Against the British in Mesopotamia Daniel Barnard, University of Chicago, Department of History
[EXCERPTED TEXT FROM UNPUBLISHED MANUSCRIPT; DO NOT CITE WITHOUT AUTHOR’S PERMISSION: BARNARD@UCHICAGO.EDU]
Table of Contents
Contexts of the Revolt
How the Narrative Has Been Written [EXCLUDED]
Methodologies (Theoretical and Practical) [EXCLUDED]
Prelude to the Revolt: War and Occupation[EXCLUDED]
The Mesopotamian Expedition (1914-1918) [EXCLUDED]
Kut al-Amara [EXCLUDED]
The Arab Revolt [EXCLUDED]
Baghdad and the Rhetoric of Liberation, [EXCLUDED]
DUNSTERFORCE and the Bolsheviks [EXCLUDED]
Armistice and onto Mosul [EXCLUDED]
Kurdistan (1919) [EXCLUDED]
Nationalist movements abroad [EXCLUDED]
“Mesopotamia Remains Now As Ever Particularly Quiet” (Spring 1920)[EXCLUDED]
British Personalities [EXCLUDED]
Status of British forces [EXCLUDED]
Arab Levies [EXCLUDED]
Political Enemies [EXCLUDED]
Prospects of Self-Government [EXCLUDED]
Narrative of the Great Revolt
Dayr Az-Zawr (December 19, 1919) [EXCLUDED]
Mesopotamian Mandate and Rising Discontent
Insurrection: The Rumaitha Siege
Relief of Rumaitha
The Manchester Column
Siege of Hillah and Withdrawal from Diwaniya
The Hindiya Barrage and Shahraban
Request for Gas [EXCLUDED]
Northern Iraq and Kurdistan
Reassertion of Control
Relief of Kufa
Relief of Samawa
Submission of Najaf Ulama
Mechanisms of Colonial Control and Resistance
Establishing Control: An Occupation Between Empires:
Loss of Control: Mechanisms of Resistance during the Revolt
Restoring Control: Coercion by Land and Air
Disciplining the Colonial Subject: Punitive Operations after the Revolt
Disciplining the Colonizer: Forcing the Issue of Self-Government
Conclusion: Perspectives on Causes of the Revolt [EXCLUDED]
External Factors [EXCLUDED]
Internal Factors [EXCLUDED]
Other Perspectives [EXCLUDED]
Appendix A: Chronologies[EXCLUDED]
Appendix B: Force Composition
Appendix C: Casualty Figures
Insurrections by various tribal, religious and political groups against British control in Mesopotamia dominated the history of the shortest-lived colony of the British Empire. These insurrections, and British responses, represented the shifting nature of the colonial system into a final, contradictory phase: Mandates granted by the League of Nations. This political context contained both the encouragement of nationalist aspirations and the coercive mechanisms for colonial control.
In the largest insurrection from June 1920 to October 1920, disparate groups were able to effectively cooperate in rebellion against the British. These groups had never effectively combined forces before, either against the Ottomans or the British forces occupying Iraq since 1914. Similarly, this wide range of factions did not in subsequent years effectively combine against the Hashemite successor state to the British, despite the continuity of many grievances and the regularity of smaller, factional rebellions against the Iraqi government. This tension between unity and fragmentation has made the characterization of this revolt as “national” problematic. Perhaps the most nuanced description of this subject is offered by Sami Zubaida: that of societal fragments imagining a nation during the interlude of the insurrection.1 Yet the state that emerged, Sunni-dominated and with declining tribal roles, was not the nation universally imagined by the various rebel factions.
Surprised by the ferocity of the revolt, and the rapidity of its growth, British authorities struggled to explain the causes of insurrection among peoples they believed were grateful for liberation from Ottoman rule, and what they saw as the softer burden of British administration. Despite the internal dynamics that bound Shi’a to Sunni and urban notable to the rural tribes during the revolt, the British perceptions of the revolt focused primarily on external factors. Regularly, the British apprehended a conflict with Bolshevism, Turkish intrigue, Hashemite influence, or pan-Islamic religious “fanaticism”.
Contexts: The events of the insurrection must be placed within several thematic contexts of the surrounding history: military, strategic, and political. For the British, the military nature of the revolt and its suppression can be better understood by examining the Mesopotamian campaign against Ottoman field armies during the First World War, as well as their anti-colonial actions taken in Somaliland and the Northwest Frontier in 1919. The British military commanders were regularly surprised to find professional military behavior by the rebels, such as the construction of trenches, the employment of artillery, and disciplined cavalry operations; however this can be better understood by recognizing the modern military training employed by the Ottoman army, and the remnants of this force, both men and materiel, that remained in Mesopotamia. As well, the tactics of Arab guerilla fighters, funded by both the Ottomans and the British to harass the other party’s Lines of Communication, also reappear in the 1920 insurrection as rail and telegraph lines are cut by similar tribal forces. The idea of limited occupation forces, and the reliance on air power for colonial control can also be seen developing, especially as the new potential of the airplane was tested and exploited. Finally, the seemingly contradictory impulses of developing self government, via local councils and plebiscites, and of coercive colonial control, via punitive raids and aerial bombardment, could be understood within the paradoxical concept of Mandatory rule.
The strategic context of the revolts helps to explicate British perceptions of the causes of the 1920 insurrection, especially the ongoing military confrontation of Britain with the Bolshevik forces throughout the Russian civil war and its aftermath. Through both indirect support of White forces and direct engagement of British troops with Bolsheviks armies from Archangel to Persia, British authorities feared Bolshevik expansion as a direct threat, especially to India. Similarly, the British saw Bolshevik machinations in the Turkish nationalist movement rising in Anatolia, which eventually forced Allied evacuation of all occupied territory from modern-day Turkey. This development was then coupled with the fear of renewed irredentist aspirations by the former Ottomans in Mesopotamia. The India Office, initially in total control of the campaign, also had a strong wariness of Islamic movements, to include the strong support within colonized India for the restoration of the Caliphate. Some of these strategic fears were reified by the steady growth of railroads towards the region. The Berlin to Baghdad railway had caused significant alarm to the British as they saw the Kaiser’s designs to penetrate their sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf. Similarly, Russian railroads under the Tsar had reached the southern Caucasus and crisscrossed the Trans-Caspian region to bolster Russia’s domination of Northern Persia, which Britain saw as a direct threat to its interest in southern Persia and Afghanistan. It is no surprise that the area in which British forces and Bolsheviks first came to blows in the region was along this Trans-Caspian railroad. Finally, the strategic importance of petroleum was entering the world stage; however, I will try to demonstrate how its particular relevance to the 1920 insurrection is often overstated2.
The political context of the revolts is informative as well, as notions of self-determination and the political upheaval of war helped lead to rebellions across the colonial empires: The Hashemite revolt starting in 1916 (against the Ottomans), The Wafd uprisings in Egypt in 1919 (Britain), the pro-Hashemite revolt in Syria in 1919-1920 (France), the Turkish nationalist revolt of 1919-1922 (Britain, France, Greece, Italy), the Amristar Massacre in British India 1919, the Northwest Frontier disturbances in British India in 1919-1920, the formal declaration of independence from British influence by Afghanistan in 1919, and the pro-independence revolts in Ireland in 1919-1920. Such external events were not significant only to British concerns; in the “Proclamation by the Arabs to the Free Mesopotamians,” a pro-Hashemite Arab-nationalist tract printed during the revolt, it cites:
As you are aware of the fact that countries which were bound with rope[s] of slavery are freed and have destroyed these ropes and have obtained their complete independence. This was due to their continuous endeavor and patience. Undoubtedly you have heard about the Irish, Czechoslovak, Armenians, Caucasians, Ukranians, Lithuanians, etc., etc., etc. have all been freed. Shortly you will hear about your brethren the Egyptians and the Indians and that they will be crowned with complete independence without the least of hesitation.3
Also the domestic context of such policy is vital to explore in order to understand British policy in the region. Tensions in 1919 and 1920 were great between Whitehall, the India Office, the Colonial Office, and officials in the government of India, regarding almost every aspect of colonial control in Mesopotamia. The popular pressure to reduce overseas troop commitments and the opposition conservative party pressure4 on Lloyd George’s liberal administration to reduce the costs of military occupation fundamentally shaped the conditions of the insurrection. The steady reduction of troops from a First World War high of over one million soldiers and auxiliary followers in Mesopotamia had led to less than 130,000 troops from mixed Indian and British regiments remaining in country at the beginning of the resurrection, with only a fraction of those forces being actual combat troops5. The greatest criticism in Parliament about the insurrection, spearheaded by conservative Bonar Law, was not regarding casualties or loss of prestige in the region, but for the high price tag of suppressing the revolt, cited as being over £32,000,000 British Pounds sterling,6 representing 5% of a huge military budget in an era of global revolts against British rule. In light of such pressures, the rationale for decisions made by Churchill and others to further reduce troops, to giver greater control to the RAF, and to ultimately exercise only indirect influence over Mesopotamia via a Hashemite monarch become clear.
[SECTION ON PRE-1920 EVENTS EXCLUDED] Narrative of the Great Revolt Dayr Az-Zawr (December 19, 1919): [SECTION EXCLUDED]
Mesopotamian Mandate and Rising Discontent: The mandate giving trusteeship to Britain over Mesopotamia was granted by the League of Nations and announced at San Remo on May 3, 1920, a decision that was immediately received with great disappointment by the small urban circle of nationalist groups. Haras al-Istiqlal, led by Ja’far abu al-Timman, immediately called for “bloody revolution,”7 however, the pro-Hashemite al-Ahd was more reluctant to take such a radical course. Propaganda leaflets soon appeared that stated “Lloyd George declared to the House of Commons that Mesopotamia should have a Mandatory to have charge of the country for its progress etc. but do you know what it meant by Mandate? They are unable to look after themselves or to behave themselves.”8 Such dangerous times were not aided by Wilson’s administration’s reluctance to make a statement advocating greater incorporation of local elites into the governing structure.
Yaphe describes how the onset of the holy month of Ramadan was used by Haras al-Istiqlal as a catalyst for political protest. She states that “with the beginning of Ramadan, on May 17, 1920, huge demonstrations were held in the mosques of Baghdad… The demonstrations had no real focus as yet other than an amorphous opposition to the British.”9 Baghdad was a sensitive location for unrest to occur for the British, as it housed not only all governmental functions, but also a significant number of family members of military and political figures, and was lightly garrisoned with only headquarters troops. The British controlled Baghdad police proceeded to “ban all mauluds and public gatherings, impose a curfew, and arrest the leading agitators.” These action initially seemed to pacify the city, and “The arrest and deportation of several leaders of the nationalists resulted in the suspension of activities by Haras al-Isitqlal.”10 Thinking that the agitators had been quelled, Wilson stated that
There has been a lot of trouble in Baghdad; not I think of great importance, but annoying because it might have been avoided had the India Office seen their away to approve my constitutional proposals. I have never before lost the initiative; this time I have lost it as the extremists have taken the lead and made a number of most unreasonable demands which it will be most difficult to deal with.11 However, despite Wilson’s optimism that such protests represented nothing of “great importance”, the repercussions of the exiles of the political leaders grew. Itinerant Shi’ite speakers spread revolutionary appeals throughout the urban areas of the south, with a rallying story about the injustice of British deportations. Indignation over the deportations sparked another round of protest in Baghdad on May 24, 1920, and this time “after the demonstration, British armored cars appeared and in the tumult which followed several Iraqis were killed or arrested.”12 Abortive attempts by the Wilson administration to negotiate with the Baghdad groups failed to produce significant reconciliation.
Tal ‘Afar: [SECTION EXCLUDED] Karbala: The next great site of unrest was the holy Shi’ite city of Karbala, aggravated by the approach of an upcoming pilgrimage season. Yaphe described that “During Muharram, the feast of ‘Ali’s martyrdom, the city was often visited by about 70,000 pilgrims.”13 By the end of May, the Baghdad unrest had quieted, however many political agitators appear to have moved to Karbala. By May 30, 1920, protesters had taken to the streets, spurred by the denunciations of the British by Imam al-Shirazi, causing the Assistant Political Officer in Karbala to telegraph the Civil Commissioner in Baghdad, stating “Baghdad disturbance agitated evildoers considerably. Have learned of serious plot. Some display of force urgently necessary. If you send 20 British soldiers some Indians and two guns perhaps situation will improve. This required early especially owing pilgrimage which is expected to be turbulent.” The Assistant Political Officer in nearby Hillah, perhaps less savvy to the delicate political sensitivities at stake, sent an intervening telegram to the Civil Commissioner (repeated to Karbala’s APO) on May 31, 1920, with the warning of “Strongly urge that dispatch of armoured car from Kufa to Kerbela immediately and demonstration by aeroplanes.” However, he later in the day held second thoughts about such a provocative gesture in a city considered holy by Shi’ites, and cabled “Doubt the advisability of employing non Government troops at Kerbela to control Pilgrims. Can send 50 mounted one hundred dismounted Arab Levies”14 Eventually a combination of approaches was followed and both armored cars and native Arab troops detained 13 Shi’ite leaders, temporarily helping to pacify Karbala.15 However, rumors persisted that additional uprisings were planned around the upcoming ‘Eid al-Fitr, with one June 15 intelligence report from the APO in Khaniqin to Wilson stating, “Very strong rumour of intended disturbances to take place during I.D. Festival, Jew shopkeepers removing their goods from shops to their houses.”16
During this time, Wilson also traveled to Najaf to ascertain the political condition of the key Shi’ite city. He wrote in a private letter that he feared talk of self-government was inciting dangerous aspirations, stating:
I have just got back from Najaf; things are threatening there, but I hope to square things up by getting principal people on our side and arresting others. Then I went to Qalat-Sikhar, an isolated and dangerous spot where any day might bring trouble of a serious kind. Self-determination there means anarchy and murder; an Arab government means the same. There is no hope for the maintenance of law and order, without which no Government can exist, unless the present regime is maintained. Everyone is calling for support, either military or moral, the reason being that the local Arabs, having read our announcements and declarations, has come to the conclusion that we do not mean business. Unless the Government change their policy, which appears somewhat doubtful, I doubt if Cox will find an administration to take over when he returns.17 Later upon returning, Wilson stated in a telegram to Haldane that “I wish we were stronger on the Euphrates. At the present moment we have a stage Army which is perpetually showing itself at different points. This cannot go on indefinitely… I gathered from you that you regarded my telegram of the 9th June on the general situation as being over pessimistic and that you consider that we have got enough troops in the country.”18
General perceptions of internal danger at this time were not common among the key leaders of the British military and political establishments. In a report to Wilson, the political officer located in Ramadi in the Dulaym tribal area stated, “I have visited practically all the tribes [in the district]. They one and all appeared to me to be extremely happy and quiet, and it is hard to believe they would risk their present wonderful prosperity by causing trouble.”19 In hindsight, the attitude of such figures towards the potential for native uprising seems nearly cavalier, however it can be understood within the context of the day. While some agitation was present, events such as at Dayr az-Zawr and Tal ‘Afar did not spark wider unrest, especially after the quick application of force. Similarly, urban protests had been similarly suppressed through the judicious application of exile and police force. British authorities were not ignorant of unrest (as can be seen from their detailed intelligence and police files); rather, they believed that such tensions could be contained. This low concern for the threat of revolution led Haldane to feel comfortable enough to leave Baghdad on June 24, 1920 in order to escape the summer heat, retreating to a hill encampment on the Persian border at Sar-i-Mill.
Particularly for Haldane, the danger of Britain’s long time rival in the region, Russia, consumed his interest far more than the potential for local rebellion. On May 24, 1920, the War Office ordered Haldane to transfer two battalions to northern Persia. On the eve of the outbreak of full hostilities, Haldane himself decided to leave Mesopotamia to tour the Persian border, despite that “pressure from the civil side [Wilson] was strong against my leaving Mesopotamia at such a time.”20 However, in the eyes of the War Office and Sir Percy Cox, Ambassador in Teheran, the military situation in Persia warranted Haldane’s attention. On May 18, 1920, Bolshevik troops had fired on the British garrison in the Caspian town of Enzeli, seizing both it and the town of Resht further along the coast after the forced evacuation of the British garrison. Thus, at the time, Haldane’s attention was focused on the potential of a conflict with a Great Power rather than with keeping order in Mesopotamia.
Insurrection: The Siege of Rumaytha: The Great Iraqi Revolt truly began with the besieging of the British garrison in the town of Rumaytha where on “June 25, an incident in Rumaithah … provided the ‘spark’ of the revolution in the region.”21 The causes of the violence are contested between British and Iraqi historians, however they focus on the arrest of Shaykh Sha’lan abu al-Chun. The British Assistant Political Officer, Lieutenant P.T. Hyatt claimed that the arrest caused by the Shaykhs failure to repay a 100 BP agricultural loan. Arab historians blame the senior Political Officer in Hillah, Major C. Daly, as an oppressive figure who arrested the popular Shaykh to silence his anti-British sedition as a symbolic message to the rebellious Dhawalim tribe. While the APO escorted the Shaykh to the train depot for extradition, tribal contingents launched an attack on the rail station, firing upon the APO, killing a local Arab guard, and freeing the Shaykh. Having openly defied the British authorities, local tribes proceeded to cut off the town from rail and telegraph communications. The small garrison located in Rumaytha retreated into a small blockhouse and prepared for siege. Lieutenant Henry states that, “On 30th June on the urgent request of the Assistant Political Officer at Rumaitha …[Diwaniya sent] two platoons (fifty-six rifles) to Rumaitha to be on hand if he needed help…We knew that the tribes here were very hostile and ill disposed to us. … The tribes had their tribal flags out. This to our way of thinking showed that they considered themselves to be at war with the government.”22
Beginning July 1, 1920, rebel forces began to cut the carefully constructed lifelines of British power: telegraphs and rail. Passenger trains were raided and steamers on the Euphrates were fired upon. Without the technological advantage of rail, the British relief forces were reduced to foot marches in the heat of summer as armored cars and horse cavalry were in short supply. The Rumaytha garrison stood at about 140 personnel after the arrival of two platoons and an under-strength company on July 2, 1920 from the garrison at Diwaniya. On July 3, 1920, an additional company fought its way through harassing insurgent fire to link up with the garrison, now fortified within a complex of stone buildings they named the Saray near the waterfront (see Figure 14). Under the command of Captain Bragg, the garrison held 6 British officers, 308 other rank British soldiers, 153 railway personnel seeking refuge with the soldiers, 60 Indian laborers for a total of 527 personnel. The large size of the population under siege quickly made the pain of short food and water supplies. By July 4, 1920, the tribal forces had begin to dig a comprehensive, professional trench system around the beleaguered garrison’s fortifications, a move which made local British officials to suspect the role of seasoned former Ottoman army officers among the rebels. One military report by a Lieutenant Colonel in command of the 10th Lancers remarked on the increased accuracy of fire from the rebel forces, stating that “The accuracy of the fire and settled plan are explained by the presence of a certain number of ex-Turkish soldiers which formed the nucleus of each attacking party … The enemy has been well armed, chiefly with Mauser and Lebel rifles.”23
Eventually, feeling desperate for food (a well had been dug within the compound for limited water supply), two platoons conducted a reconnaissance by force through the village to test rebel resistance and in search of food. The Assistant Political Officer, Lieutenant Hyatt, urged the platoons to burn the surrounding hostile village, however the platoons were soon surrounded by a large hostile force, overwhelming the British soldiers. While retreating to the stone compound, the soldiers were attacked not only by tribal levies but also by the townspeople of Rumaytha proper. In the end the small force suffered 43 missing and 16 wounded; however, during their retreat, the soldiers looted the bazaar for food though they remained extremely short of ammunition.
Marshalling available forces, a relief column was mustered and reached a point 6 miles north of Rumaytha on July 6, 1920 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel McVean. This small force was surprised by rebel cavalry and infantry and was nearly enveloped, suffering heavy casualties, only able to retreat under the cover of a dust storm. Overall the McVean column suffered 48 British Killed in Action (KIA) and 167 Wounded in Action (WIA). After this military reverse, significant panic ensued among the civilian personnel in Baghdad and reserves were readied for the defense of the city. On July 7, Haldane returned to Baghdad, and on July 8 he telegraphs the War Office in London asking for a Brigade’s worth of reinforcements to be shipped from India, as part of a steadily increasing demand for reinforcements over the next few months. He was informed by reply telegram that such reinforcements could not embark until the end of July at the earliest and that he would have to make do with existing troops available until that time. Also on 8 July, aerial re-supply was attempted for the Rumaytha compound. The technique was still a fairly new tactical concept, and drops of food and ammunition did not successfully reach the village. On July 12, the besieged garrison attempted a larger raid, this time in coordination with aerial bombing (9 planes) from Baghdad, as the garrison was in communication with other British forces via heliograph. They estimated that 20 civilians killed in the village and several days of supplies were secured before the raiding forces returned to the fortified Saray.
Relief of Rumaytha: Haldane meanwhile, after reorganizing the defenses of Baghdad increased his request for reinforcements to a full division (though he later scaled back on this expansion). He then began to assemble a larger Brigade-sized relief column under the command of Brigadier General Coningham, composed of 4 infantry units, including Sikh and Gurkha units, augmented with field artillery and machine gun companies. However, despite the more robust size of General Coningham’s force, it was still insufficient to both make a full assault on the besieging rebels at Rumaytha and the simultaneous guarding of its line of communication back to Baghdad. Despite fears of repeating the failure of Lieutenant Colonel McVean, Haldane ordered the high risk operation during the hottest season of the year. By July 16, the relief column reached an assembly area 16 miles from Rumaytha. Recognizing the firepower of the assembled column, the local shaykh for Rumaytha approached APO Lieutenant Hyatt on July 17 for negotiations; however a planned meeting with General Coningham fell through later the next day. By July 19, General Coningham’s brigade–sized force conducted an initial assault on the rebel trenches, however was forced to retreat because of strong resistance by the tribal forces.
Also suffering from deprivations of water and other supplies due to his extended supply lines, Coningham’s forces were able to sufficiently repair the rail line so that a supply train of water and ammunition arrived on the morning of July 20. Facing the prospect of a renewed offensive, the rebel forces disengaged and abandoned their trenches later that day. By 3:45 pm, July 20, the first cavalry forces entered Rumaytha, after suffering 35 KIA and 152 KIA during the course of the operations. The garrison itself had suffered a total of 148 total casualties of all types. Haldane also issued an order that all insurgents would be treated as Prisoners of War in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, unless they were captured in situations of “treachery.”
However, after the recent series of events, military commanders decided to evacuate the remaining forces in Rumaytha to the more defendable garrison of Hillah, beginning on 21 July, 1920. Lieutenant Henry describes receiving a letter from his friend Arthur Johnson who “wrote of the withdrawal from Rumaitha to Hillah: For about 100 miles they retired in close contact with the enemy most of the way. At night at Diwaniyah our detachment got sudden orders to continue the withdrawal. They were to leave everything except ammunition and rations.”24 By this time, Haldane estimated there to be about 35,000 insurgents actively in rebellion, but that they faced significant limitations on arms and ammunition. The evacuating column’s rear guard was first attacked on July 22 during another dust storm. By July 25, the much embattled column reached Diwaniya.
The Manchester Column: After the relief of Rumaytha, Haldane ordered that a augmented battalion column be dispatched from Hillah (with later reinforcement from Diwaniya) to shore up the defenses in the town of Kifli, threatened by tribal forces but strategically important because of its proximity to Kufa and Najaf. Under the command of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel R.N. Hardcastle, the “Manchester Column” (named for the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment) moved out towards Kifli. Perhaps betrayed by a certain Shaykh Ibrahim as-Samawi, the column fell under attack from mixed rebel contingents of about 300 to 500 men. Lieutenant Henry describes how the “column between Hillah and Kifli met with a major disaster in an encounter with Arabs. Many British ranks were captured. This disaster rekindled the smouldering insurrection north of Diwaniyah and around Hillah.”25 The column suffered 20 KIA, 60 WIA, and 318 Missing in Action (MIA), of which only 160 ended up as Prisoners of War, the remainder being executed (raising KIA to about 200). Eventually the remnants of the column reached Hillah on the 25th, not pursued by tribal forces, because, speculates Haldane, they were “diverted by the thought of loot”26 from the abandoned Manchester camp.
Baghdad Panic: News of the massacre of the Manchester column had been transmitted in the clear (non-cipher) to Baghdad, and the capitol was awash in rumors. As well report were received indicating that on July 26, “the position at Manjil [Northern Persia] was being attacked by some fourteen hundred Russians and Azerbaijanis, who had with them artillery and machine guns.27” Meanwhile, other areas had also burst into rebellion, including those near Baghdad. Haldane also worried for the “sanctuary of the white population” in Baghdad,28 leading him to order the building of a series of concrete blockhouses and earthwork fortifications along the approaches to Baghdad. As well, Haldane stooped to sleight of hand to create the impression that more troops were available in the Baghdad garrison than there were in reality. He states that “I took certain steps to impress the inhabitants of Baghdad and the vicinity. These consisted in marching through the city and beyond from time to time variously composed contingents of troops, and in the despatch of small mounted columns in several directions to overawe marauding villagers.”29 Also at this time (July 25 and 26), Haldane took the step of recalling all soldiers on leave, even those in Britain or India, and of commandeering all civilian river-craft in order to build up his pool of available forces. As well, he hinted in a July 26 telegram that more reinforcements might be needed.30 At the same time, strict curfews were emplaced in Baghdad, which tightened after a suspicious fire on August 3 at a vehicle depot. Wary of infiltrators and spies, Haldane also ordered that all Arab laborers working in Baghdad be fired summarily; however, he eventually had to hire most of them back because of the shortage of workers. Reinforcements did not arrive in Baghdad until August 10 when the 2/7 Rajput Battalion arrived to bolster the city’s garrison.
Even as Haldane worked to shore up the defenses of the city he was unable to quiet the sense of panic among civilian officials, including Wilson. Without consulting Haldane, Wilson began to secretly telegram London with dire predictions concerning the revolt, requests for two divisions of reinforcements (doubling Haldane’s request), and threatening that total evacuation of Baghdad, if not Mesopotamia, was imminent. In a private letter, he confessed the difficulty of action, stating “I am having a most difficult time. Our military forces are at their lowest ebb; religious and political excitement is on the increase, and I am confronted with the usual dilemma. To do nothing is to encourage brute force which we are unable to control and which is purely anarchic; to suppress it by force may precipitate grave troubles which we are not in a strong moral position to meet.”31 At other times he is more conservative in his estimates, but still recommends evacuating large swaths of territory until reinforcements from India can arrive. He suggests that “It is quite on the cards that we may be pushed out of Hillah and Nasieriyah during the next fortnight. If so we shall probably have to leave the Euphrates altogether and devote our attention to keeping the Tigris open. Saiyid Talib [a tribal shaykh who sided with the British] is making little headway [against the insurgents].”32 He elsewhere stated that “Baghdad is unlikely to be in danger, and I am very hopeful that we shall be able to maintain our position at Mosul also, but I think the Euphrates will have to go, though I hope that we shall not let it do so until we have extricated the Kufa garrison.”33 Elsewhere, he reversed this assessment, instead fearing for Mosul, stating “the evacuation of Mosul Wilayet may in my opinion shortly be forced upon us … If we withdraw from Kirkuk the whole of Kurdistan will of course relapse into anarchy.” Similarly, he claimed that:
it appears that the disturbances are the result of external intrigues, organized and synchronized with the BOLSHEVIKS' recent renewal of activity… withdrawal from the Mosul Vilayet also seems to me to be the only logical decision in the event of the political situation deteriorating further, ...it will be possible to re-occupy the evacuated areas when the country between Baghdad and the sea has been pacified. 34 In the advent of total evacuation, Wilson, suspicious as ever of Arab ability for self government, stated that “if we must evacuate, we should put back the Turks and not attempt to put up an Arabian Govt. which is bound to fail if left unsupported in its early years.”35 Later in a private letter, Wilson confides his antagonism for Haldane (though both men were cordial in their formal memoirs) stating, “The G.O.C. [General Officer Commanding] in Chief is very depressed and rather sick, and practically compels me to take responsibility for all decisions, even purely military ones such as the evacuation of Diwaniyah.”36 However, while Wilson was secretly telegraphing London through the India Office, Haldane was secretly telegraphing the War Office stating the Mosul vilayet could be held. The War Office replied to Haldane and he “was given a free hand to act as I thought best.”37
Neither Haldane’s blockhouses nor Wilson’s frantic telegrams could keep the tribes outside of Baghdad pacified, especially as news of British defeats in the south filtered northwards. This was in spite of the fact that several tribes were presumed friendly, or at least neutral, and stringent rules of engagement were placed on British forces operating in the region. However, many tribes in the area did remain allied. Shaykh Ali Sulayman garrisoned Hit with Dulaym tribal levies, and Fahad Beg also remained loyal and prevented outbreaks of violence in his territory. This allowed troops in the region to concentrate in hotspots such as Ramadi and Falluja. Of greater concern was the super-tribal confederation that dominated the lower Euphrates, the Muntafiq. Wilson states that “Disturbances have not spread, owing mainly to the fact that the Arabs once they begin to attack our posts get it so hard in the neck that they could not be induced to attack again, but they will spread unless we get more troops… The next place I anticipate to have trouble in is Sulaimaniyah [Kurds]or the Muntifiq.” This perception of the danger of the Muntafiq joining the rebellion was shared by even junior officers such as Lieutenant Henry, who said that “Hanging over the Army in Mesopotamia like the Sword of Damocles during 1920 was the attitude of the Muntafiq Confederation [between Nasiriya and Kut]… As at times seemed probable, had the Muntafiq come in on the side of the insurrection, the Tigris line of communication from Basra northwards would have been in great peril... There was also the risk that Baghdad would be under siege in the meantime.”38 This fear was not just armchair strategizing; Henry recounts how “The army had memories of the Muntafiq from the days of early 1916 when desperate efforts were being made to relieve Townshend in Kut. The 114th Mahrattas had fought them on 9th January 1916 in the Battle of Bhutania fought near Nasiriyah. Out losses had been 3 British Officers and 72 other ranks killed that day. If the Muntafiq came in against us during the present insurrection the whole situation on the L of C [Line of Communication] would change rapidly for the worse requiring additional reinforcements from India.”39
During this period, rebel forces had become more organized and began to coordinate inter-regionally. Yaphe notes that at this time “Two councils were established in Karbala: the High Council, which was an advisory board of revolutionary leaders, and the Council of Religious Justice, which decided legal issues between the ‘ulama and the revolutionaries.” 40 Haldane estimates that the number of insurgents in the field had actively grown by July 24 to about 85,000 able-bodied soldiers, and by August 30th (after the full propaganda effect of the Manchester column disaster) to over 131,020 men, with 59,805 modern rifles. They had also assembled several sources of financial support, to include the seizure of all revenues from tax-farmers in the region, continued collection of tolls, an imposition of a grain tax, and most significantly, calls by Shi’ite religious leaders for an open financial subscription from the public of Karbala and Najaf to fund the fighters. To this was added the personal wealth of individual tribal leaders and other rich men bankrolling the force, to the point where rebel soldiers were effectively paid a daily salary in addition to their provisions. However, despite such evidence of coordination, the locus of such efforts remained in the Shi’ite shrine cities. Several of the leading Arab nationalist intellectuals in Baghdad and some urban Ulama contacted the British administration in an attempt to end the fighting. Yaphe describes how “by the end of June the movement on the Euphrates had gone far beyond the control of the Baghdadi leaders. They were quite alarmed over the events in that region.”41 Wilson relates that the “Revolutionary movement has for some time past ceased to have any political aspect and has become entirely anarchic. No one appears more anxious than the leading mujtahids and many of the leading people of Baghdad to put an end to disturbances which they themselves created but it is not within their power to do so.”42 Siege of Hillah and Withdrawal from Diwaniya: On July 24, after the ragged Manchester Column marched into the garrison at Hillah, Haldane ordered the concentration of forces there under the command of Major General Leslie. Curfews and other restrictions similar to those in place in Baghdad were also imposed. Eventually the garrison approached nearly Brigade strength, including substantial number of Arab levies, and was able to easily fend off exploratory attacks by rebel forces on the night of July 27 and morning of July 28. As rebel forces also concentrated a more serious assault was mounted on July 31 against the fortified garrison. During the attack, Haldane recounts that the Arab levies loyal to the British were berated by the rebels for their siding with the occupying power. This attack foundered upon the garrison’s defended, leaving an estimated 156 rebels KIA with only “insignificant”43 British losses. Eventually, by the end of August, the defenses of Hillah were formidable, including a perimeter of 32 blockhouses linked by barb wire.
Recognizing the strength of the Hillah garrison and the relative vulnerability of the outlying garrison at Diwaniya, Haldane ordered the abandonment of Diwaniya and a retreat to the better fortified town of Hillah, to be covered by coordinated RAF bombardment. The column was commanded by Brigadier General Coningham, who had successfully relieved Rumaytha a few weeks earlier (a subordinate battalion of which was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Scott, whose personal letters are referenced often above). Due to the difficult terrain, the evacuation plan called for infantry to march alongside rail cars of supplies, forcing the troops to repair rail lines that were destroyed by the rebels, and were often forced to repair the same lines the following morning. The column was also slowed by the fact that several refugees, to include several women teachers from Diwaniya, were also being escorted by the troops.
The withdrawal did not occur without losses for the British. Multiple attempts were made to harass the retreating column, to include burning bridges and sporadic ambushes that wounded at least 21 British soldiers. With daily temperatures averaging 107 degrees in the shade, the slow withdrawal took 11 days to complete, with the harried column making less that 5.5 miles a day in progress. Haldane recounts that during the foot-march that punitive operations were conducted along the line of march, stating that "Advantage was taken of the slow progress of the column to deal with several villages in the vicinity of the line, the inhabitants of which were known to be responsible for the damage. Some of these villages, those nearest the line, were burned, and others farther off were shelled." Haldane comments elsewhere that such operations were difficult and time consuming, stating in a section on tactics called “Notes on Dealing with Villages” that "Burning a village properly takes a long time, an hour or more according to the size from the time the burning parties enter.”44