Enemy on the Euphrates: the British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt 1914-1921
by Ian Rutledge
Saqi Books, London, 471pp hardback
ISBN 978 0 86356 762 9
review by Susannah Tarbush, London
an Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 9 August 2014.
Between July 1920 and February 1921 in the territory known to the British as Mesopotamia – the modern state of Iraq – an Arab uprising occurred which came close to inflicting a shattering defeat upon the British Empire.
“The insurrection in Iraq of 1920, measured in enemy combatant numbers, was the most serious armed uprising against British rule in the twentieth century,” writes the British economist and historian Ian Rutledge in his new book Enemy on the Euphrates: The British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt 1914-1921. The 471-page book was published recently in London by Saqi Books.
At the height of the rebellion the British estimated 131,000 Arabs were in arms against them. Iraqi estimates of the numbers are larger, and one Iraqi estimate is as high as 567,000.
Rutledge notes that to the vast majority of European and American historians of the 20th century Middle East, the term “Arab Revolt” has usually meant the role of British Colonel T E Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia” –in the pro-British rebellion of the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi, and his sons, against the Ottoman Turks in the First World War.
In this pro-British Arab Revolt of 1916-18, the maximum number of Bedouin mobilised never exceeded 27,000, supported by around 12,000 deserters from the Ottoman army. Only a small minority of the Bedouin actually participated in combat operations.
Indian cavalry on patrol, c 1918
Rutledge writes that if we ask the question “On whose side did the Arabs fight in the First World War?” most people who know something of the war’s history would probably say Britain’s. But in reality, the vast majority of Arabs did not fight for the British in the First World War. In 1914 about one-third of the regular troops in the Ottoman army were Arabs. And in addition, among the tribal Bedouin there were thousands of Arab volunteers who flocked to fight for the Ottomans.
In contrast to Lawrence’s 1916-18 Arab Revolt, the Iraqi uprising of 1920 was not a matter of sporadic guerrilla fighting. “It was a war: one in which a huge peasant army led by Shi’i clerics, Baghdad notables, disaffected sheikhs and former Ottoman army officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) surrounded and besieged British garrisons with sandbagged entrenchments and bombarded them with captured artillery,” writes Rutledge.
During this war the Iraqi insurgents ambushed and destroyed columns of troops, and armoured trains, and burned or captured well-armed British gunboats. The insurgents established their own system of government and administration in the ‘liberated zones’ centred on the cities of Najaf and Karbela. “It was a war which, at one stage, Britain came very close to losing and which was won only with the help of a massive influx of Indian troops and, especially towards the end of the campaign, the widespread use of aircraft.”
The policy of using of Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft against the Iraqis rebels is very much associated with Winston Churchill, who was in 1920 the Secretary of State for War and responsible for putting down the revolution in Iraq. It is sometimes claimed that under Churchill the RAF bombed Iraqis with chemical weapons. Rutledge notes that although Churchill said he was ready to authorise the construction of gas bombs, it was decided “ordinary” bombing from the air was effective enough. Some of the “spectacular” bombing operations were carried out at night, and not only killed rebels but caused heavy casualties among women and children.
the more modern DH9A which largely replaced the elderly RE8 towards the end of the uprising
The story of the 1920-21 Iraqi uprising once closely engaged the attention of the British public but, Rutledge writes, “over many decades it slipped back into the mists of exclusively academic history, almost completely erased from the collective memory.”
However, the ill-fated US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Iraqi insurgency against the occupation that followed, that once more brought to light the much older, forgotten 1920 insurgency in Iraq.
Journalists, historians and even functionaries of the US occupation drew lessons and made comparisons, “some appropriate, some less so”, between the 2003 invasion and Britain’s invasion and occupation of Iraq during and after the First World War. At the same time some of those Iraqis fighting the Americans and their allies in began to portray their own violent resistance to foreign intervention with reference to that 1920 armed struggle in which some of their grandparents might have participated.
In the first half of his book - entitled “Invasion, Jihad and Occupation” - Rutledge examines what happened in Iraq during the First World War. The oil industry, then in its infantry, was of growing importance to Britain’s whose admiralty was converting the Royal Navy’s warships to run on oil rather than coal.
In June 1914 Winston Churchill, who was then the First Lord of the Admiralty, introduced a bill in the House of Commons to partially nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. One implication of this parliamentary Act was that “Britain had now committed itself to a strategic involvement in a region on the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire and within a few hours’ march of Ottoman troops based at the Iraqi city of Basra,” Rutledge says.
After Turkey allied itself with Germany, the Sheikh al-Islam on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan issued a fatwa on 14 November 1914, calling for jihad against the British and French. The Ottoman fatwa had a particularly strong impact among the Shi’i tribes of the mid-Euphrates area. Among the 18,000 volunteer mujahidin who joined up with the Ottomans were notables who would form the backbone of a second great struggle against the British six years later, in 1920.
The second half of Rutledge’s book, entitled “Revolution and Suppression”, depicts in great detail the different phases of the 1920-21 revolution, its crushing by the British, and the British goal of creating a “friendly native state” in Iraq. After the crushing of the insurgency a puppet government and army were installed and Emir Faysal, one of the sons of the Sharif of Mecca, was touted as the most suitable candidate as king, after the French expelled him as king of Syria.
The publication of Rutledge’s book is highly timely. This year is the centenary of the beginning of the First World War in 1914, and this has in Britain prompted many books, articles and TV and radio programmes on the war. While much of the attention has been focused on the Western Front, and on the battlefields of France and Belgium, there is growing interest in Middle Eastern theatre in the First World War.
At the same time, the current violent upheavals in Iraq and Syria has focussed attention once more on the creation of modern Iraq, and on the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between the French and British which defined their spheres of influence in the Middle East should the Ottoman Empire be defeated.
The Sykes-Picot agreement is often seen as a betrayal of the Arabs, but Rutledge sees as an even greater betrayal the breaking of the pledges made publicly to the Arabs in the Baghdad Declaration of 1917 and the Anglo-French Declaration of 1918. These pledges “were later ruthlessly ignored by the political and military authorities in Britain and France”.
Rutledge has a PhD in Economic History from Cambridge University, and is Research Director and co-founder of the Sheffield Energy Resources Information Services (SERIS). Around 25 years ago he started to be fascinated by the economics, history, culture, and religions of the Middle East and North Africa. As an avid lover of books he set out to build a personal library on these subjects. Many of the books he discovered, many of them at second hand book shops and book fairs, provided crucial reference material for Enemy on the Euphrates.
He also set about learning Arabic, taking Arabic lessons with a personal tutor, Syrian Haytham Bayasi, formerly of Damascus and now living in Sheffield. Rutledge’s mastery of Arabic meant he was able to read important sources in Arabic. The extensive bibliography in his new book includes numerous Arabic works.
Enemy on the Euphrates is a long work, rich in detail, but Rutledge manages to make the text highly readable, lively and dramatic. And he presents fascinating accounts of the main British and Iraqi personalities involved in the narrative and the conflicts that sometimes erupted between them.
Sir Mark Sykes, May 1013
The main British actors in the story include of course Winston Churchill and Colonel TE Lawrence, as well as Gertrude Bell; Sir Percy Cox; Sir Mark Sykes (co-architect of the Sykes-Picot agreement) and Lieutenant Colonel Arnold T Wilson, who was head of the occupation administration in Iraq.
On the Arab side there is Emir Faysal: Churchill, Bell and Lawrence engineered matters so that he came to occupy the Iraqi throne in 1921. Other key figures included Iraqi-born Ottoman army officesr Ja’far al-Askari and Nuri al-Sa’id, both of whom defected to the British.The Baghdad Shi’i merchant Ja’far Abu al-Timman was one of the most important leaders of the nationalist organisation Haras al-Istiqlal as was Sayyid Muhammad al-Sadr.
Ja'far Abu al-Timman, one of the principal nationalists in Baghdad, c. 1920
Al-Timman campaigned for Shi’i and Sunni Muslims to unite against the British occupation. Rutledge considers that in the decades that followed: “The one veteran of the 1920 uprising who remained loyal to the best ideals of the revolution was Ja’far Abu al-Timman.”
Wealthy landowner Sayyid Muhsin Abu Tabih, was a main leader of the 1920 uprising and was appointed as mutasarrif, to govern territory governed by the insurgents. Another key figure was Yusuf al-Suwaydi, elderly Baghdad Sunni notable and leading member of the nationalist Haras al-Istiqlal.
In his conclusion to Enemy on the Euphrates Rutledge considers the long-term consequences of the uprising, and Britain’s crushing of it, on the modern history of Iraq. The state that was created after the uprising had virtually no roots among the predominantly Shi’i cultivators who constituted the majority of Iraqi ‘civil society’ at that time. The British made sure that the machinery of the state and the army was dominated by Sunnis, who were at that time around 19 per cent of the population. “This absence of representative state formation at the birth of the Iraqi nation established a dark precedent for the future conduct of Iraqi politics.”