“Thousands of military personnel were exposed to nerve gas, mustard gas and other chemicals in chambers in what is the longest-running programme of chemical warfare trials on humans in the world.” No, this was not a description of Nazi Germany, but of ‘our own’ British government’s criminal activities orchestrated from Porton Down between 1916 and 1989, under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence (MOD).
Six years ago, Rob Evans wrote those words in the Guardian in an article entitled ‘Porton Down in illegal human tests, say police’. At that time, campaigners had begun to break through the wall of silence, created by successive governments, concerning the sinister incidents involving hundreds of British military personnel in the UK, in particular the agonising death of Ronald Maddison due to chemical weapons experiments at Porton Down in May 1953. It took until 49 years after his death for an inquest to find that he had been ‘unlawfully killed’.
The far-reaching extent of the barbarity of the ‘science’ at Porton Down has now been uncovered in the National Archives in India. ‘Our’ military scientists sent hundreds of Indian soldiers into gas chambers and exposed them to mustard gas. Evidence shows that under British colonial rule, for over 10 years before and during WW2, in a military installation in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan), experiments were conducted to find out if “mustard gas inflicted greater damage on Indian skin compared with British skin”, as a team of Porton Down scientists were posted there to develop poison gases for use against the Japanese.
The few reports presently available in documents that have recently been uncovered say, as Rob Evans is now able to report, that “in some cases Indian soldiers were exposed to mustard gas protected only by a respirator. On one occasion [only one?!] the gas mask of an Indian sepoy (private) slipped, leaving him with severe burns on his eyes and face … Other soldiers were hospitalised for a week after they were sent into gas chambers wearing ‘drill shorts and open-necked, khaki, cotton shirts’ to gauge the effect of mustard gas on their eyes.” This only gives us a glimpse into the extensive programme that was conducted. (‘Military scientists tested mustard gas on Indians’ by Rob Evans, The Guardian, 1 September 2007)
Savagery of ‘our’ ruling class
The secret deeds of Porton Down and the like eventually emerge like pus escaping from a septic wound. Imperialism cannot exist without such rotting sores within it. The history of the last century is littered with the suffering and misery caused by monopoly capitalism through war and exploitation, not to mention savage suppression and torture.
So it is no surprise when some of its evil track record is exposed. This should not make us immune to the atrocities; we must continue to be outraged and demand compensation for past crimes and work to stop current and future ones. The cunning and hypocrisy of the British governments are notorious, but as the lies are uncovered, we can build up a dossier of their crimes against humanity.
Whereas 41 years ago Terry Cremin, a British airman, was duped into participating in Porton Down ‘research’, he can now say of the Indian atrocities: “It’s appalling, but it doesn’t surprise me at all,” because he knows how he nearly died of leukaemia following what he was told “would be helping them find a cure for the common cold”. So his experience showed him that perhaps they offered the Indian soldiers “a few rupees … They certainly wouldn’t have told them they were experimenting with chemical weapons.” (Quoted on thisissomerset.co.uk)
The last point was reiterated by Alan Care, a lawyer representing British victims at Porton Down, who doubted if the Indians “gave any meaningful consent to taking part in these tests, particularly as they were conducted during the days of Empire”. ( Ibid)
How many hundreds of Indian soldiers lost their lives, or were permanently physically or mentally damaged by the gas experiments, is not known, but since the lives of Indians under the Raj counted for so little in the eyes of British imperialism, one can only speculate on the true extent of the crime until such time as more evidence should come to light.
Rob Evans reports that the MOD “could not say” whether the Indian soldiers volunteered to take part in the experiments! In language so offensive to the families of those soldiers who later died from carcinogenic effect of the ‘tests’, the MOD claims: “The studies undertaken at the Chemical Research Foundation in India included defensive research, weapons research and physiological research. These studies supported those conducted in simulated conditions in the UK in a different environment.” ( The Guardian, op cit)
Some Porton Down officials argue that the trials took place in ‘a different era’ so could not be judged by today’s standards, and anyway they were intending to use chemical weapons for ‘defensive’ purposes. This line encapsulates two major deceptions. One lie is that the tests were for defensive purposes – that is presumably why Porton Down scientists were posted to India to develop poison gases to use against the Japanese! All their doubletalk about ‘defence’, not least the euphemism ‘Ministry of Defence’, is a cover for the rampantly aggressive nature of monopoly capitalism, which employs the most sickening and brutal violence in pursuit of its class interests. The second lie is that the trials took place in ‘a different era’. We are supposed to believe that we now live in more enlightened times. The truth is that British imperialism’s wars to defend and extend its sphere of influence are not by any means a thing of the distant past. British imperialism continues to exist and continues to be a generator of war and oppression. One need look no further than the recent wars of aggression against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq and the current Anglo-American armies of occupation to see that imperialism is by no means something relegated to ‘a different era’, no matter how much we might wish that it were so!
No, British imperialism is still rampaging over the world and trampling on peoples in pursuit of superprofits. It still foments racism, routinely and cynically depicting foreigners as somehow subhuman in order to cover the savagery that has in no way been limited to the experiments forced onto soldiers in colonial India. It continues to develop weapons of mass destruction for patently aggressive ends. In the case of gas warfare, as in other areas, Britain is one of the leaders, if not the world leader.
In addition, British imperialism not only continues to exploit the British working class, but also continues to use young workers not just for experiments but also as cannon fodder in its rapacious pursuit of the military and economic domination of as much of the world as it can manage. Its willingness to bamboozle soldiers into being guinea-pigs in dangerous experiments can in no way be called merely a thing of the past, or a phenomenon of the bad old days.
We welcome the exposure of Porton Down’s scandalous record; we support all demands for compensation. But the most important task facing us in Britain is to express solidarity with those all over the world who oppose British imperialism. We must work for its overthrow so that not only Porton Down, but the whole system of imperialism can finally be relegated to ‘the bad old days’.