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The Chemical Weapon which devastated the First World War has proved decisive in Syria

The first chemical used in WW1 was chlorine and this has, 100 years later, proved decisive in Syria. Both conflicts are now synonymous with the use of chemical weapons and, specifically, chlorine; bizarre given they have caused relatively few casualties, about 0.5% in each conflict, and extraordinary for such a simple and common chemical discovered before we put men on the moon and developed the Internet of all things.

Listening to old footage of soldiers about how they urinated into First Field Dressings to use as crude gas masks in 1915, I was struck how this was replicated by people I trained in Syria.  In 2014, I ran a training course at a hospital in Idlib province and told doctors that if they had no gas masks the ‘urine and cloth’ trick worked well. Many were incredulous but a doctor from Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus hit regularly with chemical weapons, vowed that this was, in fact, an excellent barrier to Chlorine – war unchanged over a century.

The 100-year taboo on the use of chemical weapons, not even contravened by the Nazis in WW2, is currently well and truly broken.  I think this is for two reasons: firstly, political ineptitude and opportunism, not least in the UK; and secondly, because they are morbidly effective, available, easy and can be cheap.

After the massive nerve agent attack on Ghouta 21 August 2013, which killed up to 1500 people, the British Parliament voted not to punish President Assad. With hindsight, it appears that Labour leader Ed Miliband looked to embarrass the Conservative Government and the vote was perhaps more about ‘regime’ change at home rather than in the Middle East.  But, in effect, the vote let down the British peoples’ sense of doing ‘right’ by those who can’t protect themselves and helped proliferate chemical weapons to every dictator, despot, rogue state and terrorist who wanted them.

It is chemical weapons which broke the 4-year siege of Aleppo in 2016, the 5-year siege of Ghouta, and the 6-year siege of Douma most recently this year.  Bombs and bullets have limited effect when fighting in towns and cities, as Stalingrad and Berlin in WW2 bear witness.  Once cities are raised to the ground, further bombing has scant effect.  But Assad found in Aleppo that chlorine, heavier than air, sunk into the underground shelters and killed people there or forced them above ground where they are easy targets. This has not gone unnoticed by those who would now do us harm or would like to dominate or subdue us.

In both my work with the Peshmerga in Iraq and hospitals in Syria, it is very clear to me that the psychological impact of chemical weapons is ‘Ten as to One’ to the physical impact.  A very brave doctor told me in Syria, ‘we can hide from bombs and bullets’ but not from ‘gas’ and axiomatically he is absolutely correct. I was with the Peshmerga near Mosul in 2016 when Islamic State fighters fired chlorine mortars near our position, and I saw the fear in even these bravest of the brave fighters.  It is also the children who suffer most in Syria from chemical attacks. They have borne the brunt of the casualties. One lung full of chlorine is enough to kill a child where adults can survive after several lung fulls.

Now we have a strident Russian State with a super WMD in Novichok which we cannot detect or decontaminate (easily) and would give Russia an advantage in an East-West confrontation. In a brazen but almost Monty Pythonesque attack on Colonel Sergei Skripol, a double agent, the now vaguely effective GRU tried to murder one of their former agents in clear daylight. It is clear that the Russian State has no scruples about using chemical weapons, and we are now, at least in this area, on the back foot.

A quarter egg cup of Novichok has transfixed the World for over eight months and this has not gone unnoticed by Jihadist and other terrorists. The threat of nuclear and chemical weapon use has put North Korea back on the map and made Kim Jong Un a leader with whom others would wish to associate.

As we look back 100 years on this most auspicious of anniversaries, at the “War which would end all Wars”, let us remember the dreadfulness of these weapons, which blinded and suffocated so many, and ensure we re-impose the taboo and redline on their use, which hitherto keeps them off the battlefield since the Armistice.


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