Review of Charles Townshend’s Desert Hell (Harvard University Press). Originally appeared in The National.
In the history of colonial Britain, the name Charles Townshend is usually said with a scowl. It wasn’t always thus. In 1895, as a young captain, Townshend led the besieged garrison at Chitral Fort and held out heroically until the arrival of reinforcements. But his reputation and ignominy live on mostly because of his defeat two decades later in what is now Iraq, against an Ottoman opponent generally judged weaker and less equipped than Townshend’s own Indian soldiers. Townshend led his soldiers up from Basra towards Baghdad, only to meet fierce Turkish resistance at the Battle of Ctesiphon, near the enormous sixth-century Sassanian arch that is one of the wonders of pre-Islamic architecture. In December 1915, he retreated to Kut in eastern Iraq near the modern Iranian border, and after five months’ siege he surrendered to the Turks. In their custody, fully half his surviving men perished, mostly from exhaustion and disease.
The author of Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia (who is, oddly enough, also named Charles Townshend, though he admits to no relationship) echoes conventional wisdom in rating the defeat at Kut the most embarrassing British military defeat since Cornwallis’s surrender to American tax protesters at Yorktown in 1781. In this book, the blame meted out to Townshend the general is less than he has received in previous accounts, but still enough to place him in the low ranks of British generalship. To his superiors, Townshend expressed reservations about the push to Baghdad, arguing that the gains would be minor and the potential costs extreme. But in the end, the superiors’ views won out, and Townshend pushed forward, with disastrous consequences.