Topic: GW - Atrocities
Realities of employing Poison Gas at Gallipoli
During the campaign at Gallipoli, the Allied forces were always fearful of a chlorine gas attack by the Turks. It never occurred. One of the best researched essays on this subject is called "THE INTRODUCTION OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS TO THE MIDDLE EAST" by Yigal SHEFFY details the reasons.
It is a short essay contained in the seminar booklet called: "The First World War: Middle Eastern perspective: proceedings of the Israeli-Turkish International Colloquy, 3-6 April 2000", Tel-Aviv, Israel with the editors being Yigal Sheffy and Shaul Shai, at pp. 75-78:
On the evening of 22 April 1915 and for the first time in human history, the Germany Army launched a poisonous gas attack against Algerian troops of the French Army near the village of Ypres. Belgium. Five months later, the British retaliated by a gas attack of their own in Loos. A new layer thus was added to the murderous static warfare of the Western Front and to the dreadful image of WW1 in the memory of the 20th century.
For reasons beyond the scope of this paper, the image of the Great War in the Middle East remains romantic ensconced in the collective memory. The fact that chemical weapons were introduced in that theatre, too, was suppressed in our memory and literature. (1) This paper aims to fill the gap by reconstructing the events that led to the use of gas precisely during the Palestine Campaign, while abstaining from using it in the Middle Eastern arenas.
THE GALLIPOLI CAMPAIGN 1915: APPREHENSION AND PRECAUTION
The issue of chemical warfare was first added to the Middle Eastern agenda several weeks after the British landing in Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. The failure of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) to widen its bridgeheads, combined with reports on the arrival of German-manufactured chemical substances in Turkey and with the painful shock of the appearance of gas in the Western Front only few weeks earlier, generated British estimate that the Ottomans. too, might use asphyxiating gas to drive the invaders back to sea. (2) General Ian Hamilton, Commander in Chief (C-in-C) of MEF, asked for protective devices to be sent urgently, as well as retaliatory means, to be used if gas would be deployed against his troops. The War Office immediately sent 50,000 respirators, but ignored the request for offensive weapons, Perhaps because they were still unavailable, or perhaps because it was hoped to leave the Mediterranean theatre out of the scope of chemical warfare. (3)
In the Admiralty, however, the notion of using gas in Gallipoli was gaining support. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty and the most enthusiastic advocate of the Dardanelles operation, was also the most outspoken preacher for offensive use of gas in the peninsula Sensing his political future to be in jeopardy because of the unsuccessful operation, he desperately searched for military solution to break the stalemate in Gallipoli. He ceaselessly urged the commanders on the spot to use the deadly new weapon against the Ottomans and pressed Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War for the transfer of the best chemical unit the army had to the peninsula. (4) The Dardanelles Committee (which functioned as a war cabinet for the entire government) discussed the issue in mid June 1915, but due to conflicting opinions failed to reach any decision. (5)
Yet, British concern increased when they received more alarming reports, however groundless, and learned about gas cylinders and facilities for gas-manufacturing that reached Turkey, accompanied by German experts. Moreover, a Turkish spokesman on behalf of the. Ottoman General Staff publicly accused MEF of using poison gas in Gallipoli. General Hamilton took that false accusation to indicate Turkish plans to use their own chemical ammunition shortly. (6) The combination of this assessment and British improvement in gas-stocking finally convinced Kitchener to provide MEF with a small amount of chlorine, to be used at the discretion of the local commander. Hamilton, however. remained adamant in his objection to introduce the new weapon, probably to avert any Ottoman reaction which might jeopardize the impending landing in Suvla Bay and the attack in ANZAC sector. (7)
Diminished interest in using gas followed the Suvla failure in August, while the British government firmly denied Isatanbul's accusation, endeavoring to convey a placating message:
The Council are anxious that the rules of International Law should he observed strictly in the hostilities against the Turks, which view is apparently reciprocated by them, as they have hitherto shown little desire to follow the method employed by the Germans. (8)
It was Churchill who again urged the government to reconsider its decision to refrain from employing gas in Gallipoli. In an effort to regain his lost standing by achieving some success there, he did not hesitate to touch emotional and practical chords:
I trust that the unreasonable prejudice against the use by us of gas upon the Turks will now cease. The massacres by the Turks of Armenians and the fact that practically no British prisoner have been taken on the peninsula... should surely remove all false sentiment on this point. (9)
Whether it was Churchill's note or the increasing intelligence reports about Turco-German offensive intentions that made the difference is unclear, but in early November 6,000 cylinders (190 tons of gas) accompanied by a group of operators sailed to Gallipoli.(10) However, General Monro, the new MEF C-in-C, followed in Hamilton's footsteps and flatly rejected the idea, particularly when the notion of evacuation was gaining momentum. In hindsight, his decision seems entirely logical as the Turkish positions along the high ground dominated topographically the battlefield and the wind flow could easily blow the gas clouds back to the inferior and crowded British trenches.
The debate was terminated by the peninsula evacuation in December 1915. without the use of poisonous gas in Gallipoli even once.
(1) For general textbook on chemical warfare in WW1: L.F. Haber, The Poisonous Cloud: Chemical Warfare in the First World War, Oxford, 1986: William Moore: Gas Attack: Chemical Warfare 1915-18 and afterwards, London, 1987; Donald Richter, Chemical Soldiers: British Gas Warfare in World War One, Kansas, 1992, London. 1994.
(2) Lieut. General John Maxwell, GOC British Forces in Egypt, to FM Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, tel(egram) 1061E, PRO, WO 33/371.
(3) War Office (WO) to Hamilton, tel 4764, 19 May 1915, ibid.; WO to Admiralty, let(ter). 30, Mediterranean. 121, 26 May 1915, WO 32/5117.
(4) Martin Gilbert, The Challenge of War: Winston S. Churchill, London, 1990 org. 1972, p. 470.
(5) Precis of meeting of the Dardanelles Committee, 12 June 1915, PRO, CAB 42/3/2.
(6) Hamilton to Kitchener, tel MF 433, 8 July 1915; tel MF 434, 9 July 1915, WO 33/731.
(7) Précis of meeting of the Dardanelles Committee, 24 July 1915, CAB 37/13/34; Hamilton to Kitchener, tel 4 August 1915, WO 33731.
(8) WO, MO5a to Under Secretary of the Foreign Office, let 121 Mediterranean/416, 26 Oct. 1915, PRO, FO 372/726/158691.
(9) Churchill, 'War Committee Notes', 20 Oct. 1915, CAB 42/4/14
(10) Richter, op. cite., p. 99.
Citation: Use of poison gas at Gallipoli