Nothing to Fall Back On

Charles Tripp

  • 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.

Throughout the early years of the recent US-British invasion and occupation of Iraq, there were many such traces and echoes of the first British conquest. The territorial state itself was the most obvious monument. But the Commonwealth war cemeteries and the cenotaph of General Sir Stanley Maude in Baghdad, the city he took in 1917, were tangible reminders of the violence of those years. Place names, too, such as Kut al-Amara, Qurna (as in the song, ‘If Qurna’s the garden of Eden, where the dickens is ’ell?’), Ctesiphon, Tal Afar, all had associations with triumphs and defeats of the British army. Shu’aiba, near the military encampment and air base to which British forces and officials are now retreating, leaving Basra to its fate, was also the site of the first major British victory against Ottoman forces in 1915. As the British prepare to withdraw from Iraq, it is tempting to see things coming full circle and ending where they began.

Of course, one should be wary of facile parallels. Basra, like the rest of Iraq, has changed immeasurably over the past ninety years. Yet the interest aroused by such deceptive familiarity is real enough. It is this, presumably, that has led to the republication of Vice-Admiral Wilfred Nunn’s Tigris Gunboats, with a new introduction by Jeremy Greenstock, the British representative in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. Nunn was the commander of a warship, HMS Espiègle, sent to protect British oil interests in Abadan in the autumn of 1914. He became the senior naval officer in this theatre of war and took part, with his flotilla of gunboats, in the campaign that finally led to the capture of Baghdad in 1917.

As might be expected, this is very much a naval officer’s account of military operations. The only recognisable aspect of Iraq – Nunn’s story ends before the state even came into existence – is the astonishing watery landscape of the south of the country at certain times of year, and even that has changed to some extent. Nunn’s is by no means a poetic account of the rivers and marshes of the lower Tigris. Every rise and fall of water levels, every flood, every twist and turn of the river is assessed for the obstacles or advantages it represents for Nunn’s gunboats and for the infantry trudging along the banks. The islands that dot the limitless waterscape around Qurna are described not for their picturesque qualities, but because they are the sites of Ottoman artillery batteries. Practical and military as these descriptions are, they all the same delimit an extraordinary waterland in which the gunboats forge ahead, through the busy river traffic of graceful mahailas, narrow balams and the strange, vast, coracle-shaped quffas. Equally evocative are the descriptions of what happens when the water levels fall, the temperature rises and the landscape turns to dust.

As for the inhabitants of Iraq, they feature mainly as figures seen from the deck of a gunboat, though Nunn’s description of the sport to be had in Basra in 1916 – ‘so occasionally, instead of Turks and Arabs, we had a pot at the sand-grouse’ – was not meant to be taken too seriously. Still, Nunn was writing at a time and for a readership that shared many of his prejudices: Turks were ‘cruel’, Arabs ‘treacherous’ and Jews intent on real-estate deals. The Kurds only get a look in when Nunn refers to their looting and burning of buildings in Baghdad in the hiatus between the departure of the Ottomans and the arrival of British troops. Interestingly, these contemptuous stereotypes, the comforting armour of a servant of the British Empire, do not hold up when Nunn describes the individuals he encounters. The book includes many sympathetic sketches of particular Ottoman officers, Arab tribesmen, sheikhs and others.

Behind the story of the conquest of Mesopotamia – the triumphs and setbacks, the disaster of the siege and then surrender of Kut – there is a story of an opportunistic and almost amateurish military expedition. Its initial purpose was to protect the Iranian oil wells, pipeline and port of Abadan. The men organising and executing it were not up to exploiting the other opportunities it offered. The chaotic Ottoman defence of Basra, Qurna, Amara and Kut lured the British generals deeper and deeper into Mesopotamia, mesmerised by the possibility of capturing Baghdad, though they had not made sure that they had the resources to do so. The India Office controlled policy, but had no idea if the expeditionary force was capable of carrying it out; the government of India jealously kept the direction of the expedition to itself, but failed to make the necessary preparations for the largescale undertaking to which it had committed thousands of troops; the Indian Army generals on the ground seem to have been either incompetent or fired by ambition that blinded them to other considerations.

Major-General Townshend, for example, pressed on northwards to Ctesiphon in 1915, which brought him within thirty miles or so of Baghdad. He did so against his better judgment, knowing that he had a relatively small force, no reserves and overstretched lines of communication. He was what was known at the time as a ‘thruster’, referring to his efforts at self-promotion and advancement rather than his military tactics. He met the Ottoman forces in an indecisive and costly battle, then found that he had nothing to fall back on when the Ottomans counterattacked under the inspired leadership of Khalil Pasha.

The British army retreated to Kut, where Townshend believed he could withstand a siege of some months, giving the British high command plenty of time to organise a relief expedition. He held out against the Ottoman forces all right, since they were wise enough not to try a full-frontal assault on prepared defences. But after four months or so he had to surrender, driven to it by starvation and the realisation that none of the British columns sent out from Basra was likely to get through to lift the siege. Townshend and the twelve thousand British and Indian soldiers with him were marched off into captivity; more than four thousand of them died in prison, doomed by indecision and incompetence on the part of the other British generals and their staff.

Nunn is a loyal officer who says nothing about the shortcomings of his colleagues, stressing rather the excellent co-operation between all branches of the services. But he cannot conceal the improvised and patchy nature of the campaign, or the sense that there were insufficient resources to complete such a vast undertaking. He also hints at some of Townshend’s peculiarities, including his obsession with Napoleon and his belief that Napoleon’s example held lessons for the Mesopotamia campaign. This is confirmed in Townshend’s extraordinary book, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (1920), probably the most deluded and self-justifying memoir to have come out of Iraq before Paul Bremer’s unintentionally hilarious My Year in Iraq, published last year.

The disaster at Kut did, however, alert the British public and Parliament that all was not going as well as had been claimed. Once the outpouring of sympathy for the men of the ‘lost army’ and praise for their heroism had subsided, pressure built for an enquiry into what had gone wrong. Reluctantly, the government established the Mesopotamia Commission, which in 1917 delivered its damning judgment on the motives, conduct and incapacity of those who had sent so many to die in Mesopotamia.

The British government did not wait for this report to come out before making radical changes in its conduct of the campaign. The War Office took complete control, placing operations directly under the Imperial General Staff, and in the summer of 1916 appointing General Maude to overall command. With a professionalism and thoroughness lacking in his predecessors, Maude set about building up an army and a logistical base that would support his systematic campaign for the conquest of Mesopotamia. By March 1917 he had captured Baghdad, leading an army of more than 200,000 men. The campaign slowed down after Maude’s death in November, in part because of the ponderous nature of this huge military apparatus.

The British then were fighting a conventional army in a conventional way, but some of Nunn’s sentences give a curious frisson of recognition: ‘Their forces were augmented by great numbers of hostile Arabs, who, with their intimate knowledge of the country and of the narrow channels through the swamps and marshy plains, were a dangerous, uncertain and elusive enemy.’ There is no sense that the British were at this stage thinking of establishing a state or a new political order, even though the chief political officer, Sir Percy Cox, tends to pop up after any substantial town is taken, often to read a proclamation in Arabic to the assembled notables.

It is in the postwar political settlement and in the kind of order that the British set about establishing, helping to define Iraq but also to shape its political society in very particular ways, that more disconcerting parallels with the present arise: developing the Iraqi armed forces as an internal security force; promoting the forms of democratic and representative life while condoning the emergence of systems of power founded on principles of communal, family and tribal association; using economic privileges as a way to create vested interests in a deeply inegalitarian political order; marginalising whole sections of Iraqi society because they were judged unfit to play a role in the kind of state the British wanted to see built in Iraq. All these have parallels with present US-led efforts at state building. This is not because of some timeless quality of the land of the two rivers. Rather, it follows the logic of power exercised by outsiders who have always seen the country as a means to an end, not an end in itself.