SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
On November 5, 1914, Britain… declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Next day a combined British and Indian force landed at Foa in what is now Iraq and secured an area around Basra, ostensibly to protect an Iranian oilfield that supplied the Royal Navy.
The quotation above is extracted from Brian Urquhart’s review of Roger Louis’s Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonization and David M. Malone’s The International Struggle over Iraq: Politics in the UN Security Council, 1980 –2005 appearing in this week’s New York Review of Books (March 29, 2007).
And? Well, this particular paragraph offers a valid introduction for our review here and Wilfred Nunn’s Tigris Gunboats (with an introduction offered by Sir Jeremy Greenstock–more of which later).
Nearly nine decades before American–led forces (Alliance of the Willing) entered Baghdad, the city fell to another army–and Navy (note the significance of the opening quotation)–during World War I. Poorly resourced but with overwhelming naval superiority, the British captured Baghdad in a campaign strikingly similar to the one in which the U.S. is executing today. For the back cover reads:
March 2007 is the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad–not in 2003, but in 1917–but today it is barely acknowledged that the latest American–led invasion was prefigured by a poorly resourced but ultimately successful British campaign to break Ottoman hold on Iraq during the First World War. Where the Americans had overwhelming air superiority, the British enjoyed a similar advantage, naval power, and the army’s advance through the Tigris marshlands was only possible thanks to the artillery support of the navy’s gunboats and the transport capacities of the river steamers.
Originally published in 1932 and written by the commander of the British naval forces, Tigris Gunboats is a gripping account of the three–year British expedition in Iraq. (Aside, the vice–admiral stated that, “To be in the East at that time was a great disappointment to all in the Force. Most of the soldiers were wishing themselves in France, while our hope had been in common with that of every one else in the navy, to be present in the North Sea….”). Launched as an attempt by the Indian army to secure Western oil supplies, the British campaign yielded startling successes followed by now–familiar challenges, including intertribal rivalry.
“The Espiègle (Nunn aboard) was instructed to protect British interests up–river; the Odin to await the expedition off the mouth and to accompany it, dealing with the Turkish battery near Foa, a few miles off, which commanded the entrance.” Having established themselves at Basra, Kurn–a town forty–fives miles father up river (at the principal situation where the Tigris and Euphrates combine to form the Shatt al Arab) was next and then onto Amara, Kut and finally Baghdad. Along the arduous journey are the usual hot–beds of action in Nasiriya and Feluja [sic]. Most interesting however is the role played by the Sheikh of Mahommerah (a more than welcome ally).
There appeared a contentious article in The Daily Telegraph a fortnight ago (March 12, 2007) going by the title “Greenstock finally delivers his barb on Iraq.” The author writes that, “Tony Blair’s first envoy to Iraq, banned from publishing his own book on the crisis there, has used a roundabout route to make sharp criticism of the British and American governments for failing to study history before invading the country in 2003.”
Greenstock further posits, “Is it too churlish to ask whether the leaders of a more modern administration might have profited from studying this experience?”
Let us get Machiavelli’s perspective:
Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
All in all, the hardback–just shy of 300 pages–is written with insight and authority, providing a fascinating insider’s view of an operation that did not always run according to plan.