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Brings to life an almost forgotten campaign
on 4 January 2014
The British campaign in Mesopotamia (Iraq) is largely forgotten in Britain's western-centric collective memory of the First World War. But in When God Made Hell Charles Townsend provides the first account in over forty years of a campaign often pigeon-holed by other military historians. The book is thoroughly well-researched and Townsend has done a fantastic job of making an oft neglected theatre of the war more accessible.
In October 1914 Britain landed an expeditionary force at Basrah in Mesopotamia. Basrah was part of the Ottoman Empire which covered Turkey and much of the Near East. Townsend argues that securing oil was not an immediate strategic concern for Britain in 1914. Instead, Britain feared the Ottoman Empire would attempt to cause an Indian uprising through declaring jihad. This would threaten the British Raj because of the number of Muslim subjects under British rule in India. Therefore,Britain needed to secure India, which was the empire's most prized possession, and to encourage an Arab revolt against the Turks.
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But after Basrah and India were secured the British, led by Major General Charles Townsend (no relation to the author), were encouraged to advance north towards Baghdad along the River Tigris. They scored a series of impressive, though indecisive victories over the Turks. The author argues that Townsend faced increasing political pressure from London to capture Baghdad, Mesopotamia's capital. This would have been a great political victory as it would enhance Britain's imperial prestige with the Arabs. In reality its capture would have had little military value.
Townsend continued his advance, against his better judgment, stretching his supply lines 250 miles back to Basrah. He was defeated at the Battle of Ctesiphon on Baghdad's outskirts in November 1915. Townsend then retreated to the town of Kut-al-Amarah. The Turks besieged the town while under resourced British relief columns failed to lift the siege. The beleaguered garrison eventually surrendered in April 1916. It was one of the British military's worst disasters in the war.Britain's prestige plummeted and thousands of British captives died in the subsequent forced marched through the desert to Anatolia. A British inquiry followed the surrender and extra resources were diverted to the theatre. Baghdad eventually fell to the British in 1917.
The author argues British military and political ambition, fuelled by the desire for imperial prestige snowballed throughout the campaign. However, decision makers in London failed to realise that taking Baghdad would have little impact on the course of the war for the Allies. The expedition's original aim of securing India was guaranteed in the early days.
However, by 1918 oil was an important issue and explains why Britain wanted to rule Mesopotamia as a mandate after the armistice. But post-war British rule did not accommodate the Arabs who launched series of uprisings during the 1920s. In a remedy that was effective as a band-aid for a bullet wound Britain installed Prince Feisal, a Sunni, on the throne following a rigged election to rule over a Shia population. It was in this context that the nation of Iraq was forged in 1926. Townsend concludes that Britain's "megalomaniac visions of Asian supremacy" meant they neglected their responsibilities to creating a stable Iraqi state, the consequences of which are still evident today.