World War I: The Middle East--Mesopotamia

World War I Mesopotamia campaigns
Figure 1.--Here British forces are entering Baghdad (February 1917). What is most notable about his photograph was that except for the British Army and the telegraph pole, the photograph could easily have been taken centuries earlier. We see no sign of economic and technological progress abd remember this is Baghdad, not some remore poriovincial village. The Iraqis and Areabs in general are prone to blame the British and French for their current problems. This and similar photiographs record dramatically what thecBritish abd French foundcwhen they entered Arab lands. It was the Briruish abhd cFrench, wht ever the motives, that brought modern technology and ideas to the Arabs who had been living a life little changed from a millenia earlier. Few Arabs today ask themselves why were Arab lands such a cultural backwater for such a long period before the Europans arrived.

There was another Middle Eastern front to the east of Egypt and Palestine in Mesopotamia which at the time was an Ottoman province. This is a little known campaign of the War. The Ottomans when entering the War were focused primarily on winning back land lost to the Russians and to a lesser exten the lure of Suez. They did not anticipate having to fight a campsign in Mesopotami, a quiet backwater of their Empire. The Royal Navy gave the British the capability of striking in the rear of the Ottomn Empire. Shortly after the outbreak of the War, the British sent a small force to protect Abadan, part of Persia. One of the world's earliest oil refineries was located there. British operational planning included land troops in the Shatt-al-Arab. A reinforced Indian 6th (Poona) Infantry Division from the British Indian Army was designated as Indian Expeditionary Force D (IEFD). The Ottomans were surprised by the Broitish invadsion, but managed to destroy a small British Indian army at Kut al-Amara in modern Iraq. The Ottomans after the War's longest seige forced an entire division to surrender. British Empire forces reorganized and launched a second Mesopotamis campign with a larger, better equipped force. The British captured Baghdad (March 1917). The British victory would lead to the creation of the modern state of Iraq.


Ancient Mesopotamia was the very craddel of civillization. Alexander conquered Mesopotamia as part of his destruction of the Persian Empire. It was later contested by the Roman amd Persians (Seleucids and Parthians). Mesopotamia was then the center of the Islamic Caliphate, one of the jewels of civilization. Then the Islamic world began to decline as religious zealots discouraged learning. Than Mongol armies devestated the Arab world. As a result virtually no material or technological progress was observable in Mesopotamis for centuries. Turkish tribes from the north expanded their control into Mesopotamia (late-14th century). the Black Sheep Turkmen seized Mesopotamia. The White Sheep Turkmen defeated the Black Sheep and replaced them as the rulers of Mesoptamia (1466). The expanding Ottomn Empire moved into Arab lands to the south of Anatolia (16th century). They acquired Mesopotamia (1533). The Ottomans ruled Mesopotamia as the pashalik of Baghdad. Throughout most of the Ottoman period, Mesopotamia was a contested area. The Persians pressed from theceast. There were also complicated tribal alliances. The Ottomans divided Mesopotamia into three vilayets (administrative regions): Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The Safavid dynasty of Persia managed to seize Mesopotamia for brief periods (1508-33 and 1622-38). There was also a period of Egyptian Manluk rule (1747-1831). The Mamluks were a military class of Georgian Christian origin who succeeded in obtaining autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. They suppressed tribal revolts, curbed the power of the Janissaries, restored order and attempted a program of modernization for both the economy and military. The Ottomans managed to defeat the Mamluks and reimpose impose their cointrol of Mesopotamia. Despite Mamaluk efforts, Mesopotamia where civiklization began was a cultural and economic backwater. When photograohy appeared (mid-19th century), we see images that for all appearances could have been taken a millenium earlier. The Ottoman Empire by the 19th cebtury wa itself was backward compared to thriving Europe. And the Arab lands like Mesopotamia were backward even by Ottoman standards.

First British Offensive (1914-16)

British Indian forces launched an offensive against Turkish held Mesopotamia (late-1914). It was an immediate reaction to the Ottoman declsration of war. The British concern was the Persian oil fields and transhipment point which was near Basara near the mpith the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The Persian oil fields were vital to the Royal Navy. The British landed a largely Indian Expeditionary Force which would become the 6th Indian Division near Basra, Mesopotamia (October 23). This was only a fe days afyer the Ottoman declaration of war. Clearly the British were anticiping it. The British Indians force took Basara (November 23). Safeguardian the Persian oil fields made sence and the Galipoli campaign could be justified, but the campaogn into Mesopotamia hardly seems designed to have any significant impact on the primary objective of the British, to defeat the Germans on the Western Front. The Indian Government promoted the campaign, eager to avert any hold war in Persia and Afghanistan which might destabalize India. The relatively small British-Indian force thus struck northwest up the Tigris-Euphrates valley toward Baghdad (January-June 1915). The British (Townshend's 6th Indian Division) reached Amara (June 3). The British defeated a Ottoman garrison at Nasiriya (July 24). Townshend reaches Kut-al-Amara where he defeated another Ottoman force (September 27-28). He continues north reaching Ctesiphon (November 11-12). The Ottomans won the Battle of Ctesiphon (November 22-26). Ottoman reinforcements arrived to turn back the over-extended British force. Townshend was forced to retreat, fighting a rearguard action at Umm-at-Tubal (December 1). The British reach Kut an set up a defensive position (December 3). Kut was about 100 miles south of Baghdad. The British force was a small one and a drive deep into Ottoman territory had been a risky gamble. The Ottomans surounded Townshend at Kut amd layed seige. Two British commanders, Aylmer and then Gorringe, try to relieve him taking 21,000 casualties. Townshend after the longesr seize of the War was forced to surrender his force of 2,000 British and 6,000 Indian troops. (April 29, 1916).

Second British Offensive (1916-18)

The British regrouped in southern Mesopotamia under the command of General Sir Stanley Frederick Maude. He decided decided to commit the resources needed to take Baghdad. TYhis included a much larger and better equipped army. The Allies had resources that the Ottoman Empire even with German assistanve could not hope to cope. The British virtually rebuilt Basra which had hardly changed after centuries of Ottoman rule. The British built a modern port. In addition a railway and metal road was built. The British also significantly impoved river transportation on the Tigris to move supplies. Maude began the second drive north along the Tigris River toward Baghdad (December 13). He commanded a force of 166,000 men, more than half Indian. Maude fought the Second Battle of Kut-al-Amara (February 22-23). The British victory cleared the way for another drive on Baghdad which the British finally reached (February 22-23). Maude then fought the Battle of Ramadi (September 27-28) opening the way into central Mesopotamia and the important oil fields at Mosul. Maude died of cholera and was replaced by General Sir William R. Marshall. The Ottomans planned a counterattack, but the forces were instead committed in Palestine to stop Allenby's offensive on Jerusalem. The High Command ordered Marshall to stop his drive before reaching areas populated by ethnic Turks. Thus the fighting in Mesopotamia ground to a hault.


The British victory in Mesopotamia would lead to the creation of the modern state of Iraq.



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Created: 2:20 AM 11/21/2011
Last updated: 4:23 AM 4/17/2012