The Machine Gun Corps
during the Arab Insurrection
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
had to send large numbers of troops from India to deal with the revolt.
British administration in Mesopotamia
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Awards of the Military Cross to the Machine Gun
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.
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.
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
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Service Medal awarded to the Machine Gun Corps
7808198 Serjeant (Acting Company
Quartermaster Serjeant) G. Black, DCM,
in Despatches under the title Machine Gun Corps
Barnes, C.W. Temporary Major (Acting Lieutenant Colonel),
MC. (Captain Royal Warwickshire
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.)
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.
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