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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Notion of Tolerable Cruelty

British gas casualties, 10 April 1918 Thomas Keith Aitken [Public domain]

In the early sixth century BC the so-called Great Amphictyonic League, an association of Greek tribes founded for the protection and administration of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, besieged the port city of Cirrha in order to put an end to the robbery and mistreatment of pilgrims passing through it on their way to the Delphic sanctuary. This attack is perhaps best remembered as the earliest recorded use of toxic warfare. The water supply to Cirrha was carried by a canal from the river Pleistus. The besiegers blocked the canal and then released Hellebore into the city’s water, so weakening the citizens that the city was easily taken and destroyed.

Hellebore, better known as a popular shade-loving garden flower, is also a highly toxic plant (its botanical name Helleborus derives from the Greek ἑλεῖν, meaning "to injure", and βορά, meaning "food” = “food to injure”). Ingesting Hellebore can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms including burning sensations in the eyes, mouth and throat, vertigo, abdominal cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. In large enough concentrations it can cause death from cardiac arrest.

In the second century AD, the inhabitants of the fortress city of Hatra near Mosul in modern Iraq held the attacking Romans at bay by hurling at them pots full of scorpions, and I have already mentioned in an earlier post the strange case during the Third Crusade of a Muslim ship in Beirut harbour that was claimed to include in its cargo two hundred deadly snakes intended for use against the Christians. Biological and chemical warfare has a long history. There are recurrent references to the use of animal carcasses and human dead dumped into wells or catapulted into besieged cities. Both of these methods were frequently recorded in the Middle Ages. The Muslims poisoned the wells outside the walls of Jerusalem prior to the arrival of the armies of the First Crusade in 1099. In later conflicts ever more horrific techniques of warfare were devised. In the fourteenth century the Mongols catapulted the bodies of plague victims into Caffa on the Crimean Peninsula, In the fifteenth the Spanish mixed wine with the blood of leprosy patients to sell to their French enemies in Naples. In 1650 the Polish-Lithuanian artillery specialist, General Kazimierz Siemienowicz fired metal spheres at their enemies containing the saliva from rabid dogs, and at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania, in 1763 the British distributed blankets from smallpox patients to native Americans.*

Following this long-established tradition, the Germans introduced the use of poison gas that became so closely identified with the First World War. Already in 1914 they fired 3,000 shells of dianisidine chlorosulphate at British troops at Neuve-Chapelle and in January the following year at Bolimov on the eastern front they fired 18,000 shells of xylyl bromide at the Russians. Neither of these attacks were of great effect, but on 22 April 1915, in the first large-scale use of poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres, they fired more than 150 tons of chlorine gas against two French colonial divisions, killing over 1,100 and causing an additional 7,000 casualties. The British and French followed suit and in 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres, the Germans, then as for some years hence the leaders in this shameful expertise, introduced the far more effective and horrific sulphur mustard or mustard gas. Although less lethal than some other gasses, it was highly debilitating, causing blistering, visual impairment, vomiting, internal and external bleeding, and was extremely painful. In spite of much condemnation, poison gas has had a revival in more recent conflict, notably by the Assad regime in the Syrian conflict where it has been largely directed at the civilian population.

Unconventional weapons might include, along with chemical and biological materials, particularly powerful or otherwise problematic mechanics or explosives, such as the medieval crossbow or the modern cluster bomb. Sometimes the horrors of warfare have led to limitations being placed on certain weapons. Canon 29 of the Second Lateran Council in 1139 banned the use of the powerful and highly effective crossbow as it was regarded as an inhumane weapon. Because of the greater tension created by its mechanism, the crossbow when fired had a much greater range and armour-piercing ability than conventional bows. Of course, the ban applied only to its use against Christians and in the crusades both sides used it as a basic tool of combat.

After the First World War, the Geneva Protocol of May 1925 which was signed by 41 powers including Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the United States, aimed at putting an end to the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons. However, some military historians like Basil Liddell Hart, who saw action at Ypres and the Somme and was himself the victim of a gas attack, believed that gas was more humane than other weapons and that “the suffering due to gas [was] not often as bad as the agony caused by a mangling bullet or shell wound.”** Some specialists claim that chemical and biological weapons are in general less fatal than conventional weapons.

I have to admit that I find these arguments and indeed the whole idea of "humane" weapons and "humane" means of warfare somewhat absurd. The horrible effects of the above described techniques, and of many others used both in the past and present, are well documented. But one has to ask - is being shot in the chest by a bullet or losing a limb by the explosion of a shell or mine more or less humane than being gassed or poisoned, and indeed, can there be such a thing as a humane method of killing and maiming?

* Friedrich Frischknecht, “The History of Biological Warfare”, EMBO Reports, 4 June 2003, suppl. 1, S47-S52.

** quoted in Guy Hartcup, The Effect of Science on the Second World War, London and New York, 2000, p. 138.

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