Recipient of the India General Service Medal and also Mentioned in
Battalion The Norfolk Regiment
In August 1914 Henry Edwards was a regular army Lance
Corporal serving in India with the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. His unit moved to Mesopotamia, now named
Iraq, in November 1914; the enemy in this theatre of war was the Turkish Army
supported by local irregular units of Arab cavalry. The Norfolks served in Major General Charles
Townshend’s force that fought its way up the Tigris River to Ctesiphon and then
retreated to Kut Al Amara. Henry, now an
Acting Corporal, proved himself militarily and was Mentioned in Despatches.
General Townshend’s force became besieged in Kut but
expected to be relieved by British troops that were advancing from the
south. However this was not to be as the
Turks successfully resisted the British advance; General Townshend surrendered
Kut and its garrison on 29th April 1916 after a siege that had
lasted 147 days. Henry Edwards was one
of the Norfolk stalwarts during the siege, and in recognition of this he was
awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal as a Sergeant in 1919. Unfortunately a citation was not published,
the London Gazette entry referring to gallantry and distinguished services.
After surrendering to the Turks the British troops were
marched from Kut up to Anatolia where they spent the remainder of the war in
captivity. Only around a third of the
European prisoners survived their ordeal; their Indian Army comrades fared
slightly better as half of them survived.
Disease and medical neglect were the main killers on the march from Kut
and in the prisoner of war camps. The
prisoners were released and repatriated after about 34 months of captivity.
The Iraq Levies
Henry resumed his military career in the Norfolks and he
was attracted to volunteer for service in the Iraq Levies. This British unit had started in 1915 as a
group of 40 Arab intelligence scouts, and then had expanded through the Great
War years until in 1922 it reached a total strength of 6,199 men. Besides Arabs the force recruited Kurds,
Christian Assyrians, Turkomans and Yezidis, and the order of battle contained 3
Cavalry Regiments, 2 Pack Batteries, 4 Battalions of Infantry and 1 machine gun
company. The new Iraq was an unstable
country for many years after the Great War and the Iraq Levies were an
important part of the garrison of the country, retaining the status of being a
British unit by agreement with the government of Iraq. The Levies specialised in dealing with minor
tribal insurgencies. Close cooperation
developed between the Levies and the Royal Air Force units in Iraq, as from
October 1922 the Royal Air force managed military affairs in the country. However after that date the Levies decreased
in numbers and the preference was for Assyrian recruits as Arab soldiers were
assigned to the Iraq Army.
Henry Edwards was an Acting Company Sergeant Major in the
Levies in 1924 when a serious incident developed that involved cross-border
operations along the Turkish frontier.
Assyrians from Iraq filtered back across the undefined border into
Turkey to their ancestral lands where Turkish Assyrians were living, and two of
the Levies’ Assyrian officers also crossed.
Since siding with the British in the Great War the Assyrians in the Iraq
Levies had not been popular in Turkey. A
Turkish governor went into that area to assess the situation and irresponsible
Assyrians attacked his convoy and stole his baggage. On 13th September 1924 the Turks
responded by sending troops across the border near Zakho in Iraq; they wanted
to teach Iraqi Assyrians a lesson. The
British riposte was to send the Royal Air Force to attack the Turks. But the Turks persisted and attacked Bersivi
which was located 14 kilometres north-east of Zakho.
Events escalated in this rugged mountainous region when a
local anti-British tribal leader, Hajji Rashid Beg of the Berwari Bala Kurds,
adopted a pro-Turkish stance. 55 Squadron Royal Air Force attacked the Turks
but the planes were met with heavy small-arms fire from the Turks and their
local allies. The Levies in the
immediate area were mobilised and they advanced to confront the Turks and Hajji
Rashid Beg’s Kurds, bringing irregular Assyrians with them. An important ally of the British political
and intelligence agents who were trying to defuse the situation was Lady Surma
D’Beit Mar Shimun, the Aunt of the Assyrian Patriarch; she accompanied the
columns of Levies in the border area, haranguing the local tribal leaders to
support the British. Her work was later
recognised with a Membership of the Order of The British Empire (MBE).
Skirmishing between irregulars continued as did the
bombing of the Turks, villages changed hands, Assyrian refugees fled behind
British lines and then looted to obtain food, and old tribal scores were
settled with rapine and rifle fire.
Eventually the Iraq Levies concentrated sufficient force to dampen the
ardour of the combatants. The Turks
finally withdrew, minus the prisoners that the British had taken; Hajji Rashid
Beg was also captured and handed over to the Qaimakhan of Amadiya to answer
Above: Iraq Levies in 1927
The two Assyrian officers from the Iraq Levies were still across
the undefined border in Turkish-controlled territory. They had stocked a cave with food and
ammunition but their water supply was outside the cave. The Turks trained a machine gun onto the
water supply and prevented access to the 70 defenders of the cave. The Assyrian irregulars with the Levies
planned to go across and bring the cave dwellers back and asked for Levies to
accompany them, but the British refused to allow any Assyrian wearing uniform
to cross the border. The irregulars
still went and retrieved their kinsfolk,
but one of the two officers was mortally wounded. The Turks fired all the Assyrian villages in
that area on their side of the border.
By 21st November 1925 the Levies had withdrawn to Mosul from
the operational area.
5763209 Company Sergeant Major Henry James Edwards DCM was
mentioned for his professionalism during the operation and shortly afterwards
he received an Immediate Award of the Meritorious Service Medal. His Medal Index Card shows that he also
received a General Service Medal but his clasp entitlement is not known.
Nor is it known when Henry left the Iraq Levies and
returned to the regimental fold. In 1932
the Levies became a Royal Air Force unit.
During the Second World War the Levies expanded to a strength of 44
companies, serving in Iraq, Palestine, Cyprus and around the Persian Gulf. The Iraq Levies Parachute Company fought in
Greece and Albania. The Royal Air Force
disbanded the unit in 1955. From 1915 to
1955 the proud and brave Iraq Levies served the British Crown with dedication
and military professionalism, they should not be forgotten.
Iraq Levies 1915 – 1932 by Brigadier J. Gilbert Browne CMG, CBE,
DSO freely downloadable at: