieged in 1308 after the reported displeasure of Khan Toqtai over Genoese trading in Turkic slaves. (The sale of these slaves to the Marmelake Sultanate in Egypt reportedly upset the Khan by depriving him of an important source of foot soldiers for his own army.) The Genoese set fire to Kaffa and fled. After Toqtai’s death, Khan Uzbeg allowed the Genoese to rebuild their trading colony in 1312.

In 1343, after a brawl between Christian locals and Muslims in the Italian enclave of Tana inflamed the ire of Khan Janibeg, the Italians fled from Tana to Kaffa, bringing the Khan’s army to the gates of Kaffa behind them to besiege the city. In February 1344, the Italians managed to break the siege after killing 15,000 of the Khan’s Tartars and destroying their siege machines. Janibeg renewed the siege the following year, but the residents of Kaffa were able to maintain their position because they retained access by sea to supplies. In 1346, the Khan’s army besieging Kaffa suffered a natural outbreak of plague. The Tartars catapulted the plague-infected corpses of their dead comrades over the city walls. According to one historical account, the Tartars’ tactic finally broke the 3-year stalemate; the Genoese were crippled by the plague and fled Kaffa by sea-taking the disease to Europe with them.

The most contemporaneous account of the siege was written by Gabriele de’ Mussi, a notary of the town of Piacenza, north of Genoa. There is some debate as to whether de’Mussi witnessed the events at Kaffa. Written in 1348 or 1349, the account de- scribes the “mysterious illness “that struck the Tartar army besieging Kaffa. De’ Mussi recounts how the Tartars, desperate from the devastation of the disease on their army, thought to kill the inhabitants of Kaffa with the stench of their diseased dead. According to the de’ Mussi account, the people of Kaffa had no hope once the air and water had been contaminated, and only one in 1,000 was able to flee the city. Those that did flee took the plague with them as they left.

De’ Mussi’s account suggests that not only did the Tartars deliberately hurl their diseased dead over the city walls of Kaffa with the intent to kill their enemies, but those escaping Kaffa brought the disease into the ports of Europe. The disease was most likely brought within the walls of Kaffa through flea-infested rodents from the Tartar camps, or possibly through the transmission of the disease from direct contact with infectious body fluids from the Tartar dead.

Most scholars believe that the Genoans brought the plague with them to Naples, from where it then spread throughout Europe. Others have recently suggested that although the use of plague corpses against Kaffa was a true act of biological warfare, the siege had no significant impact on the spread of the Black Death through Europe. As Wheelis suggests, Kaffa was certainly not the only Tartar port that could have transmitted plague into European ports. Wheelis further argues that the rate and pattern of plague transmission suggests that it took 1 year to spread the plague into different European ports.

Though Kaffa may not have been the precise source of the Black Death that spread into Europe, the use of infected cadavers against its besieged inhabitants remains one of the most important instances of the intentional use of disease in warfare.

References McGovern, Thomas W., and Arthur M. Friedlander, “Plague,” in Russ Zajtchuck and Ronald F. Bellamy, eds., Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare (Washington, DC: Borden Institute, 1997), pp. 479-502. Watts, Sheldon, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). Wheelis, Mark, “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa,”Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 8, no. 9, September 2002, http://www. cdc. gov/ncidod/EID/ vol8no9/01-0536. htm.


2 thoughts on “A Brief History of WMDs before 1900

  1. I almost always enjoy your reads. Rarely does current political propaganda ooze in. So it is hesitantly that I complain/comment/observe that this: “Among these, states such as Syria and North Korea are suspected of possessing chemical and biological weapons. Their bellicose posture regarding their immediate neighbors and regional rivals, as well as their possession of long-range delivery systems (such as Scud missiles), make these threats impossible to ignore.” is simply contemporary US/West/Nato/Imperial propaganda, false now just as it was false about Iraq and has no [or only the most tenuous] connect to the headlined topic of the article. It feels like it has been spliced in from another text. Why not also mention smallpox-infected blankets distributed to Native Americans? Don’t feel any need to answer/explain/defend etc. Keep up the otherwise good work. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The United States has bigger chemical and biological weapons stockpiles than the rest of the world combined, by far. They are not even intend to destroy it, not seriously. Nothing to do with Zhukov or North Korea or Qaddafi, or Mongols. For example, they even employed Japanese scientists from unit 731 immediately after the WW2 (definitely before some Zhukov’s speech from 1956.). But that’s all irrelevant here. Kaffa/Feodosya is actually in Crimea, yet you need to repeat couple of times it’s in “modern Ukraine”, although it’s also completely irrelevant for this topic. Why not saying – Munster (modern Germany), Groningen (modern Netherlands) etc etc.? Your other text about Kosovo, you repeat it’s an “independent country”, while it’s a part of modern Serbia as much as Crimea “is” Ukraine.
    I agree with @SteveLaudig, I enjoy this blog but there is no need for american-biased State department propaganda.


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