The Great ‘Iraqi Revolt: The 1919-1920 Insurrections Against the British in Mesopotamia

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Disciplining the Colonizer: Forcing the Issue of Self Government: The British suppressed violent opposition to their rule in Mesopotamia in 1920; however, a different type of coercion was also at play. The two key British figures of the revolt, Sir A.T. Wilson and General Haldane, were both replaced within a year of the end of hostilities. While the events of the revolt further convinced many British administrators of the “savagery” of the people of Mesopotamia, they also significantly undermined the ideology of the Mandate system, as had similar violence in Syria against the French. The Class “A” Mandates had ultimately recognized the inherent capability for self-government within those territories, even if a period of tutelage was required. The benefits which accrued to the tutoring government were the thinly masked benefits of the old colonial power; however, that thin mask rested on the ideology that the British and French were acting in the best interest of the subject peoples. The revolts of Iraq and Syria did violence not only to the colonial occupiers, but also to this legitimatizing rationale. Faced with a “nation” in arms rejecting British policies, real fractures in the Mandatory ideology appeared.

Caught up in its own rhetoric of liberation, prominent since the capture of Baghdad during the war, Britain was forced to acknowledge that many legitimate rebel demands had not been met under Wilson’s administration. As Sir Percy Cox was hurriedly brought in to Mesopotamia to take over for the disgraced Wilson, his top priority was the acceleration of creating an “Arab ‘Amir” in the form of a Hashemite monarch, a course of action long championed by the remnants of the Arab bureau, to include Gertrude Bell, long in correspondence with Cox. Major General G.P. Dawnway, a longtime expert of the region, perceptively concluded in April 1921 in the British “Army Quarterly” in an article entitled “Mesopotamia: A Political Retrospect that:

During this period of suspense [the peace settlement with Turkey] the inhabitants of Mesopotamia saw little to reassure them that pledges given by General Maude when he occupied Baghdad were about to be honoured by the British Government. Under their eyes they saw an alien administrative machine daily growing larger, more efficient and more expensive.74
He later states that “The action of the French in Syria deepened the suspicion of the Arabs for Europeans, and so had an important bearing on events east of the Euphrates.”75 Thus, at least some members of the British establishment had internalized the “liberation” rhetoric of Maude’s speech, sufficiently so that they felt acute tension when the “liberated” rebelled against the “liberators.” Thus Dawnway continued to rail against the internal hypocrisy of British policy, stating that “in that proclamation the Arabs were assured that it was not the wish of the British Government to impose upon them ‘alien institutions.’ If 507 British administrative officials are not an ‘alien institution’ within the meaning of the term, we must perforce abandon the attempt to define anything so elusive!"76 Thus attempts to govern the mandate, via coercive measures of administration and military force contrasted sharply with the moral ideology of self-determination inherent to British rhetoric and the League of Nations Mandate. In the end, perhaps no one understood this tension better than one of its architects, Sir A.T. Wilson. He perceptively argued that he was “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.”77 By referring to the moral position of the British, he is addressing this tension between control and self-government. He best sums it up by arguing that this tension is so great that it is untenable, and that Britain must either “govern or go,” stating:

you know my views as also do H.M.G. to whom I have expressed the opinion since November 16th, 1918, that the line on which they were working did not lead to anything but disaster and I have latterly told them that they must either govern or go and that to do neither on the mandatory system is not a practicable policy.78

In the end, British policy was to navigate between these courses of action. By bringing Faysal to the throne of a constitutional monarchy, British officials avoided the perils of directly governing; however, by retaining significant influence over the Hashemite kingdom that extended for the next three decades, the British certainly did not “go.” In effect, they followed the advice of Hubert Young, a strong critic of A.T. Wilson and advisor to Lord Curzon, who rejected this polarized world view and offered that Britain could choose a “third alternative … to remain in Mesopotamia with the good will of the people.” This could only be achieved, he argued along with the faction of Sir Percy Cox, by “instituting a predominantly Arab government” in Iraq.79
Appendix A: Chronology (June 1920-October 1920): [EXCLUDED]
Appendix B: Force Compositions80: [EXCLUDED]
Appendix C: Casualty Figures81: [EXCLUDED]

1 Sami Zubaida “The Fragments Imagine The Nation: The Case Of Iraq.” International Journal of Middle East Studies; May 2002, Vol. 34 Issue 2, p205.

2Marian Kent, Oil And Empire: British Policy And Mesopotamian Oil, 1900-1920 London : Macmillan, 1976. Abu Raad. Blut Und Öl : Englands Verrat Am Irak, Dresden : F. Muller, 1944. Helmut Mejcher, Imperial Quest For Oil : Iraq 1910-1928, Published For The Middle East Centre, St. Antony's College By Ithaca Press, 1976. William Stivers, Supremacy and Oil : Iraq, Turkey, and the Anglo-American world order, 1918-1930, Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1982. William Stivers, “Supremacy and Oil: Iraq, Turkey, and the Anglo-American World Order, 1918-1930”

3 As quoted in Judith Yaphe, “Arab Revolt In Iraq Of 1920” Dissertation University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign 1972. Appendix E. p. 332.

4 Sir Percival Phillips, Mesopotamia: The "Daily Mail" Inquiry At Baghdad London : Carmelite House, [1922?]

5 See Appendix B. Force Composition.

6 £765,436,105.48 ($1,253,000,000 USD) in the year 2002 has the same "purchase power" as £32,000,000 in the year 1920. The 1920 total British budget was £1,665.8 million, with total military expenses: £604.0 million (over 36% of the total budget). Mesopotamian expenses for the revolt therefore represented 5% of total military expenses for the British Empire in 1920.

7 As quoted in Yaphe, p.188.

8 As cited in Yaphe, p. 333.

9 Yaphe, p. 188-190.

10 Yaphe, p. 205.

11 Ibid. Wilson.

12 Yaphe, p. 191.

13 Yaphe, p.19.

14 PRO, AIR 1/431-1/466.

15 Later, by June 22, Muhammad Mirza Taqi and 9 other agitators arrested.

16 PRO, WO, Telegram [Clear] From – A.P.O. Khaniqin to Civil Commisioner, No. M.2. Dated 15.6.20.

17 Ibid. Wilson.

18 Ibid. Wilson.

19 PRO, Copy of Memorandum No. 3764/F2/8 dated 6th July 1920 from Political Officer, Dulaim Division, Ramadi, to the Civil Commissioner, Baghdad.

20 Haldane, p. 46.

21 Yaphe, p. 219

22 Ibid, Henry.

23 PRO, WO, “Some notes on recent fighting against Arabs in the Abu Kemal District. By Lieut. Col A. F. Kechis, D.S.O. Commanding 10th Lancers.” [Doc 56].

24 Ibid, Henry.

25 Ibid, Henry.

26 Haldane, p. 102.

27 Haldane, p. 252.

28 Haldane, p. 109.

29 Haldane, p. 115.

30 Eventually 10 Battalions of reinforcements arrived in the Mesopotamian Theater, roughly the equivalent of one division: 323 Brit officers, 3093 enlisted, 302 Indian Officers, 13,200 enlisted (Combat troops) plus auxillaries, 46 Brit Officers, 107 enlisted, and 40 Indian Officers, 4094 enlisted. Individual augmentees: 587 Brit Officers, 723 enlisted, 127 Indian Officers, 6745 enlisted.

31 Ibid, Wilson.

32 Ibid, Wilson.

33 Ibid, Wilson.

34 Ibid. Wilson.

35 Ibid, Wilson.

36 Ibid, Wilson.

37 Haldane, p. 235.

38 Ibid, Henry.

39 Ibid, Henry.

40 Yaphe, p. 223.

41 Yaphe, p.230.

42 Ibid,Wilson.

43 Ibid, Haldane.

44 Haldane, p.342.

45 Ibid., Scott, letter dtd July 9, 1920.

46 Haldane, p. 190.

47 Haldane, p. 186.

48 Ibid, Henry.

49 Ibid, Henry.

50 Ibid, Henry.

51 Haldane, p. 221.

52 Ibid, Henry.

53 Ibid, Henry.

54 Ibid, Henry.

55 Ibid, Henry.

56 Ibid, Henry.

57 Haldane, p. 227.

58 Ibid.

59 Tracked vehicles, ie. Tanks, were asked for by General Haldane, but were refused by the War Office because of the general military drawdown after the conclusion of the First World War. However, it is unlikely that such rudimentary technology would have fared better in the region.

60 As quoted in Nakash, p. 71.

61 Yaphe, p. 223.

62 Ibid, Henry.

63 Haldane, p. 262.

64 Lieutenant Dimoline private diary [manuscript], held by the Liddel Hart Military Archive.

65 Ibid, Dimoline

66 PRO, AIR 1/431/15/260/21, Communique No 111, dtd. November 1, 1920.

67 PRO AIR 1/432/15/260/23

68 Haldane, p. 262.

69 PRO, WO Telegraph to General Headquarters, (clear), dtd. October 25, 1920

70 PRO, AIR 1/431/15/260/21, Memorandum from the Secretariat of His Excellency the High Commissioner for Iraq, Baghdad, 10 July, 1922.

71 Haldane, p. 263.

72 As quoted in Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, p. 43, citing Andrew Boyle, Trenchard: Man of Vision, 1962, p. 389-390.

73 Foster, Arthur James, A ¼Th Hampshire Regiment, Signallers Diary, November 1916 To September 1919,   Edited By Richard Carfax-Foster, Australia August 2001

74 Major General G.P. Dawnway, “Mesopotamia: A Political Retrospect” in The Army Quarterly, Volume II, No. 1, April 1921, held in the Liddell Hart Military Archive

75 Ibid.

76 Ibid.

77 Ibid. Wilson.

78 Ibid. Wilson

79 PRO, FO 371/5227, paper E6509, as cited in Toby Dodge Inventing Iraq: the Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

80 Drawn from Haldane’s appendices

81 Drawn from Haldane’s appendices

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