Review of “Enemy on the Euphrates”


This review was originally published on this website on 5 May 2014.

Enemy on the Euphrates
The British occupation of Iraq and the great Arab revolt 1914-1921
by Ian Rutledge
published by Saqi Books, May 2014
ISBN 978 0 86356 762 9
cover price – £20
Hardback, 413pp. Illustrated, end notes, bibliography. Index.
Also available in a Kindle edition.
reviewed by Chris Baker

It’s been a long time since I read any piece of literature relating to the Great War that is as eye-opening, fascinating and well written as this. “Enemy on the Euphrates” covers British involvement in the Mesopotamia campaign of 1914-1918 and the events of national and Muslim rebellion and revolt that followed it in the period 1918-1921. The fighting here and the British response to the revolt explains much that resonates down to our modern age.

The Great War did not end on 11 November 1918. In many places, military conflict carried on. The British government found itself with even greater military commitments than it had before the war began in 1914, with large forces being deployed in Germany, Ireland, Russia, India and in the new ‘mandates’ of Palestine and Iraq. Faced with the need to demobilise and get the economy working again, the government tempted men to re-enlist by offering financial incentives. Many of them were sent to join these forces of occupation, and many found themselves in dangerous and hostile places. The situation in Iraq is possibly the least-known and least-understood of all, and Ian Rutledge’s book does much to fill this most important gap. The force in Iraq came close to total defeat, and suffered many losses and humiliations before it was strengthened. The Arab revolt was eventually put down and British repression of the remote areas of northern Iraq, bordering Syria and Persia, continued for many years afterwards.

But why were the British interested in this area at all? Oil. Discoveries of large oilfields in the north of Iraq had been made before the war, particularly in the Mosul area, adding to the fields near Basra that were already in British hands by 1914. Much of the British strategy, certainly-post 1917, can be assigned to a desire to own those oilfields or at least make sure no other power did so. Familiar names appear early: Anglo-Persian (later BP) and Royal Dutch/Shell among them. Many economist and politicians had realised that the world era of coal power was declining and that oil would be the strategically critical.

The Mesopotamia/Iraq area was part of the Ottoman Empire before the Great War, and British and Indian forces that deployed there fought Turkish and local Arab forces that were part of the Ottoman army. They also faced local tribes, ‘budhoos’ as the British would disparagingly call them. It is well documented that the British and French (the latter with an eye to ownership of Syria and what became Lebanon) made promises to the Arab sheikdoms and tribes in order to win them over to the Allied side in the Great War. Promises that were not kept; that were eventually denied; and to make matters worse, made at the same time that much of Palestine was being promised to the Jews. Add to that the British imposition of distinctly imperialist actions in the years during and after the war (of forced labour and considerable local tax burdens, for example); add an increasingly armed and confident Muslim voice in the area; and it is easy to appreciate how a volatile, explosive atmosphere had been created. For a while, feelings against the British were so high that even the deep antagonisms between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in the area took a back seat. British intelligence of the build-up of feeling and how the various tribes were reacting proved to be deeply flawed.

Despite the key strategic importance of Iraq, the British failed to provide adequate military resources. Not for the first time, maintenance of world power was being attempted on the cheap. Inevitably, garrisons were thinly-spread and provided with woeful logistic support. Once revolt began, well-armed and motivated local groups, often led by experienced officers and NCOs of the former Ottoman army, picked off many of the British garrisons and for a while it looked very doubtful that British occupation would remain tenable. This was especially so once the Shia’ holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala’ revolted and declared local independent government.

British reaction, once the situation was realised, was novel and brutal. With too few ground forces and a wide area to suppress, it came down to the Royal Air Force. Villages were bombed and civilians machine gunned. Many villages were burned by the army and countless Iraqi women and children killed, wounded or made homeless. It was an effective demonstration of imperial force, and led to the installation of what was in effect an Arab-fronted puppet government. The effects led directly to the era of Saddam Hussein and the turbulent Iraq of today.

“Enemy on the Euphrates” is a sobering, thoughtful, brilliantly-written book. I found myself having to go back and check and re-check the many unfamiliar names of Arab leaders, and rechecking the maps for the unfamiliar locations, but that aside found it simply excellent.

As a final note, what terrific value this is at a cover price of £20 – well done, Saqi Books.