Britain's First Invasion of Iraq

Britain's First Invasion of Iraq

by Anthony Bruce

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Britain's first intervention in what is now Iraq occurred at the beginning of the First World War. At the outset, Britain's objectives were limited to protecting its oil supplies. They were soon extended to include the capture of Baghdad, capital of the Ottoman Empire's province of Mesopotamia, and the territory beyond.

As Ottoman Turkey entered the war in October 1914, an expeditionary force dispatched from British India advanced from its forward base at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab, Iraq's opening onto the Persian Gulf. The oil installations at Abadan were taken on November 7 th , 1914. The city of Basra, 20 miles inland on the Euphrates, was occupied on November 22 nd , after the defeat of more determined opposition.

Because Turkish resistance was weaker than expected, the British began to think about expanding their grip on Mesopotamia. The first offensive operations of 1915 were successful, driving the Turks from Ahwaz, to the east, and bringing the Persian oilfields under British control. In March 1915, two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade moved north up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers towards Kut.

The immediate aim was to secure the British position by extending control over the whole of Lower Mesopotamia, although Baghdad was always seen as the ultimate prize. On May 31 st , Almara on the Tigris, 100 miles to the north, was taken by 11,000 troops under the command of General Charles Townshend. The troops arrived in a flotilla of native boats known as "Townshend's regatta," as the river was the only suitable route north. Similar progress was made up the Euphrates, where a smaller force protected Townshend's flank. After a month's hard struggle in the summer heat, Nasiriya was captured in July 1915.

As enemy opposition remained light, the advance continued until Townshend's army encountered a Turkish force of equal strength entrenched on both banks of the Tigris at Kut. Crossing the river, the British attacked from the north on September 28 th , routing the Turks, who lost 5,300 men and all of their artillery. However, a fall in the water level delayed the advance northwards and enemy survivors escaped to Ctesiphon, 16 miles from Baghdad.

Without waiting for reinforcements, Townshend moved forward on November 11 th . Although Baghdad's strategic significance was limited, the British government needed a success to restore its international prestige, badly damaged by the failure of the Gallipoli expedition. With a force of 14,000 men, Townshend met the Turks at Ctesiphon, where they occupied heavily fortified positions on the east bank of the Tigris.

Although substantially outnumbered--the Turks now had 30,000 men--Townshend unwisely ordered an advance. The British initially succeeded in moving through the enemy's forward lines, but as the Turks brought up more troops they were forced to withdraw. Four days' heavy fighting left the British with 4,500 casualties.

Townsend retreated south, reaching Kut on December 3 rd and deciding to hold the place as the cornerstone of Britain's presence in Mesopotamia. Defences were prepared around the village, situated on a loop of the Tigris, before the Turks besieged it on December 8 th .

The operation involved two Turkish divisions whose three successive assaults failed to penetrate the fortifications. The Turks used most of their troops to prevent British reinforcements from breaking through. British relief forces made three separate attempts to reach Kut. None succeeded.

Without hope of relief, the garrison surrendered on April 29 th , 1916, after a siege of almost five months. Food had run out; starvation loomed. Some 8,000 men were taken prisoner; many died in captivity.

Months of preparation were needed before another offensive could be launched. After a gradual buildup and significant improvements in transport, the British government authorized another attack on Baghdad. On December 13 th , 1916, the British advanced from Basra on both banks of the Tigris. Some 50,000 men were involved in the new operation, but progress was slow because of rain and the need to keep casualties to a minimum. The 12,000 Turks were heavily outnumbered when the opposing forces met near Kut on 24 February 1917.

On 5 March the British advance continued with troops moving along the east bank of the Tigris. Resistance was encountered ten miles south of Baghdad, and some troops crossed to the west bank of the river by a pontoon bridge, with the aim of making a flank attack on Baghdad. Faced with a major converging advance, the Turks decided to evacuate their forward positions, enabling the British to enter the city on March 11 th , 1917.

Late in the war, Britain resumed the offensive north of Baghdad, with the aim of capturing the Mosul oilfields and strengthening their bargaining position in the post-war peace talks. The new campaign was not been completed by the time of the armistice and Mosul was not occupied until later. In the peace settlement following the war, Iraq emerged from the ruins of Mesopotamia in 1921 as a quasi-independent state under British mandate.