III. British Occupation Issue, 1918-1920

Currency: Indian rupee (16 annas = 1 rupee)
Production: Bradbury Wilkinson & Company, London


First issued: 1st September 1918


First issued: 1920


 British soldiers in Iraq. This picture probably dates from the First World War rather than after it but, in my defence, the period being dealt with here isn't one of which free images abound. (  Library of Congress  )

British soldiers in Iraq. This picture probably dates from the First World War rather than after it but, in my defence, the period being dealt with here isn't one of which free images abound. (Library of Congress)

At the time the First World War broke out, the Ottoman government had contracted stamp production out to Bradbury Wilkinson & Company, a prominent British security printing operation. The firm designed and printed a very tasteful pictorial issue which was first issued by the Ottoman postal administration in 1914. The stamps depict various scenes of Constantinople and environs, excepting the 2 piastres which shows the Ottoman warship Hamidiye.[1] However the outbreak of war later in the year effectively severed the contract to produce and supply the stamps. The printing plates and etc. remained in Britain.

We skip forward to mid-1918 and find the Indian Expeditionary Force occupying a large part of Iraq following the capture of Baghdad (see previous page). A civil postal service was being gradually re-established in the territory under British control, and the British were looking forward to the area falling into their sphere of influence after the war. It was therefore thought desirable that stamps be issued, both to meet the regular needs of the postal service in Iraq, and to help stake out Britain's claim over the country. And so these stamps were born: the Bradbury Wilkinson stamps were resurrected, given a suitable overprint and dispatched to Iraq.

We'll return to the stamps shortly, as something probably needs to be said about the British occupation itself at this point. The whole Sykes-Picot thing is very well-known so I don't think too much detail needs to be gone into here, probably. Initially the inhabitants of the Middle East did not necessarily view the British and French as unwelcome guests, seeing as they had liberated the place from Turkish rule, but they hoped that, once the war was over, they would clear out and leave the place to its own devices. Of course, this was a rather optimistic assessment of the situation. Britain was awarded a League of Nations mandate to govern Iraq in April 1920, and when news of this reached Iraq the following month, anti-British manifestations began almost immediately. The mandate was seen as offensive on several fronts at once: the post-war division and military occupation of the Middle East by the European powers was intolerable to Arab nationalists (and to Iraqi and Kurdish nationalists, such as they were at that point), and the concept of a great swath of the Islamic world falling under the control of Christian countries was intolerable to many devout Muslims. Resistance to the mandate was initially peaceful, but the situation descended into violent revolt in June (Proud notes, rather coolly, that following a fiery anti-British speech in Baghdad "a machine gun had to be turned on the crowd").  The revolt had a fairly ecumenical character, with Sunnis and Shias putting aside their differences to fight the British, and the rebels initially seemed to have the upper hand. The British however counter-attacked in strength (using the then-innovative strategy of employing aircraft as the main combat arm, rather than ground troops) and the rebels were defeated by October 1920.[2]  

Although the revolt had completely failed, it had nevertheless convinced the British that they needed to adopt a different approach to administering Iraq. Britain resolved to find a form of government which would allow it to still control Iraq, but which would be of a more palatable character to Iraqis than a military occupation. The centrepiece of the British plan was Faisal ibn Husayn (who we'll meet in more detail in page VI), a very prominent Arab military/political/religious figure who (a), had a history of co-operating with the British, and (b), was presently languishing in unemployed exile in England, his brief tenure as King of Syria in mid-1920 having been put to a violent end by the French. The Iraqi people were presented with what Wikipedia discreetly calls a "carefully arranged" plebiscite, asking whether Faisal should be made king of Iraq. A neat 96% of respondents answered yes, and so Faisal was shipped off to Baghdad and crowned King Faisal I on the 23rd August 1921. Faisal's installation as king was to be accompanied by an end to British military occupation and the installation of a civil government, and this was eventually confirmed by the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of October 1922. And we'll see how this all worked out in practice on the next page.

 This issue was the first of many to be additionally overprinted for the purpose of franking official mail: the intention, I understand, was that the overprint would prevent government employees from appropriating stamps for their private purposes. 

This issue was the first of many to be additionally overprinted for the purpose of franking official mail: the intention, I understand, was that the overprint would prevent government employees from appropriating stamps for their private purposes. 

Anyway back to the stamps. The basic designs are unarguably excellent: the quality of the central vignettes is unimpeachable and, while the tastefulness of the frames varies a little between individual designs, there's not a one of these stamps isn't overall extremely charming. The engraving and printing are both superlative, although the registration of the bi-colours varies a little in accuracy and the higher values are regularly found below-averagely centred. Still, these are a night-and-day improvement on the cheap typesetting the Ottomans had been previously using (in an objective sense, at least — the former designs had an unarguably cheerful quality and I hope to do a page on them eventually). The entire issue is engraved, except for the 5 paras which is lithographed.[3]

The overprint here was done in Britain by Bradbury Wilkinson themselves, and so is much more regular-looking than the Baghdad one. All four parts were seemingly done in one operation. The Baghdad stamps were clearly a strong inspiration for these ones: the overprint is of a very similar design and we see the principle of "overprinting the enemy's stamps" at work again. However these stamps are not, technically speaking, "the enemy's" — while the idea of the printers dusting off and defacing giant stacks of sheets intended for the Ottoman posts is a very romantic one, it appears that all of these stamps were in fact new printings from the original plates, specifically for the purpose of receiving the Iraq overprint.[4] Displaying remarkably sharp elbows, Bradbury Wilkinson wasted little time in re-establishing a business relationship with the Ottoman government after the war, and in 1920 they made a separate printing of the 1914 designs for use of the Ottoman post, in different colours.[5]

The stamps were announced in August 1918 and went on sale from the 1st September (excepting the 1½ anna, which didn't appear until sometime in 1920 — a change in postal rates seems to have called it into existence). Distribution was overseen by Major Charles Clerici (still head of the civil postal service in Iraq), who maintained a sensible disdain for collectors and speculators: he ordered postmasters to refuse to sell entire sheets to customers, even those whom they knew had genuine need for large amounts of postage.[6] The issue was eventually invalidated from the 1st June 1923.

There seem to have been a few different printings of the issue, and I hope eventually to get onto this in more detail. The stamps were initially unwatermarked but appeared in 1921 on Crown Agents paper, and Gibbons notes some varieties in the shades (particularly between the regular stamps and the service ones) and in the size of the overprint.

Owing to the political difficulties in the Mosul region  (see next page) the issue was withdrawn from there on the 1st February 1919 and replaced with the special Mosul issue. The Mosul stamps ran out in 1921 and the regular occupation issue then reappeared.

This issue was overprinted for revenue purposes, and the most recent Gibbons listing for Iraq (2009) claims that these revenues were pressed into postal service during a cholera outbreak in Baghdad in January 1923, but Proud, writing in 1996, explicitly denies that this happened(!) Gibbons also notes (but doesn't give a number to) a disreputable bisect which apparently only appears on philatelic items — I've seen a few on sale at points and all are appropriately neat-looking.

These stamps did do a large amount of genuine postal service, but most of the values seem to have been supplied somewhat in excess of postal needs: today the lower values are generally cheap for both mint and used specimens. In this case I've elected to show mint examples, where I have them, owing to the extreme niceness of the designs: I have these used up to the 2 rupees and I'll scan those eventually. The highest values are more expensive unused, in the normal fashion.


[1] The Hamidiye's successful exploits during the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars were one of the few bright spots of those conflicts for the Ottomans.

[2] As an aside, there was also an unsuccessful Kurdish uprising in 1919 led by local warlord (and occasional ally of the British) Mahmud Barzanji. Barzanji returned in 1922, declared himself King of Kurdistan, and launched another uprising, which was not suppressed until 1924. Barzanji issued stamps during his 1922-1924 rebellion, chiefly as a propaganda gesture, but they might possibly have had a small amount of actual postal usage. All very unclear and I have no pictures to show, unfortunately — a very crude typeset design on green paper, is the general appearance.

[3] Gibbons describes this stamp as "dull purple" but, while shades do vary a little, I've never seen one of these stamps I wouldn't comfortably describe as "brown."

[4] The occupation issue (minus the overprint, of course) was identical to the 1914 Ottoman issue, excepting the following: (i) the 1914 issue had 2, 4 and 6 para values with vertical designs, which weren't used, and (ii) a 200 piastre value showing Emperor Mehmed V also wasn't used. I've got no idea what caused the vertical designs to drop out, but from an aesthetic perspective they're no loss at all — a few vertical designs among many more horizontal ones gives a fairly inharmonious appearance. The vertical designs (being the lowest values along with the 5 paras) were also lithographed.

[5] This gives rise to a variety that's a little tedious to explain. In 1914 the Ottoman sovereign was Emperor Mehmed V, and the 1914 stamps bore his monogram. Mehmed V died on the 3rd July 1918 and was succeeded by Mehmed VI. This apparently wasn't regarded as an important detail for British purposes, as the occupation stamps carried the late Mehmed V's monogram all the way through to their final printing in 1921. The 1920 printing for Ottoman use was, naturally, printed from different plates altered to bear Mehmed VI's monogram. Seemingly then some clichés bearing Mehmed VI's monogram managed to make their way onto the printing plate for the equivalent occupation stamp, and so one can find it appearing on a few occupation stamps thusly (very awkward to illustrate because the part with the monogram has "IRAQ" right on top of it, but you can hopefully get the idea — close-up comparison here).

[6] This single anecdote (per Proud) is the entirety of my knowledge of Major Clerici beyond his dates and occupations — on the basis of what this suggests about his personality, might he have also been responsible for the attempt to limit speculation in the Baghdad stamps? (see previous page)