Fiction and Britain's Middle East Mandate

Britain’s involvement in the Middle East between the wars proved a rich seam for authors of adventure stories. Michael Paris shows how these, in turn, helped to reinforce the imperial mission.

Between 1914 and 1918 adventure fiction for boys and young men was dominated by heroic tales of the Western Front, the war in the air or at sea. After 1918, however, and while many stories of the Great War continued to be published, authors began to seek new sites of adventure in which to locate their stories. Many were attracted by the new imperial territories of the Middle East. Here were unlimited opportunities for thrilling tales of young Britons bringing peace and order to a region made unstable by conflict, contrasting honest and upright Britons with cruel Turks, untrustworthy Arabs and rascally Egyptians. Such stories not only offered opportunities for manly heroics in an exotic location but served a patriotic purpose, for they justified the British presence in the Middle East, demonstrated the great advantages of British imperialism for indigenous peoples and allowed those of a more squeamish disposition to resolve through literature some of the tensions created by the occupation of the Middle East.

In 1919, as part of the territorial settlement of the region, Britain was given a League of Nations’ mandate for the old Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, Basrah (now in Iraq) and for Palestine. The region had a long history of lawlessness and violence and the inhabitants owed loyalty only to their tribal and religious leaders. Under the control of a high commissioner appointed by London, Britain’s declared mission was to prevent inter-state rivalry and tribal feuding after the upheaval of the war. The real purpose of the new administration, of course, was to safeguard British investment and maintain order in a useful staging post for the overland route to India and the Far East. However, in Iraq, a number of local secret societies opposed the occupation and in the summer of 1920 resistance to British control was encountered in one province after another. In July Iraq erupted into full-scale rebellion, especially around Baghdad and in the Kurdish north. Although there was little agreement between the dissident groups, the country was enveloped in turmoil and the army and Royal Air Force were in almost constant action. By autumn punitive raids by the RAF, constant military patrols and the building of fortified blockhouses had curbed the worst of the violence. In 1921, in an attempt to settle the insurrection, the Cairo Conference decided to create an Iraqi kingdom under the Hashemite prince Faisal ibn Hussein, son of Hussein ibn Ali, former Sharif of Mecca. But while Iraq now had a king, the British continued to run the country – backed by a strong military presence. Although Faisal was not popular with all Iraqis, the new government settled the worst of the troubles, yet discontent continued to simmer below the surface. Many Iraqis disliked the British occupation, which suggested that little had really changed since their Turkish masters had been ousted.

The burden of barbarous countries

In fiction no realistic comparison between the ‘Terrible Turk’ and the new British administration was ever made. British control was always welcomed. In the 1919 edition of Harry Golding’s popular Wonder Book of Empire, for example, Britain’s whole Middle Eastern policy was justified because:

Our Empire has been welded by blood and tears, by the courage and hopes of many generations, toiling and sacrificing for England’s glory. And although we have made serious mistakes, we have no cause on the whole to be ashamed of the way in which we have administered our heritage ...We may all be sure that better times are in store for the peoples who have passed under the sway of the British Empire, which, whatever its faults, is founded upon the bed-rock principles of justice, humanity and freedom.

In the same year, Herbert Strang, a well-known and popular author of adventure stories, who had written for the government’s propaganda department at Wellington House during the war, echoed the sentiment in his novel, Tom Willoughby’s Scouts. Here, one of the imperialist administrators of the story, Major Burnaby, claims ‘Greed offers no real basis for an empire’ and compares this ‘grab-all’ approach of some nations with the enlightened British model of empire:

Britain has never sought to dominate other countries and people. Our Empire is a gradual, almost an accidental growth: much of it has been thrust upon us ... We have taken up the burden of rule in barbarous countries ... or countries like India and Egypt where civilisation has decayed, and which but for us would either be bear’s gardens or hotbeds of slavery and oppression. I don’t say that our motives have always been of the purest or our ways the best; but I do say that we have never, as a state, set before us the deliberate aim of grabbing what doesn’t belong to us, forcing all civilizations into our particular mould, and subjugating all other nations by sheer brutal terrorism.

In With Allenby in Palestine (1919), a story of the wartime campaign in the Middle East, Lieutenant-Colonel F.S. Brereton wrote enthusiastically of this last crusade which had freed the Holy Land:

Christendom discovered itself once more, after long weary years, in possession of Jerusalem, the sacred city, while the downtrodden peoples, in Turkey, in Palestine, and in Mesopotamia, breathed freely after years of subjection ... Christians, Armenians, Arabs, Mohammedans, and Jews welcomed the arrival of the British with acclamation.

But despite Brereton’s wishful thinking the people of the region did not ‘acclaim’ the victory. They rejected the benign hand of British imperialism and refused to see the advantages of British rule. Thus in a later novel Brereton had to deal with this reality. In Scouts of the Baghdad Patrols (1921) he explained that this was caused by the unstable nature of the Arab. ‘Your Arab is a peculiar person’, he suggested:

First and foremost he’s more often than not a highly-cultured, well-bred fellow. But he’s a born fighter. An habitual wanderer. A pilferer and a cut-throat. So heaps of ’em, now that they haven’t got the Turk to fight, turn upon the British, who came here to help ’em. They’re forever raising little wars and skirmishes ... You’ll learn that an Englishman has to be wary, especially when he puts his nose outside the city.

Such a comment reveals much about the curious relationship that existed between Arabs and Britons during the interwar years. It reflected an attitude widely held by orientalists and in government departments. On the one hand the Arab was a noble son of the desert, chivalric and cultured, on the other a despicable cut-throat who could not be trusted. But in Brereton’s novel, around Baghdad at least, a sort of peace is established by the army, dedicated peace keepers, who shoot rebels only when absolutely necessary, and with the essential help of the local Boy Scout troop formed by the young sons of British civil and military residents in Baghdad who offer friendship and moral example to the local Iraqi youth.

Policeman of the world

By the mid-1920s the British government had reluctantly accepted that in return for control of a substantial part of the Middle East they would have to take responsibility for policing the inter-tribal or inter-racial quarrels and take the opprobrium that role would bring. Alan Western’s 1937 novel, The Desert Hawk, although specifically concerned with keeping order in Palestine, is relevant here. As the author explains, the League of Nations turned to Britain as ‘The Policeman of the World’ to maintain order in this troubled country. As he expressed it:

Foreign troops marched through the streets of Jerusalem and once again a certain measure of peace was restored. But in trying to hold the balance of justice evenly the British have earned the dislike of both parties, who would rather have favouritism than justice. Both Jew and Arab think the British are too lenient with the other side, and both are eager to take matters into their own hands and settle it once and for all with a good deal of bloodshed.

The complexities of peacekeeping in Palestine are reduced to a simplistic but exciting narrative in which the major role is taken by Captain John Benson of military intelligence, who, disguised as a Bedouin chieftain, fights to maintain order and gradually earns the respect of many characters on both sides for his sense of fair play.

Benson is closely modelled on T.E. Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’  –  perhaps the most romantic of all the Great War heroes, ‘the Silent Sentinel of the Sand’ and the ‘man who won a war on his own’, as one boys’ paper put it. Lawrence perfectly suited the mood of the times: brilliant, brutal, unconventional, having little patience with the official mindset. His wartime adventures in the Middle East almost certainly underpinned other fictions set in the region. Percy Westerman’s 1923 serial ‘The White Arab’, published in the serial paper Chums, for example, related the adventures of Denis Hornby, the 19-year-old ‘ace’ of the British secret service and his quest to discover who was inciting rebellion in the Middle East (Bolsheviks, of course). Lawrence’s influence is also obvious in the 1935 novel Biggles Flies East by W.E. Johns. This wartime adventure, set in 1917, has Biggles going undercover in Palestine to foil the plans of the German Lawrence, ‘El Shereef’. But the real villain turns out to be the Prussian, Erich von Stalhein, destined to become Biggles’ arch-enemy through two world wars.

Captain Benson lives in Jerusalem with his family but is frequently away on mysterious trips into the desert disguised as an Arab. His job is to track down and deal with those who would drive Jew and Briton into the sea. On one particularly hazardous mission against foreign agents attempting to stir up a holy war he is rescued by his 17-year-old son, who has just learned to fly. Although on this occasion war is avoided, Western ends on a pessimistic note – there is no peace in Palestine. The land is quiet but it is a watchful quietness, with the two ancient antagonists eyeing one another like boxers. The great danger is averted, though for how long?

That question can only be answered by the quiet men who go about their business without advertisement, who learn of trouble before it comes and institute steps to stop it, and who often go to a lonely death without even a line in the papers to say how they died. These men serve not only their own country, but the whole world, in the cause of peace ... Lawrence of Arabia was a man such as this, but whereas his fame will ring down the centuries, there are many who bring off work of tremendous importance whose names will never be known. The risks are terrifying; the reward is small; but the tradition of service remains an ideal to all who wish the name of England to be coupled with that of Peace.

Western apparently saw little hope for a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. What is interesting is that he seems to accept the fact that unceasing vigilance is the price Britain must pay to ensure peace throughout the Empire and mandated territories – the White Man, particularly the Englishman, must continue to bear his burden.

Peace from above

In reality peace was often maintained in morally dubious ways. Looking for a cheap but effective way of pacifying trouble spots in the Middle East and elsewhere, the British government decided to use the Royal Air Force. A handful of aircraft could cover the vast distances involved far more effectively than ground troops, identify dissidents and troublemakers and, through aerial bombing, deliver swift punishment to wrongdoers and rebels at a fraction of the cost of the old punitive columns. Aircraft were cutting edge at the time, sleek, fast and deadly, the essence of modernity, their presence a strong signal of Britain’s technological superiority.

The military argued that air strikes were humane and could be delivered with surgical precision that would take out only the guilty, the smart weapon of their generation. However evidence does not seem to substantiate this: for example, the bombing of Kurdish rebels in Suleymaniyah, the capital of Kurdistan, in May 1923. British intelligence learned that Kurdish insurgents were based in the city and the RAF was ordered into action. They first dropped leaflets ordering the dissidents to surrender or face aerial attack. The leaflets also acted as an early warning for the innocent to leave before the bombers arrived. But as one Kurdish woman later noted, ‘few of us could read, and we had no idea what an air raid was like so we stayed’. When the rebels failed to respond, the air force bombed the city on several occasions, causing considerable damage and killing or wounding many. The rebels fled into the mountains and the army occupied Suleymaniyah. Though air reprisals achieved little and killed more innocent civilians than rebels, for the RAF it was simply a case of following orders. As one pilot later patronisingly explained:

I had a job to do. My first loyalty was to my commanding officer. If the Kurds hadn’t learned to behave in a civilized way, we had to Spank their bottoms ...this was done with bombs and guns ...

Disquieting stories about the RAF’s conduct during these operations soon reached London, particularly reports that pilots frequently machine-gunned innocent civilians. Apparently patrolling pilots had been told to attack anyone who looked hostile. This was taken to mean anyone carrying a gun. But in a country where carrying a rifle was a normal means of protection, it was almost impossible to distinguish rebels from law-abiding subjects. Some pilots went further and considered all local inhabitants as fair game. Winston Churchill, alarmed at one report that women and children had been deliberately gunned down, wrote to Lord Hugh Trenchard, commander-in-chief of the RAF:

To fire wilfully on women and children is a disgraceful act. I am surprised you did not order the officers responsible to be court-martialled.

Trenchard’s only response was to ensure that his field commanders in Iraq censored their reports before they were forwarded to Whitehall.

The RAF have apparently never issued any details about its operations in 1920s Iraq. It wasn’t until the 1990s that documents were released that revealed it considered a whole range of new weapons to maintain order in the Middle East in the 1920s. These included delayed action bombs, non-lethal gases, liquid fire, phosphorous bombs and metal crowfeet, to be scattered in rebel areas to maim livestock and unwary humans. This was not how popular fiction portrayed peacekeeping operations.

Rollicking adventure

In 1935 Captain W.E. Johns, the creator of  Biggles, published his novella, The Raid. In this story Flight-Lieutenant Guy Baring is part of the air policing operation. As he explains to a an archaeologist, the art of keeping the peace is to bomb the right targets:

Nowadays we don’t go for the lads themselves: they can hide up in the caves, anyway. We go for the stock, and they have no means of protecting them. When a village gets on its toes a squadron of machines only has to make a demonstration and our dark skinned brothers get worried, very worried. They aren’t afraid for themselves, or the women, who can be replaced in the next raid, it’s the thought of their prized pieces of furniture grazing on the hillsides being hurt that brings them in, all agitato, with the pipe of peace in one hand, and a hatchet to bury in the other.

What follows is a rollicking adventure of flying, fighting and high excitement as the gallant young airmen foil yet another attempt to drive the British out of Iraq and reduce the region to anarchy. The effect of this sort of writing by Johns and the many others producing such fiction was to reduce the conflict in the Middle East to exciting adventure and heroic escapades that captured the imagination of their readers and offered an explanation of why the British had undertaken the thankless task of acting as the world’s policeman. But such ‘actions’ often had terrible consequences for those caught in the crossfire.

Alternative enemies

Leo Charlton was an ex-RAF senior officer who had left the service after serious disagreements about policy and procedure and had turned to writing. In his novel Near East Adventure, published in 1930, two Englishmen working in Iraq make friends in one particular village. Through a series of misunderstandings, the local RAF squadron assume the Iraqis are rebels and attack them, causing several fatalities. When the squadron commander later discovers his error he tells the Englishmen:

Thank God you both survived to put us right. Your friends cannot be brought back to life, but the tribe can be fully compensated for their death. We can’t afford to lose the friendship of [Chief] Beni Sokhr.

So that’s all right, then!

In the interwar period dissent in the Middle East was widespread: in Iraq, Palestine and Egypt and in the Sudan, where authors also set a number of exciting tales. But most novelists found it impossible to believe that any indigenous people could reject the imperial vision and so were driven to find a reason for the unrest, a scapegoat upon whom they could pin the blame for the continual agitation throughout the Empire. In popular literature, at least, the blame was usually attributed to Muslim fanatics who wanted a holy war against Europeans, or more commonly, the Bolsheviks who were desperate to destroy the British Empire and who incited the locals and provided arms and money. In a high proportion of the novels about the Middle East it is Communist agitators who incite rebellion. In both W. E. Johns’ novels, The Raid and Desert Night, it is the Communists who are to blame, as they are in Railton Holden’s 1930s novels, Wings of Revolution and The Hornet’s Nest. The latter may be taken as a typical example. An English officer interrogates an informer to find out what lies behind the current unrest, ‘Is it a Moslem rising?’ he asks,

‘Not on your sweet life!’ Retorted the Londoner,
‘It’s the Bolshies.’
‘Russians?’
‘No! Bolshies, Russian Bolshies if you like, German Bolshies, Swedes, Frenchies, Wops and Greasers. The work-shies of every bloomin’ country in the world… Out for summat for nowt ...’

According to popular opinion, then, rebellion against the British was the work of outsiders – troublemakers and fanatics who stirred up the indigenous peoples and who made them forget the enormous advantages of living under British rule. But while the British pacification of the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s in reality created a legacy of bitterness and hostility that endures to this day, at the time it was portrayed as a noble endeavour; after all, as one old imperialist proudly wrote in the 1930s, ‘... the soul of England is the mightiest force for good in the world today’.

Michael Paris is Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the University of Central Lancashire

Fiction and Britain's Middle East Mandate

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X