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The Machine Gun Corps during the Arab Insurrection

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.  A revolt, known as the Arab Insurrection, 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 revolt.

For a map of the area covered, please click HERE

Right: Armoured car maintenance facilities

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 savagely.   

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 their crews were killed. 

Above: Tel Afar where two LAMB 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.

  The Manchester Column

A major British disaster now occurred, but no MGC units were involved.  A weak column composed predominantly of young infantrymen from the 2nd Bn The Manchester Regiment moved out of Hillah to display the flag in the area of Kifl.  The summer heat was at its height and the troops suffered.  On the evening of the second day’s march the British column was confronted by an insurgent force that outnumbered the British three-to-one.  On the advice of the Political Officers present the column attempted a night withdrawal which rapidly fell apart.  The two squadrons of Indian cavalry present fought a ferocious rearguard action whilst the Royal Artillery battery bravely came in to action whenever possible during the withdrawal, but the infantry companies on the flanks were decimated by Arab horsemen.  

The only Victoria Cross of the campaign was won that night by Captain George Stuart Henderson DSO, MC & Bar, 2nd Bn The Manchester Regiment.  The citation for his posthumously award 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.

Above: Hauling out a bogged armoured car

Many other awards were made for gallant actions during the night – two Bars to Military Crosses, two Military Crosses, a Bar to a Distinguished Conduct Medal, two Distinguished Conduct Medals and five Military Medals.  The column limped back into Hilla the next morning having lost 20 men killed, 60 men wounded and 318 men missing.  Of the missing over 180 were dead.  It was believed that the insurgents had taken around 100 prisoners from the Manchester Regiment to Najaf and killed them there.  

The enemy 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.     

Awards of the Military Cross to the Machine Gun Corps

Looking at the citations for Military Crosses awarded to four officers gives us a good indication of how the Corps was deployed on operations.  The Light Armoured Motor Batteries experienced great difficulties with the terrain as only six or seven miles (ten to eleven kilometres) of metalled road existed in Mesopotamia.  During the rains mud severely impeded movement, and at all times the multitude of canals and water courses near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers blocked the move of the LAMBs until bridges had been constructed.  The enemy quickly realised the vulnerability of pneumatic tyres to well-aimed rifle fire, and constantly tried to ambush cars as they had successfully done in Tel Afar.

  The British relied heavily on trains to bring forward replenishments, particularly of water.  The insurgents therefore were constantly ripping up rail tracks and attacking trains whenever possible.  A Railway Armoured Motor Battery was deployed.  Lieutenant (Acting Major) Herbert William Baker, Connaught Rangers attached to the Machine Gun Corps, gained his Military Cross for:

Conspicuous gallantry and ability, on the 25th July 1920, while in command of the armoured train which left Diwaniyeih conveying a day's rations through hostile country to a neighbouring force. Throughout, he was under heavy fire, fighting one action which lasted three hours, and during which he was wounded. He surmounted innumerable difficulties, and brought the train safely to its destination after dark. Later, his train acted as rearguard to the whole force, and, by his prompt and skilful action on this occasion, he saved the infantry many casualties. Throughout, his conduct was a fine example to all.

  An example of the activities of a LAMB detachment is given in the award to Lieutenant William Gordon Crask, 5th Bn The Seaforth Highlanders, attached to the Machine Gun Corps.  William and his men were using a railway line as a road for their cars:

For conspicuous gallantry and ability on the railway line south, of Samarrah on 1st September 1920.

During operations against a party of insurgents his armoured car was held up by damage to the line. He left his car under rifle fire, effected repairs to the line, and was thereby able to proceed down the line and cut off the retreat of a party of insurgents, whom he held to their ground till our infantry delivered its attack and inflicted heavy casualties on them. But for his action the insurgents, who were mostly mounted, would have been able to escape before the infantry came up. It is largely due to his untiring energy and ability that the insurgents have been prevented from damaging the railway line between Samarrah and Beled since it was repaired on the 6th September 1920.

  A good example of a dismounted machine gun action is provided in the citation for Lieutenant Richard Victor Louis Hutchings, The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment), attached to the Machine Gun Corps:

For gallantry on the 12th October, 1920, near Samawah.

Though subjected to heavy fire at close range from the enemy, Lieutenant Hutchings led forward his machine-gun section to a point of vantage and inflicted severe casualties.  This action very materially assisted the advance of the infantry and the success of the operations.  

When required the Machine Gun Corps provided officers for infantry units, as can be seen in the citation for the award to Temporary Lieutenant John Salmond Adamson, Machine Gun Corps, attached to the 1/113th Infantry, Indian Army.  John was with a small detachment in a post outside the town of Tuz when 200 insurgents besieged the sepoys (Indian infantrymen).  The enemy broke into the post on two occasions and were driven out both times with the bayonet:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to dutv during the defence of Tuz, 17th to 27th August 1920.

Throughout the siege this officer inspired all ranks by his coolness and

courage under fire. On one occasion he led a party to cut the dam, which the insurgents had made to stop the water supply. Though counter-attacked by far superior numbers, he advanced fearlessly against the headquarters of the insurgents, beat off the counter-attack, and inflicted severe casualties. Later, when forced to retire in order to avoid being outflanked, he conducted his withdrawal without loss. His pluck and initiative throughout were worthy of the highest praise.

Above: A disabled armoured train at Samawah

2nd Lieutenant Ivor Thomas Clement, Royal Berkshire Regiment, attached to the 6th Light Armoured Motor Battery, Machine Gun Corps, also was awarded a Military Cross but the citation was not published.  

Awards of the Military Medal to the Machine Gun Corps

No awards of the Distinguished Conduct Medal can be traced but these four citations for awards of the Military Medal show us how the gun teams fought:

  7816652 Acting Sergeant Arthur C. Hannant of the Composite Machine Gun Squadron (Machine Gun Corps Cavalry) gained his medal:

For bravery and devotion to duty in action 11-12th August 1920 during operations east of Baqubah.  This NCO rendered valuable service by his coolness and ability when in charge of a sub-section of machine guns during a 12 hour rearguard action against continuous Arab attacks.  By his example and his ability he kept his command efficient throughout till both guns were out of action for want of ammunition.

  9010 Lance Corporal Cecil A. Bird’s award (Machine Gun Corps Motor) was:

For bravery and devotion to duty on 7th May 1920 near Albu Kemal when extricating an advanced picquet under heavy fire, which damaged his car.  Without hesitation he left his car, repaired the damage and safely withdrew the picquet.

  4486 Private Robert Miller’s citation (Machine Gun Corps Motor) read:

For bravery on the night of 2/3rd October 1920 at Bathah.  A party of Arabs having made their way to the perimeter of the camp, opened fire and wounded three of the machine gun team, including Private Miller who was severely wounded in the thigh.  Though in great pain, he got his gun into action at once and fired half a belt before he collapsed with exhaustion.  The gun was firing within three seconds of the first volley which was a most creditable performance after three of the team had been wounded.

  17354 Sergeant James Bell Strachan, 8th Machine Gun Battalion, (Machine Gun Corps Infantry) was awarded his medal:

For bravery and devotion to duty on 11th November 1920 while in command of a sub section of his Machine Gun Company and covering the advance of two companies of the 3/23rd Sikh Infantry from Shatt-al-Shuraish.  Both his guns had to be man-handled during the advance with the infantry.  After his second-in-command was killed he commanded both guns with ability and was only able to do so by continually exposing himself to fire.  

Machine Gun Corps units deployed on the campaign

These units can be identified from despatches and from General Haldane’s book:

8th Machine Gun Battalion.
17th Machine Gun Battalion.
16th (Composite) Machine Gun Squadron (in 7th Cavalry Brigade).
6th Light Armoured Motor Battery.
7th Light Armoured Motor Battery.
8th Light Armoured Motor Battery.
14th Light Armoured Motor Battery.
15th Light Armoured Motor Battery (deployed into North Persia).
1st Railway Armoured Motor Battery.

  Appointments to be Officers in the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE)

Captain (Acting Lieutenant Colonel) Cornelius William Barnes, MC.  Warwickshire Regiment and Machine Gun Corps.

Temporary Lieutenant (Temporary Captain) David Stanley Evans, Machine Gun Corps. 

Meritorious Service Medal awarded to the Machine Gun Corps

7808198 Serjeant (Acting Company Quartermaster Serjeant) G. Black, DCM, MM.  (Holloway).  

Mentions in Despatches under the title Machine Gun Corps

Barnes, C.W.  Temporary Major (Acting Lieutenant Colonel), MC.  (Captain Royal Warwickshire Regiment).

Johnson, W.F.  Temporary Major (Acting Lieutenant Colonel), (Captain and Brevet Major, 3rd Bn Norfolk Regiment (SR))

Nasmith, R.  Temporary Major, DSO, MC.  (Captain and Brevet Major Highland Light Infantry).

Evans, D.S.  Temporary Lieutenant (Temporary Captain).

Leigh, J.T.  Lieutenant (West Kent Regiment).

Meadows, A.E.  Temporary Lieutenant (Acting Captain) attached Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

Goring C.H. Lieutenant, DSO, MC, Royal Fusiliers. (Mentioned twice). Geoghegan, P.  31430 Private, attached 6th LAMB.

7809353 Wallace, H.  Serjeant, 17th Indian Division Battalion.

Holden, H.J.  Private, (Acting Corporal), attached 6th LAMB.

  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.  

Commemorations

Twelve men of the Machine Gun Corps who were killed or who died of disease in Mesopotamia during the Arab Insurrection are commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery.  They include the nine men of 14 LAMB killed at Tel Afar:

55801 Corporal Ernest Andrews, MGC Motor (Served under the name of Taylor). 5th June 1920.

88901 Private A.W. Booth, 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers attached to MGC Motor.  5th June 1920.

59412 Private W.J. Earl, ‘C’ Company 1st Bn Rifle Brigade attached MGC Motor.  5th June 1920.

3707 Gunner A.V. Mercer, MGC Motor.  5th June 1920.

82025 Gunner G. Miller, MGC Motor.  5th June 1920.

148721 Private A. Taylor, MGC Motor.  5th June 1920.

127281 Gunner G. Thompson, MGC Motor.  5th June 1920.

182383 Gunner W. Williams, MGC Motor.  5th June 1920.

183458 Gunner A. Woodhouse, MGC Motor.  5th June 1920.  

Other commemorations in the same cemetery are:

39603 Private Ernest George Bennett, 1st Bn Royal Berkshire Regiment attached 17th Bn MGC Infantry.  24th June 1920.

M/53903 Private Harold Thomas Ellis, Royal Army Service Corps, 2nd Armoured Car Company attached to 7th LAMB MGC Motor.  30th June 1920.

182177 Private T.J. Evans, 6th LAMB, MGC Motor.  14th August 1920.

  Four men are commemorated in the CWGC Basra War Cemetery:

190912 Private T.E. Bridges, 8th Bn MGC Infantry.  3rd October 1920.

48458 Private W. Doyle, MGC Infantry (this was the man killed in action mentioned in Sergeant J.B. Strachan’s Military Medal citation).  11th November 1920.

8863 Corporal William Dunn, MGC Motor.  31st August 1920.

5329512 Private S.M. Laight, 1st Bn Royal Berkshire Regiment.

attached to 17th Bn MGC Infantry.  30th July 1920.

  (Other post-Great War MGC commemorations in Mesopotamia that fall outside the time period of the Arab Insurrection will be detailed in a future article.)

  Conclusion

Fierce fighting continued in Mesopotamia until the insurgency began to run out of steam towards the end of 1920.  British reinforcements arrived from India allowing harsh and effective punitive measures to be applied against dissident tribes whose leaders did not come in and submit to British control.  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.  

  The Machine Gun Corps had proved its worth in counter-insurgency operations and had been employed in several different roles.  The Corps had only a short life ahead of it but its expertise in machine gunnery was to be used operationally in the Middle East and India until it was disbanded.

  Sadly the British Army commanders in the recent invasion of Iraq appeared not to have bothered to study 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.
British Battles and Medals by John Hayward, Diana Birch and Richard Bishop.
The London Gazette.
Graham Sacker’s Archive

 
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