Charles Townshend

Desert Hell

The British Invasion of Mesopotamia

Harvard University Press 2011

New Books in HistoryNew Books in Middle Eastern StudiesNew Books in Military HistoryNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network August 31, 2011 Jay Lockenour

An earlier author described the British invasion of Mesopotamia in 1914 as “The Neglected War.” It no longer deserves that title thanks to the...

An earlier author described the British invasion of Mesopotamia in 1914 as “The Neglected War.” It no longer deserves that title thanks to the brilliant treatment of the subject by Professor Charles Townshend (University of Keele). His Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia (Harvard University Press, 2011) describes in impressive detail both the political background and the military operations that made modern-day Iraq quite literally hell for the British soldiers engaged there from 1914 to 1918. A parsimonious British administration waged the campaign, seen at the time quite understandably as something of a peripheral concern, on a shoestring, and the absence of the most basic materials, especially shipping and medical supplies, was paid for by the largely Indian soldiery in blood.

Using sources ranging from the highest level strategic plans and parliamentary inquiries, to the quasi-anthropological studies of Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence, to the memoirs and letters of the common soldier, Townshend demonstrates convincingly that British frugality combined with an ideology of rational administration created “mission creep” that drew the British further and further into a theater of war in which they were ill-equipped to fight and led them to make arrangements for the postwar Middle East that reverberate to this day.

Townshend is laudably cautious in extrapolating from the experience of 1914-1918 to the present day, but an attentive reader will be in no doubt about the ways in which today’s Iraq is a product of its past.

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