Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently repeated his country’s long-held territorial claim to Mosul and the whole of northern Iraq. Such a claim is based on the belief prevalent in Turkey that this area had, as territory of the Ottoman empire, been illegally seized by the British in November 1918 after the First World War in the Middle East was over.
The facts are not in dispute. At the time of the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and Ottoman forces – brought about by the Armistice of Moudros on 31 October 1918 – Mosul and most of its surrounding vilayet (administrative area) were still in Ottoman hands. Advancing British troops were still some way short of the city. However, during the next month, British troops – without any fighting – pushed beyond the armistice line and removed demoralised and unresisting Ottoman forces from both Mosul city and its vilayet. Thus the British took control of what today is northern Iraq.
What is in dispute is whether the British had the right to do this. Ottoman government protests that the British should have kept to the armistice line and that Mosul should have remained under its control came to be enshrined, post-war, in something called the National Pact. This had actually been promulgated by Kemal Ataturk himself in 1920 and long before he became the first president of the new Republic of Turkey in 1923. This Pact is a document which still has influence to this day within the Turkish body politic and is being quoted by Erdogan as he makes his claim to Mosul. Overblown rhetoric, maybe, but the danger for the future geopolitics of the Middle East is that Turkey, referring to the Pact, will see no legal impediment to its troops not only occupying large swathes of northern Iraq but also of northern Syria as well.
So, why did the British take the controversial action they did in 1918? Well, the then Ottoman prime minister blamed not so much the British in general, but rather the ‘sophistry’ of one individual British officer. This was the GOC Mesopotamia, General Sir William Marshall. Here was, indeed, a highly unusual case where one man – acting without orders and largely on his own initiative – may be said to have shaped the territorial boundaries of a significant portion of the modern Middle East.
Marshall had, near the end of the war and as the Ottoman army in Mesopotamia was rapidly weakening, been pushing his Anglo-Indian forces north from Baghdad (seized in April 1917). The view in the literature on this subject has it that Marshall had received orders from London to try and seize Mosul before war’s conclusion because of its oil potential. My research (mostly carried out in Erbil, 90 miles from Mosul) shows, however, that this was not the case. Marshall had no such orders. London, in fact, was showing very little interest in capturing Mosul. Rather, Aleppo and Baku were seen as the big regional prizes.
Marshall was moving towards Mosul for reasons of his own. He needed British control not just of the city of Mosul itself but also of its whole vilayet. This was for two reasons. The first was because he understood that the populations of the two Ottoman vilayets that the British had already occupied during the course of the war (Baghdad and Basra) could simply not be fed after the war if what was known as the ‘granary’ of Iraq – i.e. Mosul’s wheat fields – was still in Ottoman hands. For centuries, this granary had been supplying Baghdad and Basra. Marshall, who would be responsible for maintaining order in post-war Iraq, was aware that while there would be difficulties enough in trying to control southern Iraq’s fractious Sunni and Shia tribes his task might become insuperable if compounded by any inability of British authorities to actually feed the people of said tribes. By 1918, indeed, there were already severe food shortages across central and southern Iraq.
The second rationale for seizing Mosul was that Marshall needed to keep in situ the hundreds of thousands of Christians (some indigenous, but including many displaced Armenians) who were present in Mosul vilayet. If this region was not in British hands at war’s end then these Christians would doubtless flood south. They could then overwhelm the already taxed British system for dealing with the huge number of Christian refugees who, fleeing from Ottoman excesses in eastern Anatolia, had already arrived in southern Iraq.
As for the Ottomans, they had realised by October 1918 that they had to sue for peace quickly. They needed an end to hostilities before they lost more territory – including cities such as Mosul and Aleppo – to the general British advance north in Mesopotamia and Syria. The British likewise wanted a swift peace deal in order that troops could be transferred from the Middle East to the Western Front. Talks thus began on 26 October on a British battleship in Moudros harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos. They were conducted between Ottoman representatives and a Royal Navy delegation led by Vice-Admiral Somerset Gough-Calthorpe. He had been given carte blanche by British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George to negotiate on behalf of the Allies. An armistice was duly signed on 30 October and this was to come into force at midday the next day.
While Aleppo had by now been taken (on the 26th) by General Edmund Allenby’s troops operating in Syria, Marshall’s forces in Mesopotamia, advancing up the Tigris, were still some 12 miles short of Mosul. They had reached the town of Hammam al-Alil (much in the news today as the site of ISIS massacres). This was on 1 November. Marshall, hoping that his lead cavalry brigade could seize Mosul if allowed extra time to advance, did not actually tell his forward commanders that the war was over! Troops at the front were only informed of the armistice by the Turks themselves (under white flags). At Hammam al-Alil they were requested by Ali Ihsan Pasha – the Ottoman commander at Mosul – to return to the point they had reached when the armistice had been signed the previous day; i.e. back to Qayyarah. The ranking British officer at the front – Brigadier Robert Cassels – refused and stayed put to await orders.
On 2 November, and three days after the armistice, Marshall, in Baghdad, did finally receive some orders from London to occupy ‘Mosul’. Marshall then conveyed this order to Cassels who, doubting it at first given that the war was over, asked for confirmation. Cassels assumed he could only enter the city if there was evidence of a breakdown of law and order (e.g, if Christians were being massacred). But all was quiet there. The order to occupy was, though, reiterated to Cassels and he conveyed it to Ihsan. The latter refused to vacate the city and a stand-off ensued. Ihsan made complaints about the British behaviour to his superiors. These were passed on to Gough-Calthorpe at Moudros. The admiral agreed with the Turkish position. He was of the opinion that nothing he had negotiated with the Turks on behalf of the Allies/British government covered the post-armistice seizure of any Ottoman territory not occupied at the time of the armistice – including Mosul. Gough-Calthorpe made his views known to the Admiralty in London.
To break the impasse, Marshall flew up to Mosul from Baghdad on 7 November. He ordered Ihsan, under duress, to not only vacate the city but also the whole of the vilayet as well. While he had his orders to occupy ‘Mosul’, it was not actually clear to Marshall what this meant. He was fairly sure it only meant Mosul city and not the whole vilayet as well. Marshall was thus taking a huge risk in making his own independent interpretations of both the wording of the Moudros Agreement and of his orders. He was using these interpretations in his negotiations with Ihsan. Hence he came to be accused by the Turkish prime minster of ‘sophistry’.
Ihsan again protested to Istanbul. But he was told not to oppose the British. The authorities in the Ottoman capital needed British diplomatic help in keeping Turkey-proper free from any post-armistice occupation by French, Greek and Italian forces. Thus they did not want to make an issue of Mosul.
Ihsan, in high dudgeon, resigned his commission and left the city. Marshall’s troops then moved in on 8 November and, in a swift operation and one for which Marshall took responsibility, went on to clear the entire vilayet of Ottoman forces up to what is roughly today’s border between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall, by his actions, had thus established a de facto if not an actual de jure border.
Curiously, in the British Official History of the war in the Middle East, Marshall received no praise at all for any of his actions as GOC Mesopotamia – including his seizing of Mosul. And yet by his actions he had added a vast area of – theoretically – tremendous economic potential to the British empire. This lack of praise is both highly unusual and telling. He must have done something that the British government could not approve of.
The Mosul situation had further negative consequences for Istanbul in that it had set a precedent. British troops in Syria could now, post-armistice and in light of what had happened at Mosul, also move forward and seize Ottoman territory right up to what is now, more-or-less, the current border between Syria and Turkey. The most significant town then taken was Alexandretta (today’s Iskenderun and part of modern Turkey). The commander there was one Mustapha Kemal – Kemal Ataturk himself. He, ashamed of what had happened at Mosul, wanted to fight the British troops as they approached Alexandretta. Gough-Calthorpe – again sympathising with the Turks – once more complained to the Admiralty.
Kemal was also told by his government not to oppose the British. The same rationale applied as with Ihsan at Mosul – the British could not be offended. Kemal, while protesting vehemently, obeyed. As it happened, the capitulations made over Mosul and Alexandretta did not, as hoped for by the Ottoman authorities, result in the garnering of any future assistance from the British. London raised little meaningful opposition to the subsequent occupation of Turkey by French, Greek and Italian forces.
Kemal never forgot his personal humiliation. In the post-war turmoil within Turkey, and as Kemal became involved in politics, he put forward the idea of the aforementioned National Pact. In his opinion, and thus also in the opinion of generations of Turks who were to follow, northern Iraq and northern Syria had been illegally seized by the British in operations that went against the wording of the agreement made at Moudros. These areas should, it follows, have remained within the Ottoman empire and thus they should have then become part of Ataturk’s modern Turkish republic. Erdogan agrees.
Image: Geographic map of Mesopotamia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.