The First World War is largely remembered today for the mass slaughter in France and Belgium, together with the battles in Eastern Europe and Russia, the fall of the Tsar and the Bolshevik revolution. The campaigns in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonica, Palestine and Italy are often referred to as ‘side-shows’ to the main event, with few realising the global importance of these conflicts or how vital a contribution to eventual victory was secured by the sacrifices that were made. It was not only in Europe that the German generals felt that Germany’s hour had come: the war was Germany’s opportunity to challenge the mighty British Empire, and particularly to strike at India through the Balkans and the Middle East. Lord Kitchener realised this colonial dimension from the outset of the war, and would no doubt have supported ‘The Times’ leader on August 3rd 1915, the day before the first anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war, which commented on the Austro-Serbian quarrel:
‘The war began with Serbia, because Serbia was the chief obstacle to the Austro-German advance towards the Mediterranean at Salonica and to the establishment of complete German control of the Balkans, the Dardanelles, Asia Minor and the land and sea routes to Asia and India.’
To achieve her war-aims Germany needed Turkey as an ally, a policy developed by the Kaiser and vigorously supported by the German Military Mission which had made limited improvements to the Turkish army. Almost nobody imagined that Turkey was in any position to go to war at all. She was not threatened and under the rule of the ‘Young Turks’ (who first came to power in the revolution that deposed the Sultan in 1909) the Turkish Empire had virtually disintegrated: Bulgaria had become independent, Greece had seized the Aegean Islands,as well as Crete and Salonica, Italy had taken over Tripoli and the Dodecanese, while the British Empire had further expanded by proclaiming the ‘protectorate’ of Egypt and the annexation of Cyprus. Turkey had suffered badly from her defeats in the series of Balkan wars, and the army was ill-paid, mutinous and ill-equipped, certainly in no state to fight at all. The Turkish fleet was obsolete and the Dardanelles lay wide open to an attack on Constantinople. Local government throughout was totally corrupt, while the areas controlled by Baghdad, Damascus and of course Constantinople acted virtually as separate nation states.
When war broke out Turkey was led by four men, Enver Pasha, Talaat, Djemal and Djavid. Talaat was the party boss, Minister of the Interior. Enver had mastermined the coup that brought the Young Turks to power and it was he who saved the empire at the end of the first Balkan War in 1913 when Constaninople was about to fall, and managed to end the Second Balkan war with the capture of Adrinople. As Minister of War this ruthless man had dismissed 1200 ‘politically unsound’ officers from the Turkish army in a single day, in the summer of 1913. Djavid was a Jewish financier from Salonika and Djemal was the Minister for Marine. Behind these, and as yet in Enver’s shadow, stood Mustafa Kemal, the future military commander of genius who was to rise to fame in Gallipoli and who history came to know by his new name, Ataturk. Around these men the European Ambassadors circled, as in an auction, with more or less freedom to judge the situation for themselves. Sir Louis Malet, the British Ambassador, stood apart from Turkish political intrigues, thought little of the Young Turks, disregarded the Turkish army and navy and saw little reason for any formal alliance. Bompard, the French ambassador, was similarly minded, charming and honorable. Giers, the Russian ambassador, proud and scornful despised the Turks even more. The Entente powers were therefore content to ignore their opportunities. The field was left open to Ambassador Baron von Wagenheim and the German Military Mission to offer the Young Turks the opportunities to restore their Empire with the technical support of the German army and navy, in a coming war that they felt Germany was bound to win. Hundreds of German officers and instructors flooded in to Constantinople. Already as early as 1898 the Kaiser had offered the Sultan to build a railway from Constantinople to the Persian Gulf and on to Berlin, an opportunity to restore Egypt to Turkish control and to make Cairo the capital of the whole Moslem world. When they came to power the Young Turks became captivated by the dream. Meanwhile, at Constantinople the Germans controlled the only Turkish munitions factory in the Empire, set up artillery to defend the Dardanelles and reorganised the training and equipment of the army, all under the control of Liman von Saunders, the Head of Mission, in alliance with Enver Pasha. Eventually and still while Britain and France seemed unconcerned, the Russians became alarmed. The Bospherous and the Dardanelles were vital for their trade and if war came and both the Dardanelles and the Baltic were blocked, Russia would have no other outlet to link up with her allies. The Germans made a secret alliance, but still Turkey was not absolutely committed to go to war.
In the last hours of peace Britain committed a final blunder that brought Turkey into the war in support of Germany and Austria, an act with immeasurable consequences for the conduct of the war, the peace treaty that followed it after the breakup of the Turkish Empire and for the future state of the Middle East up to the present time. Britain was building two warships for Turkey, a symbol for the Young Turks of a revived patriotism and necessity for Turkey to acquire a new navy of her own. One was completed, the other nearly so. On August 3rd Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty requisitioned them both for the Royal Navy, in spite of their having been paid for and with Turkish crews already in England awaiting their delivery. Turkey was mortified and Germany, seizing her opportunity, dispatched two German warships to Constantinople at once before announcing shortly afterwards the closure of the Dardanelles to allied shipping. These two ships, the battle-cruiser ‘Goeben’ and the light-cruiser ‘Breslau’ could dominate the Russian Black Sea fleet and outdistance any British ship in the Mediterranean.
The Entente powers now became thoroughly alarmed, as it suddenly became essential that Turkey should remain neutral. Towards the end of August they offered to guarantee the Turkish Empire from attack in return for permanent Turkish neutrality, but by now it was too late. On September 4th the Battle of the Marne had saved France and in the East the Russian army was winning victories. Germany needed Turkey’s support in the war. The Dardanelles were closed on German initiative without permission and Enver and Tarlaat finally delivered Turkey into German hands. On 29th October the ‘Goeben’ and ‘Breslau’ bombarded the Russian fortresses at Odessa and Sevastopol. On the same day a Turkish column at Gaza was about to set out on a major raid on the Suez Canal, preparatory to a Turkish invasion of Egypt. Formal hostilities with Britain and France began on October 31st and it was in this way that Britain found herself fighting not only in support of France and to preserve the Belgian coastline from conquest (with the threat this entailed of a possible invasion), but also, as vital a war-aim in the minds of the politicians and Generals, the preservation and even the possible future expansion of the British Empire.
There were three reasons why it seemed essential to send an expeditionary force to Mesopotamia. First, to check German plans to extend the Baghdad railway up to the Persian Gulf, second to correct an impression circulated by Germany that revolution in both Egypt and India would lead to a dissolution of the British Empire, but thirdly the immediate necessity to protect from Turkish control the 150 miles of pipeline that ran from the Persian oil fields to Abadan, owned by the Persian Oil Company, but in which Britain had a controlling interest. The campaign in Mesopotamia had begun as early as November 1914 when the British occupation of Basra, Turkey’s port at the head of the Persian Gulf, had been justified strategically because of this need to protect this pipeline and with it the oil wells of southern Persia and the Abadan refinery, just across the border between Turkey and Persia. On their way to Basra, the troops of the Expeditionary Force, and indeed public opinion at home were given a rather more ’spun’ version of this state of affairs:
Communiqué issued by the Brigade Major, Mesopotamia Experditionary Force ‘D’, issued on board the S.S.Varela, 2.11.14
Please ensure that the following is made known to all troops on board.
A state of war now exists between England and Turkey. Although since the beginning of the war with Germany England has made strenuous efforts to maintain peace and to preserve the ancient friendship with Turkey, nevertheless the latter power, urged on by German intrigue, has committed numerous acts of aggression which have forced this war on England. Our force is now proceeding to the head of the Persion Gulf prepared to protect British interests and friendly Arab Sheiks against Turkish attacks.
Ends. Above has been signalled to other ships of the convoy.
It is interesting to note in the light of this message that the successful British landing at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab was largely due to information gathered by a secret spy that had been infiltrated into the Basra area by MI6 two weeks before war with Turkey was declared. A report sent to General Delamain contained a plan of the entire defences, including the exact location of every German gun defending the entrance. To the astonishment of the German officers and Turks every single one of these defences was knocked out by gunfire from the Royal Navy before the virtually unopposed landing took place.
Encouraged by this success, the British advanced a further 46 miles northward from Basra to al-Qurnah, the junction of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and the legendary place of the Garden of Eden, arriving in December 1914.
Sir John Nixon arrived in Basra on 9th April 1915 to take command of the original Expeditionary Force, with orders to carry on with a further advance of 60 miles up the Tigris from al-Qurnah to Erza’s tomb and al-Amara (The Place of Liquorice), which was captured on 9th December 1915 together with 1200 prisoners. These successes ought to have been reckoned sufficient to secure the whole region for all practical purposes, but now a further decision was made - the advance was to be continued in the direction of the fatally magnetic Baghdad, ancient capital of the Arab caliphs of Islam. Following the allied defeat at Gallipoli, it was time to secure a victory over the Turks, a knock-out blow perhaps to drive Turkey out of the war, certainly a morale booster for the British public after the terrible losses in France in the spring of 1915.
On 27th August 1915 Major General Charles Townshend arrived in Amara to command the 6th (Poona) Division and plan his advance up-river to Baghdad. The Expeditionary Force was controlled from India and General Sir John Nixon had been asked to send 6 months supply of supplies together with shells and ammunition: Townshend was given instead supplies for only six weeks. The 6th Division had no heavy guns or accompanying artillery, being equipped for nothing more than a short frontier war, no wire-cutters, telephones, water carts, very lights, tents, mosquito nets, sun helmets, periscopes, flares, bombs, blankets or summer clothing. Medical stores were abysmal. There was a lack of drugs, dressings, splints, stretchers or wheeled vehicles. Indeed there were no hospital ships and demands for proper river transport and medical supplies were similarly rebuffed. Herein lies the origin of all the tragedies of the campaign in Mesopotamia. Without transport the advance would be slow, giving the Turks ample warning to prepare lines of defence. In addition, a slower advance also necessitated increased supplies, and these were not available - and in any case there was never sufficient transport to take them up-river. In addition, the temperature in Mesopotamia varies between 20 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit, while flies, insects and all manner of vermin abound. Lower Mesopotamia lies below the river levels and in the flood season (March and April) the rivers are kept in check with high banks (bunds). However, due to much neglect the bunds are liable to flooding up to some 4 miles or more beyond the banks. Whole areas are marsh and the rain turns the sand into mud, often to quicksands. Townshend was forced to improvise, and the result was a disaster.
Townshend’s diary reads, writing very much in hindsight:
‘Having taken Amara and Nasiriyeh we should have consolidated our position in the Basra vilayet, only in the event of success of the allies in France or Gallipoli should the strategic offensive have been taken in Mesopotamia.’
The Turks were as yet totally unprepared and Amara itself was captured by a single boatload of 24 sailors and soldiers, the garrison of 700 surrendering without any show of force. On 14th September Sheikh Saad was taken and the following day the position at Es Sinn fell easily. With this encouraging start Nixon’s Chief of Staff in Basra, Sir Percy Lake, urged Townshend forward. ‘Townshend’s Regatta’ reached al-Kut on 29th September, the half-way point to Baghdad, but already 500 miles away from their base at Basra. Between Amara and Baghdad lie two important places where an advance up-river can be most easily halted. Kut-el-Amara (al-Kut) lies at the southern end of a loop in the Tigris, about 90 miles from Amara by road. Further up river lies Ctesiphon, a mere 23 miles south of Baghdad. The Ctesiphon plain is dominated by a huge arch, the only remaining relic of a great capital city, the ancient hall of Chosroes II of the Persian Sassanian dynasty, that then overshadowed the desert as a landmark for miles around. Nixon and Lake urged on the expedition to take the Turkish lines at Ctesiphon, but it is on record that Townshend disagreed. By this stage he simply had not enough troops or artillery to fight a major battle, and he knew that there were 20,000 fresh Turkish troops in strong defensive positions at Ctesiphon. Townshend had no adequate river transport to bring up reinforcements or supplies, and Nixon had stated that no hospital ships would be needed.‘Expected no more than 400 or so casualties’, he wired, ‘for a rapid advance and the quick capture of Baghdad where hospital facilities can be expected.’
The profitless battle of Ctesiphon, only 18 miles from Baghdad, was fought on November 22. The result was a draw, the British and Indian casualties horrendous. As night fell, 4000 or so wounded were collected at a point called ‘V.P.’ with their only possible evacuation in springless native carts – an absolute torture for shattered limbs – with no food or water, and medical staff expecting no more than Nixon’s estimate of 400 or so. Gradually they were collected up from the battlefield and sent down 12 miles away to Lajh where conditions were indescribable. The expedition was now seriously short of officers: of the British 371 at the start of the battle, 130 had been killed or wounded. The 255 Indian officers were reduced to 111. There was nothing to be done except to retreat back down the river, first to Lajh, then after a further two days to Aziziya, and back to Nur-ud-Din where they dug in and drove off a Turkish counter-attack. The irony is that after Ctesiphon the Turks had themselves begun to retreat, fearing a renewal of hostilities the following day, but seeing the British and Indian forces withdrawing, they re-occupied their second line trenches, and then advanced in pursuit. Nixon and Lake were furious, but the retreat had to continue and the force of about 10,000 men, now totally exhausted and demoralised, reached al-Kut on 3rd December, a total of 12 days marching and fighting, with the last 44 miles covered in a forced march of 36 hours.
Between December 3rd 1915 and April 29th 1916 every effort was made to reach the besieged garrison. All failed and on April 29, 1916, Townshend surrendered the garrison into captivity. This complete disaster, one of the worst of the entire war, was a serious blow to the prestige of Britain as a great colonial power, and indeed in hindsight it can be seen that the fall of al-Kut was actually the beginning of the end of the British Empire. In the short term it proved that taken together with the debacle in Gallipoli, and with German assistance, Turkey was making a serious contribution to the total defeat of the Allied powers, and that however much the 1915 failures in France and the Near East could be dressed up for propaganda purposes, the Allies were definitely losing the war. Seriously alarmed by the effect of the withdrawal to al-Kut on public opinion, the news of Ctesiphon and the retreat was immediately withheld from the press, and the British public were told nothing of these events until the news was gradually leaked out in February 1916, two months later.
Heroic efforts were made in the attempt to relieve al-Kut, but all ended in failure. General Sir John Nixon, commanding the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force (MEF) urged the greatest possible speed, with the establishment of a firm line at Ali Gharbi, behind which forces could be assembled as quickly as fresh troops could be brought up-river. Ali Ghabi was the next place of any importance above Amara, an obvious base and staging post. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of Ali Ghabi were some of the most inhospitable and violent of all the river Arab tribes: hospitality was meaningless to them, robbery their trade. It was a fly-blown, sun-scorched and wind-swept little village of stinking mud huts, but such as it was it did at least provide the possibility of some shelter, and if properly guarded, storage. British forces in Mesopotamia were now growing; the arrival of the experienced 3rd (Lahore), 7th (Meerut) and 13th (Western) Divisions eventually bought a significant increase in strength. General Aylmer was given command of ‘The Tigris Relief Force’ and all available new formations were ordered to advance north along the Tigris as quickly as possible. Unfortunately there were no shallow-draft vessels to take them, to supply them or to evacuate the sick and wounded that resulted from the subsequent battles. By river the round trip from Basra to the front took about twenty days so that many units had to attempt the alternative of a long march up-river, and this indeed was the experience of Captain Harvey when the 10th Division eventually reached Basra from Egypt. Meanwhile, General Aylmer ordered the advance on al-Kut to begin on 3rd January 1916, the first objective being the capture of Sheikh Sa’ad, ten miles up-river from Ali Gharbi, and 25 miles below al-Kut. After Sheikh Sa’ad the next objective would be Hanna, then Sannaiyat and fifteen miles beyond that lay the Es Sinn position, which defended the last major river bend before al-Kut. The battle for Sheikh Sa’ad was the first disaster, although eventually the Turks decided to retire from their well-trenched positions, probably because of the difficulties of supplying them. On the British side there was virtually no provision for the wounded. Arrangements had been made to expect 250 casualties: losses of killed and wounded were over 4000. Few stretcher cases could be brought in and as late as eleven days after the battle some 200 British and 800 Indians were found still lying untreated behind Sheikh Sa’ad. The rainy season now set in with a vengeance and the countryside turned into sticky mud. By March the rivers flooded and the road along the bank of the Tigris became virtually impassable.
The disasters continued. An attempt to outflank the Turkish defences at the Hanna bend in the Tigris failed, costing a further 1,600 casualties, and on 15th January the Turks entrenched on a new defensive line two miles back on trenches dug between the left bank of the river and a huge impassable marsh. It was stalemate. Townshend refused to attempt a break-out from al-Kut, Aylmer could not advance. Exposure to the cold and rain led to an exhausted force. Dysentery had broken out. The battle was renewed on 20th but resulted in a complete failure. 2,700 more men had been lost and for the wounded, lying out in the open as freezing rain bucketed down, the night was without parallel since the Crimea. A six-hour truce was arranged to collect wounded and bury the dead, but as soon as it began Arabs rushed out from the Turkish lines, stripping clothing from the dead and wounded and murdering many survivors. The deadlock continued. General Nixon returned home, a broken and sick man, to be replaced by Sir Percy Lake, and in February overall command of the operations in Mesopotamia were removed from India and taken over by the War Office in London. Lake discouraged Townshend from attempting a break-out, and Aylmer, commanding the force, decided on a new plan, to move this time up on the right bank to capture the Es Sinn position. To achieve this it would be necessary to capture the strongly defended Dujaila depression, 150 yards wide, 6ft deep and covered with scrub.
The only remaining reinforcement, the 13th Division, reached camp at Sheikh Sa’ad by the beginning of April, but it was not used for the attack. The 55th Artillery Brigade, meanwhile, had only just left Amara. Lake had set a time limit of 15th March, the latest date it was reckoned that the ground would be still dry enough for an attack, so the campaign was renewed without them. The assault on Dujaila began on 8th March. Its failure was almost the final catastrophe. While the line at Hanna was held with two brigades, a cavalry regiment and 24 guns, the remainder of the Tigris force less the 13th Division assembled 3 miles from the depression. The battle was another failure, with casualties close on 3,500, including 123 officers. There was now nothing more that could be done, and the Tigris Force spent the rest of March trying to consolidate and recover. The Tigris overflowed, flooding was widespread, the artillery immobile. Half-starved, cold and wet, without proper mail and nowhere to go for rest, troops had lost faith in the Generals, believing that it was only a matter of time before al-Kut fell. Aylmer left for home and Gorringe took over. The only troops now available for a renewed effort were the 13th Division, waiting at Sheik Sa’ad, commanded by Major-General Maude, the man eventually destined to revive British fortunes in Mesopotamia. Besides the13th Division in reserve, the only forces available were the Corps troops, 19th and 21st Infantry Brigades which had been merged into the 19th ‘Highland Brigade’ and the 28th Infantry Brigade, and two front line Divisions, the 3rd Division holding the right bank and the 7th Division the left, both greatly weakened as between them they had lost over 14,000 casualties.
The next attack, on 5th April was to be a renewed attempt, this time by the 13th Division, to break out from the Hanna position, capture the position at Fallahiyeh three miles beyond, followed by the defences at Sannaiyat three miles beyond that, and with the hope that the Sinn position would then fall, opening the road to al-Kut. The attack began on 5th April, supported by limited artillery placed on both sides of the Tigris - the 55th Artillery Brigade were still struggling up the river. The Hanna trenches, heavily bombarded by the artillery, were found to be abandoned, but those at Fallahiyeh which had not been shelled, were reinforced by the retiring Turks. The position at Fallahiyeh was taken on 6th April but already the 13th Division had lost 2,000 men, and Sannaiyat still needed to be forced, a task given to the remains of the 7th Division. 1,200 men were lost in two hours, and the rest dug in. In the night a strong wind blew the waters of the marsh towards the river, drowning the British wounded. On 9th April the attack was resumed by 13th Division, and another 1,600 men died for no purpose. 46% of the 13th had now been lost. The storms increased, the marsh flood waters rose and more men drowned. The attack was renewed on the right bank by the 3rd Division, with an attack at Es Sinn, without artillery support because the guns could not move across the swampy ground. Initial success was met by a vicious counter-attack by an overwhelming force of 10,000 Turks, 4,000 of whom died, and nothing was gained. British and Indian casualties were 1,650. Yet another attack on the left bank was then made on April 20th by Corps troops, the 19th Highland Brigade. In the mud and flooded Turkish trenches the Brigade faced its final destruction; there was no defence against a counter-attack as the Highlanders’ rifles choked with mud. No gains were made for a further 1,300 casualties.
It was the end. Gorringe could do no more. The Tigris Corps casualties in the three weeks from 5th April to 23rd April 1916 were just under 10,000 men, more than 25% of the force. In al-Kut were about 12,500 men, but in the efforts to relieve them the Tigris Corps had lost 23,000 in battle casualties alone in the four months between January and April 1916, plus all the uncounted numbers of sick. It was an effort out of all proportion to the objective, and it failed. Townshend surrendered al-Kut on 23rd April.
Surrender was followed by the cruel march into captivity of the NCOs and other ranks, officers being separated from their men and being given better treatment. Some of the men, however, were more fortunate as an armistice was soon arranged for the exchange of the sick and wounded from al-Kut with Turkish prisoners. It was a welcome lull in the fighting. The stalemate continued and an uneasy peace settled over the battlefield, for neither side was ready for any renewal of the offensive. On the left bank the ruined 7th Division sat in their trenches at Sannaiyat, and on the right the 13th Division was dug in along the forward lines of the Es Sinn position. A new Division, the 14th, had been formed out of the remains of the three Corps troops Infantry Brigades, the 35th, 36th and 37th and was in reserve behind the 13th Division. The 3rd Division had arrived as reinforcements and was also behind the 13th. In the south there was a vast no-man’s land, Arab country, where the ‘Budhoos’ ranged stealing from the unburied dead of previous battles, desecrating and robbing the bodies. Patrols of Britons and Turks were equally revolted by this behavior and dealt with the marauders in similar fashion, making common cause with no hostility on either side. Sickness was rife, cholera and dysentery flourished, and there were many cases of scurvy. Temperatures of 115 degrees Farenheit were common and the scorching wind was like a furnace. New arrivals suffered severely from sunburn, and the plagues of flies feeding on the unburied corpses made life unbearable. There were no mosquito nets, very few tents, and at night the sand-flies continued to torment the troops.
In mid may the Turks withdrew to better positions 10 miles back on the Es-Sin defences on the right bank. The 3rd Division was brought forward to close up on the new Turkish lines. Nothing was gained of any importance, but it meant 10 more miles to bring supplies up to the front, straining the escorts for the transport of water and rations to the limit, particularly from Sheikh Sa’ad to Es Sinn. Because of the heat the convoys had to travel at night, raising vast clouds of dust making it difficult to protect the long train of wagons and mules from marauding ‘Buddhoos’, who became bolder as escorts thinned out. The sick rate continued to rise alarmingly and it seemed as if the whole army was slowly melting away. By August 30,000 sick had been evacuated from the forward areas, and drastic action was necessary. As a result the 13th Division was withdrawn right back to Amara, to rest, retrain and make up numbers from new arrivals. Living conditions of tents and food could improve, and even a canteen selling Japanese beer was provided.
The postscript to the disaster is a more positive one. The British forces in Mesopotamia, neglected hitherto and discouraged by the disaster at al-Kut received better attention from London in the second half of 1916; and Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, who became commander in chief in August, did so much to restore their morale that by December he was ready to undertake the recapture of al-Kut as a first step toward capturing Baghdad. By a series of outflanking movements, the British made their way gradually and methodically up the Tigris, compelling the Turks to extend their defenses upstream. When the final blow at al-Kut was delivered by a frontal attack on Feb. 22, 1917, British forces were already crossing the river from the west bank behind the town; but though al-Kut fell two days later most of the Turkish garrison extricated itself from the threatened encirclement. Unable to hold a new line on the Diyala River, the Turkish commander, Kazim Karabekir, evacuated Baghdad, which the British entered on March 11 1917. In September the British position in Baghdad was definitively secured by the capture of ar-Ramadi, on the Euphrates about 60 miles to the west; and early in November the main Turkish force in Mesopotamia was driven from Tikrit, on the Tigris midway between Baghdad and Mosul. Maude, having within a year changed the Mesopotamian scene from one of despair to one of victory, died of cholera on Nov. 18, 1917. His successor in command was Sir William Marshall.