Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia

By Adelson, Roger | The Historian, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia


Adelson, Roger, The Historian


Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia. By Charles Townshend. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xxiv, 591. $35.00.)

In the author's note at the beginning of the book, with the author's name the same as the major-general who commanded the British forces that surrendered to the Ottoman Turks at Kut in 1916, Charles Townshend explains, "I am not related to him, as far as I know, and I felt no need to defend his reputation, but in working on this book I came to the conclusion that he was in some ways hard done by" (xiii-xiv). The author recounts the British takeover of the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul--the land now known as Iraq--from the British troops landing at the head of the Persian Gulf in 1914 through their occupation of areas in the north that were cobbled together by Britain into a so-called "mandate" recognized by the League of Nations in 1920. Townshend researched many official records, memoirs, and letters published by or about some of the major and minor participants and contrasts official with subsequent accounts.

The author concludes that British policymakers lacked clear entrance and exit strategies, misunderstood the areas where they fought, and drifted with events during and after the war, which killed thousands of people. The British introduced new weapons that escalated violence, spent millions of pounds on infrastructure that related only to combat, and favored rural over urban leaders. They put Sunni minority collaborators in charge of the government and army in lands with a Shi'a majority and significant Kurdish, Assyrian, and Jewish minorities, all of whom were treated much worse for three decades by the Arab leaders closest to the British than they had been by the Ottoman Turks during the previous three centuries. …

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