Enemy on the Euphrates: Review by Mark Barnes

Turn on the TV news any time now and you will see that unhappy land of Iraq seized in another bout of murderous sectarian turmoil. Commentators are keen to tell us that this has always been the case and that it took the evil of despots like Saddam Hussain to keep it all in check. Thanks to the 2003 invasion, an event that continues to hang over the reputations of Messrs Bush and Blair like an incontinent vulture; the shackles on religious hotbloods have been well and truly unleashed and show little sign of abating.

So, try and get your head round the idea of a major western power, invading Iraq to overthrow a despotic regime and, with it, securing huge mineral wealth for itself. What a ridiculous notion..er..LOL. Whatever the truths you might believe or otherwise about 2003 you might be surprised that the scenario beloved by conspiracy theorists and a broad church of malcontents today was the reality back in the Great War. But, at that time there was no protest in London or anywhere else outside of Iraq. The thing just happened.

Admiral Jackie Fisher wanted the Royal Navy’s battle fleet to run on oil. Coal had had its day. The British looked far and wide to see where they would get sufficient and secure supplies ofoil and, it so happened; there was a lot of it in an Arabia. The Ottoman Empire, the sick man of Europe, tottered into the Great War on the side of Germany, giving the British the blank canvass of a war against the Turks. It soon got coloured in with a succession of campaigns – the best known being at Gallipoli and the most successful being in Egypt and Palestine. In what was then called Mesopotamia the British overstretched themselves following the chimera of success and hit the wall in unpleasant fashion at Kut-al-Amarra in 1916. But disaster was followed by eventual victory and amidst this flush of glory cold thinking types demanded advances north into Kurdish and Shia lands to dominate the great fields of oil scientists had detected. Here was the fuel that would feed the mighty ships of the Royal Navy for decades to come.But there were problems.

With victory in the war assured the British set about running Mesopotamia with gusto. Political officers fanned out to make rules, collect taxes and continuously remind the locals how grateful they must be for their liberation from the Turks and for having the umbrella of British imperial enlightenment to shield them. Many of these officers were keen and genuine in the belief they were doing great things and some good was done. Still more were imbued with the arrogance of their racial superiority over a people seen as a bunch of ignorant thieving halfwits. But the problem was the imperial wisdom the British took with them ignored so much of the reality about the system the Turks had presided over. For all their faults the Ottomans knew how to allow tribal, cultural and religious matters take their course. They knew they had to keep the multi-layered structure of Arab society on side.

But the British had other ideas on governance. Zealous taxation and other forms of bullying built up intense resentment in a people who had largely got by under the Turks and who, indeed, had fought for them in a clear indication of religious and cultural understanding against the infidel. Incidences of casual brutality and an immense slice of ignorance ruled the day. It is so easy to put the recognition of this down to hindsight, but the collective blindness of the men controlling the new colony from Baghdad, London and Delhi was so stupendous, if there were dissenting voices anywhere from within the imperial machine, they were silenced by the interests of power and oil.

Rebellion was inevitable and when it came the British were shocked at the scale and ferocity. Shia and Sunni set aside the intense differences we see today and united in a joint mission to throw the English out. They failed thanks to overstretching themselves and the gradual build-up of British forces – you might call it a surge.

This thought provoking book from Ian Rutledge doesn’t mince words in abject condemnation and antipathy towards just about all the British figures we meet. The author chose to learn Arabic for the ability to tell the story in the way he wanted. He is so patently on the side of the Arabs I can’t help but feel a degree of balance is lost. But, how could you not support the Iraqi rebels in the face of so much bullying and arrogance on the part of the men sent to guide them towards building a puppet regime it was intended would always favour Albion? The cynicism of this imperial policy is so transparent; repudiation is just about the only option available to any historian. It stinks! Where did these men get the idea that the people they had liberated in 1918 were incapable of creating an intricate and multi-faceted society they could carry into their own independent state?

Many of the best known European actors from the story of the Middle East of the Great War era are here and they all suffer from the caustic analysis of the author. I am mindful of the recent book on TE Lawrence that I reviewed which gave us a somewhat different Ned to the man we see here, re-enforcing the fact that the man is all things to all men in ways which never give a unanimous verdict. But Lawrence has only a bit part in this drama. Other men would take a prominent role. The well-healed set who flirted with Arabia and its history – most prominently Gertrude Bell and the dangerous Mark Sykes – get a decent zapping from the laser guided eye of the author. How these people could move so effortlessly through the corridors of power, cast as experts, is shocking; but such was the power of the British establishment in those times.

It’s pretty difficult to come away with anything much good to say about any of the Brits found in this saga. Many were spiteful and vicious. I remember a time when there was a simplistic pride in how the RAF policed the unruly region, bombing villages and burning fields. But the book explains why this happened and not just how. This is an important difference to the two-dimensional history we are often presented with. No wonder the aircrew needed those Goolie Chitspromising gold if they were unharmed.

There is some emphasis onthe misapprehension of how the story of post Great War Iraq was suppressed when in fact nobody really cared enough to take notice. When things went badly for the British, and believe me, it did; the London papers more or less stuck to the script of ungrateful thieving Arabs stoked up by Turks or Bolsheviks to make trouble. The scandal remains more about what was being done to stop them, not what they were doing and why.

Much of the hardest fighting was done by Indian soldiery; the regular fire brigade in that part of Britain’s imperial garden. But British battalions fought, too, some being wiped out by overwhelming numbers of committed and angry opponents. This was all deeply embarrassing for His Majesty’s government and a cash strapped army. Churchill mooted the idea of using poison gas on the tribesmen facing them. In the end the conventional weapons of the RAF and the actions of the rebels themselves proved to be enough to snuff out any gains they had made leaving a lifelong loathing for the British instilled in so many otherwise moderate thinkers.

Take yourself back just eleven years from today and it is easy to draw the parallels of Britain’s flawed and unpleasant policy towards a people to whom they had promised genuine independence with some of the disastrous thinking behind the occupation of Iraq in 2003. There really is no currency in trying to export and enforce the institutions of one culture on another when they are so confident and comfortable with their own. Time will always tell. But the British elite of 1920 had no need for taking lessons in the rights and wrongs of their political, racial and cultural imperialism from mere natives of an uncivilised land. When you see uncivilised you kind of want to read un-pacified. In some ways they mean the same thing in stories like this and history is littered with them right up to the next time you read a paper or watch the TV news.

I like to think this book might find a place on the shelves of the grand libraries of the RUSI, Sandhurst or West Point. The leaders and thinkers of tomorrow need all the lessons they can get from history. While there are elements to this book I found difficult, it hits all the right spots and it’s sincerity is all encompassing. Even now the great powers are considering their options in response to events in Iraq. Perhaps the true power of religious and tribal fervour is something we just can’t stop ourselves meddling in. That it will all end in tears is something we can take for granted but whether we can stop ourselves from making things much worse is another matter altogether.

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

The British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt 1914-1921
By Ian Rutledge
ISBN: 978 0 86356B 762 9

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.