The centenary of the capture of Basra offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature and impact of the first Western military intervention in Iraq, nine decades before the city once again became the focal point of British activity in the country between 2003 and 2009. The small-scale operation envisaged by British political and military planners in October 1914 morphed into one of the most protracted military campaigns outside of the European theatre of the Great War. It combined gross initial mismanagement and eventual humiliation with landmark military successes such as the occupation of Baghdad in March 1917 and the first flawed attempt at imposing an external state-building agenda in Iraq. More than 40,000 British and Indian soldiers lost their lives and were commemorated on a memorial displayed prominently near Basra until 1997, when it was moved by order of Saddam Hussein to an isolated desert outpost.
On the evening of 21 November 1914, two gunboats advanced toward Basra with detachments of Indian forces belonging to the 104th Wellesley Rifles and the 117th Mahrattas of 16th Brigade of the Indian Army’s 6th Division. Sent ashore to restore order following the outbreak of looting in the town, the capture of Basra was among the first major British successes in the Great War then entering its fourth month. Two days later, the British flag was raised over the town and a headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed proudly ‘Another Red Patch on the Map.’ Much to the delight of British officers with the Indian force, the English Club was found undisturbed by the looting that took place after the Ottoman withdrawal, and well-stocked with lager beer.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, reports had begun to reach British officials in London that the Ottoman Army had started to mobilise in Baghdad and was seizing British property in the city. In fact, the Ottoman Army had started a general mobilisation on 3 August, and three days later the authorities in Baghdad proclaimed martial law, even though the Ottomans did not formally declare war until late-October. By mid-September, Ottoman troops in Basra were preparing defensive positions along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and limited (though unsuccessful) attempts had been made to enlist the major tribal groupings around Baghdad.
The news from Mesopotamia alarmed Sir Edmund Barrow, the Military Secretary at the India Office in London. His office, along with the Government of India, was responsible for the British-protected sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Trucial States (today the United Arab Emirates) in the Persian Gulf. Barrow feared the Ottomans’ actions might damage British prestige in the region and sway the loyalty of local tribal sheikhs, upon whose collaboration rested British commercial, political and strategic supremacy in the Gulf. Accordingly, he suggested sending a military force to the Shatt al-Arab at the northern head of the Gulf to repair local prestige and reassure any wavering local allies of British support. Furthermore, it would demonstrate British military might to regional observers, protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s installations and pipeline at Abadan on the eastern (Persian) shore of the Gulf, and cover the landing of any reinforcements which might subsequently be required. At this stage, and in striking contrast to the importance that Mesopotamia’s oil potential assumed by 1918, British interests were primarily motivated by issues of prestige, rather than the strategic control of oil-producing areas.
16th Indian Brigade sailed from Bombay on 16 October 1914 in a convoy headed to Egypt and then on to France to reinforce Indian troops being sent to the Western Front. However, the Brigade was ordered to detach itself from the convoy and make its way to Bahrain, where it arrived on 23 October. Once there, it encountered unexpectedly stiff local unease at its presence, which forced the 5000 men and 1200 animals to remain on their cramped troopships in hot and oppressive conditions. With the declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire imminent, 16th Brigade sailed northward to the Shatt al-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf and prepared for an attack on the Faw Peninsula south-east of Basra. At 6am on the morning of 6 November 1914, HMS Odin fired the first shots of the campaign as it bombarded the local Ottoman fort and landed 600 men on the peninsula. The Brigade proceeded to Abadan (in Persian territory) on 9 November, where it disembarked with some difficulty, and, two days later, beat off an Ottoman counter-attack to confirm their foothold.
The British declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire on 5 November 1914 led the British military authorities in India to rapidly dispatch a second infantry brigade (the 18th) to reinforce 16th Brigade. It arrived at Abadan on 14 November. Two days later, the Cabinet in London authorised the capture of Basra on the condition that the Arab political situation and general military conditions were favourable. A sharp engagement took place at Salih on 17 November in a downpour that turned the desert ‘into a veritable sea of mud’ and claimed nearly 500 British and Indian and over 1000 Ottoman casualties. This unexpectedly costly success paved the way for the final advance to Basra, completing the initial objective of what became known as Indian Expeditionary Force D. Even at this formative stage, the seeds of local resistance were being sown as a fatwa issued by the Ottoman Sultan calling for jihad against the British occupiers was read out in every Sunni mosque in Mesopotamia. The Shiite clergy of Najaf were among the first to declare their support in response to an urgent appeal from their counterparts in Basra.
The successful capture of Basra did not lead to a halt in military operations in Mesopotamia. Instead, and largely for reasons of prestige, the campaign expanded rapidly throughout 1915. This left Indian Expeditionary Force D dangerously over-exposed across mutually unsupportable positions and dependent on a supply and transport network that creaked at the seams before breaking down completely early in 1916. Subsequent military operations in Mesopotamia until November 1918 spawned a potent array of political and economic grievances that culminated in the mass uprising against British rule known as the al-Thawra al-‘Iraqiya al-Kubra (the Great Iraqi Revolution) in 1920. A century later, with one-third of Iraq under the control of an Islamic State bent on redrawing the map of the modern Middle East that emerged from the war, the legacy of decisions made during and immediately after the First World War continue to cast their long shadow over the region.