Baghdad’s fall in 1917 was hailed as “the most triumphant piece of strategy … since war started.” It enforced the military establishment’s commitment to the “cult of the offensive” and convinced Prime Minister David Lloyd George to make Jerusalem a “Christmas gift” to his people—just when the Battle of Passchendaele, the major 1917 Allied offensive on the Western Front, ended in failure. These campaigns preserved British morale despite the grim news from France. The fall of Jerusalem incited public euphoria—the bell of Westminster chimed for the first time in three years. Postwar military journals noted a “reversal in the importance of the various campaigns,” since Mesopotamia and Palestine had proved that in future wars, “mobility and power” would again be “correlated.” The high-tech power of armored cars, aircraft, and wireless, combined with cavalry, riverboats, deception, and guerrilla tactics—showed that modern warfare need not be stalemated trench warfare. Educational tours in Iraq praised the “special value” of operations there for military science.
These campaigns seemed to affirm British military prowess and redeem warfare itself as a productive enterprise—in the very cradle of civilization. The Guardian triumphantly called the military operations in the region the greatest “programme of public works … since …ALEXANDER THE GREAT.” Trains, cars, and airplanes were bringing a new “age of miracles” to Baghdad, where lay the “natural junctions” of the world’s airways and railways, “the world’s centre.” Others imagined a “regenerated Babylonia” giving meaning to British war losses. Mesopotamia would supply cotton and wheat, provide fields for European industry, and enlarge “the wealth of a universe wasted by war,” foresaw the powerful British administrator in Iraq, Gertrude Bell. “We’ll fix this land up,” wrote an officer, “and move the wheels of a new humanity.” The press hailed “the regeneration of Palestine” as “one of the few fine and imaginative products of the war” that made “it all [seem] worth while.” These campaigns renewed Victorian idealism despite the cynicism produced on the Western Front. James Mann, a postwar recruit to Iraq, explained to his mother: “If one takes the Civil Service, or the Bar, or Literature, or Politics, or even the Labour movement, what can one do that is constructive? Here on the other hand I am constructing the whole time.”
But these hopes were pipe dreams. The occupying army did build bridges and railways but abandoned many of these projects because of financial stringency and because a violent colonial policing system known as “air control” hijacked the development discourse in the face of a 1920 Iraqi rebellion against the British occupation. Iraq descended into a new kind of colonial hell, where bombing was used for everyday purposes like tax collection.
The Great War institutionalized the British view of the Middle East as a site of exception that permitted tactics considered unethical elsewhere. For Britons, the campaigns in the Middle East gave industrial warfare a new lease on life and produced the tactics that shaped the next war, while inspiring a long history of destructive covert and aerial Western engagement with the Middle East. [Continue reading…]