Copyright 2003 Contemporary Review Company Ltd



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COPYRIGHT 2003 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.

THE controversy over Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction is simply the most recent in a long line of events in the troubled history of chemical and biological warfare. This article examines two events that show that the Germans and British also have some skeletons in their own closets. The Germans pioneered chemical (or 'gas') warfare in World War I and the British experimented with anthrax, a form of biological warfare, in World War II.

'A Higher Form of Killing'

The man who invented modern gas warfare received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and he called his invention 'a higher form of killing'. Fritz Haber's invention was first tested in October of 1914 and used against the French and their Algerian colonial troops at Ypres in Belgium in April of 1915. The green chlorine gas rolled over the Allied frontline and created panic. The chlorine burnt the lungs and the Allied soldiers died slowly. Two days later, the gas was used against the Canadian lines with similar results. Allied casualties in the two days of gas attacks were estimated at 5,000 dead, with 10,000 more disabled, half of them permanently.

But Haber was not happy. The German high command had not believed that the gas attacks could be so effective and so did not make the most of their opportunity to storm the Allied frontlines. Indeed, they were reluctant to use gas at all. When the war began in August 1914, the Germans expected a quick victory. It was only when the Western front had become bogged down in a stalemate, running from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, that they listened to his suggestion. The two front lines were so close that it was often risky to fire shells, in case they fell short and landed on one's own line. Haber thought that gas warfare could end the stalemate. If the German high command had listened fully to his strategic advice, then the war could have had a very different outcome. Instead, the German high command did not have enough troops ready to follow up the gas, and those that they did have, did not have enough gas masks.

Meanwhile, the Allies soon developed their own gas weapons and so the stalemate became even more deadly. Many thousands of people continued to suffer from the effects of the gassing for the rest of their lives. They may have survived the war alive but they often did not have a life worth living. One of Haber's victims, a British soldier named Fred Cayley, was gassed in 1917. He had to visit a doctor every week of his life until his death in 1981. The coroner recorded that he had been 'killed by the King's enemies'--the statement that would have appeared on his death certificate if he had been killed outright 64 years earlier.

Dr Fritz Haber was born in Breslau, in eastern Germany in 1868 of a wealthy family. He was a brilliant pioneer in the German chemical industry. In the first decade of the last century, the rapidly increasing demand for nitrogen fertilizer greatly exceeded the supply (most of which then came from sea bird droppings in Chile). Germany was Chile's biggest customer, with the United States as the second largest.

Haber looked for other ways of meeting the demand and helped invent a chemical fertilizer. Indeed, his artificial fertilizer may have been an even greater contribution to the German war effort than the chemical weapons because with it he helped Germany become more self-sufficient in agriculture. His invention has gone around the world and many millions of people have been able to feed themselves because of his brilliance.

He also helped Germany overtake Britain in engineering. He was able to build bridges between the worlds of science and finance, while he claimed that the British financiers lacked an interest in science and how it could be mobilized to improve production. He encouraged German financiers and scientists to see how each could help the other. Were it not for his invention of gas warfare, he would have a far greater public standing today.

Haber was a very patriotic German and so when the war began he looked for ways to assist the military effort. His first major critic was his childhood sweetheart and wife Clara, a talented chemist herself with a doctorate. She was appalled at the use of science to kill people. A few days after the first use of gas, she used his army pistol to commit suicide. This did not deter Haber: he went off to supervise the use of gas warfare on the Eastern front and left others to handle her funeral arrangements.

When the war ended in 1918, Haber donned a disguise and fled temporarily into Switzerland. The use of gas warfare had been so controversial that he was afraid that he would be tried by the Allies as a war criminal. About 1.3 million people had been wounded by gas, with 91,000 being killed. If the war had gone on longer, then the casualties would have been even higher because new chemical weapons were about to come into service. The United States had only entered the war in 1917 but it was already assembling the world's largest ever scientific team to develop additional chemical weapons.

There is a continuing debate about how effective was the use of gas warfare. It certainly inflicted great suffering. But the changes in wind direction made it an unpredictable weapon. Additionally, to follow up the successful use of gas required one's own troops to then run through the gas to chase the retreating enemy and they were reluctant to do so (at the very least, it was difficult to charge forward wearing gas masks.)

In fact, Haber never went on trial. Instead, the Nobel Prize committee thought Haber's pre-war work, especially on artificial fertilizer, was so important that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1919. This was a controversial decision because of his wartime work. But Haber was not worded. He said that gas warfare was a 'higher form of killing' because it took a soldier out of the battle but it did not necessarily kill him. Therefore, the gas could end a person's role in war but still give him the opportunity to live in peacetime afterwards.

After the war, Haber's research institute in Berlin became the world's leading centre of research in physical chemistry. It attracted a staff from around the world. Haber also enjoyed international prestige, with foreign visits explaining how the worlds of science and finance could work together for mutual gain. He received many honours and awards in Germany and elsewhere.

But his life ended tragically. Haber had been Jewish but later converted to Christianity. When Hitler came to power in 1933, all the Jewish staff at Haber's research institute had to be sacked. Haber decided to leave Germany as well. He was offered a position at Cambridge University. He did not stay long in England because ill health (due to heart problems) and the climate depressed him. He died in Switzerland in 1934, in his 66th year. He asked to be buffed next to Clara.

Scotland's Anthrax Island

The world's first anthrax bomb was invented by the British and dropped on a Scottish island. If the rest of the project had been carried out, then parts of Germany would remain contaminated to this day. The story of Britain's anthrax experiments in Word War II did not come to light until about forty years after the experiments had been conducted. To this day, there is some hesitation about visiting 'Anthrax Island' off the north-west Scottish coast.

Anthrax is the best known--and probably most feared--example of biological warfare. Biological warfare is where a germ is taken out of nature and used on the enemy (gas warfare, by contrast, is where some form of poisonous gas is invented). The first major use of biological warfare last century was by the Japanese against the Chinese in northern China in the 1930s. The British had noted this work and decided to do their own research. With the onset of war in 1939, this work was increased. The Porton Down research centre, near Stonehenge in southern England, was created in 1940.

The years 1941 and 1942 were particularly bad for Britain and so Winston Churchill decided that desperate times required desperate measures. He was also worded that the Germans could also be developing these weapons. (As we now know the German biological warfare programme was many years behind the British one.) By late 1941, Porton Down had decided that it was ready to test its anthrax. The name 'anthrax' is derived from 'anthrakis' the Greek word for 'coal' because the small blister that develops is as black as coal. Anthrax is found in low levels in soil and many animals, including sheep. When it occurs through an open wound, it can be cured by antibiotics.

But about two centuries ago, the more lethal 'inhalational anthrax' was found among English wool workers. Within days of inhaling anthrax spores, victims develop flu-like symptoms followed by a fluid build up and haemorrhaging in the lungs. Finally, the brain expands and bleeds, with the victim dying a slow and painful death. Even with medical treatment, there is only a five per cent survival rate. This was the type of anthrax that attracted the British scientists.

The scientists needed an isolated island on which to conduct the experiments. The Scottish island called Gruinard (pronounced 'grin-yard') was selected. It was acquired from the owners under the government's wartime emergency powers. Gruinard is about 2 km long and 1 km across at its widest point. It was inhabited for several centuries but the population declined to about six in 1880 and by the 1930s no one was left. It was also ideal because few people lived on the mainland nearby and so there would be few observers of the top-secret experiments. Gruinard became known as 'X-base'. The experiments were carried out in 1942 and 1943. They were brilliantly successful. Too successful, in fact. Sheep were used in the experiments and they were subject to 'bombing' raids by canisters containing anthrax spores.

Unfortunately, the anthrax was even more virulent than estimated. One of the 60 contaminated sheep fell into the sea as it died. Its body floated across to the mainland village of Mungasdale. The carcass infected a dog, which then infected other animals: seven cattle, two horses, three cats and up to 50 sheep. The owner was suspicious about the activities on the island because of the speed with which the compensation was paid: 'It's not often you put in a complaint and get paid straight away'.

The British conducted other research work, not least an operation scheduled for 1945 in which anthrax would be scattered across northern Germany to wipe out the beef and dairy herds, with a view to the disease then spreading to the human population. By the time these arrangements--Operation Vegetarian--had been completed, the Allies were well on their way by land to Germany and so the operation was unnecessary.

This is just as well because the Gruinard experiments showed that the anthrax hazards were uncontrollable. Once the anthrax had been unleashed, it was impossible to predict just how much damage it would do. It was even impossible to predict for how long the anthrax would remain virulent. It is possible that if Operation Vegetarian had gone ahead, then parts of Germany would still be off-limits today because the anthrax spores can linger for years in the soil.

In 1945, when Germany was defeated, Gruinard was put off-limits by the government. The government formally bought the island in 1946 and promised that the original owners could buy it back when it was declared 'fit for habitation by man and beast'. No one was allowed to visit the island. But the government did not explain why no one was allowed to visit. From 1947 onwards, Porton Down staff visited the island to take soil samples. They noted that even with the passage of time, the anthrax was not lessening in its virulence. There were many rumours in the media about what had happened on the island but there was an official reluctance to explain all the facts. In 1982, some wartime government documents about Gruinard appeared in the public domain and so there was an increasing political interest, not least among some Scottish nationalist politicians.

The government was presumably reluctant to admit just how close the British had been to using anthrax in the war. The previous assumption had been that only the more evil countries (like Japan in the 1930s) would have done that. Also, at this time in the 1980s there was a public wariness of the lack of social responsibility by scientists. The scientific fraternity would have been embarrassed to see how ruthless and how clumsy some of their forebears were in handling anthrax. Their enthusiasm overtook the necessary caution for handling such dangerous substances (or the way they instructed more menial staff to handle them). The wartime scientific film of the experiments was not released to the public until 1997.

In 1985, the Ministry of Defence established an independent evaluation on how the island could be decontaminated. In 1986, an English company was paid half a million pounds to decontaminate the land and remove some of the topsoil in sealed containers to an undisclosed location off the island. In April 1990, a junior defence minister made a well-publicized journey to the island to remove the red warning sign.

But people are still not sure if it is safe to return. Dr Brian Moffat, archaeological director of the excavation of the medieval hospital at Soutra, near Edinburgh warned that anthrax could linger for centuries. His team had encountered anthrax spores that had survived for hundreds of years buried on the Soutra site. Even the Ministry of Defence is keeping its options open: it has a contingency fund to pay for any damage still arising from the Gruinard experiments.

Gruinard provides an ironic link to the present debate about Weapons of Mass Destruction. The scientist who supervised the decontamination of the island was Dr David Kelly. His suicide in July in the midst of the furore about his role in the British dossier describing Saddam's weapons has plunged the Blair Government into crisis.

To conclude, the history of chemical and biological warfare contains stories of people who thought that they were doing the right thing at the time. In retrospect, these activities were counter-productive to their own self-interest. The controversy over Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction has, in a sense, a long pedigree.



Dr Keith Suter is Vice-President (NSW) of the Australian Section of the International Commission of Jurists.

Source Citation:


Suter, Keith. "The troubled history of chemical and biological warfare."  Contemporary Review. 283. 1652 (Sept 2003): 161(5). Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Pierce County Library. 16 Oct. 2009 .


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