|Turkish soldiers on rafts on the River Tigris|
A century on, the instability of these former Turkish territories remains one of the clearest legacies of the First World War. In Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, fighting continues. Only Jordan remains intact from the original post-war settlement.
Understanding the roots of these countries is vital to any comprehension of the modern world. In 1914, the Royal Navy’s new Super-Dreadnought battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth was powered by oil-fired turbines. Oil now had a strategic significance for the British Empire.
But, unlike coal, Britain had no oil reserves of its own. Instead it had acquired a controlling interest in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in Persia (now Iran). The end of the company’s pipeline in the Persian Gulf was overlooked by Turkish Mesopotamia.
In the event of war against Turkey, Britain’s oil supply was vulnerable. To protect it, an Indian Army Expeditionary Force was moved to the Gulf to ward off any Turkish threat.
Within hours of war being declared against the Turks on November 5, Indian troops landed near Fao and began to move the 60 miles towards Basra, covering the same ground captured by British forces in the 2003 Iraq War.
The Turkish defence of Basra in 1914 was half-hearted and the city was secured in two weeks. By December 9, the Indians had taken Qurna, where the Tigris and the Euphrates divide. The force’s mission had been fulfilled.
But the Indian troops continued to advance along the course of the rivers. Under Maj Gen Sir Charles Townshend, the 6th Indian Division moved up the Tigris. Seemingly brushing aside Turkish resistance, over the next year they set their sights on a new, more ambitious goal: Baghdad.
The Viceroy in India shared his generals’ confidence and the cabinet in London did little to interfere. In contrast to Gallipoli, where both the April and August landings had failed and trench warfare was rampant, the war in Mesopotamia seemed to be going well.
By late November 1915, Townshend’s men were almost 25 miles from Baghdad. But at the ancient city of Ctesiphon they met their first major reverse. Tired and poorly supplied, they were stopped by unexpectedly determined Turkish resistance.
Townshend fell back on Kut-al-Amara, which he had captured on September 28. The Turks pursued him and on December 3 besieged his force at Kut. Although Townshend had become famous in 1895 as the hero of the Siege of Chitral on India’s North-West Frontier, this time luck failed him.
His estimates of how long he could hold out were inaccurate and his sick troops were soon living on starvation rations. On April 29, 1916, he and 13,000 men surrendered.
On top of the recent humiliation of Gallipoli’s evacuation, the debacle at Kut tarnished Britain’s reputation as an imperial power throughout the Islamic world. Throughout the siege, repeated attempts had been made to relieve Kut by a second British force working up the Tigris.
Frustrated by its inability to manoeuvre between the river and the marshes inland, each assault had been beaten off by the Turks at an overall cost of 23,000 casualties. In August 1916, the War Office in London took command in Mesopotamia.
Under Lt Gen Sir Stanley Maude, using troops released from Gallipoli, a new British push on Baghdad began in the cooler weather at the end of the year. Kut was recaptured on February 24, 1917, and Maude entered Baghdad on March 11.
It was a remarkable turnaround in British fortunes that continued for the remainder of the war. Troops were pushed as far north as Mosul and threatened the eastern flank of the Turks in Syria. While these events were under way, a British and imperial force also moved steadily out of Egypt into Palestine to threaten Syria from the south.
Initially this had been undertaken to eliminate Britain’s other key strategic concern in the Middle East: the security of the Suez Canal. But once in Palestine, new goals were also set there and, despite setbacks at Gaza in March and April, 1917, under the renewed command of Lt Gen Sir Edmund Allenby, Jerusalem was taken at the end of the year.
|British troops enter the Baghdad in 1917|
But other moves were also in play. In 1916, British officials in Egypt had encouraged Sherif Hussein of Mecca to declare an Arab revolt against Turkish rule in the Hijaz. The Arabs, particularly those led by Hussein’s son Faisal and his close adviser TE Lawrence, moved out of Arabia to launch guerrilla attacks along the Hijaz railway into Palestine itself.
In the opening months of 1918, Allenby’s operations north of Jerusalem had to be suspended. Many of his troops were rushed to France to help counter the German spring offensives. In the summer heat, attacks were impossible. But Allenby continued planning and rebuilding his strength.
By mid- September all was ready for what he hoped would be a decisive breakthrough. On September 19, covered by an intensive bombardment, British infantry assaulted and broke into the Turkish positions. In one of the few instances of the decisive exploitation by cavalry in the whole of the war, Allenby released his mounted troops.
British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian horsemen charged towards Megiddo, famous as the biblical Armageddon. Swinging round in a giant left hook on to the heights of southern Syria, the allied troops smashed open the Turkish positions.
By the end of the month, Allenby’s horsemen were approaching Damascus. On October 1, the most important city in Syria, which was a symbol both of ancient civilisation and modern political opportunism, was taken.Its capture in effect brought to an end Turkish rule and opened a new chapter in the history of the Middle East.
Nigel Steel is principal historian for IWM’s First World War Centenary Programme