- 04 May 18
The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria is not new. Indeed the callous disregard for human life has been a mark of how wars are prosecuted. The only question, it appears, is one of degree.
A century ago last week the Mansion House Conference against conscription was convened and chaired by Dublin’s then Lord Mayor Laurence O’Neill. There had been no conscription to the British armed forces in Ireland during World War I but the German Spring Offensive of 1918 threatened to overrun British lines and the government drew up plans to impose conscription in Ireland to bolster its exhausted forces. A one-day general strike followed on April 23rd 1918 and it brought the country to a halt, other than in Belfast. The deadly and intractable conflict was deeply unpopular and the unions had widespread backing from politicians and religious leaders. The campaign had a significant impact downstream, in the victory of separatist republican candidates in the election of December 1918.
The Germans launched the Spring Offensive because the United States had joined the war and was training a large army in preparation for hostilities. The Germans needed to strike quickly and decisively, and they attacked on March 21st 2018. By the time the offensive was ended on April 5, they had captured 3,100 km and taken 90,000 prisoners.
In fact, their commander Ludendorff made a string of flawed decisions. Quite probably he could have won the war in three months. In May his forces advanced to within 90km of Paris. But he didn’t cut off railheads, transport hubs, nor did he wipe out British legions that were at his mercy for a time. By July he had shot his bolt.
The British government didn’t know this in April and hence, first, the plan for conscription; and second the greatly enhanced devotion to the separatist cause.
One is constantly struck at how so much of that war is still being played out, especially in the former Russian and Ottoman empires, and how the latterday rulers of Russia and Turkey seem bent on reinstating as much of those defunct entities as they can.
The other aspect that resonates is the degree to which modern warfare, for all the talk of robots, cyberattacks and drones, is still largely a matter of brutal force, of trenches and, shamefully, of chemical attacks.
Russia, for example, has an extremely sophisticated and effective cyberforce. It has leapfrogged the US in this capability. And in the Ukraine they deployed an asymmetrical approach that got them the result they wanted. But in the war in Chechnya, it resorted to the kind of total destruction characteristic of former times – and the very same approach is deployed by its ally Assad in Syria. The parallels don’t end there. One of the worst developments in World War I was the widespread use of chemical weapons of mass destruction. The Germans released 168 tons of chlorine north of Ypres on April 22nd 1915. The gas formed a grey-green cloud that drifted across positions held by French Colonial troops…
They used gas again at Ypres and also on the Eastern Front. For all their denunciations, the Allied forces, at this stage including Russia, also deployed chemical weaponry or initiated its development.
Mustard gas is the best known and arguably most effective such weapon. It doesn’t so much kill as incapacitate and maim. It causes dreadful skin blisters and lung problems. The Germans were first to deploy it, and when they launched that Spring Offensive on March 21st 1918, they saturated the Flesquieres area with mustard gas instead of attacking it directly.
As the war progressed, the Allies mounted more gas attacks than the Germans in 1917 and 1918. It was also used widely in subsequent conflicts, by the British against Russian Bolshevik troops who, in turn, used it against counter-revolutionary forces in 1920.
Revulsion against these weapons led to the Geneva Protocol which outlaws their use. Yet they linger. Saddam Hussein’s forces used mustard gas and nerve agents in the war against Iran in the 1990s, killing 20,000 and incapacitating 80,000.
Today they are deployed by government forces in Syria with horrifying effects on non-combatants. Meanwhile, nerve agents are used against Russian and North Korean dissidents and exiles. In complex conflict zones and attacks on individuals alike, the guilty simply shrug their shoulders and point the finger at someone else. Outrage and sanctions may inhibit those who attack dissidents but sadly will have no effect on Assad.
All that said, we shouldn’t think that it’s only Russia and Turkey that hanker after their imperial glories of a century ago. This is a very strong thread in Britain too, where many look to revitalise the Commonwealth as Empire 2.0, to create compensatory markets and supply-chains after Brexit. Along with the USA, it’s the Anglosphere my dears.
Others have had a go at their delusions and economics. We here on Hog Heights are more focused right now on how the UK has treated immigrants from those same Commonwealth countries – in particular, those who came to Britain to get its economy back on track after World War II; and specifically the disgraceful way the British home office has dealt with the so-called Windrush generation Afro-Caribbean immigrants.
They came in the late 1940s. Laws enacted in the 1970s gave them permanent leave to stay. Now, however, all immigrants in the UK are required to furnish a range of official documents to establish their status for work, renting property and accessing the NHS and other State services and many of these immigrants (and others too, of course) find themselves being shutout from services and in some cases threatened with deportation and separation from their British-born families.
What unites the soldiers from the French colonies who were the targets of the German gas attack of April 23rd 1918, the anti-conscription rebels in Ireland and those who were invited to Britain in the 1940s and ‘50s is that they were, and their counterparts still are, viewed by the imperial masters as a bank or mine of expendable humanity, to be deployed in battle or in labour as circumstances demand – and then, as is happening to the Windrush generation, discarded.