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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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.