The Magazine

Picking Up the Pieces

Britain’s conquest of the Ottoman Empire.

Aug 29, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 46 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Winston Churchill titled the final volume of his World War I memoir The Unknown War. The topic of that volume was the Eastern front, but the title could just as well have described the Great War against the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia (the present Iraq) from 1914 until 1918, and its aftermath. While at the time considered a sideshow of the Great War, the British invasion of Mesopotamia was to have far-reaching geopolitical and strategic consequences. These consequences were recognized at the time by Archibald Wavell, a British officer who served with distinction during the Great War, when he prophetically declared, at the close of the peace conference, “After ‘the war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end Peace.’ ”

Gertrude Bell Photo

Gertrude Bell

HUlton Archive / getty images

Here, Charles Townshend chronicles the campaign that helped to create, for better or worse, the modern Middle East. It is a harrowing story of a failure of strategic vision, policy drift, a massive disunity of effort, and poor execution. For the soldiers tasked with implementing the campaign, it truly was a “desert hell.”

In 1914, the portion of the Ottoman Empire running northwest from the Persian Gulf toward Syria and Turkey, and situated between Arabia to the southwest and Persia to the northeast, was known by its ancient Greek name, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. (Churchill once remarked that he preferred the old days when Iran and Iraq were known as Persia and Mesopotamia because then he could remember which was which.)

The Arabic name of the region, al Iraq, derives from the long ridge of the desert that separates the region from Syria. Indeed, until the creation of the Iraqi state after the war, Iraq, like Palestine, Syria, and Arabia, was a geographical expression rather than a political entity. The area consisted of three Turkish vilayets, or provincial governorships: Basra in the south, Baghdad in the center, and Mosul in the north.

Mesopotamia was one of the “cradles of civilization,” the site of Ur and Babylon, the Garden of Eden, and the biblical Flood. Once known as the “fertile crescent,” it had been a densely populated region until it was devastated and depopulated by the Mongol invasion of 1258. By 1914, the population of Mesopotamia was barely two million souls, mostly Arabs, but also Kurds, Christians, and Jews. Indeed, in Baghdad, these minorities outnumbered Arabs, and the city’s Jews constituted one of the world’s largest Jewish urban communities.

While the British deliberately and unilaterally created the modern state of Iraq at the end of the Great War, such was not the original objective of the military expedition that entered Mesopotamia in 1914. That goal was strategically limited: to protect the sea lanes of communication to India; to support Britain’s key allies in the Persian Gulf—the sheikhs of Kuwait and Mohammerah—who provided security for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (of course, in 1914, oil in Mesopotamia did not loom large in British strategic calculations, but by the end of the war, the petroleum resources in Mosul would exert a major influence on British policy); and to impress the Arabs who, the British believed, were chafing under Ottoman rule. Impressing the Arabs was necessary to keep them from joining the Turks in a potential jihad that might eventually threaten the security of India.

It is important to note that the expeditionary force was not dispatched by the British government in London but by the Indian Raj, the British government of India. Indeed, the lack of unity of purpose between Whitehall and Simla (the seat of the Raj) was to have a major impact both on the conduct of the Mesopotamian campaign and on the expansion of the mission, since the latter often pursued a policy that diverged from that of the former. As a result, Whitehall, from the very beginning of the expedition, found itself adjusting to the effects of actions initiated by the Raj it had not expected or wanted.

Before 1914, Britain’s primary strategic objective in the Middle East of securing the sea lanes of communication to India via the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf had been accomplished by means of a policy of “limited liability” in the region, viz., supporting the aforementioned sheikhs of Kuwait and Mohammerah. Since the naval race that was considered to be the key to British security by maintaining the European balance of power was so expensive, the British approach to overseas possessions stressed economy: Colonies were expected to pay their own way and not burden the British taxpayer.

However, by the end of the war, Britain had embarked on an unprecedented imperial expansion in the Middle East. As Townshend remarks, the “result was an extraordinary transformation of Britain’s traditional stance” in the region. Unfortunately, Britain’s commitment to a vast Middle Eastern imperium coincided precisely with the evisceration of British financial power as a result of the Great War. Townshend tells the story of this transformation in terms of what we now call “mission creep.” The original goal of securing the oil fields, pipelines, and refineries in the south was accomplished by the seizure of Basra. But this was not deemed sufficient for impressing the Arabs. Thus an advance on Baghdad followed, despite the most primitive logistics system imaginable and an extraordinarily hostile environment that invalided countless troops.

Along the way, the British suffered their most costly military failure since Yorktown—the failure to relieve the Turkish siege at Kut and the subsequent surrender of the British and Indian force in the spring of 1916. This failure notwithstanding, the British retained the initiative even after the fall of Kut, ultimately recovering to defeat the Turks and seize Baghdad and Mosul, setting the stage for the creation of the modern state of Iraq.

Townshend, a professor of international history at Keele University, has clearly mastered the archives. He ranges back and forth from the highest levels of government in Whitehall, Simla, and Cairo, to the military commanders making the decisions, and finally to the soldiers who endured the atrocious conditions that attended the campaign. He does not ignore the Turks although his focus is clearly the British effort. Townshend’s approach is chronological, and while most of the book is devoted to the military campaign, he usually begins each chapter with a nice summary of the strategic and policy issues that shaped the expedition and its objectives. He thus avoids the error that often attends histories of military campaigns: forgetting that wars are not fought for their own purpose but in order to achieve the goals of policy.

The main shortcomings here arise from the paucity of maps, which makes it difficult to follow the details of the action that Townshend describes, and the fact that it is hard to keep track of the numerous dramatis personae who represent so many different governments and agencies. Of course, in that respect, Desert Hell merely reflects the complexity of the campaign as a whole. 

There are a number of interesting points raised by Desert Hell. The first is the importance of unity of command, a feature that was never present during the campaign. As noted before, the Raj had its own purposes in launching and conducting the Mesopotamian campaign. Whitehall was often presented with a fait accompli and had to adapt to the new circumstances. The situation was further complicated by the interest on the part of the British government of Egypt in raising an Arab revolt against the Turks. Thus, Whitehall, Simla, and Cairo were often operating at cross purposes.

Another is the fact that the British were often in the dark, not only about both the geography and topography of Mesopotamia but also about climate and weather. Americans who have served in Iraq can relate to Townshend’s description of the conditions under which the British and Indian troops operated: The combination of unimaginable heat and humidity, sandstorms, floods, and swarms of insects made life miserable. The climate invalided soldiers, reducing the fighting strength of units. Medical care, despite the best efforts of surgeons and other medical personnel, was deplorable.

A diarist recorded his observations of medical care in the wake of a costly battle: “The tales of the wounded at Shaikh Sa’ad and the Wadi were really awful .  .  . men were left out for 2-3 days before being picked up.” The sick and wounded were placed onboard transports for evacuation without beds or bedding, sanitary or cooking facilities: “Men with fractured thighs are shoved alongside dysentery cases & there they lie till they get to Basra.”

Medical problems were a manifestation of a greater shortcoming for at least the first two years of the campaign: The absence of anything but the most primitive system of logistics. Ammunition, rations for the troops, and forage for the animals were in short supply. Many of these problems can be traced to the aforementioned colonial principle that British overseas possessions were to be self-supporting. The result was extreme penuriousness on the part of the Raj that exacerbated the suffering of the troops.

Finally, another fascinating aspect of the British adventure in Mesopotamia was the influence of the “Arabists” or “Orientalists,” e.g., Mark Sykes (of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that allocated postwar British-French spheres of influence and direct control of “Turkish Arabia”), Gertrude Bell, and T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” on British policy. For the most part, these individuals projected a romantic image of the Arabs as what we would call “noble savages.” Sykes, for instance, lamented the “contaminating effects” of Western power in the Arab world. Unfortunately, British policy was based on a serious misreading of Arab identity, a problem that persists to this day.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the author, most recently, of U.S. Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.