Stink Vessels

Charles Stephenson introduces a plan for chemical warfare in the Napoleonic navy, devised by Thomas Cochrane, Lord Dundonald, the model for Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey.

Many accounts of the origins of chemical warfare claim that the practice was evolved in antiquity, usually citing references from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Later examples of where the method was applied often include the siege of Constantinople in 1453, and attempts to foil Cromwell’s miners at Edinburgh Castle in 1650. More modern attempts are rather better documented: for example, the Playfair proposal to utilize ‘cyanide of cacodyl’ during the Crimean War, various schemes put forward during the American Civil War, threats to utilize ‘grand chemical agents of wholesale destruction’ during the 1870-71 investment of Paris, and the Japanese use of burning material ‘soaked in arsenic’ at the siege of Port Arthur.

Evidence suggests that the idea of what might be termed ‘pre-chemical warfare chemical warfare’ had crossed the minds of many over the centuries. Indeed, on occasion some ideas may have been realized on a small and confined scale; not least due to the profound technological and logistical difficulties of employing them on a large scale.

One figure in the Napoleonic era, however, addressed these issues and, at least to his own satisfaction, provided solutions. He was Thomas Cochrane, later the 10th Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860). Cochrane was a maverick, self-confident, inventive and aggressive towards the enemy but often unpopular with the naval establishment.

In 1809 he developed a plan to attack an enemy fleet as it lay in a protected anchorage, by sending in ‘explosion vessels’ ahead of fireships under cover of darkness in order to spread terror and confusion before the main asssault. The plan succeeded in his attack at the Basque Roads, in Normandy, but he felt he was not given the recognition due to him for his inventiveness and courage.

Two years later Cochrane’s ‘Secret War Plans’ developed the notion, and in doing so he invented chemical or gas warfare.

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