Peter Linebaugh on T.E. Lawrence

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
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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