What Happened Beyond the Western Front

In the Middle East during World War I, the British invented the military technologies and techniques that inspired the tactics of WWII.

British machine gunners with gas masks on.
British machine gunners firing during the Battle of the Somme.
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

The Victorians believed in progress, and in technology as its handmaiden. They saw their lethal use of machine guns in the conquest of Africa as progress—the spread of European civilization.

But in the “Great War” that ended 100 years ago this Sunday, those same machine guns produced a bloody stalemate between Europeans, fracturing faith in “European civilization” at home and abroad.  Movements against European imperialism gained strength around the world, and postwar British turned cynical, losing faith in all that the Victorians held dear: progress, war, technology.

But if this commonly held view, associated with scholars like Eric Leed and Paul Fussell, is the whole story, we are left with many mysteries: Why did Britain promote industrialism in its colonies right after the war? Why did it so readily turn to the same technologies in the Second World War?

Far from the Western Front, the usual focus of our efforts to understand the cultural legacy of the war, the British, in particular, simultaneously cultivated a more positive view of technology’s contribution to warfare. We have inherited wartime British marginalization of these other theaters as “sideshows,” despite their enormous scale, impact, and strategic importance—a marginalization made necessary by the ethical dubiousness of European actions in those theaters: British activity in the Middle East was initially shrouded in secrecy to avoid provoking anti-imperialists, Indian Muslims, and Arab allies.

Shifting our gaze from France to the Middle East, we can see how faith in technological warfare survived. The Mesopotamia and Palestine campaigns—in which the British fought the Ottoman Empire in present-day Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Syria, and Saudi Arabia in alliance with the indigenous “Arab Revolt”—were mobile and creative military affairs, incorporating deception tactics, irregular warfare, and air power, which have become basic to modern warfare. This tactical exceptionalism was the product of British commanders’ unique willingness to use craft in a region that they thought of as magical and mysterious, an ancient biblical land of “cunning and subterfuge,” “where little surprise would be occasioned in … seeing a genie floating … out of a magic bottle.”

“Leave your English … customs,” T.E. Lawrence, a key architect of these campaigns and the primary liaison with the Arab Revolt, exhorted fellow Britons in the region: “The more unorthodox and Arab your proceedings, the more likely you are to have the Turks cold.” Foreshadowing 21st-century America’s embrace of special operations and drone-driven counterterrorism warfare, Lawrence (later immortalized in Lawrence of Arabia) urged a minimalistic guerrilla-style of warfare that contrasted sharply with the entrenched mass warfare and complex supply lines on the Western Front, a nimbleness supported by a heavy dependence on air power, which he and other British experts on the region thought essential in a land they perceived as uniformly flat, despite its varied topographical reality. Control of the air was crucial to deception operations, allowing the British to conceal their movements and watch enemy movements. Air power also coordinated guerrilla warfare and train-wrecking and enabled reconnaissance of a region that had foiled British mapping efforts. Aerial photography and signaling were developed in the Middle East. Most significantly, British officials praised aerial bombardment’s “political uses” in disciplining tribes. A 1921 Cabinet paper on air power acknowledged that it proved its potential not in Europe but in the “more distant theatres” in the Middle East.

The Mesopotamia campaign came to include British investment in the general technological development of the region after an early military failure. British troops stationed at the Persian Gulf made a hasty push north to take Baghdad in 1915. But they failed and were besieged by Turkish forces at Kut, resulting in the loss and surrender of thousands of troops, an event hailed as Britain’s “greatest humiliation in the … War.” Officials blamed Mesopotamia’s lack of transportation infrastructure. A government inquiry replaced the romantic depiction of a magical land of the Arabian Nights with the grim image of a land rife with “Physical and Climatic Peculiarities”: undisciplined rivers, a swamplike port, biblically punishing heat, drought, insects, and floods. While technology was widely blamed for the deadly stalemate in France, laments on this front were about the lack of technology. The inquiry prompted Britain to give in to growing demands from the “crown jewel” colony of India for industrialization, so that India could fulfill British military needs in the Middle East. India sent iron, steel, and timber, alongside dredgers, labor, and experts, to construct river embankments, wharves, dams, harbors, docks, ships, canals, and bridges in Iraq as the troops pushed north again. It sent railroad and electrical plant, telegraphic and telephonic equipment, engines, vehicles, boats—all this to enable British troops to wage “war as it should be waged.”

The British campaign’s changing fortunes after this monumental development effort seemed to disprove the Western Front’s lesson that technological warfare had made long advances impossible. Pushing toward Baghdad again, officers mused on the great ancient armies—the Parthians, Sasanians, and Romans—that had “passed this way before … [modern] men in khaki … with … aeroplanes and wireless.” Baghdad’s fall in 1917 was hailed as “the most triumphant piece of strategy … since war started.” It enforced the military establishment’s commitment to the “cult of the offensive” and convinced Prime Minister David Lloyd George to make Jerusalem a “Christmas gift” to his people—just when the Battle of Passchendaele, the major 1917 Allied offensive on the Western Front, ended in failure. These campaigns preserved British morale despite the grim news from France. The fall of Jerusalem incited public euphoria—the bell of Westminster chimed for the first time in three years. Postwar military journals noted a “reversal in the importance of the various campaigns,” since Mesopotamia and Palestine had proved that in future wars, “mobility and power” would again be “correlated.” The high-tech power of armored cars, aircraft, and wireless, combined with cavalry, riverboats, deception, and guerrilla tactics—showed that modern warfare need not be stalemated trench warfare. Educational tours in Iraq praised the “special value” of operations there for military science.

These campaigns seemed to affirm British military prowess and redeem warfare itself as a productive enterprise—in the very cradle of civilization. The Guardian triumphantly called the military operations in the region the greatest “programme of public works … since …ALEXANDER THE GREAT.” Trains, cars, and airplanes were bringing a new “age of miracles” to Baghdad, where lay the “natural junctions” of the world’s airways and railways, “the world’s centre.” Others imagined a “regenerated Babylonia” giving meaning to British war losses. Mesopotamia would supply cotton and wheat, provide fields for European industry, and enlarge “the wealth of a universe wasted by war,” foresaw the powerful British administrator in Iraq, Gertrude Bell. “We’ll fix this land up,” wrote an officer, “and move the wheels of a new humanity.” The press hailed “the regeneration of Palestine” as “one of the few fine and imaginative products of the war” that made “it all [seem] worth while.” These campaigns renewed Victorian idealism despite the cynicism produced on the Western Front. James Mann, a postwar recruit to Iraq, explained to his mother: “If one takes the Civil Service, or the Bar, or Literature, or Politics, or even the Labour movement, what can one do that is constructive? Here on the other hand I am constructing the whole time.”

But these hopes were pipe dreams. The occupying army did build bridges and railways but abandoned many of these projects because of financial stringency and because a violent colonial policing system known as “air control” hijacked the development discourse in the face of a 1920 Iraqi rebellion against the British occupation. Iraq descended into a new kind of colonial hell, where bombing was used for everyday purposes like tax collection.

The Great War institutionalized the British view of the Middle East as a site of exception that permitted tactics considered unethical elsewhere. For Britons, the campaigns in the Middle East gave industrial warfare a new lease on life and produced the tactics that shaped the next war, while inspiring a long history of destructive covert and aerial Western engagement with the Middle East.