May Day at Kut and Kenthal

Inasmuch as the historian’s craft depends on written records, then the answer to the question posed in the title of V. Gordon Childe’s classic book about the Tigris and Euphrates, What Happened in History? is well answered in the title of another classic book on the same subject by Samuel Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, because that’s where writing began. With the American ‘liberation’ of Iraq and the subsequent destruction of the library of Baghdad and its museum of antiquities, we could say, therefore, that history while not quite coming to an end has become impossible to write. However, there are other sources of knowledge of the past, such as song and story, flora and fauna, with which we’ll have to make do, not to mention what we remember. Baghdad scholarship survived the sacking by Genghis Khan and there is no reason to think that it will not persist after the burning of the books by the U.S.A.

Still…Following the planetary mobilizations of February15 and March 22, on the one hand, and this barbaric devastation of Iraq on the other, we don’t feel exactly like dancing around the Maypole. We need that history which seizes hold of “a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” While the storm from paradise blows us into the future, the angel of history turns its face to the past, commemorating, remembering: May Day and the Haymarket hangings: May Day and the 8-hour day struggle: the May Days of soixante-huite: May Day and the struggles against apartheid: May Day and the central American solidarity movement. We do not smile. While the Americans are wrapping the cradle of civilization in its winding sheet, the angel of history stops at May Day 1916 and the terrible siege, surrender, and slaughter at Kut on the Tigris river.

Every May Day story has its point, and Rosa Luxemburg expresses mine: “The brilliant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, immediate stepping forward of the proletarian masses, the political mass action of the millions of workers,” she wrote on the eve of the Great War, and wasn’t it so just last month, March 22, and the month before, 15 February, when we millions around the planet autonomously stepped forward? And why did we autonomously step forward? Peace in Iraq. Yet, Red Rosa said that “The direct, international mass manifestation: the strike [was] a demonstration and means of struggle for the eight-hour day, world peace, and socialism.” Peace, yes; but we left aside the 8-hour day and socialism. Is that why we failed to stop the war?

In the spring of 1916 at Verdun two million men were engaged in massive mutual holocaust; there were 676,000 losses. In Mesopotamia, tens and scores of thousands of sepoys of the Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D,’ on behalf of the British Empire, disembarked at Basra at the beginning of the war, with the strategic objectives: 1) securing the oil supply from Persia, 2) protecting the main corridor to India, and 3) preventing a jihad combining Arab, Afghan, with a rising in India. We could sum it up, as Connolly did, “the capitalist class of Great Britain, the meanest, most unscrupulous governing class in all history, is out for plunder.” A fourth objective emerged on the sly. British government in India wished to annex Mesopotamia, but British empire in London preferred to operate from its lair in Cairo than Delhi.

The lure of Baghdad proved irresistible to General Townshend, the commander. Foolishly (for the Persian refineries were already secured) he led the re-named Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force up the Tigris River extending his lines of communication far beyond the powers of his base to supply it with food. Repulsed before reaching Baghdad, he was forced to retreat a hundred miles to Kut. There followed a four months siege, a humiliating defeat, and surrender on the eve of May first 1916. Parallel with this narrative of disaster ran two sub-plots, a) the soldiers’ resistance, and b) the orientalizing derring-do of Lawrence of Arabia and the charming wiles of Gertrude Bell.

Townshend found keeping up morale “the most difficult of all military operations” and one in which the British soldier is “very prone to get out of hand.” They arrived and dug in at Kut after two days of forced marches, and then suffered heat, exhaustion, floods, disease, famine. The Indian battalions had practically become “armed bands.” The bulk of the troops were Muslim. Seditious pamphlets in Urdu and in Hindustani tempting the troops to rise and murder their officers, join their bothers the Turks, who would pay them better and provide grants of land. One sepoy did attempt to shoot his officer, several deserted, and twelve to fourteen soldiers cut off their trigger fingers. Many were from Punjab. Dysentery claimed fifteen dead a day, and twenty from starvation. Townshend complained about the “trans-border Pathans.” He wanted them returned to India. They refused to eat horseflesh, and though he mixed Hindu and Mohammedan on picket duty and outpost work, he could not break their solidarity. Altogether, seventy-two deserted.

Moberly, whose three volumes on the Mesopotamian campaign provides the official history, explained: since the Pathans were without private property, the British promise to assure rightful succession to their property in the event of their being killed was without effect! Behind this logic were imperial fears of mutiny and commonism. Against these, terror was the traditional remedy. The Arab inhabitants of Kut would not sell their food. Townshend asked headquarters for gold, and explained, “I could not flog 6,000 people into taking paper money. All I could do was to keep them in good behavior by shooting one now and then pour encourager les autres when spies, etc., were caught.”

Gertrude Bell was the first woman to win a First in Modern History at Oxford. Her grandfather was a rich British industrialist, supplying one third of British iron. She danced, she rode horse, she spoke Arabic, quoted Milton, archaeologically discovered cities, charmed imperious egos. She became the silken agent of English guile. Gertrude Bell wrote from Military Intelligence’s Arab Bureau, next to the Cairo Savoy, “It’s great fun.” In Cairo Lawrence intrigued to encourage the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Gertrude Bell was dispatched to India. The disaster at Kut put a decided damper on its ambitions. “I hate war; oh, and I’m so weary of it–of war, of life,” as she sighed from Basra, in March 1916 during the frightful heat. That was the month that the British government began to pay Sharif Hussein £125,000 gold sovereigns a month, a deal she helped set up.

Gertrude dallied with Lawrence, “We have had great talks and made vast schemes for the government of the universe. He goes up river tomorrow, where the battle is raging these days.” A month after the surrender, indeed, the Arab revolt began. Lawrence was able to write a scathing report on the Indian army’s operations in Mesopotamia. The English political officer, “Cox is entirely ignorant of Arab societies,” plotted Lawrence. An obstacle to the Arab revolt–Indian ambitions for the cradle of civilization–had been discredited. “The most important thing of all will be cash,” quoth his instructions. In April Lawrence was authorized to offer the Turks £1,000,000 to quit the siege of Kut, though he doubled it, Khalil Pasha rejected it scornfully.

In March Lawrence read Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, several parallels may be made–the thirst (“Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink”), the sun, the heat, the loneliness, the guilt of the mariner for his responsibility in the wanton murder of the crew. What sights had Lawrence seen in Kut? Who were the starving and wasting men? The English were from Dorsetshire and Norfolk, depressed agricultural counties, hardy specimens of the English proletariat whose experience was depression. There were Punjabis, Pathans. The Inland Water Transport Service employed in its Mesopotamian contingents men from the British West Indies Regiment, the Nigerian Marine Regiment, the West African Regiment, the Coloured Section, the Egyptian Labour Corps. Lawrence saw starve the motley international of an imperialist army.

The many men, so beautiful! And they all dead did lie: And a thousand thousand slimy things Lived on; and so did I.

Lawrence, clearly, would have his limitations as an imperial servant: though it was oil they craved, in his master’s view empire was not slime!

February 1916 finds Gandhi speaking in Karachi. Having returned to India the year before he vowed to be silent for a year, and only recently had he begun to speak out. Truth and fearlessness were his themes, as only they could remove the demoralizing atmosphere of sycophancy and falsity. However, these salutary results required not–spitting. Self-restraint was the necessary condition to national liberation, he taught, “when we conquer our so-called conquerors.” Earlier that month, however, despite not–spitting, he created a furious row with a speech at Benares Hindu University. “It is necessary that our hearts have got to be touched and that our hands and feet have got to be moved”–the doctrine of satyagraha was activist or nothing. “In her impatience India has produced an army of anarchists,” he continued. “I myself am an anarchist but of another type.” He contrasted himself to the anarchist terrorists responsible for the bombing campaign which before the war had annulled the British partition of Bengal. “I honor the anarchist for his love of country. I honor him for his bravery in being willing to die for his country; but I ask him: Is killing honorable?” Just as the argument in front of the students was promising to get interesting, Miss Annie Besant, the English liberal, interrupted, “Please stop it.” Later she explained she had noticed the CID taking notes, “I meant to do him a kindness and prevent the more violent interruption which would probably have taken place, had I remained silent.” More slime.

Gandhi may have overlapped with Gertrude Bell in Karachi, but where Gandhi derived nourishment from the people, she pitied them: “Swollen with wind and the rank mists we draw” is the phrase she remembers in April from Milton’s Lycidias. It is from a passage about corruption between leaders and led which begins with what? the slime of Wolf Blitzer from the desert? a Pentagon briefing? Ari Fleisher?

What recks it them? What need they? They are sped; And when they list, their lean and flashy songs Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw; The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw, Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread; Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw Daily devours apace, and nothing said. Not a glimmer of proletarian creativity could allay the view of people as sheep. Milton at any rate went in dialogue with the Levellers and Diggers of his day, while Gertrude Bell used Milton as an another code of ruling class mutual recognition.

She did not draw the parallel to the experience which the surgeon at Kut remembered, namely, that the cats became bolder as food became scarcer and they began “with privy paw” to lurk about the windows and doorways of the surgery. Major Barber, the English saw-bones, was not pleased by his first impression of Kut, “Approaching from the east, almost the first thing that caught the eye was a gibbet.” He spent days with stretcher-bearers, bhisties, and women water drawers. The soldiers called the place “Messypot,” he tells us. Night-time shelling they called “the hate.” He cursed war and the economic necessities that bring it about. Famine advanced. Then came the slaughter of the beasts–a thousand horses, mules, camels, all except the officers’ chargers, and Townshend’s dog whose daily walk counted among Barber’s duties. He composed a menu, reflecting the class of the rank and file.

Potage aux Os de Cheval Sauterelles Sautés Starlings en Canapé Filet de mule Entrecote de Chameau

For Major Barber May Day 1916 was the arrival of the hospital ship with jam, swag, and bubbly.

In 29 April after a siege of four and a half months General Townshend lowered the Union Jack and burned it. 23,000 soldiers had been killed in four futile attempts to relieve the siege; then on the eve of May Day 13,000 were taken prisoner. “It was one of the great mistakes in British military history,” writes Barker, The Neglected War: Mesopotamia, 1914-1918. The prisoners? Captain Shakeshaft observed them ragged, barefooted, dying of dysentery. “One saw British soldiers dying with a green ooze issuing from their lips, their mouths fixed open, in and out of which flies walked.” Many were contracted to railway construction for a German company working in Turkey. Altogether the British empire lost 40,000 casualties, concludes Moberley.

If in America the capacity to inflict terror in Iraq while simultaneously denying it is called Liberation, in England it goes by The Stiff Upper Lip. Gertrude Bell and General Townshend didn’t let the side down. Despite having had her black silk gown rifled by pilfering hands at the Delhi P.O., she cheerfully wrote referring to the mulberries and blossoming pomegranates, “Even Basra has a burst of glory in April.” As for General Townshend, he concluded the Terms of Surrender with this: “Finally, I asked Khalil Pacha to send my faithful fox-terrier “Spot” down to the British force to my friend Sir Wilfred Peek, so that he might reach home. He was with me in the Battles of Kurna, he was at Ctespiphon and in the retreat, and he killed many cats during the defense of Kut. He reached England safely, and I met him on my return to my home in Norfolk.”

Gertrude Bell would become known as “the uncrowned queen of Iraq,” after the British took Baghdad in February 1917. She wrote in words that could come Ms. Robin Raphel, slated to run the Iraq trade ministry, or Ms. Barbara Bodine, awaiting her assignment in Wolfie of Arabia’s Iraq, “we shall, I trust, make it a great centre of Arab civilization, a prosperity; that will be my job partly, I hope, and I never lose sight of it.” James Connolly explained on St Patrick’s Day 1916 “The essential meanness of the British Empire is that it robs under the pretence of being generous, and it enslaves under pretence of liberating.” Hence, the flash song of liberation grates on the scrannel pipes of wretched straw which we know are there not to sing songs but to suck up you-know-what.

In “Mesopotamia–1917” Rudyard Kipling wet his whistle, cleared his throat of anything that might grate, and definitely raised his voice to express grief and a very healthy specific –class hatred:

They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young, The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave: But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung, Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour? When the storm is ended shall we find How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power By their favor and contrivance of their kind?

Mercifully, Kipling leaves God out of it. Plus, he demands justice, not oil, to compensate for the sacrifice of the young. Kipling told one half of the story. The other half remains to be told. Is it too late for the Subaltern Studies historians to recover the oral tradition of the POWs who fled, deserted, and escaped from Kut? Some people were ready to answer Kipling’s two questions.

They met in Switzerland, a center of internationalism (financial, artistic, and revolutionary) but unconnected by Internet or al-Jazeera or Robert Fisk, with the disasters between the Tigris and Euphrates. Their remedy for war and famine which only anti-capitalist revolutionaries can provide was offered up from the Alpine village of Kienthal. Two such different ecologies, different elevations, different temperatures, different flora and fauna, at Kut and Kienthal would be hard to imagine, and yet as human communities both in 1916 retained links with a non-industrial commons–the booleying of the high pastures in the latter, the marsh Arabs on their reeds and islands in the former. The previous September anti-imperialist socialists had secretly and bravely met at Zimmerwald. The work of such intrepid souls as Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg resulted in the Kienthal Manifesto of May Day 1916. The manifesto was preceded by debate and discussion.

Rosa Luxemburg published her “Junius” pamphlet in the spring of 1916, as if with Bechtel Corportion and Baghdad in mind. “Business is flourishing upon the ruins. Cities are turned to rubble, whole countries into deserts, villages into cemeteries, whole populations into beggars .. thus stands bourgeois society as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity.” As for the proletariat, “no pre-established schemas, no ritual that holds good at all times shows it the path that it must travel. Historical experience is its only teacher; its Via Dolorosa to self-liberation is covered not only with immeasurable suffering, but with countless mistakes.”

None were bitterer than she over the betrayal of July 1914 when the so-called representatives of the European international proletariat voted with their national belligerents, sending millions of fellow workers to slaughter one another. She noted that socialism is “the first popular movement in world history that has set as its goal, and is ordained by history, to establish a conscious sense in the social life of man, a definite plan, and thus, free will.” But it does not fall like manna from heaven. She posed a choice: “either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery. Or, the victory of socialism, that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method: war.” Amid the slaughter of Verdun and the starvation of Kut, she returned to an axiom of history: human beings make it, the conscious historical action by conscious historical will. They did not pretend that peace was patriotic, nor that they could win without struggle.

Lenin gave a speech in Switzerland in February 1916. He quoted The Appeal to Reason of 11 September 1915. Eugene Debs said, “I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of the plutocracy, but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight from the ruling class I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and this is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary.” Gloden Dallas & Douglas Gill, The Unknown Army: Mutinies in the British Army in World War I (Verso 1985) write that a year later, also on 11 September, the English recruits in France mutinously demonstrated. In Mesopotamia the soldiers organized themselves to return home, when ordered up country against the local population. One of the veterans remembered, “We refused saying that we had not enlisted for this purpose & as there was always trouble there, we should have had difficulty in getting back. We stood our ground & gained the day”

Lenin welcomed “The Junius Pamphlet,” although he argued the necessity of wars of national liberation. In Zürich during the spring of 1916 Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism which would be used in the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century–China, India, Kenya, Algeria, Vietnam. He studied the growth of monopolies and cartels; he studied finance capital: “It spreads its net over all countries of the world.” He observed its dynamics: 1) “the more capitalism is developed the more desperate the struggle for raw materials,” or 2) “imperialism is, in general, a striving towards violence and reaction.” He explained how the proletariat drew rank mist and became swollen with wind. Super-profits from plundering colonies enabled the metropolitan working classes to become opportunist and susceptible to nationalist appeals, permitting the betrayal of the trade unions and socialist parties. “It has grown ripe, overripe, and rotten,” Lenin wrote. He noted its two fundamental weaknesses, a) it bribed its lower class into acquiescence, and b) its armies were recruited from subject peoples.

Lenin lived around the corner from the Caberet Voltaire where the artists and musicians in the spring of 1916 thought up the name Dada for an art to cure the madness of the age. Ed Sanders in volume one of his beautiful America: A History in Verse (Black Sparrow, 2000), described an evening there,

–a holy, mind-freeing rinse of nonsense to laugh away the stench of the trench a Rinse heard as far away as San Francisco

If theirs was the rinse, Lenin gave the scrubbing. Lenin quoted Cecil Rhodes, “if you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.” This precisely was the pivot point: how to turn imperialist war into civil war. Here was the transition from defense to offense. Rosa Luxemburg too argued against the siege mentality in favor of armed, free people on’amove. You study Lenin and Luxemburg in that year and you do not find sectarian bitterness or the irreconcilable differences of gender antagonism. Among the many things Luxemburg and Lenin agreed on that year was denunciation of the Social Democrats for refusing to intercede on behalf of a comrade in the Cameroons who faced a death sentence for organizing an uprising against the war. These are comrades denouncing war, condemning betrayal of the official opposition, analyzing imperialism, praising the creativity of the working-class, and they search the world to find it.

From these discussions came the Kienthal May Day Manifesto of 1916. If Kut describes a progenitor of our problem, then Kinethal describes a solution. It’s words apply to us. Addressed to workers of town and country, “You have only the right to starve and to keep silent. You face the chains of the state of siege, the fetters of censorship, and the stale air of the dungeon. They try to incite you to betray your class duty and tear out of your heart your greatest strength, your hope of socialism.”

“The governments, the imperialist cliques, and their press tell you that it is necessary to hold out in order to free the oppressed nations. Of all the methods of deception that have been used in this war, this is the crudest. For some, the real aim of this universal slaughter is to maintain what they have seized over the centuries and conquered in many wars. Others want to divide up the world over again, in order to increase their possessions. They want to annex new territories, tear whole peoples apart and degrade them to the status of common serfs and slaves.”

“Courage! Remember that you are the majority and that if you so desire the power can be yours.” By May 1916 Dubois and James Connolly had found the desire and the courage. It consisted of a) defense against terrorism and b) offense against imperialism.

DuBois had recently written that “Africa is the prime cause of this terrible overturning of civilization,” World War. He wrote “the white working man has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers.'” Having invaded Haiti, Santo Domingo, Mexico, and Nicaragua, the U.S.A. grew rank with terror and racism. Marcus Garvey of Jamaica arrived in New York in the spring of 1916, asking DuBois to chair his meeting. Dubois called for a revolution, “democracy in determining income is the next inevitable step to democracy in political power.” When the Easter rebels were called fools, DuBois appealed to the heavens, “would to God some of us had sense enough to be fools!” May Day at DuBois’ The Crisis was entirely occupied in the struggle against lynching. It inveighed against the terrorism in the U.S.A. The April issue was against the lynching of six men in Georgia, while the next issue, on “The Waco Horror,” reproduced the most searing photographs of the century, the charred stumps of mutilated, burned, and hanged Texas proletarians.

James Connolly reiterated, A Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight! He discovered the war profiteers. He analyzed the economic incentives for joining up (unemployment + cash for women who sent their husbands to war). He berated the union bureaucrats and praised the Dublin dockers and London seamen. He recalled British robbery of Irish common lands, and in that stroke of genius which operates by observing the obvious he noted that “the spirit of adventure” must be counted a revolutionary force. He doubted that the political leprosy of militarism could be excised without the red tide of war. Opportunities are for those who seize them, and so, on to Easter.

The rule of insurrection is audacity, audacity, audacity! So, despite the capture on Sunday of Roger Casement and the loss of the arms he was shipping from Germany, the Easter Rising commenced anyway on Monday, 24 April 1916, asserting the right of the men and women of Ireland to its ownership, in the oft-reprinted proclamation. Though crushed in less than a week, its reverberations thrilled the oppressed from Jamaica to Bengal. In Dublin Connie Markievicz was second-in-command at Stephen’s Green. The Easter rising seized buildings about the town which communicated with one another by means of bicyclists. To her disappointment she was spared execution owing to her gender, and instead awakened on May Day in her cell at Kilmainham Gaol to the sound of rifle reports as her comrades were executed by firing squad. They removed her to prison in England where she amused the bread-and-water gang by extensively reciting from The Inferno, as well as her own words:

Dead hearts, dead dreams, dead days of ecstasy, Can you not live again? Nay, for we never died

Joe Hill, the song writer, was shot on 19 November 1915. James Larkin came over from Dublin for the funeral where they sang his popular, “The Rebel Girl,”

There are women of many descriptions In this queer world, as every one knows, Some are living in beautiful mansions, And are wearing the finest of clothes. These are blue-blooded queens and princesses Who have charms made of diamonds and pearls: But the only and Thoroughbred Lady Is the Rebel Girl.

The proletarian revolution is not the restoration of matriarchy, though it definitely entails the defeat of patriarchy and Hausfrauiszierung (to use the phrase of Maria Miess). And we can easily understand, given the leadership of the women of the planet on the great days of February 15 and March 22, that the term ‘proletarian,’ etymologically speaking, meant the women or breeders of empire, but now taking steps to realize our planetary power as a class.

We have looked back with the angel of history–at the low siege, surrender, and slaughter at Kut, and at the high Alpine manifesto of proletarian internationalism of Kienthal, and still the wind blows us into the future, which the ruins of the libraries of Baghdad and the bleeding of funds for the municipal libraries in the USA, have not yet destroyed, for we take the treasures with us. The coincidences of May Day (Kut and Kienthal) like the coincidences of September 11 (mutiny and terror) are not magic, though they need to be discovered; they arise merely from probabilities. May Day is one day in 365. 11 September is another rotation of the planet. As the earth rotates prior to our revolution, these are the constants: imperialism and the struggle against it, capitalism and the struggle against it, capital punishment and the struggle against it. Meanwhile, against the slime, Gandhi said clean up your act.

Against the flash song, Lenin offered economic analysis. Against terror, DuBois offered unflinching truth. Against the swollen wind and rank mist of patriotism, Red Rosa offered the International. Against all the odds, James Connolly offered audacity. Against defeat, Joe Hill offered laughter.

We learn from Franklin Rosemont’s magnificent Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture (Charles Kerr, 2003) that the cremated ashes of Joe Hill were put in envelopes and sent to every IWW local in every country of the world –Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe –and were released to the breezes on May Day 1916. For the followers of the sky-gods, Jahweh and Allah, we laugh with Joe Hill,

You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay, You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

As for the dirt-gods, Mammon and Moloch, not having mopped them up, we have not yet earned our laugh.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at Bard College. He is the author of the London Hanged and The Many-headed Hydra. He can be reached at:



Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: