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Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia, by Charles Townshend

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard Belknap Press, 2011. Pp. xxiv, 591 . Illus., maps. notes, index. $35.00. ISBN: 978-0-674-05999-3.

Perhaps partially inspired by events since 2003, in recent years there have been several works devoted to the protracted British campaign in what is now Iraq during the Great War.  In Desert Hell, Prof. Townshend (Keele), author of The Oxford History of Modern War,Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion , and several other works, has produced what is perhaps the best of these new looks at those long ago events.

Stressing that the British began operations in Mesopotamia almost casually, Townshend provides an excellent narrative and analysis of why they teetered on the verge of disaster for so long before managing to pull things together.  He does an extremely good job of laying out the basic political, strategic, economic, even cultural and environmental forces affecting operations in the theater, and provides a very detailed look at military movements and actions.  Although he tends to take a British perspective, treatment of the Turks is adequate.  The book includes some surprises, as Townshend sheds some interesting light on tensions between the British cabinet and the government of India over the campaign, and he is rather less critical of the hapless general who shares his name (though nothing else) who figured prominently in the early stages of the campaign. 

An important contribution to the literature on the Great War and the history of the modern Middle East, by no means of mere academic interest in the light of recent developments.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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