The Invasion of the Garden of Eden
How The British Are Fighting Their Way Up To Bagdad
[The Independent; November 29, 1915]
In the earlier months of the Great War attention was concentrated upon central Europe, for it was thought that whatever took place elsewhere would have no influence upon the final issue of the struggle. But now it seems likely that the deadlock in France may remain unbroken and the war and its terms of settlement be decided by what is done in the Balkans, Asia, Africa and the Pacific. When the final history comes to be written it is quite conceivable that more consideration will be given to the anabasis of the eleven thousand British who fought their way up from the sea to Bagdad than to the fruitless fighting of the millions in France and Flanders.
There is another reason why the outside world has paid little attention to the campaign in Mesopotamia, and that is because little has been heard of it. No war correspondents infest this field; no English newspapers are published there, if we except the Basra Times, which the British soldiers get up at intervals of leisure. The official organ of the British Government, the London Gazette, does not mention it because it is not under the direction of the War Office but of the Indian Office. The Mesopotamian expedition is sent out, as tho it were a mere raid into Afghanistan, by the Government of India, and, strictly speaking, Lord Hardinge instead of Lord Kitchener directs it.
On November 6, 1914, the day after England declared war on Turkey, the expedition embarked at Bombay. On November 14 it was steaming up the Shatt-el-Arab. Now, a year from the time when they started, they are close to Bagdad, 400 miles from the head of the Persian Gulf. While the Turk has kept his front door barricaded the British and Russians have entered at the back. Should the Germans succeed in forcing their way thru the Balkans to Constantinople they will find the hated English already in possession of the territory which they have long coveted.
Once before the English forestalled them in this same region. For the Germans attempted the peaceful penetration of Asiatic Turkey before they resorted to arms. Thirty years ago they looked forward to the time when the Elbe River should be joined to the Persian Gulf by double bands of steel and the station master in Hamburg might call out in the American fashion, "All aboard for Berlin, Vienna, Belgrade, Constantinople, Bagdad, Koweit, and all points east!" Quite obviously the German Bagdadbahn was designed as the overland route to India, and this the English could never endure.
The Germans began the railroad in 1888 at the Sea of Marmora, and in 1899 they got from the Ottoman Government a concession for its continuance to Koweit on the Persian Gulf. But when the German Consul General of Constantinople went to Koweit to arrange the terminal facilities on the Gulf he found that the British had got ahead of him. The Sheik of Koweit, tho nominally a vassal of the Sultan, had been induced to make a. secret treaty by which he came under the "special protection" of Great Britain and agreed not to cede any land without the knowledge and consent of the British.
Now a railroad that started at Constantinople and ended somewhere in the desert was obviously not a paying proposition. So when the Germans found the outlet at the Persian Gulf closed to them they tried for a more northern route leading thru Persia. But here again they were outwitted by British diplomacy. In 1907 Great Britain suddenly struck hands with her ancient foe, and Persia was virtually partitioned between the two powers, Russia taking the northern and Great Britain the southern part as their respective spheres of influence. The Persian people rose and established a constitutional government. They appealed to America for help and an energetic young financier, Morgan Shuster, was sent to reorganize their finances. What happened to him may be read in his book The Strangling of Persia. He made the mistake of thinking that the Russian and British Governments meant what they said when they pledged themselves to respect the integrity and independence of Persia, and because of his naive faith in this "scrap of paper" he was forced to leave. In the present war neither Russia, Great Britain nor Turkey has paid any attention to the neutrality of Persia. Turkish troops have ravaged the province of Azerbaijan. Russian troops have occupied the northern provinces since 1909. British troops entered the southern provinces in 1911. The Persian and Arabian towns on the Gulf are in British possession.
But we must in fairness admit that the partition of Persia would not be a bad thing on the whole, altho we may deplore the manner of it and regret that the Persians were not given a chance to work out their own salvation. Persia could not be left forever in ruin and disorder, and it was merely a question which of the great powers should undertake its development. The southern part, under British rule, will doubtless prosper as Egypt has, and even Russia may improve conditions in the northern part as has been done in Turkestan.
A hundred and fifty miles north of the Persian Gulf are the oil fields near the ancient Persian city, which, by a curious coincidence, bears the name of Shuster. A pipe line conducts the precious fluid to tidewater at the head of the Gulf. A few months before the outbreak of the war the British Government bought a controlling interest in the company in order to secure fuel oil for the navy. Winston Churchill of the Admiralty had difficulty in getting the appropriation thru Parliament because he could not at the time give any satisfactory reason why the Government should invest in such an unattractive proposition when it oil cheaper. Those who opposed the purchase in Parliament are now doubtless wishing the Government had shown the same foresight in other matters. It was calculated that this field would supply a million tons of fuel oil a year for the navy. To guard this pipe line was the first essential and the British expedition was landed November a year ago at its outlet on the Persian side of the Shatt-el-Arab. Thence troops were sent into the interior of Persia to occupy the oil region about Shuster and others were conveyed up the river to the Turkish town of Basra (Busreh), which surrendered. But in the spring the British were attacked here by a force of some 10,000 Turks and as many Arabs. A three days' battle ensued, in which the British were victorious against the overwhelming odds, tho at a sacrifice of 700 men. Then they proceeded up the river and by the last of May had taken Kurna, which lies at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Here the expedition divided. One party went up the Euphrates and by the end of July had taken Nasirjehe after prolonged conflict. The other proceeded up the Tigris, and on September 27 found the Turks under Nur-ed-din Pasha occupying a strongly fortified position extending some miles on each side of the river below Kut-el-Amara. The British attacked by air, water and land. Aeroplanes dropped bombs on the enemy's boats and bridges. Armored automobiles charged their cavalry. Big guns two miles away rained shells on their entrenchments. Gunboats fought their way up the river. The Turks were routed and fled toward Bagdad, a hundred miles further up the Tigris River. The British are in pursuit and expected soon to reach that city. The Russians advancing into Mesopotamia from the Caucasus are only 300 miles to the north at Van and Urmia, so it is quite possible that the British and Russians may meet in eastern Turkey, and then the Turks will be cut off from all help from the Persians.
The victory of Kut-el-Amara gives the British possession of what was once the richest region of the world, the site, perhaps, of its oldest civilization. We can all of us understand the feeling of the old woman who told her pastor of the delight she derived from hearing "that blessed word Mesopotamia," for the land is filled with religious, literary and historical associations. Between these great rivers ancient legend placed the paradise of primal sinlessness. Near Nasirjehe, where General Sir John Nixon defeated the Turks, was Ur of the Chaldees, the home of Abraham. A further advance of this force up the Euphrates, will bring them to Babylon, "the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency." The two British forces will join at Bagdad, the beloved of all readers of Arabian Nights. Near by are the sacred, shrines of both the Mohammedan sects, so the possession of Bagdad by the British, will have a powerful effect upon the whole Moslem world.
This desert could again be made to blossom as the rose if it had good government. It is not a change of climate but the neglect of the irrigation ditches which has brought it to ruin. The Hindia barrage which Sir W. Willcocks was constructing before the war would bring once more the water to the land and restore its former prosperity. In the year 1913 the German imports into this region rose from two to ten million dollars. The dates exported in that year brought in more than $2,500,000.. It is a rich prize and well worth the fighting for.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald