My review of Charles Townshend's When God Made Hell, published in the February issue of The London Magazine
When God Made Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq, 1914-18, by Charles Townshend
Faber, £25, 591pp.Serial inquiries into Britain’s embroilment in Iraq are nothing new, as Charles Townshend’s latest book reminds us. After a British force besieged at Kut, on the river Tigris, was forced to capitulate in 1916, the government was pressured into holding two inquiries.
The first was supposed to be a small-scale investigation of the lack of medical facilities available to the wounded during the expedition, which had been sanctioned by the government of India. But when the two men appointed to this task concluded that the appalling casualty clearing procedures were due to the fact that the force’s entire organisation was ‘manifestly inadequate’, the government felt obliged to sanction another, broader inquest.
The resulting Mesopotamia Commission, like the Chilcot Inquiry today, comprised a panel of five with a similarly wide-ranging brief. Charged with examining ‘the origin, inception and conduct of operations of war in Mesopotamia,’ it produced an excoriating report that blamed the government of India for failing to send properly trained or equipped troops, and for strangling military operations with ‘Gilbertian’ bureaucracy. Although the Delhi government had behaved as if it were an independent state, it was ultimately answerable to the India Office in London. There, the secretary of state for India, Austen Chamberlain accepted responsibility. Having described the report as ‘the saddest and most appalling document’ that he had ever read, he resigned.
Agreeably, Townshend leaves the reader to compare such conduct with that of more recent politicians in his book, which is the first major work on the Mesopotamian campaign since Arthur Barker’s A Neglected War of 1967. Despite his subtitle, only in the final ninety pages does Townshend gallop through the fascinating post-war consequences. Perhaps this explains why, after he credits his editor for the idea behind the book, he says he fears that the result does ‘not quite match’ his publisher’s original vision. But even so, he plaits politics, war and the voices of soldiers on the ground to make a fascinating book.
The story begins in 1914 when the government of India sent troops up the Persian Gulf following the outbreak of the First World War, but before the Ottomans joined in on the Germans’ side. Townshend rejects the traditional view that the reason why it did so was to secure Britain’s oil installations in Persia. Rather, he argues, it was British officials’ determination to impress the Arabs that encouraged them to weigh in, particularly when the Ottoman sultan commanded his reluctant Arab subjects to join a jihad against his enemies.
After the Ottomans declared war, the British landed in what is now Iraq, and the ease with which they captured Basra whetted their appetite for more. It was ‘difficult to see how we can well avoid taking over Bagdad’, said Sir Percy Cox, a political officer with the British force. ‘The very glamour attaching to so historic a city is in itself a temptation,’ admitted another official in the India Office.
The lure proved irresistible. At the end of 1914 Britain’s senior general in Mesopotamia, Sir John Nixon, charged a subordinate, Sir Charles Townshend, with capturing Baghdad. Townshend, to whom the author does not think he is related, was a keen student of military history, who once remarked that it was “always fatal in history if political reasons are allowed to interfere with military reasons.” Although, as this book demonstrates, the politics and war are never separate, events in Mesopotamia were to prove him right.
Once General Townshend had advanced far enough up the Tigris to secure the oil pipeline from neighbouring Persia, there was no military requirement for capturing Baghdad; the pressure was political. By then it was obvious that the Gallipoli landings had failed, and Arab loyalties continued to look uncertain. Keen for a victory that would restore British prestige, Nixon ignored warnings that more river transport and reinforcements were needed, arguing that Townshend should start immediately for Baghdad because the Turks were still tied up in the Dardanelles.
The British badly underestimated their opponents, the weather, and the logistics they would require. The Ottoman Army looked as if it would be a pushover – one of its officers complained that his soldiers had “bayonets tied on with string instead of belts” – but its men were sturdy masters of defence. The weather veered from spring deluge to summer drought. Most crucially, Townshend lacked the water transport to supply operations up-country. There was ‘too much water for the army, too little for the navy’, as one general put it, and Townshend’s needs fell between the two.
Having gone far beyond the point at which his men could be easily supplied, Townshend met catastrophe in a battle beside the ruins at Ctesiphon. His own Indian Muslim troops were reluctant to attack because the battlefield was reputedly the burial place of the barber of Muhammad, Salman Pak. The Turkish general, Nureddin, showed no such scruples. After Nureddin’s counterattack caused 3,500 British and Indian casualties, Townshend decided to withdraw to Kut, a squalid town of 7,000 Arabs on a tight bend in the Tigris, to rest and await reinforcements.
Professor Townshend argues that his namesake must have realised that he was unlikely to emerge victorious from a siege. But twenty years before, General Townshend had successfully withstood a siege at Chitral, on the North-West Frontier, and this must surely have distorted his judgement of the odds. Evoking that earlier success to reassure his men, he sent a pessimistic estimate of his food stocks back to Basra in a misjudged bid to hurry up his rescue. But when a hastily mustered relief force failed to break the siege, and with his food about to run out, in April 1916 he had no choice but to surrender. His soldiers were marched away into a terrible captivity. Unlike Barker, the author does not blame the Turks, who, as he points out, treated their own soldiers just as viciously. ‘Both sides’, he says, ‘fell victim to a grossly inadequate system.’
The War Office in London took control of the campaign. Nixon was removed and his replacement, Stanley Maude, was ordered to do nothing without London’s prior sanction. Maude used the ferociously hot summer of 1916 to improve the railway between the coast and his frontline. He equipped his force with additional machine guns and, for the first time, mortars. After finally receiving permission to advance late that year, and helped by long-range guns aboard the naval vessels that accompanied him up the Tigris, he reached Baghdad in April 1917.
The government of India envisaged Mesopotamia as a colony that might absorb part of India’s rapidly growing population. Until April 1917 it had no idea that the British government had already secretly offered parts of it to both Sharif Husein of Mecca and the French. The contradiction between these two promises required careful handling. As a consequence on his entry to Baghdad Maude was told to invite the residents of the city to assume the management of their civil affairs ‘in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain.’ Maude tortuously reassured them that they were ‘not to understand that it is the wish of the British Government to impose upon you alien institutions.’
The British changed their mind when, midway through 1918, they realised the strategic importance of the oil known to lie beneath northern Iraq. By then Maude had died of cholera; it was his successor, William Marshall, who was ordered to occupy Mosul after the war had ended. The city lay within the area Britain had offered to France; the last-minute dash to seize it ensured that the British were in a strong position to rewrite the promises they had made to Husein and the French.
Oil may not have been the reason why the British landed in Basra in 1914, but it explains why they stayed on in Baghdad after 1918. British officials did not believe that an Arab government would be acceptable to the investors needed to fund the exploitation of the country’s oil reserves. They took advantage of the confused international situation to impose a regime of their own, in which there was no Arab participation whatsoever.
The Arabs reacted angrily and in 1920 the British faced a series of uprisings across the country which it took the remainder of the year, and vast expense, to crush. Chastened, they realised that their new colony would need an Arab face. The following year they placed Sharif Husein’s pliable young son Feisal on the throne after he was endorsed by a plebiscite which they had rigged. The final shape of Iraq, as the new country became known, was ironed out by the League of Nations in 1926.
‘I came to the conclusion that he was in many ways hard done by’, writes Professor Townshend of General Townshend. Townshend the author appears to have been hard done by his publishers, too. For a military history the book has utterly inadequate maps and, oddly, Feisal is not depicted in the illustrations at all. But do not be put off. Supplemented by a decent map, this is still a fascinating, well-researched and elegantly written history of a resonant subject.