Peter Linebaugh on T.E. Lawrence
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 1 12:16:38 MDT 2003
The lure of Baghdad proved irresistible to General Townshend, the
commander. Foolishly (for the Persian refineries were already secured)
he led the re-named Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force up the Tigris River
extending his lines of communication far beyond the powers of his base
to supply it with food. Repulsed before reaching Baghdad, he was forced
to retreat a hundred miles to Kut. There followed a four months siege, a
humiliating defeat, and surrender on the eve of May first 1916. Parallel
with this narrative of disaster ran two sub-plots, a) the soldiers'
resistance, and b) the orientalizing derring-do of Lawrence of Arabia
and the charming wiles of Gertrude Bell.
Townshend found keeping up morale "the most difficult of all military
operations" and one in which the British soldier is "very prone to get
out of hand." They arrived and dug in at Kut after two days of forced
marches, and then suffered heat, exhaustion, floods, disease, famine.
The Indian battalions had practically become "armed bands." The bulk of
the troops were Muslim. Seditious pamphlets in Urdu and in Hindustani
tempting the troops to rise and murder their officers, join their
bothers the Turks, who would pay them better and provide grants of land.
One sepoy did attempt to shoot his officer, several deserted, and twelve
to fourteen soldiers cut off their trigger fingers. Many were from
Punjab. Dysentery claimed fifteen dead a day, and twenty from
starvation. Townshend complained about the "trans-border Pathans." He
wanted them returned to India. They refused to eat horseflesh, and
though he mixed Hindu and Mohammedan on picket duty and outpost work, he
could not break their solidarity. Altogether, seventy-two deserted.
Moberly, whose three volumes on the Mesopotamian campaign provides the
official history, explained: since the Pathans were without private
property, the British promise to assure rightful succession to their
property in the event of their being killed was without effect! Behind
this logic were imperial fears of mutiny and commonism. Against these,
terror was the traditional remedy. The Arab inhabitants of Kut would not
sell their food. Townshend asked headquarters for gold, and explained,
"I could not flog 6,000 people into taking paper money. All I could do
was to keep them in good behavior by shooting one now and then pour
encourager les autres when spies, etc., were caught."
Gertrude Bell was the first woman to win a First in Modern History at
Oxford. Her grandfather was a rich British industrialist, supplying one
third of British iron. She danced, she rode horse, she spoke Arabic,
quoted Milton, archaeologically discovered cities, charmed imperious
egos. She became the silken agent of English guile. Gertrude Bell wrote
from Military Intelligence's Arab Bureau, next to the Cairo Savoy, "It's
great fun." In Cairo Lawrence intrigued to encourage the Arab revolt
against the Ottoman Empire. Gertrude Bell was dispatched to India. The
disaster at Kut put a decided damper on its ambitions. "I hate war; oh,
and I'm so weary of it--of war, of life," as she sighed from Basra, in
March 1916 during the frightful heat. That was the month that the
British government began to pay Sharif Hussein £125,000 gold sovereigns
a month, a deal she helped set up.
Gertrude dallied with Lawrence, "We have had great talks and made vast
schemes for the government of the universe. He goes up river tomorrow,
where the battle is raging these days." A month after the surrender,
indeed, the Arab revolt began. Lawrence was able to write a scathing
report on the Indian army's operations in Mesopotamia. The English
political officer, "Cox is entirely ignorant of Arab societies," plotted
Lawrence. An obstacle to the Arab revolt--Indian ambitions for the
cradle of civilization--had been discredited. "The most important thing
of all will be cash," quoth his instructions. In April Lawrence was
authorized to offer the Turks £1,000,000 to quit the siege of Kut,
though he doubled it, Khalil Pasha rejected it scornfully.
In March Lawrence read Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
several parallels may be made--the thirst ("Water, water, everywhere/Nor
any drop to drink"), the sun, the heat, the loneliness, the guilt of the
mariner for his responsibility in the wanton murder of the crew. What
sights had Lawrence seen in Kut? Who were the starving and wasting men?
The English were from Dorsetshire and Norfolk, depressed agricultural
counties, hardy specimens of the English proletariat whose experience
was depression. There were Punjabis, Pathans. The Inland Water Transport
Service employed in its Mesopotamian contingents men from the British
West Indies Regiment, the Nigerian Marine Regiment, the West African
Regiment, the Coloured Section, the Egyptian Labour Corps. Lawrence saw
starve the motley international of an imperialist army.
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
Lawrence, clearly, would have his limitations as an imperial servant:
though it was oil they craved, in his master's view empire was not slime!
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