The following talk was given to the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, Canada and Ottawa University at the end of March 2016
Easter week of 1916 was a very bad 7 days for the British Empire. It started with a serious Rising in Dublin against British rule in Ireland and ended with General Townshend’s surrender at Kut al Amara, the largest surrender of Imperial forces suffered since Yorktown during the loss of the American colonies.
We know why Turkish forces were in Mesopotamia since it was part of the Ottoman Empire, but why was Britain there with its forces? To understand that we need to look at the geopolitical context of Britain’s Great War on the Ottoman Empire. After that it would be useful to look at the political consequences of the defeat at Kut and other events of 1916 that were to have a lasting effect on the world.
Balance of Power and the Great War
It is important to understand the British strategic objectives in fighting the Ottoman Empire so that the usual misconceptions are avoided. For England the war on Ottoman Turkey came about from a great change of policy. Britain had been an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century before the Great War. During this period Britain acted to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Empire and the expanding Russian Empire and any other Imperial Powers which had designs in the region.
Britain’s traditional enemy in the world is Russia. The character of Russia does not matter – it might be Tsarist, Communist or the new Russia of Putin but it is still the main enemy by the Anglosphere (“Greater Britain” and the world made by England across the Oceans). This is to do with Geopolitics, a science developed in Imperial England by people like Halford Mackinder and which also produced the famous Admiral Mahan across the Atlantic. It perceives an eternal struggle between the Atlanticist sea powers and continental heartland.
It was part of what was known in England as the ‘Great Game’ that ‘the Russians should not have Constantinople’ and a warm water port. It was for this reason that England fought the Crimean War. Later on in the century the British Prime Minister Disraeli threatened the Tsar with war and negotiated the Treaty of Berlin to help preserve the Ottoman Empire against attempted Russian expansionism in the region.
However, whilst Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman Empire and was prepared to use force to prevent the Russians having Constantinople its relations with the Ottoman Sultan were very disadvantageous to the Turks. Britain, with the French, helped preserve the Ottoman Empire in a weak, dependent state through devices like the Capitulations while the outlying Ottoman territories were absorbed into the British Empire in a gradual process (for example, Egypt in 1882) when a favourable opportunity arose. In this way the main buffer was preserved whilst the gradual absorption of strategic areas could take place to Britain’s advantage. It remained British policy, even when Gladstone was in power, to preserve the Ottoman Empire so that it would not fall into the wrong hands and pose a threat to the Empire in India.
What changed British relations with Turkey was the emergence of Germany as a serious commercial rival around the end of the century. Britain had always practiced a Balance of Power policy with regard to Europe. For centuries it had built its empire by keeping Europe divided and by giving military assistance to the weaker countries against any power that might be emerging on the continent. Whilst Europe was preoccupied with war England was able to get on with its business of conquering the rest of the world. Britain had the great advantage of being an island with a powerful Navy surrounding it. It could meddle with Europe, paying foreign powers to do its continental fighting and use small expeditionary forces launched by its Navy to tip the balance. Then it could retire from the battlefield and let others continue the fighting when enough had been gained. Its chief weapon of war, its senior service, was the Royal Navy, which established and controlled the world market for it. When Europe was at war the Royal Navy took over markets established elsewhere by the other European powers and in this way the British Empire went from strength to strength. This was what Liddell Hart called ‘the British way of warfare’ and it was fabulously successful for more than two centuries, until August 1914.
During the 19th century Britain’s traditional rival in Europe had been France and her traditional rival in Eurasia was Russia. However, in the early years of the 20th century England gradually came to the conclusion that Germany was the coming power to be opposed – it was to be the object of the Balance of Power. It was decided in Britain to overturn the foreign policy of a century and to establish alliances with England’s traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled, and then when an inevitable war came Britain would join the conflict and destroy Germany as a commercial rival, mainly through its naval power and blockade.
The informal alliance Britain entered into with Russia in 1907 was the single most important event that made a British war on Ottoman Turkey inevitable. Britain overturned her former orientation and foreign policy against Russia taking the veto off the Tsar if he lent his army against Germany. Britain was an island and primarily a sea power. It never had a large army and it had opposed military conscription. It did not need conscription like continental countries with borders to defend and it was felt a large army would always lead to the temptation to get drawn into European conflict with wasteful consequences in terms of ‘blood and treasure’. It was impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself and it needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was described in the English press as a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by sheer weight of numbers. A relatively small British expeditionary force was promised to its new allies to show commitment and bolster the French military capacity in the future war.
The Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss to the Germans in 1871) had no real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something had to be promised to the Tsar for his help in defeating Germany. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople. The fact of the matter was that in order to defeat Germany Britain had to promise Constantinople to Russia and in order for the Russians to get Constantinople there had to be a war on Turkey, one way or another. That was how the great Revolution in British Foreign Policy made a war on the Ottoman Empire inevitable.
Geopolitics and Mesopotamia
There were other geopolitical issues for Britain in relation to Ottoman Turkey that took Britain to Kut al Amara. By this time the British Indian Empire had developed a substantial trade as far as Baghdad, making the city a hub of British commerce. The Lynch brothers dominated the river trade up the Tigris and Euphrates and from Basra to Baghdad. Although England did not see Mesopotamia as colonial material and was content to see the Ottomans rule it for the present time, it didn’t want to see its rivals there.
The British saw an emerging German threat to its designs in the Ottoman territories appearing with visits by Kaiser William in 1889 and 1898. The Foreign Office noted that Mesopotamia was becoming “overrun by German commercial travellers” who were described as getting the better of their English counterparts and a German steamship company had made inroads against the established British monopoly. It was felt that because England had been there first she had the right to the market and future political conquest if she so chose.
Many Imperial publications began to raise the spectacle of Germany in Egypt and India! In truth, whilst Germany was making gradual commercial progress in the region its trade represented only about 1/20th of Britain’s by 1914. In 1913 the British secured the Anglo-Ottoman Treaty from Istanbul, which confirmed British economic privileges in Mesopotamia and recognised the accomplished fact of British power over Kuwait.
What worried Britain about the German involvement with the Ottoman Empire was that it was not a relationship like the other Imperialist powers had with the Ottomans. The Germans provided the Ottomans with technical support and advice and the objective seems to have been to rejuvenate and modernize the Ottoman Empire in exchange for commercial rights there. England and Russia had seen the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and they had been waiting around for his slow death, but now they looked on as Germany threatened to revive the sick man. This was a most unwelcome complication to the situation.
The centrepiece of German involvement in the Ottoman Empire was the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, which was finally agreed with the Sultan in 1907. A railroad had reached Konya by 1904 and was connected with Mecca in 1910 but the only parts completed in the Mesopotamia area before the War were a stretch between Baghdad and Samarra (74 miles) and Baghdad and Fallujah (60 miles). The Railway had only been completed as far as what is now Southern Turkey.
This was seen a major cause of the Great War because Britain looked at it and saw the economic and strategic advantages it would provide to the Eurasian heartland. It was thought that if the Berlin to Baghdad Railway was built trade would increasingly go across land and be beyond the guns of the Royal Navy and its control of the seas. It was feared that the Railway would transport goods at a lower cost, giving the Germans a competitive advantage over Britain in the East, and would develop trade outside of Britain’s auspices. The Berlin-Baghdad Railway was portrayed as a precursor to German annexation.
Control of the Persian Gulf was a very important issue for England. The Royal Navy had guarded it for nearly 200 years before the Great War. Admiral Mahan pinpointed it as of great strategic value and Lord Lansdowne, former Viceroy of India, in Parliament had described its possession as the British Empire’s Monroe Doctrine. Lord Curzon, another Indian Viceroy called the Gulf “the maritime frontier of India” whose political situation was intimately bound up with “the security, integrity and peace of India itself” and he noted that this was “an admitted truism accepted by all parties on both sides in both Houses of Parliament.”
The Gulf commanded strategic trade routes and was the gate to what was seen as the richest unconquered and underdeveloped region in the world. Royal Navy control meant that the disposal of lands on either side of the Gulf, in Arabia and Persia, was at Britain’s command. In 1905 the India Office described the area from Baghdad to the Gulf as “a concern” of British India – which meant Britain staked a claim and would fight for it. Provision for its absorption into the British Empire had already been made. The British consul at Baghdad was a most powerful figure who oversaw the Shia pilgrim traffic from the east and financed its clergy in Karbala. His armoured yacht, HMS Comet, dominated the Tigris and Euphrates and most of the local Sheiks were, by then, on the Imperial payroll. The Basra region was being prepared for gradual absorption into the Empire, as Egypt had been. It was seen as more than a sphere of influence and moving toward a British dependency by that stage.
Britain determined to stop the German railway achieving a port at the Persian Gulf. Although no Royal Navy base was constructed Britain refused to let any other navy operate there or a railway to be built connecting to it. This was one of the prime reasons for the partition of Persia with Russia in 1907 in which the Southern coastal part of the country was declared a formal British sphere of influence. The Russians were kept landlocked yearning for Constantinople.
In order to stop the Railway a local tribal leader was encouraged to detach his territory from the Ottoman Empire and establish his own principality called Kuwait, guaranteed by Britain, so that the Baghdad Railway could be prevented from having a terminus and a means of shipping goods onwards.
The British view of the Railway underwent a metamorphosis between 1903 and 1907. Some of the Unionist government gave approval to it and advocated British financial investment and a subsidy for it to carry mail to India. However, the anti-German Liberal Imperialists raised an opposition in Parliament and the country and antagonism began to develop.
When the Germans saw how important the Baghdad Railway issue was to Britain they made concessions and offered Britain a stake in the Railway. However, it was too late to sate the British because anti-German feeling had been built up in England and the process of strategic reorientation and organizing and manoeuvring for the war had already begun. When the issue was debated in Parliament there was a great outcry and the proposal was dropped.
The Mesopotamian Campaign
From early 1914 Lt. Colonel Ryder and Arnold Wilson had been mapping the area north of Fao, under the guise of boundary surveying. This was the area in which the British expeditionary force was to land when a favourable opportunity arose. From mid-September plans were made to send an expeditionary force to Abadan island/Basra to protect the oil installations and river entry to the Gulf. This force, a Brigade of the Indian army, was sent out with sealed orders on 15th October, three weeks before the British declaration of war on the Ottomans and was therefore on the spot to invade at the very moment. From 23rd October it practiced amphibious landings at its base in Bahrain.
War was declared by the British on 5th November and the Turkish defences at Al Faw were immediately shelled. This fort was occupied 5 days later. It was felt in Britain that the War on the Ottoman Empire was declared only in the nick of time. Imperial publications in 1916 suggested that the British campaigns in Mesopotamia and Palestine had worked together to block the deep-laid plans of the Germans. Together with this Mesopotamia was also seen as a potential colonial project for Indian over-population, particularly for the Moslems of the Indian Empire to be planted there to expand and embed Imperial rule.
The British expeditionary force would have been larger only for the fact that half the Indian army had already been despatched west and it was expected the Arabs would rise against the small Ottoman forces in the region. The British knew Ottoman forces would be small because a British invasion would be unexpected. It must be remembered that British participation in the European conflict itself had been unexpected. Once Britain entered the European war turning it into a World War, the Ottoman government began to manoeuvre to preserve its neutrality, offering alliances to the Entente, which were refused. Talaat gave an interview to an American journalist in which he described Turkey’s policy as “nothing more than being forced to find a place to weather the storm.” It was probably felt deep down that neutrality would be an impossibility owing to the British/Russian alliance, so a defensive alliance with Germany became the fall-back position, advocated first by Enver.
The British camp on the island of Bahrain was used to launch the invasion “to defend Britain’s position in the East”. The Persian port of Abadan, terminus of the Anglo-Persian pipe-line which was a source of the Royal Navy’s oil supply, was the initial objective of the British military expedition. Today, oil is often seen as the motive for the Mesopotamian campaign but if that had been the case the force would have stopped there. In 1914 only Persia was an oil producer in the Middle East with an output of only 0.25 million tons per annum. This is in comparison to the 35 million tons produced in the U.S. and 9 million in Russia. The UK produced more oil itself than the Middle East. Geopolitics was the major factor in the advance up river.
The British first introduced themselves to the people of Iraq at Basra. The local Arabs did not accept them as ‘liberators’ as expected. Arnold Wilson, first governor, describes the initial encounter between the locals and the British:
“All through the Ottoman Empire a determined effort was made to rouse fanaticism by the preaching of a Jihad, and it met in Mesopotamia with some outward appearance of success. The religious forces of Islam were mobilised and the Shaikh of Muhammarah was urged by prominent mujtahids, the religious leaders of the Shiahs at Najaf and Karbala, to take part against us. He replied that it was his belief that the mujtahids acted under compulsion and that his obligations as a Persian subject enjoined neutrality. But the tribesmen of the Euphrates and Tigris, excited, it is to be suspected, more by hopes of boundless loot than by expectation of reward in another world, came flocking down the rivers to oppose our advance up the Shatt-al-Arab — a wild and irresponsible horde which broke at the first onset. “As for the guns of the English,” explained one of the combatants some months later to a “British resident in Hasrali,” they filled the air with noise, tore up the earth and knocked down the palm trees. That, Sahib, is not war.” After a brief experience of these unfamiliar terrors, the speaker had returned to the cultivation of his garden, contentedly accepting our administration.” (Arnold Wilson, Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia (1920) p.3)
The Arabs of Mesopotamia did not revolt against the Ottoman State, as expected. Local leaders issued fatwas against the British invaders and the Shia particularly resisted the Imperial forces. The British found they had to neutralise them by demonstrations of “shock and awe.”
The Mesopotamian military expedition was initially understood by the British military to be a defensive strategic campaign to protect the head of the Gulf and the new Anglo-Persian oilfields and Brigadier General Delamein only had a remit of occupying Basra, if possible. The expeditionary force was reinforced to become a Division and Basra was occupied on 22 November. In London Mesopotamia was not seen as a vital military theatre against the Ottomans because it was believed – correctly – that only small Ottoman forces would defend it and Turkey would not be beaten there. The Dardanelles invasion launched in March 1915 was to be the main blow at the vital centre.
However, the Imperialist instinct to expand the Empire and geopolitics began to predominate over military objectives and “suddenly political aspirations became almost limitless” and the objective became Baghdad and beyond. Reinforcements were called in from India. Sir Percy Cox, the Political Resident at the Gulf who became Political Officer of the Mesopotamian expedition, was initially worried over the provocation that a taking of Bahrain might result in but a few weeks later he called London to get agreement for an advance on Baghdad. The British military objective was expanded to a line Ahwaz/Amara/Nasirijeh, but Baghdad proved irresistible.
The British expedition was reinforced at Basra by 2 more Divisions under the command of Lieutenant Nixon in April 1915. General Charles Townshend occupied Kut in September 1915 with a Division. On 23 October the Prime Minister, Asquith, gave permission to the Viceroy of India, to advance on Baghdad. In Parliament on November 2nd the Prime Minister said that British forces were “within measurable distance from Baghdad” and described the objective in open-ended terms: “generally to maintain the authority of our flag in the East.”
Military logic showed an opportunist advance to be of doubtful logic:
“But we wanted Baghdad. The city was an irresistible lodestar. It would be a set-off to Gallipoli. To hold it would save the wavering East. Persia, Afghanistan, the tribesmen on our frontier would settle down into amiable neutrality or friendship, and the menace of internal disruption in India would be removed. Our line of communications lengthened out to nearly 500 miles; our transport was lamentably insufficient; we were a mere handful, 14,000 rifles at the most; but we wanted Baghdad very badly, and we were British and they were only Turks. At Ctesiphon we were but eighteen miles from the city, and the public at home were already weighing the fish in their net. Great was their surprise and indignation when the monster wobbled and floundered through with great damage to the mesh.” (Edmund Candler, The Long Road to Baghdad (1919) p.3)
The British force, now an army corps, was vulnerable because it occupied a large area of 300 miles from Al Faw to Kut. Only the presence of small opposing forces made it secure. But Nixon decided to carry on Baghdad for glory. Townshend advanced to the celebrated Ctesiphon where he engaged a sizeable Ottoman force and, although proclaiming a victory, lost nearly a third of his force of 14,000 in doing so. He was forced to withdraw back to Kut, at a bend in the Tigris, in early December, where he was surrounded by Ottoman forces. By this time the Ottoman army, having driven the Allies from the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, were able to re-inforce their army in Mesopotamia.
Lieutenant General Percy Lake had taken over from Nixon in January 1916 and for 5 months costly British attempts were made to lift the siege at Kut and rescue Townshend. 5 major battles were fought with this aim, costing nearly 25,000 men before Townshend surrendered his army at Kut on 30th April 1916 to Khalil Pasha.
The following Message of Halil Pasha to the 6th Army, following the surrender of British forces (date, 28th April 1916) has been translated from the Turkish:
“Lions! I congratulate you all with caressing your pure foreheads while the souls of our martyrs ascend with joy and smile above the sunny skies of this flaming land that became a scene of honour and glory for all Turkish and a black ground for the Englishmen. My Army has given its 350 officers and 10.000 privates as martrys in both Kut and when facing the armies marched on to save Kut. But, in return, today in Kut I am taking 13 generals, 481 officers and 13.300 under captivity. English forces, which came to save this now surrendered army, returned with losses of 30,000. Looking at these two numbers, what one can see is an astonishing difference. History will have a great difficulty to find words in recording this episode. We saw the first victory in Gallipoli and the second victory here where the Turkish have broken the stubbornness of the English.”
A last-ditch attempt was made Colonel Lawrence to bribe the Ottomans with 1 million pounds in gold to let Townshend escape and save British prestige. But this only added to the humiliation when the surrender was made and news of it came out. The effect of the surrender at Kut was that instead of being impressed by British power the Arabs were encouraged to stay with the Ottomans who had proved their resilience.
Townshend was given a palatial confinement by the Turks after being taken prisoner. He arranged for his dog to be repatriated to his home in England as part of the surrender terms. He survived the War to author My Campaign in Mesopotamia (1920) and became an MP from 1920-22.
Townshend’s men were not so lucky. Climate, temperature and health were big factors in Mesopotamia. Nearly a third of all deaths among the British were attributable to the diseases like malaria, typhoid and cholera that were prevalent in the area. General Maude was the most well known victim. The mosquito net was invented by a British officer in 1917 as a result of the experience in this campaign. Mesopotamia also suffered from widespread flooding brought about by high precipitation between October and April and the melting of the snows in the mountains of the North. The prisoners of war suffered these harsh conditions and their numbers dwindled.
The British learnt a number of things from the defeat of the first Mesopotamian campaign after a National Inquiry was held into the siege and surrender at Kut. They realized the size of their forces in the theatre were too small and increased them to over 250,000 by August 1916 and put them under new military leadership. A port was built at Basra and a railway line of 60 miles constructed to improve supplies. A further 700 miles of line were later added in Mesopotamia. Motorized transport and aeroplanes were employed on a large scale. The army was placed under the control of the War Office in London rather than the Indian Empire. Direct communications were improved between London and Mesopotamia. By March 1917 Lieutenant General Maude, the new commander-in-chief, had reoccupied Kut, captured Ctesiphon and entered Baghdad. A static war thereafter set in for about a year with Ottoman resistance proving stubborn. It wasn’t until March-October 1918 that further British progress was made in Mesopotamia.
In the course of the conquest of Mesopotamia British policy changed with serious consequences. Up until 1916 a traditional Imperialist approach had been taken with a division of territory among the victors envisaged. Within this Mesopotamia would be part of the expansion of Britain’s Indian Empire. England had no time for nationalisms or the small number of nationalists in the region.
The Arabs of the region had been occupiers of it for more than a thousand years. They had lived under the Ottoman framework for about five centuries. They had a strong traditional culture that could be more accurately described as a series of cultures. They found the Ottoman state framework, although very light, as oppressive in certain respects but beneficial in others, imposing some order and stability in which life could be lived, business done and religion practiced. Nationalism was confined to a small number of Arabs within Ottoman administration. It had no popular manifestations or popular support.
Basra was a centre of this small Arab nationalism and its main figure was Said Talib, a powerful figure between the merchants and rural chiefs, and an admirer of Britain. On the declaration of war he approached the British authorities offering his services to liberate Mesopotamia. He was rebuffed by the British and deported as a danger when they reached Basra. At that point, with things going to plan in the War, Britain had no time for the complications an alliance with Arab nationalists would involve in its conquest of the Ottoman territories.
There was no question of anything except absorption into the Indian Empire. It was assumed that history was progressing from the national to the Imperial. Numerous articles were written in Imperial publications recognizing this historical line of development with nations giving way to the Imperial Super-State and the whole world coming within its sway, in an inevitable progression of history. Most parts of the earth would become part of the British, French, Russian Empires or the great expansionist state of America. It was noted that only the Ottoman Empire, which was not a real empire at all in the British sense, remained an anomaly in this historical process.
But the Great War changed all of this. At the outset of the War, in order to bring Liberal England with it, the Government raised the rallying cry for small nations. This meant that the Imperialist expansionism into Ottoman lands had to be organised through secret treaty, like the Constantinople Agreement (1915) and Sykes/Picot (1916) for reasons of war propaganda.
However, the expected easy victory did not materialise. The second phase British advance under Maude was rolled back by the Turks and the war in Mesopotamia became static, until large military reinforcements became available. From 1916 after the bungled invasion at the Dardanelles, the defeat at Kut el Amara and other reverses on the German front, Britain was forced to promote nationalism, even where it did not exist, to muster together enough force to disrupt the enemy that was getting the better of the War.
This involved the incitement of Arab nationalism and even a Jihad against the Ottomans, organised by a bizarre Irishman, Colonel Lawrence. It might seem odd that a Christian power attempted a jihad against the Caliph and Moslem State but it should be remembered that Britain in those days regularly described itself as a “great Mussulman power” having millions of Moslem subjects. Britain felt that it had to direct the Moslems of the world or someone else, like Germany or Russia, would or they might even take it upon themselves to organise their futures.
And so the Sharif of Mecca, supplied with British weapons issued a reactionary manifesto against the secular reforms of the Young Turks and went into rebellion or Jihad against the Moslem State. The Sharif’s reactionary manifesto was, of course, discreetly ignored as merely a propaganda device for the recruiting of jihadists, and the rebellion was nurtured into an “Arab revolt” until the latter stages of the war, when it was spectacularly betrayed.
The Arab leaders took it that they had an agreement with Britain, whom they were allies with, on equal terms with the Turks. And which would lead to a large state across the Arab parts of the Ottoman territories when victory was gained. But at the same time secret agreements had been made by Britain with France and Russia and understandings with other allies over the disposal of the same land, including that of Palestine to the Zionists.
To the South Ibn Saud conducted his own effective war largely without European allies and as the British and their “Arab Revolt” drove the Turks back in 1917-18 the Saudis were poised to establish a very large state themselves. Ibn Saud and the Wahhabis had been courted by Percy Cox before the War and British advisers assisted him against his Hashemite enemies. Once the Hashemites had become British clients in the new Iraq the advancing Saudis were destroyed by British machine guns and bombers on the line in the sand drawn by Britain.
The other reason why nationalism began to be promoted was because of the financial crisis that occurred in Britain toward the end of 1916, as a result of the failure to win the War and the escalating cost of fighting it. This was identified by the famous economist John Maynard Keynes at H.M. Treasury and meant that England became completely dependent on the United States, financially and militarily, to win its Great War. The US would not tolerate joining an openly Imperialist war so the character of the War had to be altered, at least on the propaganda level. Democratic and self-determination propaganda had to be churned out with great consequences across the world when peoples who had been encouraged to fight on the basis of it expected payback from its Imperial exponents.
When Arnold Wilson arrived in Mesopotamia he began to act on the Principles of Empire – the understandings that had been inculcated into the Imperial governing class and which predominated in the Indian Empire. He saw his mission as being similar to that undertaken by the British in India: to install “a civilized government” with “a reign of justice and order” and to begin “the tremendous task of raising them to their own plane of civilization by an effort, which, to be successful must last for ages.” He believed that “no question of nationality was involved or could for ages arise” in the areas conquered.
The British, from the outset, began to set up an administration in the Basra area with the full panoply of Indian style government within the conquered territory. This was seen as a very important consideration in order that the conquered territory became absorbed directly within the Indian Empire. Arnold Wilson devotes much of his Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia to this aspect. This was a kind of ‘pop-up’ government staffed with Indian Empire specialists.
The Making of Iraq
The intention of Britain when it first came into possession of Mesopotamia seems to have been to attach Basra to the Indian Empire and to make the second Baghdad vilayet part of a new Arab State – or “Arab façade” as the British Government described it. This policy had the advantage of fulfilling the promise to Sharif Hussein – in name anyway – of an Arab State, whilst not cobbling together Shia Basra and Sunni Baghdad into some kind of political entity, under a local puppet ruler.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement had assigned the Mosul vilayet of the Ottoman Empire to France but in December 1918 the French, in return for a free hand in Syria and a cut of the oil reserves in the area, yielded Mosul to Britain to go along with Basra and Baghdad in making up ‘Irak’ or Iraq. The region had been marked on British maps prior to this time as “Irak Arabi.”
The conqueror of Baghdad, General Maude gave a speech in Baghdad in 1917 describing his forces as “liberators” not “conquerors”. He said the British would not impose “alien institutions” and implied the establishment of a great Arab State stretching from Syria to Arabia (with Hussein of Mecca in charge). This Arab State (excluding the Saudi region) would have been the second best option, after the loose Ottoman structures, for social and political development in the area. It would have preserved the great diversity of the area with less friction between the elements living side-by-side within it. Arnold Wilson’s colonial administration which originally aimed at a simply absorption of Mesopotamia also had the benefit of letting things be to a considerable extent in the task of gradual improvement over generations.
General Maude had objected to the text of his speech, which was written by Mark Sykes, who had helped carve up the Arab lands in the secret agreement with the French and Russians in the Sykes/Picot/Sazonov Agreement. It was full of the propagandist rhetoric of the “self-determination” and it did not say why the British were in Mesopotamia or that they were going to rule it. Maude felt that the Arabs would get ideas above their station – ideas that would be dangerous when they were left in the air. But Maude was told by London to get on with it, but in his administration of the city there was no room for Arab participation. Arnold Wilson comments on Maude’s Declaration in his book, Loyalties Mesopotamia 1914-1917, pointing out that Sykes, the speech-writer, had written a speech which conflicted with his own Agreement with the French, to establish a great Arab state.
In November 1918 a Declaration issued by the Allied Supreme Council signaled the intention of establishing nation-states in the region. Wilson knew there were great contradictions in all of this: the Balfour Declaration was wholly inconsistent with the Anglo-French Declaration. If the Declaration meant anything it would involve the handing over of Palestine to the Arabs and it was highly unlikely that they would consent to the establishment of a Jewish State. British power would have to be used against the inhabitants while a Jewish population was brought in and built up in order to form a government. And that was a complete negation of all the Declarations for self-determination.
Wilson was also concerned that the Declaration would encourage minorities within the remains of the Ottoman Empire to rise up and demand self-determination. These uprisings, encouraged by the Allied Declaration, would be unlikely to secure aid from the Allies and would result in great conflict.
Originally the intention was to just incorporate the Basra region into British India as part of a new buffer stretching across to Palestine and Egypt, to replace the Ottoman buffer. Wilson, who was put in charge of the conquered territories, came with pre-war Imperial understandings and an expectation that British power would be fully utilized to govern Iraq in the firm manner that had been applied in making the Indian Empire British. The British were good at creating ruling elites and the Indian Political Service, which Wilson and Cox formed part of, were seen as the experts in this. The British had turned India from a fragmented series of kingdoms and peoples into a state and constructed a large civil and political infrastructure to govern it effectively. Iraq was a small project in comparison. They thought they could do much better than the Ottomans but as things turned out they did much worse. Times had changed. The British Empire was not the same in 1919 as it had been in 1914. It had over-stretched itself and although seemingly at the height of its power was financially drained and had lost its power to dominate.
Between the Armistice of 1918 and the middle of 1920 there was a long running struggle between the British Foreign Office and the India Office over what to do with Mesopotamia. The Foreign Office, which had been involved in the deal with Hussein, were strong supporters of rewarding the Hashemites with positions at the head of the new Arab states Britain was constructing. This placed it against the India Office, which had a more traditionally Imperialist conception of what was to be done, and which had being financing Ibn Saud, Hussein’s rival in Arabia, who supported Wilson in Mesopotamia. The India Office always had its eye on India and did not like the disruptive effects it understood the Foreign Office’s sponsoring of Hussein would have on the Moslems of the Indian Empire, by the treachery shown to the Caliph at Constantinople, the assaults on the Holy Cities and the pretense that Hussein could take over the Caliphate.
Ultimately this struggle was won by the Foreign Office when the Cabinet decided to remove Wilson in mid 1920. Lloyd George finally resolved this conflict by placing the Colonial Office, headed by Churchill, over both Mesopotamia and Palestine, and leaving the Foreign Office in control elsewhere in the Middle East.
The British Indian Empire was alarmed at the thought of the wholesale destruction of the Ottoman Empire. The administrators of India were still orientated against Russia and many of them viewed the obsession with Germany as a temporary interlude in the Great Game against Russia.
London ignored Wilson’s concerns and changed course, deciding to go for the worst of all solutions, balkanising the Middle East and cobbling together two and three-quarter vilayets of the Ottoman Empire (Baghdad, Mosul and most of Basra) to make up a new nation-state of Iraq, in order to connect the oil fields in Mosul with the Persian Gulf. Although the peoples of these vilayets had lived side by side in relative peace within the large Ottoman entity there was no sense of unity amongst them and they were to be combined in the strategic interest of Britain. Mesopotamia was a very vague geographical expression. There was no Iraq or Iraqis before Britain created it. Only the Tigris and Euphrates gave it any kind of unity but Mosul was more connected to Allepo, Baghdad to Persia and Basra to the Gulf, than they were to each other.
The system established by Britain in Iraq was the worst of all possible worlds. It was a witches’ brew. The old Ottoman system had the virtue of governing the intermingled peoples of Mesopotamia as the other peoples of the Empire, within a large multi-ethnic unit where local rivalries were largely kept in check. The lack of Ottoman troops at the outset of the war showed that the Ottoman rule was light and functional. The British Indian model may have functioned in a similar fashion given strong and purposeful government. However, the system that emerged after 1918 was neither strong nor purposeful. It put three distinct groups into a pseudo-nation under an imposed client-ruler and created a pressure-cooker environment for them to conflict with each other for power. And it was not surprising that afterwards this system could only be made functional by ruthless strongmen.
In the British conquering of Mesopotamia and establishment of Iraq Britain put together an unstable mix of peoples from the Ottoman vilayets of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul in the strategic interests of the Empire. There were 1.5 million Arabs, Sunni and Shia, about 400,000 Kurds, 100,OOO Turks, 70,000 Persians, 60,000 Jews, , 60,000 Armenians and 80,000 Christians as well as other peoples making up a population of around 2.5 million. The “Arabists” believed they could make Iraq governable by creating what they called ‘two majorities’ out of the three communities. The theory was that any two of the three groups could combine with another, allowing the two to constitute a majority, against the other. Thus, Arab and Kurdish Sunni Muslims could dominate the Arab Shia; or, if the two Arab communities, Shia and Sunni, combined, they would have a majority over the Kurds.
Iraq turned out to be a much larger area than was originally intended. The Imperial forces decided to expand the Basra buffer more and more to the North and even tried to push it into northern Persia and the Caucasus, once the Tsar’s State began to collapse.
However, after the Great War, Britain, whilst it obtained a great amount of territory found it almost impossible to govern its new territory in an effective manner. Lloyd George made a promise before an election to demobilize the army, Britain had exhausted itself financially and so proxies had to be found to do the fighting – like the Greeks, to impose the Treaty of Sevres.
The new state of Iraq was born in violence and deception. The new “Iraqis” who thought they were being liberated from Ottoman rule found themselves, like the Arabs, under a new Imperial rule. When an Insurrection occurred in 1920 in Iraq it was largely defeated by aerial bombing. Iraq was henceforth governed by something called “air control”, a system by which taxes were demanded or villages wiped out by the Royal Air Force – a precedent for future Western pacification of the region. This was not the painstaking form of government that Britain had administered its Indian Empire with before the War. It was brutal government on the cheap which gave little benefit to anyone outside of the small parasitic client class and its entourage.
A mandate was set up, like in Palestine, registered at the League of Nations in May 1920, which established British control indirectly under the pretense of nationhood. This sparked off the Insurrection in Iraq which lasted until November.
An election was organised to legitimise the new concoction of Iraq. Sir Percy Cox came to rig the election by kidnapping the popular opposition candidate, the returned Said Talib, in order to maintain British control over a puppet imported to maintain Imperial hegemony. This event is described in Sir John Philby’s book ‘Iraq in the Making’ when Talib was invited for tea with Cox and Gertrude Bell and was abducted and deported to Ceylon. The election, therefore, had one candidate, Faisal, the son of the Shereef of Mecca, Britain’s client. He duly won and became King of Iraq. In doing this a precedent and template for electoral manipulation in Iraqi politics was established by Britain that has persisted to the present.
Wilson saw the Mandate system as either a despicable con-trick on the Arabs or a pandering to hopeless idealism at the expense of the inhabitants. The cardinal principle of Imperialism was that government should rest with those with the power and ability to govern and not be based on religion, race or nationality. There lay chaos. Wilson urged an accommodation with Turkey and recognition of its territorial integrity from Constantinople to the Caucasus, arguing that if England did not have the power, or will, to take the region in hand and give it stable government, then the Turks should be allowed to do so.
This fraudulent exercise was Iraq’s first experience of how Western democracy worked and it seems to have made a lasting impression. By 1922 Faisal had fallen out of favour with his British protégées for showing some independence of mind. The lesson in democracy that Britain gave to the Iraqis at the moment of the foundation of their State was of great importance in determining the political character of the Iraqi State from then on.
By this time the Sevres system was falling apart after the Turkish resurgence under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). A new Treaty was signed between the Turks and British at Lausanne although the status of Mosul was left undecided, though occupied by Britain. The League of Nations turned down a Turkish proposal for a plebiscite to settle the dispute, the practice the League had adopted in Europe. Instead it accepted Faisal’s claim that Iraq was impossible without Mosul after the Mosul Commission had deliberated between 1923 and 1925. A Kurdish revolt was instigated by Britain to divert Ataturk’s attention. The Turks had to concede Mosul to British Iraq or fight a war with the Imperial power. In 1926 a frontier agreement was signed.