Nothing to Fall Back On
- Tigris Gunboats: The Forgotten War in Iraq 1914-17 by Wilfred Nunn
Chatham, 288 pp, £19.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 1 86176 308 2
When units of the British army seized Basra in April 2003, they were gratified to find that the gates of the main prison (too heavy to be carried away by looters, apparently) had been made by a Sheffield iron foundry in the 1920s. Similarly, there were many Britons who took a quiet – and, as it turned out, wholly misplaced – satisfaction from the repeated view that the British understood Iraq much better than the jumped-up Americans because they had been in at the country’s creation. After all, the US army’s ‘tribal affairs officer’, appointed in 2003, had a handbook on the tribes of Iraq that had been published by the British War Office in 1919. It was given to him by a group of tribal sheikhs who felt that it granted them the recognition they deserved.
Vol. 29 No. 15 · 2 August 2007
‘There is no sense that the British were at this stage thinking of establishing a state or a new political order,’ Charles Tripp writes of Mesopotamia during the First World War, ‘even though the chief political officer, Sir Percy Cox, tends to pop up after any substantial town is taken’ (LRB, 5 July). But Janet Wallach’s biography of Gertrude Bell, Desert Queen, makes clear that Bell, who wrote the 1919 handbook on the tribes of Iraq which is mentioned by Tripp, frequently discussed with Cox the new political order which should be put into place after the war. The manoeuvring to form a new ‘Iraq’ out of the old ‘Mesopotamia’ started almost as soon as the war itself.
Charles Tripp writes: In 1914 Gertrude Bell, far from thinking about how ‘Iraq’ might emerge from ‘Mesopotamia’, was in France with the Red Cross. She didn’t go to work at the Arab Bureau on Middle Eastern affairs in Cairo until late 1915, and arrived in Basra in March 1916. Bell and Cox were mainly concerned with the administration of the areas occupied by British forces and with schemes to subvert the Arab populations behind Ottoman lines. When T.E. Lawrence visited in April 1916 he persuaded Bell that Mesopotamia was ‘part of Arabia … indissolubly connected’ to the larger ‘Arab question’. But it wasn’t until after the fall of Baghdad in 1917 and, more particularly, after the 1918 Armistice that Bell and the others started to think seriously about turning the three occupied Ottoman provinces into a unitary state, later to be called Iraq.