British army 'did not gas Iraqis in 1920s'
UK did not drop gas on Iraqis in 1920s, historian claims
Thursday, 22, Oct 2009 11:25
By Sarah Garrod
The UK did not use chemical weapons on Iraqis just after the first world war, a researcher has said.
Despite claims, which had come to pass as fact, that British forces used chemical weapons on the country just after the war, a historian has said "no such incident ever occurred".
According to Dr RM Douglas, a historian at Colgate University, the claims rest on "shaky foundations". Dr Douglas' research is due to be published in the December issue of the Journal of Modern History.
During the US-led invasion into the country in 2003, the allegations of chemical bombing by the UK in the 1920s were brought to the fore. Dr Douglas said many scholars went so far as to root Arab distrust of the west in Britain's brutal chemical attacks.
In his research Dr Douglas explains much of the belief was based on an essay by historian Charles Townshend, in which he cited letters that tear gas shells had been used against Arab rebels with "excellent moral effect". But Dr Douglas says this was wrong; the army had asked permission to use gas shells, but had not yet employed them in the field.
And contrary to Townshend's description of the letter, Webster's much-quoted reference to an "excellent moral effect" represented "the Air Ministry's estimation of what gas bombs dropped from aircraft, if used, could be expected to achieve, rather than what gas shells had already achieved," Dr Douglas writes.
"In some versions, the Royal Air Force is alleged to have dropped gas bombs from aeroplanes against rebellious Iraqis, in the course of what was euphemistically known as 'air policing,'" Dr Douglas writes. "In others, the British Army is held to be the responsible party, employing gas-filled artillery shells."
Each allegation the British forces dropped the gas was treated as fact, but Dr Douglas's research suggests it is anything but. Despite faulty evidence, claims of British chemical attacks on Iraqis became a popular anti-war rallying cry 80 years after the alleged incidents took place, with war critics often drawing parallels between Britain's alleged gas attacks and Saddam Hussein's gassing of Kurdish separatists in 1988.
Dr Douglas concludes: "The symmetrical appeal of history faithfully repeating itself no doubt accounts for much of the public and scholarly credence accorded to claims that the British used chemical weapons in mandatory Iraq, their inconsistency and implausibility notwithstanding."