Reflections on war and warfare: Week 39 (24 – 30 November 2014)

As of March 2014, we are posting weekly extracts of writings on war and warfare drawn from our manuscript and printed collections. Ranging from items on the Maratha wars to the Second World War, the extracts will reflect opinions both from the battle front and from those at home. The quotes tie in with the exhibition ‘When “the days of conquest are passed”: reflections on war and warfare’, currently on display at the Special Collections Gallery.

25 November 1812 Loss of intelligence in Spain
Having liberated large areas of Spain after the battle of Salamanca on 22 July 1812, Wellington’s army was eventually force to withdraw to the Portuguese frontier to avoid being trapped by large French relief armies. In the passage below Wellington writes from Freneda, situated between the Portuguese fortress town of Almeida and the Spanish fortress city of Ciudad Rodrigo, on the recent loss of intelligence from the country.

“I must admit however that I have lately received but little intelligence from the country. The decree of the Cortes which required every person to justify his conduct who had remained in the country occupied by the enemy, has obliged many, who were heretofore instrumental in acquiring and transmitting intelligence, to fly from their homes; lest they should be punished by the enemy; and I have not yet had time to establish fresh channels of communication.”

MS 61 WP1/351 Copy of a letter from General Arthur Wellesley, first Marquis of Wellington, to Henry Bathurst, third Earl Bathurst, Secretary for War and the Colonies, 25 November 1812

26 November 1939 The war “news”

“The war “news” a tale of more boats sunk – an ominous accusation by Russia that Finns have “attacked” their troops, killing some – the usual technique to excuse an attack of their own.”

MS 168 AJ 217/35 Journal of Samuel Rich, 26 November 1939

30 November 1915 Preparations for dealing with gas attacks

As a chemical weapon, gas was used to injure and kill entrenched defenders. In 1915 Britain first used gas at the Battle of Loo, namely chlorine which was codenamed Red Star. Despite chlorine being a powerful irritant that could damage the eyes, throat and lungs, Red Star’s weakness was that it was dependent on a favourable wind for a successful attack. This meant that there was the potential danger of it inflicting damage on British troops if the gas cyclinders were hit by shells from the opposition. Britain learnt from this and went on to develop the potent killing agent phosgene, which was colourless and had an odour of mouldy gas. This made it less detectable and more effective as a weapon. This gas went on to be the cause of 85% of the 1000,000 deaths caused by chemical weapons during World War One. Britain also developed helmets for its troops to wear. Examples include the smoke helmet, which was developed in July 1915 and developed by Major Cluny Macpherson of the Newfoundland Regiment. This helmet consisted of a flannel bag with a celluloid window, entirely covering the head. Other examples include the British P gas helmet, which was impregnated with sodium phenolate. This was partially effective against harmful chemicals such as phosgene.

“This afternoon we had a lecture on gas, and helmet drill afterwards. We went into a room with asphyxiating gas which would have killed us in three minutes, but for the helmets. As it was you only felt a change in the temperature. Then we went into another room where there was more gas (known as lachrymose) being let off. In five seconds you were almost blinded and tears rolled down your cheeks. Beastly as the latter was I think it was preferable to the former.”

MS 132 AJ 322 1/1 Letter from Basil Henriques to his mother, 30 November 1915

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