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Hilla, Mesopotamia, July 1920

The award of a Victoria Cross, two Bars to the Military Cross, two Military Crosses, a Bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal, two Distinguished Conduct Medals, five Military Medals, two Indian Orders of Merit and two Indian Distinguished Service Medals

Introduction

When the Great War ended the former German and Turkish empires were controlled by the victorious allies as decided by the League of Nations. The League awarded Britain the mandate to control Mesopotamia (now named Iraq) until such time as the country was capable of becoming an independent state.  British rule was unpopular with the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, and Sunni and Shia clerics joined together to encourage resistance to the British.  An insurrection, known as the Arab Rebellion, broke out in the summer of 1920.  The aim of the insurgents was to remove British control and replace it with an Arab government.  Britain had to send large numbers of troops from India to deal with the insurrection.  

British administration in Mesopotamia
Turkish rule over its Empire had been characterised by corruption, slack administration and harsh discipline.  This administration had been run by Turks for the benefit of Turks, and as the Turkish forces withdrew northwards their administrators went with them.  To deal with this lack of government Britain tried to quickly establish an administrative system based on its procedures in India.  But these Indian procedures had not been imposed overnight, and it had taken decades during which several minor campaigns had to be fought before the British administration was finally established on the sub-continent.    

 In Mesopotamia young British army officers were appointed to be Political Officers and dispersed around the country.  The Political Department then constantly argued for detachments of troops to be located near the Political Officers, leading to a dissipation of military force.  Meanwhile the Arabs watched this and resented the change of administrative methods, but above all else they resented the fact that they were still under foreign domination.  Not all Mesopotamians were anti-British as some of the ethnic minorities needed British protection, and some Arabs saw that it was in their interests not to be associated with the insurrection.  However the bulk of the Arab population near the religious centres supported the dissidents

Insurrection starts

The Great War had ended in Mesopotamia with the signing of an armistice on 31st October 1918, and the surrender of the remnants of the Turkish 6th Army at Mosul.  However the country actually remained a theatre of warfare until a peace treaty was ratified in 1924.  Britain had de-mobilised and run-down its forces in Mesopotamia and was totally unprepared when conflict started.  The Arabs, encouraged by Turkish and Syrian intriguers, organised themselves and formed bands of armed horsemen that could move extremely quickly and fight very brutally and ferociously.   

In May a train was ambushed by insurgents near Shergat, the terminus of the rail line running north from Baghdad, and armed Arabs searched the train for non-Muslim soldiers whom they wished to pull out and kill.  Many Muslim sepoys protected their Sikh comrades by splashing them with blood and saying that the Sikhs were dead, or by lying over them on the train floor.  

On 4th June 1920 the people in Tel Afar, 30 miles (48 kilometres) west of Mosul, rose up against the British-officered local Arab levies and killed the levy commander, the Assistant Political Officer and other locally employed British personnel.  A section of two British armoured cars from the 14th Light Armoured Motor Battery (LAMB), Machine Gun Corps, was sent to Tel Afar to provide fire support.  Despite receiving warnings of danger from an aircraft overhead that dropped messages, the cars were surrounded in the narrow streets of the town and the nine men of their crews were killed.   

The only survivor from the two armoured cars was the local servant of the section commander.  Nobody really knew what had happened but it appeared that the section commander drove into Tel Afar possibly trying to rescue two British personnel who were firing on the insurgents from the roof of the political bungalow.  But the cars were trapped in a narrow lane and enemy fire from the rooftops above killed the crews.  An enemy grenade then killed the men on the political bungalow roof.  The Assistant Political Officer had initially been captured but he escaped only to be overtaken and killed two miles (3.2 kilometres) west of the town.  

A British column of 1,000 men composed of cavalry, artillery and infantry was then sent.  The column skirmished with around 1,200 Arab horsemen before it entered Tel Afar and applied heavy punitive measures on the townsfolk.  Punitive measures included destroying selected buildings, burning down entire villages, seizing weapons, crops and livestock, hanging known killers and levying fines.  

This was followed by the siege of a British detachment at Rumeitha on the rail line between Basra and Baghdad.  A strong British relief column containing six infantry battalions with supporting arms, including two sections of the 17th Machine Gun Battalion, Machine Gun Corps, had to fight fiercely to lift the siege.  As the insurgents withdrew from Rumeitha they were bombed heavily by the RAF and punished with effective machine gun fire.  The British defenders of the town lost 145 men killed, wounded or missing before they were relieved.

For further maps relating to the events go HERE

The Manchester Column

A situation now developed in the Kifl – Kufa area on the Euphrates River south of Baghdad.  A 30-inch (0.76 metre) guage railway line ran from Hillah to Kifl and on 23 July Kifl station was attacked by insurgents and the railway staff were held captive.  The local Political Officer requested a show of force in the area and the British commander at Hillah sent a small column.  

This column, known as the Manchester Column, contained:

35th Scinde Horse – 2 squadrons.
39th Battery Royal Field Artillery - 2 sections.
2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment – 3 companies.
1/32nd Sikh Pioneers – 1 company.
24th Combined Field Ambulance – 1 section.

The column commander was Brevet-Lieutenant Colonel R.N. Hardcastle DSO, The Manchester Regiment.  The column burdened itself unnecessarily with 150 transport carts carrying tentage, stores for messes and personal kits, but despite the high summer temperature no extra water above the normal scale was carried.  

Before leaving Hillah Lieutenant Colonel Hardcastle had been led to believe that he was the advance guard of a larger force that would follow his column, and he was instructed:  “If opposed by large hostile forces, you will avoid becoming so involved as to necessitate reinforcements, and should occasion arise you will fall back on the position you now occupy.”  

On the second day of the march, the 24th July, the column reached the Rustumiya Canal at 1235 hours.  The heat was causing problems and 60% of the Manchester Regiment soldiers were so exhausted that the Medical Officer recommended a 24-hour rest period.  A cavalry troop reconnoitred towards Kifl whilst the troops made camp.  The camp site was tactically sound with earth banks bordering three sides.  An observation post was placed on a line of mounds that ran outside the west side of the camp.     

At 1745 hours when trench-digging on the open north side of the camp had just begun, the cavalry troop returned to report that 10,000 insurgents were advancing from Kifl.  A few minutes later the figure of insurgents was decreased to 500 or so, but in fact around 3,000 were approaching the camp.  As the enemy came in sight the artillery was ordered to engage them, but the artillery signallers were elsewhere tapping the telegraph line to Hillah and some time elapsed before the guns opened fire.  

The insurgents advanced at some points up to 150 yards (137 metres) from the camp and fire was exchanged.  The two Political Officers with the column now approached Lieutenant Colonel Hardcastle and advised him that if the column remained where it was then all the Arabs between the camp site and Hillah would join the insurrection the next day, whilst others would attack and capture Hillah.  Lieutenant Colonel Hardcastle called for all the company, battery and squadron commanders.  He did not present them with a set of orders but instead he held a Council of War, where everyone could comment on the situation.  The Political Officers urged an immediate retreat, and this was agreed, orders being issued 30 minutes later.  The Arab enemy watched and waited.

The retreat

One company of the Manchesters acted as advanced guard whilst the other two companies marched on the flanks.  The mass of transport followed the first company, then came the guns escorted by the Sikh Pioneers, and finally the two squadrons of Scinde Horse acted as rearguard.  The column headed towards Hilla, and what happened on the march is best told through the gallantry citations that were awarded later.  

At 2040 hours the retreat started.  Very soon the transport stampeded, charging through the Manchesters and splitting them up into small groups.  Out of the darkness swarmed mounted Arabs who cut down many transport animals and their drivers.  Chaos ensued, some men ran but some stood and fought.  One of the heroes was Captain George Stuart Henderson DSO, MC & Bar, 2nd Bn Manchester Regiment.  The citation for his posthumously awarded Victoria Cross read:

Shortly after the company under his command was ordered to retire near Hillah, Mesopotamia, a large party of Arabs opened fire from the flanks causing the company to split up and waver.  He at once led a charge which drove the enemy off.  He led two further bayonet charges, during the second of which he fell wounded but struggled on until he was wounded again.  ‘I’m done now.  Don’t let them beat you!’ he said to an NCO.  He died fighting.  

39th Battery’s guns now came into action at close quarters and one 18-pounder gun was lost in a canal.  Captain R.R. Copeland DSO MC was seen fighting a lone hand-to-hand action at the rear of a lorry until his revolver ammunition was expended and he was cut down.  Lieutenant Bernard Lorenzo de Robeck MC earned a Bar to his Military Cross:

During the withdrawal of a column to Hillah the rearguard was cut off by Arabs. He repeatedly brought his guns into action, and by judicious control of fire drove off the enemy, and thus enabled the column to advance unmolested. He set a magnificent example of courage and initiative.

Lieutenant Neufville Crosse MC, Royal Field Artillery, was also awarded a Bar to his Military Cross:

During a rearguard action at night, when the infantry and cavalry were cut off from the rest of the column by Arabs, he repeatedly brought his section into action and drove off the enemy, who were attacking in superior numbers. When five of his men were wounded he acted as one of the detachment, and thus enabled the gun to remain in action. Throughout the operations he showed the greatest courage.    

1044108 Sergeant U.A.V. Deering DCM of the Battery gained a Bar to his Distinguished Conduct Medal:

During a withdrawal at night, he handled his gun with great courage, the enemy being only fifty yards away. Though wounded he superintended the withdrawal of his gun, three of the six horses of his team being killed, and then walked all the way in, so that other wounded might ride.  

1044103 Sergeant E.H. Hinxman of the Battery gained a Distinguished Conduct Medal:

During a rearguard action at night, his sub-section was sent up to the front. Although under close rifle fire he succeeded in getting his gun into action, and it was due to his courage and determination that this gun was able to support the column.

Above: Tel Afar where two LAMB crews were killed.

18535 Naik Kaka Khan was responsible for a team of horses for one of the ammunition wagons.  He was posthumously awarded an Indian Order of Merit, 2nd Class:

When the gun of his sub-section had limbered up and was about to move off to follow the column, this Naik, as coverer of one of the ammunition wagon teams, took his team up to get the waggon away from the position which was under heavy fire.  He, the three team drivers and all six horses of the team were killed in attempting to do this.  He set a magnificent example of devotion to duty to all ranks.    

Through gallant acts by some officers and by the firepower of the guns and the charges of the cavalry a measure of order was restored.  The Commander-in-Chief later wrote:

‘The officers of the 39th Battery and those of the cavalry behaved like heroes and it is thanks to their fine example and the discipline of those under their command that a complete disaster was averted.’     

With leadership like this containing the situation Non Commissioned Officers could perform their necessary duties.  6669 Sergeant J. Willis, 2nd Bn The Manchester Regiment earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal:

During a rearguard action at night he organised ammunition carrying parties, which he led under heavy fire. On one occasion a small party covering the right flank ran short of ammunition. In spite of the enemy being only thirty yards away, and the ground being swept with bullets, he and two men twice took up ammunition and a Lewis gun. He inspired all by his courage.  

79540 Corporal (Lance Sergeant) R. Fairhurst, 2nd Bn The Manchester Regiment earned a Military Medal:

It was greatly due to this non-commissioned officer that a regimental section of the transport column did not break away when charged by a stampede of cavalry and other horses. He rode up and down the line under heavy fire, urging the drivers to keep their places, and brought back several animals which broke away. He was knocked off his horse by the stampede, but remounted and continued to carry out his duties in a very gallant manner, successfully bringing in the majority of the vehicles.  

8904 Privates W. Boyd and 6195 E. Peverley, 2nd Bn The Manchester Regiment, were awarded Military Medals with similar citations:

When a party of men was endeavouring to cover the right flank of the column in order to enable the transport to retire, they were heavily attacked by the enemy, who got as close as thirty yards. The party ran short of ammunition, and had a Lewis gun out of action. This man went with an N.C.O. on two occasions and brought up a Lewis gun, ammunition and magazines over ground swept with bullets, displaying great coolness and courage. His action enabled the position to be maintained long enough for the transport to get through.  

Meanwhile the two cavalry squadrons under the command of Major H.E. Connop were fighting fiercely in their rearguard action.  Lieutenant James Hay Graham Knox, attached to 35th Scinde Horse, won a Military Cross:

He commanded a squadron which was acting as rearguard to a column withdrawing at night, and, by his skilful dispositions, kept the enemy in check. Whilst leading his men he was wounded, but quickly rallied the squadron and repeatedly charged the enemy, thus enabling the rearguard to fall back.  

2nd Lieutenant William Eric Dixon Robinson, 35th Scinde Horse, also gained a Military Cross:

By skilful handling of his Vickers gun and by judicious control of fire, he prevented a very determined attempt to break through the line. His courage and initiative were a splendid example to his squadron.  It was mainly due to his bold leadership and coolness in action that the enemy were driven back.  

Ressaidar Dur Khan, 35th Scinde Horse, was awarded an Indian Order of Merit, 1st Class:

During a rear guard action at night he led his troop with ability and courage.  When both squadron officers were wounded he took command and led three successive charges against the enemy.  His bravery and initiative throughout the operations were most marked.  

18353 Jemadar Muhammad Niaz, 35th Scinde Horse, and 24126 Driver Surej Bhan, 39th Battery Royal Field Artillery attached to 35th Scinde Horse, were both awarded Indian Distinguished Service Medals for gallantry displayed during the night.  

Due to the disorder generally prevailing on the battlefield a portion of the Manchesters lost its way in the darkness and fell into the hands of the Arabs.  Some were killed immediately whilst others were taken prisoner, to be later killed or released depending on the whims of their captors.  But the main body carried on retreating in an organised manner.  Some Private soldiers accepted the challenges of command and responsibility during that dark and dangerous night.  90041 Private D. Collins and 89375 Private F. Cooper, both 2nd Bn The Manchester Regiment, were awarded Military Medals with the same citation:

These two men showed great bravery and devotion to duty. Under heavy fire from three sides, they continued to load their mules and carry guns and ammunition to their Company.  Private Cooper's mule was eventually killed, and he joined a party of transport men who were protecting and defending the right flank of the transport in their retirement.  

But the Arab insurgents could not resist the thought of the loot waiting in the abandoned transport carts and waggons, and the discarded rifles lying on the ground, and they now concentrated their efforts on acquiring as much booty as they could carry away.  This allowed the battered survivors of the Manchester Column to withdraw the last nine miles (14.5 kilometres) into Hillah without serious interference.  The gun in the canal was recovered by the insurgents.  The breech-block had been removed but an Arab blacksmith forged a rough replacement and the gun was later used to sink the British vessel Firefly on the Euphrates River.  


Conclusion

The immediate British casualty count was 20 men killed, 60 men wounded and 318 missing.  Only 79 British and 81 Indian missing soldiers were later released by the Arabs (and some of these had been captured previously), so the count of men dead was in fact over 180.  The 1/32nd Sikh Pioneers lost 30 men killed; being non-Muslim they stood little chance of survival if captured.  The Manchester Regiment lost 3 officers and 131 NCOs and men killed; it is believed that around 100 prisoners from the Manchester Regiment were taken to Najaf and killed there.  

The insurgents had won a great victory.  The British, through ignorance of the land, its inhabitants and the effects of the climate, paid the price for breaking many rules of warfare that had been learned the hard way on the Indian North West Frontier.   

Fierce fighting continued in Mesopotamia until the insurgency began to run out of steam towards the end of the year.  British reinforcements arrived from India allowing harsh punitive measures to be applied against dissident tribes.  The last action took place in February 1921.  After a very shaky start Britain had finally enforced its authority over the Mesopotamian tribes living near the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers.   

Clasp to the General Service Medal
A clasp titled IRAQ was issued to the General Service Medal (1918 – 1962) to those present on the strength of an establishment within the Boundaries of Iraq, between 1st July and 17th November 1920.

To cover certain previous actions entitlement to the clasp included those who served at Ramadi, or north of a line east and west through Ramadi, between 10th December 1919 and 13th June 1920.  This included the Tel Afar incident.  

Footnote

Sadly the British Army commanders in the recent invasion of Iraq appeared unfamiliar with the 1920 campaign.  If those commanders had disseminated the lessons of that campaign to their subordinates, then perhaps more understanding of the situation would have been apparent, resulting in less British body bags being transported to the rear and in less suffering being inflicted on the local population.  Such a study would have been a fitting tribute to the British soldiers and their adversaries who fought and died in the country in 1920.    

SOURCES:
The Insurrection in Mesopotamia 1920 by Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer L. Haldane (freely available for download at:
http://www.dean.usma.edu/HISTORY/web03/resources/resource%20pages/Mesopotamia/insurrection_mesopotamia.html )
History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.  Between the Wars, 1919 – 39 edited by Major General B.P. Hughes.
The Indian Sappers and Miners by Lieutenant Colonel E.W.C. Sandes.
The Iraq Levies 1915 – 1932 by Brigadier J. Gilbert Browne.
The London Gazette.


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