Dossier 1914-1918

British Policy in Mesopotamia (April 1916-March 1917)

From Military Disaster to the Conquest

British and Indian troops occupied Basra in November 1914 in order to safeguard the oil interests of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later British Petroleum) at nearby Abadan and to protect the strategic flank of the vital land and sea routes to India. Expecting neither a prolonged engagement nor significant local opposition, Indian Expeditionary Force D advanced rapidly toward Baghdad in 1915 only to suffer a humiliating defeat and surrender of its garrison at Kut al-Amara in April 1916. This came just months after the Ottomans had inflicted a similarly cathartic blow to British objectives at Gallipoli and necessitated a redoubling of British-Indian force to regain the initiative and minimize the damage to British prestige occasioned by the setbacks.

Eleven months separated General Charles Townshend’s humiliation at Kut al-Amara in April 1916 from Lieutenant-General Maude’s triumphal entry into Baghdad on 11 March 1917. During this period, Indian Expeditionary Force D was transformed into the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force (MEF), re-equipped, and reorganised. British politicians in London embarked upon a comprehensive inquiry into the scope and scale of their wartime objectives in the region. This greater clarity imparted a degree of purpose to the operations in Mesopotamia and, crucially, unlocked India’s considerable material and manpower resources for the war effort. Meanwhile, the Ottoman gains from repelling Townshend and inflicting a signature defeat on the British military effort soon dissipated in the face of continuing heavy losses on the Russian front. By early 1917, these trends came together, as the MEF resumed its advance at roughly the same time that the Egyptian Expeditionary Force began the first of its assaults on Gaza. Together, they contributed to the general intensification of the multi-front war facing an increasingly war-weary Ottoman Empire. Later in 1917, this synchronicity made an important difference as it prevented Ottoman attempts to switch forces between theatres to match their most urgent needs.

The campaign in Mesopotamia ground to a temporary halt following the cathartic surrender of Townshend’s garrison at Kut al-Amara. Over the next few months, the force underwent a thorough overhaul that tied in with a similar reorganisation of India’s contribution to the war. It took the shock of what had happened to Townshend to bring home the scale of the disorganisation of Force D and the mismanagement of the wider aspects of the campaign in Mesopotamia. A Commission of Inquiry was set up in London to examine the failures in Mesopotamia and at the Dardanelles. During the summer and autumn of 1916 and the early months of 1917, its members received a stream of damning indictments about the lack of strategic oversight, operational planning, and logistical breakdowns that culminated in the shambolic attempts to relieve Kut-al-Amara.

Indian soldiers and equipment

The final report of the Mesopotamia Commission was released in May 1917, after the capture of Baghdad had gone some way to restoring British prestige and pride, but the severity of its contents prompted the resignation of the Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, and the public shaming of the commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, General Sir Beauchamp Duff, whose desk-bound oversight of the campaign in Mesopotamia was singled out for particular blame for the debacle, and which later accounted for his suicide on 20 January 19181.

Thus, the administrative and logistical machines that functioned as necessary supports for the campaign were also transformed in late-1916 and early-1917. The War Office in London assumed administrative responsibility for the campaign in July 1916, having already taken over responsibility for its operational side in February. Belatedly, the campaign was integrated into the overall British military effort and brought under a centralised framework for the first time. This ended the uncertain relationship between military planners in Britain and India, which had resulted in such disastrous gaps in policy and oversight. The importance of India to the campaign now shifted from one of operational control to the primary provider of manpower and material resources to sustain the MEF. This better tapped the civilian as well as military resources available to the Government of India as it tardily launched the strategic mobilisation of resources that the belligerents in Europe had done in 19152.

A major factor in the transformation of India’s role was the replacement of the discredited and desk-bound Sir Beauchamp Duff by a War Office appointee, General Charles Carmichael Monro, on 1 October 1916. Monro had long experience of field command and, as prior to his appointment in Mesopotamia had led troops at the First Battle of Ypres on the Western Front and also commanded the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli. He gathered around him a group of talented administrative officers with recent military experience in Egypt and at the Dardanelles, in a prime example of cross-campaign absorption of lessons learned3. Another example of this trajectory at work was the appointment of General Maude as commander-in-chief of the newly-renamed Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, on 28 August. Unlike his elderly predecessor, Percy Lake, Maude had recently commanded 13th Division at Gallipoli, and his methodological approach had gained him the nickname of ‘Systematic Joe.’ Both Maude and Monro appreciated the complexities of modern industrialised warfare and the importance of placing military requirements for manpower within a deeper framework of strategic mobilisation of all forms of resources4.

Port of Basra and transport infrastructure

Over the course of the summer and autumn of 1916, the port facilities at Basra were rapidly expanded, and two subsidiary anchorages created at Magil and Nahr Umar to further relieve congestion. These measures increased the rate of tonnage discharged from 38,916 in July 1916 to more than 100,000 tons by mid-1917, whereupon fourteen ships could be berthed at a time and cleared within three days. Improvements to the organisational and administrative apparatus also proceeded apace and created a streamlined process for receiving stores and transferring them up-river. Together, they transformed Basra into a major regional east-of-Suez port, and reflected one dimension of the general overhaul of the Mesopotamia campaign. The other, no less important, was the reorganisation of the transport services into a coherent body that was responsible for general transport policy5.

Newly-formed Directorates of Railways and Works began to recast the lines of communication that connected Basra to the forward units and defensive positions, while quantities of armoured cars and airplanes transformed the operational mobility of the MEF. Crucially, this freed the force from its near-total dependence on the rivers, and enabled Maude to establish a chain of advanced supply posts, depots, and military hospitals along the Tigris in preparation for the resumption of the advance. During 1917, the network of railways expanded particularly quickly as lines radiated outward from Basra and – after its capture in March – Baghdad. The expansion nevertheless occurred in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion and resulted in the growth of three disconnected clusters of railways of different gauges, and still dependent on India for the dispatch of often-substandard locomotives and rolling stock6.

The capture of Baghdad

With their local reorganisation nearing completion and the regional position more assured, the British advance on Baghdad resumed on 14 December 1916 when the MEF attacked the Ottoman positions at Hai. They established a foothold across the Hai tributary but heavy rains then delayed any further operation until 19 January 1917 when the town of Hai itself was captured. On 25 January, the MEF attacked the strategically-important Hai salient. This was a highly-professional assault that featured the preliminary registration of artillery, a creeping barrage and intense preliminary bombardment of Ottoman positions, and a coordinated infantry attack in four waves assisted by bombing raids and enfilade machine gun fire. It revealed the MEF to be in command of the most up-to-date training manuals then being disseminated to British troops on the Western Front in Europe. Despite taking heavy casualties, the MEF cleared the salient by 4 February 19177.

Maude immediately followed up this success by capturing Sannaiyaat on 23 February. This unlocked the strategic position and enabled the MEF to cross the Tigris and retake Kut al-Amara on 25 February, ten months after its loss had marked the nadir of the British war effort. The aftermath of the battle demonstrated the new prowess at Maude’s disposal as the retreating Ottoman units came under concerted fire from the Royal Flying Corps while armoured cars chased and harassed the withdrawing units. Following this, the advance halted temporarily to allow a succession of temporary riverheads and intermediate supply dumps to be established. On 4 March, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in London and the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army sanctioned the final push to Baghdad. This commenced on 5 March, and culminated six days later when the 35th Infantry Brigade marched into Baghdad to restore order and halt the looting that had started after the Ottoman evacuation the previous day8.

The capture of Baghdad represented a dazzling political triumph and the first big British success of the war. It went a considerable way to repairing the damage inflicted to notions of imperial prestige in 1916. Maude himself delivered his proclamation to the inhabitants of Baghdad pledging that his army did not come as a conqueror but as a liberator on 19 March. However, for all his bombast, the seizure of Baghdad neither ended the campaign in Mesopotamia nor brought military victory over the Ottoman Empire and the Central Powers any closer. This reflected the campaign’s peripheral status in the broader geo-strategic balance of forces as a growing mismatch developed between its continuation and wider military considerations. Yet the MEF kept up its operational tempo until the end of the war in November 1918, and continually increased its responsibilities, as a growing rift developed between the British civilian and military officials in Mesopotamia over the direction of the campaign and the scope of its objectives. This had incalculable long-term consequences as British ‘nation-building’ contributed not only to the creation of the modern state of Iraq but also triggered the violent backlash against foreign intervention in 1920 that continues to resonate today.

1Charles Townshend, When God Made Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq, 1914-1922, London: Faber & Faber, 2010 ; p. 335.

2Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, The logistics and politics of the British campaigns in the Middle East, 1914-21, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010; p. 52.

3Ibid.

4Ibid.

5Sir George Buchanan, ‘Port administration and river conservancy Department, MEF – Report for month ending June 30th, 1916,’ London, The National Archive, file WO 95/4993.

6‘Report by Major-General H.F.E. Freeland on the working and future development of the Port of Basra and of the river and railway communications in Mesopotamia, April 1918’, p. 9, London, TNA, file MUN 4/6517.

7Coates Ulrichsen, Logistics and Politics, p. 67.

8Lieutenant-General F.S. Maude, ‘Report on operations 28 August 1916 to 31 March 1917,’ London, TNA, file WO 32/5206.