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The EK1

CSM Henry James Edwards DCM, MSM

Recipient of the India General Service Medal and also Mentioned in Despatches

The 2nd 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.

A cross-border confrontation

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 legal charges.

Above: Iraq Levies in 1927

An unofficial operation

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.

A Meritorious Service Medal

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.


Ø     The Iraq Levies 1915 – 1932 by Brigadier J. Gilbert Browne CMG, CBE, DSO freely downloadable at:

Ø     The Meritorious Service Medal. The Immediate Awards 1916-1928 by Ian McInnes.

Ø     Recipients of the Distinguished Conduct Medal 1914-1920 compiled by R.W. Walker.

Ø     The Great War Medal Collector’s Companion by Howard Williamson.

Ø     When God Made Hell by Charles Townshend.

Ø     The Neglected War by A.J. Barker.

Ø     Medal Index Cards and The London Gazette.

Ø     A Kut Prisoner by H.C.W. Bishop freely downloadable from:

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