222: Middle Eastern Revolts Pt. 2


The new British Mandate of Mesopotamia would rise in revolt in 1920, hoping to throw off their new British rulers.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 222. Eric on Patreon. Symposium in Kansas City first weekend of November. Question episode for episode 231, send them in! Last episode we discussed the British position in the Middle East before looking at the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 during which the people of Egypt revolted against British rule. This week we are going to look at a similar event that would occur in the British occupied areas of Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, in July 1920. Measured in combatant numbers, the Iraqi Revolt of 1920 was one of the largest that the British would experience in the 20th century. Estimates vary in terms of how many people joined in the rebellion, with British estimates putting the number at over 130,000 would participate. While both the events in Egypt and Iraq would have some similarities, the largest difference would be the military nature of the uprising in Iraq. In Iraq the British military and civilian leadership would be faced by large armed militias which were quickly formed and organized due to the same societal features that the British had used so effectively against the Ottomans during the First World War. In 1920 the British would find it no easier to deal with these militias than the Ottomans had.

When facing such a large protest in an area where they were trying to grow and solidify their influence the British really needed one consistent purpose and vision for how to proceed, and this was something that they did not have. There were many different groups within the British government, and many of them had their own views on what the future of Mesopotamia should look like. In the India Office, they wanted the strongest possible British control in the region and for Mesopotamia to be declared a British protectorate. This protectorate would then be managed by the India Office itself. The British Foreign Office wanted to create an Arab state, which would have some form of self-determination but would be formulated so that the nation was always very close with the British Empire. Both of these groups were then put under pressure from others within the British government, with the most pressing problem being one of finances. The British Empire had spent huge sums of money on the First World War, and the years after it was over were times of drastic budget cutting. In this new, more fiscally conscious, atmosphere the vast sums of money being poured into Mesopotamia in the forms of paying and supplying the British military presence there started to draw criticism.

The British military presence was led by Lieutenant General Haldane, who had formerly commanded an Army Corps on the Western Front. The one thing to know about Haldane is that when he was assigned to the post in Mesopotamia, he basically knew nothing about Iraq or its situation. He also did not appear to be very willing to learn about that situation when he arrived in Baghdad on March 27th, 1920. What he did know is that he had a job to do, and that job was to reduce the size of the military garrison in Iraq as quickly and efficiently as possible. These efforts to reduce the military footprint of the British army was seen as critical due to all of the events that were happening elsewhere in the British Empire, and which had already happened during 1919. 1919 had been the year when the strain of the war had caused British society to crack. In January 1919 there had been a Strike in Glasgow during which 35,000 industrial workers took to the street, then in June 1919 there was a strike in Liverpool, and other strikes in other industrial areas continued throughout the year. There was a belief in London that there was a real possibility of a revolutionary strike in early 1920. In Ireland the Republican government had met for the first time in Dublin, there was the revolt in Egypt that we discussed last episode, and then on top of all of these new events the morale and discipline with the British army was collapsing. In the early months of 1919 there had been mutinies in various British units, all of them demanding immediate demobilization, these mutinies and protests would continue throughout the year which reduced the number of dependable troops that could be used both at home and around the world. All of these problems were then combined with economic issues, with a serious crisis developing in industries like coal mining and manufacturing and then large debt payments due to by paid to the United States.

Within the framework of these problems the Mesopotamian occupation seemed like a bottomless pit of resources that the British government could ill afford. Churchill, who was Secretary of State for War at this stage, was intensely critical of the situation in the Middle East. In total there were over 84,000 British and Indian troops in the theater, with most of those being stationed in Mesopotamia. Along with these forces were large numbers of civilian leaders, families, and administrators. In total the occupation of Mesopotamia cost about 18 million pounds per year. This set up Mesopotamia to be an areas where three different groups of leaders all saw the situation, and the best path forward, very differently. There were the leaders in London, like Churchill, who just wanted to bring costs down. There were the military leaders in Baghdad, led by Wilson, who believed that they were fully capable of handling things, and it was in fact the military’s fault that so much money was being spent in the region. To try and prove that not only could the civil administration stand on its own, but that it could also be a financial benefit to the British taxpayer, Wilson put in place taxes on local people and commerce. The justification was that since the local people were benefitting from British leadership, they should have to pay for it. This payment could be in the form of money, or in the form of labor provided by the people. The region had a long history of labor as form of payment of taxes to the government, with the Ottoman authorities often calling upon local tribal leaders to organize laborers for various projects. However, they had always been careful to ensure that the local leaders believed that whatever was being worked on was a benefit to them, this helped to assure continued support from those tribal leaders, even if their followers were less than enthusiastic. The British continued to demand this labor as a form of taxation, the problem was that it was a bit questionable if the work that they were doing was an actual benefit to the local society. This caused resentment not just among the people doing the work, but also from the local leaders, who were starting to organize.

While the British were disorganized, in Iraq resistance against British influence was growing and was becoming itself very organized. The growing dislike of British rule began to solidify during the later months of 1919 when it became clear that, even though the war was over, the British were not going to quickly leave or relinquish their control. This caused Shi’i and Sunni leaders to come together to plan for what a joint future might look like, if the British could be removed. These plans were fluid, but probably would have revolved around a Sunni Emir and a Popular Assembly that almost certainly would have been dominated by the more populous Shi’is. Along with a basic outline of this plan, the growing Arab independence movement began to coalesce around a handful of Arab statesman the provided the movement great central control. A critical part of this growing movement was played by the mosques around Baghdad. When they had started their occupation the British had outlawed political meetings and rallies. However, given the position of Islam among the populace they did not, and felt that they could not, do anything to hinder religious gatherings. This allowed the Arab leaders to use mosques and other religious areas as a place to meet and discuss their plans without having to worry about British interference. While most of these discussions revolved around local events and plans, they were also areas where news of events around the world were discussed. At the time some of the most influential news came from Anatolia, and the campaigns of Turkish Nationalists against British and Greek influence. There were many animosities between the Arabs and the Turks, but this did begin to diminish after the war, and especially after Mustafa Kemal grew and power with his very limited view on Turkish expansion.

The British authorities, while often not knowing the details, did have at least some information about what was happening among the Arab leaders, these developments were viewed with some concern, but this concern would be taken to a new level in January 1920 when the first reports were made by British police about a pamphlet circulating around Baghdad. This pamphlet, created by Muhammad Barkatullah, was named Bolshevism and Islam, and within it Barkatullah to advocate for the Arab nationalists to move towards a policy that combined many ideas of Communism, Islam, and Arab nationalism. Overall support for this mixture of ideas was never very strong, and certainly was not strong enough to have a decisive influence on the movement, but just the fact that such ‘Bolshevik talk’ was seriously discussed in Baghdad greatly concerned British officials. This was a period of great social unrest in many areas of Europe, including in Britain, and the though of the Bolshevik revolution spreading into the Middle East, and one step closer to India, terrified British leaders. The important thing to remember about all of these thoughts and theories is that no matter their differences in political outlook for the future, the first step was always the same, remove the British. It was only after the British yoke was removed that the future of Mesopotamia could be controlled by the people who lived there.

The string of events that would directly lead to the revolt in July began in May 1920 with a large demonstration in Baghdad that began on the 26th. On that day large groups of protesters moved throughout the city chanting anti-British and pro-independence slogans. This situation was ripe for escalation, and that escalation would be provided by the Military Governor of the city Colonel Frank Balfour. He made the decision to send some armored cars into the streets. This act was intended to be a simple show of force, proving that the British were still in control, however almost immediately the protesters began to throw stones at the cars and British buildings. Fighting then broke out and a few protesters were injured, with a blind man also being run over and killed by one of the armored cars. With the protest in serious danger of spiraling completely out of control Civil Commissioner Arnold Wilson stepped in to try and find a political solution. He agreed to a meeting with 15 nationalist leaders on June 2nd at the headquarters of the British Civil Administration. At this meeting it was expected that the Arab leaders would present their demands and some form of negotiation would take place. Wilson had a plan to reduce the influence of these 15 leaders, and using the excuse that they did not represent the views of all of the people of the city he also invited 40 other leaders from the community. These 40 leaders were pro-British and were hand picked by the British administration to bused as a way of controlling the more radical leaders. There was just one problem, only 9 of them would actually appear at the meeting, the rest would find excuses not to attend. With his plan to pack the vote a failure, Wilson still continued with the meeting. He began with a lengthy speech, in English, with a translation provided by British administrator Gertrude Bell, here is a small piece of that speech: “I can assure you that those individuals in Baghdad who have sought from patriotic or other motives to hasten the establishment of a Civil Government here by incitements to violence and by rousing the passions of ignorant men are doing and indeed have already done a great disservice to the country … Those who are encouraging disorder and inciting men against the existing regime are arousing forces which the present Administration can and will control … It is my duty as the temporary head of the Civil Administration to warn you that any further incitements to violence and any further appeals to prejudice will be met by vigorous action both from the Military authorities and the Civil Administration.” The entire speech was designed to make it clear that any future disorders would be met by a strong British response, and to cow the Arab leaders into submission due to the fear of that possible response. After Wilson’s speech was over the oldest Arab representative, Yusuf Suwaydi presented the demands of the Arab leaders, here is an English translation as written by Bell “Firstly, we demand the immediate establishment of a Convention representing the Iraqi people which will lay out the route whereby the form of government and its foreign relations will be determined. Secondly, the granting of freedom of the press so that the people may express their desires and beliefs. And thirdly, the removal of all restrictions on the postal and telegraph services, both between different parts of the country and between Iraq and neighbouring countries and kingdoms, to enable the people to confer with each other and to understand current world political developments.” After these demands were presented Wilson made it clear that he could not make any actual decisions, and instead had to forward all of the information to London and wait for a reply, this put a delay on any actual changes, and was a classic delaying tactic.

After the meeting in late May, Wilson continued to work against the Arabs who were pushing for independence. He made it clear, several times, that if they continued to agitate for change then the British military would take action. The Arab leaders would ignore these warning, and therefore Wilson would start to make plans with military leaders to arrest many of those that were termed ‘extremists.’ Wilson contemplated ordering the arrests on June 16th, but he was advised to reconsider these actions by the British Judicial Secretary. The Secretary’s concerns were based around fears that if the arrests were made, violence would erupt, violence that the British may not be able to control. Up until this point, about mid-June 1920 Wilson and other British leaders had been very focused on events in the capital, however resistance to British rule was also building up in the more rural regions outside of the city. All throughout the countryside demonstrations were occasionally held, and one of these would occur in the village of Karbela roughly 100 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. The local British commander, Major Pulley, was concerned about the demonstration which he believed had the possibility of turning into something more. He had good reason to believe that this might be the case, because it was led by the Grand Mujhatid Shirazi. Shirazi was the leader of Islamic thought in the country and what he said really mattered, and he was calling for an uprising. Pulley ordered British troops into the area and they surrounded the village. Pulley then sent invitation to local leaders to come to a conference to discuss the events, and to try and defuse tensions. In attendance to this conference would be some of the sons of Shirazi. The conference took place on June 22, and as soon as they arrived 11 of the Arab representatives were arrested and sent to a British prison. This action caused tensions to rise almot immediately and soon Pulley was communicating with Shirazi. Shirazi made it clear that if Pulley did not release the prisoners, it was very likely that violence would begin. He put the cause of this violence squarely on the shoulders of the British for their actions. Pulley was at first determined not to release them, but eventually he would be convinced. However insetad of just releasing them as Shirazi requested, they were exiled to Persia. When news of this action reached Shirazi he took a fateful step. He would issue a fatwa, which when translated read “It is the duty of the Iraqis to demand their rights. In demanding them they should maintain peace and order. But if the English prevent them obtaining their rights it is permitted to make use of defensive force.” This seems pretty unambiguous, and it was, Shirazi had given the Iraqi’s religious permission for their fighting, and it would not be long before they would act on it. It would begin in the small town of Rumaytha 250 kilometers south of Baghdad and it would begin small, but over the course of the next month it would spread, with over over 100,000 insurgents taking up arms all along the Euphrates. The Iraqi revolt had begun, and it would change the future of Iraq and the Middle East.