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  • Developing Iraq:Britain, India and the Redemption of Empire and Technology in the First World War*
  • Priya Satia

The Great War campaign in Mesopotamia began as a small, Government of India operation for the defence of Indian frontiers and British interests in the Persian Gulf.1 However, once at the Gulf, Indian Army Force D began to advance rapidly north along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in a characteristic effort to shore up what it already held. Baghdad quickly became its object, not least because its fabled past ensured that everyone at home had heard of it: 'It was the Arabian nights'.2 To Britons the campaign might have remained a picturesque subplot of the war's grand narrative, but for a monumental failure in the midst of its surge upriver: a reverse at Ctesiphon forced the troops under General Charles Townshend to retreat to Kut, where they were besieged through the winter of 1915-16. After more than 20,000 troops were lost in botched rescue attempts, 9,000 soldiers and thousands of non-combatants surrendered to the Turks in April 1916 —'the British Army's greatest humiliation in the First World War',3 and that too in 'the one theatre of the war where we could least afford a fluctuating standard'.4 The London War Office took control of the campaign, and parliament launched an inquiry into the disaster. In its report of June 1917, the Mesopotamia Commission ultimately censured the Indian army and the Government of India for their rash and ill-advised decision to advance on Baghdad and their inadequate provisioning of the force—particularly in the area of transport and medical facilities. The public exposure of these blunders triggered something of a regime change in India, bringing to power Edwin Montagu as secretary of state for India and Lord Chelmsford as viceroy.5 Meanwhile the force, now directly under the chief of the Imperial General Staff, supplied by a reformed Indian government, and led by a new commander, successfully captured Baghdad in March 1917, making it 'the first big place we've taken in this war', an event hailed as 'the most triumphant piece of strategy. . . since war started'.6 The troops continued north until they routed the Turks near Mosul in October 1918. By war's end, at least three-quarters of a million Indian and British combatants and non-combatants had fought in Mesopotamia.

At the outset, the Indian force, equipped only for frontier warfare, had run the rapidly mobile campaign the only way it could— on a shoestring.7 However, the campaign's ultimate success after [End Page 212] Kut rested on the Indian government's transformation of Mesopotamian transportation facilities, through the provision of technical experts, labour and material for the construction of ships, wharves, railways, dams, canals, harbours and so on, in what was conceived of as a developmental effort, an effort to stake out the land of two rivers as a material object. By 'development' I mean a statist effort to use public investment for the avowed purpose of raising a colony into a modern nation state (as opposed to the more general Victorian notion of empire as a means of upliftment). By examining the British Indian development of Iraq, this article argues that the modern notion of colonial development was a highly contingent product of the expansion of the British empire into the Middle East—via India—during the First World War, before it became what historians have generally described it as: a response, played out largely in sub-Saharan Africa, to the crisis of empire in the Second World War.8 The idea of developing Iraq fulfilled certain military and cultural needs generated by the Great War: in a country famous for its former glory as the cradle of civilization, and against the backdrop of the technological undoing of civilization on the Western front, it offered proof of the constructive powers of modern technology and the British empire. That it was the Indian colony that performed much of the task was a matter of pride for Indian nationalists as much as British imperialists, for whom it offered yet more proof that their empire was not the malevolent...


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pp. 211-255
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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