The War in the Middle East
GERTRUDE BELL (1868 – 1926)
Gertrude Bell was exceptionally bright; she was the first woman to gain a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University. She spoke multiple languages including Arabic, Turkish and Persian, and had spent years in the Middle East. It seemed that she had a more genuine understanding of the region’s politics and culture than anyone else in the British government.
When war broke out Gertrude begged to be sent to the Middle East, but the War Office said it was ‘too dangerous for a woman’. Instead she was sent to Boulogne to run the Missing and Wounded Enquiry Department, which she did with huge success. By 1915, Britain’s policy in the Middle East was in disarray and the War Office belatedly decided to call on Gertrude. She was sent to Cairo with the rank of Military Intelligence Major (but not permitted to wear uniform) to work in the Arab Bureau. Her task was to map Northern Arabia and establish Arab leaders’ loyalty to Britain. Her reports were crystal-clear and considered the best the Bureau had ever produced.
During the war, Gertrude sounded warnings that later proved accurate, but they were not taken on board. In fact, it was she who first anticipated that tensions between Sunni and Shi’a would ultimately spiral out on control.
The Bikaner Camel Corps
Bikaner Camel Corps was led by the Maharaja of Bikaner, Ganga Singh. The Maharaja and his soldiers patrolled the Sinai desert mounted on camels, and were tasked to defend the Egyptian canals. The Suez Canal was the only water route for supplies and troops between Asia and Europe, and the Sweet Water Canal was the main supply of drinking water for the Allied forces in the desert. In February 1916, the Corps was attacked by the Turkish Army, but successfully defended the canals and ensured the survival of the Allied forces. The corps’ counterattack was led from the front by the Maharaja of Bikaner.
The Maharaja continued to be an important figure in the war, and when the war ended he represented India at the peace negotiations. He was the only person of South Asian heritage to sign the Treaty of Versailles.
Lawrence of Arabia
Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, joined the British Army in late 1914 and was stationed in Cairo as an intelligence officer.
In 1916 Lawrence was sent to support the Arab Revolt. Under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby, he and the Arab fighters rode across hundreds of miles to attack the Ottoman Army where it least expected it, Aqaba, a port in the Red Sea. Rather than attacking from the coast, the direction from which the Turks could anticipate danger because of the British Navy, Lawrence decided to emerge from the Nefudh Desert. As General Allenby’s forces advanced into Palestine in 1917-18, Lawrence and the Arabs severed the enemy’s lines of communication from Turkey and destroyed the railway lines.
After this success, the British government was keen to receive more help from the Arab Army under Lawrence’s leadership. By the beginning of October 1918 both the British and the Arab armies were in Damascus, and within a month Ottoman Turkey had surrendered.
After the Ottoman Empire entered into the war the British felt their interests in the Middle East were threatened. They wanted to protect their oil reserves and put pressure on the Ottomans, and so they deployed a force made up overwhelmingly of Indian troops to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). The British and Indian troops arrived there in November and were able to achieve a few early successes against the Turkish army, capturing the main port of Basra. These successes gave the Allies the confidence to push on to Baghdad. However, the Ottomans checked General Townshend’s Anglo-Indian force at Ctesiphon, an ancient city to the south of Baghdad, and Townshend was forced to retreat to Kut. The Turks besieged the town, and efforts to relieve the garrison failed. In April 1916 Townshend surrendered. Britain made better preparations and took Baghdad in 1917. By the war’s end they had reached as far north as Mosul.