Category Archives: Middle East

18 DECEMBER, 1914: Sand Grab

A hundred years ago today the British Empire announced a formal protectorate over the Ottoman province of Egypt.  This came as no surprise to contemporary observers, given that the two empires were at war, that Constantinople was in no position to impose its will on Egypt and that the country was immensely valuable to Britain, not only as a central base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations, but also as the host nation of the Suez Canal.   What might have surprised them was the long-term impact of British rule on a nation edging towards independence from Ottoman Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire’s control over Egypt had been a matter of form rather than substance at the end of the eighteenth century, when Napoleon led a French army (and a boatload of scholars) across the Mediterranean and occupied the country, only to be expelled by the British a few years later. The two nations had competed for influence over a virtually autonomous Egypt through much of the nineteenth century, but construction of the Suez Canal (aka the massive shortcut to India) had changed the stakes. Using endemic tribal warfare on Egypt’s southern and western frontiers as an excuse, Britain had placed the country under what amounted to military occupation in the 1880s.

This was still the situation in 1914. Though Egypt was nominally ruled by a hereditary Khedive under the auspices of the Sultan of Turkey, the Khedive and his council of ministers took orders on all military, foreign and economic affairs from the British consul-general. That post, held by Lord Kitchener from 1911 until he became British War Minister in August 1914, came with its fair share of problems. Libya and the Sudan remained chronically unstable, requiring periodic military intervention to quell uprisings, while nationalist movements were gaining strength within Egypt. The Legislative Assembly, a quasi-representative body established in 1913, was virulently anti-British, as was the devoutly pro-Ottoman Khedive, Abbas Himli.

Egypt’s strategic importance as a military base and a trade route was instantly multiplied by the outbreak of war.  The British government would have liked nothing better than an immediate takeover and the ruthless suppression of dissident elements, but for the first few months of the conflict it was unwilling to do anything that might provoke the Ottoman Empire into siding with the Central Powers. The result was chaos in Cairo, as Turkish neutrality prevented the deportation of some 70,000 Germans and Austrians resident in Egypt and the country became a seething hotbed of international intrigue.

As soon as Turkey entered the war in early November, British forces were free to impose martial law and dissolve the Assembly.  On 19 December, one day after the country’s effective annexation,Abbas Himli was deposed and replaced as Khedive by his pro-British uncle, Husein Kemal.  Egypt remained firmly in British hands, governed by a High Commissioner appointed in London, for the rest of the War.

Nationalist agitation still simmered in Egypt but with little practical effect before 1918, and the largely native Egyptian Army spent most of the War dealing with tribal unrest on the frontiers. Meanwhile the Royal Navy made use of Alexandria as a port, and imperial ground forces came and went en route for campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Though Egyptian forces never fought overseas for the British, in line with a promise made at the start of the Protectorate, a volunteer Egyptian Labour Corps provided 120,000 men for support services on the Mesopotamian and Western Fronts, and the country’s agricultural resources suffered heavy exploitation.

Four years of war as a British possession did nothing to encourage political stability in Egypt, but did establish the Wafd Party as the political voice of nationalist opposition. Wafd objections to British control of the Canal Zone were the main stumbling block to dissolution of the Protectorate after 1918, and though formal independence was eventually granted in 1922 it was little more than a facade disguising continued military occupation. Even after the occupation was ended by treaty in 1936 the British maintained occupying forces around the Canal, and they remained in place until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Whichever way you look at it, Britain’s annexation of Egypt in December 1914 had serious, long-term warping effects on that country’s social, economic and political future, with momentous consequences that are still being felt by the world as a whole. So while we mull over the Football Truce, or consider the continuous, costly and futile attacks still taking place all along the Western Front, let’s spare a seasonal thought for the geopolitical havoc being brewed by the British in the Middle East.

5 NOVEMBER, 1914: Regional Redesign, Part 1

As mentioned in what I can’t help calling my last post, Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war a hundred years ago today.  During the four years of hard fighting that followed, this particular conflict was regarded as a ‘sideshow’ in Britain, seen by many as an unwarranted distraction from the war in Europe.  Popular British history has been treating it the same way ever since.

Big mistake.

British heritage and remembrance don’t completely ignore the Anglo-Turkish war, but they are only really interested in the Gallipoli campaign and Lawrence of Arabia.  Gallipoli was a bona fide military disaster, a classic example of lions being led by donkeys, a horror story for the troops that made much of the fighting in France look tame, and an exercise that did little or nothing to shorten the wider war.  For all its well-used dramatic potential, the campaign’s greatest importance lies elsewhere, in its enormous effects on national self-consciousness in Australia and New Zealand, whose men did much of the fighting, and in its galvanising effects on the career of Kemal Ataturk, the overwhelmingly dominant figure in modern Turkish history.

Meanwhile Lawrence provides an amazing story, and the Arab Revolt he helped lead played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, but the tale is usually referenced with little regard for context.  By context I mean the British Empire’s conquest, often slow and painful, of pretty much the entire Middle East.

On what we usually call the First World War’s Palestinian and Mesopotamian Fronts, British imperial armies fought their way north from Egypt towards Turkey, and northeast from Basra, up the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates to Baghdad.  In the process and in the aftermath, they provoked and then controlled a comprehensive geopolitical redesign of the region to suit British and French strategic requirements, effectively creating the Middle East we know today.

You’d think, given how much trouble it’s been causing ever since, that this uncontroversial truth would be well known to all of us, but I keep surprising literate, generally well-informed people with the news.  On current form I can’t see the heritage re-run having much to say about it, so I will.

Fighting on the Palestinian Front didn’t get going until 1915, and I’ll get to it in detail then, but a British attack on Mesopotamia was primed and ready to go by the time war with Ottoman Turkey broke out.  With naval units already patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates), and five thousand troops from India waiting to go ashore, the operation was intended to be a limited affair.  Its sole stated aim was to protect vital oil supplies from Abadan, on the Persian bank, by seizing the Ottoman port of Basra on the opposite bank.

General Barrett, in command of the Indian Army force and under direct orders from the British Indian government, had been instructed to take Basra as a form of ‘forward defence’, in other words as a preventive strike against a likely base for future Turkish aggression.  This concept, arguably mirrored in US foreign policy since 1945, turned out to be a recipe for deeper entanglement, while London’s willingness to leave the theatre under Indian government control for eighteen months, using only limited Indian Army resources, turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

Basra was taken without much trouble on 23 November, and forward defence prompted an advance upriver to take Qurna, at the junction of the two rivers, in early December.  These easy victories, along with the defeat of a counterattack by Ottoman regulars and Arab tribesmen the following April, blew forward defence out of the water as far as new commander General Nixon and the Raj government were concerned.  By mid-July Nixon had pushed on another hundred or so kilometres up both rivers to take a couple of lightly-defended Turkish bases, at which point he decided that Baghdad, 400 kilometres further on, was a feasible target.  Assured by Nixon that his force was equipped for the job, Indian Viceroy Lord Hardinge backed the idea, and though the London government wouldn’t provide Nixon with non-Indian resources, it closed its eyes and let the offensive go ahead in early September 1915.

Nixon’s force, led in the field by General Townshend, was anything but equipped for the job.  It lacked sufficient artillery, modern weapons, medicines and modern transport, while the absence of railways or usable roads in the hinterland left it completely dependent on supplies sent by boat from Basra, a port far too small and primitive for the amount of traffic required.  Hampered by a chronic shortage of boats and by failure to reform a chaotic logistic system, repeatedly ordered forward by a blindly optimistic Nixon (who spent most of his time in Basra), advancing Indian Army troops faced regular Turkish forces, the guerilla warfare of local ‘Marsh Arabs’, searing heat, floods, disease and mirage as their supply lines lengthened.  Ghastly failure beckoned.

Townshend’s force met no serious resistance until late November, but by then it was desperately short of everything.  Arms, ammunition, mules, engineering equipment and medicines were all running out, and manpower was dwindling in a warzone where casualties could only be treated by sending them back to Basra in a boat, so that most wounds were a death sentence.  When Turkish forces made a determined stand at Ctesiphon, just forty kilometres from Baghdad, Townshend could only retreat to the fortress of Kut, where survivors were soon surrounded and besieged by four divisions of Turkish regulars.

The siege of Kut, which ended with Townshend’s surrender the following April, was a resounding propaganda success for the Ottoman Empire that forced London to get properly involved in the Mesopotamian campaign.  By the end of the summer break in operations (nobody fought in temperatures above fifty Celsius) British Army officers were in charge of some 150,000 men in the theatre, modern equipment was arriving , Basra was being rebuilt and sweeping reforms were transforming the supply system.  The opening phase of the war in what is now Iraq had ended.  The British were no longer blundering into conquest as a form of forward defence gone mad.  They had a plan.  It was a big, ambitious plan, and it’s a story for another day.