Having been brought up as a child in the 60’s and 70’s I was very aware of the Cold War – but only as an abstract issue. We saw the leaflets. While at university we campaigned for nuclear disarmament but, in spite of living in Scotland – the site of Gruinard Island and testing for anthrax, knew very little about chemical and biological warfare (NBC). That was of the past. It was related in my mind to the mustard gas in WWI, with no assumptions that is was still current. At school we read Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen (Owen, 1920). We acted it out. But it seemed so horrific that it was obviously something that wouldn’t happen now. Yes, there were occasional news items about Saran attacks – but they were elsewhere, nothing to do with the British Isles, honesty, lack of corruption and ethical behaviour. As I got older, I became less optimistic about the state of the world and more aware that there was still research into NBC, even in Britain. I became aware of Porton Down – which, according to the government website only researches NBC so that we can have counter measures, (see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-truth-about-porton-downq). I became aware of beaches that were contaminated with radioactivity due to use of radium to give luminance to dials for aircraft. I heard rumors of pockets of increased cancers and disabilities near old military sites – but little was ever verified.
Dara McGrath’s book Project Cleansweep (McGrath, 2020) tells the story of the, mainly unknown, sites where biological and chemical items were manufactured, stored, tested and dispersed. Starting from a report on Project Cleansweep (Edwards, 2011), which was a government investigation that was aimed at making sure that residual traces of chemical and biological manufacturing processes did not cause any ongoing risk to life, McGrath investigated further and ended up looking at 92 sites across the United Kingdom. The book shows a selection of the pictures he took, along with copies of newspaper reports and drawings. Many of the images are stark, the land and the buildings are destroyed but others are beautiful and belie the nature of the place they were taken in. Some of the images remind me of those of Edward Burtynsky, in that they show desolate and ruined places and other those of Fay Godwin, reminding me of her work in Our Forbidden Land (Godwin, 1990). The pictures are shown alongside a brief explanation of where they are and what went on, together with what the land is used for today. McGrath explores 4 sites in greater detail; Rhydymwyn – where bulk chemical weapons were made and stored and where there is significant ongoing contamination, Harpur Hill – where captured enemy ordnance was destroyed, Gruinard Island where anthrax was tested in 1942 and which was eventually decontaminated and declared safe in 1990 and Lyme Bay where trials of spraying bacteria and zinc cadmium sulphate across the coast were carried out leading (possibly/probably) to the clusters of health problems found in the area.
The book is unforgiving, the story is horrifying but the images will stay with me.
To see more images see: Landscapes of chemical and biological warfare https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-51615267
See McGraths blog for links to videos that show more detail on some of the sites including Lyme Bay and Gruinard Island: https://daramcgrath.wordpress.com/
Dulce et decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Edwards, R. (2011). MoD investigates former chemical weapons factories for contamination. The Guardian. [online] 24 Jul. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jul/24/mod-chemical-weapons-factories-contamination [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].
Godwin, F. (1990). Our Forbidden Land. London: J. Cape.
McGrath, D. (2017). daramcgrath. [online] daramcgrath. Available at: https://daramcgrath.wordpress.com/ [Accessed 3 Mar. 2020].
Mcgrath, D. (2020). Dara McGrath Project Cleansweep. Beyond the Post Military Landscape of the United Kingdom. Heidelberg, Neckar Kehrer Heidelberg.