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The bombing of civilian populations was originated and perfected by Britain in “policing” operations on the frontier of India/Afghanistan and its new construction of Iraq in the inter-war years i.e in the interlude between the two British World Wars on Germany. Hugh Trenchard, father of the RAF, had not been able to put his strategy of devastation into practice against German cities with the unexpected Armistice in late 1918 and the British War on German society had been waged by the Royal Navy instead through a starvation blockade which killed over 1 million civilians up until its calling off in July 1919, having secured the German signature at Versailles.

The bombing of “the lesser breeds without the law” in Britain’s Imperial territories was a kind of apprenticeship for things to come. In civilian bombing Britain led the world. It taught Mussolini a thing or two and he copied the British methods in Abyssinia in the mid-1930s, his air-force supplied with oil from the British possessions in the middle-east by British companies – despite the League of Nations sanctions which the British were publicly supporting.

One of the first operations of the RAF was the bombing of the Amir of Afghanistan’s palace to make him think again about attempting to influence events in British India.

The tribesmen of the Euphrates mounted an insurgency against the British conquest in the summer of 1920. According to a recent account the first Iraq insurgency led to an innovation in Imperial government:

“Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, was sensitive to the cost of policing the Empire; and was in consequence keen to exploit the potential of modern technology. This strategy had particular relevance to operations in Iraq. On 19 February, 1920, before the start of the Arab uprising, Churchill (then Secretary for War and Air) wrote to Sir Hugh Trenchard, the pioneer of air warfare. Would it be possible for Trenchard to take control of Iraq? This would entail the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death… for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes.

Churchill was in no doubt that gas could be profitably employed against the Kurds and Iraqis (as well as against other peoples in the Empire): ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.’ Henry Wilson shared Churchill’s enthusiasm for gas as an instrument of colonial control but the British cabinet was reluctant to sanction the use of a weapon that had caused such misery and revulsion in the First World War. Churchill himself was keen to argue that gas, fired from ground-based guns or dropped from aircraft, would cause ‘only discomfort or illness, but not death’ to dissident tribespeople; but his optimistic view of the effects of gas were mistaken. It was likely that the suggested gas would permanently damage eyesight and ‘kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes.’

Churchill remained unimpressed by such considerations, arguing that the use of gas, a ‘scientific expedient,’ should not be prevented ‘by the prejudices of those who do not think clearly.’ In the event, gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with ‘excellent moral effect’ though gas shells were not dropped from aircraft because of practical difficulties.” (Geoff Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, pp. 179-181)

Britain had introduced chemical warfare into the Middle East, in the shape of mustard gas, during the Battle of Gaza in 1917. And the effectiveness of air power in the region, where there was little cover and villages were densely populated, became apparent to the Royal Flying Corp in the battles against the Ottomans North of Jerusalem during early 1918.

Churchill asked the RAF to use mustard gas during these raids, despite the warning he had received that “it may … kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes”. In the event the RAF did not use gas – for technical rather than humanitarian reasons. But even without the gas the campaign was conducted with brutality. Villages were destroyed because their inhabitants had not paid their Imperial taxes, although the authorities always maintained in public that people were not bombed for refusing to pay – merely for refusing to appear when summoned to explain non-payment.

According to David Omissi, when commanders proposed using bombs with delayed action fuses – because delayed-action bombs prevented tribesmen from tending their crops under cover of darkness – one senior officer protested that this would result in “blowing a lot of children to pieces”. Nevertheless, the RAF went ahead, without the knowledge of the civilian High Commissioner for Iraq, Sir Henry Dobbs.