Irish Soldiers in Iraq: Past and Present

The British Army
An Irish Guards NCO surveys the scene in Basra. The regiment returned to England on April 14.

Use of Poison Gas in the Middle East Is Not New

(Published in March 2003) The arrival in Iraq of Irish regiments, under the sponsorship of the British government, brings to mind earlier such expeditions to this troubled land. In 1920, the Arabs population of Iraq, after initially welcoming the British as deliverers, soon grew restive and turned on them. Kieron Punch, WGT's UK correspondent, reports.

While watching the current war in Iraq unfold before us on television, keen-eyed viewers may have noticed some British combat vehicles proudly displaying a Shamrock emblem. The vehicles belong to the two remaining Irish regiments of the British army, The Irish Guards and The Royal Irish Regiment. Although neither of these units have served in Iraq before, they are, in fact, following in the footsteps of other Irish regiments that have campaigned in this cradle of civilization on several occasions during the last 90 years.

American Memory/Library of Congress
The three provinces of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) -- Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the central, and Basra in the south -- continue to make headlines.

In 1914, the three provinces of Mesopotamia; Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, were part of the Ottoman Empire and as such, entered the war on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary. The British government recognized that Turkish forces stationed in Mesopotamia posed a serious threat to the Persian oil-fields that supplied the Royal Navy. It was therefore agreed to send an Indian Expeditionary Force to safeguard the fields and, if possible, capture Baghdad.

To provide additional manpower for the campaign, the Indian Corps, which was then serving on the Western Front, was withdrawn and ordered to the Middle East. Sailing with this formation was 1st Battalion, Connaught Rangers, which was a component battalion of the Lahore Division.

The Rangers landed at Basra on January 10, 1916, in time to participate in the attempted relief of Sir Charles Townshend's 6th (Poona) Division. This unit had overstretched its supply lines and become besieged in Kut-al-Amara. At the Battle of Umm-al-Hanna, the relief force attacked through mud and driving rain against a well-entrenched enemy and incurred heavy casualties. The Rangers alone suffered 285 casualties, including their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Murray.

Victory at Hanna gave the Turks time to construct a series of elaborate defenses on both banks of the Tigris. These fortifications frustrated successive British attempts to fight through to the beleaguered garrison at Kut, which was eventually forced to surrender on April 29, 1916. Despite this humiliating defeat for the British, the Connaught Rangers had won praise for their actions at the battles of Abu Roman and Beit Aiessa, where they had displayed the courage and dash for which their regiment was renowned. Before a year had passed, a reorganized and greatly reinforced British army, which still included the Connaught Rangers, had launched a fresh offensive. This succeeded in not only capturing Baghdad in March 1917, but also secured most of Mosul, to the north.

(Iraqi) Arab resentment exploded in a countrywide rebellion in 1920, which the British attempted to suppress by resorting to indiscriminate aerial bombardment and the use of poison gas.

As the war drew to a close, the Arab population of Mesopotamia had high expectations that the defeat of the Ottoman Empire would bring about their own independence. These hopes were soon dashed when the League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to administer the three provinces, which were to be united as a new country known as Iraq.

Arab resentment exploded in a countrywide rebellion in 1920, which the British attempted to suppress by resorting to indiscriminate aerial bombardment and the use of poison gas. Speaking for this approach, Winston Churchill, then British secretary of state for war and air, said: "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes."

Irish involvement in this shameful campaign rested with 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, based near the ruins of ancient Babylon. This battalion distinguished itself during an Arab attack upon a British column near Diwaniyeh and also took part in the relief of Kufah, near Najaf. In a less savory episode, however, the Rifles participated in an operation to deprive Arabs of their water supplies by seizing the Hindiyeh Barrage on the Euphrates.

Imperial War Museum
A group of officers of the 5th Battalion, Connaught Rangers, 1915.

The defeat of the revolt ushered in a period of relative peace during which time the British attempted to unite Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious groups. The creation of an Iraqi monarchy and the introduction of a limited form of democracy paved the way for independence in 1930, yet most Iraqis still believed that their country was merely a satellite of the British empire. This view was confirmed early in World War 2 when British forces intervened to safeguard the Kirkuk oil fields and then crushed an attempted coup d'etat by pro-German Iraqi army officers. Irish troops, as represented by 2nd Battalion, Inniskilling Fusiliers, served in the region in 1942 following the creation of PAIFORCE (Persia and Iraq Command). This formation was established as a countermeasure to the German advance through Georgia that threatened to embroil Turkey, Persia, and Iraq. The Inniskillings remained with PAIFORCE until the danger passed and was then redeployed to the invasion of Sicily.

Dungarvan Museum
A cap badge of the Royal Irish Rifles.

Irish soldiers did not return to Iraq for almost 50 years. In 1990, Iraq's ruthless leader, Saddam Hussein, launched an invasion of neighboring Kuwait in an attempt to satisfy, by force, Iraq's longstanding claim to this territory. A powerful international military coalition was assembled, with United Nations backing, to evict Iraqi armed forces and restore Kuwaiti autonomy.

Serving in the British component of Operation Desert Storm were two armoured regiments with a long Irish heritage. 16th/5th The Queen's Royal Lancers, had been formed by a merger of 16th Lancers and 5th Royal Irish Lancers. This unit was attached to 1st (British) Armoured Division in which it performed a reconnaissance role. The Queen's Royal Irish Hussars, equipped with 57 Challenger Main Battle Tanks, served as part of 7th Armoured Brigade -- "The Desert Rats." The Hussars was given the honour of leading the British advance on the right flank of 7th US Corps and played a significant part in the destruction of the Iraqi Republican Guard.

This brings us to the current deployment of Irish regiments in Iraq. The Royal Irish Regiment is one of the most recent additions to the British army, 

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having been formed in 1992 by a merger of the Royal Irish Rangers with the infamous Ulster Defence Regiment. The Regiment's General Service Battalion was deployed to the Gulf from its base in Kent, England, and is currently in Basra as part of 16 Air Assault Brigade. The regiment received a spate of worldwide publicity when Lt. Col. Tim Collins, a native of County Down, delivered a stirring speech to his 750-man battalion as it prepared for its incursion into Iraq from Kuwait. (Click here to read his remarks. )

1st Battalion, Irish Guards was part of a Battle Group based in the appropriately named Munster, in Germany, when it received orders to redeploy. It was attached to 7th Armoured Brigade at Basra where it, unfortunately, suffered two fatalities. Lance Corporal Ian Malone, from Dublin, 28, and Piper Christopher Muzvuru, 20, from Gweru, Zimbabwe, were both slain on April 6 by sniper fire. The regiment returned to England on April 14.

Like the ancient Babylonian King, Belshazzar, Saddam Hussein may have seen the writing on the wall predicting the collapse of his regime. Only time will tell if this time Britain's Irish regiments will help bring lasting peace to this troubled land.

Coventry-based Kieron Punch (kcpunch@thewildgeese.com) is WGT's U.K. correspondent.

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Tags: Iraq, Irish, Middle East, War

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