I don’t usually comment on current events in this blog. For one thing, it’s a guaranteed way of losing half your readership; the phrase ‘agreeing to differ’ seems to be on the point of extinction in the English language, with plenty of people seeming to take offence at reading or hearing something that even mildly contradicts their firmly held preconceptions and prejudices. For another, the seventeenth century is generally a much nicer place to spend one’s time (yes, despite all the violent death, plague, and relentless baroque architecture). But the bizarre case of the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, of all places, struck a few chords. I taught Russian history for quite a few years – the Peter the Great era for a while, and also the period from the end of the Napoleonic War to the Revolution – and when you’ve done that, you can’t really look at Putin and Russia’s attitude to the west without getting an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. But the idea that this was ‘the first use of chemical weapons in Europe since the Second World War’, trotted out by the media with no immediately obvious supporting evidence, put me in mind of a story that I researched and wrote about a few years ago. Yes, there certainly was use of chemical weapons in Europe during the war – indeed, they were used on British soil. One wonders what the public and media reaction would be in this day and age if the British government carried out a live anthrax bombing test literally a couple of miles from the centre of a town with a population of 30,000. But in 1942, that’s exactly what it did.
Why did I get interested in all this, as it’s way outside my usual historical comfort zones? Simple: the town in question was where I was born and grew up. I told the story on the website of the excellent Llanelli Community Heritage organisation, and you can read it here.