Great Britain's Eastern Ventures

By Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice

[Harper's Magazine, October 1918]

At a time when Paris and Calais are not wholly out of danger and the eyes of the world are fixed upon the bloody struggle on the western front, it is very natural that it should be asked why British troops are holding Bagdad and Jerusalem. After the German victories which opened the campaign of 1918 in France, Great Britain appealed to America to send more men and to send them quickly, an appeal which met with a prompt and generous response, and to-day American troops are actually filling the gaps in some of the depleted British divisions. This has been too good an opportunity for the mischief-maker, whose activities have been stimulated by German gold, to let pass, and hints and innuendoes that selfish Britain is, as usual, using her allies to save her at the point of danger, while she reaps a rich harvest in more distant and less perilous fields, have been frequent.

Now Britain entered this war inspired only by the thought of helping France and avenging the outrage upon little Belgium, and with no idea either of territorial aggrandizement or of advantage to herself. That she alone of the Allies has conquered large stretches of enemy territory has resulted directly from German policy and the unprincipled methods by which Germany has endeavored to take advantage of the fact that our Empire is world-wide and peopled to a large extent by subject races. Our chief enemy in 1914 believed firmly that the British were a decadent race, given to pleasure and money-making, and that the British Empire, resting on a rotten foundation, would topple at the first storm.

It was generally held at Berlin that the Boers were only waiting for an opportunity to throw off the British yoke, and that the native populations of India, of Egypt, and of our African possessions, groaning under British oppression, would, with a little encouragement, rise against their masters. On the outbreak of war and even earlier, German agents were busy wherever they could obtain a footing. Working from German Southwest Africa, they attempted to organize and actually started a Boer rebellion, which was suppressed by the prompt and loyal action of the South African Dominion, while agents from German East Africa began to tamper with the native populations of Rhodesia and Uganda. To any one who has lived among or visited a colony of white settlers scattered over a vast area, populated by childish, ignorant, and easily roused black races, the danger of allowing these methods of raising trouble against us to go unchecked, and the criminal lack of principle which inspired them, will be apparent. The evil had to be scotched and scotched promptly, and the government of South Africa took the matter firmly in hand. Botha himself planned and conducted the campaign which forced the Germans to surrender their Southwest African colony, and Smuts, bringing with him his own South- Africans, and helped by British, Indian, and native African forces, initiated and all but completed the conquest of German East Africa. There will be no more dramatic page in the history of the British Empire than that which records the co-operation of the Boer leaders with the men who had fought against them fourteen years before, or which tells how General Smuts, after occupying the capital of German East Africa, handed over the command to another Boer general, Vandeventer, and hurried home to sit at the same council-table with Lord Milner, the governor of Cape Colony, who threw down the challenge to the Boer republics in 1899.

It is, however, against our enterprises in Asia rather than in Africa that criticism has been directed; and though these have led to campaigns which at any other time would have been regarded as considerable, and we have carried the war far into the enemy's country, yet their story has been in the main one of essential and unavoidable counter-measures, forced upon us by German machinations. Germany brought Turkey into the war with the object of opening a road to the East and attacking the British Empire at what appeared to be her most vital and vulnerable points. Her prime objects were to block the Suez Canal, which the German press described as our jugular vein, destined to feel the Teuton stranglehold; to obtain access to the Persian Gulf, and to gain a road through Persia to the frontiers of India. It was against Egypt and the Suez Canal, as being both most accessible and most promising of results, that her first efforts were directed. German agents were at work among the tribes of Darfur, far to the south of Omdurman, and aroused the religious fanaticism of the Senoussi of the Eastern Sahara, while Turkey was urged into attacking Egypt by the promise of obtaining it as a province of the Empire.

The risings in Darfur and the attacks of the Senoussi upon the western frontier of Egypt were checked without much difficulty by our local troops, and before Turkey could seriously threaten the Suez Canal she was called to defend Constantinople against the forces landed in the Dardanelles, That unfortunate And mismanaged enterprise was undertaken by us, with the approval and co-operation of the French, at the call of Russia, who was hard pressed at the time by Turkey in the Caucasus, and its chief purpose was to open an ice-free passage to the Russian Empire. By the time when it had failed Serbia had been driven back and Germany had obtained control of the railway communication with Constantinople, where German munitions and German troops were arriving freely. The large army which Turkey had collected in the Dardanelles peninsula was set free and the danger to Egypt became very real. Our forces withdrawn from the Dardanelles were therefore first employed in defending the line of the Suez Canal; but, as this has a length of more than one hundred and thirty miles a very large number of troops was required to hold it against attack.

When the problem of the defense of Egypt came to be examined, it was found that the enemy could not cross the Sinai Desert except by certain routes, clearly defined by the position of the springs and wells, and that only along the northern route, which skirts the Mediterranean coast, was the water-supply sufficient to maintain any large body of troops. So a plan was formed to go out into the desert and secure control of the water, which could be done with far fewer troops than were necessary to defend the long line of the canal. The scheme succeeded. The Turks were slowly and steadily driven back from the water-bearing areas and a large force was freed from Egypt and sent to France. The conquest of the Sinai Desert, which was in the main a struggle against nature, has, unfortunately, been surrounded by that veil of secrecy which has, of necessity, concealed so much of what has been accomplished in this war; for it is a story of enterprise and organization, in pleasing contrast to our abortive effort in the Dardanelles.

Since the days of Moses the desert has stood as an almost impenetrable barrier between Egypt and the East, and it was after the failure of his Syrian campaign that Napoleon, who had crossed most of the frontiers of Europe, announced his opinion that a desert is the most effective defensive barrier against military aggression. Why, then, did we go into the Sinai Peninsula to meet the Turks instead of leaving them to face the difficulties of the desert? The answer is that modern science has altered the problem of the fight of man against nature, as much as it has affected the conditions of the struggle of man against man. The Turks were building a railway from the frontier of Palestine, and if they had been allowed to extend it and to make at their leisure arrangement for storing water we should have had an attack upon Egypt in force which it was most undesirable to await passively. Further, it was of the highest importance to keep open the Suez Canal at all times, as through it passed large numbers of men and tons of foodstuffs and material, coming from India and Australasia, for the support both of our armies in France and of our population at home. Small raiding parties of the enemy, if he was left in control of the desert, could find their way to the canal and drop mines or fire at the passing steamers, enterprises which were, in fact, more than once attempted with some success.

We therefore moved eastward along the coast route into the Sinai Peninsula, building a broad-gauge railway as we went, and we were very soon brought up against a very serious difficulty. It was discovered that the brackish waters of the pools and wells, suited to the stomachs of the Arab and the Turk, had the effect upon European men and horses of a very strong aperient. Water for the army, then, had to be brought from Egypt, and a pipe-line with innumerable pumping stations and reservoirs was constructed across the... desert.... [Deletion by censor.] England, busy making up her arrears in the supply of munitions of war, could not at the time make pipes of the required size, and these were furnished by the United States and carried over four thousand miles to their destination. The considerable army which lay for months before Gaza was for the most part drinking water borne through these pipes from Egypt. But the provision of water was by no means the only difficulty to be overcome. The loose sand of the desert shifts under the influence of strong winds like snow in a winter storm, forming here high banks and there a wide expanse of undulations which suggest a rough sea suddenly solidified at the touch of genii. The struggle against the sand was perpetual and arduous; it required great labor to keep the railway clear; no bottom could be found which would permit of the construction of solid roads, while the movement of guns, motor vehicles, and other wheeled transport was a constant trouble until it was discovered that [deletion by censor] on the sand a good track could be formed which would stand ordinary wear and tear. But, even so, it was necessary to search such parts of the Eastern world as were open to us for camels in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of the army, for no modern expedient could altogether replace the traditional means of transport of the desert. At first the infantry suffered great hardships, sinking at each step into the loose sand up to the tops of their boots, and could make little progress until they were provided with a kind of small snow-shoe made of wire netting. But all difficulties were overcome and the force reached the frontier of the land of the Philistines, which the Turks were found to be defending in intrenched positions extending from the coast near Gaza toward Beersheba.

This was the position in April, 1917, by which time a dramatic change had come over the situation in Mesopotamia. The Turks had been defeated before Kut and had fled in confusion through Bagdad, which had been occupied by the British. These successes compelled the enemy to send considerable reinforcements from Syria to the East and to weaken his forces in Palestine, so the moment seemed opportune to strike a blow at Gaza. The attempt failed and there were no further developments till the autumn.

During the summer the Turks had been making considerable preparations for the recapture of Bagdad and had received much help from their German allies. General Falkenhayn, the former Chief of the German General Staff, arrived to superintend the operations, while large quantities of German munitions and some German troops were despatched to Syria, to join the Turkish army which was assembling about Aleppo for the attempt upon Mesopotamia. It was decided that it would be effective, and more economical of Power, to break up this concentration by striking from the frontier of Palestine than to reinforce our troops in Mesopotamia, the most distant of our theaters of war, where our troops were already more than five hundred miles from the coast. Accordingly, preparations for attack upon the strongly intrenched position which the enemy had constructed between Gaza and Beersheba were made as secretly as possible. As the Turks were provided with aeroplanes, and the absence of vegetation in the desert made camouflage much more difficult than in France, it was not possible to conceal the fact that an offensive was intended. Every step was therefore taken to make the enemy believe that a new attempt was to be made on the Gaza lines, whereas the blow was delivered by a swift turning movement carried out by mounted troops, mainly Australians, against the enemy's left at Beersheba, which was captured on October 31st. Water for men and animals continued to be the chief difficulty, but, luckily, it was found that the enemy had not had time to damage the wells at Beersheba, and a sufficient supply was obtained to enable the advance to be continued and the enemy's flank rolled up. None the less the hardships which the troops had to endure were severe, many of them having only one water-bottle full of water for forty-eight hours of great heat and choking dust. As soon as the flanking movements had made progress, the line at Gaza was assaulted and the Turks fell back in disorder. The pursuit was continued relentlessly as far north as Jaffa, the eager cavalry giving the enemy no time to rally, and bringing off a number of brilliant charges such as have been rare in this war, in which, as a general rule, the rifle and machine-gun have completely mastered the arme blanche.

The Turkish army was completely broken up and lost ten thousand prisoners and over eighty guns. Our troops, however, had outdistanced their supply columns, and a halt had perforce to be called to bring up food and munitions and stores before they could move into the hills of Judea toward Jerusalem. This gave the Turks time to rally and to bring up reinforcements, and some sharp fighting ensued before Allenby's men were able to enter Jerusalem on December 10th, and on Christmas day, 1917, the representatives of a Christian army were, after the lapse of four centuries, able to celebrate the birth of their Saviour at Bethlehem.

The political effects of the capture of Jerusalem in the Eastern world have been of the highest importance. Of the cities sacred to Mohammedans Bagdad had been captured six months before; the Arabs had driven the Turks from Mecca, and, now that a Christian army was once again in occupation of Jerusalem, only Medina, to which Mohammed fled when Mecca, would not hear his teaching, remained to the Turks, while the imagination of every Christian was stirred at the thought that Turkish misrule of their Holy Land was at an end. The military objects of the campaign were completely achieved, for Falkenhayn was forced to divert the troops collected at Aleppo for the Mesopotamian venture to bar the progress of Allenby's army, and they have been kept in Syria ever since. So by Allenby's successful advance to Jerusalem our position at Bagdad has been secured. With this we may leave Palestine and see why we went to the city of Harun-al-Rashid and what we are doing there now.

The Mesopotamian campaign began in quite a small way, with a little expedition from India, which started in the autumn of 1914, soon after Turkey had come into the war, to secure Basra, the port where the Euphrates flows into the Persian Gulf. The purpose of the enterprise was to safeguard the produce of the great Anglo-Persian oil-fields which run along the southeastern frontier of Persia and Mesopotamia, an assured supply of oil being of vital importance to the British navy, more especially as the oil-fields of Caucasia and Rumania had been closed to us by the war. The Turkish forces in the neighborhood of Basra, being ill equipped and ill disciplined, were easily defeated, but it was soon found that a sufficient area of country could not be controlled and the oil-fields protected without a further advance than had been originally contemplated, both up the Euphrates and up the Tigris. The expedition was accordingly increased by reinforcements from India, and a series of very successful operations in the year 1915 gave us the control of the lower waters of both rivers. In the last of these General Townsend inflicted a very complete defeat near Kut-el-Amara upon what was at that time the last Turkish force between us and Bagdad.

Ere this the enemy agents who had penetrated into Persia from Bagdad had begun to be mischievous, some of them penetrating as far as Afghanistan, and there was danger that the fanatical tribes on the northwestern frontier of India might be induced to revolt. Further, the British government was much exercised at the failure of the Dardanelles expedition, and desired to secure Bagdad both to counteract the effect of this failure in the East and to close Persia to enemy enterprises. General Townsend was therefore authorized to continue his advance from Kut-el-Amara on Bagdad. He met the Turks again on November 22, 1915, at the ruins of Ctesiphon, twenty miles to the south of the city, and at first drove them from their positions, but was counterattacked by very superior forces which the enemy had succeeded in bringing up in the nick of time. These consisted of troops from European Turkey, who had been hurried eastward to save the capital of Mesopotamia, and were of far better quality than any Turkish soldiers we had yet encountered in this theater of war. Townsend was forced to beat a hurried retreat to Kut-el-Amara, where he was overtaken and completely invested by December 7th.

The next stage in the campaign consists of the prolonged siege of Kut and the attempts at its relief. Townsend with his gallant little band held out for 143 days, until on April 28-29, 1916, he was forced by starvation to surrender with some eleven thousand British and native troops.

Although reinforcements had been sent at once to Mesopotamia to avert this disaster, no adequate provision had been made for the transport of the supplies required for the considerable force necessary for this purpose. The Tigris is, as a line of communication, one of the most difficult rivers in the world. In the flood season it overflows its banks for miles, and a little rain converts such soil as is not under water into a peculiarly glutinous mud which makes progress on either side of the river almost impossible. In the dry season the river falls so low as to be navigable only by river steamers of a special construction and of very shallow draught. Though the Nile, the Irrawaddy, and the Hoogli were searched, steamers of the right type were not to be found in any numbers, and a special fleet of vessels had to be built, which was not only in itself a slow business, but the transport of the boats, when completed, to the Tigris involved very great difficulties. The best solution of the problem lay in the construction of a railway, but this, too, was slow and laborious, for in order to protect the line against floods the track had to be embanked for the greater part of its length. These arrangements for improving the communications could not be developed in time to save Kut, and the gallant efforts to break through the Turkish line made by the relieving force which could not, owing to supply difficulties, be made sufficiently strong to carry out its formidable task, were repulsed by the Turks.

The fall of Kut-el-Amara was a severe blow to British prestige, and there were gloomy forebodings as to its effect in Afghanistan, in India, and in the Mohammedan world generally. But the loyalty of the Emir of Afghanistan to the British Empire, and the influence of his strong personality on his turbulent subjects, kept them quiet; while the foundations of British rule in India, where our administration had established a reputation with the native population for justice, sympathy, and straight dealing, proved to be too strong to be shaken by an external catastrophe. Recruiting in India flourished, and our Indian army expanded steadily, while all classes of the population, from rajahs to ryots, willingly contributed their quota in one form or another to the prosecution of the war. Yet, in the spring of 1916 these results of the good work of British rule in the East could not be and were not foreseen, and it appeared necessary to wipe out the stain on British arms left by the surrender of Kut. The remainder of the year was spent in carrying out those improvements to the communications which should have been taken in hand before the first advance on Bagdad was attempted. The port of Basra was developed, railways were laid, the channel of the Tigris was dredged and buoyed, a large fleet of river boats provided, and by the winter of 1916 General Maude was able to begin operations against the Turkish positions round Kut, with the assurance that he would not be hampered by such a breakdown of transportation as had prevented the relief of Townsend.

Then ensued a period of slow trench warfare upon both banks of the Tigris in which the Turks were gradually pressed back, and by February 23, 1917, Maude had reached the banks of the river to the north of Kut, and was able to effect a surprise crossing in the rear of the Turkish line. The enemy was forced to retreat on Bagdad and was followed up energetically and again defeated in a series of actions which completely broke up the Turkish army. Bagdad was entered on March the 10th, our troops capturing in these operations over four thousand prisoners and nearly one hundred guns, including all those we had lost at Kut-el-Amara.

The Turkish forces which had been opposing the Russians on the frontier of Persia, finding their communications threatened by Maude's advance, were compelled to fall back, and the Russians, following them up, were enabled to join hands with General Maude, so that at last a complete barrier was established from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf to the enemy's Eastern ambitions. It is unnecessary to describe in any detail the operations which have followed upon our occupation of Bagdad. Broadly speaking, the principle on which we have acted has been to take advantage of our central position to strike at the enemy's scattered forces, and prevent him from making preparations for the reconquest of Mesopotamia. As in the case of Egypt, the enemy's possible lines of attack are confined to those upon which water can be found—that is to say, to the valleys of the Diala, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, which converge upon the vicinity of Bagdad. By continuing to improve our communications and by establishing a network of railways we have been able to develop the advantages of our central position and are certain of being able to accumulate force at any threatened point more quickly than can the enemy. The Turks, having no railway nearer than one hundred and fifty miles from Bagdad, are compelled, in order to attack us, to establish depots of munitions and stores within striking distance of our forces, upon one or other of the river lines. These depots and the forces covering them we have, in succession, attacked and destroyed, and in this way have cleared a wide circle round the city.

There have been many discussions as to whether we should have gone to Bagdad at all, and there can be no question but that we made a gross mistake in doing so in the autumn of 1914, before our preparations were completed and the force was adequate for its task. But, as events have turned out, the gradual extension of the campaign which has been forced upon us by circumstances has in the end proved a blessing in disguise. For when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk led to the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Asia Minor and from the Persian frontier, the road to the East was again open to the enemy, who has been doing his best to take advantage of the situation and raise trouble in Persia. At Bagdad we are much better placed to counter these enterprises than we would be had we remained at Kut-el-Amara.

Our campaigns in Mesopotamia and Palestine are, then, both primarily defensive in character. In Mesopotamia we are defending India; in Palestine we are defending Egypt; and so long as we employ for these purposes only such forces as are required for defense they are strategically justifiable. If we had remained passive in the East and allowed the enemy to hammer at the doors of India and of Egypt, our power in the West would have been greatly circumscribed and that of the enemy increased; for in these campaigns we have to a great extent exhausted the Ottoman armies and compelled the Turk to with draw all the forces he at one time had upon the Rumanian, Russian, and Macedonian fronts. For the campaign in Mesopotamia we have been able to rely almost wholly, and for the campaign of Palestine to a considerable extent, upon the resources in men and materials of India, resources which could not have been made available to anything approaching the same degree on the western front. In both theaters the developments which have been forced upon us by the necessities of war will be of permanent benefit in peace. Turkish misrule has been banished, and in its place just government is being gradually established, under which the oppressed populations are gaining confidence and returning to the ways of industry. In Mesopotamia, in particular, the developments of the harbor, the improvements of the waterways, the construction of railways, and the extension of irrigation upon scientific lines are steadily driving back the line which divides "the desert from the sown," and the traditional wealth of the country, which had vanished under Ottoman misgovernment, is beginning to reappear.

The same process is at work in southern Palestine, upon the future of which the establishment of direct railway communication with Egypt cannot but have a far-reaching effect. The harbors on the coast of Syria are notoriously bad and this has greatly hampered the economic development of the Holy Land. In the future the pilgrims to Jerusalem will, instead of having to risk a precarious and uncomfortable landing at Jaffa, be carried luxuriously by train from Cairo or Alexandria.

Whatever the Peace Conference may decide as to the future fate of Palestine and Mesopotamia, it is certain that they must never be allowed to revert to the dark days of Turkish rule, from which they have been rescued by British arms, and it is equally certain that it was no lust of conquest, but the necessities of defense, which have taken our arms into these remote theaters of war.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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