With fighting in Europe all but suspended for the winter, this week in 1916 provided plenty of other news to divert the heritage industry’s Eurocentric gaze from the Somme and Verdun. The end of Joffre’s military dominance in France marked a watershed in the grim history of the Western Front, changes at or near the top in the governments of France and Britain made for big talking points, and on 12 December an offer by the Central Powers of peace negotiations on the basis of pre-War frontiers hit the headlines, though it was essentially a diplomatic PR exercise for the benefit of neutrals, and received the expected outright rejection by Entente powers in too deep to accept anything short of manifest victory.
One way and another all these things were important, but mass media’s commemorative showreel is unlikely to include the event that left the biggest footprint for the future from that week – the re-launch, on 13 December, of the British Empire’s attacks into what is now Iraq.
The first British attempt to advance from the port city of Basra up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Baghdad (and even beyond) had come to a sticky end in April, when lazy planning, blinkered leadership and consistent underestimation of an intelligently organised enemy had culminated in the surrender of General Townshend’s battered army at Kut, on the Tigris. After a long pause to completely reorganise command structures and supply systems, a process that involved transfer of responsibility for the campaign from the Indian Army to the regular British Army, recovery of Kut was the renewed invasion’s first objective.
British Mesopotamian Front c-in-c General Maude could call on about 150,000 troops by late 1916, and had been supplied with increased numbers of machine guns, field artillery and armoured cars, along with state-of-the-art trench fighting equipment, vastly improved medical facilities and 24 modern BE-2C fighter aircraft, some equipped for the game-changing task of photo-reconnaissance. Local Ottoman commander Karabekir Bey had meanwhile strengthened his trench systems but received no substantial reinforcements, and mustered about 50,000 ill-equipped fighters. Bottom line, the British were making sure this time – but why were they bothering?
Manpower was the British Empire’s most precious commodity in late 1916. Ground troops were needed on the Western Front, at Salonika, in Egypt and Palestine, in East Africa and as garrisons for colonial stations or bases all over the world. They were also needed in Mesopotamia, but only to guard Basra.
Britain’s stated objective in Mesopotamia, and the reason troops had arrived there in 1914, was to protect valuable oil supplies from the Persian Gulf, and every advance since had been justified as a form of ‘forward defence’ against potential threats to Basra. In strategic terms, Mesopotamia did offer a route to conquering the Ottoman Empire by the back door, but nobody thought it an efficient route, and by late 1916 British ‘easterners’ (those strategists committed to pursuing victory away from the Western Front) viewed Palestine, with its valuable Mediterranean trading links, as a far more promising means to that particular end.
Advancing up the Tigris and Euphrates might also open a link with Russian forces in Persia, and might indirectly help Russian efforts on the Caucasian Front, but these were not high strategic priorities in London. In fact, having watched as the British Indian Army and government blundered into a ghastly dead end for no real reason beyond an instinctive desire to attack an apparently feeble enemy, London’s only real excuse for opting to do it all over again was the restoration of imperial prestige.
Restricted to a limited offensive and instructed to minimalise casualties (I know, but it was another way of warning against over-ambition), Maude deployed his 50,000 front line troops on either side of the Tigris, and opened the operation with a preliminary bombardment during the night of 13–14 December, in time to get some fighting done before the region’s winter rains set in. At dawn next morning, the British right began the first infantry attack, drawing Karabekir Bey’s reserves to defend positions around the settlement of Sannaiyat, less than 20 miles by river from Kut, before cavalry led the main British advance up the left bank, meeting only light resistance and making rapid progress. By 15 December, Maude’s left was in position to cross the river and encircle the Sannaiyat defences, having suffered less than 300 casualties, but he opted for caution and instead consolidated the new position, making only one, half-hearted attempt to cross the river on 20 December.
While Maude was demonstrating exactly the restraint his masters had in mind, his success was changing their minds, and he was ordered to push further upriver as soon as feasible. January would see the beginning of a steady British campaign to retake Kut, using the same tactics of bombardment, advance and consolidation, and the prize that had drawn Townshend’s army to disaster, Baghdad, would soon be back on the British agenda. This was an altogether more professional and considered invasion, led by a pragmatic commander and spared the gruesome horrors that had blighted the disgracefully ill-prepared Anglo-Indian attempt, but the British still hadn’t curbed a tendency to seek territorial acquisition for its own sake.
That brings us back to prestige, and as I’ve mentioned before prestige really mattered in the Arab world. It is arguable that recovery of imperial prestige in Mesopotamia, however partial, helped the British orchestrate the Arab Revolt, smoothed their path through Palestine and facilitated their political dominance of the post-War Middle East – but any difference it made was marginal and the cost, in terms of casualties, resources and diversion of resources from other theatres, was ridiculous.
In that sense, Mesopotamia fulfilled a similar role to (and was even more disease-ridden than) Salonika, which was consuming even more Allied resources for even less return in an indirect attempt to revive French imperial prestige. Then again, if we’re talking outcomes, nothing going on in Macedonia was destined to match the global ill winds stirred by Britain’s adventure in Mesopotamia and the artificial creation of Iraq that followed. The real story of modern Iraq began here, and that seems worth remembering.