Iraq has forever been the geostrategic keystone of the Middle East, and for this reason conquering the country from the Ottoman Empire was one of Britain’s top priorities during World War I. In what became known as the Mesopotamian Campaign, British forces mostly deployed from India (styled as the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, MEF), invaded Iraq. They had a relatively easy time seizing the southern parts of the country, but later ran into severe trouble in central Iraq, as the British high command was incredibly overconfident, and severely underestimated the abilities and zeal of the Ottoman forces. However, after the campaign see-sawed between the two sides, the British gained a momentous victory when they marched into Baghdad on March 11, 1917.
It was at this point that the present archive comes into play. While the MEF had conquered the majority of Iraq, the northern part of the country, approximating the territory of the Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul, remained firmly in the Sultan’s hands. The British high command knew that they had to take Northern Iraq for two reasons. First, the British hold over Baghdad was not secure as long as the enemy controlled the higher lands up the Tigris River. Second, Northern Iraq was of key strategic and economic importance, as it was the nexus between the Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Persia, as well as being rich in petroleum resources; securing physical possession of the region would likely ensure that it would remain under British control following any postwar settlement.
However, prying Northern Iraq from the Ottomans would be a difficult task. The region was incredibly rugged, full of easily defensive positions, and featured many long stretches without adequate water supplies. The region was not mapped to a reliable and consistent degree, as while some specific areas had been scientifically charted to a high level in recent years, variously by British, German or Ottoman civilian and military surveyors, many places, especially afield from the major rivers, remained almost complete enigmas. Without a precise knowledge of the landscape, British forces could easily be trapped and ambushed; gaining a proper geographic intelligence was not merely a point of convenience, but rather a matter of life and death.
In the spring of 1917, at their General Headquarters in Baghdad, the British formed the ‘Map Compilation Section G.H.Q.’, staffed by military cartographers and draftsmen, many with prior experience in the Middle East. The Section was given access to an impressive archive of maps that included the best published German and Ottoman military maps, British maps of the Middle East published in both London and Calcutta (the Survey of India handled much of the British mapping in Iraq), as well as surveys made by the Turkish Petroleum Company, the Baghdad Railway and the canal/irrigation surveys made by Sir William Wilcox executed shortly before the war. In preparing maps of Northern Iraq, the Section had an awesome undertaking, as it was challenging to piece together an accurate general picture of a region from so many (sometimes conflicting) sources. In some cases, the Section benefitted from fresh surveys from aerial or territorial reconnaissance by British (which were very dangerous assignments for those in the field).
The Map Compilation Section succeed in creating a series of impressive maps useful to guide military movement through all of the seminal areas of Northern Iraq (as exemplified by the maps in the present archive). Although these maps were often prepared in some haste, responding to short orders from the front, and were not complete or correct in every sense, they are remarkable accomplishments considering the circumstances under which they were made. They label all major topographic features, transport corridors (noting their appropriateness for motored vehicles, such as LAMBs, or Light Armoured Motor Batteries), towns and villages, archaeological sites (including breaking discoveries), water holes, information on the locals, as well as the location of oil wells (thus areas of future economic value to the British Empire). The maps, heliozincographed from manuscripts at the Section’s Baghdad workshop, were printed in black, often with elevation contours in beige and overlayed with a red grid reference and details (such as trenches). The maps, which followed a sequential numbering (with some maps seamlessly connecting to others to form the larger picture), are all marked with their precise day of issue, as templates were often updated as new intelligence arrived fast and furious into Baghdad.
The Section’s maps of Northern Iraq were by far and away the most comprehensive and accurate maps of the region made to date and were recorded as having been vitally useful to British commanders during the war. They also served as the basis for the mapping of the region during postwar period, as the British Iraqi mandate regime employed them for oil exploration, infrastructure development and for suppressing civil unrest, while academics found them most useful for archaeological investigations (all of them maps are jam-packed with the locations of ruins of ancient cites and the remains of former canals).
All maps produced by the Map Compilation Section G.H.Q. are today extremely rare, as they were only issued in very small print runs for field use, and naturally have a very low survival rate. Indeed, many of the supposed numbers for the Section’s series are not known to survive today, while only the British Library and the Bodleian Library (Oxford) hold any significant collections of the maps. For instance, of the present assemblage of 8 maps, 3 are known in only a single institutional example each, while we cannot trace even a single example for 5 of the maps.
The Present Collection in Focus
N.B. A complete listing of the present archive’s 8 maps can be found towards the end of this catalogue description.
Present here is a collection, or archive, of 8 maps from the Map Compilation Section’s series for Northern Iraq. All of the maps show signs of field use, with some featuring contemporary manuscript annotations and handstamps of the ‘Army Signals’ Corps. The maps concern various key events of the British conquest of Northern Iraq, from March 1917 to November 1918, which marked the final chapter of Mesopotamian Campaign.
The first two maps set the general scene, with Map #1, Tikrit-Baqubah and Map #2, Kirkuk, connecting to form an uninterrupted overview of the main battle theatre in Northern Iraq. With both maps done to a scale of 4 miles to an inch, they collectively cover the upper Tigris valley, from Baqubah, about 65 km north-northeast of Baghdad, all the north up to Al-Shirqat, about 110 km south of Mosul, in between which hosted much of the British-Ottoman conflict during the final year-and-a-half of the war, including the key military targets of Samarra, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Al-Fatah and Al-Shirqat.
The MEF’s operations in Northern Iraq can be divided into three main phases. The first occurred in the spring of 1917, in the immediate wake of the British capture of Baghdad. In March-April 1917, the British deployed forces to capture Samarra, the main piece of the Samarrah Offensive (March 13 – April 23, 1917) (Refer to Map #3, Samarrah). Samarra, located about 130 km north-northwest of Baghdad, was critically the terminus of the partially completed Iraqi section of the Baghdad Railway (a depicted upon the map), the planned grand line that was to run from Istanbul to Baghdad. Elsewhere, the British seized the important city of Kirkuk on May 7, located up the Lower Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris (Kirkuk was Iraq’s most promising place for oil exploration, refer back to Map #2).
The second stage concerned securing the Tigris above Samarra, notable the MEF’s operation to take the major Ottoman army base and army depots at Tikrit, historically the hometown of Salah al-Din, and later Saddam Hussein. The town fell only after the bloody Battle of Tikrit, on November 5, 1917 (Refer to Map #4, Tikrit Position).
For some months thereafter the British held defensive positions, for a variety of complicated factors. However, by the beginning of October 1918, it became clear that the British would soon gain ultimate victory over the Ottomans in World War I. While it was believed that the Mesopotamian heartlands up to just above Baghdad would safely remain under British control following the postwar settlement, the fate of Northern Iraq, with all its potential petroleum resources, remained very much up in the air. If the British did not act with alacrity, the region might fall under some kind of postwar Turkish rule or be placed under French control.
In the third stage, the British resolved to drive up the Tigris Valley all the way up to take Mosul, the possession of which would likely guarantee British control over all of Northern Iraq in years following the war. The British had to race against the clock, as any land that they did not hold by the time that the expected armistice was called might not be counted in their postwar gains.
MEF forces under General Alexander Cobbe moved to seize the critical Ottoman base at ‘Fat-Hah’ (Al-Fatah), which guarded a gorge along the Tigris. After three days of fighting, at the Battle of Fathah (October 23-26, 1918), the British took the village (Refer to Maps #5,6 and 7 – Fat-Hah…, of which Map #7, Fat-Hah Position, features an excellent record of the Ottoman trenches gained from aerial reconnaissance).
The British then move further up the Tigris to Al-Shirqat, which was located at the site of the ruins of the famous Assyrian city of Assur. The British managed to take the village at the Battle of Sharqat (October 23–30, 1918) (Refer to Map #8, Qalāt-ash-Sharqāt), which was accomplished on the last day of the war in the Middle East, when the British and Ottomans signed the Armistice of Mudros (October 30, 1918).
Al-Shirqat was the gateway to Mosul, and despite it being against what was agreed at Mudros, the MEF pushed on, securing Mosul on November 10, 1918. The British conquest of Northern Iraq was consequential, as in the postwar settlement the region was placed within the British sphere of control, as part of the puppet state of the Kingdom of Iraq. While the British regime would have considerable difficulty maintaining control of the country, in 1927 a colossal oil gusher was discovered at ‘Baba Gurgur’ near Kirkuk (labeled on Map #2), thus establishing Iraq as a major petroleum power, so redefining the political and economic destiny of the Middle East for generations.
The Maps Listed:
Tikrit-Baqubah / T.C. 116 / Dated 29-9-17 / Scale – 1 inch to 4 Miles.
[Baghdad:] Map Compilation Section G.H.Q., September 29, 1917.
Heliozincograph in colours, mounted upon original linen, with contemporary manuscript annotations in pencil, with ‘Army Signals’ handstamp to verso (Very Good, wear along old folds and some mild toning), 60.5 x 50.5 cm (24 x 20 inches).
Kirkuk / Sketch T.C. 147 / Dated 31-10-17 / Scale – 1 inch to 4 Miles.
[Baghdad:] Map Compilation Section G.H.Q., October 31, 1917.
Heliozincograph in colours, mounted upon original linen, contemporary pastedown correction patch to lower right corner (Very Good, some light staining and wear along old folds), 50.5 x 59.5 cm (20 x 23.5 inches).
Samarrah / Sketch Map T.C. 97(B) / Dated 14-10-17 / Scale 1 Inch to 1 Mile.
[Baghdad:] Map Compilation Section G.H.Q., October 14, 1917.
Heliozincograph in colours, mounted upon original linen, a few contemporary manuscript markings in pencil and indigo pen, with ‘Army Signals’ handstamp to verso (Good, some light staining and wear along old folds, contemporarily trimmed on top and both side margins but with no real loss to mapped area), 57 x 45.5 cm (22.5 x 18 inches).
Tikrit Position / T.C. 199 / Dated 23-3-18 / Scale 3 ins to 1 Mile.
[Baghdad:] Map Compilation Section G.H.Q., March 23, 1918.
Heliozincograph in colours, mounted upon original linen (Very Good, some light wear along old folds, some areas of mild toning), 51 x 57 cm (20 x 22.5 inches).
[Al Fatah] Fat-Hah / T.C. 227 / Dated 11-5-18 / Scale – 1 inch to 1 mile.
[Baghdad:] Map Compilation Section G.H.Q., May 11, 1918.
Heliozincograph in colours, mounted upon original linen (Very Good, some light staining and wear along old folds), 61.5 x 50.5 cm (24 x 20 inches).
Fatah occupied May 21, 1918.
[Al Fatah] Fat-Hah / T.C. 227(A) / Dated 15-10-18 / Scale. 1 inch to 1 mile.
[Baghdad:] Map Compilation Section G.H.Q., October 15, 1918.
Heliozincograph in colours, some contemporary manuscript annotations in pencil, mounted upon original linen (Good, some light wear along old folds, a notable stain upper left, some mild stains otherwise), 60 x 50.5 cm (23.5 x 20 inches).
[Al Fatah] Fat-Hah Position / T.C. 228(A) / Dated 13-10-18 / Scale 3 ins to 1 Mile.
[Baghdad:] Map Compilation Section G.H.Q., October 13, 1918.
Heliozincograph in colours, mounted upon original linen (Very Good, some light wear along old folds), 51 x 59 cm (20 x 23 inches).
[Al-Shirqat ] Qalāt-ash-Sharqāt / Sketch Map T.C. 248 / Dated 11-10-18 / Scale – 1 inch to 1 mile.
[Baghdad:] Map Compilation Section G.H.Q., October 11, 1918.
Heliozincograph in colours, mounted upon original linen (Very Good, some light staining and wear along old folds), 60.5 cx 50.5 cm (24 x 20 inches).
References: Map #2 – Kirkuk (only institutional example) – British Library: Maps X.16894; Map #3 – Samarrah (only institutional example): Bodleian Library (Oxford University): D19:12 (3); Map #7 – Fat-Hah Position (only institutional example): D19:12 (5); No institutional examples traced for Maps #1, 4, 5, 6 and 8.