A campaign that was essentially a sideshow compared to the main event happening on the Western Front in Europe, much was written about the British Mesopotamia Campaign in the 1920s and 1930s while it was still fresh in the minds of its participants. However, as time went on the story of this campaign became forgotten. Far more books have been published about Gallipoli than on the twin campaigns of Palestine and Mesopotamia. However, the late 1960s brought a new round of books that gave a fresh look back at this campaign. These new books were published around the time that the 50th anniversary of the Great War was being observed. This book, by A. J. Barker, was one of them and I consider it the most definitive account of this campaign.
I first stumbled into this book in the 1980s while looking for a subject to write a college paper on. I found a series of books on Mesopotamia and Gallipoli in the university library and after reading this book, I became hooked on this theatre of war ever since. When the First Gulf War took place, this book was almost impossible to find and first editions now fetch high prices on the used book market. I am glad to see it being published again. Just to note that this is the third title I have seen this book published under. It was originally published in the UK in 1967 as "The Neglected War" by Faber and Faber and in the US as "The Bastard War" by Dial Press.
Barker's book outlines the series of misfortunes that dogged this campaign from its inception in 1914 to its understated end in 1918. What is now known as "mission creep" set in soon after the deployment of the first brigades from the Indian Army to protect the oil fields at Basra. Spurred by the success in protecting these fields against a disorganized and poorly led Turkish Army, the commanders on the scene transitioned from a defensive posture to an offensive one that eventually culminated with an ill advised attack on Baghdad itself with inadequate forces. The result was disastrous for the British. As the Turkish Army retreated up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, they grew stronger with a shortened supply line while that of the British weakened with every mile they marched. After a Pyrrhic victory at Ctesiphon, the spent British force was forced to retreat back along the Tigris River with the Turks in pursuit. Trapped at Kut-al-Amara, the entire 6th Indian division was forced to surrender after a lengthy siege. More tragic were the heavy losses that the Turks inflicted on repeated relief attempts by the British forces. This defeat forced a reassessment of the British position in Mesopotamia and its eventual reorganization and reinforcement. With Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude in command, the British went over on the offensive again that eventually led to the capture of Baghdad in March 1917. This and the capture of Jerusalem nine months later were the only good news for the British people during that year of a war gone mad.
This chain of misfortunes had its genesis a decade before when the Indian Army was reorganized and than tasked for certain wartime contingency plans that included providing security for Britain's oil fields in the Middle East. The Indian Army was never organized or trained to engage in conventional combat. However, that is exactly what ended up happening. Aside from the forces sent to the Middle East, four divisions were shipped to the Western Front in 1914, but two were eventually transferred back to Mesopotamia due to the unsuitable conditions for the Indian soldiers in Europe. These two divisions arrived just in time to be chewed up during the desperate attempts to relief Kut. As the campaign dragged on the British attempted to minimize financial costs by passing on the responsibility of prosecuting the campaign to the British Raj of India, who proved organizationally and financially unable to do this.
In addition, despite the superb performance of a truly professional and loyal Indian Army, the British refused to expand it until 1917 when manpower losses among the other Commonwealth nations forced it to do so. The reason was based on British distrust of the potential Muslim recruits it would need for the expansion. By 1917, when it became apparent that the Middle Eastern Arabs and other Muslim nations had refused Turkey's call for a Jihad against the Allies, the British relented and expanded the Indian Army. This Army went on to make a valuable contribution to Turkey's defeat in Palestine in 1918. Eventually, over 700,000 Indians saw service in the Middle East during WWI.
While the author touches very little on the politics involved, he details the incompetence and mismanagement of the campaign. The flawed decision making, the wrong assumptions and assessments of the enemy's capabilities, the lack of medical units and hospitals, the disorganized logistics at Basra are all detailed. Also outlined is the extensive logistics involved in supporting this campaign. While the British used motor transport, they also made use of the river network and built an extensive narrow gauge railroad to keep up with the campaign's supply requirements. The book ends with the Armistice and the author says very little about the fact that the war was the easy part. By 1919, the British were mandated to oversee the newly created country now called Iraq. They were also bogged down in fighting twin insurgencies with the Kurds in the north and with the Shiite Arabs in the southern marshes. This insurgency lasted well into the 1920s and proved to be as unpopular at home as the current war in Iraq is. However, that is another story.
A very comprehensive book on this little known aspect of the Great War, I highly recommend it. However, the tagline's claim that this book has the answers for todays conflict in Iraq is totally false and misleading. I would certainly not recommend this book for that purpose. My buds at the War College get a chuckle out of today's publishers digging out older books about the Middle East and trying to squeeze more earnings from them by saying they are relevant to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Although the title for this book alludes to Britain's first war in Iraq, it is not very relevant to the happenings there today. That war is a very different one.
A note about the author. LTC A. J. Barker is an old school officer of Britain's former Indian Army. He attended the Command and Staff College at Quetta on the NW Frontier in what is now known as Pakistan, LTC Barker went on to fight in WWII and some of Britain's post war conflicts. Retired in 1958, LTC Barker went on to write numerous books with subjects ranging from Germany's Afrika Korps to battles in NW Europe. His handbook on the Japanese Army was the reference book to have until other such books were published in the 1990s. His other works of note was a series of handbooks on infantry weapons of WWII. LTC Barker's books launched the interests of numerous young men (to include myself) into war gaming and military history. I don't think this gentleman gets the attention he deserves. I have not been able to find his biography anywhere on the internet and I don't even know if he is presently alive. On the back cover of the 1967 edition of "The Bastard War" is a photo of the author with General Sir Claude Auchinleck at the 50th anniversary and final reunion for the survivors of Kut. Sir Auchinleck, Commander of the British Middle East Command and 8th Army during WWII, was a battalion commander during one of the relief attempts for Kut in 1916.