Ancient Warfare – Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World: Part 1

From the dawn of human conflict, until the development of firearms, the vast majority of battlefield injuries were inflicted by blades, barbs or bludgeons.  The ancients, however, never neglected any means at their disposal to annihilate the enemy.  Time and again kings and commanders turned to the dark arts of alchemy to give them the military edge.  So it is that through the centuries, while the majority of casualties were cut, stabbed or crushed, an unlucky minority of War’s victims were gassed, scorched, poisoned or infected by weapons which we today might call ‘weapons of mass destruction’.  Just like the chemical and biological weapons of today their effectiveness lay as much in the terror they caused as the injuries they inflicted.

The most famous chemical weapon of the ancient world was the ‘Greek Fire’.  Invented at Byzantium in A.D. 674 it was a miracle weapon that saved the city from the advancing armies of Islam, and protected her from all other invaders for another five hundred years.  Essentially a flamethrower, it was a device without equal in the 7th century.  We today do not regard the flamethrower as a chemical weapon as such, however ‘Greek Fire’ was a weapon of unparalleled destructiveness, and its effectiveness was compounded by the terror it created, so it has a good case to be called the WMD of its day.

Ancient Chemical Warfare

Fire was not new to ancient warfare when the ‘Greek Fire’ first appeared.  It was commonly used in siege warfare.  For instance, in 424 B.C. the Spartans deployed an improvised flamethrower at the siege of the fortress of Delium.  It consisted of a large bellows that blew down a long pipe and across a huge cauldron of flaming coals, thereby blowing a furnace-flame directly at the wall of the wooden fortress.  But the real genius of the Byzantians was to take fire from siege warfare and, in a feat that seemed to defy nature, bring it into naval warfare.  The secret of its success lay in its recipe, which has never been fully explained.  It was undoubtedly petrol based, the petrol being distilled from the crude oil that naturally bubbled up on the north coast of the Black Sea.  This was probably mixed with minerals such as sulphur or saltpetre to create an inflammable syrup, which floated on water and was almost impossible to put out.  Large bladders of this liquid were stored in the holds of Byzantian warships.  A bellows pumped the mixture to directable nozzles on the deck.  To heighten the terror in their enemies the Byzantians made the nozzles to look like hideous dragons, belching fire at the command of their obviously sorcerous masters.  When the mixture was ignited the result was a jet of flame that could reportedly shoot out to 100 yards and could be kept up for over a minute.  The resulting inferno not only ignited the enemy ships but it burned on the water, giving enemy sailors no refuge.  With the wind in the right direction the flames created an impenetrable barrier between the Byzantians and the enemy fleet.

It was the Chinese, however, who realised the full potential of fire-weapons, around A.D. 900, by marrying a ‘Greek Fire’-like recipe with their own invention of the double-action bellows.  This flamethrower could produce a more powerful and uninterrupted stream of fire.  Like the Byzantians the Chinese deployed these particular weapons with their fleets, but they also developed battlefield flamethrowers.  The simplest of these was known as the ‘fire-lance’.  It was a bamboo tube stuffed with a petroleum-based paste and firmly tied to the end of a lance-pole.  When lit a jet of flame shot several feet out from the end and burned for nearly five minutes, longer than most of today’s portable flamethrowers (although once lit it couldn’t be put out).  These devices were a key element in the defence of northern cities against nomadic tribes for nearly three hundred years.  They reached their grandest form in the 14th century A.D. when dozens of them were mounted on wheeled batteries.  Once lit the ‘Fierce Flame Spouting Shield’, as it was known, was laboriously wheeled toward the enemy infantry, whilst swordsmen on either side took advantage of the smoke, terror and confusion to cut up the enemy ranks.  It was only the increasing use of battlefield cannon that pushed these large ponderous weapons form the field.

Ancient Chinese Chemical Warfare

The Chinese were also the first to exploit poison gas.  As early as the 4th century B.C. the Chinese used noxious smoke to defend besieged cities.  As the attackers attempted to undermine the city walls the defenders would attempt to tap into their tunnels with terracotta pipes.  Then a bellows would be used to pump in smoke and noxious gas from a nearby furnace, causing fits, poisoning, suffocation and death in the enemy miners.  By A.D. 1000 poison-bombs, noxious substances mixed with gunpowder and resin, were regularly being tossed from catapults or, later, fired from cannon.  One ‘Poisonous Smoke Bomb’ from A.D 1044 gave off thick clouds of smoke when it ignited causing “bleeding from the nose and mouth”.  Another terror weapon of the same period was a bomb that mostly consisted of 15 lbs of human excrement (ground and finely sifted), mixed with a few other special ingredients such as arsenic, poisonous herbs and ground up beetles.  The bomb was said to cause irritation and blistering of the skin, and to be able to penetrate gaps in clothing and armour, much like the mustard gas of World War One.  To protect friendly troops it was recommended that they suck on black plums and liquorice.

Even tear-gas was used in medieval China.  The chronicler of a naval battle in A.D. 1161 describes ‘Thunder-clap’ bombs – giant firecrackers wrapped in paper and filled with lime and sulphur.  Upon landing in the water or on enemy ships they exploded with a mighty crack and scattered their contents which ignited generating thick clouds of irritant smoke that blinded the enemy.  The Chinese did not have the monopoly on tear-gas, however.  In the early 16th century A.D. the inhabitants of Brazil, trying to drive back the Portuguese conquistadors, created blinding smoke by burning chilli-peppers over coals.

Fire weapons and toxic smoke were probably the most famous and successful ancient terror weapons, but in my next article I shall talk about other forms of ancient WMD, such as poisons and plague, and I shall also discuss more subtle and exotic chemical weapons such as the narcotics used by the Assassins.

Acknowledgements:

  • Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War, Trans. Crawley, Richard (Hertfordshire, 1997)
  • James, Peter and Thorpe, Nick  Ancient Inventions  (London, 1994)
  • Volkman, E. Science Goes to War  (New York, 2002)

Article written by Jonathan Wicken

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