The British in Mesopotamia

Christopher Jones recalls the 1914-18 fighting in what was then called Mesopotamia: Americans would be well advised  to remember the conditions surrounding the British occupation of Iraq.  The US incursion looks like a complete repeat of that ill fated war.  The campaign to invest Baghdad took place against the backdrop of the First World War. It seemed to have had no clear strategic objectives except the fulfillment of the new prime minister' s desire to capture the fabled city of the Arabian Nights. In retrospect, the invasion of Iraq gave the government of Lloyd George the opening to invade Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.

According to Boston university historian David Fromkin, it proved difficult to govern Iraq, and General Maude was put in the awkward position of having to preach self-rule while discouraging its practice. He cabled London that local conditions did not permit employing Arabs in responsible positions, "Before any truly Arab facade [sic] can be applied to edifice, it seems essential that foundation of law and order should be well and truly laid."  What General Maude had discovered was that Mesopotamia was a place where 75 percent of the population was tribal "with no previous tradition of obedience to any government," and a place with a long history of power struggle between the Shias and the Sunnis. Eventually, vague rumors, constant unrest, and repeated killings took their toll on British nerves.  Three young army officers were killed in Kurdistan in 1919. An experienced official sent by the Government of India to replace them was killed a month later. Six British officers were killed in the spring of 1920. Later, two political officers were abducted and murdered. The Iraqi desert was full of raiding parties, and one British officer was led to believe that the only way to deal with the disaffected tribes was "wholesale slaughter."

Hank Greely writes: Fromkin's book, A Peace To End all Peace, is an excellent discussion of post-World War I  developments in the Middle East.  Comparisons can, of course, be deceptive as well as useful.  The British did ultimately pacify the newly-created Iraq, importing a Husseini from the Hejaz to be King Faisal under a mandate until the mid-1930s, when the country became legally sovereign.  It did so in part through strafing and bombing raids from the air, a strategy the Colonial Secretary, one W.H.S. Churchill, strongly advocated because of its low cost.  I doubt that we'll be as able to pacify the situation, which is now changed by far more intense (and international) political feelings ( nationalist, religious, and sectarian, i.e. intra-Islamic); far more (and more serious) weapons on the ground; and far more oil money.  The story's opening phases look similar; the US will be very lucky if the closing chapters are the same.

Holger Terp of the Danish Peace Academy comments on the postings on the British in Iraq, 1914-18.: The history of Iraq around and after World War One is recorded thus in time line by the Danish Peace Academy:
The British government decides to send troops to Iraq in order to protect oil instalations at Abadan.
Source: Atiyyah, Ghassan: Iraq : 1908 - 1921 : A Socio - Political Study. - Beirut : The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1973 p. 124.
03/11/1917 The British conquer Baghdad and occupy Iraq.  To the People of the Baghdad Vilayet... our armies have not come into your Cities and Lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators. Since the days of Hulaku your citizens have been subject to the tyranny of Strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunken into desolation and you yourselves have groaned in bondage. ...It is the wish not only of my King and his peoples, but it is also the wish of the great nations with whom he is in alliance that you should prosper ...But you, the people of Baghdad, ... are not to understand that it is the wish of the British Government to impose upon you alien institutions. It is the hope of the British Government that the aspirations of your philosophers and writers shall be realised again. O! People of Baghdad. ... I am commanded to invite you, through your Nobles and Elders and Representatives to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the Political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army so that you may unite with your kinsmen in the North, East, South and West in realising the aspirations  of your race.
Source: Atiyyah, Ghassan: Iraq : 1908 - 1921 : A Socio - Political Study. - Beirut : The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1973 p. 151.
05/??/1919 Kurdish rebellion Irak.
01/10/1920 Iraq British authority acts according to the League of Nations
10/14/1920 A local government, meeting of ministers, is established in Iraq.
Source: Atiyyah, Ghassan: Iraq : 1908 - 1921 : A Socio - Political Study. - Beirut : The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1973 p. 361.
 08/23/1921 Irak becomes an independent kingdom.

[The lines along which the new Arab state of Iraq should be organized were decided in London, before Churchill with Lawrence and Major Hubert Young went out in March to  Cairo Conference which was attended by all those responsible for British Government and military organization in the Middle East. It included Sir Herbert Samuel, Sir Percy Cox, Miss
Gertrude Bell, Jaafar Pasha, Sir Hugh Trenchard and General Geoffrey Salmond.  Feisal was put forward as a candidate for the throne who was persona grata with the British Government, and, largely owing to the influence of Gertrude Bell, was elected the following June by an overwhelming majority of the lraqis. Trenchard, backed by Lawrence, put forward the plan for Air Control in Iraq at an estimated cost many millions below the lowest conceivable for an army of occupation. This, incidentally, was of a double benefit to the British taxpayer, since Iraq provided an ideal training ground for the R.A.F. and was its great opportunity. The settlement of lraq naturally disappointed many ambitions and some British officers who left the service were unable to see any good in the regime and have consistently attacked Lawrence's reputation not only as a political adviser but as a soldier and a writer and a man, and indeed on every possible occasion.] Source: Lawrence, T. E. The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, edited by David Garnett. - London : Spring Books, 1964 pp. 328-329.

RAF Inter-War (1919-1939) Battle Honours A list of honours were promulgated in February 1947 covering local wars, mainly in the Middle East and India, awarded to squadrons which, after scrutiny of their records, it was considered took a notable part. Such honours were not eligible for emblazonment on Standards.
Aden 1928, Aden 1929, Aden 1934,
Afghanistan 1919-1920, Burma 1930-1932, Iraq 1919-1920,
Iraq 1923-1925, Iraq 1928-1929, Kurdistan 1919,
Kurdistan 1922-1924, Kurdistan 1930-1931, Mahsud 1919-1920,
Mohmand 1927, Mohmand 1933, Northern Kurdistan 1932,
Northern Russia 1918-1919, North West Frontier 1930-1931, North West Frontier 1935-1939,
North West Persia 1920, Palestine 1936-1939, Somaliland 1920,
South Persia 1918-1919, South Russia 1919-1920, Sudan 1920,
Transjordan 1924, Waziristan 1919-1925.
Source: RAF Battle Honours.
The independent Iraq The success of the RAF's involvement against the Mad Mullah two years earlier, allow ground
forces to be reduced and air-policing introduced.  RAF Number 45 Squadron: On 1 April 1921, the Squadron reformed at Helwan in Egypt and began an association with stations in the Middle and Far East that lasted almost 50 years. In early 1922, the Squadron received Vernon bomber-transports and used these to great effect in Iraq where troops would be transported to trouble spots and then the aircraft would be used to bomb rebel villages. Source: RAF History Timeline 1918 to 1929. RAF: No.45 (Reserve) Squadron.
British and Iraqi aircraft and troops are called into action to crush an uprising led by Sheikh Ahmad. Verbal warnings in Kurdish dialect stating that villages would be bombed are issued via a loudspeaker fitted to a Victoria troop-carrier. The operation concludes successfully in June with the surrender of Sheikh Ahmad. Source: RAF History Timeline 1930 to 1939.

RH: Sounds like today. How many "Mad Mullahs" are there in Iraq now?


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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: November 24, 2004