30 OCTOBER, 1918: Job Done?

The other day, I mentioned that territorial ambition kept the British Empire on the attack in the Middle East when the Great War was effectively over.  This wasn’t quite the whole truth, because while General Allenby had been powering his way past Ottoman defences in Palestine and Syria, British imperial forces on the Mesopotamian Front had spent most of 1918 in a state of what their commanding officer called ‘astonishing inactivity’.  They were eventually sent into concerted action in late October, but this was no last-minute land grab.  The operation culminating in the Battle of Sharqat, which ended on 30 October 1918, was about securing the prize that had brought the British Empire to the Persian Gulf at the very start of the War: oil.

I last looked at Mesopotamia more than a year ago, a century after a small British motorised force had tried and failed to follow up a victory on the Euphrates at Ramadi with the capture of Hit (28 September, 1917: Wheels Come Off).  British c-in-c General Maude spent the next few weeks going after remaining Ottoman forces in the region.  Two divisions were sent up the River Diyala under General Marshall in mid-October, but Ali Ihsan Pasha’s XIII Corps retreated into the hills and the chase was called off.  Two more divisions advanced up the Tigris under General Cobbe, and continued the pursuit after Khalil Pasha’s forces withdrew from defensive lines around Samarrah.  They took Tikris on 2 November but the garrison, along with most of its supplies and equipment, escaped again.

Having failed to eliminate the possibility of an Ottoman counterattack, Maude died of cholera in mid-November.  His death signalled a reduction of British commitment to the campaign, and new c-in-c Marshall was ordered to scale back operations.  After another sortie up the Diyala had failed to trap Ali Ihsan, Marshall focused on reorganising his forces until early March 1918, when a small-scale advance up the Euphrates took Hit.  The town’s defenders had retreated before they were attacked and regrouped behind a new line at Khan Baghdadi, which was surrounded and taken by British forces at the end of the month.

Throughout the summer – when it was anyway too hot to fight, the Western Front was in crisis and Allenby was preparing big things in Palestine – Mesopotamia languished way down the list of British strategic priorities.  By autumn Allenby’s forces from Palestine had taken Aleppo, cutting off any full Ottoman retreat from Mesopotamia, and the Ottoman war effort was palpably on the point of final collapse.  The region housed no coherent Arab independence movement to contest future British control, and Marshall’s offensive options were restricted by a serious shortage of transport vehicles, many of which had been transferred to Dunsterforce (17 February, 1918: Follow that Figment!).  Further fighting in Mesopotamia could hardly be described as a military necessity.

This was the legacy of the Mesopotamian campaign: the post-War British mandated territory of Iraq.

Ah, but having come much, much too far on what was originally conceived as a mission to protect the flow of oil supplies out to sea through Basra, the British found themselves just short of the oil fields around the Tigris city of Mosul, a prize that was both tempting and extremely vulnerable to sabotage.  It was also a prize that might prove difficult to secure after the War ended, when multilateral peace negotiations would inevitably be influenced by the liberal, essentially anti-imperialist stance of the USA and President Wilson.

British premier Lloyd George, acutely aware of an American attitude he considered naive and no slouch when it came bossing his generals around, duly ordered Marshall to advance up the Euphrates and the Tigris, clearing out remaining Ottoman forces in the region and taking the Mosul oilfields.  Marshall was able to convince his government that, amid a debilitating attack of influenza, he lacked the resources to attack on both fronts, and while he made preparations for an operation on the Tigris, British diplomacy set about making sure he could proceed without international interference.

The Young Turk government in Constantinople had resigned on 13 October, triggering a scramble for peace by the new grand vizier, Izzet Pasha.  He immediately sent a note to the US asking for peace talks, and emissaries were dispatched to Britain and France for the same purpose on 15 October.  The US administration declined to respond before hearing its allies’ views on the subject, and for reasons that remain unclear the French were slower on the uptake than the British, who seized upon the offer of negotiations delivered from Constantinople by long-term Ottoman prisoner General Townshend (5 April, 1916: Decline and Fall).

In anticipation of victory, the Allies had already agreed that whichever country received an armistice offer should lead negotiations, but the British chose to interpret this as permission to conduct talks alone and Ottoman authorities, again for reasons that can only be guessed, were content to keep things bilateral.  Talks began on 27 October aboard the British battleship Agamemnon, anchored in the Bay of Mudros (off the island of Lemnos), and both sides agreed to prevent French representatives from joining the negotiations.

I always like an old battleship picture, and this was the pre-Dreadnought HMS Agamemnon.

Marshal had meanwhile begun operations on 18 October by clearing the last of the defensive lines facing him on the Tigris at Fathah Gorge.  They were abandoned by defenders on 23 October, and on the same day two divisions and two brigades of cavalry, commanded by General Cobbe, left Baghdad in pursuit of Ismail Hakki Bey’s retreating forces.  Cobbe reached their hastily improvised defensive line at the Little Zab, a tributary of the Tigris, the following evening, but was forced to resume the  pursuit when Ismail Hakki Bey retreated another 100km north to Sharqat, where his remnant made its last stand.

Cobbe’s attack at Sharqat began on 29 October, and although it failed to break through Ottoman lines after one of his Anglo-Indian divisions arrived late on the scene, Ismail Hakki Bey was aware that negotiations off Mudros were making swift progress and chose to spare everyone further bloodshed.  Some 12,000 troops and fifty artillery pieces surrendered to Cobbe on 30 October, ending what proved to be the last action of the war on the Mesopotamian Front.

Ottoman troops surrender to an armoured car at Sharqat.

Negotiations aboard the Agamemnon were indeed proceeding with remarkable speed, both because the Ottoman government was desperate for immediate peace and because the British were in a hurry to end the fighting before international peace processes restricted their movements. The British made demands and the Ottomans accepted them without delay, so that an armistice was agreed on 30 October (and of course both sides later concluded that they could have driven a harder bargain).

Fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire ceased throughout the Middle East at noon on 1 November, by which time Marshall had sent a column under General Fanshawe from Tikrit to Mosul, where the remains Ali Ihsan’s XIII Corps surrendered without a fight.  British forces began occupying the city next day.

As far as the British Empire was concerned that was job done, and British control over Middle Eastern oil supplies became a fact of life for decades after the War.  On the other hand, and despite the booty it produced, nobody at the time thought the Mesopotamian campaign had been a good idea.  It had cost 97,579 (largely) Anglo-Indian casualties, including 31,109 dead, along with an unknown but presumably higher number of Ottoman casualties.  The Anglo-Indian invasion had suffered at various stages from maladministration, command ineptitude and strategic drift, and the report of a British commission of enquiry (set up in 1916) concluded that it had been an unnecessary waste of resources, given that the campaign in Palestine proved a far more efficient means of defeating the Ottoman Empire and securing oil supplies.

The same report also pinned much of the blame for the essentially casual carnage in Mesopotamia on the Indian administration and army, but that ignored London’s failure to exert imperial control over the adventure during its early stages and the British government’s dithering attitude throughout.  However you apportion the blame – and one way or another it comes down to British imperial ambition – the Battle of Sharqat and the Mudros armistice signalled a victory for greed that was hollow even by the standards of that terrible war… and the echo of its empty venality is still vibrating through the Middle East.

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