The Creation of Modern Iraq, c. 1914-1921 India Office Political and Secret Files and Confidential Print
Detailed intelligence reports On November 5, 1914, three months after the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, Britain officially declared war on Germany’s eastern ally, Turkey. On November 22, a British Indian army – Indian Expeditionary Force “D” (IEFD) – occupied Basra, where a local British administration was immediately set up under the leadership of Sir Percy Cox as Chief Political Officer. While the British Indian military forces advanced slowly upriver towards Baghdad, and then remained bogged down in the famous five-month siege at Kut, Cox and a small team of officials set about creating a civilian government which would ultimately be extended to all the former territories of Ottoman Turkish Arabia.
Among those recruited for the work were Arnold Wilson and Reader Bullard, as well as the more well-known travelers and Orientalists of the period, including T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and Harry St. John Philby. While political officers such as Bullard and Wilson were sent out to run regional administrations, Bell and her colleagues worked under the auspices of the Arab Bureau’s Eastern Branch at Basra, preparing detailed intelligence reports on local personalities, tribes, and political affiliations. When Baghdad was finally captured in March 1917, Cox – now promoted to the post of Civil Commissioner in Mesopotamia – appointed Gertrude Bell as his “Oriental Secretary”, the key intelligence post in the administration.
New form of government Mosul, in the north, was not actually taken by the British until November 1918, but by then British officials had collected extensive dossiers of information on the territories they were to be assigned at the post-war San Remo meetings in April 1920. At San Remo, Britain was assigned the Mandate to govern the newly unified region of Iraq. In October of the same year, Sir Percy Cox was appointed as High Commissioner in Iraq and posted to Baghdad to set up a new form of government which would “give effect to the spirit in which His Majesty’s Government regarded their responsibilities” under the Mandate. [“Historical Summary of Events in Territories of the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Arabia affecting the British position in the Persian Gulf, 1907-1928”, Committee of Imperial Defence, October 1928,
IOR:L/P&S/20/C247A, p. 31.] At the Cairo Conference in March 1921, Faysal bin Husayn was chosen as future king.
Factual material on the area During the years of gradually expanding British occupation (1914-1921), the former Ottoman territories – “Turkish Arabia” before the war, “Mesopotamia” during the war, and now the modern state of Iraq – were the subject of enormous interest to officials in London. Information gathering was an essential tool of imperial rule, and in Mesopotamia the need for intelligence was intensified by the requirements of war and the military campaign. By 1918, British government files were full of wide-ranging factual material on the area, and after the end of the war this was supplemented by lengthy discussions on the future government of the new state. In August 1921, Faysal bin Husayn was enthroned in Baghdad. The style and details of his administration, however, had already been established in the seven years preceding his accession.
Provenance and archival background British interests in Turkish Arabia, or Mesopotamia, before the First World War were the administrative responsibility of the Imperial Government of India and its supervisory body, the India Office, in London. In the India Office, the department responsible for the conduct and supervision of relations with areas outside the sub-continent was the Political and Secret Department. Its archives now form part of the Oriental and India Office Collections (OIOC) at the British Library. [For further information on the OIOC collections relating to Iraq and the Gulf, see Penelope Tuson,
The Records of the British Residency and Agencies in the Persian Gulf (London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1979), and
Sources for Middle East Studies (London: The British Library, 1984).]
Imperial officials posted in Persia, Turkish Arabia, and the Gulf reported, either directly or indirectly, to the Political and Secret Department in London, as well as to the British Government in India. After 1902, the most important of the departmental papers accumulated in London were registered, indexed, and arranged in files according to subject. At the same time, the Political and Secret Department also maintained its own departmental reference library of confidential handbooks for the restricted use of its own officials, as did the Military and other India Office departments. The Political and Secret Department papers have now been catalogued under the OIOC reference L/P&S/.
In 1921, a new Middle East Department of the Colonial Office was set up in London and took over responsibility for British policy and administration in Iraq during the Mandate. At the same time, the India Office ceased to have direct involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the new state.
Organization and contents of files The Political and Secret subject files consist of the confidential intelligence reports on which the handbooks were based, and of many more reports from officials on the political situation in the region, the development of the economy and infrastructure, oil and water resources, trade, currency, banking, land and river transportation, irrigation, and even antiquities and archaeology. Major policy files describe the background and practicalities of the creation of a political administration, a social and an economic infrastructure, and a future constitution. Officials argued at length about the nature of the constitution and the extent of Arab participation and self-government. [See, for example, Gertrude Bell’s “Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia” (1920), which was published as a British Parliamentary Paper (
IOR:L/P&S/10/752. See microfiche 404-410 (115-121)) and India Office Political Department memoranda on “The future constitution of Mesopotamia” (
IOR:L/P&S/10/757-759. See microfiche 422-433 (133-144)).] They also devoted time and energy to the development of the revenue, judicial, municipal, and education systems. At the same time, both military and civilian experts produced technical geographical and topographical surveys of the entire region, from the boundaries with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the south, to Kurdistan in the north. A typical file, for example, includes political memoranda prepared by officials in London or Baghdad, minutes of international or departmental meetings, intelligence reports from local officials and experts, printed reports, maps, and photographs.
Penelope Tuson, Former Curator of Middle East Archives, Oriental & India Office Collections, British Library