Beverley Nichols December 15 1933


Beverley Nichols December 15 1933


Beverley Nichols


To Make Your Flesh Creep

AGREAT DEAL of nonsense has been written about gas in the next war. It is a word which, not unnaturally, makes people hysterical when they discuss it. i And therefore itrseems wiser that instead of drawing highly colored pictures of babies growing black in the face in quiet English houses, of whole counties being choked by a withering cloud that turns the hedgerows grey, I should first of all pay all due credit to that school of thought which contends that gas warfare is comparatively “humane” and that its application on a wide scale is likely to be less appalling than is generally maintained.

The most eminent apostle of this school is Professor J. B. S. Haldane, who, I imagine, needs no introduction to any reader who is acquainted with the developments of modem science. He and his disciples point out that the casualties from the notorious mustard gas, for example, were only 150,000 in the British army, of which only some 4,000 died—a proportion of one in forty. Compared with this, shells kill one man for every three that they put out of action.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to contend, with the Haldane school, that large quantities of high explosives dropped on a great city are more likely to be immediately effective than poison gas. It is obvious that a really effective air-raid — we have never yet been privileged to witness one in London— would cause incalculable damage without the aid of gas at all.

Apart from direct hits by shrapnel, or pieces of flying metal, large bodies of civilians would be suffocated or burnt to death. A modem edition of the Great Fire of London would, indeed, be a certainty. In the last war, when these things were in their infancy, the London fire brigades could cope with the situation. Tomorrow, hardly the greatest optimist would suggest that they would be able to do so.

However, is this argument so very impressive? Is it so very comforting to be told that one will probably be burnt to death rather than gassed? Personally, I have no desire to end my life in either of these two fashions.

Besides, when you analyze the arguments of the pro-gas school, when you get them down to statistics, they are as misleading as the wildest prophecies of the most terrified pacifist. Professor Haldane, for example, in assuming the probable effect of a gas bombardment upon London, makes a rough calculation which is based on the preliminary German offensive of March 11, 1918. It will be remembered that from March 11 to March 14 the Germans fired 150,000 mustard gas shells into the villages of the Cambrai Salient. He points out that this caused only 4,500 casualties, only

500 of which were fatal. He admits that had such a bombardment been directed against London, the casualties would “perhaps have been ten times greater, if the population had had gas masks.” In other words, a mere 5,000 would have been killed, while 45,000 would be dispatched to the hospitals with blisters resembling cancer. Even this comparatively negligible prospect, however.• “would have required the visits, on repeated nights, of something like a thousand airplanes.” And, as Professor Haldane points out, such a number is not yet a practical possibility.

If you can gain any consolation from this argument, I envy you. Haldane's estimate of 5,000 dead—apart from the far greater number of dangerously wounded—is based on the assumption that the ivhole population is wearing gas masks. As it is perfectly obvious that you could no more fit gas masks to all the citizens of a great city, and expect them to continue functioning, than you could fit them to the birds of the air, this argument seems a little foolish.

You cannot eat or drink or speak when you are wearing a gas mask. You can do nothing but sit tight, or lumber clumsily about. A minute proportion of the population might find refuge in shelters with filtered air—shelters which have yet to be built. The remainder would be defenseless.

It is hardly necessary to labor the point. Yet, these arguments of Professor Haldane are the best that can be brought forward by a man with a brilliant mind who is definitely writing in defense of chemical warfare. I have not space to give full justice to his opinions. But if you acquaint yourself with his works, I lx:lieve that you will be forced to agree that his arguments are, to say the least of it, of a negative nature.

True, it is just as well that we should be reminded that the fatalities from mustard gas may be less than we expect. It is comforting to be told that the pain caused by such a gas as chlorine is small compared with the pain of a septic wound. It is reassuring to be told that an air raid from a thousand airplanes is not yet practical politics. It is stimulating, also, to have it suggested that war would be made humane if no shells were used which contain anything but lachrymatory compound, and if all the armies were forbidden to wear goggles, so that they would merely be temporarily blinded. Though how this pious hope is ever to be achieved is not told us! But these are only, as I have suggested, negative arguments. Moreover they are contradicted by such a mass of expert opinion that even so honorable a name as that of Professor Haldane ceases to impress us.

We will now examine that evidence.

Gas Cannot Be Outlawed

BUT FIRST we must make up our minds on one very important point, namely, that gas will be used. Let there be no mistake about that! Let nobody hope that this time it will be a “gentleman’s war,” nor that the flimsy

♦Those interested in this subject will find all the evidence they need in What Will Be the Character of a New War? It is a book to which I gratefully acknowledge my indebtedness. It is published by Gollancz.

paper declarations to which the statesmen have so constantly put their signatures will be able to withstand the white-hot flames of hatred which will instantly spring up from the scarred surfaces of Europe.

You can no more “outlaw” gas than you can “outlaw” the wind or the waves. Even if, by some miracle, you created a corporate conscience among the nations—even if you achieved an aim which is at present remote, that is, the internationalization of all heavy industries and chemical factories, of every organization, that is to say, which is involved in the production and the distribution of this breath of the devil, the outbreak of war would put a quick end to these elegant agreements.

Some scatter-brained fool in a flying-machine would get hold of a mustard-gas bomb - there are plenty lying handy— and drop it on some crowded thoroughfare in a foreign city. Instantly, the outraged nation would lx: stung to general retaliation. Smoke would jxwr from all the chemical factories that are scattered over Europe. It would be a race against time -a race against a loathsome and unthinkable death.

Here we address ourselves once more to the common citizen. We may have made him feel slightly uncomfortable, but we have not yet made his flesh creep. For though he dislikes, intensely, the thought of a nasty, creepy, poisonous fog in his back garden, though he may be genuinely alarmed by the idea of choking with the foul stuff, even being asphyxiated by it, yet he docs not actually visualize it. The thing is still very remote. For after all—he lives in Ealing, which is a long way from Piccadilly or Whitehall. And surely, a gas bomb dropped in Whitehall would not spread all the five miles to Ealing? And. anyway, haven't we got an air force? How do we know that the Huns or the French or the Russians or whoever our next “enemies” may be—how do we know they’d ever get through at all?

To which the simple answer is "the English got through, in very considerable quantities, during the most exhaustive aerial tests that have ever been made.” Time and again they got through. And they proved, beyond a shadow of doubt, that no great city can be defended against air attack.

In the most recent Defense of London Air Manoeuvres, out of a total of 250 airplanes which took part in a night attack on London, only sixteen were even discovered by searchlights, let alone shot down. And it must be remembered that even this meagre proportion was arrived at when the defensive parties were on the alert and prepared for any emergency.

Even if the defensive forces of London were trebled, that is, even if one in every five of an attacking air force were brought to the ground, what hope would the population of London have? If the hostile air fleet consisted of only 250 airplanes, 200 airplanes would be left free to carry on their work of destruction.

Professor Haldane says that 1,000 airplanes would be needed to cause a really efficient holocaust. Nearly every other expert puts the number at 100, or lower. And this is an occasion where I find myself reluctantly on the side of the big battalions.

There is a mass of expert corroboration on my desk at this moment.* Turning up the first report my hand touches, I find a statement by the Earl of Halsbury, K.C., who was formerly Assistant Inspector of High Explosives, and who has made a study of modem gas warfare. Here it is: Continued on page 29

Continued from page 13

“Mustard gas is the most deadly of known gases. In an area, say, from Richmond to Barking, and from Finchley to Streatham,a lethal dose would be only forty-two tons. In twelve hours every man, woman and child in that area might fail to live.”

Since one R. A. F. bomber can now carry two tons of bombs, twenty planes could do this work very easily.

More evidence? Very well. It was recently stated by General Crozier in The Times that:

“During the Great War 380 tons of bombs were dropped in and around London. That quantity could now be delivered in less than twelve hours.”

That statement has never been effectively challenged.

Quick Death for Millions

STILL MORE? Certainly. We can give you a whole pile of it, if you are still sceptical. Here is a French opinion:

“With regard to the effects on Paris. L'Oeuvre states that the city would have been destroyed, and the famous professor of physics, Professor Langevin, stated with regard to the results of these manoeuvres that 100 airplanes, each carrying a ton of gas, could cover Paris with a gas cloud twenty metres thick. This could be done in an hour, and if there were no wind Paris would be annihilated.”

And here is a German assertion, from Siegelt, an inspector of the German Air Fleet:

“A few airplanes will be able to reduce the capital of any great state to ashes.”

And here is an American view, from the late Thomas A. Edison, whose opinion may possibly be of as much value as that of Professor Haldane. It should also be remembered that since Edison’s death, the attacking powers of aircraft have been enormously developed, while defensive measures have stood still. Edison said:

“Neither I nor anybody of my acquaintance has discovered any protection against the airplane even in its present state of development. There is in existence no means of preventing an airplane flotilla flying over London tomorrow and spreading over the millions of Londoners a gas which would asphyxiate those millions in a relatively short time. From twenty to fifty airplanes would be amply sufficient for this purpose.”

He observed—with a smile, according to the interviewer—that with the aid of “Lewisite,” the most deadly poison gas yet produced, London’s population could be choked to death in three hours.”

However, in case you distrust the opinions of amateurs like Edison, it may be advisable to quote General Bradner, Chief Research Officer of the Chemical Warfare Service of the American Army. He said, as long ago as 1921 :

“The Chemical Warfare Service has discovered a liquid, approximately three drops of which, when applied to any part of the skin, will cause a man’s death. . . One plane carrying two tons of the liquid could cover an area one hundred feet wide by seven miles long in one trip and could deposit material to kill every man in that area by action on his skin. If the men were not protected by gas masks, which would be the case if the attack were made on

a city, the fatal area would be several times as great . . . The only limit to the quantity of the liquid which could be made is the amount of available electric power, as nearly every nation has practically an unlimited supply of the necessary raw material. It would be entirely possible for this country— the United States—to manufacture several thousand tons per day, provided the necessary plant had been built.”

In the last twelve years, the efficiency both of aircraft and of poison gas has vastly increased. It is a little difficult to obtain entirely accurate information of the ramifications of this industry, which is naturally averse to publicity. But at present it would seem that the most energetic production of poison gas is to be found, strangely enough, in America. “At Edge wood, a huge poison gas plant has been built, costing £9,000,000. Within its walls are 218 manufacturing buildings, seventy-nine other permanent structures, twenty-one miles of standard rail track, seven and one-half miles of narrow gauge track, fifteen miles of macadam roads, eleven miles of high tension electrical transmission lines, 1,400 tons of poison gases are kept in stock, and plant capacity is said to be 800 tons of poison gas per day—which means that Edgewood could produce in two months more poison gas than the Germans used throughout the war.”f

However, England is not far behind. “At Porton, close to Salisbury, exists the Government Chemical Warfare Experimental Station, where the poison gas products from the Government factory at Sutton Oaks, St. Helens, Lancashire, are tested out under every conceivable condition obtainable in actual physical results of poison gas; experiments must be and are made on living victims, animal and human. Elaborate apparatus has been devised at Porton for these experiments. Each hut or building is a laboratory and death-house in one. Each contains glass-fronted chambers surrounded by glass vessels and tubing. .Since 1916 to the present day, experiments have been continuously carried out. Thousands of animals—horses, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and mice—have been used and killed by the experiments or have had to be destroyed immediately after.”

The pile of evidence on my desk has hardly been touched. One could write a long book on this section alone, giving quotations from experts in every country, from officers in every air force, chemists in every great city, politicians in every parliament, from men engaged in every form of activity—all stating, as a fact almost too obvious to be commented upon, that no great city can be defended from the air, and that millions of the population will therefore be subjected, in the event of war, to the deadliest gases with which bombs can be filled, t

It is now legitimate to hope that the reader will no longer regard this as a remote problem, but will realize that he is as vulnerable to attack as if he were in the front line of the next war.

It will therefore be apposite if we very briefly suggest to him the nature of the gases with which he is most likely to become personally and painfully acquainted in the near future. Familiarity may not breed contempt in these matters, but at least it will enable him to study symptoms with intelligent interest.

World War Gas Now Obsolete

THE CHIEF poisonous gases may be divided into four classes.

The first class is poisonous when breathed through the lungs, but is without effect upon

tThe Menace of Chemical Warfare to Civilian Populations, by Arthur J. Gillian, General Secretary Chemical Workers Union.

the skin. The most popular of these gases during the war were chlorine and phosgene. iMany a recruit will remember his passage through dim grey chambers, filled with chlorine gas, while he stared at a blank wall, breathing through respirator, and noting the buttons on his tunic turn from gold to green. This class of gas, since it can easily be kept out by respirators, will certainly never be used again. It is as obsolete as the bow and arrow.

The second class of gas which was employed, with effect, in the war, is the lachrymatory class. This is really only of value in surprise attacks, when troops are either unprovided with respirators or are unable to adjust them in time. This is also presumably obsolete in the battlefield, as it can be kept out by respirators. However, it is highly probable that it will be used in very large quantities on civilian populations, for two reasons. Firstly because it is comparatively “humane.” It merely causes temporary blindness which lasts for fortyeight hours, and is accompanied by acute pain. It could therefore be employed very early in any war without too greatly outraging the moral susceptibilities of the country which employed it. Secondly, such a gas, though not fatal, would be, to say the least of it, so embarrassing that it might well be decisive: If you can imagine the greater number of the inhabitants of the City of London rendered blind for two days and two nights, you will be likely to agree with this assumption.

The third and fourth classes of gas are those which most concern us. For in the third class come the various poisonous arsenical smokes, such as Lewisite. These smokes were not greatly used in the war. If they had been, it is almost impossible to imagine what would have happened, because even the pro-gas brethren admit that up till now no efficient respirator has been invented to protect against them. Here is a description of the effects of one of these gases:

“The pain in the head is described as like that caused when fresh water gets into the nose when bathing, but infinitely more severe. These symptoms are accompanied by the most appalling mental distress. Some soldiers poisoned by these substances had to be prevented from committing suicide; others temporarily went raving mad, and tried to burrow into the ground to escape imaginary pursuers.”

The actual effect of some of these arsenical smokes is to dissolve the lung tissues, so that the victim, at last, literally drotvns in his own blood.

The fourth class of gas is the blistering gas, of which mustard gas is the noblest example. To give some idea of the effect of this gas, if one small drop of the liquid is put on a piece of paper, and left for five minutes on a man’s sleeve, the vapor will penetrate his coat and his shirt, and will cause a blister which will last for six weeks.

In addition to its astonishing powers of speed and penetration, mustard gas, if spread on the ground, retains its deadly effects for over a week. It may therefore be supposed that even a hundred of these bombs, dropped on the City of London, might cause a dislocation which would be seriously embarrassing.

It would be a waste of my time and yours to draw imaginary pictures of these horrors at work.

What I can do and have done, is to make a first hand investigation of the City of London’s present position as regards defense against gas. If you read the next installment, you will find that it is not quite so dull as this, because it is a purely personal investigation of a very vital problem.

It is my melancholy duty to warn you that in comparison with the destructive efficiency which we have been reporting up to now, the next chapters will reveal an apathy and inefficiency which are, to say the least of it, disturbing.

To be Continued