O’Reilly, Churchill and “Poison Gas”

O’Reilly, Churchill and “Poison Gas”

Poison gas cylinders released in World War I (Wikipedia Commons)
Poi­son gas attack in World War I (Wikipedia Commons)

A famous quote from the Viet­nam War, alleged to have been made by a U.S. pilot but actu­al­ly uttered by jour­nal­ist Peter Arnett, was: “…it became nec­es­sary to destroy the town to save it.” I was remind­ed of it when Bill O’Reilly on Fri­day May 8th destroyed Churchill in order to save him.

Intent on dis­prov­ing Barack Obama’s non-quote of Churchill (“We don’t tor­ture”; see “Oba­ma, Churchill and Tor­ture”), the Fox News Chan­nel com­men­ta­tor, con­duct­ed an “inves­ti­ga­tion,” which turned out to be a phone call to a pro­fes­sor at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, whose name I for­get. Well, said the aca­d­e­m­ic, Churchill want­ed to use poi­son gas on the Ger­mans in World War II, so….

The con­nec­tion was not pre­cise but the impli­ca­tion was clear: If Churchill was will­ing to gas the Wehrma­cht, he would not have balked over water­board­ing the odd ter­ror­ist. (O’Reilly did men­tion the British wartime “Lon­don Cage” deten­tion facil­i­ty, not­ed last week on this and about 100 oth­er websites.)

Churchill pub­lished and archived 15 mil­lion words, and very occa­sion­al­ly even he chose the wrong one. Like many of his gen­er­a­tion, he often said “poi­son gas” when he meant any one of a vari­ety of gasses, some con­sid­er­ably less fatal than poison.

On 12 May 1919, faced with rebel­lious tribes­men in Iraq, Churchill wrote from the War Office:

I do not under­stand this squea­mish­ness about the use of gas. We have def­i­nite­ly adopt­ed the posi­tion at the Peace Con­fer­ence of argu­ing in favour of the reten­tion of gas as a per­ma­nent method of war­fare. 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.

“Lachry­ma­to­ry gas” is of course tear gas, but crit­ics usu­al­ly edit Churchill’s last sen­tence out, along with this lat­er sen­tence in the same memo:

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.

Like­wise in World War II (1943) Churchill min­ut­ed his mil­i­tary chiefs:

I should be pre­pared to do any­thing that might hit the Ger­mans in a mur­der­ous place. I may cer­tain­ly have to ask you to sup­port me in using poi­son gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many oth­er cities in Ger­many in such a way that most of the pop­u­la­tion would
be requir­ing con­stant med­ical atten­tion. We could stop all work at the fly­ing-bomb start­ing points.

Sir Mar­tin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life explains what the Prime Min­is­ter was talk­ing about:

What he had in mind in this memo was mus­tard gas, “from which near­ly every­one recov­ers.” He would use it only if “it was life or death for us” or if it would “short­en the war by a year.” To this end it might even be used on the Nor­mandy beach-head. “It is absurd to con­sid­er moral­i­ty on this top­ic,” he wrote, “when every­body used it in the last war with­out a word of com­plaint from the moral­ists or the Church. On the oth­er hand, in the last war the bomb­ing of open cities was regard­ed as for­bid­den. Now every­body does it as a mat­ter of course.”

It would be sev­er­al weeks or even months, Churchill added, “before I shall ask you to drench Ger­many with poi­son gas.” In the mean­time he
want­ed the mat­ter stud­ied, he wrote, “in cold blood by sen­si­ble peo­ple,
and not by that par­tic­u­lar set of psalm-singing uni­formed defeatists
which one runs across, now here, now there.” The enquiries were made.
It emerged that the Air Staff had already made plans for one-fifth of
Britain’s bomber effort to be employed on drop­ping gas, if such a form
of war­fare were decid­ed on. But the mil­i­tary experts to whom Churchill
remit­ted the ques­tion doubt­ed whether gas, of the essen­tial­ly non-lethal
kind envis­aged by Churchill, could have a deci­sive effect, and no gas
raids were made.

I note in Sir Martin’s next para­graph a poignant reminder of just who the real killers were at that time, and their gas of choice was Zyklon-B:

News had just reached Lon­don of the mass mur­der in spe­cial­ly-designed
gas cham­bers of more than two and a half mil­lion Jews at Auschwitz,
which had hith­er­to been iden­ti­fied only as a slave-labour camp.

Now mus­tard gas is pret­ty rough stuff, as a read­er remind­ed me. Accord­ing to Wikipedia,

…vic­tims expe­ri­ence intense itch­ing and skin irri­ta­tion which grad­u­al­ly turns into large blis­ters filled with yel­low flu­id wher­ev­er the mus­tard agent con­tact­ed the skin. These are chem­i­cal burns and they are very debil­i­tat­ing. If the victim’s eyes were exposed then they become sore, start­ing with con­junc­tivi­tis, after which the eye­lids swell, result­ing in tem­po­rary blindness.

But Churchill was right when he wrote that this par­tic­u­lar “poi­son gas” is one from which “near­ly every­one recov­ers.” Of 164,612 British mus­tard gas casu­al­ties on the West­ern front, only 4,086 or 2.5% died. Chlo­rine in its lat­er “per­fect­ed stage” killed near­ly 20%.

Churchill had an abhor­rence of tor­ture for torture’s sake. Lar­ry Kryske remind­ed me of Churchill’s remark about World War I in The World Cri­sis, vol. 1, page 11: “When all was over, Tor­ture and Can­ni­bal­ism were the only two expe­di­ents that the civ­i­lized, sci­en­tif­ic, Chris­t­ian States had been able to deny them­selves: and these were of doubt­ful utility.”

In World War II, with Lon­don bombed by pilot­less missles and the inva­sion of Europe an inevitable neces­si­ty, things evi­dent­ly looked grim­mer. “He would have done any­thing to win the war,” his daugh­ter told me, “and I dare­say he had to do some pret­ty rough things—but they didn’t unman him.”

Churchill said, “I like a man who grins when he fights.” O’Reilly grins, and some of his issues are worth con­sid­er­ing. I do wish he would stop abbre­vi­at­ing his ver­bose book title as “Bold Fresh.” (Did Mar­garet Mitchell ever refer to her Civ­il War clas­sic as “Gone With”?)

But please, Messrs. Oba­ma and O’Reilly: if you’re going to quote Churchill or rep­re­sent his thought, do a lit­tle research first.

4 thoughts on “O’Reilly, Churchill and “Poison Gas”

  1. All war is ter­ri­ble. On the whole, how­ev­er, I should pre­fer being hit with tear gas than phos­gene, which is to say I’d pre­fer to sneeze and choke than to be killed.

  2. “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.”

    Isn’t that a ter­ri­ble thing too?

    Imag­ine 2 sit­u­a­tions: 1. Some­one with a knife is telling you, ” I kill you” and then actu­al­ly tries to kill you. 2. Some­one with a knife is telling you, ” I kill you” and then ACTS, as he is try­ing to kill you. 

    Is the sec­ond sit­u­a­tion not almost as ter­ri­ble as the first one? You wish to encounter no sit­u­a­tion of those two, both are emo­tion­al and trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences. I don’t think, it makes Churchill a bet­ter human, just because “it wouldn’t kill them”. What do you think?

  3. I have no doubt that Churchill would have hurled every­thing he had at the Wehrma­cht had they suc­ceed­ed in land­ing. See Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. vi, Finest Hour 1939-41 (Lon­don: Heine­mann, 1983, pp 617-18 (text avail­able on request).

    Much mis­in­for­ma­tion has been pub­lished to the effect that Churchill resist­ed and even open­ly opposed the D-Day land­ings in Nor­mandy. It is true that he con­sid­ered and offered oth­er inva­sion routes but it is not true that he had to be dragged protest­ing into Over­lord. See Gilbert, “Churchill and D-Day,” Finest Hour 122, Spring 2004, pp 24-27, which shows that it was Roo­sevelt not Churchill who post­poned D-Day, on sound mil­i­tary advice. A read­able .pdf can be down­loaded at: http://bit.ly/mPat3H.

    Fur­ther com­ment and debate on this sub­ject, by Pro­fes­sors War­ren Kim­ball, Nor­man Rose, Sir Mar­tin Gilbert and this writer, appeared in Finest Hour 124, Autumn 2004, pp 31-37, the .pdf for which is at: http://bit.ly/lPbawt. (In this exchange it was not­ed that in Feb­ru­ary 1944, “Churchill again pro­posed plan­ning an inva­sion of Nor­way lest the Nor­mandy attack fail—a pro­pos­al that would have drained resources from the cam­paign in France.” If the Nor­mandy attack had failed, what cam­paign in France?)

  4. Could you cite me to sources on Churchill’s dis­po­si­tion to use mus­tard gas on Wehrma­cht troops on the land­ing beach­es if the UK should be invad­ed? I’m now struc­tur­ing a course for Insti­tute for Retired Pro­fes­sion­als enti­tled: “Mad­ness and Glo­ry: Hitler, Churchill and Stal­in and WW II in Europe and No. Africa”. Best – WDT
    PS– Also, even as Over­lord approached, was not Churchill much con­cerned and advo­cat­ing instead his old Jupiter on Nor­way? –WDT

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