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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.
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VINE VOICEon 22 February 2011
This is a very detailed book about the invasion of Mesopotamia commencing in 1915. If you have no previous knowlege of the political situation in what is known as "The Midle East" you may struggle. It is a pity that Tony Blair did not have this book when he authorise the joint action against Iraq (I doubt if he would have learned from the many mistakes of our Government of the time). I found the book engrossing but very lacking in maps. Surely it would benefit from detailed maps of the area. Well worth reading none the less for anyone seeking further understanding of what has happened to Iraq since and even now.
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on 13 October 2011
Although not an avid reader of military history, I found this book to be totally absorbing. When one thinks of the British involvement in WW1, it is usually only the Western Front in France that gets the attention - the other 'Fronts' are largely ignored. This book shows that the Western Front was not the only calamity - rank mismanagement and incompetence at all levels of Government and the Military led to massive and unneccesary loss of life in Mesopotamia too. However, the book would have been easier to follow if there had been more maps and diagrams to accompany the various battle narratives. The two maps near the beginning of the book deal only with the initial engagements. For the remaining three quarters of the book there are no such aids. So sometimes the narrative did seem to get a little 'bogged down' in detail. Also, it would have been helpful to me if the largely unneccesary 'List of Abbreviations' (I hardly ever referred to it) had been replaced with a 'Dramatis Personnae', perhaps giving 'thumbnail sketches' 2 or 3 lines perhaps)of the various Government and Miltary figures involved at the various stages of the book. I often found it difficult to follow where people fitted in exactly, where they came from, who they were in charge of exactly (and also who was in charge of them!) and how they inter-related. Names sometimes just appeared 'out of the blue' in the narrative without any background explantion of their role. Perhaps for readers already very familiar with the Mesopotamia campaign, this would be superfluous but to the new/casual reader this would, I think, be helpful in increasing the enjoyment to be gained from this read.
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on 20 June 2014
Even before WW1 broke out, the British were meddling and intriguing in the Middle East. Professor Townsend gives a very readable account of how, while war was raging on the Western Front, the British found the time and the resources to carve up Arabia into separate nations: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Transjordan, Saudia Arabia etc. I not only highly recommend reading this book, but would suggest the student of British history read, as an accompaniment, 'A Line in the Sand' by James Barr, 'The Balfour Declaration' by
Jonathan Schneer, 'The Baghdad Railway' by (?).
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on 5 December 2010
This book was bought to join a major Collection of books on The Great War and Associated Conflicts, which within the next three months will be moved to St. Andrews University where it will be maintained, and added to constantly.

The Mesopotamian Campaign was an inadvertently important aspect of the First War, the various problems with Iraq recently mostly had their genesis in what happened during that war. Modern studies of the greater conflict and its political aspect are rare, this book is a worthy addition to the very small library of that description. Townshend - and there is no connection with one of the main protaganists of the Campaign - writes clearly and concisely, he never loses the interest of the reader but the book is as useful for the academic as it is for the casual reader. Highly recommended.
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on 24 December 2012
This an excellent narrative of the mindsets and mechanics of a British military expedition of the time. It brings together in astounding detail the personality of both senior officers and rank and file, wider policy concerns brought to bear, the hubris and caprice of an invasion exceeding its brief amidst the myriad physical considerations of operating in that environment.
The immense detail does not impede the momentum of the narrative. There is also a wider analysis on the international polity and the strategic machinations surrounding this arbitrary military odyssey that shaped the demarcation within the middle east region that we live with today.
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on 2 June 2014
The British occupation of Iraq during the First World War reveals all too clearly the crimes entailed by Empire.

Professor Townshend describes “the extreme violence of punitive measures used by the army.” For example, he cites Private William Bird of the Dorset battalion, who wrote of dawn raid-and-search operations in Arab villages: several companies of infantry “fix bayonets & rush the houses, any house that refused to open when we first knock, we immediately break down the door, & make prisoners of all the male occupants, we then search everything & everywhere for arms. … Those who attempt to run away are caught by our ring of men outside the village. They are treated as combatants & meet their end on the scaffold. And of course those who shoot at us are either shot or captured & hung in the market square.”

Again, Tom Craig of the Manchester Regiment wrote of the Army’s ‘punitive columns’, “The Modus Opperandi is as follows – the artillery ‘strafes’ the nearest village where most probably the marauders came from. Sometimes they get the wrong village which matters little! And after an hour or two’s bombardment a ‘strafing’ party of infantry, the exact numbers depends on the size of the village, go and proceed to ‘wipe out’ all who are foolish enough to wait for us. Gurkhas, in particular, like these jobs and can be relied on to scientifically ‘despatch’ all inhabitants mostly per the ‘kukri’ methods, bury them and burn down the village and have everything tidied up before we arrive.”

The government had nearly 900,000 troops there trying to hold down the Iraqi people. But in the end, it had to withdraw the troops, mission uncompleted.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 June 2012
History, as Marx once said, repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Britain's 2003 invasion of Iraq has been likened to both. But little is known about the prequel, Britain's invasion of then Ottoman province of Mesopotamia in 1914. This invasion was not driven by a quest for oil - this was not to feature in official British thinking until the end of the war. The imperatives were strategic: to `impress' anti-Ottoman Arabs in the Arabian peninsula that Britain could support them if they rose against their Ottoman overlords, linked to fears of a Turkish-German sponsored `jihad' against British interests in the Middle East. At the centre of this was, as ever, the safety of British supply lines to India. But opportunism played a part: the Government of India also saw a scheme for Indian expansion in the Mesopotamia.

The book is principally based on the British side and a good deal of the book is military history. However this is political military history; the political and military sides of the campaign were intertwined throughout. Then, as now, British political and military strategy was made on the hoof. The author captures in detail the infighting between various branches of the British government that made the formulation of a coherent strategy impossible.

The military campaign was characterized by initial success, with the swift capture of Basra, followed by disaster at Kut in 1916 when an entire besieged British army (although many of its soldiers were Indian) fell into captivity, concluding with a rally and the capture of Baghdad 1917. At the end of the war in 1918, Britain found itself at the hand of a newly expanded empire in the Middle East, Mesopotamia included. But it was a pyrrhic victory, bought at a great cost in financial and human terms. Britain was not able to enjoy the fruits of victory: it did not have the means to pay for the garrisons needed to subdue newly conquered territories. British public opinion had turned against renewed imperial expansion - and the tax burden sustaining this expansion would have entailed. Moreover, in the four years since 1914, the world had been turned upside down: Wilson's 14 points, the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of nationalism undermined the ideological foundation of imperialism. By 1920, the British faced a full-scale Iraqi nationalist revolt (Incidentally, the allegation that the British used poison gas from dropped from aircraft to suppress tribal revolts is false; the technical means to do this didn't exist at the time, although British punitive raids on recalcitrant villages were brutal enough).

By 1933, Britain was gone, with the question of the balance of power among the contending Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities fudged. British assurances to minorities of their protection came to nothing. In 1933, the Iraqi army, the one institution the British had succeeded in building up, undertook a pogrom of the Christian Assyrian population, a minority the British had promised to protect. But the British by this stage were powerless to do anything. The Sunni-dominated officer corps of the army became the real power of the land. In overthrowing this order in 2003, nearly nine decades after the first invasion, British leaders appeared to be utterly oblivious to the historical realities that they had helped to create in the country. Since 2003, the chickens have come home to roost.

This book is a good contribution to the expanding canon of works dealing with the historical origins of contemporary Middle East conflicts in British colonial and foreign policy during the First World War. The one drawback is that in the absence of detailed maps. This makes the narrative sections describing the course of individual battles hard to follow. Still, the description of what the invasion of Mesopotamia was like for the fighting man is vivid: mud, flies, furnace-like heat, and disease. A hellhole indeed. In addition, the book describes the fate of the Kut garrison in captivity (the enlisted men had it a lot harder than the officers), a grim prisoner of war experience all but forgotten and ignored in this country, every bit as hellish as that experienced by POWs at Japanese hands during the Second World War. But who has ever heard of the Siege of Kut? The author also deserves credit for bringing the details of this forgotten campaign to our attention. Given the direct connection with recent events, it is a surprise that this book is not better known.

To conclude: in reading the book, one is reminded of Eric Hobsbawn's description of the series of wars that have afflicted the Middle East since 1918 as `the wars of Ottoman succession.' No order has yet to replace the old Ottoman order that vanished nearly a century ago. (Ironically, the one country that has rid itself of its Ottoman baggage decisively is Turkey, with the caveat that its integration of its own Kurdish minority still remains unresolved). Britain failed to manage the succession in the early part of twentieth century. It failed once more in the early years of the twenty-first
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on 18 February 2014
I bought this for my father who actually remembered a great deal of the incidents. He says it is accurate and very interesting.
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on 3 January 2015
Fantastic history of an important but largely forgotten period in British history. It also sets right some of the wrongs that more prejudiced "historians" have pedalled over the last century.

I cannot recommend this book more highly for anyone interested in British military history, the history of the middle east, the British Empire or the Great War.
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