It has passed as fact among historians, journalists and politicians, and has been recounted everywhere from tourist guidebooks to the floor of the U.S. Congress: British forces used chemical weapons on Iraqis just after World War I.
But that claim has never been fully squared with the historical record, says R. M. Douglas, a historian at Colgate University. According to Douglas's research, forthcoming in the December issue of The Journal of Modern History, no such incident ever occurred.
Allegations of chemical bombings by the British erupted into the public sphere during the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq's history of chemical weapons did not start with Saddam Hussein's gas attack on the Kurds, scholars and critics asserted. It was Great Britain when it controlled the region under League of Nations mandate in the 1920s that first used chemical weapons in the region to quell Arab uprisings. Many scholars went so far as to root Arab distrust of the West in Britain's brutal chemical attacks.
Douglas, however, finds that these claimsoft repeated in books, newspapers and political speechesrest on very shaky foundations.
The first blunt assertion of British chemical weapons use in Iraq comes from a 1986 essay by historian Charles Townshend. In his essay Townshend refers to a 1921 letter penned by J.A. Webster, an official at the British Air Ministry. In Townshend's description, Webster wrote to the British Colonial Office, the overseer of the Mesopotamian occupation, that tear gas shells had been used against Arab rebels with "excellent moral effect."
Douglas's research, however, reveals that Webster 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 air
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