More-than-human casualties

Apologies for the long silence – I’ve made several trips to the UK to deliver lectures, but I’ve also been (almost literally) in the trenches.  My supposed-to-be 8,000 word essay on ‘Woundscapes of the Western Front’ has morphed into a monster: 35,000 words and I’m still not done….  More on that eventually (I so hope…).  But en route, and in part as a response to a question I was asked after one of my presentations, I want to elaborate on a footnote.

My essay is about the evacuation of wounded soldiers, but human bodies were not the only ones requiring medical attention on the Western Front. By August 1917 the British Army had 368,000 horses and 82,000 mules in Belgium and France.  At the outbreak of the war the cavalry were expected to play their traditional role –

[Image: National Library of Scotland]

– but by the end of the war most horses were pulling gun limbers, ammunition trains, supply waggons and ambulances [more here].

Horse-drawn ambulances were never made obsolete by motor ambulance convoys.  Their capacity was limited and they were very slow – ‘hopelessly immobile’, according to one senior RAMC officer – but they remained the only option in some places. On the Somme in July 1916 the ground was so pitted with shell-holes that motor ambulances could not be used close to the line and horse ambulances worked for 24 hours or more at a stretch, ferrying casualties to motor ambulance convoys waiting further back:

Not surprisingly, horses (and mules) were highly vulnerable to shelling and shrapnel, to gas attacks and, wherever environmental conditions deteriorated, to injuries from traversing near-impossible terrain:

There is a haunting scene in Erich Maria Remarque‘s  All quiet on the Western Front:

‘The cries continued. It is not men, they could not cry so terribly.
“Wounded horses,” says Kat.
It’s unendurable. It is the moaning of the world, it is the martyred creation, wild with anguish, filled with terror, and groaning….

They’ve got to get the wounded men out first,’ says Kat. We stand up and try to see where they are. If we can actually see the animals, it will be easier to cope with. Meyer has some field glasses with him. We can make some bigger things, black mounds that are moving. Those are the wounded horses. But not all of them. Some gallop off a little way, collapse, and then run on again. The belly of one of the horses has been ripped open and its guts are trailing out. It gets its feet caught up in them and falls, but it gets to its feet again. Detering raises his ri e and takes aim. Kat knocks the barrel upwards. ‘Are you crazy?’ Detering shudders and throws his gun on the ground. We sit down and press our hands over our ears. But the terrible crying and groaning and howling still gets through, it penetrates everything. We can all stand a lot, but this brings us out in a cold sweat. You want to get up and run away, anywhere just so as not to hear that screaming any more. And it isn’t men, just horses.

Yet far more equine losses were attributed to disease than enemy action, in contrast to troop losses (the First World War was the first in which deaths from wounds exceeded deaths from disease by a ratio of 2:1). One driver had a simple explanation. ‘Owing to the importance of the horses, whose lives were of greater value than those of the men, the horse-lines were usually in places free, or practically free from “strafing”’: Charles Bassett, Horses were more valuable than men (London: PublishNation, 2014) p. 65.

The horse-lines were indeed in the rear (see the remarkably pastoral image below: Glisy, on the Somme), but the nature of their work ensured that horses and mules had to be taken right up to the fire zone; between 1914 and 1916 battle losses accounted for 25 per cent of equine deaths, and they soared thereafter.

Last year Philip Hoare described these animals as ‘the truly forgotten dead.’ He continued: ‘Sixteen million animals “served” in the first world war – and the RSPCA estimates that 484,143 horses, mules, camels and bullocks were killed in British service between 1914 and 1918.

Yet, just as with human bodies, the toll of the equine dead overlooks that of the wounded.  In response to the military importance of horses and mules, the (Royal) Army Veterinary Corps [the ‘Royal’ prefix was granted immediately after the war] established a system of veterinary medicine parallel to the casualty evacuation system of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The equivalent of the Field Ambulance was the Mobile Veterinary Section; animals needing more extensive emergency care were transferred to Veterinary Evacuation Stations (the equivalent of the Casualty Clearing Station) located at railheads.  They were moved either by horse-drawn ambulance –

– or by special motor ambulances designed to carry two horses each (there were 26 of them, donated by the RSPCA and subscribed from public donations):

Like wounded soldiers, horses needing further medical or surgical attention were transported by barge (mainly in Flanders: each barge could carry 32 animals)  –

– or by rail to Veterinary Hospitals at the base on the French coast.

In the first months of the war cattle trucks on supply trains returning empty to the base were used (here too the parallels with the evacuation of wounded soldiers are exact!) but once the Veterinary Evacuating Stations had been established special horse trains were introduced.  These had to be more or less self-sufficient: supplies of water were especially vital.  Major-General  Sir John Moore emphasised: ‘In transporting sick and enfeebled animals, particularly by train, which during hot seasons of the year is very exhausting, the greatest care must be exercised in watering and feeding en route.’  The need was compounded by the slow and often circuitous journeys made by trains that – like the ambulance trains carrying wounded soldiers – always had to yield to troop trains and supply trains rushing up to the front.

Between 18 August 1914 and 23 January 1919 over half a million sick and wounded animals passed through the British Army’s Mobile Veterinary Sections and Veterinary Evacuating Stations in Flanders and France.  On average a special train carrying 100 sick or injured horses would arrive twice a day at each Veterinary Hospital; between 2,500 and 3,500 horses were admitted to hospital each week, and at their peak more than 4,500 were being cared for at any one time.

The capacity of these hospitals was originally set at 1,000 animals, but this was subsequently doubled.  It was not uncommon, Moore explained, ‘to see three animals in the operating theatre under chloroform at the same time.’

Very few animals were allowed to stay more than three months at the base, where the hospitals operated in conjunction with Convalescent Horse Depots.

According to Moore, the core principle of the Army Veterinary Corps was ‘to get down from the front as many animals as it was possible to save; in other words to give every animal a chance.’  But what lay behind this was the same instrumentalism that guided the RAMC’s casualty evacuation model and its system of triage: the need identify the casualties most likely to survive in short order and to treat them expeditiously so that they could be returned to the front and the fight.

***

You can find more from these sources:

  • Simon Butler, The war horses (Halsgrove, 2011);
  • Stephen Corvi, ‘Men of Mercy: the evolution of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the soldier-horse bond during the Great War,’ Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 76 (308) (1998) 272-84;
  • M-G Sir John Moore, Army Veterinary Service in War (London: Brown, 1921) [available here]
  • Rachael Passmore, ‘The care, development and importance of the British horse on the Western Front in World War I,’ MA thesis, Department of History, University of Leeds, 2009 [accessible here];
  • John Singleton, ‘Britain’s military use of horses 1914-1918’, Past & Present 139 (1993) 178-203.

Like my original essay, this post is confined to the British Army; for a remarkably detailed and beautifully illustrated account of the veterinary medical system of the US Army on the Western Front see here.

Unless otherwise credited, ALL IMAGES are Copyright Imperial War Museum, London

The Leaden Hours

Ever since I attended a conference at Nijmegen on Transmobilities I’ve followed the current interest in ‘mobilities’, though from a distance and perhaps in strange ways: but I think that the following study contributes to that debate as well as to quite different preoccupations with the intersections of military geography, medical geography and my current research on woundscapes and ‘trauma geographies‘. Let me know what you think.

Modern trauma response pays close attention to what happens in the ‘platinum ten minutes‘ immediately after injury and treats the ‘golden hour‘ to definitive medical treatment as the standard to which casualty evacuation should adhere.  I explored the implications of these metrics for treatment outcomes and survival rates in Afghanistan in ‘the geographies of sixty minutes‘, and as part of my comparative work I’ve been examining the speed of casualty evacuation on the Western Front in the First World War.

The politics of speed

This turns out to be a complicated issue, and one that attracted considerable controversy – both professional and political – throughout the war.  There are summaries in Ian Whitehead‘s Doctors in the Great War and in Ana Carden-Coyne‘s The politics of wounds, but some of the sharpest exchanges (in early January 1917) were sparked by a memorandum from Sir Almroth Wright, Consultant Physician to the British Expeditionary Force, criticising what he saw as the preoccupation with rapid evacuation at all costs.  His charges were summarily dismissed by General Sir Arthur Sloggett, (right, shown in 1917), the Director-General of Medical Services for the British Expeditionary Force – in angry memoranda and meetings and in acerbic private correspondence – as being entirely without foundation and, indeed, ‘ignorant’ and even ‘stupid’ (see RAMC 365/4 here).

Some front-line medical officers were more perturbed than these exchanges suggest.  Surgeon Henry Kaye, for example, addressed the issue in his diary for 24 January 1916, when he sought an explanation for the mortality rates from ‘different classes of wounds’ passing through his casualty clearing station:

‘I should surmise that the only controllable factor is that of transport – ie that a certain percentage of the mortality is due to the transport of seriously wounded men – people are so pleased with the excellence of the transport arrangements (ambulances, trains, and ships) that they forget what a great additional strain any transport imposes on the patients, and are apt to lay approving stress on how quickly they have transported thousands of cases to England, without regarding (or at least mentioning) how many men this express transport has cost their lives. (Diary, Wellcome Institute, RAMC 739/4)

Notice that word ‘surmise’.  Given the joined politics of speed it is surprising that there should have been so few detailed studies at the time.  In their survey of ‘The development of British surgery at the Front’, published in the British Medical Journal on 2 June 1917, Surgeon-General Sir Anthony Bowlby and Colonel Cuthbert Wallace (Consulting Surgeon to the British Army) showed that out of 200 abdominal cases received at one casualty clearing station (CCS), 164 arrived within 12 hours, another 35 arrived in the next 12 hours, and 31 took over 24 hours to reach the CCS (p. 706).  

Another surgeon concluded from these figures that one third of the casualties ‘arrived so late that they had little chance of recovery because of the elapsed time alone’ (Daniel Fiske Jones, ‘The role of the evacuation hospital in the care of the wounded’, Annals of Surgery 68 (2) (1918) 127-132: 130).  In a second tabulation Bowlby and Wallace drew on a different sample of abdominal cases which confirmed that 51 per cent of those who arrived at a CCS within 12 hours survived (at least long enough to be transferred to a base hospital on the coast), but for those who took longer than 12 hours the survival rate fell to 33 per cent (p 716).

If nothing else, these figures confirmed the importance of evacuation rates, but their wide dispersion raised a series of important questions. The Australian Army provided two later studies that attended more closely to the geographies of casualty evacuation – and, to some degree, addressed the dispersion in the figures from Bowlby and Wallace – and for the rest of this post I’ll focus on the most detailed of the two.

This related to the evacuation scheme in operation for what became known as the Battle of Menin Road (20-25 September 1917). The image above is Paul Nash‘s celebrated rendering of The Menin Road, which he completed in February 1919.  Nash served on the Ypres Salient from February 1917 as a second lieutenant, but a few months later he missed his footing in the dark, fell into a trench and broke a rib.  He was evacuated to England, and returned to the Salient in November as an official war artist. (There is a fine discussion of Nash’s art and its relation to the war in Paul Gough‘s A Terrible beauty: British artists in the First World War; for The Menin Road in particular, see pp. 150-62 ).

Third Ypres: the first two phases

The Battle of Menin Road was the third phase of ‘the Third Battle of Ypres’ (July-November 1917) that culminated in the fall of Passchendaele (the name by which the whole series of offensives is often known).  The object of the campaign was to seize control of the line of low hills – ‘the ridge’ – running south and east of Ypres.

The first two phases were directed against Pilckem Ridge (31 July to 2 August) and Langemarck (16 to 18 August).

For the medical services there were two pressing problems.  The first was the retrieval of casualties by relays of stretcher bearers.  The terrain had been reclaimed from marshland by an elaborate system of drains but these were destroyed by savage and relentless artillery bombardments, and  Colonel A.G. Butler explained that ‘with the rains – expected in the autumn – the low, flat countryside reverted to primitive morass’ (Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, Vol. II: The Western Front, p. 184n).  Confounding the Allies’ expectations, however, the rains broke at the end of July.  The conditions were frightful, the casualties horrendous, and on 1 August Lt John Warwick Brooke took what turned out to be an iconic photograph that caught the intersection of the two: no fewer than seven bearers struggling to carry a stretcher through the thick, plastering mud-slime near Boesinghe:

That same day Private Walter Williamson was ordered to a ruined building – he had no idea what it used to be – where his Regimental Medical Officer had established an aid post:

The place had simply been battered with shell fire and the road ploughed up, but this had now settled down to one horrible level surface of water and oozing mud….

Stretchers with their pitiful burdens were brought out from the inner recesses of the ruins, and we were detailed each four to a stretcher … containing a badly wounded lad who was only conscious enough to feebly moan to us to put him straight in the boat [to ‘Blighty’]. We heaved the stretcher to our shoulders, and started off that long remembered journey down the St Julien road. In addition to being weak and tired, our uneven heights made carrying difficult, and it must have been torture for the poor occupant of the stretcher. In the best places, the road was nearly knee deep in mud, and shell holes could not be located except by testing each foothold. Planks had been put down in places where the whole width of the road had been blown up, but these were now floating aimlessly about, and any attempt to use them would have resulted in a spill, and hurling our burden into the mud. Rain still poured down unceasingly and the road was being shelled viciously. We could not well duck at the shells, with a badly wounded man dependent on steady shoulders, and all we could do was to plod through and trust to good luck…

The road was a gruesome nightmare, bodies lay in the mud all along the road and burial parties were busy collecting them as best they could. Dead mules, horses, wrecked guns, limbers and all the terrible debris of battle lay in the mud. We were getting now, that we could not carry the stretcher more than a hundred yards at a stretch, and each time we rested, we found it more difficult to heave it up again, but we plodded along with red hot shoulders and cracking backs, sometimes having to get nearly waist deep to find a foothold across some huge hole that stretched from one side of the road to the other’ (Doreen Priddey (ed), A Tommy at Ypres: Walter’s War).

They eventually succeeded in delivering the poor man to a motor ambulance, which would have taken him to a dressing station or a casualty clearing station.  

The walking wounded didn’t fare much better, and the distinction between them and stretcher cases was by no means clear-cut or constant, as the experience of Private Alfred Warsop makes horribly clear.  Hit by shrapnel in the jaw, arm and chest, he passed out and when he came round ‘a doctor was just finishing bandaging me up and he said, “Get a stretcher for this man as soon as you can.”‘  Realising there were unlikely to be enough bearers available to carry him through the mud, he decided to walk out:

‘I persuaded a first aid man to put his hand in the middle of my back and hoist me on my feet. I tottered out determined to get down to the Menin Road or die in the attempt –on this occasion no idle phrase. It was all slippery mud, shell holes and trenches. I soon found that I had lost nearly all sense of balance with both arms useless. No doubt I was able to make that journey because I was suffering from shock and not feeling things as you normally would’ (in Steel and Hart, Passchendaele: the sacrificial ground)

Similarly, Gunner Walter Legg recalled coming to the aid of a badly wounded young soldier – carrying him to a shell hole and applying a field dressing, then helping him stumble to the aid post:

‘I remember vividly that with each step he took, blood oozed out on to the loose loop of his braces and fell drop by drop on his trousers.  From where we were I could see the forward dressing station about a quarter of a mile to the rear…  We managed to make progress a few yards at a time.  We’d shelter for a bit in a shell-hole, and then if the shelling seemed to be easing up we’d crawl into the next one and wait there for a bit, then try and get to the next one a yard or two away.  After a couple of hours … we’d only gone thirty or forty yards…

It took us ten hours to cover that quarter-mile to the dressing station, and when we got there we were absolutely drenched to the skin and thick with mud’ (in Lynn MacDonald, They called it Passchendaele).

The second problem emerged as soon as the injured reached a road: their transfer to a main dressing station or casualty clearing station was often slowed because the roads were in a poor condition, many of them full of craters and badly degraded by the constant traffic of convoys and marching columns, but also because the ambulances had to struggle against the flow, yielding to fresh troops, ammunition and supplies moving in the opposite direction.  The priority was clear. ‘The conditions of warfare demand … that wounded men shall be got out of the war,’ wrote one senior medical officer, so that supplies of reinforcements, ammunition and food to the fighting line are not interfered with’ (Col. H. M. W. Gray, ‘Surgical treatment of wounded men at advanced units’, New York Medical Journal 107 (1917)).

To regulate the flow, elaborate arrangements were made to control the direction of traffic, sometimes with special routes designated for ambulances.  The map below shows the traffic circuits established by the Fifth Army around Ypres by 27 July 1917:

[Roads shown in red could be used in both directions; roads shown in blue only in the direction indicated; roads not coloured were not to be used by lorries and could be used by ambulances or light traffic; there was ‘no restriction placed on Motor Cars containing Officers on duty’.]

Despite the slow journeys faced by wounded soldiers, the casualty clearing stations were hard pressed to keep up with the tide of injured bodies.  This was particularly true for those fed by by broad-gauge train from dressing stations in Vlamertinghe and Ypres.  That was how most of the nominally ‘walking wounded’ arrived at the CCSs at Remy Siding on the night of 31 July/1 August.  ‘They consequently arrived in very large batches,’ Major-General Sir W.G. Macpherson explained, ‘instead of coming down in small numbers at a time by lorries and charabancs.’  This overwhelmed the CCSs and delayed the departure of ambulance trains to the base hospitals, which could not leave until the casualties had been cleared, and the congestion was compounded because the trains bringing them in used the same siding as the ambulance trains waiting to come up and load: eight of them were scheduled in the first 24 hours (Medical Services, General History, Vol. III, pp. 160-1).

On that first day US surgeon George Crile, working at No 17 British CCS at Remy Siding, described how

‘The stream of wounded began to increase in volume, slowly at first, then rapidly, until the entire Remy Siding was swamped.  By the night of August first, every bed, every aisle, every tent, every inch of floor space was occupied by stretchers – then the rows of stretchers spread out over the lawn, around the huts, flowing out towards the railway…

The operating rooms ran day and night without ceasing.  Teams worked steadily for twelve hours on, then twelve hours off, relieving each other like night–day–night shifts.  There passed through the Remy Siding group of [three] CCSs over ten thousand wounded in the first forty-eight hours.  I had two hundred deaths in one night in my service.  The seriously wounded piled up so fast that nothing could be done with them, so I told the sister to administer as near an overdose of morphine as was possible to keep them alive but free of suffering’ (Autobiography, pp. 301-2).

It was the same everywhere.  Here is another American surgeon, Harvey Cushing, writing in his journal at No 46 British CCS near Proven at 0230 the next morning:

Pouring cats and dogs all day – also pouring cold and shivering wounded, covered with mud and blood…. The pre-operation room is still crowded – one can’t possibly keep up with them; and the un-systematic way things are run drives one frantic. The news, too, is very bad. The greatest battle of history is floundering up to its middle in a morass, and the guns have sunk even deeper than that. Gott mit uns was certainly true for the enemy this time.

Operating from 8.30 a.m. one day till 2.00 a.m. the next; standing in a pair of rubber boots, and periodically full of tea as a stimulant, is not healthy. It’s an awful business, probably the worst possible training in surgery for a young man, and ruinous for the carefully acquired technique of an oldster. Something over 2000 wounded have passed, so far, through this one C.C.S. There are fifteen similar stations behind the battle front (From a surgeon’s journal, p. 175).

(In his biography of Cushing, Michael Bliss remarked that having such a great surgeon perform brain surgery at a CCS – with exquisite care and meticulous attention to detail – was ‘like a master chef working at McDonald’s’, but Crile told Bowlby he was a model technician and advised him to organise the other surgical teams to handle the overflow).

The combined toll of these two phases in July and August was sobering, but they advanced the line to the east of Hooge (or, more accurately, to what was left of it: ‘even the road was untraceable,’ Charles Bean explains, ‘and the village site was only marked by a cluster of mine craters’ (Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol. IV: The A.I.F. in France [sic]: 1917).  With that, the offensive appeared to have ground to a halt – literally so – and the German High Command concluded that Third Ypres was over.

The third phase: Menin Road

They were mistaken.  On 25 August British field command had been transferred to Lt General Herbert Plumer who devised a new, more measured plan for the third phase, which involved four short steps across a narrow front, separated by breaks to bring up the guns and supplies.  It would be spearheaded by Australian and New Zealand troops, with British and South African support.

Plumer took the next three weeks to prepare the ground for the first of his graduated steps, which was the Battle of Menin Road.  The road had been what one NCO called ‘the artery of the battlefield’ during the limited advance of the summer (Corporal J. Pincombe, in Lynn MacDonald, They called it Passchendaele, p. 144), and it remained a live fire zone.  ‘They had to keep the Menin Road open,’ recalled one driver with the Royal Artillery,

‘because it was the only way you could get up to that sector with horses and limbers, and it was shelled day and night.  The Germans had their guns registered on it to a T, and the engineers had to keep filling up the shell-holes … and keep the traffic going’ (Driver J. McPherson, in Lynn MacDonald, They called it Passchendaele, p. 177)

Paul Ham describes the scale of the preparations:

Plumer packed every ounce of energy and action into those few weeks. Within the next seventeen days, 156 trainloads carrying 54,572 tons of matériel arrived at the railheads, all of which had to be trucked, entrained, dragged or carried on mule-back to the front.  Light tramways were hastily reconstructed and roads rebuilt out of wooden planks. Shell holes were filled in and stamped down; gun emplacements firmly laid; telephone lines unrolled and buried; rations and medical supplies prepared and brought forward –all of which proceeded within range of German shellfire. Miles of duckboards were laid, latticing the drying plain, connecting little islands and ridges of high ground in the hardening mud. The men trained all day, rehearsing new platoon tactics, pillbox flanking manoeuvres and how to coordinate their advance with the creeping barrage, worked out to mathematical certainty (Ham, Passchendaele, p. 245).

In the interval the ground dried out and the terrain ‘changed from a morass into a desert’ (Bean, AIF, p. 748).  But it was still immensely difficult terrain, riddled with shell holes and all the hideous detritus of war.  In a letter written from Vlamertinghe on 17 September Hugh Quigley painted a bleak picture:

‘The country resembles a sewage-heap more than anything else, pitted with shell holes of every conceivable size, and filled to the brim with green, slimy water, above which a blackened arm or leg might project.  It becomes a matter of great skill picking a way across such a network of death traps, for drowning is almost certain in one of them (in Martin Marix Evans,  Passchendaele: the hollow victory).

The next map shows the line two days later, on 19 September – the night before the new offensive began:

Plumer’s plan called for clockwork precision.  The infantry were to advance behind a devastating rolling barrage, whose opening curtain would fall just 150 yards (130 metres) in front of the troops; after three minutes, as the troops moved up, it would roll forward at 100 yards every four minutes for the first 200 yards, and then at a rate of 100 yards every six minutes until the first objective, the Red Line, was reached: a distance of 750 metres.  The barrage would then halt for 45 minutes before rolling on at 100 yards every eight minutes until the Blue Line was reached: a further 400 metres.  After a pause for two hours the barrage would advance again at the same rate to the Green Line, the last objective of the day: a further 200 metres.

The slow rate of advance – compared to other rolling barrages – and the short distances eased the difficulty of picking passages through the pock-marked terrain, but there was little room for error or misstep.  Observing a rehearsal, Captain A.M. McGrigor recorded that

‘it did bring home to one how appallingly mechanical everything is now, and how every man must conform to the advance of the barrage.  Initiative and dash must to a certain extent be fettered as every forward movement is worked out so carefully and mathematically’ (in Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, Passchendaele: the untold story)

Planning for casualties

These precise timings were complemented by similar calculations in the accompanying plan for medical provision drawn up by General Arthur Sloggett, perhaps still smarting from and certainly still contemptuous of Wright’s criticisms (above), and Surgeon-General G.B.M. Skinner (Fifth Army), which was intended to remove the extraordinary frictions that had bedevilled the evacuation chain during the summer.  Butler makes the parallel explicit: ‘The machinery for clearing our own casualties had to move with the same clockwork precision as that designed by us to create them in the enemy’ (Australian Army Medical Services, p. 211).

Their plan was guided by two imperatives.

(1)  Casualty Clearing Stations  The first was to bring casualty clearing stations as close to the line as possible.  This entailed a continuation of the system that had emerged during the summer.

In July and August three CCSs had been deployed just five miles from the front at a railway siding at Brandhoek, located just off the main Ypres-Poperinghe road, and offering direct rail access for hospital trains to the base hospitals at Boulogne and Calais.

Sister Kate Luard was thrilled with the experiment, writing in her diary that ‘we … shall be near enough to the line to get them from the dressing stations direct, without long journey and waits which is what the C.C.S.’s are out to prevent nowadays.’  She arrived at Brandhoek on 27 July, and while she was delighted at what she found (not least because she would be working at a specialist CCS for the treatment of abdominal wounds) she again emphasised the experimental nature of the location:

The hospital had only been pitched since last Saturday and it was already splendid. This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Their chance of life depends (except where the injuries are such as to be beyond any hope of recovery) mainly on the length of time between the injury and the operation. As modern Field Surgery can now be carried out under conditions of perfect asepsis, the sooner the infection always introduced into every wound with the missile is dealt with, and the internal repairs carried out, the more chance the soldier has of life. Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’ s six miles back….

Sir Anthony Bowlby turned up later. ‘How d’you like the site this time? Front pew, what? front row dress-circle.’ It is his pet scheme getting the operations done up here within an hour or two of getting hit, instead of farther back or at the Base. That is why our 30 Medical Officers include the largest collection of F.R.C.S.’ s [Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons] ever collected at any Hospital in France before, at Base or Front, twelve operating Surgeons with Theatre Teams working on eight tables continuously for the 24 hours, with 16 hours on and 8 off.

The location was ideal for rapid medical treatment; but as was often the case, the railway line also made it an optimal location for artillery batteries and ammunition dumps.  When Harvey Cushing visited Brandhoek two days later he observed that ‘the three CCSs were ‘necessarily alongside both road and railway, for hospitals and ammunition dumps must compete for sites of the same kind – and hence they are likely to be heavily shelled.’  And as Colonel A.G. Butler confirmed in the official history of the Australian Army’s medical services, ‘the site had the grave disadvantage that some British 15-inch guns were near by, and huge supply and ammunition dumps covered the adjoining area’ – all, as he concedes, ‘legitimate and obvious targets for German artillery’ (Australian Army Medical Services, p. 188).

It was quiet when Bowlby and Cushing visited, but the medical staff did not have long to wait before their fears were confirmed.  On 30 July Luard wrote:

‘Soon after 10 o’clock this morning [the Germans] began putting over high explosive. Everyone had to put on tin-hats and carry on. He kept it up all the morning with vicious screams. They burst on two sides of us, not 50 yards away – no direct hits on to us but streams of shrapnel, which were quite hot when you picked them up. No one was hurt, which was lucky, and they came everywhere, even through our Canvas Huts in our quarters. Luckily we were so frantically busy that it was easier to pay less attention to it. The patients who were well enough to realise that they were not still on the field called it ‘a dirty trick.’ 

It is doubtful that the CCSs were the intended target (and they were treating many German prisoners).  Rather, as Sister May Tilton recorded, the area was ‘a huge city of canvas, batteries and ammunition dumps’ – the question of co-location constantly dogged casualty clearing stations and base hospitals alike (see here) – and throughout the next month Brandhoek was subjected to regular shelling and air raids.

On 2 August Luard wrote that ‘it made one realise how far up we are to have streams of shells crossing over our heads’ – from the German lines and from the British batteries around Brandhoek – but the danger was also a more proximate one.  Here she is a few days later:

There is a cheery little Military Decauville Railway for ammunition only, running immediately between our Compound and the main Duck Walk cutting our Hospital in two, and you are always having to wait to cross the rails while a series of baby trains puff through loaded to the teeth with shells, or coming back with empty cases.

The attacks intensified, and on 14 August Tilton wrote that last night

‘No one slept, day or night staff. Our bell tents were dugouts. They had lowered us considerably and sandbagged the outsides so heavily, we felt quite comfortable. It needed a direct hit to get us…’

At 10.30 pm ‘the Gothas [bombers] were over’ and ‘shells were bursting quite close’, but the British batteries responded with alacrity: “Big Bob” [the 15-inch guns] set our tents rocking and vibrating with his fierce and mighty roar.’

On 18 August Luard was outraged at German attacks on hospitals – but she was specifically referring to those in the rear:

He [‘Fritz’] played about all night till daylight. There were several of him. He went to C.C.S.’ s behind us. At one he wounded three Sisters and blew their cook-boy to pieces. The Sisters went to the Base by Ambulance Train this morning. At the other he wounded six Medical Officers among other casualties. A dirty trick, because he has maps and knows which are hospitals back there. Here we are in a continuous line of camps, batteries, dumps, etc., and he may not know.

That last sentence was crucial, but the CCSs at Brandhoek were subjected to sustained shelling throughout the day on 21 August, and two days later Sister Elsie Grant wrote to her sister from Brandhoek with no hesitation in assigning blame:

‘We have been shelled out three times but this last time was too dreadful. Those brutal Germans deliberately shell our hospital with all our poor helpless boys but really God was good to us we had four killed but it was just miraculous that there were not dozens killed. Of course we (the sisters) were put into dugouts as soon as the shelling got bad but I can’t tell you how cruel it was to leave those poor helpless patients. In a few hours the whole hospital was evacuated & one consolation we saw our last patient carried out before we were sent away.’

Two of the CCSs were immediately moved back to ‘Nine Elms‘ (below), five miles behind Poperinghe, while Luard’s remained to provide treatment for walking wounded until it too was evacuated in early September.

Throughout these attacks and dispersals, the CCSs had continued to work at full capacity to deal with the thousands of casualties.  But by September the closest CCSs for the Battle of Menin Road were now all much further back: at Nine Elms, at Remy Siding, and three other groups near Proven known in the British Army’s ironic Flemglish as ‘Mendinghem’, ‘Dozinghem’ and ‘Bandaghem’.  Cushing explained:

The place…  is called “Mendinghem.” This was originally a joke and was to have been “Endinghem”; but this on second thought was changed as being too much even for the Tommy. The army has a professional name maker, I may add. Mendinghem is already on the printed maps and there is in this district a “Bandagehem” and “Dosinghem” which I have not located as yet.

They are all all shown on this map:

These relocations did not end the raids, and the official British medical history by Major-General W.G. Macpherson includes a detailed list of enemy shelling and bombing of CCSs from 3 July to 29 October (pp. 163-4); Mendinghem and Dozinghem were repeatedly attacked. According to Cushing, the staff at Dozinghem were particular upset ‘because General Skinner had ordered an electric Red Cross to be shown at night – a good mark to shoot at’ (A surgeon’s journal, p. 193).  In fact, Macpherson concluded that these attacks

‘were of so exceptional a character as to give rise to the belief that they were deliberate.  The medical units were indicated by the usual red cross signs on roofs of huts, and also on large squares on the ground such as could be seen by aircraft.  The positions of casualty clearing stations had also been notified to the enemy’ (Medical Services, General History, Vol. III, p. 162).

Macpherson, wise after the event, commented that Brandhoek ‘had always been regarded as too far forward’ – he claimed the CCSs were only there at the insistence of the Fifth Army commander and his Director of Medical Services – and concluded that the whole affair showed ‘that a journey of twenty minutes to half-an-hour to a more secure locality farther back is not likely to be so great a risk to the patient as his retention in a more forward position which is in danger of being shelled by the enemy’ (p. 156).

(2)  Direct evacuation  The retreat of the forward CCSs placed a still greater premium on the second imperative, which involved another experiment, a concerted attempt to expedite the movement of the wounded to the rear.  In practice, this resolved into marking and co-ordinating evacuation routes for bearer teams and ambulances, minimising treatment at all intermediate dressing stations (even the administration of anti-tetanus serum had to wait until a casualty arrived at the CCS), and separating casualty streams from the Advanced Dressing Stations (ADS) into the three circuits shown on the diagram below:

I’ve seen many similar maps – the war diaries of Field Ambulances are full of them, either superimposed over or based on trench maps, and Regimental Medical Officers were accustomed to draw up their own annotated sketch maps showing the location of aid posts and the routes to be followed by the regimental stretcher bearers – but this one is unusual because it extends beyond the immediate recovery zone and (following directly from the emphasis on direct evacuation) includes a series of timings from the front line all the way back to the CCSs at Remy Siding.

As the map shows, ‘walking wounded’ made their own way to the collecting point at Hooge on the Menin Road and then (by ambulance or light rail if space were available, otherwise on foot) to the ADS designated for them in Ypres.

The more seriously wounded were brought to the same collecting point by regimental stretcher bearers in a series of relays; this was estimated to take between 10 and 40 minutes during the day and around 60 minutes at night.  The casualties were then transferred by motor ambulance to the ADS for stretcher cases, just across the road from the ADS for walking wounded (below).

The location of the two ADSs made sound logistical sense, but they were uncomfortably close to heavy artillery batteries and naval guns and were repeatedly shelled.  Together the ADSs acted as the hub for what the Medical History calls the ‘elaborately detailed’ system of onward evacuation (Australian Army Medical Services, p. 202):

  • Those who could withstand the journey – a further 80-120 minutes, according to the map – followed Circuit A (‘long distance’) to the CCSs at Remy Siding; 58 per cent of stretcher cases followed this route.
  • Those suffering from shock, gas or haemorrhage followed Circuit B (‘short distance’) to the Main Dressing Station at Dickebusch, a journey of 20-30 minutes; 27 per cent of stretcher cases followed this route.
  • Those who needed immediate surgery were sent direct to Remy on Circuit C  – a journey of 90 minutes – and 15 per cent followed this route.

It’s not clear how these timings were established: they were almost certainly estimates written in to the plan rather than observations after the event.  But there is a clear consensus that, if that were the case, the estimates were realised and according to official historian Charles Bean the first day of the battle itself ‘went almost precisely in accordance with plan’ (AIF in France, p. 761).

The Battle of Menin Road

It started to drizzle during the evening of 19 September, and when it changed into steady rain and the dust turned back into mud there were understandable jitters.  But shortly after midnight the rain eased and Plumer was determined to press on.  Zero hour was 0540 on 20 September, when ‘the whole of the British artillery and machine-guns, breaking in with the suddenness of a great orchestra, gave the signal for the attack to start’ (Bean, AIF, p. 757).  Frank Hurley, the Australian Official Photographer, was there to capture the scene, but his words (Diary, pp. 87-8) are as evocative as his photographs:

We were just walking along the Menin road in the twilight, near Hellfire Corner, when our barrage began. Simultaneously from a thousand guns, & promptly on the tick of five, there belched a blinding sheet of flame: & the roar – Nothing I have heard in this world or can in the next could possibly approach its equal. The firing was so continuous that it resembled the beating of an army of great drums. No sight could be more impressive than walking along this infamous shell swept road, to the chorus of the deep bass booming of the drum fire, & the screaming shriek of thousands of shells. It was great, stupendous & awesome.

The walking wounded were the first to pass through the collecting post, followed by the stretcher cases.

There were delays in moving them down the Menin Road (below; the first photograph is another Hurley), but according to the officer commanding the 3rd Field Ambulance these were ‘due to the amount of traffic – ammunition limbers, lorries, etc. – which held up the ambulance waggons.’  There was ‘practically no delay by enemy shelling on the road, which we all so greatly feared.’  (They were wise to do so; the reprieve was short-lived and  the German batteries soon re-registered on the Road). 

The Red Line was secured at 0611.

By 0700 the first walking wounded started to arrive at their Advanced Dressing Station, followed by the first stretcher cases at 0900 (again, the photographs below are by Hurley):

 The Blue Line was secured at 0815 and the Green Line at 1015.

At first the light railway was used to clear cases from the ADSs to the CCS, but the service was disrupted (in part by enemy shelling and part by a backlog at Remy) and lorries took over until the trains were restored by mid-morning.  In the first 24 hours 2,200 Australian and 1,000 British wounded passed through the twin ADSs; the proportion of walking wounded to stretcher-cases was roughly 3 : 1 (though, as I’ve noted previously, the distinction between the two was by no means hard and fast) (Australian Army Medical Services, pp. 208-9).

Further down the evacuation chain at the CCSs at Remy Siding casualties started to arrive ‘so rapidly as to cause some embarrassment’ but the stations started to take in by turns – a standard practice – and this successfully relieved the congestion: thereafter casualties arrived in a steady stream.    

Meanwhile stretcher bearers were moving up as the line advanced and new relay posts were being established.  From 1800 a light railway ferried the walking wounded directly from Birr Crossroads via the MDS to the CCS.

The official history has nothing but praise for the execution of Plumer’s plan, and Bean attributed the success of the first day to the artillery: ‘The advancing barrage won the ground; the infantry merely occupied it’ ( AIF, p. 761).  It is perfectly true that the German troops fell back under the sustained barrage, and that their counter-attacks were all repulsed, but this one-liner does an extraordinary disservice to the infantry that ploughed forward.

The medical history tells a more cautious story, and Butler emphasised that ‘throughout the day shell-fire was severe in the captured area’ – a situation with awful consequences for the troops and for the regimental stretcher-bearers who came to their aid.

Again Frank Hurley captures the dreadful scene that same day with a visceral immediacy:

I pushed on up the duck board track to Stirling Castle – a mound of powdered brick [below] and from where there is to be had a magnificent panorama of the battlefield. The way was gruesome & awful beyond words. The ground had been recently heavily shelled by the Boche & the dead and wounded lay about everywhere. About here the ground had the appearance of having been ploughed by a great canal excavator, & then reploughed & turned over and over again. Last nights shower too made it a quagmire; & through this the wounded had to drag themselves, & those mortally wounded pass out their young lives.

The shells shrieked in an ecstasy overhead, & the deep boom of artillery sounded like a triumphant drum roll. Those murderous weapons the machine guns maintained their endless clatter, as if a million hands were encoring & applauding the brilliant victory of our countrymen. It was ineffably grand & terrible, & yet one felt subconsciously safe in spite of the shell burst & splinters & the ungodly wanton carnage going on around.

]
I saw a horrible sight take place within about 20 yards of me. Boche prisoners were carrying one of our wounded in to the dressing station, when one of the enemy’s own shells struck the group. All were almost instantly killed, three being blown to atoms. Another shell killed four & I saw them die, frightfully mutilated in the deep slime of a shell crater. How ever anyone escapes being hit by the showers of flying metal is incomprehensible. The battlefield on which we won an advance of 1500 yards, was littered with bits of men, our own & Boche & literally drenched with blood (Diary, pp. 91-3 ).

And this, as Paul Ham reminds us, ‘was a battle that had gone well, in which everything had proceeded according to the plan’ (Passchendaele, p. 305).  The total British and Dominion casualties on that one day were around 21,000, expended in order to advance one and a half miles and to hold an area of 5.5 square miles.

Hurley recognised the extraordinary sacrifices made by those bringing in the wounded (above), and that same evening he wrote of his admiration for ‘the magnificent work of the stretcher bearers who go out in the thick of the strife to succour the wounded.’  Many of them were killed or injured, and by the end of the day one subaltern with the 3rd Field Ambulance reported that he had

ended up with four fit squads, fifteen men wounded, five missing and five worn out. Bearers all thoroughly done up.’

Not surprisingly, it was difficult for the bearers to find (let alone recover) all those who had been wounded.  On 28 September Harvey Cushing was operating on a British soldier at Mendinghem and asked him his division and regiment:

“Oxford Bucks; 20th Division, sir.”

“How can that be, they went over on the 20th, a week ago?”

“I went over with ’em, sir.”

He actually did, and has been lying for a week in a shell hole, until, during the attack of yesterday, someone found him. He said he had eaten nothing, for his bully beef went “agin” him and he wasn’t hungry — indeed thought he had been out of his head for two or three of the days. Then when it got dark he used to holler, but no one came….

He doesn’t seem to think his escapade anything out of the ordinary …  I asked him if he was in the barrage of yesterday morning and whether he knew there was an offensive under way. No, he just heard a terrible rattle and crawled up to the edge of his shell hole and waved his hand: some stretcher-bearers came along and took him away—that’s all he knows (A surgeon’s journal, p. 214).

You might think he was an outlier to all those accounts of rapid evacuation, physically and statistically, but he plainly wasn’t the only one.  And as the phased advance continued, so conditions deteriorated and the dangers increased.

By 4 October the rains returned with a vengeance, and as the battle for Passchendaele ground on and the toll mounted so one nightmare day became indistinguishable from the next.  The carries became longer and longer; bearer parties found it harder and harder to find their way in a landscape (or what Samuel Hynes calls an anti-landscape) devoid of any permanent markers; even those areas stitched together by duckboards became dangerously slippery:

From 8 to 11 October, one medical officer reported,

‘the work was so heavy that for a large part of the time 6 men had to carry one stretcher – 8 and even 12 men were used in parts. Under these conditions the stretcher-bearers rapidly became exhausted, and absolutely so after 24 hours’ work. Usually they were relieved after 24 hours, but owing to the universal shortage some 36 and even 48 hour shifts were done. About 200 bearers (ambulance and infantry) were continually at work’ (Australian Army Medical Services, p. 234).

It’s not my purpose here to chart the unfolding geography of casualty evacuation in any detail – it was modelled on the plan for Menin Road but constantly adapted to the changing circumstances: ‘the medical scheme for each battle was an extension, at most a variant, of that for the preceding one; they were built up, as the line advanced, in the general “arrangements” described’ above: Australian Army Medical Services, p. 212) – but one stretcher-bearer epitomises the wrenching experience as well as anybody.  Frederick Noyes was with the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance, which was posted to Ypres on 1 November:

Who could ever forget those two weeks of the Passchendaele show? Looking back now it all seems like one long, weird, and terrible nightmare of water-filled trenches, zigzagging duck- walks, foul slime-filled shell-holes, half-buried bodies of dead men, horses and mules, cement pillboxes, twisted wire, shrieking shells, flying humming metal, crashing aerial bombs, stinking mud, water-logged and blood-soaked stretchers – a Slough of Despond such as even a Bunyan couldn’t conceive of.

That long, wearisome “carry” from Tynecot to Frost House was like a never-ending Via Dolorosa to all who made the journey. Passchendaele was the Somme multiplied and intensified ten times over. Dark, wet, hopeless days were followed by almost endless, cold, marrow-congealing nights of despair and exhaustion. Every man was soaked through to his skin the whole time we were there, and the added weight of his sodden, muddy uniform and equipment seemed to sink him deeper into the prevailing mire. After the first few hours we moved about like so many dazed automatons, stumbling, staggering, blundering along the heaving duck-walks and erupting roads – almost too stunned to care whether we lived or died and totally indifferent to the volcanoes of smoking shell-craters about us. The hours and days and nights seemed to merge with one another into a cruelly indefinite whole and it is doubtful if any man was afterward able to distinguish one Passchendaele day’s experiences from another (Stretcher bearers at the double! p. 177).

From geometries to geographies

It’s now possible to return the evacuation map and its clockwork timings that set my discussion in motion.  Maps like these display the system of evacuation as a linear geometry – an abstract grid of transmission lines that resemble what Fiona Reid in her Medicine in First World War Europe: Soldiers, Medics, Pacifists calls ‘a modernist dream’ – with no catastrophic breaks or nightmare tangles.  Many official and semi-official accounts endorsed this view of ‘the cogs of the evacuating machine’, beautifully oiled and running smoothly.

But it should now be clear that this is a representation of a space that never existed beyond the paper landscape on which the military offensives were themselves planned (cf. my ‘Gabriel’s Map’, DOWNLOADS tab).  Casualty evacuation was not only a geometry but also a geography; it was confounded by the bio-physical terrain through which the wounded were moved, and threatened by the savage continuity of military violence.  Routes constantly had to be changed, particularly for bearer parties, and aid posts and dressing stations were endlessly re-located as medical officers struggled to adapt to changed circumstances: improvising their own posts, sketching their own maps.  By extension, the analytical mapping of casualty evacuation cannot be limited to a cartography but necessarily extends to a corpography (see also ‘Corpographies’, DOWNLOADS tab) for, as Reid emphasises, the stories the wounded told of their journeys were, like so many of their injuries, ‘complicated and messy’.  There was a vital reciprocity between those journeys and the bodies that made them, and I’ll elaborate on that in later posts about the woundscapes of the Western Front.

Coda

On 22 September Harvey Cushing operated on a British soldier with a serious head injury, who had been wounded the previous day.  He had reached the Field Ambulance at 1230 and was admitted to the CCS at Mendinghem at 0647, whereupon he ‘got lost somehow in the crowded wards’ and was finally lifted on to Cushing’s table that afternoon.  Nothing unusual about any of that, except for Cushing knowing the time when his patient had reached the Field Ambulance.  He observed in passing ‘that they are noting the hour as well as the date since our discussion of last Tuesday’ (A surgeon’s journal, p. 209).  His journal records that meeting, presided over by General Sloggett, but there are no details of the discussion to which Cushing refers.  It’s all the more remarkable given the debate over the politics of speed – and the fact that the medical plan for Menin Road was all about minimising data recording and administration before the casualty was admitted to the CCS.

This leads me to the second Australian Army study I noticed at the start, which was carried out by the 7th Australian Field Ambulance on the Somme in July 1918 [see Appendix 16 of FA War Diary here].  It provides a useful counterpoint to the Battle of Menin Road.  Here too the objective was ‘to get the men as quickly as possible to the CCS’ and this too included minimising the number of dressings and treatments en route.  But where the plan for Menin Road also restricted data recording at the ADS and the MDS for the same reason, except for deaths and cases treated and returned to duty, the 7th FA added a layer by recording the time each casualty arrived at each station on the field medical card pinned to his tunic (below).

The corresponding scheme of evacuation is shown in the following sketch:

750 cases were recorded; 200 of these were retained at one of the intermediate stations (either because they were lightly wounded or because they needed emergency intervention); and of the remainder evacuation times were remarkably constant.  Including treatment and travel, it took casualties 1 hour 45 minutes to be brought from the Advanced Ambulance Post (where motor ambulances collected the casualties from the regimental stretcher bearers) to the Main Dressing Station at Saint Acheul, and a further 2 hours 15 minutes (including treatment at the MDS) before they reached the CCS at Crouy: the total elapsed time of 4 hours to travel those 22 miles was reduced for some ‘special cases’ to around 3 hours.

These travel times were maintained outside any ‘push’ (a major offensive) or a ‘stunt’ (a raid).  The FA provided statistics for two stunts that punctuated the steady process of attrition and these – unlike the schemas I’ve been describing thus far – incorporated the time it took stretcher bearers to retrieve casualties from the field and bring them to an aid post.  The first stunt kicked off at 0310 on 4 July; the time from the Advanced Ambulance Post to the CCS was more or less unchanged (around 3 hours 30 minutes) but factoring in   the time from the field to the Advanced Ambulance Post the first casualties took 5 hours 45 minutes to reach the CCS from the point of injury, and as the troops advanced further forward this increased until it took 9-10 hours for stretcher cases to reach the CCS.  The second stunt started at 2030 on 7 July, and the darkness combined with rain to change the calculus: it now took 4 hours 30 minutes to 5 hours to transfer casualties from the Advanced Ambulance Post, and the first casualties took around 7 hours to reach the CCS from the point of injury; others must have taken much longer though no details were given.

The Longest Journey

The Field Ambulances from the Royal Army Medical Corps were put to work in the war-ravaged landscapes of the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres; the broken bodies in their charge (above) were transferred to Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise in northern France, and at noon the next day a battered military ambulance rattled its noisy way to the Quai Gambetta at Boulogne where HMS Verdun was waiting.

The ship slipped anchor shortly before noon and ploughed through the mist across the Channel to Dover, where it rode outside the Western entrance before steaming along the southern breakwater to the Eastern entrance, like countless hospital ships before it, and finally made fast at Admiralty Pier.

At ten to six that same evening a special train steamed out of Dover Marine Station into a cold, wet and moonless night.  No local people had been allowed on to the pier at Dover, but it was a different story all along the route to London:

‘At the platforms by which they rushed could be seen groups of women waiting and silent…  Many an upper window was open, and against the golden square of light was silhouetted, clear-cut and black, the head and shoulders of some faithful watcher.  In the London suburbs there were lines of houses with back doors flung open wide, and framed in the lampshine flooding out into the gloom two or three figures of men and women and children gazing out at the great lighted train whirling by…’

The train arrived at Victoria shortly after 8.30 p.m., where crowds had been waiting patiently for hours.

In many ways it was a journey like all the others.  Between September 1914 and November 1918 hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers from Britain and across its Empire had been rescued from the battlefields in Belgium and France, and many of the most seriously wounded had made the precarious crossing from Boulogne (below) and other ports to ‘Blighty’.  

(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

At Dover (below) or Southampton they were loaded on to special hospital trains:

Along the permanent way, ‘all the women and children by the side of the railway were at their windows or in their gardens, waving their hands’ as the hospital trains thundered by.

When they reached London they were greeted by large crowds, policemen snapping to attention and saluting as they stopped the traffic to allow the stream of ambulances to pass slowly through the streets: 

Imperial War Museum, London; (c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Yet this particular journey was no was no ordinary one, for those bearer parties had been deployed on 7 November 1920 and the special train arrived in London three days later. 

The body was that of the ‘Unknown Warrior’, selected from one of four that had been transported to the chapel at Saint-Pol – the other three, according to some accounts, were unceremoniously ‘tipped into a shell hole beside the road near Albert’ –  and its journey ended with a solemn procession past Edwin Landseer Lutyens‘ newly inaugurated Cenotaph (which, true to its name, remained empty) and burial in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920.

It was also, in its way, the long journey of all.  Not many of those who were wounded made it back to Britain in four days, as I will show in a later post, but the chronology of the Unknown Warrior’s passage was deceptively protracted (and I use that adverb advisedly).  The intention was to allow grieving families and friends to believe that the Unknown Warrior could be their husband, lover, brother, or son, killed in any year of the war and drawn ‘from any of the three services, Army, Navy or Air Force, and from any part of the British Isles, Dominions or Colonies.’  Yet the Field Ambulances received secret instructions stipulating that the remains they recovered had to be of soldiers mortally wounded in 1914.

The reason, according to Neil Hanson in The Unknown Soldier, was to ensure that ‘decomposition was sufficiently far advanced to obviate the need for cremation’ and, presumably, to minimise the possibility of identification.  Then he adds:

‘For military traditionalists this also had the side-benefit of ensuring that the Unknown Warrior would be an Anglo-Saxon member of the British Expeditionary Force – a regular soldier – rather than one of Kitchener’s New Army of civilian volunteers or one of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers drawn from the far-flung reaches of the Empire’ (p. 432).

But this is misleading: even in 1914 it was not ‘all white on the Western Front’; troops from the Indian Army arrived at Marseilles at the end of September, and the Lahore Division played a vital part in resisting the German advance in October and November around La Bassée and Neuve Chapelle.

The passage of the Unknown Warrior was distinguished not only by its ceremony but also by its rarity.  In the first months of the war the bodies of some servicemen who had been killed were returned to Britain, but these were private arrangements that were abruptly terminated by an official order in April 1915 forbidding exhumation or repatriation (reaffirmed by Haig in a General Routine Order in December 1917). As a result precious few of Britain’s war dead made that final journey home: most were buried close to where they died, and their bodies were eventually gathered into military cemeteries across Flanders and northern France, at first by the British Red Cross Society’s Mobile Unit and then by the units of the Graves Registration Commission attached to the Army Service Corps (later the Imperial War Graves Commission).  

Here is one officer, Rowland Feilding, describing the aftermath of the Somme in a letter to his wife in 1917:

‘A land whose loneliness is so great that it is almost frightening. A land of wooden crosses, of which, wherever you may stand, you can count numbers dotted about, each indicating a soldier’s grave, and the spot where he fell.

After several miles of this I came upon the first living human beings —parties of the Salvage Corps, working forwards from the old battle line, gathering up all that is worth saving of the relics…

Further back, I came upon the work of the Graves Registration Unit, which, behind the Salvage men, follows the Army forward. Its job is to “prospect” for the dead, and, so skilful have its members become at detecting the position of a buried soldier, that their “cuttings” seldom draw blank. Indeed, this is not surprising, for, no matter where they look, they are almost certain to find what they are searching for. Then they dig up the decomposed fragments, to see if they can identify them, which they seldom do; —after which they re-bury them, marking the spot with the universal wooden cross.’

‘The names of the dead,’ Feilding continued, ‘are generally undiscoverable’ – and it was this sober realisation, and the sight of a grave outside Armentières in 1916 marked ‘An Unknown British Soldier’, that gave an army chaplain, the Reverend David Railton MC, the idea of a collective memorial in London.

As Feilding’s letter makes plain, the scale of the slaughter would have made identification and repatriation immensely difficult, but the decision was plainly prompted by more than practicality (though the task of keeping track of the dead was formidable in itself: the image below is an extract from a ‘body density map‘ produced by the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries after the war; it records, grid square by grid square, the number of bodies recovered from just a fragment of the Somme battlefield before their reinterment in military cemeteries).

But the decision to forbid repatriation was more than a matter of logistics or even cost.  Reading lists of officer casualties in the Times was sober enough – and only officers’ families received the dread telegram; the families of other ranks had to wait for a form letter – but it would have been a far cry from the effect of seeing the physical return of so many dead.  The debate was not settled by the end of hostilities, and a politics of repatriation continued to swirl around the landscape of memorialisation.

(You can find much more in David Crane, Empires of the Dead: how one man’s vision led to the creation of WWI’s war graves (London: Collins, 2013) and the brilliant Richard van Emden, The Quick and the Dead: fallen soldiers and their families in the Great War (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).

It is those numberless dead who haunt the collective memory of the First World War: the white crosses in military cemeteries, the black names on war memorials, and all those nameless, placeless bodies represented by the Unknown Warrior.

That is understandable; but behind the remembering is a forgetting. John McCrae’s elegiac poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ is recited on Remembrance Day every year – ‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row’ – but he wrote those lines on 3 May 1915 to commemorate the death of a close friend who had been buried the night before, and he did so sitting on the tailboard of an ambulance at Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station near Ypres. How many remember that McCrae was a Medical Officer with the Canadian Field Artillery, who knew better than most that what lay behind his haunting lament – and beyond his medical post dug in to the side of the Yser canal – was a vast field of wounded men?

And when the two minute silence (introduced in Cape Town in 1918 and first observed in London in 1919) descends at 11 a.m. on 11 November every year how many of those who mark it know that the original purpose was not only to remember and reflect on those who gave their lives but also, in the first minute, to honour those who returned from the fight? Many of them had been wounded (often more than once) and they had made their own precarious journeys back from the battlefields.  It was a shockingly common experience: Emily Mayhew reminds us that on the Western Front ‘almost every other British soldier could expect to become a casualty, with physical injuries ranging in severity from light wounds to permanent, life-changing disabilities.’   And yet, she continues, ‘in the historical record of the First World War, the wounded and the men and women who cared for them are an undiscovered, somehow silenced group.’

It is those other journeys – of the wounded bodies and the woundscapes through which they moved – that are the central focus of my research on the First World War.  And, as regular readers will know, I extend that analysis to the deserts of North Africa in the Second World War, to Vietnam, and to Afghanistan, Gaza and Syria in our own troubled present.  Later modern war is far from disembodied.

The Grim Reaper

Peter Lee‘s Reaper Force has just been published in the UK – later in North America.  I’ve argued before that it’s a mistake to abstract drones from other forms of aerial violence (and its history) and to treat it as the only modality of later modern war, but there is no doubt that Reaper Force is an important contribution to the critical analysis of  today’s remote warfare.  Peter won a remarkable degree of co-operation from both the Ministry of Defence and the RAF for his interviews with the crew of Britain’s Reapers – largely a result of the security clearance obtained when he was an RAF Chaplain – and the result is a series of rich and compelling stories:

This unique insight into RAF Reaper operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is based on unprecedented research access to the Reaper squadrons and personnel at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire and Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, USA. The author has observed lethal missile strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq alongside the crews involved. He has also conducted extensive interviews with Reaper pilots, sensor operators, mission intelligence coordinators, and spouses and partners. The result is an intimate portrait of the human aspect of remote air warfare in the twenty-first century.

Chris Cole trails the book over at Drone Wars UK with a lively interview with Peter – focusing, in part, on the question of civilian casualties – and there’s also an extended review by Joe Chapa (a major in the USAF) over at War on the Rocks:

The force of Lee’s contribution is not primarily in the raising of familiar issues about distance and psychology. Instead, by focusing on individual crewmembers and preserving personal narrative, Reaper Force brings to the fore a set of questions that have not yet been adequately addressed.

For example, no other work of which I am aware properly depicts the Reaper crew in the appropriate set of command relationships within the broader warfighting organizational structure. Many arguments about Reaper crews’ level of involvement in mission-critical decisions tend either to assume that the crew is so autonomous that they can carry out atrocities without accountability or that the command chain hierarchy is so suffocating that they have no choices to make and are in need of no moral courage from which to make them. The reality that comes through Lee’s narrative is more complicated. Often, the Reaper crew — indeed the whole coalition air component — acts as a supporting command, while the ground force remains the supported command. The result is the often-misunderstood close air support relationship. Though the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) on the ground provides clearance for the aircrew to release the weapon, this clearance does not constitute an order. In the end, like two keys in a nuclear silo, the JTAC must provide clearance, and the Reaper pilot must “consent to release.” The result is a symbiotic relationship between air forces and ground forces, in which both the ground force commander and the pilot in command share the burden of responsibility for weapons release.

In practice, this means that “one of the many responsibilities faced by Reaper crews has been deciding when not to fire a missile or not to drop a bomb.” What happens when the JTAC calls for a weapon and all the legal requirements have been met but something feels wrong to members of the Reaper crew? Josh, one of Lee’s interview participants, describes it this way.

“Taking an objective ‘tick-box’ view we had an adult male emerge from a compound, armed, as friendly forces approached. The compound was in an area occupied by Taliban that had been engaging friendly forces, successfully, over the preceding few days. It met the criteria needed for a strike, we had all the approvals and authorization required. But the tiny details weren’t right.”

In this case, in contrast with the vertical hierarchy that is often assumed, the command relationships — and the authority of the Reaper pilot — seemed like an impediment for the ground force. Some RAF pilot half a world away thinks he knows what is best when it is the ground force that takes all the risk. The social and institutional pressures are palatable. “Brothers are going to die because of you,” the JTAC scolded the Reaper pilot over the radio. In this case, the Reaper pilot insisted that the armed man under the crosshairs was a farmer in the wrong place at the wrong time and not an enemy fighter in search of a fight. If this is not moral courage, then I do not know what is. Josh goes on to say, “trying to reassure the ground troops is not so easy, especially when you had just withheld a seemingly valid request for a shot. From the perspective of those on the ground waiting for a Taliban fighter to open fire at them was not a good tactic — but this was not a Taliban fighter.”

Sometimes the roles — those who want to shoot and those who want to withhold the shot — are reversed. In one instance, the Reaper crew watched an enemy sniper team target friendly forces through a “murder hole” in a stone wall. With some consistency, the team would depart a nearby building, fire upon friendlies through the murder hole, then return to the building. According to the restrictive rules of engagement under which the U.K. Reapers were operating, the crew was required to obtain positive identification of the enemy fighters by observing hostile activity prior to obtaining weapons release clearance. But each time the enemy team went back into the building, it invalidated the positive identification. Thus, time and again, the Reaper crew was unable to obtain positive identification and release a weapon before the enemy fighters returned to the building. The Reaper crew practically begged the ground force commander for a clearance to release the weapon, but the ground force commander insisted on submitting to the relevant restrictions. By the time the incident was over, a British soldier had been shot and was medically evacuated by helicopter. “It’s the closest I have been in my professional life,” the pilot said, “to pulling a trigger without a clearance.”

Preparing for war

Timely news today that Sweden has distributed a booklet, “If Crisis or War Comes” (Om Krisen Eller Kriget Kommer), to all households.

According to the Guardian’s Jon Henley, the leaflet

explains how people can secure basic needs such as food, water and heat, what warning signals mean, where to find bomb shelters and how to contribute to Sweden’s “total defence”.

The 20-page pamphlet, illustrated with pictures of sirens, warplanes and families fleeing their homes, also prepares the population for dangers such as cyber and terror attacks and climate change, and includes a page on identifying fake news.

You can download the English-language version here.

I say it’s timely not for the reasons you might think.  Its publication coincided with an intriguing e-mail from Christine Agius:

I am currently writing on war preparedness in Sweden’s security policy and in relation to military exercises in the Baltic. With the release today of the war preparedness booklet, I’m also developing an article on war preparedness and how that functions in post-neutral states. However, I’m really struggling to find writings on the subject of war preparedness itself. I thought you might know of some that are worth investigating or who might be working on this topic?

I’m at a loss; I’ve written – really only in passing – about civil defence (‘défense passive‘) in relation to British and French preparations for the Second World War (see, for example, my two lectures under the TEACHING tab), and there is a vast literature on planning and preparing for nuclear attack during the Cold War (especially in the United States) – there I’d start with Peter Galison‘s wonderful work.  If any readers can help Christine she can be contacted at cagius@swin.edu.au.

Gas Masques

This is both an interruption of and a supplement to my series of essays on the siege of Ghouta in Syria (‘Mass Murder in Slow Motion’): you can find the first (‘East Ghouta’) and second (‘Siege Economies’) here and here, and there are two more to come.  My focus here – and hence my title (in sixteenth-century Europe a masque was a theatrical entertainment staged to glorify the royal court) – is on two performances staged after the mass casualty attacks on Douma on 7 April 2018: the first by the United States, France and the United Kingdom when they launched air strikes on 14 April against three sites that they claimed were central to Syria’s chemical weapons programme, and the second by Syria, Russia and their proxies on the right and the left who insisted that the reports of the original attack were ‘chemical fabrications’.  Both performances, I suggest, are deeply suspect.

 I begin by setting the scene – the immediate preconditions to the attack – and then draw on testimony from witnesses on the ground to document what happened in Douma on the evening of 7 April.  I then consider each performance in detail: the process through which the US and its allies decided that, on the balance of probabilities, the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in Douma, determined their military response, and justified their actions; and the mobilisation of what Bethania Palma called ‘disinformation machines’ by Syria, Russia and its proxies to proclaim ‘fake news’ and erect ‘false flags’.

Under the bombs

The joint military offensive against East Ghouta proved to be an extraordinarily violent campaign.  Over the summer of 2017 the Ghouta had been designated a ‘de-escalation zone‘, but attacks by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies and proxies resumed during the autumn and intensified spectacularly from January 2018.  Here’s a snapshot summary from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED):

The siege was now absolute; hospitals were repeatedly bombed, and hundreds of civilians killed during a devastating onslaught of bombs, shells and missiles.  ‘It’s not a war, it’s called a massacre’, one doctor told the Guardian in February 2018:

“The bombing was hysterical,” said Ahmed al-Dbis, a security official at the Union of Medical and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), which runs dozens of hospitals in areas controlled by the opposition in Syria. “It is a humanitarian catastrophe in every sense of the word. The mass killing of people who do not have the most basic tenets of life.”

UNICEF issued a blank page as a statement to condemn the relentless assault – it had no words left to describe what was happening:

Sonia Khush, an official with Save the Children, described the situation as “absolutely abhorrent.” “The bombing has been relentless, and children are dying by the hour,” she said. “These families have nowhere left to run – they are boxed in and being pounded day and night.”

Many of them sought refuge in basements and improvised subterranean shelters. Here is a report on 21 February from Megan Specia and Hwaida Saad:

All of eastern Ghouta is underground. That is how one aid worker described the situation as thousands of people fled into basements and makeshift shelters in the rebel-held suburb of Damascus this week. Eastern Ghouta is under a brutal aerial assault by Syrian government forces that has left more than 200 people dead in recent days, including many children. As the war on the outskirts of the capital reached a new level of intensity, families huddle underground. For hours on end, they wait out the bombing, which shows no signs of slowing….

Many see the basements as the only haven in a hostile environment. They had little chance to evacuate, as the area has been blockaded for months. For Shadi Jad, a young father who has been in a basement since the beginning of the week, his shelter is a mixed blessing. “Honestly, I feel the shelter is a grave, but it’s the only available way for protection,” he said when reached on Tuesday. But Mr. Jad, who is hiding with his wife and eight other families, said that being in close quarters had also drawn his community together. “We share stories, try to keep the fear away by telling some jokes,” he said. “The shelter makes the relationships deeper”…

Hoda Khayti, 29, has lived in eastern Ghouta her whole life, and said her family, like most of their neighbors, had spent much of the week in a basement. Twelve other families joined them in one cramped space. They could hear planes constantly passing overhead. “The scariest moments are when rockets land, then silence follows,” Ms. Khayti said when reached Wednesday on a Facebook video call. “We feel our souls are leaving our bodies when the plane gets close, and we feel relieved after it goes away.” They fear the bombs outside, but like Mr. Jad, Ms. Khayti said the shelter has become a place for the community to come together. They share food, blankets and stories while they wait for the sounds of planes overhead to trail off….

Conditions rapidly deteriorated; the basements and shelters were hopelessly overcrowded, most with no heating or electricity, sanitation or running water.  Listen to Neemat Mohsen in Saqba in early March:

“In our street, over 500 metres there are only three basements. They have to house all the families there. We feel the prison shrinking. We were first besieged in an enormous prison called eastern Ghouta, now we are trapped in shelters similar to tombs… We are living real terror 24 hours a day.”

By the middle of March the offensive had succeeded in dividing the enclave into three:

Russia brokered a series of evacuation deals and prisoner exchanges with the major rebel groups, first with Ahrar al-Sharm who agreed on 21 March that its fighters, their families and others would leave Harasta, and then with Faylaq ar-Rahman who agreed on 23 March to leave Ayn Tarma, Irbin, Jobar and Zamalka.  Over the following days convoys of buses left for Idlib, while thousands of people fled on foot through so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ to government camps on the outskirts of Damascus; still others elected to stay in their shattered neighbourhoods under the terms of a security deal to be enforced in the first instance by Russian military police.

That left Douma, where an uneasy truce lasted for ten days – broken by intermittent air strikes – while Jaish al-Islam (JAI) negotiated terms.  These were complicated by divisions within JAI.  Some of its members wanted to fight on, while others wanted to leave with their families but refused to go to Idlib – not only was the rebel-held area widely regarded as an elaborately constructed kill-box where the Syrian Arab Army would soon resume its offensive, but JAI had a ‘blood feud’ with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which controlled much of the area.

Negotiations stalled and eventually broke down.  JAI reportedly placed new conditions on evacuation and refused to release prisoners it had held captive for several years, and on the afternoon of Friday 6 April JAI shelled Damascus, killing four and wounding another 22. The assault by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies resumed with a vengeance.  A ground offensive was launched under the cover of a sustained air and artillery bombardment broadcast live on state TV.  There were 50 air raids during the afternoon and evening, and a medic inside one local hospital – desperately short of trained staff and supplies – described the chaos as the dead and wounded were brought in:

The hospital is in a state of panic… Dentists are carrying out emergency surgeries. Dead bodies are being brought in pieces and are unrecognisable.

That afternoon Hosein Mortada (above), a reporter for Press TV and al-Alam and a vocal supporter of the Assad regime, released a video from Mount Qalamun where he was embedded with the artillery batteries that were pounding Douma, with columns of smoke towering into the sky behind him.  His commentary:

These are appetizers… The story is bigger than a ground invasion. There is something they will see today if the story continues. They will feel something very strong.

It’s impossible to say whether Mortada knew what was coming – he certainly enjoyed close access to the Army – or whether he was merely continuing the gloating and goading style of ‘reporting’ that had become his signature.  Or perhaps he was riffing on the terrifying warning issued in February by Brigadier-General Suheil al-Hassan, the officer commanding Syria’s elite Tiger Force which was now leading the assault on Douma:

I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire… You won’t find a rescuer.  And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.

The air and ground assault intensified throughout the next day (above), and most people returned to or remained in the basements and shelters that had been their wretched homes for weeks that had dragged into months.  Then, on Saturday night, there were suddenly multiple reports of mass casualties.

‘Gas!  Gas!’

In a preliminary analysis the Violations Documentation Centre zeroed in on three strikes on 7 April involved in what it described as a ‘suspected chemical attack’.

The first, at 1200, targeted a Syrian Arab Red Crescent medical centre with guided missiles and barrel bombs; the centre was virtually destroyed along with its complement of ambulances (hospitals have long been a target of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces: see here).  Although the strike had a paralysing effect on the medical response to later strikes, I’m not sure why it was included; an early report from the Syrian-American Medical Society claimed that a ‘chlorine bomb’ had hit a Douma hospital but no time was given, and a subsequent joint statement from SAMS and the Syrian Civil Defence (‘White Helmets’) addressed the situation later that evening:

On Saturday, April 7th, at 7:45 PM local time, amidst continuous bombardment of residential neighborhoods in the city of Douma, more than 500 cases – the majority of whom are women and children – were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent. Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor.

During clinical examination, medical staff observed bradycardia, wheezing and coarse bronchial sounds. One of the injured was declared dead on arrival. Other patients were treated with humidified oxygen and bronchodilators, after which their condition improved. In several cases involving more severe exposure to the chemical agents, medical staff put patients on a ventilator, including four children. Six casualties were reported at the center, one of whom was a woman who had convulsions and pinpoint pupils.

The casualty figures were subsequently revised upwards, but those cited here seem to have been victims of the other two strikes on the list, which were unambiguously attributed to ‘chemical weapons’.

The second, at 1600, targeted the Saada Bakery on May Ibn al-Khattab (bakeries have long been a staple of Russian-Syrian air strikes too as part of the ‘starve or surrender’ strategy of siege warfare).

The third, at 1930, targeted an apartment building near al-Shuhada Square near al-Numan Mosque.

The many eyewitness accounts are not easy to reconcile with the map: the experience of an air strike fragments both experience and language, and at first it was difficult for rescuers to pinpoint the sites that had been attacked (one rescuer told the VDC: ‘At the start of the chemical attacks, the smell of chlorine reached the center of the city of Douma. We could not determine the area where the chlorine rocket had fallen.)

Nevertheless a common narrative does emerged from multiple sources scattered across different locations inside Douma.  Here are its main outlines.

A network of flight monitors – which warns people of impending attacks and which has also been used to identify the perpetrators of previous air strikes (see for example here) – tracked Syrian Mi-8 helicopters flying southwest from the Dumayr airbase towards Douma.  I’m not sure how significant this is, and I haven’t been able to obtain more details; the intensity of the strikes suggests multiple aircraft were involved.  But Syrians opposed to the Assad regime have become hideously accustomed to barrel bombs dropped from Syrian Arab Army helicopters (see above: Arbin, 20 February 2018), and one report claimed that the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate was also intimately involved in targeting East Ghouta with chlorine gas dropped from its helicopters.  That night several people in Douma reported hearing the whirring of helicopter blades overhead followed by the sound of objects falling from the sky.  There were also witnesses who saw the projectiles descend; they described a ‘green gas emanating from the canisters falling from the sky’ and rushed down to the basements to warn those huddled in the shelters below to evacuate immediately.

As I read these accounts, I remember the words of Hoda Khayti that ended the report from Ghouta I cited above: ‘I don’t want to die in the basement.’  One rescuer underlined the urgency of escape:

There were basements in other buildings with people who didn’t see the gas in time. We entered those buildings and found bodies on the staircases and on the floor – they died while attempting to exit.

He made repeated forays to help people out:

By his third frantic dash down the stairs, with a wet piece of cloth over his mouth and a little girl in each arm, everything went dark for Khaled Abu Jaafar. “I lost consciousness. I couldn’t breathe any more; it was like my lungs were shutting down…”

Quick actions like these saved many people’s lives, but their escape was fraught with danger.

“Someone yelled chemical” Umm Nour recalls. “I felt my throat close, my body go limp as if I had just had everything sucked out of me.”  She reenacts how her arms tensed up, how she could barely muster the strength to grab her daughters’ arms and claw her way up the stairs. They made it to the fourth floor when artillery rounds or rockets – she’s not sure what – slammed into the building, shaking it. “It was like we were between two deaths,” she says. “The chemical attack on the lower floors or the other strikes hitting the upper ones.”

 

But for some people in locations closer to the deadly canisters this proved to be the wrong choice:

Another canister landed on a bed on the upper floor of a damaged building and did not explode, according to a video shot by an activist who found it. A third canister was found on the roof of a crowded, four-storey apartment building near the city center, according to a video of the canister and an activist who visited the building the next day. Rescue workers …  found dozens of men, women and children lying lifeless on the floor below… It appeared that when the smell entered the basement, some people had tried to go upstairs to get fresh air, unknowingly getting closer to the source.

Cellphone videos of the canisters and the aftermath of the attack on the apartment building near al-Shuhada square were uploaded to social media platforms, and you can find a preliminary but none the less detailed analysis of them – including geo-location (below) – from Eliot Higgins and his team at Bellingcat here.

For those working in makeshift clinics the scenes were no less horrifying:

“We were 12 people, and before the attack you can imagine, we had been working perhaps 30 hours or more without stopping,” said one paramedic who treated the victims. “Then you start getting a lot of people who are suffocating, and they smell of chlorine, and imagine after all that exhaustion you get this huge number of people, around 70, targeted while they were in bomb shelters.” He added: “We gave them whatever we had, which wasn’t much, just four oxygen generators and atropine ampoules so they could breathe … Most of them were going to die. You can imagine now our psychological state. It’s tragic. I’ve been working in this hospital for five years and those last two days, I haven’t seen anything like it.”

A local reporter described what he saw at one field hospital as apocalyptic:

I went to a medical point that is an underground hospital, and in the tunnels the dust was filling the area and there were women, children and men in the tunnels. When I arrived at the medical point it was like judgment day, people walking around in a daze, not knowing what to do, women weeping, everyone covering themselves with blankets, and the nurses running from victim to victim. There were entire families on the floor covered in blankets, and there were around 40 dead in shrouds lying between the families, their smell filling the place. The situation, the fear and the destruction are indescribable.

These first accounts are saturated – in image and in word – with the sensations of an attack by chemical weapons (CW).  The people of Ghouta, and of rebel-held areas in Syria more generally, are no strangers to such attacks: they know their smells, their signs and their symptoms.

In fact on 4 April, just three days earlier, Human Rights Watch had followed up its previous forensic investigations of the use of chemical weapons against rebel-held neighbourhoods in West Ghouta and East Ghouta on 21 August 2013 – Attacks on Ghouta (2013; above) – and the ‘widespread and systematic’ use of CW by the Assad regime –  Death by Chemicals (2017) – with an inventory of 85 confirmed CW attacks between 21 August 2013 and 25 February 2018:

HRW concluded:

Of the 85 chemical weapon attacks analyzed …  more than 50 were identified by the various sources as having been committed by Syrian government forces. Of these, 42 were documented to have used chlorine, while two used sarin. In seven of the attacks, the type of chemicals was unspecified.

The … Islamic State group (also known as ISIS) carried out three chemical weapon attacks using sulfur mustard. One attack was by non-state armed groups using chlorine. Those responsible for the remaining attacks in the data set are unknown or unconfirmed.

This graphic, based on the work of the Violations Documentation Centre, charts the cumulative number of deaths from suspected CW attacks in Syria:

Some of these previous investigations had attracted fierce controversy and criticism, but even so it’s difficult to make a credible case that those who observed the aftermath of the air strikes on 7 April 2018 would not have known what they were talking about.

Their immediate impressions were supported by remote experts who subsequently examined the reports and the videos.  Most concluded that the symptoms of the victims of the strike on the Saada Bakery and its vicinity were consistent with a chlorine gas attack, but the casualties from the strike on the apartment building exhibited even more troubling symptoms that suggested chlorine had been used in concert with a nerve agent like sarin.

Dr Raphael Pitti, a former military doctor and now professor of Emergency Medicine in War Zones at Nancy and a Board Member of UOSSM-France asked to be supplied with digital photographs and metadata to establish their provenance (date, time sequence and location), together with close-up images and video of the victims’ eyes.  The casualties from the Saada area had trouble breathing, irritated eyes and other symptoms consistent with chlorine poisoning, he said, but those who died in the apartment building seemed to have been struck down with a speed that was totally inconsistent with even a high-concentration chlorine attack, and they exhibited convulsions and other symptoms usually associated with sarin or a similar nerve agent.  In his view, it was likely that chlorine had been used in that attack too – but to mask the presence of another toxin.

Similarly, Dr Alastair Hay, professor of toxicology at Leeds, speaking to the Washington Post on 10 April after watching the videos on line:

“It’s just bodies piled up. That is so horrific… There’s a young child with foam at the nose and a boy with foam on its mouth. That’s much, much more consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure than chlorine…. Chlorine victims usually manage to get out to somewhere they can get treatment… Nerve agent kills pretty instantly.”

Or again, from Martin Chulov‘s report in the Guardian on 12 April:

Jerry Smith, who led the [OPCW-UN] mission to supervise the withdrawal of the Syrian government’s stockpile of sarin in late 2013, said the symptoms displayed by patients could suggest exposure to an agent in addition to chlorine. “It’s worth elucidating the knowns,” he said. “Casualty rates, apparent speed of death and the shaking.” Organophosphate-based poison, including sarin, causes such symptoms. Pinpoint pupils and severe mouth foaming have been telltale signs in past attacks.

A guilty verdict

These were the stocks of knowledge in the public domain that most commentators and analysts in North America and Europe drew upon in the aftermath of the attacks on 7 April.  The evidence, to many, was compelling – the Assad regime’s (criminal) record of CW use, first-hand testimonies and videos, and the submissions of expert witnesses – but it was still not conclusive.

Raphael Pitti emphasised that the only way to establish definitively what agents had been used was through laboratory examination, which was one of the central task’s of the investigation team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  In an interview with France 24 Olivier Lepick, a researcher from the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique in Paris, explained:

“The inspectors will be able to do two things on the ground: they can get physiochemical samples from places affected by the attack – on the walls, on the ground – and they can take biological samples from victims, either wounded or dead, to look for metabolic evidence of a chemical agent in their fluids [urine and blood in particular].”

But time was of the essence; blood and urine samples will only show traces of chemical contamination for a week or so at most.

“Every day that passes makes the results of any investigation less clear, and in this case the relevant area is controlled by the main suspects, who will be tempted to cover up the evidence,” Lepick continued. The researcher said that “bleach-style” cleaning is enough to remove traces of toxic agents on the spot, while the evidence in biological samples from victims becomes increasingly hypothetical with time and can be removed by the Syrian army. That is why the OPCW’s policy is to send teams 24 to 48 hours after the incident.

The arrival of the OPCW team in Douma was repeatedly delayed; the reasons ranged from maladministration (the nine team members supposedly did not have the necessary clearances from the UN, an excuse flatly denied by the UN) to security concerns.  The Russian and Syrian authorities who controlled access to the city did not permit the investigators to begin their ground inspection until 21 April, when they successfully obtained samples from one site which were sent to the OPCW laboratory at Rijswik in the Netherlands for onward transmission to designated independent labs for analysis (for details see here).  There were fears that in the two weeks since the alleged attacks took place any chemical residues (especially chlorine) would have degraded, and allegations were also made that the sites had been compromised or sanitised – though at least one expert maintained that it would be extremely difficult to remove the signs of removal! – and that potential witnesses had been intimidated and coerced.

In anticipation of these obstacles efforts had already been made to fast-track the process of verification outside the OPCW.  Here is Martin Chulov again on 12 April:

In Jordan, officials prepared to receive biological samples from some of the estimated 42 dead and the hundreds more who survived. Smuggling routes in and out of Damascus are well travelled, and makeshift crossings along the watertight Jordanian border can suddenly open whenever there’s a need. Getting samples, especially corpses, to laboratories has been a top priority this week as the US has tried to establish if the gas that was dropped contained more than chlorine.

Other reports claimed that activists had smuggled blood, urine and hair samples across Syria’s northern border into Turkey for analysis.

The route followed by the samples remains unknown, but in short order US officials announced the results of tests on blood and urine samples from victims of the Douma attacks: they had tested positive for chlorine gas and for a sarin-like nerve agent.  No details of the chain of custody – or of the testing process – were released, but even if they had been established, as Raphael Pitti also emphasised, the problem of assigning culpability would remain.  That used to be the task of the Joint Investigative Mechanism between the OPCW and the UN whose mandate had been terminated by a Russian veto in November 2017.

The United States – or at least its improbable, impossible president – had never entertained any doubt about culpability: the Assad regime was again guilty of a chemical weapons attack.  One week after the attacks on Douma, a course of (military) action had been agreed between the US, France and the United Kingdom.

The timing was perplexing.  Many critics argued that it was a rush to judgement; that all the relevant evidence had not been gathered and that there remained reasonable (to some, even considerable) doubt about what had happened and who was responsible.  But others were surprised at what they saw as a stay of execution: a year earlier the US had decided on its military response  to the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shikhoun within 48 hours.  On the first count, there were questions about whether any further, untainted evidence would be forthcoming; and it is also significant that Trump, Macron and May were all beset by domestic political crises for which international action was almost always a useful distraction.  On the second count, this was a multi-national mission that required consent and co-ordination, and all three states had serious concerns about escalating what was being described as a new Cold War with Russia.

The three allies launched co-ordinated ‘precision’ strikes before dawn on 14 April against three targets.  The closest to Douma was the Barzah Research and Development Centre, NE of Damascus, described by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a military facility ‘for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology’.  The other two sites were west of Homs: the Him Shinshar Weapons Storage Site, ‘the primary location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment’, and 7 km away the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Bunker, ‘both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post.’  The Pentagon issued this map of the three targets:

The primary roles were played by the US and France.  Cruise missiles were launched from US warships and submarines in the Gulf and the Red Sea and from French warships in the Mediterranean, while US, French and British aircraft also launched missiles against the three sites: the central target was Barzah, followed by the Him Shinshar Weapons Storage Site.  The origins and distribution of the ordnance used is captured in these two graphics:

The joint response raises a series of important questions about the effectiveness of the strikes; the humanitarian claims that were registered to legitimise them in the court of public opinion; and their propriety under international and domestic law.  I’ll consider each in turn.

The interval between the attack on Douma and the strikes on the three sites was used not only to assess culpability but also to develop the target set.  The last time the US had conducted a strike in response to a CW attack in Syria was on 7 April 2017 when Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean against Al Shayrat airbase where the attack had originated.  At least six major airbases have been linked to Syria’s chemical weapons programme – including Dumayr from which the helicopters were tracked towards Douma – but none of them was on the list this time around.  This is not surprising.  The previous counter-strike had had precious little effect; the base was back in operation within 48 hours and the gesture had no discernible deterrent function.  There were also concerns about the proximity of many of the bases to Russian forces – Moscow had issued a series of bleak warnings about the dangers of ‘provocation’, and there have been reports that the Russian military was consulted over its ‘red lines’ which were not violated by the targets selected.   Major CW factories were also removed from the list, like the Scientific Studies Research Centre at Jamraya, just north of Damascus, which had been attacked by Israeli jets in February; ‘Factory 790’ at al Safira in Aleppo province (Syria’s largest weapons manufacturing plant and suspected to be a major source of sarin), and the Masyaf research and development centre in Homs province (another suspected location for sarin production, also previously attacked by Israeli jets).

According to the Washington Post,

While officials had been watching known Syrian chemical sites on and off for years, aerial surveillance time has been dedicated mostly to other areas of Syria, where the United States and allied local forces continue to battle the Islamic State. That meant the U.S. military needed to refresh its intelligence on the chemical facilities before targeteers could build the “target packages” that would guide the operation.

The delay was the product of more than intelligence gaps; concerns about the possibility of killing civilians were also said to be paramount, and at a Pentagon briefing Lt General Kenneth McKenzie conceded that while ‘we could have gone to other places and done other things’ the three selected targets ‘presented the best opportunity to minimize collateral damage’.  But these claims sit uneasily with the US-led coalition’s record of air strikes in Syria more generally.  Casualty estimates are fraught with difficulty, but Airwars estimates that between August 2014 and April 2018 a minimum of 6,259 to 9,604 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq; the breakdown of civilian casualties for Syria is shown graphically below (see also Craig Jones here):

McKenzie claimed that the strikes ‘significantly degraded’ Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future and that Barzah – which ‘does not exist anymore’ – had been ‘the heart of the Syrian chemical weapons program’.  Yet this remains an untested assertion.  In elaborating on the Pentagon’s collateral damage estimation, McKenzie referred to ‘a variety of sophisticated models – plume analysis, other things, to calculate the possible effects of chemical or nerve agent [dispersion]’ after an attack.  But it’s possible to turn this round.  The very next morning Rim Haddad described the scene at Barzah for AFP; ‘plastic gloves and face masks lay scattered in the rubble’ and, hours after the strike, ‘plumes of smoke wafted lazily up from the building and a burning smell still hung in the air.’  This was clearly a report from the ground not one conducted over Skype, still less one that relied on satellite imagery.  Said Said told Haddad that he worked at the site as an engineer and denied any involvement in the production of chemical weapons.  You might find that unremarkable for various reasons, but Said then added this disturbing rider:

If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health — I’m not coughing.

And he wasn’t alone; Syrian soldiers were inspecting the ruins too – as was the press crew.

In short, it’s not unreasonable to wonder, with David Sanger and Ben Hubbard at the New York Times, whether any of the three sites were still in use:

At this point, there are no known casualties at the sites, which suggests that either no one was there during the evening, or they had been previously abandoned. And there are no reports of chemical agent leakage from the sites, despite attacks by more than 100 sea- and air-launched missiles.

Yet perhaps this misses the point.  For all Trump’s boasts about ‘Mission Accomplished’, the raids ‘so perfectly carried out, with such precision’, the effectiveness of the strikes rested on more than their destructive capacity.  They were also supposed to be ‘constructive’, performative: to send an unambiguous message to Assad and his allies.  But what exactly was the message?

The junior partner in the mission, British Prime Minister Theresa May, proclaimed that the joint military response was justified ‘because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these [chemical] weapons.’  It’s more than an international norm, of course: it’s also a matter of international law.  But what about the other international laws so routinely violated by the Assad regime and its allies?  The prohibition against torture (though I concede that the United States, France and the United Kingdom all have exceedingly dirty laundry hidden in that particular closet)?  The collective punishment of civilian populations through the siege tactic of ‘surrender or starve’ (see here and here)?  The prohibition against attacking hospitals and denying medical care to the sick and the wounded in war zones (see here)?  

Moustafa Bayoumi sharpens the point with magnificent anger (and ‘perfect precision’):

The fact that three of the world’s most powerful militaries have now been mobilized into action, even for a limited campaign such as this one, to prevent “the erosion of the international norm” of using chemical weapons is far from comforting. Since the war began, Assad’s regime has engaged in the repeated and dreadful use of barrel bombs and mass starvation, the systematic torture of thousands of citizens and the laying siege to multiple cities, the killing of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of more than half the population. Yet, all of this horror does not seem to “erode an international norm” and certainly has not motivated these western leaders to any meaningful action to end the war… Rather than limiting war, this latest bombing of Syria normalizes the war’s ongoing brutality.

Or, as Robin Wright reported in the New Yorker:

“So you strike. Then what?” Ryan Crocker, a former Ambassador to Syria (as well as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait), told me. “If the rockets hit the targets they intended, you could say the mission was accomplished in a narrow sense. But, in reality, it accomplished nothing. It might have been better if we’d not struck at all. It’s sending a message that killing is O.K. any way but one way — with chemical weapons. How many have been killed in Eastern Ghouta during this whole Syrian campaign? Far more by non-chemical means. It’s obscene.”

In short, the military response did more than draw a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons (if it even did that): it gave a green light to virtually any and every other form of killing.

The legal map on which the missile strikes were located was – like all maps – shot through with circuits of power (and for what follows I am indebted to Jonathan Horowitz‘s succinct cartography here and here).  The legal ‘ground truth’ for the start of the US-led bombing missions in Syria in September 2014 was a request from Iraq for the United States to conduct air strikes against the Islamic State.  Some of those sites – not only paramilitary bases but also oilfields used by IS as sources of revenue – were located across the border in Syria, and the claim for cross-border intervention was reinforced by appeals under Article 51 of the UN Charter to ‘self-defence’ of allied forces inside Iraq and of their populations outside the region threatened by terrorist attacks from Islamic State. This joint effort was buttressed by a UN Security Council Resolution in November 2015 describing IS as ‘a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security’ and calling on states to take ‘all necessary measures’ against IS, Al-Qaida and allied groups.  These co-ordinates explain the pattern of civilian casualties displayed on the map above: these were primarily the result of strikes in IS-held territory. Some of the states involved also cited Syria’s ‘inability’ to prevent IS attacks as a further legal predicate.  Although this clearly did not imply any invitation from Syria to intervene, it certainly suited the Assad regime to have other militaries pursue IS while its own forces fought rebel groups in other regions of Syria.

But these arguments cannot be extended to air strikes in response to chemical weapons attacks (unless presumably they were carried out by IS; it has been blamed for at least three previous attacks, but nobody has suggested it was responsible for the attack on Douma).

The case for the strikes as a humanitarian intervention failed to convince most jurists: of the three states involved, only the UK invoked humanitarianism as a legal justification.  In 2015 Arabella Lang provided the House of Commons with a briefing on the legal case for UK intervention in Syria.  The relevant discussion of humanitarian intervention reads as follows:

The UN Security Council can authorise military intervention for humanitarian purposes provided that it has determined that situation is a threat to international peace and security. But can states intervene in other states to deal with extreme human distress, without Security Council authorisation?

Some unauthorised humanitarian interventions have subsequently been commended by the Council, or at least condoned. But their legal basis remains controversial. There is also an argument that Article 2(4) of the UN Charter allows force to be used as long as it is consistent with the purposes of the UN (which include the promotion of human rights and the solving of humanitarian problems – Article 1(3)). Others suggest that even if humanitarian intervention without Security Council authorisation is unlawful under international law, it can still be legitimate – for instance the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

The ‘responsibility to protect’, as embodied in the 2005 World Summit Outcome (which is not legally binding), allows collective action against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, where the state concerned has been unable to protect its citizens. However, the World Summit Outcome states that this must be done through the Security Council, so is not in that respect a development of the law on the use of force.

The UK is keen to develop the international law on humanitarian intervention. When putting the case for military intervention in Syria in 2013, it argued that intervention without authorisation from the UN Security Council is permitted under international law if three conditions are met:

• strong evidence of extreme and large-scale humanitarian distress;

• no practicable alternative to the use of force; and

• the proposed use of force is necessary, proportionate, and the minimum necessary.

 

Building on these arguments, the British government released its legal case on 14 April 2018.  A military response to the alleged chemical attacks in Douma was ‘an exceptional measure’ but it was lawful ‘on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity’:

  • The ‘repeated lethal use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime constitutes a war crime’ and it was ‘highly likely the regime would seek to use’ such weapons again
  • Other attempts to ‘alleviate the humanitarian suffering caused by the use of chemical weapons’ had been blocked and there was ‘no practicable alternative’ to the strikes
  • The action was ‘carefully considered’ and the ‘minimum judged necessary for that purpose.’

Many legal scholars in the UK and elsewhere in Europe were unconvinced. A legal opinion prepared for the opposition Labour Party by Professor Dipo Akande of Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict insisted that the government had to comply with international law as it was and not as they wished it to be (notice that reference in the earlier briefing to the government’s desire to ‘develop’ international law):

International law does not permit individual states to use force on the territory of other states in order to pursue humanitarian ends determined by those states.

A legal analysis conducted by the Bundestag’s research service reached substantially the same conclusion, and on the other side of the Atlantic even a passionate defender of humanitarian intervention like Harold Hongju Koh was not satisfied that the bar had been met (see also also Anders Henrikesen here).

These contrary opinions reinforced the central legal objection raised by most critics: that the US and its allies had responded to an alleged violation of international law by breaking it themselves. Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway explain this with concision and clarity.  The problem with claiming that Syria had breached the Chemical Weapons Convention (1997) – the central legal instrument in the case –  is that the Convention ‘provides an enforcement system that the three powers involved in [the] airstrikes entirely bypassed’:

The Convention provides, first, for investigation by the experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons….

Then, in situations of “particular gravity,” the Conference of the States Parties may bring a matter to the attention of the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council. Nowhere does the Convention provide for unilateral uses of force in response to a breach of the Convention.

This is the formal, legal version of the ‘rush to judgement’ objection (above), and it has considerable force.

And yet the legal envelope governing military violence has often been extended through military violence (as Eyal Weizman puts it, ‘in modern war, violence legislates’), and Jan Lemnitzer has suggested that by virtue (sic) of these missile strikes – and the legal armature that yokes the humanitarian protection of civilians to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons – we may be witnessing ‘the emergence of a new norm (customary international law) that justifies the use of force to counter the deployment of chemical weapons against civilians’ (for a more detailed discussion see Michael Schmitt and Chris Ford commenting on the 6 April 2017 missile strikes here).  If this is the case – or if the UK’s wish to ‘develop’ international law on humanitarian intervention is in the process of being fulfilled – then this map of international state reaction to the strikes will be extremely important:

‘Fake news’ and ‘false flags’

Before and after the attacks on Douma, officials in Russia and Syria together with their proxies have been busily running all sorts of interference.  These activities spin far beyond the the circles of presidents, ministers, ambassadors and their direct agents and even beyond the grey zone of disinformation sites and bot farms; there is also an army of one-trick academics, self-styled journalists and commentators populating a metastasizing archipelago of misinformation that reaches from the alt.right round to the alt.left. To set out my case in these non-neutral terms is not to endorse the statements and actions of the US, the UK and their allies.  But objecting to the air wars conducted by this alliance does not mean suspending critical judgement about the actions of their opponents either.  In the particular case of Syria, it means not turning a blind eye to the authoritarian constitution of the Assad regime and to the extraordinary, criminal violence it has visited on hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians.  As Mehdi Hasan asks, in another appropriately angry commentary I urge you to read, even if you doubt in all conscience that the Assad regime did launch a chemical weapons attack on Douma on 7 April, why minimize its other crimes and abuses?   More here and here.

Those who have sought to defend the Assad regime against the charge of using chemical weapons in Douma have followed two main avenues.

A first response has been simply to dismiss the reports as ‘chemical fabrications’ and ‘deceitful speculations’: to insist that there was no evidence of a chemical weapons attack.  On 8 April, for example, Ben Hubbard reported:

The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the reports as fake. “The spread of bogus stories about the use of chlorine and other poisonous substances by government forces continues,” the ministry said in a statement. “The aim of such deceitful speculation, lacking any kind of grounding, is to shield terrorists,” it added, “and to attempt to justify possible external uses of force.”

As the videos and testimonies I cited earlier circulated, the outright denials were replaced by an altogether more sensational scenario.  Russian and Syrian officials claimed that the attack had been staged by Jaish al-Islam in concert with the Syrian Civil Defence (‘White Helmets’) and, by implication, the Syrian-American Medical Society and other NGOs:

(Particular opprobrium seems to be visited on any NGO providing medical help to the sick and injured in rebel-held areas, even though this is explicitly sanctioned by international law; it has also been consistently withheld and obstructed by the Syrian government).

The indictment eventually swelled to include the United Kingdom (which had claimed Russia was responsible for the nerve-agent attack on the former British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury on 4 March); Reuters reported on 13 April:

“We have… evidence that proves Britain was directly involved in organizing this provocation,” [Russian] Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.  Konashenkov said that Russia knew “for sure” that between April 3-6, the White Helmets – a group which helps civilians in opposition-held territory in Syria – were “under severe pressure specifically from London to produce as quickly as possible this pre-planned provocation.”

The ‘evidence’ was never produced – nor were the British Special Forces soldiers allegedly captured as part of the operation paraded before the cameras either.

Instead, the disinformation campaign relied on two manoeuvres.  The first was a counter-argument in the form of a question: what advantage could the Assad regime conceivably hope to gain by using chemical weapons when its forces were on the brink of defeating JAI and bringing all of East Ghouta under their control?  This is a familiar tactic.  When questioned about the targeting of hospitals in rebel-held areas Assad disingenuously asked: ‘… the very simple question is: why do we attack hospitals and civilians?’  There are sound answers to that – see my account of ‘The Death of the Clinic‘ – and there are to this version too.  Remember that in the closing stages of the Syrian-Russian offensive against Douma negotiations with JAI had collapsed.  Now here is Juan Cole:

On Saturday [7 April], the Russian press reported that Army of Islam spokesmen boasted that the [Syrian Arab Army] special operations Panther Forces (Quwwat al-Nimr) [this is a special unit of Tiger Force: see here] that had been committed against Ghouta militias were taking high numbers of casualties from Army of Islam snipers as they tried to advance into Douma. The regime has suffered a military collapse over the past seven years, with most Sunni Arabs deserting or defecting. Alawi Shiite troops are for the most part loyal to the regime, but there may be only 35,000 or 50,000 of them left (the Syrian Arab Army had 300,000 troops in 2010).

The long and the short of it is that strongman Bashar al-Assad cannot afford to lose highly trained and highly valuable Panther Forces troops in large numbers.

Chemical weapons are used by desperate regimes that are either outnumbered by the enemy or are reluctant to take casualties in their militaries…  It might be asked why the regime would take this chance, given that Trump bombed the Shuaryat Air Force base last year this time in response to regime use of chemical weaponry at Khan Shikhoun. The answer is that the regime is more worried about disaffection in the ranks of its Special Forces than it is about Trump.

An investigation by Christian Esch and others for Der Spiegel added other plausible motivations:

Why would the Syrian regime deploy chemical weapons when it is already on the verge of victory? One motive could have been the desire to speed up the withdrawal of the hated rebels from the city. Douma was the last enclave remaining under rebel control. Or was it revenge? The Army of Islam, the Islamist group which controlled Douma, was relatively strong and regularly fired shells at nearby Damascus.

The Islamists long held a trump card in their hand: They were thought to be holding several thousand regime loyalists prisoner. That, however, was an exaggeration with which the Syrian regime sought to mislead its followers, a glimmer of hope that many troops long believed to be dead might still be alive after all. When it became clear that a large number of the presumed prisoners were in fact dead, it came as a painful blow and the thirst for revenge was correspondingly high. The rebels, meanwhile, had lost their trump card.

None of this settles matters, I realise, so let me turn the question around: what possible advantage could JAI conceivably hope to gain by staging a fake chemical weapons attack?  If its leaders believed they could provoke a rapid military intervention (by whom?) to snatch them from the jaws of defeat – the Islamic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass – then it was a supremely stupid miscalculation: the immediate consequence of the attack, within a matter of hours, was the capitulation of Jaish al-Islam.

The second manoeuvre involved in the attempted indictment of JAI and others opposed to the Assad regime has been to substitute alternative evidence to counter the prosecutorial force of the videos, first-hand observations and expert testimony I detailed earlier.  I’ll discuss three exhibits.

First, JAI’s ‘chemical weapons factories’.  As the envelope of occupation in East Ghouta was extended, Syrian Arab Army officers escorted international journalists to several sites which they claimed were artisanal weapons factories. Eliot Higgins and the Bellingcat team already showed that Jaish al-Islam was indeed capable of producing makeshift weapons, including improvised mortars, rockets, grenades and rifles.  But chemical weapons?  In March Syrian TV broadcast video of what it described as a chemical weapons laboratory-cum-manufactory-cum-warehouse at al Shifuniya filled with industrial equipment:

The discovery was amplified by RT and other Russian news media before the attack on Douma:

The narrative was resurrected by dependent journalist Vanessa Beeley the day after the Douma attack.  She cited the discovery of a ‘chemical weapons laboratory’ in the Douma Farms area between al Shifuniyeh and Douma, and then recounted a ‘similar experience’ – on the day before the attack – during ‘a foreign media trip to the liberated sectors of Eastern Ghouta with the Syrian Arab Army’.  At Irbin she was shown ‘a bomb making factory and a chemical weapons facility’, including ‘chemical ingredients and rockets’ and a barrel containing what looked like tar (a significant discovery since she was under the impression that the Douma attack involved napalm, which was, as she explained at length, ‘an American invention’):

An expert who was with us said it was a mix of oil, soap and other ingredients that are used to coat the missile to ensure the chemical package sticks to its target more effectively. This was a factory of death… where the terrorist factions had designed some of the most sadistic weaponry possible to be used against civilian targets.

Several days later Adam Rawnsley asked Cheryl Rofer – a chemist who used to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory – and Clyde Davies, a former research chemist, to examine the videos of the buildings at al Shifuniyeh.  They both agreed that whatever the facility had been used for it was highly unlikely to have been the production of chorine gas or sarin.  Here are the key paragraphs from Adam’s investigation into what he concluded was a ‘chemical weapons lie’:

Asked if the equipment in the videos of Al-Shifuniya could be used to produce chlorine gas, Cheryl Rofer … said “no.” Chlorine is typically produced with electrolysis cells using either large amounts of salt or hydrochloric acid as feedstock and lots of electricity to produce and recover the gas. “Chlorine is a gas at room temperature and pressure,” explains Clyde Davies… “Its ‘critical point,’ below which it can be liquefied, is about 144 C, but it needs high pressure to do this, which is why it is stored and shipped in gas cylinders. Just like the ones that were dropped on Douma.”

The process can be dangerous and requires special equipment, according to the UN Joint Investigative Mechanism. “In the light of its corrosive and toxic nature, expertise and specialized equipment are required for its safe handling. For example, to transfer chlorine from a 1 ton container to smaller containers, a specialized filling station is required.” And this facility isn’t anywhere near “the scale needed for the attacks that have been observed,” Rofer wrote in an email. “All of the equipment, except for the boilers, is at laboratory scale. But the more fundamental problem is that none of the equipment is what is needed to produce chlorine and compress it into the cylinders that Bellingcat has documented” in Douma.

Nor could the facility be used to produce nerve agents. “For sarin production, all of this would have to be much more contained than it is,” Rofer writes. The ramshackle construction in the facility would’ve put anyone nearby at high risk of exposure, which can cause harm at very low concentrations.

A second series of exhibits focused on the elaborate mise-en-scène of a staged chemical weapons attack.  In order to discount the videos of the casualties in Douma – shot at multiple locations by different people – claims circulated that the video record (in its dispersed entirety) was faked.  This too is a shop-worn tactic; the alt.right in the United States and elsewhere has consistently peddled a meretricious conspiracy fantasy of ‘crisis actors’ pretending to have survived supposedly non-existent incidents like the mass shootings at Sandy Hook or Parkland.  Many of the same websites responsible for those repugnant claims have also stoked the fires of fantasy about Douma, like Alex Jones‘s ‘Infowars’ (see below, and the critical discussion by Bethania Palma and Scott Lucas here):

In the Douma case, however, photographs have been adduced as evidence for the artful staging of a chemical attack.  Soon afterwards images showing actors being made up, covered in dust, and the cameras rolling were shown on Russian TV’s news programme Vesti, and they have circulated widely on the web.  The first screenshot (‘The White Helmets unmasked by photographs’) is from the French-language site of globalresearch.ca and the second is from the source for the story, Pénélope Stafyla:

It was in this very studio, so these commentators claimed, that the Syrian Civil Defence – the White Helmets – fabricated ‘proof of war crimes committed by the Assad regime in East Ghouta’.

The photographs are not fakes; the performance was real.  But an investigation by AFP’s fact-checking blog Factuel and Bellingcat discovered that these are all stills from a film, “Revolution Man“, which was shot in Damascus and funded by Assad’s own Ministry of Culture.  Here is the film’s Facebook page:

And here is the film company’s synopsis of the project:

The film revolves around a journalist who enters Syria illegally in order to take pictures and videos of the war in Syria in search of fame and international prizes, and after failing to reach his goal, he resorts to helping the terrorists to fabricate an incident using chemical materials, with the aim of turning his photos into a global event.

In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the fantasists, there was one more spin to the story: Vesti claimed that the film was shot by the White Helmets on a set standing in for the real set in which Revolution Man was shot…  You can’t make it up — except, of course, you can.  More here and here, and a discussion by Christian Chaise of AFP’s remarkable fact-checking protocols here.

Another film, another fake.  On 22 April Russia’s two main TV channels showed a series of still photographs from a film set as ‘obvious evidence’ that videos of the Douma attack had been staged and that the victims were were ‘crisis actors’.  Faris Mohammed Mayasa, a production assistant who was by then in the custody of Syrian forces, confirmed that ‘We put people on the ground and sprayed them with water, so they looked as if they had suffered.’  Again, the photographs are genuine; they were taken on a film set; and, still more disturbing, the film was produced in the Ghouta (it was shot in Zamalka and edited in Douma):

But, as Marc Bennetts reported, the film was Humam Husari‘s Chemical, made in 2016 to tell the story of the  sarin gas attack on the Ghouta in 2013.  Husari had witnessed the effects of the attack himself – ‘I wasn’t filming because I am a cameraman, I was filming because this is the only thing I could do for the victims’ – and his short film was an attempt to explore how ordinary people had been drawn to the struggle against the Assad regime.  Here is Lisa Barrington reporting for Reuters in October 2016:

Humam Husari’s self-financed short film explores the chemical attack near Damascus through the eyes of a rebel fighter who lost his wife and child but was denied time to bury them. Instead, he is called to defend his town from a government offensive. The story is based on real-life events, he said.

“We need to understand how people were pushed into this war and to be part of it,” said Husari, 30. “I am talking about a story that I lived with. They are real characters.”

Making the film was an emotional but necessary experience for Husari and his performers, who were witnesses to and victims of the attack, and not trained actors.

“The most difficult thing was the casting and auditions,” said Husari, who took about two months to write, produce and direct the 15-minute film and is currently editing it.

“A 70-year-old man said to me: I want to be part of this movie because I lost 13 of my family … I want the world to know what we’ve been through. And all I wanted from him is just to be a dead body,” he said.

The final series of exhibits has involved the substitution of other witnesses who vehemently deny that a chemical attack took place in Douma.  Both Russia and Syria claim to have discovered witnesses whose testimony contradicts those I cited earlier.  Most deny that any chemical weapons attack occurred, but a recent report by Robert Fisk for the Independent offers a particularly revealing example.  While the OPCW team was prevented from starting its work in Douma by Syrian concerns about the security situation, the regime nevertheless arranged a tour of the shattered city for selected journalists.  I should say at once that I have long admired Fisk’s reporting of Israel/Palestine; but this account is a sly, innuendo-ridden affair.  Fisk says he wandered away from his minders:

It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic – “Point 200”, it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city – is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye. “I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

Ever since the combined bomber offensive of the Second World War we have known that many victims of air raids die of asphyxiation rather than blast injury, so suppose for a moment that Fisk’s doctor was not only sincere but also correct.   In that case – since Jaish al-Islam has never had an air force – then dozens of civilians would have been killed and injured in a Russian or Syrian air raid.  Yet Fisk doesn’t mention that; in fact he doesn’t dwell on the victims at all, who are rapidly airbrushed from the scene.

Instead the doctor’s testimony has been cited by commentators on social media to trump the claims of multiple other witnesses as singular ‘proof’ that no CW attack took place.  Fisk doesn’t quite say that, and Jonathan Cook insists he doesn’t have to:

Fisk does not need to prove that his account is definitively true – just like a defendant in the dock does not need to prove their innocence. He has to show only that he reported accurately and honestly, and that the testimony he recounted was plausible and consistent with what he saw.

‘This is not the only story in Douma,’ Fisk concedes, before immediately adding:

There are the many people I talked to amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups.

None of them is quoted, and apparently nobody else was available. ‘By bad luck, too, the doctors who were on duty that night on 7 April were all in Damascus giving evidence to a chemical weapons enquiry’: you could be forgiven for thinking that it was more than just the failure of the stars to align that prompted the Syrian and Russian authorities to arrange the press tour for the very day they also spirited the doctors away to Damascus.  And while it was important to hear the White Helmets’ side of the story, Fisk continued, ‘a woman told us that every member of the White Helmets in Douma abandoned their main headquarters and chose to take the government-organised and Russian-protected buses to the rebel province of Idlib with the armed groups when the final truce was agreed.’  That is a remarkable sentence the more you chew on it: the bravery of the White Helmets in rescuing victims is ignored; instead they are artfully transformed into cowards running for cover at the first opportunity (‘abandoned their headquarters’); their fellow-travellers (sic) were the armed groups; and yet they were given sanctuary on ‘government-organised and Russian-protected buses’.  Such generosity.

But that’s simply a drive-by smear.  The main work is done by Fisk’s doctor, whose words are seemingly sufficient to rubbish or, if you prefer, cast doubt on all those other testimonies.  He was not even was in the clinic when the casualties were brought in (‘I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night’, and Fisk himself admits that the doctors who were on duty that night were all in Damascus).

Yet, remarkably, other journalists on the same escorted tour somehow found other people whose accounts contradicted Fisk’s doctor and jibed with those other testimonies.  Whether they were also ‘a short walk away’ I don’t know; but here are two of them speaking to Seth Doane of CBS News:

Today we made it to that very house where that suspected chemical attack took place.  “All of a sudden some gas spread around us,” this neighbour [below] recounted. “We couldn’t breathe.  It smelled like chlorine” …

Nasser Hanen‘s brother Hamzeh is seen in that activist video, lifeless and foaming at the mouth.

In the kitchen he told us how his brother tried to wash off the chemicals.  [Asked how the chemicals got there], “The missile up there,” he pointed, “on the roof.”

A Swedish journalist, Sven Borg, also recorded his interview with Nasser Hanen (I’ve taken this from Scott Lucas‘s account here – the translation is by Hugo Kaaman):

We were sitting in the basement when it happened. The [missile] hit the house at 7 pm. We ran out while the women and children ran inside. They didn’t know the house had been struck from above and was totally filled with gas. Those who ran inside died immediately. I ran out completely dizzy….

Everybody died. My wife, my brothers, my mother. Everybody died. Women and children sat in here, and boys and men sat there. Suddenly there was a sound as if the valve of a gas tube was opened. It’s very difficult to explain. I can’t explain. I don’t know what I should say. The situation makes me cry. Children and toddlers, around 25 children.

It should be obvious that none of this adds up – that these concerted manoeuvres conspicuously fail to produce a coherent narrative – but, as Jonathan Cooke might say, it doesn’t have to.  All it has to do is sow doubt and spread confusion.  In an astute attempt to track the interlocking yet contradictory false-flag operations supposedly in play after the Douma attack, Uri Friedman cites Peter Pomerantsev, who explained that the larger (in his case, Russian) project

doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. … We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.

‘If nothing is true,’ Pomerantsev warned, ‘then anything is possible.’

Perhaps the ultimate horror is that this strategy is not confined to Putin, Assad and their proxies.  It also describes the view of an American president who treats the world as a stage for reality TV.

The bottom line

You will draw your own conclusions from all this, but for my part I am persuaded that hundreds of people were killed or injured by chemical weapons in Douma and that there are compelling reasons for suspecting that the Syrian Arab Army was the culprit.

And yet the military response by the US, France and the United Kingdom has a strong whiff of the theatrical about it.  Its legitimacy was undercut by the decision to short-circuit the formal, forensic investigation by the OPCW (though I concede that this faced – and continues to face – considerable obstacles, that it is prohibited from assigning responsibility, and that these considerations diminish the reach of the investigation).  The effectiveness of the tripartite response is also highly questionable – whether as sanction or deterrent – and the appeals by the allies to humanitarianism and civilian injury ring spectacularly hollow in the face of their indifference to every other form of violence inflicted on populations inside Syria and to the plight of Syrian refugees who have fled the killing fields.

I also believe that the frenzied efforts by so many to defend Syria and its allies from every criticism, to blind themselves to the repressive and violent constitution of the Syrian state, and to close their ears to the cries of its victims is utterly reprehensible.  There is the stench of the theatrical about this too – not of greasepaint but of sulphur.  How many chemical weapons ‘manufactories’ have to be discovered, how many film stills unearthed, how many contrary witnesses stumbled upon before those using this ‘evidence’ ask serious questions about its provenance, probity and meaning?  To find an utter disregard for truth on the far right is no surprise; to find it on the left is a source of shame.  There are questions to ask about the Douma attack and the response by the US and its allies, as I have sought to show, but the mental and moral gymnastics some of these commentators perform simply astound me.  Their controlling assumption seems to be that it is impossible to object to the actions of the US and its allies and also to the actions of Russia, Syria and their allies.  This really is what Leila al Shami calls ‘the anti-imperialism of idiots‘.

The slow violence of bombing

When I spoke at the symposium on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ in Utrecht before Christmas, one of my central arguments was about the slow violence of bombing.  The term is, of course, Rob Nixon‘s, but I borrowed it to emphasise that the violence of sudden death from the air – whether in the air raids of the First and Second World Wars or the drone strikes of the early twenty-first century – neither begins nor ends with the explosion of bombs and missiles.

Paul Saint-Amour speaks of ‘traumatic earliness’: that dreadful sense of deadly anticipation.  The sense of not only preparation – communal and individual – but also of an involuntary tensing.  I described this for the First and Second World Wars in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’, which you can download from the TEACHING tab, but here is A.L. Kennedy who captures it as well as anyone:

Add to that the blackouts, the new landscape of civil defence with its sandbags and shelters, the new choreography of movement through the war-time city, the air-raid sirens and the probing arcs of the searchlights.

Perhaps this seems remote, but it shouldn’t.  Modern technology can radically heighten that sense of foreboding: calibrate it, give it even sharper definition.  Here is Salam Pax, counting down the hours to US air strikes on Baghdad:

Fast forward to drone strikes.  The sense of dread visited on innocents by multiple US drone programmes is readily overlooked in the emphasis on ‘targeted killing’, on what the US Air Force once called its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and on the individuation of this modality of later modern war.  ‘The body is the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou argues.

I’ve written about all those things, but there is a powerful sense in which the battle space still exceeds the body: for in order to target the individual these programmes also target the social, as this set of slides from my Utrecht presentation tries to show:

Here too, surely, is traumatic earliness.  (I’ve discussed this in more detail in ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies’ [DOWNLOADS tab], and I’m indebted to Neal Curtis, ‘The explication of the social’, Journal of sociology 52 (3) (2016) 522-36) for helping me to think this through).

And then, after the explosion – the shocking bio-convergence that in an instant produces the horror of meatspace – the violence endures: stored in the broken buildings and in the broken bodies.  In the Second World War (again as I show in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’) the landscape was made strange every morning: buildings newly demolished, people driven from their homes and their workplaces, roads blocked by hoses and ambulances, by craters and unexploded bombs, rescue workers still toiling in the rubble to remove the dead and the injured, hospitals still treating and caring for the casualties.

And the violence of a drone strike lingers too: not on the same scale, but still the destroyed houses, the burned-out cars, the graves of the dead and above all the traumatized survivors (and their rescuers), some of them forced into newly prosthetic lives (see here and here).  The explosion is instantaneous, a bolt from the blue, but the pain, the grief and the scars on the land and the body endure.

These effects have a horizon that is not contained by any carefully calculated blast radius.  The grief spirals out through extended families and communities; and – depending on the target – so too do the casualties.  As I’ve said before, power stations in Gaza or Iraq have been targeted not for any localised destructon but because without power water cannot be pumped, sewage cannot be treated, food (and medicines) stored in refrigerators deteriorates.  And hospitals have been systematically targeted in Syria to deny treatment to hundreds and thousands of sick and injured:

The work of enumerating and plotting air strikes, in the past or in the present, is immensely important.  But those columns on graphs and circles on maps should not be read as signs of an episodic or punctiform violence.