Running to Remember

Poison Gas Victims. Not from the trenches of the first World War but from the streets of Bhopal

Today is Remembrance Day and the Bhopal Medical Appeal’s London Marathon runner, Jon Copestake, has posted a poignant piece on our RunForBhopal blog. Whilst, in no way drawing attention away from the meaning of the day, Jon reminds us of the connection between the Bhopal Disaster and some of the terrible suffering endured in the Great War.

In Jon’s words:

Today I decided to run 11 Miles in honour of Remembrance Day. I actually didn’t need to. I probably shouldn’t have. Most Marathon training schedules operate on a 12-16 week period, which means that it’s only on the three months leading up to a marathon that I need to start taking distance on. I’ve also not run more than 6 miles for a couple of years so it’s a big step up. But my view is that if you can get your mileage up to a decent (not destructive) level before training programs “formally” start then it can only help. Besides that I thought it would be a nice way for me to pay homage to the date itself. The route itself starts by going through a place called “Highpark wood” – closely named to the notorious High Wood which saw such bitter fighting during the Somme Campaign and ends by passing alongside some WW1 training trenches that I helped clear a couple of years ago in preparation for the centenary commemorations so it felt like fitting run to make.

I feel a very close affinity to the Great War. I’m one of the rare people of my generation who had a grandfather serve on the western front. He made audio tapes of his experience before he died which I listened to as a teenager. I was obsessed with it at school and university. Most of my degree ended up being War related. In English I studied War poetry. In History I specialised in the Western Front. My final year dissertation was on the image and reality of the Gallipoli campaign. So Remembrance Day holds greater meaning for me than many other people my age.

But since I’m writing this, and running, for the Bhopal Medical Appeal I also used the run to think about the things tragedy that unfolded in Bhopal in 66 years after armistice. The First World War was the first time that chemical warfare was adopted on a mass scale in the form of gas. In many ways the most enduring imagery produced by the First World War relates to gas from the iconic painting “Gassed” by John Singer Sargent depicting a group of blinded Soldiers to the poem “Dulce et Decorum est” which vividly describes the effect of a gas attack “the blood, Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud, Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”

Despite gas being banned in Warfare by The Hague convention of 1907 all the major powers used it, which effectively means all the main protagonists were effectively guilty of war crimes. Although gas was responsible for relatively few deaths (an estimated 90,000 mostly borne by the Russian army on the eastern front who were less well equipped with gas masks) it caused a lot of casualties (an estimated 1.2 million with blindness being a common side effect).

One of the main gases used in World War 1 was phosgene. Although less widely deployed, and less feared, than mustard gas it accounted for more fatalities than any other gas in the war. Its first major use by the German army in December 1915 at Ypres resulted in 69 deaths and 1,069 casualties. Although the Geneva protocol of 1925 largely put and end to the mass use of poisonous gases in warfare incidences of their use have been recorded at some point in many conflicts since, both in combat and on civilian populations.

Many years later, in Bhopal, phosgene gas claimed another victim. Union Carbide used phosgene as part of the production process for Methyl isocyanate (MIC) and, on Christmas Day in 1981, Ashraf Khan, died after being exposed to a phosgene leak in the union carbide plant in Bhopal. It was Ashraf’s death that prompted local journalist Rajkumar Keswani to investigate the lack of safety measures implemented in the union carbide plant. This investigation culminated in a series of prophetic articles such as “Bhopal: on the Brink of a Disaster” in October 1982, which warned of an impending catastrophe a full two years before the disaster took place. These warnings were not heeded.

When the Bhopal disaster did take place on December 3rd 1984 it wasn’t phosgene that swept through the city. It would have perhaps been more merciful if it had been. The MIC released into the atmosphere was far deadlier than phosgene. And while phosgene’s first major deployment in 1915 claimed 1,069 casualties the most conservative estimates of fatalities alone at Bhopal are four times that amount. Other estimates put a final death toll in Bhopal at 20,000-30,000, a figure which is entirely plausible given the lack of transparency over how many were buried or burned in mass graves such as described here. If higher estimates are true it would mean that a single gas leak at a plant killed more than the estimated gas fatalities suffered by the German (9,000), French (8,000) and British (including commonwealth, 8,109) armies combined during an entire four year war in which it was actively deployed as a weapon. That sounds shocking, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Soldiers in the Great War were well equipped with masks and alert to the ever-present threat gas posed. The people of Bhopal were civilians. They had nothing. They weren’t even given warning of what was to come despite plenty of spurned opportunities for Union Carbide employees to sound the alarm.

So while I ran 11 miles for Remembrance Day I chose the run and the distance to remember civilian casualties and that, on a single night, in a city in India gas caused more deaths than it managed on the entire Western Front in a four year war.

By the way – the run went well too. I really enjoyed it and never really struggled. You can track it here– And sponsor me here

Girl with candle Bhopal

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