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Napalm et. al.: Churchill’s Repugnance for Chemical Weapons

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Much nonsense has been published about Winston Churchill’s supposed enthusiasm for dropping chemical weapons on rebel tribes. Compiling more entries for an expanded edition of my book, Churchill in His Own Words, I ran across what he said about napalm. Unpublished until recently, it is illustrative of his true feelings—and when he believed such weapons should be abjured. It complements what he really said about using “poisoned gas” 30 years earlier—repelled by its effect on civil populations.

Napalm

Napalm or “sticky fire” is a deoxygenating compound that adheres to and burns on surfaces, creating a conflagration. It was first used in war during an attack on Berlin in March 1944. It was also widely deployed by the French in the First Indochina War (1946-54), and American forces in the Korean War (1950-53).

Because napalm attacks did not usually distinguish civilian from military targets, great controversy over its use arose among the Western allies, particularly Great Britain. By summer 1952, the U.S. press was reporting serious Anglo-American differences over napalm deployments.

“Splashing about this burning fluid…”

In August 1952, Prime Minister Churchill decisively rejected the use of napalm where it might involve civilian populations:

I do not like this napalm bombing at all. A fearful lot of people must be burned, not by ordinary fire, but by the contents of the bomb. We should make a great mistake to commit ourselves to approval of a very cruel form of warfare affecting the civilian population. Napalm in the [Second World] War was devised by us and used by fighting men in action against tanks and against heavily defended structures. No one ever thought of splashing it about all over the civilian population. I will take no share in the responsibility for it. It is one thing to use Napalm in close battle of ground troops, or from the air in immediate aid of ground troops. It is quite another thing to torture great masses of unarmed people by it.

The statement about giving “due warning to civilians to evacuate,” etc., is not worth much. If people have to go to their work every day and live in their homes, they have not much choice of dwelling.

My own feeling is that Napalm ought not to be used in the way it is being done by the American Forces. This is I am sure the overwhelming feeling of the House of Commons, but I do not take my opinion from them. I certainly could not agree to our taking any responsibility for it, otherwise than in the general duty of serving with and under the United Nations Commander….1 I do not see how Press articles and jabber of that kind compares with splashing about this burning fluid on the necks of humble people living where they have to.2

“Loss of life should be reduced to a minimum”

Churchill was consistent regarding chemical weapons long before napalm. The Germans introduced chlorine during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Outraged, the Allies retaliated in kind, but revulsion over its lethal effects was widespread.3

After the war, with Churchill at the War Office, Britain was faced with the question of using non-lethal gas against rebel tribesmen in Northwest India and in Mesopotamia, now Iraq. It was never proposed to use chlorine or phosgene, but Churchill himself confused the matter when he used the term “poisoned gas” in a departmental minute:

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.4

Ten days later, Churchill addressed the India Office’s reluctance to use “lachrymatory” (tear) gas against rebel tribesmen:

Gas is a more merciful weapon than high explosive shell, and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war. The moral effect is also very great. There can be no conceivable reason why it should not be resorted to. We have definitely taken the position of maintaining gas as a weapon in future warfare, and it is only ignorance on the part of the Indian military authorities which interposes any obstacle.5

Consistent abhorrence

While lethal gas had not been proposed for use against civil populations, Churchill did support non-lethal “lachrymatory gas,” for another reason: the welfare of soldiers. In all the accounts of his supposed enthusiasm for gas warfare, I have never seen this minute cited in full:

Having regard to the fact that [the India Office] are retaining all our men, even those who are most entitled to demobilisation, we cannot in any circumstances acquiesce in the non-utilisation of any weapons which are available to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails on the frontier.

If it is fair war for an Afghan to shoot down a British soldier behind a rock and cut him in pieces as he lies wounded on the ground, why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze? It is really too silly.6

Virtually always absent from quotes alleging Churchill’s penchant for gas is the first paragraph above. It testifies that Churchill was thinking more broadly, and more humanely, than most: Whether over tear gas in the 1920s, or napalm in the 1950s, he was thinking humanely, hoping to limit death and suffering.

 

Endnotes

 

  1. Winston S. Churchill to Field Marshal Alexander, 22 August 1952, in Martin Gilbert and Larry P. Arnn, eds., The Churchill Documents, vol. 23, Never Flinch, Never Weary, October 1951-January 1965 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2019), 612.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “The Growing Menace of Chemical War,” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Chris Reddy, 2 April 2007, cited at http://bit.ly/15pDuRq.
  4. Churchill minute, War Office, 12 May 1919, in Martin Gilbert, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 8, War and Aftermath, December 1916-June 1919 (Hillsdale College Press, 2008), 649. Italics are the author’s.
  5. Ibid., 661-62.
  6. Ibid., 662.

 

Richard M. Langworth is Senior Fellow for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project, and author or editor of ten books on Churchill, including Churchill in His Own Words: The Definitive Collection of Quotations.

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Richard M. Langworth