Mesopotamia – why?

As posted about earlier in the month the Norfolk Regiment were posted to the Middle East during World War One and one of our blog readers has written a series of posts explaining just why this often forgotten battlefield was fought over during the years 1914-18.

The Norfolk Regiment in Mesopotamia

The Strategic Background (Part 1)

On 15 November 1914 the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment was deployed from India to Lower Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq. Why?

Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, (from the Greek μέσος (meso) – between, and ποταμός (potamos) – river) had been one of the cradles of world civilization and in 1914 was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

During the Crimean War (1853-56) the Ottoman Empire, then in decline, had fought alongside France and Britain to stop Russian expansion southwards into weakened Ottoman territory. In 1877 Russia and Turkey went to war again resulting in considerable loss of Ottoman territory in the Balkans.

After the revolt of the Young Turks against the feeble rule of the Turkish Sultan in 1908 German influence had begun to dominate Ottoman affairs: German banks agreed to fund the extension of a  railway from Berlin via Constantinople (modern Istanbul) to Baghdad, thereby linking remote areas of the remaining Ottoman Empire with its capital and with Germany; German geologists and engineers were searching for oil in Mesopotamia; and in 1913 Enver Pasha, a former military attaché to Germany, became the Turkish Minister of War. On 2 August 1914 Enver Pasha concluded a secret treaty which would commit Turkey to the German side in the event of war.

The Ottoman Empire was strategically significant for Great Britain because it lay between Britain, the Mediterranean Sea and the British Empire in India and the sea routes to the Far East, Australia and New Zealand.  Consequently, the British Government was reluctant to allow an unfriendly power to occupy such a strategically important area.

Map of Ottoman Empire in 1914

Map of Ottoman Empire in 1914 (URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/map-ottoman-empire-1914, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Aug-2014)

The strategic focus was the Suez Canal which links the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea through Egyptian territory. Great Britain had occupied Egypt in 1882 and in 1914 deposed the nominal ruler, the Khedive, and declared a protectorate in order to more effectively defend the Canal. Cairo, the Egyptian capital, was to become the centre of British operations against Turkey during the First World War.

The British government in London and the Government of India both had an interest in maintaining the security of the Canal and in the future of Mesopotamia, although they didn’t always work hand-in-hand.  The Government of India was concerned to avoid unrest among minority groups: India had a Muslim population of 100 millions and therefore Islamic opinion was important. With civil unrest in Istanbul, growing Arab nationalism in Egypt, and Persia (modern Iran) in state of flux, the possibility of jihad or holy war engaged political minds in both London and Simla, the seat of the Viceroy, the head of the Anglo-Indian government. The British wanted to avoid the spread of unrest to Mesopotamia, to its interests in Persia, and to the borders of India.

The Ottoman Sultan was also the Caliph, regarded by Muslims as the successor to the Prophet Mohammed and able to proclaim jihad against those seen to be enemies of Islam.  In 1914 the pro-German government in Istanbul was urging jihad against the interests of the Allies: France, Russia and Britain.

The situation for the British was complicated by the ambitions of the Government of India to exercise control of Mesopotamia, its oil and the fertile farmland between the rivers.  Aden, the vital Royal Navy coaling station between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, was already governed from India, and the extension of Anglo-Indian administration in Arabia and Mesopotamia was seen to be a logical extension of its influence in the region.

The Ottoman Empire was not expected to survive the war intact, and it was critical for Britain to look not just to the ambitions of Germany but also to the territorial rivalry of its allies for control of Mesopotamia.

Russia had been attempting to extend its empire southwards towards British India in search of territory and a warm water port since the 1860’s. For Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, Persia was one of ‘the pieces on a chessboard, upon which is being played out a game for the domination of the world’.

In 1907, Britain and Russia entered into a convention which acknowledged Russian influence in Persia’s northern provinces, and British influence in the southeast adjacent to India and the entrance to the Persian Gulf, with a neutral zone between.

The Russo-British Pact in 1907 (spheres of influence in Persia) (from W. Morgan Shuster: The Strangling of Persia. New York 1912)

The Russo-British Pact in 1907 (spheres of influence in Persia)
(from W. Morgan Shuster: The Strangling of Persia. New York 1912)

Between 1905 and 1908, British interests had discovered oil at two sites close to the border of Persia and Mesopotamia, both in the neutral zone.

In France, too, there was an energetic campaign for a share of the spoils when the Ottoman Empire was dissolved. A small group of imperialists maintained that France had an all but right to a colony in Syria and Lebanon since France had maintained a powerful influence at least in the Mediterranean coastal zone since the time of the Crusades.

In 1915 Britain, France and Russia concluded a secret agreement for a division of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East – the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Northern Mesoptamia around Mosul was to be in the French sphere of influence – a buffer against Russian expansion, whilst Britain would have a protectorate from just north of Baghdad southeast to Basra and the Persian Gulf. Britain would be able to protect the land routes to India and both Britain and France would have access to the oil fields of what was later to become Iraq.

Map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. (Royal Geographical Society (Map), Mark Sykes & Franois Georges-Picot (Authors), National Archives of the UK)

Map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French.
(Royal Geographical Society (Map), Mark Sykes & Franois Georges-Picot (Authors), National Archives of the UK)

On 5 November 1914 war broke out with Turkey and the Norfolk Regiment arrived in the area 100 years ago today.

Part 2 – Oil (coming soon)

 (The text of this article may be freely used, but the maps must be titled and cited as above)
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One thought on “Mesopotamia – why?

  1. Pingback: Mesopotamia continued | Norfolk in World War One

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