Different Stages of Progress: Munitions Policy as an Indicator of Development

Every nation is concerned with development, that phenomenon measuring the progress of a state. Whilst it is clear that global states are at separate stages of development, we often express this notion through studying their comparative political and economic systems. Yet examining a state’s policy towards the production, storage and use of munitions also points to differing stages of progress.

Chemical Weapons

The first widespread use of chemical weapons came during World War One. Poison gas had been used experimentally during 19th century warfare and this had led to the Hague Convention of 1907 which forbade its use.

This did not stop the German use of mustard gas, phosgene and other blistering agents which had such a devastating affect on the troops of the Entente powers during the early stages of WWI, herded as they were into almost inescapable trenches. The British and French eventually retaliated with their own chemical attacks on the Germans and by the end of the war it was no secret what horrific injuries this ‘new’ form of warfare could provoke.

Mustard gas blown across the Western Front during WWI
Mustard gas blown across the Western Front during WWI

The experiences of the nations involved with chemical weapons during the trench warfare of WWI prevented them from repeating their use during WWII. Even Hitler, unconcerned with gassing Jews and other ‘undesirables’ in his concentration camps, held back from using chemical weapons. After all, he had served on the front line during WWI and knew the potential ramifications of an Allied retaliation should the Wehrmacht engage in chemical warfare.

Japanese forces, meanwhile, were prolific in their use of chemical weapons against the Chinese both in the lead-up to and during WWII. Having not yet experienced first hand the affects of chemical warfare, there were less reservations amongst the Imperial Army command about its use.

The Japanese, whilst a rapidly modernising nation, had yet to reach the economic and political development experienced by the Western European powers and the USA, and their later use of chemical weapons partly reflects this.

Three of a reputed 700,000 chemical munitions left in China by Japanese forces
Three of a reputed 700,000 chemical munitions left in China by Japanese forces

Similarly, post-WWII examples of chemical warfare employed by Iraq during the Gulf War, and recently by the Syrian Army, are partly a result of these nations stunted development in comparison to the Western world. These are states which were introduced relatively late to modern warfare because of their lack of economic power and technological expertise, with citizens’ only previous experience having come in the armies of colonial powers.

Their employment of such munitions, whilst unforgivable, is understandable given historical precedent.

Locations of Munitions Factories and Depots

One of the most notorious disasters in the history of London occurred on the 19th January 1917 when the TNT factory at Silvertown exploded, killing 73 people and injuring over 400. Most notable was the high percentage of civilian deaths, for the explosives factory was in the heartland of East London, surrounded by terraced housing in one of the country’s most densely populated areas.

Devastation at Silvertown
Devastation at Silvertown

Similar tragedies occurred at Low Moor, Bradford in August 1916 (38 dead) and Ashton-under-Lyne in June 1917 (43 dead). The high death tolls were a direct result of the government policy of converting city centre factories for the production of explosives and munitions.

By WWII, such policies were already outdated and the British government made a point of building ordnance factories at purpose-built sites away from civilian habitation. Disasters still occurred, of course, but casualties were largely restricted to factory employees.

Compare this policy change to the munitions disasters that have occurred in African cities since the turn of the century. In January 2002, high explosives were accidentally detonated at an armament depot in Lagos, Nigeria. The huge blast and subsequent fires killed some 1,100 people.

In March 2007, 93 people were killed when an explosion at an arms depot in central Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, destroyed surrounding houses.

More recently, in March 2012, a series of blasts at arms dumps in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, killed at least 200 and sent debris across the Congo River into Kinshasa.


Indigenous experience counts. No matter what has happened elsewhere in the world, government policy and social norms rarely change without an event occurring specifically within that country.

That we can still be having munitions factories in the centre of capital cities, nearly a century after Silvertown, seems astonishing, yet it is a further indicator of delayed development.

It is for this reason that so-called developed nations should avoid moralising and dictating terms to the developing world. As with political and economic development, the path to progress is a slow and turbulent one. Sometimes it requires tragedy for that progress to be made.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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