Letter From Mesopotamia

A Royal Air Force Merlin helicopter delivers much needed supplies to an element of the Queens Royal Lancers during a patrol in Maysan Province, Iraq in 2007. This image is available for non-commercial, high resolution download at www.defenceimages.mod.uk subject to terms and conditions. Search for image number 45149898.jpg ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- Photographer: Cpl Ian Forsyth RLC Image 45149898.jpg from www.defenceimages.mod.uk

Like everyone else, you write under the cloud of Warsaw and in the expectation of the enemy forthwith dashing back on us in the West. But the last two months have made it much harder for him to do that soon, if at all: and I hope the month which will pass before you get this will have made it harder still.

I found it difficult weeks ago to explain what induced the Germans to commit themselves so deeply into the interior of Russia so late in the season, and I came to the conclusion that with each forward movement they had been much nearer to enveloping and smashing the Russians than the Reuters would have led one to suppose: and so had been lured on.

It now looks to me as if they are playing for one of two alternatives. If Von Below can get round their right flank he will try a last envelopment: if that flank falls back far enough to uncover Petrograd, he will make a dash for P. But all that will mean locking up even bigger forces in the East. Indeed it seems so reckless that I can only account for it by supposing either that they are confident of rushing Petrograd and paralysing Russia within a few weeks: or that they are in a desperate plight and know it.

As for the future, I think it would be a mistake to expect this war to produce a revolution in human nature and equally wrong to think nothing has been achieved if it doesn’t. What I do hope is that it will mark a distinct stage towards a more Christian conception of international relations. I’m afraid that for a long time to come there will be those who will want to wage war and will have to be crushed with their own weapons. But I think this insane and devilish cult of war will be a thing of the past. War will only remain as an unpleasant means to an end.

The next stage will be, one hopes, the gradual realisation that the ends for which one wages war are generally selfish: and anyway that law is preferable to force as a method of settling disputes. As to whether National ideals can be Christian ideals, in the strict sense they can’t very well: because so large a part of the Christian ideal lies in self-suppression and self-denial which of course can only find its worth in individual conduct and its meaning in the belief that this life is but a preparation for a future life: whereas National life is a thing of this world and therefore the law of its being must be self-development and self-interest.

A British soldier aims his LMG (Light Machine Gun) on a shooting range. Basra, 2007.
A British soldier aims his LMG (Light Machine Gun) on a shooting range. Basra, 2007.

The Prussians interpret this crudely as mere self-assertion and the will to power. The Christianising of international relations will be brought about by insisting on the contrary interpretation—that our highest self-development and interest is to be attained by respecting the interests and encouraging the development of others. The root fallacy to be eradicated of course, is that one Power’s gain is another’s loss; a fallacy which has dominated diplomacy and is the negation of law. I think we are perceptibly breaking away from it: the great obstacle to better thinking now is the existence of so many backward peoples incapable (as we think) of seeking their own salvation.

Personally I don’t see how we can expect the Christianising process to make decisive headway until the incapables are partitioned out among the capables. Meanwhile, let us hope that each new war will be more unpopular and less respectable than the last.

The side door gunner of a Chinook helicopter surveys the desert landscape as it sweeps beneath him. Southern Iraq, March 2007.
The side door gunner of a Chinook helicopter surveys the desert landscape as it sweeps beneath him. Southern Iraq, March 2007.

As usual nothing whatever has happened here. Elaborate arrangements have been made to have a battle tomorrow 120 miles up the river at Kut. It ought to be quite a big show: the biggest yet out here. As the floods are gone now it may be possible to walk right round them and capture the lot. If we pull off a big success the G.O.C. is very keen to push on to Baghdad, but it is a question whether the Cabinet will allow it.

It means another 200 miles added,  and could only be risked if we were confident of the desert Arabs remaining quiet.

Personally I see no solid argument for our going to Baghdad, and several against it (1) the advance would take us right through the sacred Shiah country, quite close to Karbala itself (Karbala is to the Shiah Mohammedans—and the vast majority of Indian Mahommedans are Shiahs—what Mecca is to the Sunnis; and Baghdad itself is a holy city). It would produce tremendous excitement in India and probably open mutiny among the Moslem troops here if they were ordered up. (2) Surely Russia wouldn’t like it. (3) We can’t expect to hold it permanently.

Everything, so far as I can see, points to portioning this country into a British sphere and a Russian, with a neutral belt in between, on the Persian model, except that the “spheres” may be avowed protectorates. The British one must come up far enough to let us control the irrigation and drainage of Lower Mesopotamia properly: and stop short of the holy cities: say to the line Kut-el-Amarah (commonly called Kut)—Nasiriyah, along the Shatt-al-Hai. The Russians would, I suppose, come down to about Mosul.

This campaign is being conducted on gentlemanly lines. When we took a lot of prisoners at Nasiriyah we allowed the officers to send back for their kits. In return, last week, when one of our aeroplanes came down in the enemy’s lines and the two airmen were captured, they sent a flag of truce across to us to let us know that the prisoners were unhurt and to fetch their kits.

Amarah, September 27, 1915.

Adapted from Letters From Mesopotamia, by Robert Palmer. Photographs courtesy of the UK Ministry of Defence. Published under a Creative Commons license.