"Mesopotamia"

a paper by Julian Moore



the poem
[March 28 2006]

Rudyard Kipling's "Mesopotamia", collected in his The Years Between of 1919 , was first published on the 11th of July, 1917 simultaneously in the London Morning Post and the New York Times. The subject of the poem is the Mesopotamia campaign of World War I, and, specifically, the administrative bungling that led to General Townshend's surrender of Kut in April 1916, which one historian has called 'the most abject capitulation in British military history' [ J. Morris, Farewell the Trumpets, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1979, p.171]

Like much of the verse in The Years Between, "Mesopotamia" is a poem of protest. In this case, the verses seek vengeance for the deaths caused by the incompetent leadership of a military operation that was a strategic, tactical, and logistical disaster. In six quatrains of ballad-like rhyme and metre, Kipling lets loose all his powers of public rhetoric to revolt against the appalling and unnecessary suffering of the common soldier, and calls for revenge on the politicians and generals responsible for the administration of a system generally admitted to be 'hopelessly inadequate'. [Report of the Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry,(RMCE), London, HMSO, 1917, p.115]

Ann Parry, one of the most recent commentators on Kipling's verse, sees the effect of the poem in terms of his 'tones of the biblical prophet', and puts "Mesopotamia" alongside Wilfred Owen's scathing contempt for the politicians of his time, and Sassoon's comic satire of military maladministration. [A. Parry, The Poetry of Rudyard Kipling, Buckingham, OUP, 1992]

"Mesopotamia" is a poem of outraged accusation at the incompetence and self-seeking of the figures at the head of the failed campaign. Kipling has aimed volleys on behalf of the common soldier at:

the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain
and:

the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died.
He also voices the concerns of the general public who resented the fact that those responsible for so much death were officially absolved from guilt, and even encouraged to further their military and political careers. Kipling debates the pragmatic morality of official nepotism:

Shall they thrust for high employment as of old?
and notes:

How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind
and asks:

Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To confirm and re-establish each career?
He ends by abjuring 'The shame that they have laid upon our race' in a critical fury that is reminiscent of the hate embodied in, for instance, "Gehazi" and "The Death Bed".

A full reading of "Mesopotamia" cannot be undertaken without some knowledge of the political and military matrix within which the verse is embedded. References to specific events and people are not explained within the short space of the text because the poet has assumed that a reader has full knowledge of the background of the scenario that he is addressing. While this was certainly true in 1917 of a reading public that had avidly scanned their newspaper for the latest scandal regarding the Mesospotamian campaign, a modern reader finds it necessary to decipher the references which are obscure and hinder a meaningful explication of the text.

The complexity of the military background to the events that engendered the poem had its roots in the misguided concept of the efficacy of opening up an Eastern front early in the war in an attempt to end the stalemate of a stalled Western fighting front. The Turkish forces had entered the war on the German side in October 1914 and were seen as a stumbling block to the supply of arms by the British to the large but poorly equipped Russian army. Kitchener and Churchill, War Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty, proposed an overall plan that involved an attack on the logistically important Turkish centre of Baghdad, along with a naval landing at Gallipoli to capture the Dardanelles. Success in both these theatres would ensure that supply lines to both Turkish and German forces would be cut, thus ensuring the vital oil supplies of the Middle East for Britain and her allies.

Both proposals were to go hideously wrong for similar reasons. Administrative incompetence, lack of adequate military planning, and a paucity of common sense led to two monumental defeats. The problems of the Gallipoli campaign were mirrored in the patterns of ineptitude evident in the Mesopotamia campaign, patterns that, when brought to light, appalled even the British Army itself.

In November 1914, an army of British and Indian forces landed in the Persian Gulf with three main objectives. These were to move west to draw Turkish troops from other fronts, to encourage the local Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and to capture Baghdad, the terminus of the railway line that led directly to Berlin. Because two thirds of the troops were drawn from the Indian Army, command of the expedition was established in a complicated double mandate that saw the Indian Army issued with instructions from Simla, but with input, at the same time, from the War Office in London.

The army was under the command of General Sir John Eccles Nixon whose military policy during the campaign has been dismissed by one historian as 'the priceless product of a mind devoid of imagination' [ E.G.Keogh, The River in the Desert, Melbourne, Wilke, 1955, p. 135]. It was Nixon whose orders, contrary to advice from his subordinates, led to the advance up the River Tigris towards Baghdad, and so was directly responsible for what a later report called an offensive movement based on political and military miscalculations and attempted with tired forces and inadequate preparation'. [RMCE, op cit, p. 111]

In fairness to Nixon, his position in the incredibly unwieldy chain of command made effective leadership impossible. Nixon was directly responsible to the Commander-in-Chief, Indian Army, who answered to the Viceroy, who received orders from the Secretary of State for India, who was advised by the Military Secretary for India, who was responsible to the War Council which was commanded by the Imperial Staff which answered, finally, to the Cabinet. Since half of this chain was in India, and half in London, problems in administration and military command were virtually insurmountable, and gave rise to Kipling's bitter resentment of 'the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died'.

To make matters worse, the Indian Army was well known as a model of bureaucratic inefficiency. The British Army was deeply suspicious of the methods and traditions of the Indian Army, because of its connections with the commercial management of the old East India Company, and with the disciplinary ramifications of the Indian Mutiny.

The competence and loyalty of Anglo-Indian officers was viewed with the same suspicion as that of their sepoy troops, despite the successes of such luminaries as Lord Roberts of Kandahar. Its traditional approach bore what Morris has called 'the heavy hallmarks...of Anglo-Indian method' [ J. Morris, op. cit., p. 172] The inadequacies were noted by Kipling who saw, 'the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew' as major factors in the deaths of more than half of the expedition, and such appalling deprivation for the rest that most survivors 'bore for the rest of their lives the cruel stigmata of Kut'. [J. Morris, op. cit., p. 171]

It is not within the compass of this short paper to review the disastrous complexities of the military aspects of the Mesopotamia Campaign. Mention should be made, however, of the bare facts of the chain of events that led to the indignation by the British public that is so succinctly voiced by Kipling in "Mesopotamia" who 'felt not only grief and agony but fury at such bungling of the authorities as had led to unnecessary slaughter.' [Lord Birkenhead, Rudyard Kipling, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1978, p. 273]

In August 1915, General Nixon, realising that progress up the River Tigris to Baghdad was impossible without suitable water transports, ordered a large number of barges to be supplied from England. Without waiting for their arrival, and against the advice of his field staff, he ordered the advance that was to prove a major strategic blunder. Led by Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend the expeditionary army was backed into an indefensible situation at Kut el Mara in December 1915 where it was besieged by Turkish forces. [Townshend, 1861-1924, was characterised as having: 'a lack of systematic training and a self confidence that failed to impress' and who 'on the whole proved ineffective', [Dictionary of National Biography, p.849]

Despite a failed attempt by a secret mission, led by Lawrence of Arabia, to bribe the Turks to release Kut, Townshend, faced with a force decimated by disease, and with no medical supplies, surrendered the city at the end of April 1916. The two thousand British and six thousand Indian soldiers who had survived the siege were sent off on a two year march through the desert to Turkish prisoner of war camps. More than half of the troops died on the march or in the camps, while Townshend himself lived out the remainder of the war in comparative comfort under house arrest in a villa near Constantinople.

By early 1917, Nixon had been relieved of his command, Kut had been retaken, and British troops had occupied Baghdad, ensuring the safety of the vitally important oilfields. But the Kut fiasco had raised questions about the management of the campaign and had been taken up by the British press to such an extent that the government was forced to appoint an official enquiry into all aspects of the administration. Some politicians were prepared to wait out the effects of the public fury and the outraged cries from the newspapers:

'in the hunt for legitimate victims the Press has in many cases been hurried into illegitimate extremes. The demand for punishment has almost degenerated into the witch hunting of barbaric times. The British public is, as a rule, anxious to be fair, but I sometimes think that the fury with which the the British public condemns is equalled only by the rapidity with which it forgets.'
[Viscount Haldane, House of Lords debate, 13.1.17]
Kipling agreed, asking: Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour? Kipling was continuing his tradition of publishing his political rhetoric in verse to stir his readers to action, a practice that Eliot later noted: 'For Kipling the poem is something that is intended to act'. [T.S.Eliot, 'Introduction' in A Choice of Kipling's Verse, Faber, London, 1941, p. 18.] Eliot makes much of the 'active intention' of Kipling's verse, without commenting on the actions that the verse may have been intended to elicit.

The Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry sat for over six months and was damning in its conclusions. In delving into the labrynthine complexity of military incompetence, it looked hard at the Government of India and, in particular at the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, and the Commander in Chief of India, General Sir Beauchamp Duff. Both were found to have showed:

'little desire to help and some desire actually to obstruct the energetic prosecution of the war.' [RMCE, op. cit., p 123]
The obstructions were to be found in the dual system of running a war jointly from London and Simla, a system that the commission found to be hopelessly inadequate, especially where the question of supplies was concerned. A telegram from the Indian to the British Government sums up the situation:

'do you intend that we should manage this expedition or do you mean to run it direct from the India Office?'
[Telegram from Govt of India to the British Government, cited in F.J.Moberley, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, London, HMSO, 1923, p. 92]
The fact that there was never a clear answer given to this question was, as Keogh points out, 'clear evidence of bureaucracy gone mad' [E.G.Keogh, op. cit., p. 133]

Kipling was more overt in his condemnation of the administrative farce, reminding his readers that:

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
It was Hardinge and Duff who were the 'idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died' and it was Hardinge who had, in the opinion of the Morning Post, 'failed not merely as a viceroy but as a man' [Morning Post, 11.7.17] Ironically, Hardinge had been made Permanent Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs when he finished his term as Viceroy in 1916. As a result of the findings of the Commission, he offered to resign three times but his resignations were refused because he was deemed too valuable as an experienced diplomat. Hardinge, whose defence of his actions was seen by the conservative press as being, 'half a whine and half an attempt to shift the blame' had just been made a Knight of the Garter in spite of the gathering protest about his competence.

The Morning Post attacked Hardinge mainly because his appointment had been made by the Liberal Prime Minister, Asquith, before the war. The vicious personal tirade aimed at Hardinge was, as ever with the Morning Post, orchestrated by the ultra-conservative group, the Radical Right. It was this appointment that Kipling echoes bitterly:

How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
Although thundering that 'the politicians should not escape' but inferring from the Commission's terms of reference that 'the intention is...to sacrifice the soldier and shield the politician', the Morning Post [13.7.17] was quick to pour scorn on the Coalition government's motives. One of its more influential readers wrote to the editor about the enquiry:

'...it exhibits the most degrading of spectacles - an official bureaucracy, whether aristocratic or democratic, acting as a kind of Trade Union in its worst aspect to defeat the ends of justice and the responsibility of public servants to the public'
[Lord Portsmouth, correspondence to the Morning Post, 12.7.17]
Most of the press agreed, and Kipling was savage in his indictment of those involved and the government that was allowing them to get away with their crimes:

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To confirm and re-establish each career?
The answer to Kipling's rhetorical question was predictable. Nixon had been exonerated, Hardinge had been promoted, Secretary of State for India. Chamberlain resigned but was back in power within six months, Duff had been allowed to vanish into the impenetrable fens of the Civil Service, and the whitewash that so appalled Kipling was complete.

"Mesopotamia" contains some of the bitterest scorn of Kipling's political verse of this period. Ann Parry has noted of the poem that:

'although it is powerful public rhetoric, throughout it can only repeat the same circle of negative emotions and, in the end, it becomes the victim of its own corrosive bitterness and frustration' [A.Parry, op. cit., p.131] and while its negativity is hard to deny, it is difficult to see how any text can be affected by its own content in the way that Parry suggests. Political criticism of the kind that Kipling indulged in is usually intended as a spur for action, whether the action be public involvement or political response.

With "Mesopotamia", Kipling is voicing open public protest, and voicing it in the loudest and most powerful way that he can. Hungiville does not agree, commenting that: "Mesopotamia" transcends protest and becomes almost a pacifist poem' . [M. Hungiville, 'Epithets and epitaphs: RK's reputation as a poet' in R.Green (ed) Critical essays on Rudyard Kipling, London, Routledge and Paul, 1971, p. 70] This is a challenging position to take on a text that openly attacks the administration of an event, personally vilifies those responsible for it, and is vehemently dismissive of the system that engendered it.

It is likely that Kipling himself would have regarded Hungiville's opinion as an accusation of treason. Pacificism is not writ large in the Kipling canon.

For the modern reader, the verses have a power that transcends their specific political origin. They embody all the frustrated outbursts of a civilian public watching a generation of soldiers die at the behest of incompetent generals, and at the insidious command of self-interested politicians. This is Kipling at his most stentorian. The imperial trumpeter had become the public herald.


[J M]

ŠJulian Moore 2006 All rights reserved


top of the page