The post-war crisis, 1916-26

THE BRITISH EMPIRE EMERGED victorious from the First World War in 1918. The most terrible conflict in human history, until the Second World War that is, had been fought not for democracy, liberty or freedom, but to protect the British Empire from its powerful German rival. To this end, millions of lives had been sacrificed, including those of 900,000 British and imperial soldiers. Nevertheless, the war had ended in triumph, with Germany and its allies forced to surrender. Britain proceeded to divide up the Middle East with the French, took its pick of Germany’s colonies and even cast acquisitive eyes over parts of the Russian Empire, a former ally, that had collapsed in revolution in 1917. There were those in the Lloyd George government, including the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, who advocated the establishment of British protectorates over the Caucusus and Transcaspia. British supremacy seemed assured.1

Celebration was short-lived, however. Almost immediately the empire was plunged into crisis. The British found themselves confronting revolutionary outbreaks in Ireland, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and China. And this took place at a time when the government was seriously worried that some sort of revolutionary working class outbreak was inevitable in Britain itself. Moreover, the international context had been transformed by the Bolshevik Revolution. By 2 June 1920 the chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), General Henry Wilson, could write that he feared “the loss of Ireland to begin with; the loss of empire in the second place; and the loss of England itself to finish with”. He had not, he admitted, “been so nervous about the state of affairs in regard to the British Empire since July 1914, and in many ways I am more anxious today than I was even that fateful month”.2 Soon after he wrote this, the threat of a general strike was to force the Lloyd George government to retreat from its policy of military support for the Poles in their war with the Soviet Union.3

In this chapter we shall examine the challenge the British Empire faced in each of these storm centres between 1916 and 1926. Having extended the empire to its greatest expanse of territory and influence, the British found that they did not have the resources to sustain this achievement. Nevertheless, the British Empire was to emerge from the crisis intact and to survive until shaken apart by another World War 30 years later.

The Irish struggle

To a considerable extent Irish Republicanism had been successfully marginalised by an alliance between the Home Rulers and the British Liberals. Ever since William Gladstone’s 1886 promise of “Home Rule”, the Liberal Party had been committed to carrying out the measure, in reality a scheme for devolved power as an alternative to calls for independence. Even such a limited measure was opposed with hysterical ferocity by the Ulster Unionists. In the years immediately before the First World War they threatened and prepared for civil war with the enthusiastic support of the Conservative Party. The Liberal government refused to coerce the Ulster Unionists in the way that Irish nationalists had been routinely coerced for over 100 years. The partition of Ireland seemed the most likely outcome. The Liberal retreat dealt the first of a number of damaging blows to the Home Rulers’ domination of Irish politics, creating space for the re-emergence of Irish Republicanism.

The underground Irish Republican Brotherhood was instrumental in establishing the Irish Volunteers during the Home Rule crisis of the 1910s. Although it had lost control of most of that organisation on the outbreak of war in 1914, it kept control of an armed rump. The Republicans determined to commit this force, by 1916 some 15,000 strong, to an armed insurrection in alliance with the German Empire. The small working class militia, the Irish Citizen Army, led by the revolutionary socialist James Connolly, allied itself with the attempt.4 In the event, the Easter Rising that was staged in Dublin in April 1916 seriously miscarried. It took place without any popular support, and serious divisions within the volunteers resulted in less than 1,000 men and women taking up arms. The rebels held out for a week while the British assembled an overwhelming force and effectively shelled them into submission. Once they had surrendered, they were marched through the streets to the jeers and catcalls of a hostile population. Even in defeat, however, the rebels had begun a transformation in Irish public opinion, a transformation that was dramatically assisted by the British decision to execute the rebel leadership: Padraic Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Sean MacDermott, Joseph Plunkett and ten others. The British general in charge in Dublin was John Maxwell, whose troops, as we have already seen, had massacred the wounded and summarily executed prisoners in the aftermath of the battle of Omdurman.5

The Russian Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, provided the starting point for any analysis of the Easter Rising when he lamented the fact “that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured”.6 If the rebels had only waited, 1917 would have provided them with a rapidly changing situation as war weariness gripped Europe’s peoples and popular opposition to the war increased, reaching breaking point in Russia. This was the context in which a regrouped republican movement, led by Eamon de Valera, Arthur Griffiths and Michael Collins, prepared for a fresh challenge to British rule. The Home Rulers were to be challenged electorally by Sinn Fein, while Collins organised an underground resistance, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), for guerrilla war. As far as Collins was concerned, the Easter Rising had been “a Greek tragedy…bungled terribly”. The rebels had been “a corporal’s guard planning to attack the armed forces of an empire”.7 This would not happen again. Collins was to prove himself one of the great guerrilla leaders of the twentieth century.8

The Home Rule party was destroyed in the general election of November 1918. This proved a triumph for Sinn Fein, an alliance including both hard-line republicans and those who prepared to settle for dominion status, that is self-government within the British Empire. They were united only in opposition to the Home Rulers. Sinn Fein MPs, including the first woman MP, Constance Markiewicz, refused to sit at Westminster and instead established the revolutionary Dail in Dublin towards the end of January 1919. The prime minister, Lloyd George, was confronted by a revolutionary movement with an overwhelming democratic mandate, many of whose leaders were eager to open negotiations. Even though Home Rule had been decisively rejected by the Irish people, the British government decided to impose it regardless. Instead of exploiting the differences within Sinn Fein between the hardline Republicans and those prepared to compromise (Collins was complaining at the time of Sinn Fein becoming “ever less militant and ever more theoretical political”), the British insistence on devolution made war inevitable. The IRA launched their guerrilla war.9

The IRA campaign was always a comparatively small-scale affair of assassinations and ambushes, confined, moreover, largely to Dublin and Munster. The Republican leadership, both military and political, was opposed to actively involving the mass of the population in the struggle, not least for fear that this would radicalise the movement.10 Instead a small elite of a few thousand guerrilla fighters would defeat the British, first by making the country ungovernable, and, second by turning public opinion both in Britain itself and internationally (particularly in the United States) against British government policy. There was never any prospect of the IRA militarily defeating the British Empire. Instead they would inflict enough damage to make the British position politically untenable. Popular support was crucial and this was evident even in those areas where there was little IRA activity. There was widespread rejection of the institutions of British rule, which effectively collapsed in many parts of the country. Boycotts, strikes and demonstrations were the other side of the military campaign. This popular support was given its most dramatic expression during IRA hunger strikes, most notably that of Terence MacSwiney, who died in Brixton Prison on 25 October 1920. These occasions prompted massive outpourings of sympathy for the martyred dead that helped consolidate support for what was portrayed as a sacred cause.11

The problem for the British was that combating the IRA’s campaign required intelligence, and this was not forthcoming. Indeed, the extent of the Republicans’ popular support meant that it was they who had the more effective intelligence apparatus, serviced among others by both policemen and civil servants. In these circumstances, unable to identify their antagonists, troops and police increasingly retaliated against the civilian population, carrying out both official and unofficial reprisals. In an attempt to strengthen the police, the British created new paramilitary formations, the “Black and Tans” and the Auxiliaries. These became a byword for brutality, arson and murder. And there was a well-documented and incontrovertible resort to the use of “murder squads”, troops or police in civilian clothes, assassinating known Republicans. This was authorised by Lloyd George himself. Interestingly, the military authorities objected to these activities. In his diary Henry Wilson recorded an argument with Winston Churchill, the secretary of state for war, at the end of August 1920. Wilson condemned the “wild reprisals” carried out by the Black and Tans as a scandal, while Churchill defended the unit as “honourable and gallant officers”. Later, on 23 September, he recorded a conversation with Churchill and Major General Henry Tudor, the officer running the murder gangs:

Tudor made it very clear that the Police and the Black and Tans and the 100 Intell officers are all carrying out reprisal murders. At Balbrigan, Thurles and Galway yesterday the local police marked down S[inn] F[ein], as in their opinion actual murderers or instigators and then coolly went and shot them without question or trial. Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me. During the day Winston took Tudor over to see L[loyd] G[eorge] and Winston told me tonight that LG told Tudor that he would back him in this course through thick and thin.

Wilson, of course, was no humanitarian. He advocated the proclamation of martial law and the shooting of Sinn Fein members by properly constituted firing squads!12

Churchill certainly thought his methods were working. On 16 November 1920 he told Wilson that “we have nearly won in Ireland”.13 Only five days later, on the 21st, Collins’s men carried out coordinated raids in Dublin that left 14 British servicemen dead, of whom four were army intelligence officers and four MI5 or MI6 agents. This was a tremendous success. Reprisals soon followed. That afternoon a Gaelic football match at Croke Park was cordoned off by police and troops, who proceeded to fire randomly into the crowd. Eleven spectators and one player were killed. Later that evening two IRA officers, Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, together with an unfortunate civilian, Conor Clune, arrested with them, were tortured and summarily executed in Dublin Castle. This was “Bloody Sunday”, 1921.14

The British responded to the events of Bloody Sunday with increased repression and a renewed attempt to win the intelligence war.15 This certainly had some successes, with the number of IRA men interned without trial rising dramatically to 4,500. Claims that the Republicans were all but beaten in 1921 were premature, however. Despite setbacks there can be little doubt that the IRA was capable of reorganising and regrouping to sustain a protracted struggle. Its popular base was strong enough for it to replace its losses. Moreover, it continued inflicting casualties on the British. Whereas in 1920 the IRA had killed 182 police and 57 soldiers over the whole year, from January until April 1921 they killed 94 police and 45 soldiers. And the Republicans were winning the propaganda war. On 11 December 1921, for example, the Auxiliaries burned down the centre of Cork in reprisal for an IRA attack. While the chief secretary, Hamar Greenwood, was denying any British involvement in the House of Commons, Auxiliaries were wearing burnt corks on their berets. One Auxiliary wrote home to his mother admitting to his part in “the burning and looting of Cork”:

We did it alright… I have never experienced such orgies of murder, arson and looting as I have witnessed during the past 16 days with the RIC Auxiliaries… Many who witnessed similar scenes in France and Flanders say that nothing they have experienced ever compared to the punishment meted out to Cork.16

The following month the British Labour Party issued a report on the Irish situation that stated quite bluntly that there were things being done “in the name of Britain which must make her name stink in the nostrils of the whole world”. It condemned “the reign of terror in Ireland” and the way it was being used to hold the Irish in subjection to “an empire that is a friend of small nations”.17 The Labour Party could never get it quite right.

The British government found itself in an increasingly difficult position in 1921. It was trying to force devolution, limited self-government, on a people that had decisively rejected it in favour of independence. Coercion had so far failed to bring the Irish to “their senses”, and to continue down that road to the imposition of a martial law regime was clearly incompatible with self-government of any kind. Executing elected representatives by firing squad would be extremely difficult politically in what was still part of the United Kingdom. Moreover, there was no guarantee that increased coercion would work. In these circumstances, much to Henry Wilson’s disgust (“rank, filthy, cowardice”)18, a majority of the cabinet supported Lloyd George’s decision to negotiate with Sinn Fein. A truce was agreed on 9 July 1921 and peace negotiations finally began on 11 October. At this point the Sinn Fein alliance began to break up as the hard-line Republicans stood by the cause of an Irish Republic, while the more moderate elements, who by now included Michael Collins, were prepared to pledge allegiance to the crown, and accept British military bases, partition and the Irish Free State. The Anglo-Irish Treaty that was finally agreed on 6 December 1921 was, as Lord Curzon put it, “an astonishing victory for the empire”.19

The pro-treaty faction inevitably found themselves drawn into an alliance with the British against the hard-line Republicans, an alliance that was to be cemented by civil war. When fighting finally broke out between a reconstituted IRA and the Free State, the British stepped in to arm their new ally. Having failed to defeat the IRA themselves, the British had procured Irishmen to do it for them. In retrospect, the Republican resort to arms can be seen as a serious mistake, a doomed venture, but nevertheless the fact remains that they were protesting against a violation of the Irish people’s right to self-determination. There can be no serious doubt that if the Irish people had been allowed a free vote without the threat of British military intervention in the general election of June 1922, they would have chosen a Republic.

One last point: while the Free State had accepted partition, they had been promised a Boundary Commission which would redraw the border between the North and the South on democratic principles. The expectation was that two counties and part of a third would inevitably have to come into the Free State. Michael Collins was seriously concerned with developments in the North where the Catholic minority was subjected to ferocious repression. Indeed, when Henry Wilson retired as chief of the Imperial General Staff and became an Ulster Unionist MP and security adviser to the Stormont government, Collins had him assassinated. But Collins died in the civil war and the Free State government came out of it completely dependent on the British. The British promptly reneged on the boundary agreement, leaving a large Catholic minority to the tender mercies of the Ulster Unionists.20

The revolt in Egypt, 1919

Egypt was, as historian Anthony Clayton has pointed out, “the first of the Arab lands to challenge Britain with an armed uprising”.21 The rebellion was provoked by the British refusal to allow an Egyptian delegation headed by Saad Zaghlul, a former minister of justice, to travel to Paris to put Egypt’s claim for independence to the Peace Conference. The refusal was regarded as particularly insulting as a delegation from Syria was making the journey. The nationalist Wafd party launched a popular campaign in support of the delegation and on 8 March 1919 the British responded by arresting Zaghlul and other leaders and deporting them to Malta. The following day:

saw peaceful protest demonstrations by students, and by the 10th, all the capital’s students, including those of al-Azhar, the great mosque and centre of Islamic learning, were on strike. On that day a large demonstration clashed with security forces, causing the first casualties of the revolution. The following days and weeks witnessed a veritable explosion of popular protest with almost daily demonstrations in the streets of Egypt’s cities and bloody clashes with British military forces. This was accompanied throughout the country by attacks on British installations and personnel, the cutting of railway lines and other forms of popular revolutionary action.22

By 17 March the British had lost control of Upper Egypt. The revolt was not just a response to the nationalist demands raised by the Wafd. It was also fuelled by bitterness at how Egypt had been exploited during the war. In 1916 the British had introduced labour conscription, enlisting 1.5 million men, a third of all those aged between 17 and 35. They had also requisitioned buildings, crops and animals. The country was now run for the benefit of the British war effort in the Middle East. By 1918 poverty and hunger in the countryside were such that the Egyptian death rate exceeded the birth rate for the only time in the 20th century. While the war had brought “huge fortunes” to a handful of Egyptian landowners and businessmen, it also “brought misery to untold thousands of less fortunate Egyptians”.23

The revolt took the British by surprise with much of the country passing out of their control. Communications were cut and in many towns and villages revolutionary committees took over. The rebels attempted to seize railway stations and cut the railway lines. On 23 March at Medinet troops drove off a crowd of 4,000 protesters attempting to storm the railway station, killing hundreds of people. That same day protesters stopped a train and hacked to death the seven soldiers and one British civilian found travelling on it. They were killed because they were the people “who seized our grain and camels, our money, who orphaned our children, who fired at al-Azhar and the mosque of Hussein”.24 By late March, however, the British were in a position to begin the reconquest of the country. Crowds were machine gunned and bombed from the air and heavily armed mobile columns were despatched to “pacify” the countryside, shooting anyone who resisted, burning villages and flogging suspects (in one village every man was publicly flogged). By the end of April the revolt had been put down with over 1,000 Egyptians killed, over 1,500 imprisoned and 57 hanged. Some 40 Britons were killed.

The revolt in the countryside was accompanied by widespread strikes. In Cairo the trams and the electric company were shut down. Printers, dockers, postal workers, transport workers and factory workers walked out. The railway workshops were shut down. On 21 April Lord Allenby, the High Commissioner, informed London that he was issuing a proclamation “ordering all back to work”. He complained that British troops ordered into the railway workshops had refused. “Some trade union microbe has got into them” and they were refusing to obey orders because they considered it “strikebreaking”. “I can’t shoot all of them for mutiny”, he wired.25

While the British succeeded in regaining control of the country, they were, nevertheless, forced into a humiliating political retreat. On 7 April Zaghlul was released and the Wafd delegation was allowed to go to Paris. Its demands for independence were ignored. Back in Egypt, however, protest continued. On 23 May 1921 it flared up into serious rioting in Alexandria with nationalist crowds fighting troops and police. Over 40 people were killed and many more injured. This outbreak was followed by clashes elsewhere, and the British feared another 1919. In December, Allenby had Zaghlul arrested once again and this time deported him to the Seychelles. His arrest was accompanied by a massive show of force with tanks on the streets of Cairo and battleships at Alexandria and Port Said. There were still some clashes, but the British believed their precautionary measures had prevented another full-scale revolt.

The following year, in February 1922, the British finally conceded formal independence, but on terms that left Egypt a client state, still under British economic and financial control, and under military occupation. Protest and resistance continued. In September 1924 Zaghlul visited London for discussions with the Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. His hope for a Labour commitment to full independence for Egypt were, of course, disappointed. Soon after, on 19 November, the commander in chief of the Egyptian army, General Lee Stack, was assassinated by nationalist gunmen in broad daylight in Cairo. This was a dramatic challenge to British authority and Allenby responded with a show of strength. Troop reinforcements were rushed to the country, battleships were once again despatched to Alexandria and Port Said, and RAF aircraft made intimidating flights over Egyptian cities. Allenby presided over “a police reign of terror”.26 Once again the people were suitably cowed and Egypt, as Clayton, puts it, “returned to a state of sullen quiet”.27

“Holding India by the sword”

The most serious post-war challenge to the British Empire came in India. Here the war had “meant misery and a fall in living standards for the majority of the Indian people”, although inevitably some businessmen and industrialists had made “fabulous profits”. This led to an explosion of trade union militancy and social unrest that the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, was to describe as “a sort of epidemic strike fever”. In March 1918 there was a textile strike in Ahmedabad and in January 1919 over 100,000 textile workers struck in Bombay with many other workers from clerks to dockers also coming out.28 The strike movement assumed even more “formidable dimensions” in 1920-21 with 1.5 million workers taking part in over 200 strikes in the first half of 1920 alone. The tremendous growth in trade union membership and organisation culminated with the formation of the All-India Trades Union Congress (AITUC) in September 1920. In his inaugural address the organisation’s first president, the veteran nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai, told the delegates that “we are passing through a revolutionary period”.29 There were also widespread food riots and peasant unrest in many parts of the country. This social turmoil coincided with, and was part of, a great national challenge to British rule, a challenge that was without precedent in the history of the Raj. According to one historian, by 1920-21 the British were facing their “worst moment…in the 90 years between the Mutiny and 1942”. They found themselves “confronted by an opposition movement of a kind and extent they had never encountered before”.30

The challenge took the British by surprise. A package of political reforms in 1918, the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, had introduced limited self-government on a restricted franchise at the provincial level. This, it was hoped, would conciliate moderate Indian opinion. The reforms were accompanied, however, by the Rowlatt proposals that considerably strengthened police repressive powers (allowing up to two years imprisonment without trial). These were regarded as both an insult and a threat, and were to provoke massive opposition. The opposition to Rowlett was led by Mohandas Gandhi, a man a senior British official described as “honest, but a Bolshevik and for that reason very dangerous”. But despite British opinion, he was certainly no “Bolshevik”. While he had made a name for himself campaigning for civil rights, first in South Africa and more recently in India, he had also supported the empire during the Boer War, in the suppression of the Zulu revolt of 1906, and during the First World War. Indeed, he had helped recruit men into the Indian army as late as 1918. What Gandhi now proposed was a strategy of peaceful civil disobedience that involved turning the Indian National Congress from an elite organisation into a mass force. And this campaign was to be conducted in alliance with the Khilafat movement, the Muslim campaign in support of the Turkish Caliphate, which the British were in the process of dismantling in the Middle East.

A general strike was called in protest against Rowlatt for 30 March, but then postponed until 6 April. It went ahead in Delhi on the 30th and inevitably there were clashes with the police in which people, both Hindus and Muslims, were killed. The following day:

The funeral processions met at the scene of the firing and Hindus and Muslims embraced, declaring that their unity had been sealed in blood. Memorial services at the [mosque of] Jama Masjid were attended by an overflow crowd, not only of Muslims, but also of Hindus. When Swami Shradhanand, an Arya Samaj [a Hindu reform movement] leader, not known for his friendliness to Muslims, arrived at the mosque, he was quickly propelled to the pulpit and asked to speak. It was an unprecedented display of communal harmony.31

On 6 April there were general strikes in most Indian towns and cities with widespread displays of Hindu-Muslim unity. The protests were generally peaceful, although there were some clashes, particularly in Punjab, where the governor, Michael O’Dwyer, was a strong proponent of repression. When Gandhi was arrested (he was soon released) to stop him travelling to Punjab, however, serious rioting broke out. In Ahmedabad the textile workers took to the streets, fighting with the police and burning down government buildings, offices and police stations (51 buildings were destroyed). By the time the police had regained control of the city, 28 people had been killed, including a British police sergeant. There was a two-day general strike in Bombay on 10 and 11 April that went off without violence, but in Calcutta on the 12th troops machine-gunned a crowd, killing nine people. Gandhi was appalled by the violence which he blamed on the people rather than the police. According to his doctrine, there should never be retaliation against police attack. Indeed, on 14 April he wrote to the viceroy to condemn events in Ahmedabad as “utter lawlessness bordering almost on Bolshevism”. He expressed “the deepest humiliation and regret” that the people were not yet ready for non-violence, that he had “underrated the power of hatred and ill will”.32 This completely ignored the fact that deaths and injuries were overwhelmingly inflicted by the police and troops. And, of course, he had not yet heard of the massacre at Amritsar the previous day.

In Amritsar, in Punjab, the general strike on 6 April had been peaceful. When news arrived of Gandhi’s arrest on the 10th, however, large crowds took to the streets and clashed with troops, who opened fire. After between 20 and 30 people had been killed, an outraged crowd set about destroying British property, killing five Britons (three bank managers, a railwayman and an army sergeant) in the process. A British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten and only rescued by the parents of some of her schoolchildren. An uneasy calm returned to the city and the protesters decided to proceed with an anti-Rowlatt rally on the afternoon of 13 April at the Jallianwalla Bagh, an enclosed space. The meeting was banned but they decided to defy it. General Reginald Dyer decided to make an example of them. He marched a detachment of Gurkhas to the rally and without any warning opened fire on the 20 to 25 thousand people peacefully listening to speeches. The troops continued firing for over ten minutes with Dyer only ordering a ceasefire when they were nearly out of ammunition. By the time they had finished the bodies were piled ten to 12 deep around the exits. Dyer made no attempt to help the wounded and dying. Indeed, the curfew came into effect soon after he ceased shooting so that the wounded and injured were left screaming, moaning and dying all through the night.

Dyer himself later estimated that he had probably killed two to three hundred people, although he admitted the figure might have been as high as four to five hundred. The official estimate was finally put at 329 people killed, of whom 42 were children, one a six week old baby, and 1,200 injured. This was certainly too low. According to Helen Fein, “a house-to-house census showed that 530 were reported killed” although even this was probably an underestimate as the city was full of people come in from the country for a fair. Dyer himself made it clear that regardless of the number, he was completely unrepentant and that if he had had more troops and more ammunition he would have killed many more. Indeed, he said that if he could have got an armoured car in position, he would have turned a machine gun on the protest as well. In his report of 25 August 1919 he wrote:

I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed, and I considered that this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce…It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from the military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more specially throughout the Punjab.

He had, as he quite openly admitted, carried out an exemplary massacre intended to terrorise the population.33

The punishment to be inflicted on Amritsar was not yet complete. Dyer ordered that any Indians wishing to go down the street on which Marcella Sherwood had been attacked had to crawl on their bellies. This was enforced at bayonet point. He also instigated a regime of public floggings, which were accompanied by unofficial reprisals of often considerable brutality. Elsewhere in Punjab, there was “violent, brutal repression” with shootings and floggings, villages bombed from the air and the imposition of collective punishments.34

The Amritsar massacre caused an outcry in Britain with even the Lloyd George government condemning Dyer’s conduct. In India, however, the British regarded him as the hero who had saved them from another 1857. As far as the army was concerned, he had been thrown to the wolves, by a gang of cowardly politicians, for doing his duty.35 Indian opinion, on the other hand, had learned that British control would never be given up voluntarily, but would have to be overthrown. Gandhi and his supporters prepared for a second round of civil disobedience in 1920.

The British faced another crisis in 1919. In May fighting broke out on the frontier when Afghan troops attempted to seize Peshawar and Quetta, raising the local tribes in revolt. The Afghans were driven back and British troops were despatched on punitive expeditions into Afghanistan. Jalalabad was heavily bombed and there was even an air raid on Kabul before peace was concluded in August. Fierce fighting continued against the frontier tribes well into 1921, with the British eventually suffering over 5,000 fatalities, and the area was still not pacified.36

Gandhi, meanwhile, gave notice to the British on 22 June 1920 that the movement of non-cooperation with the British was to be relaunched unless the British conceded self-government. As far as a growing number of Indians were concerned, the Amritsar massacre had deprived the British of any moral right to rule. The movement was relaunched on 1 August, although it only proceeded to gather momentum slowly. Gandhi was determined to avoid popular violence, and in the aftermath of Amritsar the British authorities too decided to try and avoid provocation. The military were not happy with this approach. On 15 July 1920 the commander in chief, General Henry Rawlinson, complained that:

Unless we, as a government, are prepared to act vigorously and take strong measures to combat the insidious propaganda of the extremists we are bound to have something very like rebellion in India before long… You may say what you like about not holding India by the sword, but you have held it by the sword for 100 years and when you give up the sword you will be turned out. You must keep the sword ready to hand and in case of trouble or rebellion use it relentlessly. Montagu [secretary of state for India] calls it terrorism, so it is and in dealing with natives of all classes you have to use terrorism whether you like it or not.

There is no doubt that the great majority of the British in India, soldiers, officials and civilians, agreed with Rawlinson on this. A few months later he noted in his journal that he “was determined to fight for the white community against any black sedition or rebellion”, and, if necessary, “be the next Dyer”.37 If the nationalists could not be outmanoeuvred, there was always the sword.

The first phase of the non-cooperation movement involved the boycott of official bodies and institutions. Congress and Khilafat supporters withdrew from elected bodies, boycotted the courts, resigned from government employment, and boycotted schools and colleges. The movement was particularly successful in the educational field with thousands of students withdrawing from schools and colleges under government control. The next phase involved a boycott of imported cloth, primarily from Britain, and of alcohol. This involved turning the movement into a mass phenomenon with committees being established at village level to police the boycott. It had a tremendous impact, cutting the import of cloth by nearly half. In July 1921, at the All-India Khilafat Conference, Mohammad Ali, one of the leaders of the movement, and with his brother, Shaukat, a close ally of Gandhi’s, stepped up the pressure when he called on Muslims not to serve in the army. He was promptly arrested. His appeal was repeated, often word for word, throughout the country by both Congress and Khilafat supporters, was adopted in resolutions at mass meetings and widely published. The movement gave a display of its strength on 17 November 1921, when the Prince of Wales arrived at Bombay to begin a tour of the country. He was greeted by a nationwide general strike and three days of rioting in Bombay itself. Everywhere the prince went, he “was greeted with empty streets and downed shutters”.38 The non-cooperation movement was becoming a rival government, supplanting the British, and moving towards the final challenge, a tax strike. As one historian has observed, they had the government “running scared”.39 Indeed, according to Sumit Sarkar, “between November 1921 and February 1922”, the movement “very nearly brought the government to its knees”. In December the viceroy, Lord Reading, was urging substantial concessions on London.40

The non-cooperation movement was accompanied by a great wave of industrial unrest. In 1921 there were 396 strikes involving over 600,000 workers totalling nearly 7 million working days. While many Congress members were involved with the unions, Gandhi himself was noticeably unsympathetic, and was increasingly looking to Indian business for support. Alongside the industrial unrest, in many parts of the country peasant movements were growing in strength, challenging the power of both the landlords and the British. This rural unrest burst into open rebellion in Malabar in August 1921, when Muslim peasants, the Moplah, rose against their landlords (mainly Hindus) and the British. In a number of districts “Khilafat republics” were established and by September the British commander, Major General Burnett-Stuart, could report that “the situation is now clearly actual war…and prolonged rebellion”.41 He found himself confronted by some 10,000 armed guerrillas, many of them former soldiers, fighting over jungle terrain that lent itself to guerrilla warfare. The result was portrayed by the British as a sectarian affair, as a Muslim attack on Hindus, and although there were some sectarian excesses, by and large the rebels avoided them. Indeed, there were Hindus actually fighting with some rebel bands. The British proceeded to crush the rebellion. As Sarkar puts it, once they were confronted with “a really formidable threat”, just as in 1857 and 1919, “the mask of British liberalism fell off completely”.42 According to Burnett-Stuart, it was likely that the war would have to continue in some districts “until every Moplah is either exterminated or arrested.”43 By the time the revolt was finally crushed in February 1922, the British had, according to official figures, killed 2,337 and detained over 45,000. Burnett-Stuart himself thought the official figure too low and gave as his own estimate for rebel fatalities, three to four thousand. His own losses were 43 men killed. There was one particular atrocity that outraged Indian opinion in November 1921. A hundred prisoners (including three Hindus) were loaded into a railway wagon for transportation. When it was opened 56 of them were dead from asphyxiation and heat exhaustion, and another 24 died subsequently.

The non-cooperation movement’s increasing militancy and popular involvement caused Gandhi serious concern. Its potential for radicalisation and for spilling over into violent struggle led him to decide to call the whole movement off. The occasion was provided by a clash between police and peasants at Chauri Chaura in Uttar Pradesh. After the police had beaten one of the peasant leaders and opened fire on demonstrators, a crowd, chanting “Long Live Mahatma [‘Great-Souled’] Gandhi”, burned down the police station and killed 23 policemen.44 Gandhi responded by calling the movement off on 12 February. Sarkar makes the important point that while “there was ample combustible material in the India of 1919-22, perhaps even at times an objectively revolutionary situation”, Gandhi rejected the implications of this, and there was “nothing at all in the way of an alternative revolutionary leadership”.45 The movement that had seriously shaken British rule collapsed almost overnight. When at last the British moved to arrest Gandhi on 10 March 1922 and sentence him to six years in prison, there were no protests.

War in Iraq

On 22 August 1920 T E Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) published an article in the Sunday Times on the war in what was to become Iraq:

The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We today are not far from a disaster.46

The similarities with the later 2003 Iraq war are, of course, striking and suggest an inability to learn from history that marks out the architects of that later conflict as incompetent to the point of criminality. We shall return to this discussion in Chapter 12. For the moment, how did the British find themselves in the position Lawrence describes and how did they remedy it?

Lawrence was the advocate of a policy of indirect rule in Iraq. He urged the installation of a monarch from the Hashemite dynasty under British protection. This would be a client regime, running the country in Britain’s interests and under British supervision, but nevertheless it would take the edge off Arab national sentiment. Having been promised independence by the British during the war, the imposition of direct rule was bound to provoke Arab resistance. A policy of direct rule on the Indian model prevailed, however. The first British high commissioner, Percy Cox, was convinced that “the people of Mesopotamia had come to accept the fact of our occupation and were resigned to the prospect of a permanent British administration”.47 In May 1918 Cox was transferred to Iran and Colonel Arnold Wilson succeeded him as high commissioner. He proceeded to “Indianise” the administration in the face of growing Arab hostility. So the British abolished the various representative institutions that had existed under the Turkish Empire, filled the administration with British officials and in 1919 also refused permission for an Arab delegation to travel to Paris to petition the Peace Conference for independence. In April 1920 British control over Iraq was confirmed by the League of Nations. There were protest meetings and demonstrations against this decision in Baghdad, but the British suppressed the opposition. The ground had been prepared for revolution.

There had already been serious clashes in Kurdistan in 1919 where Shaykh Mahmud Barzini had raised the standard of a Free Kurdistan.48 British forces had crushed the revolt. Now a much more serious outbreak took place on the Upper Euphrates. The revolt began in June 1920 with a British force besieged by some 4,000 rebels in the town of Rumaitha. The first relief column was ambushed and driven off with heavy losses (48 killed and 160 wounded). It was not until 20 July that a much stronger column broke the siege. By now much of the country had risen with an estimated 130,000 rebels in arms, some 60,000 of them equipped with firearms. The British found themselves embroiled in what Mark Jacobson has described as “the largest British-led military campaign of the entire inter-war period”.49

The rebels waged a mobile guerrilla war that, at least initially, the British had no answer to. One British officer explained that “the difficulty in coping with Arabs is the extraordinary manner they seem to appear from nowhere and their mobility”. He wrote from experience having been with the “Manchester Column” at the end of July, when it was attacked on the road to Kifl. The column was nearly overrun and only fought its way clear with heavy casualties. This was the worst British disaster of the revolt. Of the 1,100 men with the column, some 400 were killed or missing, including 280 soldiers of the Manchester Regiment. The rebels took 79 British and 81 Indian soldiers prisoner. They were held at Najaf and were treated considerably better than the British treated rebel prisoners. The column also lost almost all of its transport (130 out of 150 carts) and an 18 pounder gun.50 A few days later, on 30 July, the commander in chief, General Haldane, cabled London that “rebellion has spread almost to Baghdad, where my position is by no means secure”.51 As the high commissioner observed, “Troubles now come upon us thick and fast”.52

Only the arrival of substantial reinforcements turned the tide and allowed Haldane to begin the reconquest of the country. The railways were protected by an extensive system of blockhouses, punitive columns were despatched throughout the countryside, burning villages, shooting rebels and seizing livestock, and rebel strongholds and concentrations were shelled and bombed from the air. The British used “gas shells in quantity…with ‘excellent moral effect’”.53 By the end of October organised resistance had been finally crushed with the surrender of Najaf and Karbala. Mopping up operations continued into the next year.

The revolt cost the British 426 soldiers killed, 1,228 wounded and 615 missing. Rebel fatalities were officially 8,450, but a figure of over 10,000 is more realistic. While defeated, it was nevertheless successful in one respect. It brought to an end the British direct rule regime. Instead the Hashemite, Faisal, was installed as king, after a rigged referendum, in August 1921. The British controlled the country by means of this client regime until 1958.

One other consequence of the revolt was the embrace of air power by the British as an economical means of colonial policing. Bombing had played an important part in the suppression of the revolt with the RAF dropping 100 tons of bombs. The RAF could destroy villages with impunity whereas the more traditional punitive column involved hundreds of soldiers taking casualties to accomplish the same end. Wing Commander Arthur Harris made the point that the Arabs and Kurds “now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured”.54 He was, of course, to put his ideas into effect most murderously as chief of Bomber Command during the Second World War.

British ambitions in the Caucasus and Transcaspia were frustrated by the Bolsheviks, but there was more success in Persia. Before the war British influence had been shared with Tsarist Russia and when the war broke out the two great powers proceeded to occupy the country. The Russian Revolution left the British dominant throughout the whole of Persia, although they faced resistance from the nationalist Jangali movement led by Kuchek Khan.55 In July 1918 the Jangalis had attacked British troops occupying the strategic town of Resht. They captured half the town and burned down the British consulate, but “after several days of bloody streetfighting, the British troops backed up by aerial bombardment managed to drive the Jangalis out”.56 Subsequently the Bolsheviks intervened in Persia, allying themselves with Kuchek Khan. By June 1920 the Jangalis had taken control of Gilan province and proclaimed the Iranian Soviet Socialist Republic. By now the British were seriously concerned and Lord Milner told the cabinet that if Persia were lost “our whole position in the East would be gravely imperilled”.57 The British wanted a strong but subservient government in Tehran. In February 1921 they supported a coup carried out by the Cossack brigade that placed power in the hands of Reza Khan. Soon after both Britain and the Soviet Union withdrew their troops from the country. By the end of July Reza Khan had crushed the Jangalis and proceeded to consolidate his position as the country’s dictator. In October 1925 he deposed the Qajar dynasty, and once again with British support, proclaimed himself Shah. As he assured British officials, “he would do with Persian hands that which the British wished to do with British hands”.58 Together with the British, Reza Khan was to bleed his country dry.59

The Chinese Revolution, 30 May 1925

At the end of the First World War, Britain was still the dominant imperial power in China, although its position was under challenge by both the Japanese and the United States. In the 1920s British investments in China were valued at some £100 million, only 5 percent of British overseas investments, but 35 percent of the total foreign investment in China. Shanghai, the fourth largest port in the world, was the fulcrum of the British position. In 1925 there were some 6,000 Britons resident in the city, and it was effectively under the control of the British consul-general, Sidney Barton. Foreigners had an extremely privileged position, so that, for example, the international settlement that occupied nine square miles of the city had a municipal council elected by foreigners, while the 900,000 Chinese who lived in the area had no representation at all.60 These privileges, derived from the unequal treaties imposed on China since the Opium Wars, were coming under increasing challenge from the nationalist Kuomintang movement and from the Chinese Communist Party.

The 1920s saw increasing working class unrest in much of China. In Shanghai the Japanese-owned textile mills were the scene of often violent clashes between workers and management. On 15 May 1925 a worker, Ku Cheng-Lung, at the Nagai Wata mill was killed by a Japanese foreman. The workers appealed to the students for support and on 30 May there were demonstrations in the city calling for an anti-Japanese boycott. Protesters clashed with the police and some arrests were made. A crowd of about 2,000 protesters assembled outside the police station on the Nanking Road, demanding their release. When they attempted to force their way into the station, Inspector Edward Everson ordered his Chinese and Sikh constables to open fire. They shot 12 people dead. According to another British policeman, Maurice Tinkler, one of the “swines” had bared his chest in defiance and consequently “attracted so much attention he was riddled”. Tinkler cheerfully admitted that he was “longing for the opportunity to kill a bunch but have had no chance of firing yet”.61 The shootings provoked a general strike in the city, with the Communists giving the lead, on 1 June. By the 10th there were some 130,000 workers on strike including mill workers, transport workers, dockers, seamen, shop workers and many of the Chinese police. Thousands of students joined in the strike. Protest quickly spread beyond Shanghai. There were “few towns of any size which did not respond in some way…and in Hosan, Hunan and Kuantung peasants also entered what was no longer referred to as the May 30 incident, but the May 30 Movement”.62 On 19 June general strikes were called in Canton and Hong Kong. When demonstrators approached the Shameen concession area of Canton, on 23 June, they were machine gunned by British troops, with over 50 people killed. This massacre gave the “historic” Hong Kong strike increased impetus:

The port went almost entirely dead; internal transportation was maintained at a barest minimum with great difficulty; hospitals faced the real possibility of having to close down; the food supply was critically threatened; banks ran the risk of collapse; and expatriate families were unceremoniously stripped of domestic help… The strike, to be later submerged in a boycott, was to last 16 months.63

The boycott was not called off until 10 October 1926, by which time enormous economic damage had been inflicted on British interests. The May 30 Movement posed a serious challenge to the British position in China. Even though eventually beaten down both in Shanghai and in Hong Kong, it marked the beginning of the Chinese Revolution.

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