Global Policy Forum

Iraq, 1917


By Robert Fisk

June 17, 2004

They came as liberators but were met by fierce resistance outside Baghdad. Humiliating treatment of prisoners and heavy-handed action in Najaf and Fallujah further alienated the local population. A planned handover of power proved unworkable. Britain's 1917 occupation of Iraq holds uncanny parallels with today - and if we want to know what will happen there next, we need only turn to our history books...

On the eve of our "handover" of "full sovereignty" to Iraq, this is a story of tragedy and folly and of dark foreboding. It is about the past-made-present, and our ability to copy blindly and to the very letter the lies and follies of our ancestors. It is about that admonition of antiquity: that if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. For Iraq 1917, read Iraq 2003. For Iraq 1920, read Iraq 2004 or 2005.

Yes, we are preparing to give "full sovereignty" to Iraq. That's also what the British falsely claimed more than 80 years ago. Come, then, and confront the looking glass of history, and see what America and Britain will do in the next 12 terrible months in Iraq.

Our story begins in March 1917 as 22-year-old Private 11072 Charles Dickens of the Cheshire Regiment peels a poster off a wall in the newly captured city of Baghdad. It is a turning point in his life. He has survived the hopeless Gallipoli campaign, attacking the Ottoman empire only 150 miles from its capital, Constantinople. He has then marched the length of Mesopotamia, fighting the Turks yet again for possession of the ancient caliphate, and enduring the grim battle for Baghdad. The British invasion army of 600,000 soldiers was led by Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude, and the sheet of paper that caught Private Dickens's attention was Maude's official "Proclamation" to the people of Baghdad, printed in English and Arabic.

That same 11in by 18in poster, now framed in black and gold, hangs on the wall a few feet from my desk as I write this story of empire and dark prophecy. Long ago, the paper was stained with damp - "foxed", as booksellers say - which may have been Private Dickens's perspiration in the long hot Iraqi summer of 1917. It has been folded many times; witness, as his daughter Hilda would recall 86 years later, to its presence in his army knapsack over many months.

In a letter to me, she called this "his precious document", and I can see why. It is filled with noble aspirations and presentiments of future tragedy; with the false promises of the world's greatest empire, commitments and good intentions; and with words of honour that were to be repeated in the same city of Baghdad by the next great empire more than two decades after Dickens's death. It reads now like a funeral dirge:


"Proclamation... Our military operations have as their object, the defeat of the enemy and the driving of him from these territories. In order to complete this task I am charged with absolute and supreme control of all regions in which British troops operate; but our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators... Your citizens have been subject to the tyranny of strangers... and your fathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage. Your sons have been carried off to wars not of your seeking, your wealth has been stripped from you by unjust men and squandered in different places. It is the wish not only of my King and his peoples, but it is also the wish of the great Nations with whom he is in alliance, that you should prosper even as in the past when your lands were fertile... But you, people of Baghdad... are not to understand that it is the wish of the British Government to impose upon you alien institutions. It is the hope of the British Government that the aspirations of your philosophers and writers shall be realised once again, that the people of Baghdad shall flourish, and shall enjoy their wealth and substance under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws and with their racial ideals... It is the hope and desire of the British people... that the Arab race may rise once more to greatness and renown amongst the peoples of the Earth... Therefore I am commanded to invite you, through your Nobles and Elders and Representatives, to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the Political Representative of Great Britain... so that you may unite with your kinsmen in the North, East, South and West, in realising the aspirations of your Race.

(signed) F.S. Maude, Lieutenant-General, Commanding the British Forces in Iraq."


Private Dickens spent the First World War fighting Muslims, first the Turks at Suvla Bay at Gallipoli and then the Turkish army - which included Iraqi soldiers - in Mesopotamia. He spoke "often and admirably," his daughter would recall, of one of his commanders, General Sir Charles Munro, who at 55 had fought in the last months of the Gallipoli campaign and then landed at Basra in southern Iraq at the start of the British invasion.

But Munro's leadership did not save Dickens's sister's nephew, Samuel Martin, who was killed by the Turks at Basra. Hilda remembers: "My father told of how killing a Turk, he thought it was in revenge for the death of his 'nephew'. I don't know if they were in the same battalion, but they were a similar age, 22 years."

In all, Britain lost 40,000 men in the Mesopotamian campaign. The British had been proud of their initial occupation of Basra. More than 80 years later, Shameem Bhatia, a British Muslim whose family came from Pakistan, would send me an amused letter, along with a series of 12 very old postcards, which were printed by The Times of India in Bombay on behalf of the Indian YMCA. One of them showed British artillery amid the Basra date palms; another a soldier in a pith helmet, turning towards the camera as his comrades tether horses behind him; others the crew of a British gunboat on the Shatt al-Arab river, and the Turkish-held town of Kurna, one of its buildings shattered by British shellfire, shortly before its surrender. The ruins then looked, of course, identical to the Iraqi ruins of today. There are only so many ways in which a shell can smash through a home.

As long ago as 1914, a senior British official was told by "local [Arab] notables" that "we should be received in Baghdad with the same cordiality [as in southern Iraq] and that the Turkish troops would offer little if any opposition". But the British invasion of Iraq had originally failed. When Major-General Charles Townshend took 13,000 men up the banks of the Tigris towards Baghdad, he was surrounded and defeated by Turkish forces at Kut al-Amara. His surrender was the most comprehensive of military disasters, ending in a death march to Turkey for those British troops who had not been killed in battle.

The graves of 500 of them in the Kut War Cemetery sank into sewage during the period of United Nations sanctions that followed Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, when spare parts for the pumps needed to keep sewage from the graves were not supplied to Iraq. Visiting the cemetery in 1998, my colleague Patrick Cockburn found "tombstones... still just visible above the slimy green water. A broken cement cross sticks out of a reed bed... A quagmire in which thousands of little green frogs swarm like cockroaches as they feed on garbage."

Baghdad looked much the same when Private Dickens arrived in 1917. Less than two years earlier, a visitor had described a city whose streets "gaped emptily. The shops were mostly closed... In the Christian cemetery east of the high road leading to Persia, coffins and half-mouldering skeletons were floating. On account of the Cholera which was ravaging the town [three hundred people were dying of it every day] the Christian dead were now being buried on the new embankment of the high road, so that people walking and riding not only had to pass by but even to make their way among and over the graves... There was no longer any life in the town."

The British occupation was dark with historical precedent. There was, of course, no "cordial" reception of British troops in Baghdad. Indeed, Iraqi troops who had been serving with the Turkish army but who "always entertained friendly ideas towards the English" were jailed - not in Abu Ghraib, but in India - and found that while in prison there they were "insulted and humiliated in every way". These same prisoners wanted to know if the British would hand Iraq over to Sherif Hussein of the Hejaz - to whom the British had made fulsome and ultimately mendacious promises of "independence" for the Arab world if he fought alongside the Allies against the Turks - on the grounds that "some of the Holy Moslem Shrines are located in Mesopotamia".

British officials believed that control of Mesopotamia would safeguard British oil interests in Persia (the initial occupation of Basra was ostensibly designed to do that) and that "clearly it is our right and duty, if we sacrifice so much for the peace of the world, that we should see to it we have compensation, or we may defeat our end" - which was not how Lt-Gen Maude expressed Britain's ambitions in his famous proclamation in 1917.

Earl Asquith was to write in his memoirs that he and Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, agreed in 1915 that "taking Mesopotamia... means spending millions in irrigation and development". Which is precisely what President George Bush was forced to do only months after his illegal invasion in 2003.

Those who want to wallow in even more ghastly historical parallels should turn to the magnificent research of the Iraqi scholar Ghassan Attiyah, whose volume on the British occupation was published in Beirut long before Saddam's regime took over Iraq, at a time when Iraqi as well as British archives of the period were still available. Attiyah's Iraq, 1902-1921: A Socio-Political Study, written 30 years before the Anglo-American invasion, should be read by all Western "statesmen" planning to occupy Arab countries.

As Attiyah discovered, the British, once they were installed in Baghdad, decided in the winter of 1917 that Iraq would have to be governed and reconstructed by a "council" formed partly of British advisers "and partly of representative non-official members from among the inhabitants". The copycat 2003 version of this "council" was, of course, the Interim Governing Council, supposedly the brainchild of Maude's American successor, Paul Bremer.

Later, the British thought they would like "a cabinet half of natives and half of British officials, behind which might be an administrative council, or some advisory body consisting entirely of prominent natives". The traveller and scholar Gertrude Bell, who became "oriental secretary" to the British military occupation authority, had no doubts about Iraqi public opinion: "The stronger the hold we are able to keep here the better the inhabitants will be pleased... They can't conceive an independent Arab government. Nor, I confess, can I. There is no one here who could run it."

Again, this was far from the noble aspirations of Maude's proclamation issued * * 11 months earlier. Nor would the Iraqis have been surprised had they been told (which, of course, they were not) that Maude strongly opposed the very proclamation that appeared over his name, and which in fact had been written by Sir Mark Sykes - the very same Sykes who had drawn up the secret 1916 agreement with F Georges-Picot for French and British control over much of the post-war Middle East.

But, by September 1919, even journalists were beginning to grasp that Britain's plans for Iraq were founded upon illusions. "I imagine," the correspondent for The Times wrote on 23 September, "that the view held by many English people about Mesopotamia is that the local inhabitants will welcome us because we have saved them from the Turks, and that the country only needs developing to repay a large expenditure of English lives and English money. Neither of these ideals will bear much examination... From the political point of view we are asking the Arab to exchange his pride and independence for a little Western civilisation, the profits of which must be largely absorbed by the expenses of administration."

Within six months, Britain was fighting a military insurrection in Iraq and David Lloyd George, the prime minister, was facing calls for a military withdrawal. "Is it not for the benefit of the people of that country that it should be governed so as to enable them to develop this land which has been withered and shrivelled up by oppression? What would happen if we withdrew?" Lloyd George would not abandon Iraq to "anarchy and confusion". By this stage, British officials in Baghdad were blaming the violence on "local political agitation, originated outside Iraq", suggesting that Syria might be involved.

Come again? Could history repeat itself so perfectly? For Lloyd George's "anarchy", read any statement from the American occupation power warning of "civil war" in the event of a Western withdrawal. For Syria - well, read Syria.

AT Wilson, the senior British official in Iraq in 1920, took a predictable line. "We cannot maintain our position... by a policy of conciliation of extremists. Having set our hand to the task of regenerating Mesopotamia, we must be prepared to furnish men and money... We must be prepared... to go very slowly with constitutional and democratic institutions."

There was fighting in the Shia town of Kufa and a British siege of Najaf after a British official was murdered. The British demanded "the unconditional surrender of the murderers and others concerned in the plot", and the leading Shia divine, Sayed Khadum Yazdi, abstained from supporting the rebellion and shut himself up in his house. Eleven of the insurgents were executed. A local sheikh, Badr al-Rumaydh, became a target. "Badr must be killed or captured, and a relentless pursuit of the man till this object is obtained should be carried out," a British political officer wrote.

The British now realised that they had made one big political mistake. They had alienated a major political group in Iraq - the ex-Turkish Iraqi officials and officers. The ranks of the disaffected swelled. For Kufa 1920, read Kufa 2004. For Najaf 1920, read Najaf 2004. For Yazdi, read Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. For Badr, read Muqtada al-Sadr.

In 1920, another insurgency broke out in the area of Fallujah, where Sheikh Dhari killed a British officer, Colonel Leachman, and cut rail traffic between Fallujah and Baghdad. The British advanced towards Fallujah and inflicted "heavy punishment" on the tribe. For Fallujah, of course, read Fallujah. And the location of the heavy punishment? Today it is known as Khan Dari - and it was the scene of the first killing of a US soldier by a roadside bomb in 2003.

In desperation, the British needed "to complete the faç ade of the Arab government". And so, with Winston Churchill's enthusiastic support, the British gave the throne of Iraq to the Hashemite King Faisal, the son of Sherif Hussein, a consolation prize for the man the French had just thrown out of Damascus. Paris was having no kings in its own mandated territory of Syria. Henceforth, the British government - deprived of reconstruction funds by an international recession, and confronted by an increasingly unwilling soldiery, which had fought during the 1914-18 war and was waiting for demobilisation - would rely on air power to impose its wishes.

There are no kings to impose on Iraq today (the former Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan pulled his hat out of the ring just before the invasion), so we have installed Iyad Allawi, the former CIA "asset", as prime minister in the hope that he can provide the same sovereign wallpaper as Faisal once did. Our soldiers can hide out in the desert, hopefully unattacked, unless they are needed to shore up the tottering power of our present-day "Faisal".

And so we come to the immediate future of Iraq. How are we to "control" Iraq while claiming that we have handed over "full sovereignty"? Again, the archives come to our rescue. The Royal Air Force, again with Churchill's support, bombed rebellious villages and dissident tribesmen in Iraq. Churchill urged the employment of mustard gas, which had been used against Shia rebels in 1920.

Squadron Leader Arthur Harris, later Marshal of the Royal Air Force and the man who perfected the firestorm destruction of Hamburg, Dresden and other great German cities in the Second World War, was employed to refine the bombing of Iraqi insurgents. The RAF found, he wrote much later, "that by burning down their reed-hutted villages, after we'd warned them to get out, we put them to the maximum amount of inconvenience, without physical hurt [sic], and they soon stopped their raiding and looting..."

This was what, in its emasculation of the English language, the Pentagon would now call "war lite". But the bombing was not as surgical as Harris's official biographer would suggest. In 1924, he had admitted that "they [the Arabs and Kurds] now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured".

TE Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - remarked in a 1920 letter to The Observer that "it is odd that we do not use poison gas on these occasions". Air Commodore Lionel Charlton was so appalled at the casualties inflicted on innocent villagers that he resigned his post as Senior Air Staff Officer Iraq because he could no longer "maintain the policy of intimidation by bomb". He had visited an Iraqi hospital to find it full of wounded tribesmen. After the RAF had bombed the Kurdish rebel city of Sulaymaniyah, Charlton "knew the crowded life of these settlements and pictured with horror the arrival of a bomb, without warning, in the midst of a market gathering or in the bazaar quarter. Men, women and children would suffer equally."

Already, we have seen the use of almost indiscriminate air power by the American forces in Iraq: the destruction of homes in "dissident" villages, the bombing of mosques where weapons are allegedly concealed, the slaughter-by-air-strike of "terrorists" near the Syrian border, who turned out to be a wedding party. Much the same policy has been adopted in the already abandoned "democracy" of Afghanistan.

As for the soldiers, we couldn't ship our corpses home in the heat of the Middle East 80 years ago, so we buried them in the great North Wall Cemetery in Baghdad, where they lie to this day, most of them in their late teens and twenties. We didn't hide their coffins. Their last resting place is still there for all to see today, opposite the ruins of the suicide-bombed Turkish embassy.

As for the gravestone of Samuel Martin, it stood for years in the British war cemetery in Basra with the following inscription: "In Memory of Private Samuel Martin 24384, 8th Bn, Cheshire Regiment who died on Sunday 9 April 1916. Private Martin, son of George and Sarah Martin, of the Beech Tree Inn, Barnton, Northwich, Cheshire."

In the gales of shellfire that swept Basra during the 1980-88 war with Iran, the cemetery was destroyed and looted and many gravestones shattered beyond repair. When I visited the cemetery in the chaotic months after the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, I found wild dogs roaming between the broken headstones. Even the brass fittings of the central memorial had been stolen. Sic transit gloria.



More Information on Iraq
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More Information on Historical Background
More Information on British Colonialism and Repression in Iraq


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