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.