Blogs > Cliopatria > Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Wilfred Nunn’s Tigris Gunboats: The Forgotten War in Iraq 1914–1917 (Chatham Publishing, 2007)

Apr 30, 2007 1:08 am

Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Wilfred Nunn’s Tigris Gunboats: The Forgotten War in Iraq 1914–1917 (Chatham Publishing, 2007)

On November 5, 1914, Britain… declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Next day a combined British and Indian force landed at Foa in what is now Iraq and secured an area around Basra, ostensibly to protect an Iranian oilfield that supplied the Royal Navy.

The quotation above is extracted from Brian Urquhart’s review of Roger Louis’s Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez and Decolonization and David M. Malone’s The International Struggle over Iraq: Politics in the UN Security Council, 1980 –2005 appearing in this week’s New York Review of Books (March 29, 2007).

And? Well, this particular paragraph offers a valid introduction for our review here and Wilfred Nunn’s Tigris Gunboats (with an introduction offered by Sir Jeremy Greenstock–more of which later).

Nearly nine decades before American–led forces (Alliance of the Willing) entered Baghdad, the city fell to another army–and Navy (note the significance of the opening quotation)–during World War I. Poorly resourced but with overwhelming naval superiority, the British captured Baghdad in a campaign strikingly similar to the one in which the U.S. is executing today. For the back cover reads:

March 2007 is the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad–not in 2003, but in 1917–but today it is barely acknowledged that the latest American–led invasion was prefigured by a poorly resourced but ultimately successful British campaign to break Ottoman hold on Iraq during the First World War. Where the Americans had overwhelming air superiority, the British enjoyed a similar advantage, naval power, and the army’s advance through the Tigris marshlands was only possible thanks to the artillery support of the navy’s gunboats and the transport capacities of the river steamers.    

Originally published in 1932 and written by the commander of the British naval forces, Tigris Gunboats is a gripping account of the three–year British expedition in Iraq. (Aside, the vice–admiral stated that, “To be in the East at that time was a great disappointment to all in the Force. Most of the soldiers were wishing themselves in France, while our hope had been in common with that of every one else in the navy, to be present in the North Sea….”). Launched as an attempt by the Indian army to secure Western oil supplies, the British campaign yielded startling successes followed by now–familiar challenges, including intertribal rivalry. 

“The Espiègle (Nunn aboard) was instructed to protect British interests up–river; the Odin to await the expedition off the mouth and to accompany it, dealing with the Turkish battery near Foa, a few miles off, which commanded the entrance.” Having established themselves at Basra, Kurn–a town forty–fives miles father up river (at the principal situation where the Tigris and Euphrates combine to form the Shatt al Arab) was next and then onto Amara, Kut and finally Baghdad. Along the arduous journey are the usual hot–beds of action in Nasiriya and Feluja [sic]. Most interesting however is the role played by the Sheikh of Mahommerah (a more than welcome ally).     

There appeared a contentious article in The Daily Telegraph a fortnight ago (March 12, 2007) going by the title “Greenstock finally delivers his barb on Iraq.” The author writes that, “Tony Blair’s first envoy to Iraq, banned from publishing his own book on the crisis there, has used a roundabout route to make sharp criticism of the British and American governments for failing to study history before invading the country in 2003.”      

Greenstock further posits, “Is it too churlish to ask whether the leaders of a more modern administration might have profited from studying this experience?”

Let us get Machiavelli’s perspective:

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.  

All in all, the hardback–just shy of 300 pages–is written with insight and authority, providing a fascinating insider’s view of an operation that did not always run according to plan.  

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Saiful Ullah - 5/13/2007


I don't believe that the EU has exacerbated tensions between Arabs and Jews. I think the EU has for the most part has had a non-existent role in the Levant region (correct me if I'm wrong?). I think their faults in the Middle East are mostly of their own. However, historically speaking, if you're talking about the fragmentation of the region brought about by Western powers, then yes they have worsened matters.

Elliott Aron Green - 5/12/2007

On the simple issue of who went to war first in the First World War, it is my understanding from Kallantay's book [published in Hungary in English] that the First German Reich urged the Habsburg empire to set an ultimatum before the Serbs which the Serbs would have to reject, in order to provide Austro-Hungary and Germany with a pretext for going to war against Serbia.

Next, Prof Ephraim [Efraim?] Karsh argues --on the basis of his research-- that the Young Turks [Committee of Union & Progress -Ittihad] sought an alliance with the two Central Powers mentioned above. In this situation, it seems that the Ottoman govt would have declared war on Britain first. Thus, Britain was justified under international law in attacking the Ottoman Empire.

Next, Saif, I would like to know whether you agree that Western intervention in the Middle East has exacerbated ethnic strife between Jews and Arabs. I believe that EU and other powers have deliberately stirred up strife between Jews and Arabs. Do you agree?

Paul Kevin Davis - 5/10/2007

This same subject and time perod was covered in my book "Ends and Means" from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (1994), including the Sykes-Picot agreement as well.

Saiful Ullah - 5/9/2007

Elliot, I don't think the Ottoman Empires alliance against the powers excuses the fact that Western intervention in the Middle East has exacerbated ethnic and sectarian strife.

Far be it from you to defend the British, I think it's right also not to defend British, French historically and American interventions at present.

Elliott Aron Green - 5/5/2007

Is Hala unaware that the Ottoman Empire had declared war on Britain and declared itself an ally of Germany and Austro-Hungary? If I am not mistaken, the Ottoman govt had taken the first step toward war with Britain.

At the same time, far be it from me to defend the British, whose penchant for stirring up wars between other powers in which Britain ostensibly observes from the side, is notorious.

Saiful Ullah - 5/4/2007

You miss the point entirely. For he is a lawyer and has previously written on the LEGALity of the invasion of Iraq. The book in question has nothing whatsoever to do with "illegality." Why you raise this particular (and rather archaic) issue concerns me.

Hala Fattah - 5/4/2007

What I find astonishing in this review is the total absence of comment on the illegality of both the British expedition 80 plus years ago and that of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, as if the whole thing is but a quibble over the didactic nature of history.