It is worth recording that some 23,000 men had been killed or wounded in the various attempts to rescue a garrison of half that size holding Kut. The culminating tragedy, the battle of Es Sinn (Dujailah Redoubt), could have offered some compensation in the successful relief of Kut and the probable capture of Baghdad, but this, almost the last opportunity, was thrown away because of incompetent generalship. The final attempt to relieve Kut took place on 22nd April, at the battle of Sannaiyet. Following a two day bombardment, the 7th Division was limited to an attack by only one Brigade, because the frontage was restricted by floods. A composite Highland battalion of 19th Brigade penetrated the first and second line with extraordinary bravery, but the support brigades failed to reinforce them. The ground had become boggy with the shell fire and the Turkish machine-guns mowed them down in the mud. On their right no progress was made by the 3rd and 13th Divisions, and in the 7th Division alone there were 1,100 casualties.
Six days before the surrender, on 23rd April, Townshend finally realized the extent of the disaster that was about to engulf his force. He cabled General Lake with the proposal that he should offer a huge bribe to the Turks to allow the garrison to move back to Basra, on a strict parole that none should be involved in fighting the Turks for the remainder of the war. They would instead have returned to garrison duties in India. In a muddled and panicky state of mind he cabled Lake on 23rd April:
‘The Turks have no money to pay for my force in captivity. The force would all perish from weakness or be shot by the Arabs if they had to march to Baghdad, and the Turks have no ships to carry us there. Let the parole be given, not to fight the Turks only. During negotiations no doubt the Turks would permit of your sending up ships with food. The men will be so weak in 3 or 4 days’ time that they will be incapable of all exertion, and the stenches in Kut are such that I am afraid pestilence may break out any time. Money might easily settle the question of getting us off without parole being given and it would be a great thing. The defence has been spoken to me by Khaled in the highest terms. Your decisions must reach me if you act quickly. It would take me three days to destroy the guns and ammo which I should have to do before I came away if you negotiate.’
Nothing reveals more clearly the state of mind of the General who was very largely responsible for locking up his forces in the first place, and who had little idea of the insuperable problems and huge casualties that would result. After a siege of 147 days, Townshend surrendered Kut on 29th April 1916. The following day 277 British and 204 Indian officers, together with 2,592 British and 6,988 Indian other ranks were taken into captivity, together with 3,248 Indian non-combatants. Approximately 345 badly wounded or sick men (mainly Indians) were exchanged for Turkish prisoners and sent down to Basra. For the remainder, the chances of survival were low. Of the 2,592 British troops captured at Kut, about 1,750 died on the march or later in the camps, and of the 6,988 Indian troops, about 2,500 died in similar fashion.
The siege had begun on December 4, and the Allied garrison held out, fighting against malaria and starvation, waiting for the arrival of a British relief column. The siege lasted 147 days before Townshend surrendered on 29 April 1916. The offer of one million pounds in gold, the following day raised to two million, was rejected. The Turks wanted a complete victory, to once again, after their recent victory in Gallipoli, demonstrate to the world their superiority over the forces of the British Empire. A month earlier Kitchener, with his mind ever focused on the need to preserve the Empire, and indeed to ultimately expand it following the defeat of Turkey by annexing new territories in the Middle East, had cabled General Lake:
‘I sincerely hope that it is fully realized by you and all general officers under your command that it would be ever a disgrace to our country if Townshend should surrender. Our prestige in the East would be gravely prejudiced by such a disaster.’
And so it proved. For the Turks, the success at Kut was a tremendous moral victory. They had demonstrated that the all-powerful and all-conquering British Raj was a myth. While the British, as we have seen, offered the Turks two million in gold in exchange for the repatriation of the garrison, the Turks turned down the offer. Instead, they used the POWs as propaganda tools. The Turks paraded the British prisoners through the streets of Baghdad and other towns in the empire, where their subjects could revile, stone and spit on the hated English. This public taunting of the proud British imperialists carried an important message: the British could be humbled, degraded, and enslaved. The defeat at Kut marked an important step towards the collapse of the British Empire.
On 25th April Kitchener realized all was lost. If an attempt to send a supply ship failed, he authorized negotiations. There was little he could do. Kitchener stressed a few bargaining points that Lake and Townshend might follow; the Russians were pressing on towards Baghdad, Turkish supplies must be low, money for the bribe was available. Finally he could make available another 2000 troops with a further 3000 for further operations at a future date. These were hollow threats to Khalid, exalting in his victory.
For the British and Indian troops the nightmare began. On 6 May 1916, the Turks began the 1,200-mile forced march of the British and Indian prisoners across the Syrian Desert from Kut. Mounted Arab and Kurdish guards prodded over 2,500 British soldiers with rifle butts and whips on the long death march. Starvation, thirst, disease, and exhaustion thinned out the British column, and only 837 soldiers survived the march and the years in captivity. Turkish treatment of the Indian troops was better, as the Ottomans attempted to attract fellow Muslims to their cause. During the siege, the Turks had attempted to inspire mutiny among the Indian forces in Kut by leaving bundles of propaganda pamphlets along the barbed-wire front lines calling on the Indians to murder their British officers and join the Sultan’s forces. While the British attempted to intercept these pamphlets, some did get through and led to a number of desertions. But when the garrison fell, 9,300 Indian troops and non-combatants joined the death march. In general, the Turks did not follow Western rules and regulations in dealing with war prisoners. The Western press described in detail the atrocities faced by Allied (especially British) POWs. Captured soldiers were herded like sheep by mounted Arab troopers, who freely used sticks and whips to keep stragglers marching. Food was very scarce, and the POWs rarely had access to fresh water. The desert climate where most of the campaigning took place had a debilitating impact on prisoners, especially the heat and dust. Often Turkish troops and guards relieved captives of their water bottles, boots, and uniforms, leaving the POWs in an assortment of rags-Ottoman officers exercised very little control over their men. When prisoners collapsed exhausted, starved, or ill, many were left to fend for themselves in hovels. These mud-walled “shelters” were often filled with vermin, and soldiers had to resort to begging from passing Arabs for scraps of food. Many of these invalids were robbed, stripped of their last clothing, and left to die. After marching across the desert, the remaining POWs entered prison camps where they received insufficient food and faced epidemics of dysentery, cholera, and malaria. Many prisoners were simply incarcerated in regular jails with common criminals, without regard for rank or status. Prisoners sat in bare cells filled with vermin, few washing facilities, and no physical exercise.
From official records, the Official History of the War, and various books written up to the present day, it is possible to try and piece together something of the more detailed sufferings of Privates Frederick William Davey and Frank Turner, both of whom had been transferred from the 6th Battalion Devons to the 2nd Battalion Dorsets. The clues we have are slender. During the siege, the 2nd Dorsets had lost 3 officers and 32 men killed or died of wounds, 2 officers and 40 men wounded, and 7 men who died of disease. 12 officers and approximately 350 men went into captivity. All the officers survived, but only about 70 Dorset men returned home after the armistice, while a further 100 names appear in the official records as ‘reported died while prisoners of war’. For the rest, nothing definite is known.
The Commonwealth War Graves data-base records that Frederick William Davey died on 7th August 1916 and has a marked grave in the Baghdad War Cemetery. This gives us some possibility that Davey did indeed die in Baghdad, although bodies were brought into this central collecting cemetery from many other areas. By contrast, Frank Turner is recorded as having died on 30th September 1916, with no indication of a location, and his name is commemorated on the Basra Memorial. A photograph appeared in the Western Morning News announcing Frederick Davey’s death, ‘Pte. Fred Davey, Devons, of Winkleigh, who has died in Mesopotamia. He was with the Kut garrison which surrendered, and died on the march from Kut to Mosul’. This certainly seems to indicate that Davey reached no further than Mosul and then remained there.
It was an eight mile march to the first collecting point at Shumran for those prisoners who were unlucky enough not to be transported there by boat from Kut. For the emaciated men of the 16th and 17th Brigades, which included the Dorsets, the effort was almost too much and men began to die. On arrival on the open space by the river, without any form of shelter or bedding, they were issued a ration of two and a half Turkish biscuits per man. The guards were trading anything else that was available, for money, pieces of clothing, even boots to those too famished to last out. The biscuits, seemingly made of husks and earth, were far too hard to eat without soaking in the polluted river - some of those who tried, on famished empty stomachs died as a result. Cholera and dysentery were rife, and within the first 24 hours of captivity the total death toll exceeded 100. A few sick and wounded - mainly Indian prisoners - were exchanged for fit Turkish prisoners, an operation that was completed by 8th May. They went down river on the ill-fated ‘Julnar’, the boat that just before the ending of the siege had attempted to run through Turkish lines to bring supplies of food into Kut. It had been captured by the Turks who had stretched a boom across the river.
On 1st May the Turks had allowed a British ship with food barges attached to reach Shumran and a ration of biscuit, bully-beef, jam, condensed milk and sugar was issued in chaotic scenes of heat, dust, smells and lack of any sanitary facilities. Some got nothing. On May 4th the first echelon of officers left Shumran for Baghdad on the steam-tug ‘Busrah’ which had also brought up some mail. The officers were most unwilling to leave their men to their fate, and a few senior staff did indeed manage to remain. Townsend and his staff, of course were given an even more comfortable passage to Baghdad; he was indeed treated as an ‘honoured guest’ of the Turks. Two days later, on 6th May a second consignment of stores arrived for the remaining officers and men, including butter, condensed milk, biscuits, cake and puddings. There was, however, little time allowed for the distribution and much was wasted.
On 6th May, and with extreme cruelty, the death march of the British and Indian prisoners began the first party staggering into Baghdad on 17th May. Some remained, too weak or ill to move further; the majority were to be pushed on to POW camps in Anatolia. By 2.0 pm on 6th May, over 300 men had already died and all the remainder were formed up ready to leave camp to begin an atrocious march up river to Baghdad, with those who lagged behind being beaten with whips, batons and rifle butts, or simply left to die stripped of clothing at the hands of murderous Arabs. Before leaving on May 4th, General Delamain had arranged for the sick to be carried by donkey or camel for the first 15 miles to Baghailah, reached on 8th May, for a two day halt. 200 of these were left there to be picked up by ship, but many had died having fallen off the animals and been murdered, and more died on arrival, before embarkation was possible. Neither they nor the exhausted majority were given water; 6 biscuits and a handful of dates were issued as a ration for three days. After 36 hours in camp at Baghailah, there was a further distribution of a few mouldy chapattis, with more sold by the Arabs at 3 for 1 rupee (10 times the cost).
By slow stages the head of the column reached Baghdad by May 17th, 11 days after leaving Shumran. Medical staff had left Shumran by boat on 10th May and on arrival in Baghdad were able to remain in order to set up a primitive hospital and ‘convalescent camp’ to hold some of the sick and wounded until they either died or were moved on to follow the main body on their march into Anatolia. Eleven British medical officers remained in Baghdad, disgusted with the poor sanitation and the state of the Turkish medical services, but were helped by Mr. Brissell, the American consul, and a group of French nuns. As the months went by, Mr. Brissell organised the work of the American Red Cross Society, evacuating 123 men and 22 officers, and organising Christian burials for the dead. Cholera, dystentry and typhoid were rife. Mr. Brissell himself died of cholera, still negotiating exchanges of prisoners.
With the ‘hospital’ closed, the men set off for Samara in 40 man open trucks containing 70 men, but after two hours the men were forced to begin the march again, reaching Samara where they stayed for three days. Those who could not move on were left to die. Some were taken into a nearby Turkish hospital, thanks to money collected by the Officers to provide them with some food. The rations there consisted of an issue of two handfuls of flour with one of wheat and a spoonful of ghee with salt - this to last three days. Sometimes there was a meat ration, one goat between 400 men. Frederick Davey’s death was recorded on 7th August, and he has a known grave in Baghdad, which does give rise to the possibility that he had remained in hospital in Baghdad for some two months, or perhaps he had reached Samara where he was hospitalized. On the other hand, if as reported in the newspaper he died ‘on the march from Kut to Mosul’, it is possible that he had fallen out during the march and been ‘hospitalized’ in some other sort of squalid accommodation where his death was recorded. Perhaps both these possibilities could have occurred; some time spent in Baghdad, a kind of recovery and then sent on in early August only to die on the way. After the war bodies were certainly collected up and brought back to the Baghdad military cemetery for burial.
Leaving on 15th May, Some 375 officers struggled on for a march of 200 miles towards Mosul. They passed through Tikrit, Kharinina, Wadi Khanana and Shergat, far better treated of course than the rank and file, sharing donkeys, and with better rations. On 23rd May the majority of the men, some 3,000 British and Indians, set off from Samara to begin the next stage of their journey, a much more terrible long march from Baghdad to Mosul via Tikrit, escorted with extreme brutality by the lowest class of Arab, with many men dropping off on the way, often to die either murdered or simply abandoned to their fate. The head of the column reached Mosul on 3rd June, and in the days that followed the remaining survivors struggled in. On 29th May a second column was dispatched, following the right bank of the Tigris, also reaching Tikrit and then moving on to Mosul. There is evidence of the way some of the sick and wounded who fell out on the way were treated. At Tikrit, the main stopping place on the way to Mosul, 192 Indian and 43 British other ranks were found by medical staff officers lying in dirty mud houses after having spent days lying on the river bank. They were suffering from dysentery, enteritis and starvation. They had been given nothing but coarse bread to eat, there were no medical supplies or even blankets and all had lost their boots. On 13th June, 50 Indian and 26 British other ranks were found at Shergat lying by the river, with one assistant surgeon to care for them. Meanwhile, on the march fights often broke out between the Indian camp followers and British troops over thefts of clothing, food and blankets. Any men too weak to walk further or who were injured and fell out were murdered in barbaric ways by the Arabs. The march from Baghdad to Mosul was particularly awful for the sick because the guards insisted that they must also walk; the donkeys that were provided were ridden instead by the guards, who also stole boots and clothing, leaving many men with nothing more than strips of blanket on their feet.
Once at Mosul an attempt was made to collect the sick and wounded where at last they were comparatively well cared for in the local hospital. Others went to an old infantry barracks and starved on the uneatable Turkish bread, the majority dying of dysentery. From Mosul, a first group of some 350 remaining British and Indian other ranks set off on a 200 mile march across the desert to the railhead at Raas-el-Ain, having been separated into groups under the command of an Arab officer, who usually took no notice of the thieving by the guards. Other groups followed. A typical example was a group of 1,700 men with only 7 camels and 12 donkeys to carry the sick.
The march to Raas-el-Ain was via Dolabia, Rumailan Kabir, Nisibin and Kochisar. Smaller hospitals were found en route; there is evidence that at Nisibin 100 patients were found without medical help, with water issued twice a day but with no receptacles to drink it from and dysentery rife. In this instance a German garrison (who despised the Turks as much as did the British and often came to the aid of the British prisoners if it was possible) gave some relief, securing a ration of two teacups of cooked wheat and rice with two chapattis per day per man. Further relief was given at Raas-el-Ain, each prisoner being given a 2lb loaf of coarse bread for 48 hours. From there the journey continued by train – 40 men per open wagon, with many suffering from dysentery. The next stop was Islahie, where nothing more than a few pomegranates could be issued before moving on to Mamouri reached on June 23rd. Here we know that a hospital camp was established for 90 men of the 16th and 17th Brigades, housed in Arab tents. The tents were one mile from the road, the patients cared for by a single assistant surgeon, with virtually no food available. The following day another group of the Ox. And Bucks Light Infantry were found at Hassan Begli (in the Taurus mountains) in similar condition.
At the Ras-el-Ain railhead the other ranks were crowded into closed railway wagons with an average of 40 sick and dying men in each. Forced to sit on each other in spite of the dysentery, the wagons remained sealed until the following day when they reached Islahie. The final destination of the 16th Brigade (including the Dorsets) and the 17th Brigade, and very possibly where Frederick Turner died, was Bagtsche where the prisoners were working on the mountainous section of the Constantinople to Baghdad railway. Their food consisted of black bread, beans, rice and a little meat. The hours of work were 4.30 am to 11.00 am in the morning and 1.00 pm to 6.00 pm in the afternoon. Good workers were given six or seven piastres a day but the cost of their meals was deducted from this. RQMS Harvey of the 2nd Dorsets survived the march. Arriving at the camp he reported the strength of what was left of the Battalion. He wrote:
It was a terrible surprise to even myself when I answered 140. We had left Kut over 300 strong. The balance had been left mostly on the road either dead or dying, and among the 140 who remained was not one fit man. All were practically skeletons, while many were almost fit to die with dysentery and various other complaints.
The Official History of the 2nd Dorsets relates:
When at last the survivors did arrive at their destination they were almost without exception put to work on the railway or some similar task, and kept hard at it on inadequate rations, under insanitary conditions, herded together in the filthiest quarters and frequently treated with the utmost brutality. The vast majority of the men taken at Kut had perished of their privations and ill-usage long before the armistice.
This meager existence at Bagtsche did not last long, as the prisoners became weaker and weaker, incapable of any work. They were moved on again during September to camps further inland, most to Afion, but the dreadful conditions continued. By November 1918, 50% of the other ranks had died by the end of 1916, and 50% of the remainder were to die in the prison camps. The survival of the remainder was due in no small measure to the work of the Regimental Care Committees sending parcels of food and clothing to the camps. On 26th July 1916, for example, Dorchester’s population organised a ‘Kut Day’ to raise funds. By the end of the year, Dorchester, Weymouth and Bridport had raised £1,602 for comforts and supplies. Not all the parcels arrived of course, but they helped considerably to improve the prisoners’ conditions and even to discover the location of many of the men, some of whom were feared dead. Sadly, neither Fred Davey nor Frank Turner had survived, but by 1918 with increased medical help, conditions were improving, with enough clothing, food and money to remain alive. The vile treatment of the Kut prisoners deserves total condemnation, but as Colonel Spackman of the Indian Medical Services wrote in the 1960’s (Purnell Magazine: History of the First World War):
The disaster that befell the British prisoners in Turkey cannot really be blamed on individuals. It stemmed from the inability of the Turkish High Command to foresee the inadequacy of their civil and military administration to feed and transport so large a body of men of whose deteriorated physical condition they had been warned.
To this one should add the Turkish officers’ attitude to other ranks including their own troops as well as their prisoners, and the employment of the vilest impoverished Arabs as guards on the long marches.
It is well worth mentioning that a huge effort was made by the American YMCA to intervene in attempting to reduce the atrocities and genocide. The plight of Allied POWs in Turkish hands concerned the American embassy in Constantinople and in December 1915, a proposal was sent to the YMCA to approach Turkish officials about the American YMCA setting up a War Prisoners’ Aid (WPA) program in the Ottoman Empire. Although all of the Association officials were pessimistic about being granted access to Turkish POWs, they agreed that their best strategy was negotiation through the U.S. embassy. Ambassador Morgenthau was very interested in the proposal, but he was overwhelmed with preparations for his departure. He turned the matter over to Mr. Philip, the embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires. As the American official responsible for the care of Allied POWs in the Ottoman Empire since the beginning of the war, Philip embraced the YMCA’s offer. He endorsed the WPA plan without qualification and was optimistic about its implementation. Philip took up the proposal with Halil Bey, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and presented his case to the ministry staff. In the meantime, the YMCA attempted to get other influential Turks interested in the plan. Through Graf Luttichau, a member of the Constantinople Association’s Board of Managers, the organisation received an introduction at the German embassy. After an interview, the German ambassador promised to speak in favor of the YMCA proposal with Halil Bey. When Philip of the YMCA with Halil Bey several days later, the Turkish minister reported that the German ambassador had explained the details of the WPA plan and that the German government was grateful for what the American YMCA had done for German POWs in Britain and France. The German government supported the implementation of a WPA program for Allied POWs in Turkey. The Foreign Minister stated that the Association proposal had made a strong and favorable impression on the Turkish government.
When the YMCA proposal was referred to Enver Pasha, the Minister of War, the final decision was delayed by his trips into the interior. This gave Jacob time to get other influential people interested in the WPA plan. He approached men known to hold the ear of the Minister of War, including Dr. Bessim Omer Pasha, the Vice President of the Turkish Red Crescent Society, the channel through which foreign assistance was conveyed to Allied POWs. Jacob found the Red Crescent official reasonable and amenable to the Association’s proposal. After hearing the plan, he assured Jacob that he would urge its acceptance by both the Minister of War and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Jacob also approached Captain Humann, the German naval attaché and a personal friend of Enver Pasha. This lead was not pursued, however, after the U.S. embassy received word from the Ministry of War that the WPA plan had been categorically refused.
Although the Turkish government rejected the WPA plan, the Association secretaries were not ready to give up the project. Philip promised to reopen negotiations personally with Enver Pasha, but, due to suspicion within the Ottoman government regarding foreigners, it would take time. The Turks were even mistrustful of foreign representatives visiting prison camps. Philip had repeatedly requested that the government send American representatives to the major prison compounds, but the Ottomans had categorically denied them entry. One factor that might change Turkish POW policy was their recent victory in Mesopotamia. Before April 1916, the Ottomans held very few Allied POWs, until the Turks won their victory at Kut-el-Amara. While a number of these POWs remained in Baghdad for three months, the U.S. Consul, Mr. Brissell, worked to improve the prisonersé meager rations. In August, these survivors were marched to Asia Minor for final internment, either in prison camps or in labour detachments, the Turks having assigned many of the POWs to work on the Anatolia segment of the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. In November 1918, the official British report declared that 3,290 British and Indian POWs from Kut-el-Amara had died in Turkish captivity, while an additional 2,222 were missing and presumed dead.
Kut and Captivity : Major E.W.C. Sandes, 1919 John Murray
‘Pursuit of an Unparalleled Opportunity’ by Kenneth Steuer, published by the YMCA.
Captured at Kut: Prisoner of the Turks: the Great War Diary of Colonel W.C.Spackman: Pen and Sword 2008.
The Siege: Russell Braddon: Jonathan Cape 1969
Kut, 1916: Patrick Crowley: the History Press 2009
Other ranks of Kut: Long, Flt. Sgt.: Williams and Norgate 1938
‘The situation in Mesopotamia from the investment of Kut to its Fall’: Gen. Staff Branch M.O.I. Vol2 (Nat Archives Ref: WO106/905)
Report of Lt. Gen. Sir P. Lake commanding I.E.F. ‘D’ on the fall of Kut. Nat. Archives WO32/5199
‘‘Kut: the death of an army’ Ronald Millar. Secker and Warburg 1969
Official History: Mesopotamia