A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, October 5, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part II: The Indian Government's Role

In Part I of this series on Friday, I introduced the debate, after the first occupation of Kut in Iraq at the end of September 1915, over whether to go on and take Baghdad. Despite divided counsels, the decision to try was made and eventually led to the surrender of a besieged force at Kut in 1916, a major British defeat. This series revisits the argument and the contending views.

In Part I we met the dramatis personae on the ground in Iraq, or Mesopotamia as it was called by the British: General Sir John Nixon, commanding the overall Mesopotamian  font, and General Sir Charles Townshend, commanding the 6th (Poona) Indian  Division, and their Ottoman counterpart, Nureddin Pasha, commanding what was called the Iraq Area Command of the Ottoman Sixth Army.

Field Marshal von der Goltz
At the time the decision was made in the early days of October to go for Baghdad, the British Chain of Command was complicated by the conflicting chains of command of the Indian Army on the one hand, and the War Office and Cabinet in London on the other. Nureddin's chain of command was not so complicated but was changing: General Feldmarschall Colmar Freiherr (Baron) von der Goltz, a Prussian officer in his 70s recalled to duty when the war began, who had trained the Ottoman Army before the war, had been dispatched to Baghdad. Baron von der Goltz took over the Sixth Army in Baghdad in the middle of October 1915. (Neither the War Minister, Enver Pasha,  nor the head of the German Military Mission, Liman von Sanders, liked the old Baron and reportedly sent him to Baghdad in part to get him out of Constantinople.) He would be Nureddin's immediate superior for the first part of the campaign, later to be replaced due to illness by Governor of Baghdad Khalil (Halil) Pasha, who after the war would take his victory as a surname: Halil Kut. (All photos from Wikipedia.)

But the British Indian force under Nixon and Townshend faced a far more complicated  chain of command in India and in London, divided in counsel, and full of personal and political rivalries, especially in London. Earlier this year, I noted the complicated command chain for the British Intelligence Section in Cairo, but Cairo didn't have to involve the Government of India as well. Today I want to deal with the players in India; tomorrow we will look at the deeply  divided counsels in London.

In India: the High Command

Nixon and Townshend were British officers in the Indian Army, and wile ultimately responsible to the War Office in London, their direct chain of command ran directly to the indian Army High Command. Though Delhi was the official capital of the Raj, Indian Governments since Victoria's day had spent the warmer months in the "summer" capital at Simla in the northern mountains just south of Kashmir. Though we are discussing events in October 1915, the exchanges were with Simla.

The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge
At the pinnacle of the Indian Government was the Viceroy of India. Holding that post in October 1915, and having occupied it since 1910, was Lord Hardinge (Charles Hardinge, First Baron Hardinge of Penhurst) a veteran diplomat whose grandfather had also held the post (then called Governor-General). His eldest son died on the Western Front early in the War. The Viceroy was the British King-Emperor's representative in India. Keep in mind that since 1877, when Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, the British monarch (now George V) was also Emperor of India. The Viceroy of India had more real administrative authority in India, however, than the King did in Britain. He (they were all male) was not a constitutional monarch, but the effective ruler of India.

The overall chief of all the Armed Forces in India, including those deployed in the Middle East and East Africa during World War I, was the Commander-in-Chief, India. In October 1915, this was General Sir Beauchamp Duff, a Scots-born officer who had risen through Indian Army service.  When named to the post in 1914 it was unusual as the post usually went to an officer from the Regular British Army rather than the Indian Army, but he had served under Lord Kitchener, which helped his rapid rise. (I'm not certain in his specific case, but the British, in their insistence on pronouncing French any way they please, normally pronounce the old Norman name "Beauchamp" as "Beecham.")

General Sir Beauchamp Duff
Duff was a skeptic about Mesopotamia from the beginning, as will be seen. When the war broke out, Hardinge asked for advice about the Mesopotamian expedition and Duff opposed it. By the time the adventure played out in the surrender at Kut the next year, Duff became the scapegoat for the so-called Mesopotamia Committee investigating the debacle. (Townshend and his officers were by then in a Turkish prison and could not be publicly blamed; Nixon had been replaced.) Though Duff had correctly seen the unwisdom of the whole enterprise, it ruined his career, and in early 1918 he committed suicide.

Lt.-Gen. Sir Percy Lake
Second in command under the Commander-in-Chief, India, was the Chief of General Staff, India. The post was not merely a deputy to the Commander-in-Chief, but also the effective head of the Indian Army (while the C-in-C ran all the Indian Armed Forces). At the time we are dealing with this was Lieutenant-General Sir Percy Lake, a veteran of Afghanistan and Sudan, and Chief of Staff since 1912. In January of 1916, after Townshend became besieged, he would replace Nixon as the commander in Mesopotamia.

All of these reported to the India Office in London, to His Majesty's Secretary of State for India, with the War Office, Foreign Office, Admiralty and other Cabinet offices helping (?) to stir the pot in a complicated and difficult coalition government. Those players will be introduced tomorrow. By Wednesday I may actually be able to start telling the story, but you need to know the players first.

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