223: Middle Eastern Revolts Pt. 3


The people of Iraq had risen against British rule, but could they actually succeed?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 223. This week I would like to once again remind everybody that there is a listener questions episode coming up soon, we are currently up to 13 questions, thank you to Sam and Mark for the questions you sent in this week, so send in those questions to historyofthegreatwar@outlook.com. Also, this podcast it brought to you by the support of listeners just like you thanks to their support on patreon. Head on over to patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to found out how you can get access to ad free versions of all of these episodes or even special Patreon only episodes. Last episode we tracked some of the events in Iraq leading up to the start of the revolt in July 1920. The months before the uprising were marked by increased tensions between the British civil and military administrators and local leaders and citizens. In this episode we are going to discuss the events of the uprising from its beginnings as scattered armed uprising, through the point of greatest threat to the British position in Iraq, and then through to its conclusion. The uprising would not completely eject the British from Iraq, but it would greatly narrow their options for how to interact with the territory in the future. We will close out the episode by just touching on what that future was going to look like.

The first area where the situation transitioned from peaceful demonstrations and discontent to an armed uprising was around the village of Rumaytha. Rumaytha is located on the Euphrates roughly halfway between Baghdad and Basra. It had a British military garrison, but the garrison was quickly cut off and put under siege within the city. After only a few days of the siege the garrison was under serious supply constraints. Food, water, and ammunition were all running low, and it was clear that the garrison was working on a very limited schedule. To try and break the siege General Leslie, the area commander, decided to dispatch a train with an infantry escort to the town to deliver food and water. On July 6th this relief column, under the command of Colonel McVean had been able to advance to a point just 6 miles to the north of the village. What the British did not know was that they were walking into a trap. There were 4,000 rebels that were waiting to ambush the relief column. Only half of these men had firearms, and even less of them were modern rifles, but even just the fraction armed with modern weapons still drastically outnumbered the British. The ambush was waiting for the column in an area near a dried up canal that provided good cover for the rebels. The initial British reaction was to try and attack directly into the insurgents, with an Indian unit making the assault, an assault that would be unsuccessful. Colonel McVean quickly determined that he simply did not have the men necessary to break through to Rumaytha, and with that reality setting in he had to act quickly. Trying to hold his position was not an option because reports were already coming in that the rebel forces were moving around his flanks. The British relief column was exposed and there was a real danger that the relief column would be surrounded, and if that happened then it would be destroyed or forced to surrender. McVean decided to break off and retreat back along the rails to the north. In this he was greatly assisted by the timely arrival of a flight of planes from Number 6 Squadron who arrived and strafed and bombed the rebel positions, throwing them into disarray. Even though the relief column successfully extracted itself from a very precarious position it did not complete its purpose, the relief of Rumaytha.

Many of the problems that the British were having were related to the economic problems that we discussed last episode. The push to reduce the number of British and Indian troops in Mesopotamia, even though tensions with the locals were rising was one of the results of this new economic reality. At the time of the revolt General Haldane had 47,000 troops under his command, but they were spread out all the way from the borders of Turkey to the Persian Gulf. A good portion of these troops were also occupied with peace keeping operations 450 miles to the northeast of Baghdad near the borders with Persia. When the number of soldiers in hospital due to illness was taken into account, Haldane would have just a bit over 34,000 men available to react to the uprising. Haldane knew that this was not enough troops to protect all areas, and so he was forced to constantly reposition units into the areas of greatest concern, to put out fires. At least initially this meant that men and material converged on the Rumaytha region. The villages around Rumaytha would contain most of the early actions of the uprising, however, just a week after the decision to focus on Rumaytha had been made, news began to arrive that the violence had spread into other areas as well. The first new report came from the Samiyya District, 75 kilometers northwest of Rumaytha, then another arrived on July 14th that a third garrison, this time in Samawa 20 kilometers south of Rumaytha, was under siege. There were two things that were incredibly worrying about all of these developments. Obviously the first concern was that the uprising was spreading, but also that the rebels were exhibiting that they understood precisely how the British would attempt to answer their actions. They knew that the British were heavily dependent on rail transport, and so they attacked the rails to make sure that they were either unavailable or would slow the British response. By July 8th they had captured six trains and had damaged several major rail lines along the Euphrates. With the military situation becoming precarious at best, news arrived from London. Minister of State for War Churchill would write to Haldane on July 14th saying that ‘Your difficulties are appreciated, and every effort will be made to complete your force in personnel.’ Along with this message was a clear statement that any further troop reductions were cancelled. While Haldane was probably quite relieved that London understood the predicament that he was in, he was even more thrilled by the next set of news that arrived from London. Churchill had presented the information from Iraq to the General Staff on July 17th, making it clear that Haldane had no reserves left, and that the British position in Iraq was on the brink of a disaster. The only possible recourse was to send in more troops, and a division of troops from India was orders to Iraq. The only problem was that it would take weeks for these troops to arrive and be ready for action, this meant that the full division would not be in Basra and ready to move out for over a month. If Haldane could keep the situation together for that period of time, then the division would almost certainly bring thing back under British control.

While the political situation in Baghdad and London was developing, another relief column for Rumaytha was being put together and prepared. This time the relief column would be under the command of Brigadier General F.E. Coningham and it would be much larger than the previous attempt. The train would be accompanied by four battalions of Indian infantry and one battalion of British infantry along with three batteries of artillery. Even though this force was much stronger than the previous attempt it had many of the same problems. Its supply lines and lines of communication would be almost entirely undefended, and it would always be at risk of being cut off. A new problem was that such a large force would be spread out over a very long distance as it moved, making it vulnerable to quick attacks as it marched. The final major problem was that it was just very warm, and on some days during which the column would be moving the temperature would reach 120 degrees farenheit, or about 50 degrees celsius. To answer the advance of the column, the Arabs had strengthened their defensive positions. The number of men available had also increased to 5,000, up from 4,000, and they had also been able to obtain more weapons and ammunition. Time and effort had also been put into the defenses, and trenches had been dug in an area near the previous ambush, and area that the British would once again have to move through on their way to Rumaytha. The defensive positions were also extended onto both sides of the Euphrates. The main British advance would be on the right bank, and so on the left bank positions were created that would be able to fire on any British attack on the main defenses. The hope was that this would make any British attack almost impossible.

Coningham did not know that greatly improved defenses awaited him, but he did have one major advantage over the previous attack, he had artillery. On July 19th they would be used as preparation for the British attack, with six guns opening fire on the Arab positions. At this point the British did not really have a full understanding of the defenses that they were attacking into. The biggest problem was that from the British positions it was difficult to tell which side of the river various landmarks like villages or obvious defenses were located on. This issue was primarily due to how flat the land was, with the British unable to find an observation position that provided a good view of the Arab defenses. Even without perfect information about what they were walking into 2 battalions were sent forward in an attack. Much like in the earlier battle, this first attack was a failure. It very quickly became clear that the positions on the other side of the river would make it almost impossible to launch a successful attack and so the only option was to try and remove them from the equation by capturing them. There was just one problem, they were on the other side of the river. At this position the Euphrates was only about forty yards wide, and a maximum of 10 feet deep, so crossing the river was not impossible, but it was still going to be incredibly difficult. Any attempts that were made came under heavy fire. After failing several times to make it across the river in the late afternoon Coningham called a pause to the attacks. The British column was now in a very similar position to the first column, they had attempted to break through the Arab defenders and failed. Now the Arab defenders were starting to launch counter attacks, causing the British and Indian forces to go on the defensive. The front line units were low on water and ammunition, but they prepared to meet the attack. They would be able to beat off the first counter attack, and with no other option Coningham ordered one more attack. If this attack did not succeed then the British would once again have to retreat to the north.

When this last advantage started, instead of finding the same determined defense that they had experienced earlier in the day, the advancing Indian troops found defenses that were completely abandoned. The British did not know why the rebels had left, whether it was due to concerns about future British attacks or due to a lack of supplies, all they knew was that the Arabs were gone. This allowed the advance to continue, and supplies were brought up to replenish the units that had been fighting all day. At 3:15 in the afternoon the next day the first squadrons of cavalry arrived in Rumaytha, officially ending the siege. The fighting from the previous day had cost 35 men killed and 150 wounded, but they had succeeded in their goal of reaching Rumaytha. They would stay in the village for one night before preparing to once again moving north. Coningham was concerned that the Arab fighting would return as the new, even larger column, moved back north. To heighten these concerns a few Arab horsemen shadowed the column during the day. This caused the advance to be very cautious, and in the evenings the time was taken to make strong defensive camps close to the river. This delayed the retreat, but let it happen successfully, and the column would arrive in Diwaniyya, and relative safety, on July 25th. While the disaster of the destruction of the garrison had been avoided, even the successful retreat represented a failure for the British. They had lost Rumaytha, and news of the success of the siege spread throughout the area, causing support for the uprising to grow.

While one possible disaster had been averted, with the spread of the uprising possible disasters were everywhere. By the middle of July there were an estimated 35,000 rebels which were putting many different British positions at risk. It was almost just a matter of time before one of these garrisons was destroyed, or until a relief column was caught out in the open. This latter disaster would happen to the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. These troops were sent out from the city of Hillah on the afternoon of July 23. Their goal was to move south and relieve a garrison that had come under attack. However, they were attacked during the night, and it would be a disaster. 178 men were killed or missing, 150 captured, and 60 wounded. This represented an almost 50 percent casualty rate, with 388 out of 800 men being lost or wounded. Along with the men, large numbers of weapons, large amounts of ammunition, and even an 18 pounder field gun were lost. When the remnants of the Manchester Regiment arrived back in Hilla the authorities were in a panic. They knew that they had to communicate the disaster back to Baghdad, however instead of putting the message in code they instead broadcast it in the clear. There were many people who received this message, and news of it spread quickly through both the British Army and the rebel groups. This boosts rebel morale and caused even more men to take up arms. In Baghdad there were at this point serious discussions of withdrawing all of the troops that were in northeast Iraq, in the Mosul Vilayet, so that all available forces could be concentrated in the south where the uprising was at its strongest.

This step would not be taken immediately, but it was decided to pull some of the garrisons out of points of danger, and this included Coningham’s troops which had arrived in Diwaniyya after relieving the siege of Rumaytha. Haldane decided to bring these troops further north, to Hilla, which would allow for a larger and less vulnerable concentration of forces. However, there was a problem, this movement from Diwaniyya to Hilla would take at least 6 days, through hostile territory, and there was not enough road transport available to carry all of the supplies, sick, and wounded that would be coming along. To solve this problem Coningham was building a column around both rail and road transport, utilizing a train as a base for supply and as a transportation method for the sick and wounded while the rest of the men would be marching around it. The column would stretch for over a mile, and it would be vulnerable as it moved, but this was seen as the only way that the move was possible. On the night of July 29th final preparations were made for the move, the men were issued as much food and water as they could carry, and they set off at 6:30AM the next morning. The rebels did not have the strength to attack the force directly, but they did know how vulnerable it was to delay. Therefore, the rebels would begin to destroy the tracks in front of the train. Coningham had the men and supplies to fix the tracks, but it slowed his advance, and every day food and water supplies dwindled. When track supplies ran out a system was developed whereby when damaged track was encountered the tracks from begin the train were torn up and transported to the front. Obviously this slowed movement even more, and soon the men were placed on half-rations as they struggled forward. Finally on August 8th, after 10 days on the march, Coningham’s troops moving north met up with troops coming south from Hilla. The next day they arrived in the town, having covered over 80 kilometers through very hostile territory with very few casualties. Even though this was a success, it was a successful retreat, and once again it was seen as a great victory for the rebels. They had forced the British army to abandon Diwaniyya, and now there were over 100,000 Arabs in arms. The rebels were also no longer concentrated just on the central Euphrates, and the uprising was spreading to the northwest.

All of this was bad news for the British, however there was some good news, the first reinforcements from India began lading in Basra on August 10th. Having these troops available could completely alter the military situation, and it made the Civil Administration in the capital feel much more secure. This new feeling of security resulted in orders sent out to try and arrest four leading nationalists in Baghdad. This was a huge mistake, because news of the order leaked out, and very quickly large crowds gathered in front of the houses that the leaders were in. When the British troops moved in to try and arrest the resulting violence would only end after 3 policemen were wounded, 6 civilians were killed, and 12 more civilians were wounded. The violence during the arrest attempt inaugurated a new period of violence by the British authorities. On August 12th a proclamation was made to the people that a military court had been convened to try all ‘offenses against public order.’ Six Arabs would be arrested, being accused of firing weapons at the police. They were found guilty and hanged, with four more men arrested a few days later, and they would face the same fate. These arrests and executions would continue for weeks.

One of the mistakes that the British leaders would make, which would lead them to underestimate the power of the uprising, was the mistaken belief that the movement was just the actions of a mostly lawless mob, especially in the capital. This was absolutely not the case, and soon after the uprising began it was highly organized. Because the British did not seem to understand this, they would make mistakes, like the one where they tried to arrest those nationalist leaders, which may have been possible against a more disorganized opposition. The rebels were greatly assisted in these efforts by existing power structures, with leaders within the tribes in the rural areas and the social groups in the urban centers all taking part in the uprising and using their positions to lead it. These men were leaders who had not been favored by the British after they began their occupation during the war, and they were therefore heavily motivated to see the British power diminished. However, they did not want it to be replaced by some sort of chaos, or a totally new form of leadership within the country. They were people that had been a part of the pre-existing power structure, and they wanted to see their power and financial position restored, and this put a limit on the revolutionary aspects of the uprising. While there were many within the uprising who were aiming for a return to the autonomy of the Ottoman era, there were some real reformers within the uprising. These reformers were not always successful, but they were especially prevalent among certain specific groups. One of these groups was women, who hoped to be able to use their participation in the uprising in their quest for greater independence. this was similar to what happened in other revolutionary movements around the world, where women and other groups hoped to parlay their support and sacrifice in the push for independence as leverage in their long term goals of a greater voice in public affairs and greater personal freedoms in the new societies.

After the British retreat from the middle Euphrates, the situation stagnated for some time. The Arab forces were unable to project their power beyond their already existing areas of control, and the movements of the British Army had allowed them to mass enough troops in key areas to prevent further disasters. The balance of power would begin to completely change as the reinforcements from India were first unloaded and then became available for action. Haldane had waited for these new troops, conserving his strength, with the knowledge that the new set of reinforcements would likely be the last that he would receive. This caution would mean a delay until the end of September, at which point he had received over 15,000 more men. Most of these men were then massed Nasiriyya, which was on the southern end of the region that the British had been pushed out of by the actions in July and August. Along with just the number of men now available, they were now better prepared for operations in the desert, which in many ways mirrored the evolution of British operations during the war. After some earlier attempts that were not provided with the resources to succeed, the troops in Nasiriyya would be accompanied by two supply trains that were dedicated just to making sure that the troops were well supplied with water and supplies. This removed one of the most powerful options that the Arabs had available to them in the earlier fighting, the power of delay which caused units to run out of supplies. With This large force, the objective was to relief the siege of Samawa. The city had been under siege for months, but had not been captured by the rebels. The failure to capture this city had prevented some groups in the middle Euphrates from joining in the uprising, and these groups, like the Muntafiq tribes, were probably essential to the overall success of the uprising. Unfortunately for the Arabs, their opportunities had passed, and when the relief column set out on October 1st its movement was slow, but unrelenting. Many of the Arab fighting would only find out about the existence of the large British force when it arrived in their area, and there was little that they could do. The relief of Samawa was inevitable, and once the force arrived in Samawa, the uprising as a movement that had a chance to break British power in Iraq, was over. It would also mark the end of large scale resistance. Some of the uprisings major leaders, seeing that the tides had turned against them, fled, many to the Hejaz. Many of the tribes that had joined in the fighting now laid down their arms and surrendered to the British. Other groups refuxed, and they woudl begin a guerrilla warfare campaign that would last for several more months. This was a very damaging period in the fighting, as the British tried to combat these tribal groups. The British would try and contain them by burning villages to the ground who were thought to harbor or supply the rebels, the inhabitants of the villages were left to their fate. Thousands of people probably died from these methods, and that is just the unarmed civilian death toll.

After the uprising was over plans moved forward to install an Arab government in Iraq, but one which was very friendly to the British, the word ‘puppet’ could also probably be used. This would be under the leadership of King Faysal, who had first been installed as King of Syria before disagreements with the French had forced the British to find another throne for him. The foundation of this government was announced on November 11, 1920 with an announcement later in the month of a general amnesty for all of the participants in the uprising. While the new government now existed, it took time for it to take over control of the country and for its official relation with the British Empire to be solidified. In October 1921 this would finally be complete, and the treaty would be signed that gave the British rights to station troops in Iraq, control over Iraq’s foreign policy, to appoint a high commissioner with wide oversight abilities, and to require Iraq to repay some of the costs that had been incurred during the British occupation. While these clauses put severe limits on the sovereignty of the new nation, it was still put in place, which would sow the seeds for some discontent which would cause instability in the following years.