A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part III: A Divided Government in London

This ongoing series on the British decision to advance to Baghdad a century ago leadng to the siege and surrender at Kut, began with a discussion of the situation on both sides in the Mesopotamia campaign in September/October 1915, and continued yesterday by introducing the key political and military players in the government of British India which had overall responsibility for the campaign,

Today's Part III introduces the politically divided players in London. Tomorrow we will look at the decision itself.

The Coalition

Herbert Asquith
Earlier in 1915 the general configuration of the wartime British Government which we have met in earlier installments on the outbreak of war and Gallipoli, had changed substantially. The Liberal Party Government of Herbert Asquith had been in office since 1908. Though he would remain Prime Minister until ousted by his fellow Liberal David Lloyd George in 1916, a range of political and military controversies had forced him to form a coalition government in may 1915, bringing Conservatives and Labour into the Government. This led to several key changes.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and champion of the Gallipoli campaign (and who, it is easy to forget given his later career in the Conservative Party, was a Liberal MP during World War I) gave up the Admiralty and was given the relatively powerless job of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He remained on the Dardanelles Committee for the time being, however, though in November he would resign from the government to rejoin the Army. Replacing Churchill at the Admiralty was Arthur James Balfour, a Tory former Prime Minister (and future Foreign Secretary, as Middle East hands will be aware).

The reshuffle also brought Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law to join the Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Colonies, and saw a Ministry of Munitions created under David Lloyd George, taking that task away from the War Office, which remained under Lord Kitchener. Sir Edward Grey retained the Foreign Office.

Perhaps most importantly, by bringing the Tories into the Cabinet, the coalition increased the likelihood that counsels would be split on certain controversial issues.

For the issues being considered in this series, the major divisions would be between the India Office and the War Office. Let's meet the players there.

The India Office in London

Austen Chamberlain
In addition to the Government of India, there was also the India Office in London, to which the Government in Simla reported. Though part of the Cabinet, the India Office was the primary liaison between the Cabinet, through His Majesty's Secretary of State for India, with the Indian Administration in Delhi and Simla.

Since the Tories entered the coalition in May of 1915, the Secretary of State for India had been Austen Chamberlain. He was the son of Joseph Chamberlain, a onetime major figure in the Liberal Party who split with the Liberals over his opposition to Irish Home Rule, and joined the Tories. Austen was also the older half-brother of future Prime Minister of Munich notoriety, Neville Chamberlain.

Sir Edmund Barrow
Another figure who will enter into our story in the coming days is the Military Secretary to the India Office, a post responsible for recruiting British officers for the Indian Army. At the time of these vents, this was General Sir Edmund Barrow. Barrow was a veteran of colonial wars dating back to the 1870s, and will play a role in our narrative.

The War Office: Kitchener
At the outbreak of the war in August 1914, the British Agent and Consul-General in Egypt, Lord Kitchener, who was on home leave when the war broke out, was kept in Britain and made His Majesty's Secretary of State for War, in charge of the War Office. The victor of Khartoum had governed Egypt, been Army Commander in India and Chief of Staff during the Boer War.

Kitchener was, without question, Britain's most famous living soldier. He was popular with the public, and the use of his image in recruiting (right), later famously copied in the US with Uncle Sam wanting YOU, reflected this.

Kitchener's public popularity was not generally shared among his fellow Cabinet ministers, who found him difficult to deal with, or with his military subordinates, who found the imperial hero imperious and intimidating in manner. In normal times, the Secretary of State for War worked closely with the senior military command, headed by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and the General Staff. Between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the end of 1915 four different men held the CIGS position. With the Field Marshal and Hero of Khartoum as their boss they found the job frustrating.

In October 1915, the period we are discussing, the CIGS was the third of these four, Sir Archibald Murray who served only from September to December. A veteran soldier, he would later say that the only time he was able to freely report his views  to the Cabinet was when Kitchener was away visiting the Dardanelles. We'll meet Murray again, as in January 1916 he was named Commander in Egypt, where he would oversee the beginnings of the Arab Revolt. (Which he supported; discard the image of Murray in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia; in the real world he and Lawrence admired each other)

Kitchener had seen his powers reduced under the coalition. After the so-called "Shell Crisis" earlier in 1915, involving a reported shortage of artillery shells, Asquith had created a separate Ministry of Munitions under David Lloyd George. He was increasingly criticized for embarking on military adventures without consulting the General Staff, but he would again ignore divided counsels in the decision to go on to Baghdad.

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