Basra, Iraq

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mosse led the 120th Rajputana Rifles during numerous campaigns. A number of his journal entries and letters exist in manuscript, and help to elucidate many aspects of his time with the Indian Army. Mosse records experiences in many places, from Malta to Port Said (Egypt) to Aden (Yemen). His thoughts on the city of Basra are fascinating: he admires the Iraqi scenery and the local women, but is not keen on the food!

Basra is a quaint town of many swells and much dirt … In spite of this the place is certainly picturesque with its palm trees, Venetian shaped river craft, and the mode of dress of the women. Some of the latter are quite pretty and have clean well cut features.

But some of Mosse’s diary entries about Basra are full of complaints. Some simply state ‘Very hot day’, or ‘Very hot’. In a letter to his mum, which he signs ‘Your most affectionate son, Charlie’, Mosse complains about how the only food they have is rice and meat, and how he longs for a fizzy drink!

Food is not good; no soda, fresh milk, eggs, vegetables or fruit. In fact, very little besides rice, meat and bread … Oh! For a long iced drink – and a good English meal in a comfy room off china plates and real chairs!

In another letter, he tells his mother how one soldier ‘was playing about with Sergeant’s revolver this morning and shot an Arab boatman through the right lung’. Other entries show the intensity of the fighting, often describing how Turks would take strategic positions on the tops of the Basra houses in order to fire at his Indian men.

The operations in Basra were an important step in weakening the Ottoman Empire, and Mosse’s lectures highlighted this. In his first lecture to the seniors of the 120th Rajputana Rifles as the Mesopotamian campaign got underway, he explains how Iraq and Turkey are fast losing their unity, and that Britain must keep a firm hold on the region: ‘Still, although the risk of any great Pan Islamic combination is less insistent, our interest in the Persian Gulf must be sustained and lasting’. He continues: ‘I won’t attempt to explain the ramifications of the different Arab tribes … Their natural treachery and other characteristics are already too well known’.

Mesopotamia campaign diagram - courtesy of the National Army Museum

Mesopotamia campaign diagram – courtesy of the National Army Museum

 

 

Mesopotamian Campaign

Fought in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), it has even been called ‘the first Iraq War’. The Mesopotamian campaign saw the Central Powers, represented mostly by troops from India and Australasia – as well as Kuwait – weaken the Ottoman Empire significantly, paving the way for the Arab Revolt (1916-18), and the birth of the Republic of Turkey in 1920. The Mesopotamian operation lasted four years (1914-18), with hundreds of thousands dying from both sides, and it ended with the British, French and Italian forces occupying the Ottoman capital, Constantine (Istanbul).

The Mesopotamian operation in which was important to Britain for a number of reasons. First, weakening the Turks would be a blow to the Germans. Second, in 1908, Britain gained significant oil concessions in Persia that were near Mesopotamia geographically. Third, the region was not far from British India itself, which needed to be protected, and in turn, kept under control. The operation’s Field Marshall, Sir William Robertson, wrote of the campaign: ‘as long as we keep up a good show there India and Persia will be more or less all right, whereas anything in the nature of a set back there might cause trouble in those countries’. In fact, feeling the weakness of the Turks, by 1915, the British Cabinet had created a ‘secret plan’ for the Middle East: Mesopotamia would be captured so that it could be used as a passage for Indian immigrants, the oil fields and ports in Persia would be taken over, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea coastlines would be under British naval surveillance, and the ‘Holy Lands’, or Palestine, would be governed from British Egypt ‘under the protection of the United States’.

Egypt (1)

When the war started, Egypt was in many ways still under British control, as it had been since the nineteenth century. When the war broke, Britain officially made Egypt the ‘Protectorate of Egypt’, meaning that it had formal control of the country’s operations.

Initially, it was agreed that Egypt’s railways would be used for the Allies’ war effort, and it was announced that Egyptian soldiers would not be needed. However, it didn’t take long for the Egyptians to become vital to the British army. Hundreds of thousands Egyptians worked for the war effort in the Middle East, and some were sent to France for labour.

Contribution was in the form of the Egyptian Labour Corps, and the Egyptian Camel Transport Corps. The Labour Corps worked on construction of railways and roads, laying tracks that were essential to the cotton trade. The Camel Corps, which consisted of 170,000 camel drivers, would travel the desert, carrying supplies and ambulance equipment, and would also patrol the Sinai desert.

Photo of Egyptian burials (forgottenheroes.eu)

Photo of Egyptian burials (forgottenheroes.eu)

North Africans on the Western front: (forgottenheroes.eu)

North Africans on the Western front: (forgottenheroes.eu)

 

Egypt (2)

Profile: Sabit Harun Mohamed

Rank: Nafar (Egyptian Private)
Regiment: Egyptian Labour Corps

Sabit Harun Mohamed is a rare example of an Egyptian soldier buried in Europe. Mohamed was a Nafar (Private), the lowest rank of soldier in the army. He was part of the Egyptian Labour Corps sent to Europe to complete manual labour. Most of these workers in Egypt were from poor families and lived in villages. A recruiting agent would go to hire them, alongside a British officer, and receive a commission. The salary of the Labour Corps was modest.

Mohamed died in September 1917, and is the only Muslim buried in the Adinkerke Military Cemetery in Belgium. The headstone report (which provided details for the tombstone engraving) and the grave registration reports do not specify his age, or further details about him, but they do highlight him as a Muslim. The main writing on his tombstone is in Arabic, and reads: ‘He (Allah) is the forgiving’.

Sabit Harun Mohamed’s tombstone

Sabit Harun Mohamed’s tombstone

North Africans on the Western front: (forgottenheroes.eu)

North Africans on the Western front: (forgottenheroes.eu)

 

Sources

  • NAM 1966-92.37.1
  • NAM 6602.37.12
  • Falls, Cyril; G. MacMunn (1930). Military Operations Egypt & Palestine from the Outbreak of War with Germany to June 1917.
  • Official History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence (London: HM Stationery Office).
  • Downes, Rupert M. (1938). “The Campaign in Sinai and Palestine”. In Butler, Arthur Graham. Gallipoli, Palestine and New Guinea.
  • Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services, 1914–1918. Volume 1 Part II (2nd ed.) (Canberra: Australian War Memorial), pp. 547–780.
  • J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914–1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York: Enigma, 2009).
  • Martin Gilbert, The Routledge Atlas of the First World War, 2nd edn. (London: Routledge, 1994).
  • David Woodward, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson: Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the Great War (Westport: Greenwood, 1998).