Among the many striking images in this study of the British campaign in Mesopotamia during the First World War is that of a British cavalry officer, riding up to a column of marching soldiers, puzzled that they seemed to be wearing chain mail. On closer inspection, he realised that they were covered by a solid skin of flies, their shiny bodies glinting in the sun. Using first-hand accounts such as these, written by the soldiers themselves, Charles Townshend succeeds admirably in adding a very human dimension to a campaign where one of the main enemies was the climate.
Of course, as the book makes clear, the British and Indian soldiers of the expeditionary force had to put up with much more than just the climate. They had to fight their way up a country defended by a Turkish enemy far more tenacious than they had been led to believe. They also had the misfortune, in the early years of the campaign at least, to be led by staff officers who, when they were not incompetent, were suspicious and obstructive.
Major General Charles Townshend - the author's namesake, but no relation - was both example and victim, together with his "forgotten army". Having been persuaded, against his better judgement, to push northwards towards Baghdad in 1915, he met his match in the indecisive Battle of Ctesiphon and was forced to retreat to Kut. There he and his troops suffered months of gruelling siege, hoping for a relieving army that never came. Eventually, he and his men surrendered.
This disaster finally caused a stir and led to the appointment of General Stanley Maude who captured Baghdad in 1917 - and was to die there of cholera a few months later. By that stage, however, a massive military machine had been constructed, overcompensating for the miserable resources previously devoted to the campaign, even though, by the time of Maude's death, most of the serious fighting in Mesopotamia was over.
The opportunities now lay in a different sphere. As Gertrude Bell said ruthlessly at the time, "how fortunate it is when the man dies before the name". Maude, with his set views of military requirements, seemed to have stood in the way of the political project that she and others had been hatching for the country that was to become Iraq. It is here that the author shows great skill in unravelling the complex and often contradictory impulses behind British imperial thinking about the future not only of Mesopotamia, but also of the whole vast region that fell under British control at the end of the First World War.
Townshend observes the growth and outcomes of British imperial ambition. Like the Mesopotamian army itself, it thrived on opportunism, imperial prestige and a determination to exercise control - but had little sense of the point of it all, let alone the cost. This larger story is skilfully intertwined with the particular foundation of Iraq and its emerging politics - a politics shaped by Bell and her allies, British and Iraqi, around ferocious inclusions and exclusions that still reverberate.
Of course, no one reading this book in 2011 can fail to look for the light it may shed on the present. The author is to be congratulated for avoiding facile parallels - but there is no denying his determination to attribute a measure of moral responsibility to Great Britain for the state that Iraq became in the troubled decades that followed.
When God Made Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq, 1914-1921
By Charles Townshend. Faber and Faber, 624pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780571237197. Published 21 October 2010