General on his troops ‘burning every village within reach’

Major General George A.J. Leslie (© NPG x66214) and General Sir Aylmer Haldane (via the IWM and Wikimedia)

20 August 1920

On 20 August 1920, Major General George A.J. Leslie, commanding the 17th Indian Division in Iraq, wrote to his wife Edith in India, informing her that Brigadier General H.A. Walker’s column, comprising two British and six Indian battalions was ‘slowly working its way back here ravaging the country on its way,’ while his own men had been ‘attacking and burning every village within reach.’  However, prior to the destruction of the villages, the soldiers had searched the inhabitants and their homes and had found three men with rifles belonging to a headman. Leslie noted briefly: ‘All four tried by a military court and tomorrow they die.’1

The burning of villages and the executions were part of a brutal campaign of pacification to quell an anti-British insurgency that had erupted earlier in the year.  Revenge and punishment were uncompromisable objectives. General Sir Aylmer Haldane, commanding British and Indian troops in Iraq, advised Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, not to consider any negotiations and reminded him that ‘peace can come only by the sword.’2 His ruthless approach reflected the enthusiasm with which his officers and men dedicated themselves to this task, with Leslie apprising his wife on 10 October that his column of troops ‘will not actually advance more than four or five miles a day, but they will utilise their leisure time in destroying villages within a couple of miles or so on each side, killing Budoos and generally enjoying themselves.’3 Not a moment’s consideration was given to the consequences for the villagers themselves, driven out of their homes, their villages and crops burned to the ground, and facing winter without any means of securing food. Many thousands must have died, but the British never thought it necessary to keep a count of such casualties.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Letter from Major General G.A.J. Leslie to his wife, 20 August 1920, cited in Ian Rutledge, Enemy on the Euphrates: The Battle for Iraq, 1914-1921, Saqi Books, London, 2015, p. 389.
  2. Telegram from Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Haldane to Winston Churchill, 30 August 1920, cited in Ian Rutledge, op. cit., pp. 373-374.
  3. Letter from Major General G.A.J. Leslie to his wife, 10 October 1920, cited in Ian Rutledge, op. cit., p. 389.

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