The house occupied by General Charles Townshend in Kut, in 1915, witnessed a dreadful defeat for the British military. Recently the building became a sweet shop. Local historians and preservationists are protesting – but not necessarily for the Britons’ sake.
Anyone who reads the name of this one particular candy store in the south eastern Iraqi city of Kut gets a bit of a surprise. Is a British general selling chocolates here? they might be tempted to ask.
But in fact, it’s just that the candy store is located in the house formerly occupied by General Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, the British military man who became famous after the 1915 British invasion of Iraq. As British newspaper The Guardian says, General Townshend, “a clever and resourceful soldier who knew the value of morale, and until the end kept the respect of his men” achieved a series of “cheap and brilliant victories”. However on his way to capture Baghdad – something many military experts thought was very ill advised – Townshend ended up stuck, under siege from Turkish forces, in Kut.
Forced to surrender because his men and the inhabitants of Kut were starving, Townshend himself was knighted in 1917 – although his reputation took a battering when news came out about how badly his surrendered forces were treated by the Turks – although obviously this was not Townshend’s fault.
And now Townshend’s old house, used by the British military in Kut, is in bad shape – and selling candies. Surrounded by markets, the two story building, around 500 metres square, went up around 200 years ago and reflects the architectural style of the period; the walls are decorated with Islamic scripture and other drawings. Apparently Townshend used to wake up every morning, head up to the roof of the house to view the trenches of the Ottoman army surrounding him and then go back to his room and write his memoirs.
Some locals recognize its significance and have called for the building to be preserved.
“This house symbolizes a very important period in Iraq’s history – when the British were defeated here after a very long siege,” local historian, Muthana Hassan Mahdi, told NIQASH. “Currently the house is owned by Abid al-Ibrahimi, a local merchant. He built some shops at the front end of the house but the premises were empty until the day that they became candy shops.”
“However,” Mahdi laments, “the current condition of this house indicate that there’s a lack of understanding about the historic value here.”
Mohsin Mansur, a professor at Wasit University, says he has called upon the state’s Ministry of Culture to take over ownership of the house before it is damaged any further. “Because any damage to this house is damage to Iraqi’s modern history,” Mansur argues.
“I am just afraid that we will lose all traces of this important phase in our history,” Mansur told NIQASH. “And that we will lose this and other important historic sites in Kut, the same way we have lost them in other Iraqi cities. If those who are responsible for the Iraqi culture do not take care of this site, and if they don’t appreciate its value, then we lose ourselves.”
At least some of the local authorities agree with the preservationists.
“The local government in Kut will not stay silent and it will do what is necessary to stop damage to the city’s archaeological sites,” Haider Jassim, assistant to the local minister for culture, says. Jassim added that they were making efforts to contact the house’s owner and then they’d investigate what further steps needed to be taken to preserve the building.
Although the sweet shops now hide the historical significance of what is known as “Townshend’s house” in Kut, the confectionary and a new coat of paint cannot hide the true nature of the place; stories about the house are still being told by those in the city, whose fathers and whose father’s fathers told them about the battles fought here.