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.
Desert Hell is an account of that push, from its beginning in Basra up to its eventual Pyrrhic success two years later, after General Stanley Maude picked up where Townshend (now imprisoned on an island in the Sea of Marmara) left off and marched, again at great cost, north to Mosul and Kurdistan. The reasons for the original taking of Basra, which fell so easily that the British were seemingly powerless to resist the urge to challenge the Turks further north, are murky, and attributable in part to securing Persian oil, and in part (Townshend claims overwhelmingly) to publicly bruise the Turks and encourage their Arab subjects to revolt. The British challenge certainly drew down the reserves of the Ottoman Empire, hastening its defeat. But it did so with a shockingly inept display that one of the officers involved called “a terrible exhibition of bad generalship which we have provided for the benefit of military historians”.
Future historians will not have to rewrite this book for some time – probably not until an historian comes along who, unlike Townshend (best known as an historian of the Easter Rising, around the same time in Ireland), has full command of Ottoman sources as well as British ones. The book is gritty in its ground-level detail, drawing from diaries of British soldiers unlucky enough to have had to march through the sands of Mesopotamia, but also keen in its analysis of British military and political structures that led to the defeat. And to these virtues it adds the engaging vehemence of a prosecutor, laying at British feet the blame for much of the tragedy that befell Iraq in the years after the invasion.
The grittiness provides the most memorable moments. Some of the hardships of war in southern Iraq will be familiar to observers of the news during 2003-2007, when the successors of Townshend’s forces occupied the southern capital of Basra. But as a visitor to these latter-day mess tents in Basra – on windless days, they rocked and billowed from the industrial-strength air-conditioning within – I can confirm that Townshend’s war was infinitely more hellish. The climate punished both sides with cold and heat alike, starting in the boiler-room of Basra, and continuing on an unseasonably wet and cold winter in Kut. At times they viewed the heat as a deliverance, since at temperatures above 55 C the sandflies themselves called an armistice and retreated to their shady lairs. Disease preyed upon everyone. The men, most of whom were Indian sepoys, suffered from maladies considerably more varied than, say, their colleagues in the trenches of the Somme: “dog-rot” (a kind of wastage after a fly bite), as well as the permanently disfiguring “Baghdad boil” and “Aleppo date.” Even the generals perished: in the safety of Baghdad, the Ottoman Field Marshal Baron von der Goltz died of typhus as he awaited news of his side’s victory in Kut.
There is little glory in this for anyone. Coming off worse than anyone are the war’s planners. Townshend is portrayed as a tragic buffoon (“Deliberately,” wrote one quoted source, he “stripped and stood naked among his dead troops and living officers: then slipped on a silk vest, silk underpants, a khaki shirt, his breeches, boots, and sun-helmet” while “eating a piece of plum-cake passed to him by a junior staff officer”). But the higher-ups fare no better, including General John E Nixon, Townshend’s commander, who ordered him to take Baghdad, and the British political leadership, which made the now-familiar mistake of invading with unclear political objectives and an even murkier understanding of the military demands of invasion and occupation.
All have a doomed view of war in the Middle East as essentially a contest of chest-thumping and domination. By this logic, the time-honoured military stand-by known as tactical retreat or withdrawal simply was unavailable in the arsenal of manoevres available to Townshend, and the high command felt itself essentially bound to move forward headlong into continued combat, until ultimately defeated or victorious. “You may afford to have reverses and retreat in France, perhaps,” Townshend told his wife, “but not in the East and keep any prestige.”
The author reserves harshest judgement not for any individual but for the British government itself. In the medium term, of course, the British did eventually take Mesopotamia and watched their opponents’ empire dashed on the rocks, shattered into multiple little pieces with their own overlapping notions of sovereignty. But in the short term they killed tens of thousands of their own subjects and wrecked a number of Arab cities. Over the long term, their effect was even worse: in 1917, the tone-deaf General Maude’s forces took Baghdad and issued his famous “we come… not as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators” proclamation, which went over about as well then as it did in 2003. Eventually the British Mandate of Mesopotamia placed King Feisal I on the throne of the Kingdom of Iraq, undermining Arab displeasure at colonial rule and systematically selling out the Kurds and Jews to boot.
Townshend the author perhaps neglects to convey fully the grim background of war in Europe that led to these retrospectively mad decisions. Surely something had to be done about the Ottomans, who were slaughtering British forces at Gallipoli about this time? The something that they hit upon turns out to have been a military, political, and moral disaster, which covers all bases in registering as a complete failure. Something, perhaps, but not this.
Graeme Wood is a contributing editor to The Atlantic.