Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia

Overview

The U.S.-led conquest and occupation of Iraq have kept that troubled country in international headlines since 2003. For America’s major Coalition ally, Great Britain, however, this latest incursion into the region played out against the dramatic backdrop of imperial history: Britain’s fateful invasion of Mesopotamia in 1914 and the creation of a new nation from the shards of war.

The objectives of the expedition sent by the British Government of India were primarily strategic: ...

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Desert Hell

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Overview

The U.S.-led conquest and occupation of Iraq have kept that troubled country in international headlines since 2003. For America’s major Coalition ally, Great Britain, however, this latest incursion into the region played out against the dramatic backdrop of imperial history: Britain’s fateful invasion of Mesopotamia in 1914 and the creation of a new nation from the shards of war.

The objectives of the expedition sent by the British Government of India were primarily strategic: to protect the Raj, impress Britain’s military power upon Arabs chafing under Ottoman rule, and secure the Persian oil supply. But over the course of the Mesopotamian campaign, these goals expanded, and by the end of World War I Britain was committed to controlling the entire region from Suez to India. The conquest of Mesopotamia and the creation of Iraq were the central acts in this boldly opportunistic bid for supremacy. Charles Townshend provides a compelling account of the atrocious, unnecessary suffering inflicted on the expedition’s mostly Indian troops, which set the pattern for Britain’s follow-up campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan over the next seven years. He chronicles the overconfidence, incompetence, and dangerously vague policy that distorted the mission, and examines the steps by which an initially cautious strategic operation led to imperial expansion on a vast scale.

Desert Hell is a cautionary tale for makers of national policy. And for those with an interest in imperial history, it raises searching questions about Britain’s quest for global power and the indelible consequences of those actions for the Middle East and the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Literary Review

[A] riveting history of Britain's initially ill-fated invasion of Mesopotamia (it only became Iraq when the British created that country and gave it a king in 1921), it is difficult to escape the conclusion that foreign powers invariably receive a bloody nose when they intervene in Iraq.
— Justin Marozzi

New Republic online

This book is an exquisite history of the excruciatingly difficult, perhaps pointless, often disastrous British invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia between 1914 and 1924...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...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.
— Reuel Marc Gerecht

Weekly Standard

It is a harrowing story of a failure of strategic vision, policy drift, a massive disunity of effort, and poor execution. For the soldiers tasked with implementing the campaign, it truly was a "desert hell."
— Mackubin Thomas Owens

Choice

Townshend has written more than a campaign history; his book pays equal attention to civil affairs and diplomacy, following events to the establishment of the Iraqi monarchy in 1921.
— J. R. Breihan

Literary Review - Justin Marozzi
[A] riveting history of Britain's initially ill-fated invasion of Mesopotamia (it only became Iraq when the British created that country and gave it a king in 1921), it is difficult to escape the conclusion that foreign powers invariably receive a bloody nose when they intervene in Iraq.
New Republic online - Reuel Marc Gerecht
This book is an exquisite history of the excruciatingly difficult, perhaps pointless, often disastrous British invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia between 1914 and 1924...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...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.
Weekly Standard - Mackubin Thomas Owens
It is a harrowing story of a failure of strategic vision, policy drift, a massive disunity of effort, and poor execution. For the soldiers tasked with implementing the campaign, it truly was a "desert hell."
Choice - J. R. Breihan
Townshend has written more than a campaign history; his book pays equal attention to civil affairs and diplomacy, following events to the establishment of the Iraqi monarchy in 1921.
Library Journal
Britain invaded Iraq in 1914 both to weaken the Ottoman Empire and to defeat the Central powers in World War I. The successful landing at Basra disintegrated into a costly stalemate; conflicting diplomatic positions from Cairo, London, and India led to huge military losses and suffering. Townshend (international history, Keele Univ., UK) brings together extensive primary and secondary source research to present the human cost of the inept political leadership of a British Empire still pursuing imperialist goals. Once its troops defeated the fading Ottoman forces, Britain had to deal with unanticipated long-term responsibilities. In a book packed with colorful personalities and military and political details, Townshend's focus on these painful war years spurs the reader to wonder whether 21st-century American leaders would have been more cautious about Iraq if they'd understood this history. VERDICT Covering a minor front in World War I, the book is so thorough it's sometimes hard to follow. Yet it will be of great interest to patient readers willing to work to understand how irresponsible imperial powers can bring damaging consequences both to their victims and to their own interests.—Elizabeth R. Hayford, formerly with Associated Colls. of the Midwest, Evanston, IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674059993
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2011
  • Pages: 624
  • Product dimensions: 9.22 (w) x 6.46 (h) x 1.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Townshend is Professor of International History at Keele University.
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Table of Contents

List of Plates ix

List of Abbreviations xi

Author's Note xiii

Maps xv

Introduction xxi

Part I Basra

1 Into Mesopotamia 3

2 'An unexpected stroke' 11

3 Turks and Indians 23

4 Basra 30

5 'Conciliating the Arabs' 41

6 Qurna 61

7 'Morally responsible to humanity and to civilization' 72

8 'One of the decisive battles of the world' 83

9 Townshend's Regatta 95

10 Up the Euphrates 109

11 To Kut 120

Part II Kut

1 To Baghdad? 133

2 To Salman Pak 144

3 Ctesiphon 157

4 Retreat 167

5 Under Siege 180

6 To the Rescue 192

7 Marking Time 207

8 Flood and Famine 213

9 Dujaila: The Second Battle for Kut 224

10 Failure 232

11 Surrender 249

Part III Baghdad

1 Policy Paralysed: Egypt v India 259

2 Administration and Punishment 272

3 Retooling the Army 288

4 Captivity 304

5 Inquiry 324

6 Maude's Offensive: The Third Battle for Kut 337

7 Baghdad at Last 360

8 Maude's Moment 369

Part IV Mosul

1 Northern Exposure 387

2 Maude's End 397

3 Strengthening the Hold 403

4 Caucasian Fantasies 418

5 Victory 432

6 Self-Determination? 440

7 Retrenchment 453

8 Rebellion 463

9 Kingdom Come 479

10 Kurdistan for the Kurds? 493

11 The World Decides 514

Afterword 519

Notes 528

Bibliography 555

Index 563

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