The Education secretary has now joined the Equalities Minister, arguing that the ‘positives’ of the British Empire should be taught to British schoolchildren. As if they haven’t been taught to us all for the last one hundred years.
Nadhim Zahawi’s choice of example is striking though. He suggests that children could be taught about the benefits that the British colonial civil service created to govern Iraq brought to the country’s people. That civil service was set up after the former Ottoman territory was mandated to British rule, without local people having any say in the matter, following the First World War.
In the light of our own government’s attempts to continue justifying invasion, suppression, occupation and the denial of sovereignty to others, perhaps we also should be more forgiving of President Putin’s attempts to brainwash the Russian people in favour of the invasion of Ukraine? After all, who knows, future generations of Ukrainians might be just as grateful for a Russian administration imposed upon their country as modern Iraqis are for the British civil service?
One hundred years ago an Iraqi rebellion against British rule was finally ended with the aid of the world’s first major aerial bombing campaign. It was led by ‘Bomber Harries’ twenty years before his more famous campaign against Germany. Few Britons know about it, but it played a significant role in creating the Middle East as we know it today, and helped set the scene for the rise of ISIS.
The rebellion in Mesopotamia (Iraq) resulted in a pattern of Western-backed, authoritarian governments suppressing Arab nationalist movements. The prospects for democratic, liberal states have since been squeezed between the extremes of such client states on the one hand, and enraged Islamic fundamentalist opposition on the other.
The seeds were sown during the First World War. Britain occupied the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the centre and Basra in the south. When British and Indian forces marched into Baghdad in 1917, they proclaimed themselves liberators rather than conquerors. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) suggested a form of governance on the model of the princely states in British India, where the local nobility was cajoled, bullied and bribed into governing largely on Britain’s behalf, but the first British High Commissioner, Percy Cox disagreed.
Cox felt that ‘the people of Mesopotamia had come to accept the fact of our occupation and were resigned to the prospect of a permanent British administration’. His successor, Col. Arnold Wilson, abolished what representative institutions the Ottoman Empire had installed and replaced Arab with British officials, refusing permission for an Arab delegation to seek independence at the Paris peace conference. The calculations of a dependence on oil and knowledge of the resources that lay under the ground played a vital role in the British strategy to hold on to the region, as Zahawi’s colleague, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng recognised in his well-researched history of the empire.
With the League of Nations granting Britain the region as a mandate, the three provinces were merged to create the modern nation state of Iraq. British forces suppressed the protests and demonstrations that ensued. Britain had seized upon the opportunity provided by the League of Nations mandate to extend its influence across the oil rich Middle East, along a strategic belt between Suez and the Persian Gulf – a belt already surrounded by existing British possessions. Despite the League of Nations’ insistence on the right of national self-determination, the interests of the local population were very much a secondary consideration. The British helped establish a tradition where its strategic location and resources made the Middle East too attractive to Western powers for them to allow for self-determination.
The mandated government, with its newly established civil service, was effectively a military occupation. As Lawrence tried to explain to the British public, ‘Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows’. In 1919, the Kurds were the first to rebel, with British forces crushing their resistance. By June 1920, the occupying British forces were facing a much larger insurrection as disbanded ex-Ottoman soldiers, Islamists objecting to heathen governance and pro-independence Arab forces, both Sunni and Shia, combined to eject the ‘liberators’. A particular issue was the insensitivity of demanding a burial tax for Shias in the Wadi-us-Salaam Cemetery in Najaf.
Facing 130,000 rebels the British found themselves embroiled in the largest British-led military campaign of the inter-war period. The commander in chief, General Haldane, cabled London that the ‘rebellion has spread almost to Baghdad, where my position is by no means secure’.
The rebellion was gradually brought under control using similar tactics to those of the Boer War, with mobile columns trapping rebels between blockhouses along railways and using scorched earth tactics, burning villages, destroying food supplies and killing livestock, regardless of the impact on non-combatants.
A new tactic was added, however, once War Secretary Winston Churchill authorised it. Rebel clusters were bombed from the air, with the British at least planning to use ‘gas shells in quantity … with excellent moral effect’ among 100 tonnes of bombs. Churchill admitted, ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes … [to] spread a lively terror’. By 1922, as the rebellion fizzled out, over four hundred British and Indian soldiers had been killed with rebel fatalities officially 8,450 but likely closer to 10,000 given the inability to count casualties of the bombs.
Bomber Harris proclaimed that the Arabs and Kurds ‘now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured’.
By the beginning of 1922, embarrassed by the costs of maintaining direct rule against such opposition, Britain had overseen the installation of their wartime Arab ally King Faisal, to govern Iraq with British interests in mind. Even after Iraqi independence in 1932, the British insisted on retaining RAF bases with which to threaten continued bombing in the region. It did so to help the new client Iraqi regime suppress ongoing Kurdish resistance.
British imperial authorities, the autocrats that they promoted to govern in their interests, and the Islamic radical movements that arose in response to their interference, have all played their part in stymying the development of liberal democracies in the Middle East. This is just one more facet of our Empire’s legacies that we choose to overlook when we celebrate our imperial past, and especially when we proclaim its legacy of liberal democracy and good governance around the world. If the current government really want to distance themselves from the kind of nationalistic propaganda that Putin is purveying to justify the bombing of innocent civilians and the denial of self-determination, perhaps they should cease urging that similar propaganda be taught to our children.