JOHN DILLEY’S WWI BLOG: The tide is turning in the Middle East

Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

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March 20, 1917 – British soldiers notch up victories in the moonlit Middle East

The headline Bagdad Booty sounds a touch risqué to the 21st century eye but it is good news to the readers of the March 20, 1917, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

It shows that the war in the Middle East is continuing to go our way and the Turkish Army – who had inflicted such heavy losses on the Allies at Gallipoli two years earlier – are now in full retreat and their massive Ottoman Empire is being rolled up.

Quoting a statement from the War Office, the Advertiser says ‘the guns which were captured from us at the surrender of Kut in 1916 have now been recovered’.

The ‘booty’ referred to in the headline does not seem that exciting: ‘a large quantity of obsolete ordnance, including some antique bronze guns’ and ‘five locomotives and some rolling stock’.

It’s a short story and doesn’t make any attempt to convey the daring bravery of the British soldiers fighting under appalling conditions.

National newspapers – as usual – also keep the descriptions pretty superficial although there is a nod to the Boy’s Own-style often employed by Fleet Street journalists embedded with the Army.

For instance the Daily Telegraph describes how Bagdad was taken with troops making a surprise night-time crossing of the river Diala ‘in spite of bright moonlight’ and later ‘a blinding dust storm and a violent gale’.

What the Telegraph lacks in honest battle detail it makes up for in political analysis of the situation as it explains for readers that the likely outcome of Allied success will be the creation of a number of Arab nations, hitherto subjugated by the Ottomans. Remember, at the outbreak of the First World War there were no such countries as Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen.

That would be changed, of course, after the fighting stopped. It says: “It is now quite clear that the Arab race is beginning, not only to awake but to coalesce. The Arabs cannot be expected, after being victims of studied disintegration for 600 years, to have a strong national sense according to European standards.

“But a sense of race and desire for independence is growing into a menacing factor from the standpoint of the Central Powers, and an immense asset to the Allies.”

This, of course, is what Britain wants: support from native Arabs in their fight against the Turks for a promise of their own independent country after the fighting. Britain will also benefit because they will have a strong influence over the region.

So in 1917 there is a British policy of encouraging thoughts of independence. The Telegraph’s story continues: “The old religious and tribal feuds are dying down rapidly. In Syria there is a sense of unity and brotherhood among Arab-speaking peoples such as has not existed since Turkish domination was first inflicted on that now unhappy, but once prosperous country.”

Whatever our view of the Middle East today, some of the building blocks of this great but troubled region are laid in the strategy of winning the First World War.

The Market Harborough Advertiser has little in the way of news from France but there are brief mentions of two local lads who have died. Private F Maycock of Harborough and a former employee at the Type Foundry has died in a French hospital of fever, and Private W Hardy of Main Street, Great Bowden, has died in action while firing his machine gun.