Category Archives: Iraq

Kut 1916: Courage and Failure in Iraq by Patrick Crowley

Think of British military disasters: Galipoli, Singapore, Arnhem. Men such as Percival and Browning have been dammed for evermore But one epic failure that receives very little attention is that of Kut. Recent years have seen Kut fade into obscurity, especially compared to Galipoli – another disastrous Turkish expedition. Here Patrick Crowley, a serving British Army Officer, aims to redress the balance.

Britain launched a campaign to occupy Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – early in the First World War, in an attempt to occupy the stratgically important oilfields around Basra. Given the growing importance of motor vehicles and oil fuelled warships, it was also another route to undermining the Ottoman Turk Empire, an ally of Germany. The British Government was also following a policy of ‘knocking away the props’, feeling that by eliminating Turkey from the war deadlock on the western front would be broken.

Initially the aim was simply to occupy southern Iraq. But overconfidence, underestimation of the enemy and naive mission creep led to the force attempting a march on Baghdad. After it became clear that Baghdad was not immediately reachable, the overall commander, General Nixon, ordered Major-General Townshend, Commanding the 6th Indian Division, to hold out at Kut. Apparently Nixon was confident in his ability to relieve Kut, and Townshend saw no reason to demur. Quite why it was felt important to hold Kut no-one seems to have pondered.

The relief force has serious problems reaching Kut – once again, they underestimated the ability of their Turkish opponents. There were also serious problems with transport, with only the River Tigris available. Eventually the garrison at Kut ran out of food, giving Townshend no option but to surrender in April 1916. By the end men were resorting to eating dogs, horseflesh and starlings. 11,800 British soldiers, many of them Indian, became prisoners.

There are serious questions asked about Townshend’s conduct after his surrender. Spirited off to a relatively luxurious existence, his soldiers suffered untold horrors. Already in a poor state after months of siege privations, they were beaten on their march into captivity, given poor rations and little or no medical treatment. Yet Townshend appears not to have been concerned about their safety. The treatment of Allied Prisoners by the Turks is clearly one of the most overlooked atrocities in twentieth century warfare – some harrowing stories of suffering emerge. Of the men who surrendered at Kut, 4,250 died in captivity.

So what went wrong at Kut? Firstly, the siege should not have took place in the first place – the force should have withdrawn to Basra. Secondly, the relief force was not strong enough to reach Kut. And at all stages of the campaign senior officers grossly underestimated their opponentss – even though evidence from Galipoli should have suggested that the Turk soldier was no pushover. Another endemic failure seems to have been an inability and unwillingness to organise logistics properly. Finally, in his handling of the surrender, Townshend was guilty of failing in his duty to his men. Overall, it seems that a lot of incompetence went into what transpired at Kut.

This book by Patrick Crowley is an admirable and professional attempt to analyse the campaign, and the reasons for its failure. It is very well researched, and blends strategy with personal histories very well. Unlike a lot of narrative military histories, this book has a very ‘military’ feel, with its strong resonance with lessons learnt, and the evocation of more recent British campaigns in Iraq. In 1916 the 1st/4th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was fighting in Iraq, while in 2004 their successor Regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, fought a siege like action in nearby Amara. The I am a big fan of this relevant style of history, that will be useful to military personnel and interesting to historians alike.

Kut 1916: Courage and Failure in Iraq by Patrick Crowley is published by The History Press

4 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Iraq, Uncategorized, World War One

Learning lessons in counter-insurgency

Browsing on the RUSI’s website I found this very ineresting article by Huw Bennett, entitled ‘The reluctant pupil? Britain’s army and learning in counter-insurgency. It is extremely relevant to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and I think it is worth summarising here with my own thoughts.

Often the failures of armed forces, especially in counter-insurgecy campaigns, are blamed on the inability of the miltary to learn and absorb the lessons from past conflicts. Looking at the example of past wars should demonstrate that our forces and commanders need to develop an ability to react flexibly to the unique nature of each campaign. Learning is crucial in military command and leadership. Particularly when we are all too aware that the cost of lessons not learnt is counted in lives lost. This is one sphere where military history can have a real impact on doctrine.

Post 1945 the British Army found itself involved in one counter-insurgency campaign after another, notably in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these examples are hallmarked by initial failings, before classic doctrine comes into play and varying degrees of success were achieved. Isnt it ironic that the British Army’s experience in the second half of the Twentieth Century was spent overwhelmingly in counter-insurgency, yet looking back we get the feeling that operations such as Northern Ireland were an unpleasant necessary, while the Army would rather have been fighting a real war?

History suggests that rather than being a new conflict out on its own, the current war in Afghanistan is in strong continuity with other counter-insurgency campaigns, albeit with its own unique local nature. It has been lumped under the banner of the war on terror, but that is down to US-political factors. The UK as fighting terror long before 9/11. There are strong lessons that shine through all campaigns. Hearts and minds matter, and civil-military co-operation is important. If you are going to ‘do’ nation breaking, then you have to do nation building. There will be no victory parade like in ‘real’ wars. Excessive use of force causes more problems than it solves. The objective is to make the enemy’s objective impossible, and to remove the factors that allow then to exist and operate.

But why is it that military culture struggles to learn these lessons? Does change – in particuar with looming cuts and restructuring – need to embraced rather than shyed away from? Certainly, deeply held beliefs and cultures, such as those found in an organisation like the Army, shape military beaviour and stifle abstract thinking and innovation. All too often a convenient orthodoxy reigns, and all thinking outside of it is frowned upon. Although there is also a strong culture of pragmatism and ‘muddling through’, is it the case that if we were pay more attention to history, then we might not have to? After all, how come the US military got their approach to Iraq so badly wrong, when there were ample case studies from their time in Iraq and the British experience in Northern Ireland?

Bennett’s conclusion is most interesting:

Historical campaigns should be studied as an exercise in analytical thinking for commanders, rather than being expected to serve up easily transferable generic lessons. Failure at a counter-insurgency campaign’s start is structurally inevitable, and is thus no cause for demoralisation. The trick is to recover, and learn about a new situation, fast.

Recovering and then learning quickly is likely to become a common theme in a time of cuts and overstretch. It will be impossible for the armed forces to be all things to all people all of the time, expecting the unexpected is likely to become the norm in an uncertain world. In the twenty-first century, has the unconventional become the new conventional?

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, historiography, Iraq

Fierce debate over UK Defence spending

The Prime Minister had denied that he ‘guillotined’ the Defence budget while British forces were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. An ex-MOD civil servant had earlier made the claim while giving evidence at the Iraq Inquiry.

Conservative Leader David Cameron said: “Isn’t it becoming clear from the Chilcot inquiry that the government in general, and you in particular, made a series of bad decisions that meant our armed forces were not equipped properly when they were sent into harm’s way?”

Former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Kevin Tebbit called the £1bn cut “arbitrary”, and that “I think it’s fair to say that the Treasury as a whole didn’t want us to get as much as we got.” It would seem increasingly that the Government was willing to make huge commitments, but not to fund the armed forces to carry them out.

It is also broadly accepted that Gordon Brown, as Chancellor, had more control over public spending than any of his predecessors. Not only was he able to control spending, but Government policy by default. Gordon Brown’s denials come after a stream of witnesses at the Iraq Inquiry have stated that preparation for the war was severely hampered and inadequate.

It would not be in the Prime ministers interests to admit that he did not fund the armed forces properly: politicians are rarely blessed with honesty over such matters. But why ignore the clear findings of an Inquiry, that he ordered, before it has even finished?

15 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, debate, defence, Iraq, News, politics

Is criticism of servicemen wrong?

There is an interesting article on the BBC News website’s Magazine series discussing whether it is acceptable to criticise soldiers. This comes after an Islamist Group planned to protest in Wootton Bassett, and a group of Islamic extremists were convicted of offending public morals after protesting at the homecoming of the Royal Anglian Regiment from Afghanistan.

Many people question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. This debate falls on a number of levels: whether and when it is acceptable to intervene in another state, what the motivations for that might be, and whether those motivations are justified. Clearly in hindsight the justifications for the war in Iraq – at least those that were advanced publicly – proved to be false. Iraq is probably the most divisive issue in civil-military relations in recent years. The war in Afghanistan is more clear, although still controversial.

The armed forces are the servants of the Government, who in turn are elected by us, the general public. The armed forces are given their orders by the Government of the day, and then down their chain of command. Clearly it would be very dangerous indeed for servicemen to take lightly the refusing orders that they disagree with: this would undermine authority and command. But the Nuremberg war trials established the precedent that ‘I was only following orders’ is not sufficient defence against allegations of wrongdoing. But, by and large, the major decisions about going to war are taken by the Government. If anyone deserves criticism for going to war, it is the Politicians. And the Iraq war has eroded public confidence in the ability of the Government to use our armed forces properly.

The public is – quite rightly – reluctant to criticise servicemen. In particular, people are hopefully wise to the fact that a Private on the ground in Afghanistan is not to blame for the UK being at war and has no leverage over higher strategy. You do not have to agree with the war to wish our troops well and hope that they come home safely. But there are some cases where I believe criticism is justified – in the cases of strategy, for example. This has historical parallels. For many years it was taboo to criticise a senior General, no matter how incompetent they may have been. But if there is overwhelming evidence that something or somebody was wrong, surely it is only right to make that case, for the sake of learning lessons? It is very damaging for a democratic society to have subjects that are off-limits to discussion and debate.

But there is a big difference between arguments made on sound principles, with reasoning and supported by evidence. And there is nothing sound or reasonable about any of the Islamic extremist groups that we have seen recently. To call British soldiers ‘babykillers’, or ‘rapists’ without a shred of evidence is wrong in the extreme. And talking about ‘our lands’ while also calling for Sharia law in the UK is not protest, it is grossly provocative and dangerous. There are broader themes here, in that religion – any religion – is not evidence, it is only opinion. It is a very personal thing, and in that sense should not be imposed on anyone else. If you are aware that your opinion may offend the vast majority of people, and that there is no basis for it, you are entitled to it – but keep it to yourself.

Proection for soldiers should not trump freedom of speech, but at the same time ill-founded and dishonest opinions should not be allowed to masquerade as well-reasoned criticism and debate.

5 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, debate, Iraq, politics

Iraq Inquiry: my opinions so far…

Ive been closely following the progress of the Chilcott Inquiry into the events leading up to and during the Iraq War, until British troops left Iraq last year.

The composition of the Inquiry is interesting. Sir John Chilcott is a former senior Civil Servant. Perhaps not a heavyweight by any means, but in my opinion he has chaired it competently so far. There are two military Historians on the panel: Sir Lawrence Freedman, the official Historian of the Falklands War, and Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill’s official biographer. I am glad that there are historians on the panel, but I wish they were not what you might call ‘establishment’ historians. Somebody like Richard Holmes, David Starkey or Simon Schama might have been a lot more probing. An experienced Barrister would have been wise too, to advise on legal issues.

So far I think the evidence given by the military figures has been very insightful. On the whole, it appears that given the UK’s subservient role in the invasion the military side of things was handled very well. Things were certainly not helped by the US Department of Defences’ lack of planning for the post-war phase – the British Army has huge experience of counter-insurgency, why was this not heeded?

In terms of the politics, however, nothing has changed my mind that there was some serious dishonesty going on. Even IF – and it is a big if – the intelligence led Tony Blair to believe the 45 minute caveat, there was still a lot of creative industry being applied in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’. Alistair Campbell’s appearance today says much: even in front of an inquiry, seeking the truth, his stance is to put on an act, and to lie, spin and slither away. Maybe expecting the truth from Campbell is too much: the man is, after all, a professional liar. The ironic thing is that his demeanour at the inquiry showed exactly what was wrong with British politics at the time: an unelected official, expert at manipulating the truth, was pulling the strings.

The evidence given by commanders about the ineffectiveness of the Department for International Development has been telling. I have long thought that the UK’s approach to overseas aid is a mess: we are happy to hand over millions to countries who do not need it, without strings attached, yet when it comes to a country like Iraq, which desparately needed our help and quickly, DFID stood back idley. Quick and efficient aid would have helped prevent the slide towards insurrection and disorder.

On the whole, I get the impression that the Politics side of things was a monumental cock-up. The military side of things, once we disregard the politics, was handled rather well from a UK point of view. The panel have been more probing and incisive than we might have expected, and from their line of questioning on Campbell, Tony Blair can expect an uncomfortable time.

But it is one thing holding an inquiry, it is quite another to actually take notice of it and absorb its lessons. Will the mistakes and succeses be taken into account with future Government policy? Will the US have a similar inquiry, or take notice of the findings of the Chilcott inquiry?

If you make mistakes and ignore them, then they’re just gonna keep happening again. And in this case, mistakes mean lives lost.

4 Comments

Filed under debate, Iraq, politics

The making of the British Army – Allan Mallinson

The Making of the British Army - Allan Mallinson

The Making of the British Army - Allan Mallinson

The British Army, which can traces an almost unbroken lineage back to the days of Cromwell, often appears to outsiders as a curious institution. Why is the Navy the ROYAL Navy, and the Air Force the ROYAL Air Force? The answer is inherent in the Army’s culture – the Regiment is the primary loyalty in the Army, and the Army has for hundreds of years evolved to become a confederation of regimental tribes.

Allan Mallinson’s book is not a quick read. But then, the development of the British Army has not been a quick process. Several regiments in the modern Army can trace their lineage back to Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The story of the British Army is one of hard-won military experience. Of campaigns on all continents, in defence of Empire and against tyranny. Yet British culture has almost always placed the Royal Navy in the ascendancy. As an island nation the Navy defends us. With a strong Navy, the need for an Army is minimal, or so naval advocates have argued time and time again. The Army is a bullet, to be fired by the Navy.

So for many years the Army found itself fighting small, colonial wars around the globe, punctuated by rare forays onto the European mainland. But for the most part, at least until the twentieth century, the British Army was not a major factor in British defence planning.

What stands out most of all, is that often the British Army has managed to exert an influence out of all proportion to its size. Why? For one, apart from during and immediately after the two world wars, it has overwhelmingly been a volunteer force. Smaller than most continental Armies, never the less this small, volunteer ethos has continually led to the British Army having a stronger discipline, better training and professionalism. Over time, particular in the past 50 years, the Army has come to have a stronger identity, and a stronger grip over its constituent parts.

The British Army is also one in which people and events have always had an impact way beyond their time. Leaders such as Marlborough and Wellington still influence young army officers today. In particular, valiants stands at Waterloo, Rorkes Drift and Arnhem have a powerful motivational effect on officers and men alike. As Mallinson so aptly tells us, at Goose Green in the Falklands, one 2 Para officer told his men two simple words: ‘remember Arnhem’.

The Army is undergoing a period of change once more: it is engaged in a savage fight against a formidable foe in Helmand province. This is taking place against a background of continual defence cuts and reforms, with many famous old names disappearing as local regiments become increasingly regional in make-up. This might dilute local loyalties, but still I suspect it is easier to feel loyalty to a name than a number. Perhaps for the British Army more than any other, heritage makes it what it is. From the shining examples of victories – and defeats – to the uniforms, names, museums, quirky traditions and pomp and pageantry, history oozes out of every pore.

To try to understand the culture of the British Army, especially from the point of view of someone looking in from the outside, is no easy task. It was once said that an Army should be a mirror of the society that it comes from, but it is much more complicated than that. To explain the history of the British Army by simply charting battles and campaigns is not enough. This book by Allan Mallinson, although by no means an academic text, brings a complex story up to date. Although he is himself an ex serving soldier, his writing is refreshingly free of the ‘old boys’ style where old officers are respected regardless of their achievements – or lack of – and where officers live in the past, with no eye on the future.

21 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, cold war, Falklands War, Iraq, Korean War, Napoleonic War, World War One, World War Two

Book Review – latest releases from Osprey Books

An earlier book in the Osprey Campaign series

An earlier book in the Osprey Campaign series

Osprey have been publishing books in the field of military history for many years. I have long been a fan of their well-presented and accessible style, complete with smart looking maps and fantastic artwork. I have made a lot of use of them over the years, especially their books on Operation Market Garden and Fairmile Motor Torpedo Boats.

These three interesting looking books landed through my letterbox over the weekend, so here are my impressions of them!

The Six Day War 1967: Sinai

This volume comes as part of Osprey’s Campaign series, which now numbers over 200 publications. They are well regarded as among the best introductions to any particular battle of campaign in history.

The 1967 Arab-Israeli War was part of the long running dispute that took place in the Middle East in the second half of the twentieth century, which is arguably still smouldering today. Since its inception Israel had long lived under the threat of annihilation. Under pressure in 1967, Israel launched a devastating pre-emptive strike on its enemy Egypt, eventually reaching the Suez Canal in just five days.

This book charts the story of this short but sharp war, in particular one of the most daring and successful operations in modern military history. As with all Osprey books it contains some crisp and accurate maps, well researched original photographs and some incredibly detailed artwork of aircraft, armoured vehicles and battlefield scenes. The text itself looks at the deep political reasons behind the war, and also the complex internal politics of the Israeli state. Along with chronologies and orders of battle, this strikes a helpful balance between detail and accessibility, which in my experience is the hallmark of the Campaign series. Whilst they may not have the detail and referencing of a full academic work, if you know absolutely nothing about the 1967 war – much like myself before picking this up – then you certainly would after putting it down.

M1 Abrams vs. T-72 Ural: Operation Desert Storm 1991

This account, part of Osprey’s Duel series, focuses more on the machines that were pitted against each other, and the men who fought in them.

The Cold War often seen clashes between American and Soviet built tanks, but curiously, never directly between those two countries. Never the less, commentators and intelligence analysts took a close interest in how each sides weaponry compared.

The last armoured clash between American and Soviet produced armour took place in Iraq in 1991, during the first Gulf War. The US M1A1 Abrams battle tank, which made up the bulk of the coalition armour, was barely two years old, and certainly one of the worlds most advanced tanks. The Iraqi T-72 was built by Soviet Russia. Compared to the Abrams it fielded second-rate sights and ammunition, as well as inferior training of its crews. As such the T-72 were never going to be a match for the Abrams, as this book argues. Indeed, the first Gulf-War saw some of the most one-sided armoured fighting in history.

Tech-heads, and fans of vehicles, armour and weaponry will love this book. It delves deep into the development and design of the respective tanks, full of technical drawings, close up photographs and specifications. Crucially, however, it also looks at the human aspect, especially the training of the men who crewed the T-72 and Abrams. Without this, there is a risk that it might be something of a Haynes Manual – very interesting but narrow, only nuts and bolts. Thankfully, by combining the men and materiel, wet get a full picture. Too often the human and machine elements are separated.

Special Operations Forces in Iraq

Military History should never be confined to ‘history’, and this book brings us right up to date with a reminder that servicemen are fighting around the world right as we speak. Some of them of the ‘talking trees’ variety.

Anything to do with Special Forces is a big seller. Look at the explosion of interest in the SAS after the Iranian embassy in 1981 and after the Gulf War. And this book from the Elite series does not disappoint. Looking at the initial deployments and engagements during the first phase of the Iraq War in 2003, through to the insurgency period, the hunt for Ba’ath party officials, Al Qaeda operatives and militiamen. It looks at battles around the port of Um Qassar, in the Kurdish mountains of the North, and the urban warfare in Baghdad and Basra. Refreshingly, it doesn’t just focus on US Special Forces, as many books tend to.

One of the fascinating things about Special Forces is in their name – the special nature of their weapons, equipment and tactics. This book more than delivers, with some cracking illustrations of US, British, Australian and Polish Special Forces. Each illustration has a detailed description. If you were looking to make military models, something like this would be right up your street.

9 Comments

Filed under Army, art, Book of the Week, cold war, Iraq