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The First Time

THIS BOOK IS an exquisite history of the excruciatingly difficult, perhaps pointless, often disastrous British invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia between 1914 and 1924. The publisher calls it a “cautionary tale for [today’s] makers of national policy.” I’m not so sure. A first-rate historian, Charles Townshend dilates upon the messiness of war and empire, and wisely refrains from being explicit with modern-day parallels. All military adventures can go awry, and those in World War I went so spectacularly. But military campaigns, even those that take on horrific dimensions, may sometimes be worth the blood and treasure. Over a hundred years later, the Boer War seems a hideously expensive conflict that accomplished little; but the Korean War, notwithstanding M*A*S*H*, now appears well worth the fight, given the astonishing success of South Korean democracy and the Orwellian frightfulness of the country’s northern neighbor.  

Unlike the British, who used under-manned, poorly trained, and inadequately supplied units of the Indian Army to invade Mesopotamia, the Americans brought overwhelming firepower and a mobile force against Saddam Hussein. American tanks and armored personnel carriers took days to storm through terrain that took the Brits three years to conquer. Great Britain had a huge military force in Mesopotamia by the end of World War I—around 800,000 men. That force started to shrink rapidly as Winston Churchill, the colonial secretary, hunted for economies in a severely indebted empire. The Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq, which fell to a bloody coup in 1958, was born because London wanted to find an inexpensive surrogate to control the newly fabricated state. Establishing an Iraqi republic seemed too difficult and troublesome to most British officials, even though an imported Arabian Sunni monarchy guaranteed that the Iraqi Arab Shi’a and Kurds would remain disaffected and that the militarization of Iraqi society would become inevitable.

Yet there is a parallel worth noting: Britain, like the United States, tried to occupy and pacify a foreign land on the cheap. And neither the British, who had such Arabists as T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and Mark Sykes, nor the Americans, who had a bandwagon of Iraqi Americans and other Iraqi expatriates to interpret their ancestral home, had a particularly keen understanding of the locals, especially the all-critical Shiite community in the southern half of the country. (All in all, the Americans might actually score higher than the British: the understanding of Iraqi society by America’s colonels, majors, and captains became fairly deep, whereas Britain’s renowned Arabists and fearless officers operated longer, and with more painful repercussions, on false assumptions.)

Townshend’s primary theme—the strategic pointlessness of this invasion—is hard to dispute, given the backwater nature of Ottoman Iraq. Geography, brutally hot summers (over 140° F), unruly Arab and Kurdish tribes, an irascible Shiite clergy in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, a militarily weak and unthreatening Iran, widespread poverty and disease: all this had placed the three vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra far from the cutting edge of a westward-looking empire in 1914.

It is astonishing that the Ottomans did as well as they did against the British given the former’s lack of resources. To the north, the Ottomans had to worry about the invading Russians; to the south, they had the British in Egypt and, until their ignominious withdrawal at Gallipoli, both the British and the French in the Dardanelles. In 1917, Field Marshal Allenby, moving up the Palestinian-Syrian corridor—with Lawrence’s Arab forces playing a truly minor supporting role to the east—would prove too much for the Ottomans. Allenby broke them at the battle of Megiddo in September, 1918. Townshend makes the sensible claim that the Mesopotamian front should actually be viewed as an Ottoman victory, since it tied down a large number of British troops for little—if any—strategic advantage. So why did London back a landing in Mesopotamia? The reasons were Arabist dreams of a great Arab revolt, Indian and Foreign Offices’ fears of jihad spreading from Ottoman lands eastward to the Raj (and therefore the need to show the tenacity of British arms), the not-unfounded military calculation that the Central Powers had a soft southern underbelly, and just the too-tempting ease with which the British navy and the Indian Army could attack Basra. But the invasion, once successful, kept moving northward, fueled, in Townshend’s telling, by the great mother of misadventure, “mission creep.”

Empires abhor a vacuum, and personal ambition and prejudices can reify quickly into grand strategies that do not make geographical and logistical sense. Conquering Baghdad had an allure for many British officials, even though the mythical city had become a warren, as one British soldier put it, of “narrow, filthy, evil-smelling streets … blocked in places by tumble-down houses and heaps of garbage.” And once in Baghdad, a city which took the British over two years to reach, why not go to Mosul?

Townshend takes a very light hand with the what-ifs: he is much more comfortable, as a good historian should be, with describing what actually happened. He is especially good and wry in relaying the well-known competition between British intelligence officers and strategists based in Cairo—T.E. Lawrence’s and Gertrude Bell’s crowd—and their counterparts in India. Neither side comes off brilliantly. The India Office’s recurring fascination with Arab Iraq as a possible land for Indian colonization seems bizarre now, and really should have seemed whacky also then, even to the most purblind subcontinent British imperialist.

Townshend skillfully limns the diverse and amazing characters who populated Britain’s imperial “moment” in the Middle East. He has a nice touch for personality as well as a prodigious ability to relate military conflict, from the insane courage of soldiers in insect-infested swamps and the acrid, parched hellhole of Kut, where a British army starved and surrendered, to the grander conversations among field marshals, generals, and viceroys. His rendition of the giant battle of British egos, especially among the adventurous upper class, is among the best that I have read. Sir Mark Sykes, the desert traveler-turned grand strategist who would lend his name to the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Ottoman realm among the French and British, hated Gertrude Bell, who had become even more famous than he had. Townshend puts flesh on this distaste by using official and private correspondence. Sykes on Bell: she’s a “bitch,” “an infernal liar,” and a “silly, chattering windbag of conceited gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!” It is impossible to imagine American officials in Washington, Baghdad, or Kabul having this much fun.

Townshend does not give the reader a lot of material from the Ottoman side—British military historians have understandably rarely been Turkish-speaking—but he handles the deficit ably, giving the Ottomans their due. We do not know the Ottoman players well, but we know them well enough. We get a good sense of their stubbornness and skill as soldiers; we also get a feel for their cruelty.

But the great joy in reading Townshend comes from his intimate knowledge of the British Army. Townshend is an historian of movement: the reader can see clearly the British and Indian units attacking—the intrepid engineering on land and water that made the British military so feared and respected in the nineteenth century. With Townshend as a sure guide, the reader can feel the suffering and admire the sheer doggedness of the empire’s soldiers, who in the Mesopotamian campaign fought in some of the worst conditions imaginable. It is not uncommon to find historians dismissing the Middle Eastern campaigns of World War I as a sideshow. Strategically, they undoubtedly were not significant—though Churchill was right about the Central Powers having a soft underbelly. The crack-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, as much as the failed spring offensive of the Germans in France and the arrival of doughboys, convinced Berlin that they did not have the resources to stave off defeat. Taking out the Ottomans, at least as Churchill conceived of doing so in a lightening strike at Istanbul, had a certain compelling logic.

But the Middle Eastern campaigns have become in the public imagination—and in much of the scholarly imagination, too—inseparable from the figure of Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence became an international celebrity in great part because he could hop on a camel and ride: on the Western front, movement was largely restricted to short runs or crawls through a lunar landscape against enfilading machine-gun and artillery fire. Townshend does a great service in Desert Hell by showing how awful the Mesopotamian front was: lots of machine guns, artillery, and trenches. And heat. And mud. It is good to keep in mind how the great British travel writer Robert Byron described southern Iraq twenty years after the Indian expeditionary force landed:

Mesopotamia has remained a land of mud deprived of mud’s only possible advantage, vegetable fertility. It is a mud plain, so flat that a single heron, reposing on one leg beside some rare trickle of water in a ditch, looks as tall as a wireless aerial. From this plain rises villages of mud and cities of mud. The rivers flow with liquid mud. The air is composed of mud refined into a gas … Baghdad … lurks in a mud fog, and when the temperature drops below 110, the people complain of the chill.

While trying to save their besieged comrades in the mud-baked, riverine city of Kut in 1915, a captain in the 82nd Punjabis recorded that “It is always the water that defeats us ... I really do not see how we are to get through. The Turks are very strongly entrenched. Their positions are invisible until you come under a murderous fire.” Another British officer, on seeing his men collapse into retreat, wrote that they were “so demoralized that many were crying and pulling off their clothes from sheer funk.”  

American soldiers became famous among Iraqis for their ability to wear their body armor and move continuously in the sun. Baghdadis were astonished that our soldiers manned their checkpoints, standing tall even when the temperature skyrocketed and the natives went indoors and stopped moving. But the Americans were supplied with endless quantities of bottled water and food. Militarily, America’s Iraq wars and the British campaigns against the Sublime Porte were about as different, tactically and logistically, as Hannibal’s campaigns against Rome were from Napoleon’s wars against the Austrians and Prussians.

Townshend does not discuss the United Kingdom’s modern-day Iraq adventure or its current deployment in Afghanistan, but anyone who has followed British forces in both theaters knows how poorly prepared they were. It is reasonable to surmise that Townshend wanted to write this book in part because he had a sensation of déjà vu. Whether or not British adventures with America abroad since September 11 have been pointless, London has certainly lost the capacity to sustain even a relatively small number of soldiers in combat. In Iraq, the Americans doubled down in 2006. The British advanced their departure plans.

Therein lie good lessons for Americans: the mighty can fall quickly; imperial overstretch can be costly and diminish the will of a people to fight beyond its lands, regardless of how worthy the cause. But nothing attenuates the martial spirit of a democratic people more than the financial demands of an ever-expanding welfare state. Even the most war-like people—and the English, Scottish, and Welsh certainly showed themselves for several hundred years to be bellicose—can lose their psychological edge when preparing for war is no longer a fundamental concern of government. Defense budgets sustain a nation’s fighting spirit. It is an irony, of course, that Otto von Bismarck pioneered the modern welfare state in part to nourish and organize his citizenry better for war. By 1942, when the widely-popular Beveridge Report, the foundational document of Britain’s “cradle-to-grave” welfare system was published, aspirations and costs had changed. As Churchill may well have known in 1942, the economist William Beveridge’s conception of social justice and a mighty Royal Navy would eventually prove incompatible. Given Townshend’s grasp of British military history, he could probably write a fascinating and sympathetic account of how an advanced welfare state has changed the way his countrymen fight.  

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and Ballot Box in the Middle East.