The Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I marked Britain quest to conquer what is today Iraq from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had ruled this Arab-majority region since 1517, although the local people had generally resented Turkish rule. While not as high profile in today’s memory as other aspects of the war, the Mesopotamian Campaign was no side-show, it was a massive contest involving over a million troops, as well as a crucial aspect of the Entente Powers’ geopolitical strategy.
Iraq had long been considered the keystone of the Middle East, and as the Ottomans entered World War I in November 1914 on the side of the Central Powers, Britain simply could not allow the region to remain in enemy hands. From Iraq’s strategic location, the Germans and Ottomans could potentially disrupt any Entente operations in the Levant and the Persian Gulf, the latter being a critical domain of the Royal Navy. Perhaps even more troubling, it could potentially be used as launchpad to bring Persia (an already unstable empire with divided loyalties) under German suzerainty, so threatening Britain’s vast petroleum interests in that country. Moreover, by extension, the defection of Persia would pose an immediate danger to British India.
Additionally, Iraq possessed vast petroleum resources that were coveted by both sides in the war. Control of Iraq’s oilfields would give Britain a stranglehold upon the Eurasian oil industry, while denying the Germans and Ottomans access to the lifeblood of any modern war machine.
Beginning late in 1914, Britain dispatched a massive expeditionary force to Iraq, via the Persian Gulf. This juggernaut largely consisted of regiments of the Indian Army, reinforced by Australian and New Zealander detachments. Throughout the entire campaign, the British force rotated over 900,000 troops through Iraq, with as many as 450,000 being stationed in theatre at any given time.
The British high command expected the Ottoman defenders, backed by small contingents of German advisors, to be easily vanquished. However, they underestimated both the determination of the Turkish commanders and the role of the partially completed Baghdad Railway, which allowed troops to travel from Constantinople to Baghdad in only 21 days.
The British forces initially made stellar progress up the Tigris, advancing all the way to Kut, only 100 miles from Baghdad. However, the advance British force, commanded by General Sir Charles Townshend, fell into am Ottoman trap and was encircled and besieged, and forced to surrender on April 29, 1916. This was a devastating defeat that was met with shock and horror in the corridors of Whitehall.
Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude (1864 - 1917), an esteemed veteran of campaigns in Africa, was chosen to resurrect the Mesopotamian Campaign. Through the rest of 1916, he methodically and patiently advanced his force up the Tigris. While he met heavy resistance in places, he was careful not to fall into any traps. Despite the progress, the campaign was always brutal, for by the end of the venture, the British side would suffer 285,000 battle casualties (against the Ottomans’ figure of 89,500), in addition to loosing another 76,000 men to disease.
While a much-desired objective, the anticipated British conquest of Baghdad also posed major strategic liabilities. While Lawrence of Arabia had recently succeeding in channelling Arab discontent with Ottoman rule in the Hejaz into an alliance with Britain, during what became known as the Arab Revolt (1916-8), the Iraqis, while likewise resentful of the Turks, showed no such inclination and seemed to harbour a brooding dislike of the ‘infidels’ that had invaded their country. This was worrisome, as the prospect of fighting both the Ottoman Army and an Arab insurrection would certainly prove fatal to British designs in Iraq.
This is where the present ‘Baghdad Proclamation’ enters the scene. The British War Cabinet decided to make a bold gesture to assure the Iraqi Arabs that Britain was entering their lands not as conquerors, but as ‘liberators’ who wished to grant them self-determination after 400 years of oppressive Turkish occupation.
The War Cabinet turned to Colonel Sir Mark Sykes (1879 - 1919), their main ‘fixer’ in the Middle East and co-author of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement (January 3, 1916) whereby Britain and France agreed to divide the Middle East amongst themselves (assuming an Entente victory in WWI), so dishonouring Whitehall’s public promises to its regional Arab allies.
On March 11, 1917, Maude’s army took Baghdad, having met little resistance (the Ottoman army had retreated further north). Sykes proceeded to craft the text of a proclamation to be read by Maude to the people of the Baghdad Vilayet (Province) once the city was secured. Sykes, following his interpretation of ‘Arab literary taste’, wrote the text of the present proclamation employing the most ‘flowery’ language. What Sykes did not understand was that the elaborate verbiage, inspired by traditional Arab and Persian poetry, was perhaps not appropriate for a Western political declaration. Nevertheless, the War Cabinet approved Sykes’s text.
The Proclamation (please see the full text below) declared that the Iraqi people had been oppressed for 26 generations under the yoke of the brutal and insensitive Turkish regime. Playing up Britain’s traditional mercantile ties to Baghdad, the document expresses Britain’s admiration and for the Arab people and vows to support Arab self-determination. The Proclamation asserts that the British were there to liberate the Iraqis and implies that they would grant them their longdeserved independence (even if the over-the-top language left some latitude for interpretation).
Curiously, Maude, who was due to publicly read the Proclamation written in his name, had strong reservations about both its style and content. He found the flowery language of the decree bizarre and, more importantly, believed that it was an error to publicly pledge to give the Iraqis independence when Britain intended to retain Iraq as a protectorate under quasi-colonial terms (like Egypt). However, orders were orders, and Maude was to his last a dutiful soldier.
The Proclamation was originally printed at the Army Headquarters in Baghdad (which housed a travelling press) on March 19, 1917, as both separate English and Arabic language broadsides.
Shortly after it was proclaimed by General Maude, the so-called ‘Baghdad Proclamation’ attained an incredibly high profile, being highlighted in newspapers across the world. The British promises to give self-determination to the Iraqis were in line with their public commitments to Sharif Hussein and Emir Faisal’s Arab forces, who were then fighting alongside T.E. Lawrence. Many Westerners regarding the Proclamation as a brave and clever move that would head off any Arab rebellion against British control in Iraq. It must also be noted that in the spring of 1917 the overall situation was tenuous, as it was still far from certain that the Entente alliance would defeat the Central Powers.
However, Iraqis seemed to react to the Proclamation with bemusement. They found the language of the document to be bit ‘over the top’, and while perhaps relieved that the British did not arrive openly bearing an aggressive stance, they were sceptical of the sincerity of the Baghdad Proclamation. The decree likely succeeded in lowering the pressure viz Iraqi dissent, at least initially. However, Maude’s decision to impose an especially harsh regime of martial law upon Baghdad soon alienated moderate parties, while acting as red flag to diehard anti-Western elements.
Maude’s force managed to consolidate its control over the Baghdad Vilayet, while, with difficulty, driving the Ottoman forces ever further to the north towards Mosul. Maude died of cholera on November 18, 1917, and was replaced by Lieutenant General Sir William Raine Marshall, who oversaw the remainder of the campaign with cautious competence.
While the Turks had put up an admirable fight, the Ottoman Empire surrendered to the Entente powers at the Armistice of Mudros (October 30, 1918). British forces completed their conquest of Iraq, upon taking Mosul on November 14, 1918.
The British high command in Baghdad issued a second printing of the Baghdad Proclamation on November 12, 1918, in the wake of the final Ottoman defeat (the present work is an example of this second printing). The British considered the ‘liberating’ message expressed in the decree to no less relevant 20 months after it was first decreed, even if General Maude, had been dead for over a year!
During the post-war period, it became clear that Britain had no intention of honouring the sentiments expressed in the Baghdad Proclamation, for it decided to make Iraq into a mandate, or, rather a puppet state, with British interests controlling its oilfields. Powerful elements, mainly based in Baghdad, mounted a rebellion against British rule that lasted from May to October 1920. While the British manged to suppress this uprising, they were compelled to grant major concessions, hitherto making Iraq an autonomous kingdom under loose British oversight. In August 1921, Emir Faisal, a Hashemite prince and one of Lawrence of Arabia’s old comrades, who had recently been deposed by France for the throne of Syria, was made King Faisal I of Iraq. While many Iraqis resented being ruled by a foreign (Hijazi) prince, many preferred this to direct British rule. Iraq gained its full de jure independence from Britain in 1932, although Britain continued to exercise significant economic and political influence over the country for some years thereafter.
The Publication History and Rarity of the Baghdad Proclamation
The great fame of the Baghdad Proclamation is due to it’s the wide dissemination of its contents in the global media immediately after it was first decreed by General Maude on March 19, 1917. While probably several thousand of the original English and Arab language broadsides bearing the decree were then printed in Baghdad, it seems that very few have survived. This is perhaps no so surprising, as the survival rate of WWI ephemeral works published in the field in the Middle Eastern theatre is extremely low; many other such titles are today known in only single example, while some recorded works are not known to survive at all. Moreover, as the text of the Baghdad Proclamation was written and recorded in London, it seems that ministries and archives in Britain felt little imperative to request copies of the broadside to be sent from Baghdad.
While it is likely that a small number of examples of the first (March 19, 1917) printing of the Baghdad Proclamation English and Arabic language broadsides exists somewhere, we have not been able to trace the current whereabouts of any examples, not can we find any sales records going back 30 years.
The text of the Baghdad Proclamation was during its time often copied from the highly popular book, The King of Hedjaz and Arab Independence (London: Hayman, Christy & Lilly, 1917) which featured the entire text of the decree on pages 12-16.
The present work is of the second printing of the Baghdad Proclamation English language broadside (we cannot trace a reference to any second printing of an Arab language version). While we have not been able to view an example of the 1917 first printing of the broadside, it is likely safe to assume that the second printing is true to the original, save that it features a different printer’s slug in the lowerright corner: ‘S.G.P.Bd 1479 – 2204 – 4,000 - 12.11.18.’ This line features the serial number of the publication of the second printing; the size of the print run (being 4,000 examples); and the date of publication, being November 12, 1918. The second printing is exceedingly rare, we can trace only a single example held by the Imperial War Museum (London), while we are not aware of any sales records going back 30 years.
It is important to note that only Maude’s decree proclaimed on March 19, 1917, as featured here on the present work, is to be referred to as the ‘Baghdad Proclamation’. It should not be confused with the several other proclamations issued in Baghdad on the orders of the British Commander-in-Chief, which while remarkable, are of lesser historical importance and profile.
All considered, the present second printing of the Baghdad Proclamation appears to be the only obtainable version of this historically monumental broadside.
The Complete Text of The Baghdad Proclamation:
Proclamation / To the People of Baghdad Vilayet.
In the name of my King, and in the name of the peoples over whom he rules, I address you as follows:
Our military operations have as their object the defeat of the enemy, and the driving of him from these territories. In order to complete this task, I am charged with absolute and supreme control of all regions in which British troops operate; but our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. Since the days of Halaka your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation, and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage. Your sons have been carried off to wars not of your seeking, your wealth has been stripped from you by unjust men and squandered in distant places.
Since the days of Midhat, the Turks have talked of reforms, yet do not the ruins and wastes of today testify the vanity of those promises?
It is the wish not only of my King and his peoples, but it is also the wish of the great nations with whom he is in alliance, that you should prosper even as in the past, when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science, and art, and when Baghdad city was one of the wonders of the world.
Between your people and the dominions of my King there has been a close bond of interest. For 200 years have the merchants of Baghdad and Great Britain traded together in mutual profit and friendship. On the other hand, the Germans and the Turks, who have despoiled you and yours, have for 20 years made Baghdad a centre of power from which to assail the power of the British and the Allies of the British in Persia and Arabia. Therefore the British Government cannot remain indifferent as to what takes place in your country now or in the future, for in duty to the interests of the British people and their Allies, the British Government cannot risk that being done in Baghdad again which has been done by the Turks and Germans during the war.
But you people of Baghdad, whose commercial prosperity and whose safety from oppression and invasion must ever be a matter of the closest concern to the British Government, are not to understand that it is the wish of the British Government to impose upon you alien institutions. It is the hope of the British Government that the aspirations of your philosophers and writers shall be realised and that once again the people of Baghdad shall flourish, enjoying their wealth and substance under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws and their racial ideals. In Hedjaz the Arabs have expelled the Turks and Germans who oppressed them and proclaimed the Sherif Hussein as their King, and his Lordship rules in independence and freedom, and is the ally of the nations who are fighting against the power of Turkey and Germany; so indeed are the noble Arabs, the Lords of Koweyt, Nejd, and Asir.
Many noble Arabs have perished in the cause of Arab freedom, at the hands of those alien rulers, the Turks, who oppressed them. It is the determination of the Government of Great Britain and the great Powers allied to Great Britain that these noble Arabs shall not have suffered in vain. It is the hope and desire of the British people and the nations in alliance with them that the Arab race may rise once more to greatness and renown among the peoples of the earth, and that it shall bind itself together to this end in unity and concord.
O people of Baghdad remember that for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set on Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her Allies, for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity and misgovernment. Therefore I am commanded to invite you, through your nobles and elders and representatives, to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army, so that you may be united with your kinsmen in North, East, South, and West in realising the aspirations of your race.
Dated, Army Headquarters, Baghdad, March 19, 1917. 24th Jemad al Awal, 1335. (Sd.) F.S. MAUDE, Lieut.-Genl., Comdg. British Forces in Iraq.
References: COPAC cites an example of the present second (November 12, 1918) printing of the Proclamation held by the Imperial War Museum (London). Cf. Michael D. BERDINE, Redrawing the Middle East: Sir Mark Sykes, Imperialism and the Sykes-Picot Agreement (London, 2018), pp. 149151; Elie KEDOURIE, The Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence (Cambridge, U.K., 1976), pp. 174 -177; Jonathan SCHNEER, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (London, 2011), pp. 233-237; Corey J. WALTERS, ‘Contextualizing British Proclamations during 1917-18 in Pre-Mandate Iraq’, M.A. Dissertation, Georgetown University (2018).