- Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia by Charles Townshend
Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia by Charles Townshend is primarily focused on shedding light upon the costs and consequences of an ever more grandiose vision of British imperial hegemony in the East that emerged over the course of the Great War. The unexpectedly long and difficult but ultimately successful conquest of Mesopotamia would lead to a grand imperial design of British dominion over “the whole region between Suez and India” (p. xxiii). The formation of modern-day Iraq was very much part of this great design. By attempting to explain the process by which Iraq emerged at the hands of the British as a nation-state, Townshend has also provided us with a degree of insight into the root causes of some of the persistent problems faced by modern Iraq. This book is very much a work on British military and imperial history, and readers interested in those particular topics would be well satisfied by it. However, it is not a study of the emergence of Iraqi nationalism and anticolonialism in response to occupation.
The author furnishes the reader with an exhaustive and detailed account of the British military campaign against the Ottoman forces in Mesopotamia starting in 1914. This includes extensive quotations and references from diaries, letters, and other recorded accounts of various British soldiers who served in that conflict. Furthermore, he delivers an acute insight into the reality of imperial policy making and the competing, oftentimes confused, priorities of the different centers of British imperial decision making. The reader is made patently aware of the competition between London, Delhi, and Cairo as each attempted to direct the campaign in Mesopotamia, and the often tragic consequences of such internal turf wars. The careful reader will also be struck by just how little British decision makers actually knew about Iraq and [End Page 245] its people and how little these people actually figured in their calculations, other than as potential tactical threats or assets.
Townshend must be congratulated for bringing the many historical actors that shaped British imperial policy vis-à-vis the Middle East into the light, and for demonstrating how great a role individual actors can play in shaping historical events. He combines that with engaging portrayals of the military commanders on the spot, who oftentimes let their ambitions and successes propel them to conquests far beyond the limits imagined by their political masters or their actual military capabilities. Indeed, it becomes readily apparent from reading this book just how ad hoc imperial policy could be and how quickly it fluctuated from paralytic indecision to grand overreaching, all within a relatively short period of time.
Despite its many admirable qualities, there are some issues with this otherwise fine work. Townshend dedicates a tremendous amount of time and space to the minute details of the military campaign. At times this preponderance of information on troop movements and military engagements was tedious to the point of being alienating. Furthermore, Townshend dedicated relatively little time to discussing the actual inhabitants of Mesopotamia. This reviewer cannot help but feel that their inclusion, in their own voices, would have made this work so much more interesting and relevant. The author could be excused this omission as he never claims to be writing a history of Iraq per se. What is more damaging, however, was the paucity of accounts from the Indian troops serving in the Indian Expeditionary Force. Those Indian troops constituted the bulk of Britain’s invasion force, and their voices would have significantly enriched the narrative. In his defense, Townshend mentions a lack of such surviving accounts as his reason for not including them, although little explanation is given as to why this would be the case.
Overall, this is an informative and generally engaging book. Readers who find the accounts of the military maneuvers and battles tedious can relatively easily skim through them and still gain a solid understanding of the function and dysfunction of the British imperial system as...