The ancient Iraqi town of Tel Afar destroyed in a punitive operation.
9 June 1920
Following an attack by insurgents in the Iraqi town of Tel Afar on 3 and 4 June 1920, in which the local British political officer, twenty six year old Major J. E. Barlow, along with fifteen other officers and soldiers were overpowered and killed, a punitive column had been dispatched from Mosul forty miles away. As the force of 500 infantry and 150 cavalry advanced along the Tigris River valley, they burned crops wherever they found them, regardless of whether the owners were Arab or Turkomen.1
The local population was suspected of sympathising with rebels who were attempting to end British rule. It was therefore decided to punish them all and the inhabitants of Tel Afar in particular. When the troops arrived in the town on the 9 June, they knocked on every door, smashing their way into homes where they suspected residents were still hiding, and forcing the few elderly men, women and children who had not already fled to abandon their homes and find shelter in the desert. These harsh measures were fully justified in the view of Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Wilson, Britain’s civil commissioner in Baghdad, who explained in a report published a few days later, that ‘the inhabitants of the town appear to have connived at the outrage (the initial attack on British troops) though evidence is lacking.’2
This absence of evidence mattered little to officials as punishment was about deterrence rather than justice. Even Gertrude Bell, already acclaimed for her travel writing and one of the few senior officials at Baghdad who thought Iraqi Arabs should be allowed a degree of self determination, was fully supportive of the proposed reprisal operation. She informed her father by letter that ‘the inhabitants of Tel Afar are going to be turned out… and every house is to be destroyed. Nor shall we allow the town to be rebuilt. I fully agree with the decision.’3
Nor was the historic importance of the town, which is mentioned in the Bible, considered any impediment. British troops inflicted ‘as much damage as possible to the houses,’ and also to the crops surrounding the town, although the administration’s own report of the operation noted that, unlike earlier along the Tigris Valley, it was not possible to burn them as ‘they were not yet mature.’4 Despite this disappointment, Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Haldane, commanding British forces in Iraq, thought that the news of British punitive measures had the ‘immediate effect of cooling the ardour of the disaffected inhabitants of Mosul.’5 The Times, however, was more circumspect, concluding that the rebellion was evidence that ‘the more turbulent Arab tribesmen are not prepared to welcome British domination.’6
- Ian Rutledge, Enemy on the Euphrates: The Battle for Iraq, 1914 – 1921, Saqi Books, London, 2015, pp. 229 – 232.
- Report from the civil commissioner at Baghdad cited in ‘Mespot Battle,’ The Daily Herald, 12 June 1920, p. 3 and ‘Arab Treachery in Asia Minor,’ The Aberdeen Press and Journal, 12 June 1920, p. 5.
- Gertrude Bell cited in Ian Rutledge, op. cit., p. 232.
- Supplement to the London Gazette, 5 July 1921, p. 5327 accessed at the National Archives, Air 5/1253.
- Sir Aylmer Haldane, The Insurrection in Mesopotamia, 1920, Blackwood and sons, Edinburgh and London, 1922, p. 43.
- ‘More Trouble in Mesopotamia,’ The Times, 12 June 1920, p. 17.
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