In a largely forgotten campaign of World War I, 36,000 British and Indian troops fought, bled, shivered, starved, sweated, scratched, and died of Kut-el-Amara, Mesopotamia.
“Then Allah made Hell,” runs an old Arab epigram, “He did not find it bad enough–so He created Mesopotamia.” That antique land now goes by the name of Iraq, and in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, more than half a million of Saddam Hussein’s troops would no doubt concur. Superb allied planning , relentless “preparation” of the Kuwaiti battleground before the final assault, near-total interdiction of Iraqi supply and escape routes, and the most devastating American flanking attack since Stonewall Jackson’s at Chancellorsville–all combined to produce an overwhelming victory for U.S.-led coalition forces. It was a 100-hour master piece of firepower and maneuver, the likes of which had not been seen since Hitler’s 15-day armored blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and northern France in May 1940.
But it might have gone otherwise, as it did for some 36,000 British and Indian troops who fought, bled, shivered, starved, sweated, scratched, and died in Mesopotamia 75 years ago during a disastrous but largely forgotten campaign of World War I–an episode that underscored the need for thorough preparation before attempting any ground offensive in the area. It is known to history as the Siege of Kut-el-Amara.
At Kut, from December 3, 1915, to April 29 the following year, about 10,000 officers, men, and camp followers of Britain’s 6th Division of the Indian Army endured a siege that lasted 148 days. A relief force struggling vainly up the flooded Tigris River valley to their rescue took 23,000 casualties in attack after failed attack through rain-sodden sands and pestilential marshes against a tough, well-entrenched Turkish army. When Kut’s garrison finally surrendered, much was made of the fact that it had survived longer than the besieged forces at Ladysmith during the Boer War (119 days) and Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny (about 140, in two stages).
Indeed, British pluck was about all that could be salvaged from what amounted to the worst debacle of British arms since the Retreat from Kabul during the First Afghan War, when 16,500 soldiers, women, and servants under General William G.K. Elphinstone (“Elphy Bey” to his troops) left only one escapee, Surgeon William Brydon, to complete a bloody winter’s walk down the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad. Kut’s dubious distinction was not eclipsed until February 15, 1942, when the equivalent of three British divisions surrendered Singapore (and about a million civilians) to the Japanese who had outflanked them.
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Britain had quickly sent a brigade–the 16th of the Indian army’s 6th Poona Division–to protect its oil supplies in Abadan, now vital since Winston Churchill, as first lord of the Admiralty, had converted the Royal Navy from coal to oil. The Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force had orders from London to “play a safe game” in the region: Its mission was limited to protecting the oil flow to Abadan, no more. After all, Britain was not yet at war with Turkey. When Britain reluctantly declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 4, that Indian force moved quickly to secure Fao and Basra in Mesopotamia at the top of the Persian Gulf, flanking Abadan on the Shatt-al-Arab.
The Turks responded with an attack down the Euphrates River from An Nasiriya toward Kurna, where the Tigris and Euphrates unite to form the Shatt-al-Arab. The British, with the balance of the 6th Division now in place under the command of General Sir Arthur Barrett, had anticipated such a thrust by taking Kurna on December 9, 1914, against light opposition, and then he blunted an attack at Shaiba in April 191 5, just upstream, with a bayonet charge.
The ease with which the Turks had been beaten so far at every point of contact bred overconfidence among British commanders, who began looking beyond Kurna toward Baghdad, some 360 miles up the Tigris from Basra. The Indian Army was overconfident to begin with , having dealt with poorly armed, ill organized hill tribesmen for the most part. Indeed, Britain’s toughest fight in 19th-century India had been against its own sepoys during the Great Mutiny of 1857-58.
If the Turks were fighting at the far end of along supply line, the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force was worse off. In an essentially roadless land , they lacked much in the way of river transport, as well as adequate artillery, mules, medical supplies, even proper wharves and unloading facilities at Basra. Without these, and especially without a light railroad to move men and armaments upcountry, a successful campaign against Baghdad–where British lines of communication would be stretched as thin as the Turks’ were at Shaiba–was doubtful to say the least.
But by now, six months into the Great War, the fighting in Belgium and France was settling down to the form it would retain for most of its four-year duration: brutal, bloody, close range, high-casualty trench warfare. Strategic thinkers in London, such as Churchill and Horatio Herbert, Lord Kitchener, the secretary of state for war, began to see the Middle East as a theater from which pressure could be applied to “the soft under belly” of the Central Powers, thus drawing German troops away from both France and beleaguered Russia.
In Mesopotamia, the Expeditionary Force was booted up to corps strength, with a new commander, General Sir John Eccles Nixon, a “thrusting” cavalry officer with the requisite bushy mustache, prominent nose, and overweeningly aggressive ambition. To lead the 6th Division in fulfillment of his plans, he chose Major General Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, a 54 year-old careerist and serious student of military history whose ambitions were as keen as Nixon’s.
Most sources concur with the military historian Byron Farwell that Townshend was “a man with a cur ious, unlikable personality” who “never seemed to fit in or belong, wherever he went.” And he had been many places, never content with any of the regiments in which he served, from the Royal Marine Light Infantry to the Central India Horse to the Egyptian Camel Corps to the Royal Fusiliers. Though he distinguished himself enough in the Sudan to win Kitchener’s praise at the battles of Atbara and Omdurman in 1898 against the Mahdists, his closest friends were not soldiers but actors and actresses in the London theater. Possessed of a cutting tongue, he considered himself a great entertainer and raconteur, dropping French quotations, theatrical gossip, and literary aperçus right and left, which only further alienated his bluffer, anti-intellectual military peers. That he had married a French wife did not help , nor did his inveterate pulling of strings to gain better appointments and higher rank.
Townshend did at times demonstrate flashes of military genius, particularly on the offensive. Oddly enough, however, he first gained fame in the most defensive of military postures, a siege situation. In 1895 he was part of a small force sent to Chitral, a Connecticut-size principality in the Hindu Kush, whose mehtar (ruler) had recently died, precipitating a power struggle. When the British force of Sikhs and Kashmiris was ambushed and Captain C.P. Campbell, the senior line officer, caught a bullet in the knee, Townshend–then still a junior captain at the age of 34–took command. He demonstrated a remarkable talent for sitting tight. In a mud fort only 80 yards square, behind walls eight feet thick, with plenty of bullets but only pea soup and horsemeat to eat, Townshend played his banjo, told theatrical anecdotes, quoted from the French classics, popped away at the enemy with a Martini-Henry rifle, and waited until he and his 542 charges were relieved 46 days later. Then he returned to England, where he received a Companionship in the Order of the Bath, an audience with the Prince of Wales, a command to dine with Queen Victoria, and a most welcome promotion. He was on his way.
On April 25, 1915–the day that landings began at Gallipoli in what would prove to be Britain’s other disastrous thrust at that infamous underbelly–Townshend arrived at Kurna with orders from Nixon to eject the Turks from their positions near the town and advance up the Tigris to ‘Amara, 90 miles to the north and the most important town between Kurna and Baghdad.
Local legend had it that Kurna had been the original Garden of Eden. If so, it had declined. Townshend found a mud-hutted hamlet fraught with fleas, flies, and mosquitoes that could suck blood through two layers of khaki drill and a Balaclava helmet; light-fingered Maadan (Marsh Arabs) who stung worse: and such boosterish landmarks as Serpent Alley, Rib Road, Adam’s Walk, and Temptation Square, where stood the stump of the putative biblical tree from which the serpent tempted Adam and Eve. But the Tommies weren’t taken in. As a bit of doggerel ran:
I’ve tried to solve a riddle, You wish to know it? Well,
If Kurna’s the Garden of Eden, Then where the dickens is Hell?
It lay upriver.
Arrayed against Townshend outside Kurna was Turkish general Khalil Bey with six battalions of well-trained Anatolian Turks, 600 Arab riflemen, 1,200 poorly disciplined Maadan, at least 10 artillery pieces, and two armed riverboats, the Mosul and the Marmariss. With the Tigris in spring spate, the ground Townshend’s force would have to advance across was now a shallow, muddy lake studded with the tops of sand hills, clusters of palms, and a few mud huts. The first objective was a trio of island sandhill redoubts flanking the now invisible channel of the Tigris. They lay 3,000 to 4,000 yards away, while some 10,000 yards beyond them reared a crescent of sandy ridges–ideal ground for covering artillery.
For a month Townshend readied his assault: The first wave would comprise 328 bellums (oared dugout canoes), 10 men to a boat; an advance guard of 32 boats armored with machine-gun shields would precede each battalion; behind them would come barges and rafts carrying the division’s artillery–18-pounders, howitzers, 4- and 5-inch guns, and a mountain battery. Escorting the troops would be three armed sloops (Odin, Clio, and the “flagship” Espiegle), three armored tugs (Shaitan, Sumana, and Lewis Pelly), a paddle steamer (the Comet), and four launches. Since the Turks had heavily mined the river and its flooded banks, Townshend offered the local Arab population 400 rupees for each mine brought in.
The preparations were meticulous. Each assault bellum would carry one NCO and nine men, assigned so that no single bellum carried too many oversize passengers. The boats were equipped with picks, shovels, tow ropes, poles, and paddles, even caulking material to plug bullet holes. In the end, the assembled amphibious force came to be known as “Townshend’s Regatta.”
On May 31, 1915, the attack began with a murderous artillery barrage from the heavy guns in Kurna, the naval flotilla, and the horse-drawn barges and rafts. The Turkish response was feeble, and the bellums that landed their sun-helmeted troops at the first redoubt met no opposition to speak of; the enemy trenches had collapsed under the artillery’s “volcano of fire” and were filled with dead and wounded. The story was the same at the second and third redoubts.
A captured Turkish officer who had laid the electrically controlled river minefield led the armored tugs through with their sweeps deployed. Then the big guns opened up on the sandhill crescent at Bahran while the bellums moved forward for another assault. Again there came no answering fire. A reconnaissance plane flew over the strongpoint and returned to report “Bahran abandoned.” Khalil Bey’s force was in full rout northward.
Townshend was quick to follow up his success. At Atbara in the Sudan, he had won Kitchener’s praise by taking not one but three lines of trenches in one charge. He saw a similar opportunity for glory here. Leaving part of his force to occupy Bahran and clear the channel more completely, he forged upriver in the Espiegle to Ezra’s Tomb, 20 miles farther on. With only 100 troops and some staff officers, and escorted by the rest of his regatta, he reached the sacred shrine with its blue dome glowing in the sunset, closing to within 8,000 yards of the two fleeing Turkish riverboats and damaging them with his artillery.
At 4:20 the next morning the pursuit continued. The battered Mosul was found flying a white flag a short way upriver, and by early afternoon the “regatta” had broken clear of the marshes into open river, its banks lush with date palms. By 3:20 p.m. the “regatta” reached Kala Salih, where a few rounds from a 3-pounder routed a detachment of Turkish cavalry; the local sheikh surrendered. On June 3 the chase was on again, this time as far as Abu Sidra, 78 miles from Townshend’s jump off point at Kurna. ‘Amara itself lay only 12 miles farther. As the most modern and populous town south of Baghdad , with its own garrison, a customs house, and adequate supplies for the six Turkish battalions that had retreated from Kurna, it wouldn’t fall as easily as the others–or would it? Townshend decided to take the gamble.
As the armored tug Shaitan, in the lead, neared ‘Amara, its gunners spotted hundreds of Turkish troops boarding a steamer at quayside. The Shaitan fired one round, and such was their panic that they surrendered. ‘Amara, with a population of 20,000, was Townshend’s at the price of one cannon shell–if he could hold it. But the Turks had no more fight in them, at least for the moment. Townshend brought the rest of his 15,000 men upriver and consolidated his position. Thorough preparation coupled with audacity in following up his initial success had won him a brilliant, low-cost victory at a time when British forces in France and at Gallipoli could gain no ground at all without the payment of outrageous “butcher’s bills.”
General Nixon was delighted, as were his superiors in India. The corps commander’s next step was to send Major General Sir George Gorringe’s 12th Division, strengthened by a brigade from Townshend’s 6th and most of his artillery, up the Euphrates against An Nasiriya, the town from which the earlier Turkish attack on Kurna had been mounted. After weeks of fighting through lakes, swamps, and date groves, Gorringe was on the outskirts of An Nasiriya, which fell July 23 after a short, fierce fight that cost the British 500 casualties to the Turks’ 1,000. It was a hot campaign in more ways than one: Daytime temperatures in Mesopotamia can reach 130° in the shade.
Townshend spent most of that summer back in Bombay, where he had been shipped shortly after the capture of ‘Amara to convalesce from the dysentery that had struck him and 1,100 of his men; along with malaria, it was making greater inroads against the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force than Turkish bullets had so far. He found Charles Lord Hardinge, India’s viceroy, and General Beauchamp Duff, commander in chief of the Indian army, flush with the reflected success of his and Gorringe’s victories and contemplating grander successes, possibly even the capture of Baghdad.
“I believe I am to advance from Amarah to Kut el Amarah directly I get back to my division,” he confided in a letter to a friend in England. The question is, where are we to stop in Mesopotamia?…We have certainly not got good enough troops to make certain of taking Baghdad….We can take no risks of defeat in the East. I imagine a retreat from Baghdad and the consequent instant rising of the Arabs of the whole country behind us, to say nothing of the certain rise, in that case, of the Persians, and probably the Afghans, in consequence….
I consider we ought to hold what we have got and not advance any more as long as we are held up, as we are, in the Dardanelles. All these offensive operations in secondary theatres are dreadful errors in strategy: the Dardanelles, Egypt, Mesopotamia, East Africa–I wonder and wonder at such expeditions being permitted in violation of all the great fundamental principles of war, especially that of Economy of Force. Such violation is always punished in history.
Townshend’s prescience was confirmed two days later at a luncheon with Duff, who told him he would be advancing on Kut as soon as Whitehall’s approval was granted. Arriving back at Basra on August 21, Townshend reported to Nixon, who in formed him that 11,000 Turks and Arabs with 38 field pieces under a new general, Yusef Nur-ud-Din (who had replaced the ineffectual Khalil Bey, and whose name, incidentally, was the same as the great Saladin’s patron and mentor), were dug in on both sides of the Tigris at a place called Es Sinn, a few miles downstream from Kut. Twelve more battalions were en route downriver from Baghdad by raft to strengthen this force in a few days, another five were in reserve nearby, and Nur-ud-Din had built bridges across the Tigris to enhance the movement of men and artillery to whatever point Townshend chose to hit him.
For his part, Townshend would have some 11,000 men of the 6th Division, a squadron of the 7th Hariana Lancers, 28 guns including heavy howitzers and 4.7-inchers, the armed paddle-wheeler Comet, the steam launch Sumana, two reconnaissance aircraft, and a pair of pack radios–a feeble force to throw against a well-entrenched enemy of better than equal strength. But Nixon and his superiors in India insisted that Kut-el-Amara must be taken to secure the gains already achieved. From Kut, a watercourse called the Shatt-al-Hai ran south-southeast from the Tigris to the Euphrates at An Nasiriya. If the Turks retained Kut, enemy troops could possibly descend the Shatt-al-Hai and take An Nasiriya, then Kurna and Basra, and all thus far would have been for naught. What’s more, a British success in Mesopotamia would boost morale at home, where news from the Western Front and the Dardanelles spoke only of deadlock.
On August 23 Nixon ordered Townshend to move on Kut and “disperse and destroy” the enemy there. If all went well, Townshend should be prepared to forge on to Baghdad. By September 16 Townshend’s force was concentrated near Es Sinn, still with inadequate river transport but primed to fight. Ten days later he made up for insufficient numbers with a masterful show of maneuver: Feinting a two-pronged attack on Nur-ud-Din’s right, Townshend sent his main force across the Tigris via a down stream boat-bridge on a long route march through the night.
Skirting two marshes, his battalion fell on the Turks’ left flank. They drove the Turks from their position at bayonet point, killing and wounding 4,000 and taking 1,300 prisoners as well as all of Nur-ud-Din’s guns. British losses were 1,230.
The bulk of the Turkish force withdrew upstream to Ctesiphon, some 40 miles south of Baghdad, to already prepared positions. Meanwhile, Townshend occupied Kut and established his headquarters there. Two months later, with improvised donkey and camel transport to supplement his “regatta,” which was hampered by low water in the Mesopotamian dry season, Townshend pursued. He arrived before the ancient Sassanid capital on November 22–only to discover that Nur-ud-Din had been rein forced and now had 12,000 men, with 45 guns.
Townshend attacked anyway, carrying the first line of Turkish trenches near the third-century ruins of the Arch of Ctesiphon (the prophet Muhammad’s barber was also reputed to be buried in the vicinity) before the battle settled down to a four-day “killing match” like those on the Western Front. The Turks lost 6,200 men, the British 4,600. No further gain was possible, and when Townshend was advised that a fresh Turkish force of 30,000 was en route from Baghdad, he decided to withdraw to Kut and wait for reinforcements.
Nur-ud-Din did not press the pursuit vigorously, and after a sharp rearguard action at Umm-at-Tubal, Townshend’s exhausted troops–who’d marched 80 miles both night and day with only odd intervals of rest–staggered into Kut on December 3, 1915, and immediately began digging trenches. Sending his cavalry away, Townshend settled down in Kut as he had two decades earlier at Chitral to await relief, meanwhile effectively blocking access to the Shatt-al-Hai and the lower Tigris. By his initial estimate, he had a bit more than two months’ worth of food at hand. That should have been more than enough.
Some critics have faulted Townshend for halting and digging in at Kut, where the Turkish army was sure to invest him, rather than pushing on downriver to ‘Amara, where the bulk of the British expeditionary force was concentrated. In his postwar memoirs Townshend defended his decision by pointing out that his men had just fought a major battle at Ctesiphon, followed by a double-time fighting retreat of 80 miles to Kut, and were physically spent. ‘Amara was another 150 miles downstream, and his force would have been harried by the Turks all the way. What’s more, occupation of Kut by British troops would deny the Turks two riverine attack routes–down the Tigris toward ‘Amara and Basra, and down the Shatt-al-Hai toward An Nasiriya and the Euphrates. And if Townshend had managed a successful retreat to ‘Amara, he or any other commander who in the future wished to move on Baghdad would only have to fight the battle of Es Sinn all over again.
Kut, with a remaining Arab population of 6,000 (which would also have to be fed), lay in an oxbow of the Tigris, protected by the river against assault on three sides. Townshend’s men quickly dug three lines of barbed-wire-barricaded trenches across the fourth (northwestern) side, the first of these trenches anchored on its right flank by a strong, mud-walled fort hard by the Tigris. Across the river from the town lay a village called Yakasum, which the British renamed Woolpress Village (because it had a wool press), also protected by a short arc of entrenchments: 9,000 yards of seven-tiered barbed wire in all.
Within this perimeter of wire and river were crowded some 20,000 people: four brigades totaling 10,000 men, about 3,500 noncombatant “camp-followers” that were de rigueur in the Army of India (bhistis to tote water, drabis and saises to feed the horses and mules, sweepers to clean up after them and the fighting men, low-caste bearers to handle the wounded and bury the dead), in addition to the town’s potentially hostile citizenry. All hunkered down together in an area that measured little more than two and a half square miles: a maze of narrow, twisting alleys and open drains, mud houses, a small bazaar, a mosque, a brick kiln, a few groves of lime trees and date palms, and a newly established British field hospital.
Townshend had sent the wounded from Ctesiphon downriver with his cavalry at the outset. He had also thrown a bridge of boats across the Tigris from the town, anticipating sorties from Kut to aid the relief force he hoped would soon be forging upriver to his rescue–the bridgehead guarded on the enemy side by a company of tough Punjabis. In the brickyard he positioned most of his artillery–43 guns in all, including four 4.7-inchers mounted on barges. To communicate with Basra, he had two radio sets, fastidiously protected, at least initially, by bales of angora wool against the shock of incoming Turkish artillery shells.
The Turks besieging Townshend under his old opponent Nur-ud-Din grew to six divisions by the end, with 32 guns, five howitzers, and an enormous brass mortar dating to the 18th century that fired a bomb as big and as round as a soccer ball. The Tommies quickly nicknamed this antique weapon “Flatulent Flossie.”
An initial Turkish attempt to rush Kut’s boat-bridge was repulsed with heavy losses on both sides. Townshend then decided to blow the bridge, cutting his options of sortie or escape. Two British lieutenants and a party of Gurkhas crawled out on the span at night with eight pounds of gun cotton apiece, placed their charges, lit the fuses, and fled. The bridge blew spectacularly, and Kut’s artillery finished the job when morning came.
Infuriated, the Turks launched attack after attack on Kut’s first trench line from dawn to dusk on December 10, and the following day shelled the town in earnest, causing 202 casualties. Day after day throughout the siege, Turkish snipers picked off anyone foolish enough to show himself. Yet the bhistis–latter-day Gunga Dins–continued to scamper down to the river’s edge to fill their goatskin water bags, never shirking. Tough duty, but the garrison still hoped for early relief. From Basra, Lieutenant General Sir Fenton Aylmer, V.C., radioed Townshend: “Have assumed command Tigris Line. Have utmost confidence in the defender of Chitral and his gallant troops to keep the flag flying until we can relieve them.” Aylmer had been one of the men who had bailed Townshend out of his previous siege, and Kut’s commander replied warmly: “Thanks from 6th Divi sion for your inspiring message. Your confidence shall not be misplaced.”
But that mutual confidence amounted to mere whistling in the dark. The India government, always tightfisted with men and equipment, and Nixon, always overoptimistic, still had done nothing to rectify Basra’s miserable docking facilities. Aylmers relief force was still short of transport, medical supplies, bridging materials, signaling equipment, even blankets for the troops in the cold Mesopotamian winter nights. His men had never fought together before as a division, yet Nixon–pressed by Townshend for speedy relief–insisted that Aylmer advance at once on Kut. Townshend sent a message to Nixon:
The fighting value of my troops was naturally much decreased since Ctesiphon (though discipline maintains), and I am very anxious as to the result if enemy makes determined onslaught with very superior numbers. We are constantly shelled all day and I am very anxious to be relieved in say ten to fifteen days.
Two days later–December 12–Aylmer arrived at ‘Amara to concentrate his two newly arrived divisions of green troops at Ali Garbi for an attack on January 31. Townshend pleaded for greater speed, and just before Christmas his fears that the Turks would take Kut before Aylmer could attack were nearly realized. After two days of intense artillery bombardment, which breached the town’s wall in one place, the Turks at tacked on December 24, carrying the outlying trenches despite concentrated fire from howitzers, four Maxim machine guns, and 1,000 rifles. The defenders finally drove them out with bayonets and homemade grenades–jam tins crammed with black powder and chopped telephone wire. As German field marshal Colmar von der Goltz, overall commander of the Turkish Sixth Army, looked on, Nur-ud-Din’s force took 2,000 casualties while Townshend took 382, bringing his dead and wounded to 1,625 since the siege began. Kut’s garrison settled back for Christmas dinner: bully beef, tinned pineapple, and condensed milk for the enlisted men; a five-course feast including asparagus, plum pudding, and whiskey for the officers–all of it gritty, thanks to a yuletide sandstorm.
In early January, far earlier than he had planned, Aylmer moved on the besieging forces downstream near Sheikh Sa’ad and was stopped, with some 4,000 casualties. (Almost simultaneously, on January 9, 1916, British forces finally withdrew from Gallipoli, ending the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign with 252,000 casualties.) Nur-ud-Din unaccountably withdrew after Sheikh Sa’ad and was replaced by Khalil Pasha (a cousin of the Young Turk strongman Enver Pasha).
A second assault at Wadi and a third at Hanna also bogged down–literally, since the rains had come, turning the Tigris valley below Kut into a quagmire. Aylmer’s requests for sorties from Kut to relieve some of the frontline pressure against his attacking troops were rejected by Townshend, who was growing increasingly unstable as the siege dragged on. What’s more, the Turks had Kut so thoroughly pinned down that it is unlikely many men could have made it very far beyond the walls.
As January neared its end, Townshend issued a communique to his troops:
The Relief Force under General Aylmer has been unsuccessful in its efforts to dislodge the Turks entrenched on the left bank of the river, some fourteen miles below the position at Es Sinn, where we defeated the Turks in September last, when their strength was greater than it is now. Our relieving force suffered severe loss and had very bad weather to contend with. They are entrench ed close to the Turkish position. More reinforcements are on their way up river and I confidently expect to be relieved some day during the first half of the month of February….By standing at Kut, I maintain the territory we have won in the past year at the expense of much blood, commencing with your glorious victory at Shaiba, and thus we maintain the campaign as a glorious one….I have ample food for eighty-four days, and that is not counting the 3,000 animals [horses and mules] which can be eaten….Our duty stands out plain and simple. It is our duty to our Empire, to our beloved King and Country, to stand here and hold up the Turkish advance as we are doing now: and with the help of all, heart and soul with me together, we will make this a defense to be remembered in history as a glorious one. All in England and India are watching us now and are proud of the splendid courage and devotion you have shown…. Save your ammunition as if it were gold.
Wise soldiers know that when generals begin spouting rhetoric on that order, the end is near. Inside the wire, Townshend’s trenches filled with cold, yellow water, ankle- and knee-deep in places, footed in mud, into which men hit by Turkish sniper fire disappeared almost without a trace. Trench foot and trench pneumonia were added to the list of medical woes, along with pleurisy, pneumonia, sore throats, frostbite, and gangrene. A plague of green frogs appeared in the trenches, and in their uncomfortable boredom the Tommies quickly organized frog races. But food was also in ever shorter supply, and one night the champion frog of the Norfolk Regiment’s 2nd Battalion disappeared from its tin; the Norfolks cast dark, suspicious glances at their Indian trench mates. Lice also came with the rains, vast quantities of them. Troops spent hours picking them out of their blankets, their uniforms, their under wear–one hospital patient claimed a record 420 lice in a single picking session. An infestation of fleas followed the lice, and sand flies bit fiercely whenever the sun shone, leaving boils wherever they burrowed under the skin. When the boils burst, they in turn left pustulant black scars as big as an English penny “Baghdad Sores,” the Tommies called them.
Three times a day the Turks shelled Kut, and now night bombardment was added to the horror. “You try to doze off,” an officer wrote in his diary,
but are intermittently awakened by the sizzling scream of an approaching “obus.” You cock up an interested ear to judge whether you are exactly in the line of its flight or not, and if you are, and you have no dugout, you await its fall with still greater interest, only equalled by your relief when it bursts clear or lands with a wump on a neighbouring mud hut. A “whizz bang” on the other hand gives no warning. It comes hissing through the mud wall and there is a tremendous explosion and segments are scattered all over the place, filling the air with poisonous fumes. They are annoying little beasts and are on you before you have a chance to move.
As the siege dragged on, Kut’s rations were halved, then halved again. Mesopotamian winters are as cold as its summers are hot, and soon the troops had burned most of the wood in town: windowsills, elaborately carved doors, benches and crates, and superfluous balks from the trenches. Finally the only fuel left was licorice root, hacked from the bare ground. Tobacco ran short, so men smoked tea leaves and ginger root, though some swore by the leaves of the lime trees, which they dubbed “Brick Kiln Virginia.”
Ration squads ransacked Arab houses for hidden food supplies, digging up floors and smashing walls to find sacks and earthen ware jars full of barley, which was ground on hastily improvised millstones and boiled to porridge over fires fueled from the garrison’s oil barges. Soon there were no cats or dogs left in Kut–save Major General Sir Charles Melliss’s terrier and Townshend’s pet dog, Spot (who was gun-shy and yiped at explosions, but survived the siege and was repatriated to England as a favor to its master–indeed rank hath its privileges). Officers popped sparrows and starlings with their shotguns to concoct meat pies; other ranks enjoyed hedgehog fried in axle grease. Horses and mules had already chewed one another’s manes and tails down to nubbins, and it was only with the greatest reluctance that the British–always sentimental about animals with big brown eyes and pet names–began eating them. One officer’s diary of the siege puts it most poignantly: “April 16, 1916. The day I ate the heart of my beloved Esmeralda.”
The Kuttites had quickly learned that a local weed, called saq but labeled “spinach” by the Tommies, was nutritious when boiled, but one had to be careful in picking it, because there were poisonous look-alikes. General F.A. Hoghton, one of Townshend’s brigade commanders, learned the difference the hard way: On April 11 his batman cooked him up a batch, and he died. Others perished of “starvation dysentery,” exacerbated by eating previously discarded tins of now-rancid jam and butter, rotten potato meal, and oats. Among the more fortunate, beri beri was rife. The gunnery officers’ sole surviving chicken, a hen named Mrs. Milligan, kept on laying eggs during the most intense of Turkish barrages, and even managed to raise a brood of chicks, which followed her around through the mud, pecking at spent bullets instead of worms.
And the siege wore on. General Nixon was invalided back to India with one of the Middle East’s ubiquitous fevers (complicated, no doubt, by London’s belated disfavor over his too-ambitious campaign against Baghdad). He was succeeded by General Sir Percy Lake, who in turn sent Gorringe north up the Tigris to relieve Aylmer’s failed troops.
In a full-scale attack on March 8, Aylmer had nearly succeeded in relieving Kut–an attempt that ultimately failed, as so many did on all fronts and every side in World War I, due to a too strict adherence to preconceived plans. The key to the Turkish positions surrounding Kut on the right bank of the Tigris was a heavily fortified node of trenches and bunkers called the Dujaila Redoubt. In a daring night march reminiscent of Townshend’s maneuver at Es Sinn the previous September, Aylmer managed to concentrate nearly his entire Tigris Force–some 20,000 men–opposite the redoubt shortly before sunrise. The Turks were clearly unaware of the movement, some being seen standing on the parapets shaking out their blankets and yawning. Indeed, a British intelligence officer, one Major Leachman, had entered the redoubt during the night disguised as an Arab and reported the place nearly deserted, with only about 20 Turks in evidence. A reconnaissance patrol that morning, which also entered the redoubt, confirmed his report.
Though both reports were believed at headquarters, Aylmer’s battle plan called for a heavy artillery bombardment before the assault jumped off. No British commander on the scene had the initiative to attack on his own, when the position was ripe for the plucking, and when Aylmer’s headquarters behind the lines was queried by telephone, the orders came back: “Stick to program.” Not only that, but when the artillery finally came up almost three hours later, they were allowed to sight in their guns as if they were back home on a firing range.
All chance of surprise ended with that leisurely cannonade. Turkish reinforcement s poured into the redoubt, 3,000 of them coursing down the canal from Magasis Fort in coraclelike mashoofs, rafts made of skin and towed by motorboats, or on foot across the Dujaila Redoubt; another 3,000 came from the left bank Turkish lines across the river. When the British infantry finally moved on the redoubt at 10 a.m., they were met with withering machine-gun and rifle fire, and cut down in swaths. Toward sunset a few units of the Manchesters and the 59th Rifles managed to occupy two trenches of the redoubt but were thrown back by a crisp counterattack by grenade-hurling Turks.
From the parapets and trenches of Kut, Townshend and his men watched the gunfire flicker out seven miles away as the sun went down. With it went their best chance of rescue. Townshend made no attempt at a sortie to assist Aylmer’s assault from the rear, arguing almost fatalistically that “cooperation was of little practical use” at this stage. Yet if a determined attack on the Turkish flank had been mounted from Kut, it might have turned the tide. As it was, Aylmer lost close to 3,500 troops in that bloody day’s fighting, and his command as well. Four days later, he air-dropped a letter to Townshend:
My dear Townshend,
The War Office say that my conduct of operations had been unfortunate, and have ordered my suspension. I need not tell you how deeply I grieve that I have not been able to relieve you; but I have every confidence that my successor will be able to do so very soon. I have had a harder task than most people realize. It all looks very easy when you sit in an armchair at the W.O.! The business a few days ago very nearly came off. I cannot tell you how much I admire the splendid way in which you are defending Kut. I heartily pray that you will gain your reward in speedy relief….Goodbye and God bless you all, and may you be more fortunate than myself.
But Gorringe fared no better than his predecessor: On April 12 his Tigris Force attacked in the rain at Hanna and carried the first lines of Turkish trenches, at a cost of 5,000 casualties. But the Turks retreated to Sannaiyat, along the way destroying dikes that flooded the battleground in front of their previously prepared positions.
On April 22 Gorringe attacked again, his men wading through knee-deep water, with thunder and lightning accompaniment to guns. They gained only 400 yards. At day’s end, the Black Watch mustered only 48 of its original 842 men; the 6th Jahts, 50 of 825; the 125th Rifles, 88 of 848; and the 1st Seaforth Rifles, 102 of 962. That evening he radioed Townshend: “Much regret that the attack at Sannaiyat position this morning was repulsed. Gorringe, however, will not relax efforts.”
But he would have to wait until the end of April–at the earliest–for his badly bled relief force, initially numbering some 30,000 men and 133 guns, to be reinforced to a strength of 23,450. Tigris Force, under two commanders, had lost 23,000 men, killed and wounded, since January, and still stood no nearer than 12 miles from Kut. The intervening ground was now held by the entire Turkish Sixth Army.
And Townshend’s garrison was at the end of its endurance. On April 15, British Farman biplanes had tried to drop 5,000 pounds of supplies into Kut by parachute–the first airdrop to a besieged force in military history–but nearly half had drifted into Turkish hands or landed in the Tigris. Subsequent drops fared no better. For weeks Townshend had been contemplating surrender, hoping that by some antique chivalrous turn the Turks–in return for the capture of his artillery and the removal of this strategically placed thorn in Mesopotamia’s side–might allow his men to march out of Kut on parole. Indeed, during one fierce artillery duel he had spotted the Sixth Army’s commander, Khalil Pasha, within range but ordered his gunners not to fire on him–a 19th-century gesture that he hoped might engender a quid pro quo when the white flag ran up.
One last effort remained to be made. At ‘Amara, 25 miles downriver, the steamer ]ulnar lay at quayside with 270 tons of food for Kut. Naval officers were willing to run the Turkish gauntlet even though they knew the mission was suicidal. The Julnar‘s sides had been reinforced with steel plates, her deck protected against plunging fire by sandbags filled with lead, but the final decision lay with Sir Percy Lake.
At 7 p.m. on April 24, piloted by Lieutenant Commander C.H. Cowley of the Royal Navy, a former skipper of the Euphrates & Tigris Navigation Company (and now regarded by the Turks as a renegade national), the ]ulnar made her run. Officers waiting and watching from Kut’s walls could chart her progress up the winding river by the slowly moving flash and boom of Turkish artillery on either bank. They had been advised that she would show a white light to indicate that she was undamaged and could berth, a red light if she was holed and had to run aground. Neither light appeared. The Turks had strung a hawser diagonally across the Tigris, shunting the steamer into the bank “high and dry at Magasis Ferry” just east of Kut. Swarming aboard, Turkish soldiers killed her officers and most of the crew. Cowley was marched into the desert and summarily shot.
On April 26, Lake radioed Townshend that Lord Kitchener had agreed to Townshend’s beginning surrender negotiations with Khalil Pasha. For three days the talks went on, with Khalil smiling politely but referring all decisions to Enver Pasha in Istanbul. Called in to assist in the negotiations were Captains Aubrey Herbert and T.E. Lawrence from the Arab Bureau in Cairo. The intelligence officers tried to bribe Khalil and Enver, first with an offer of a million pounds sterling, then with double that amount, but the Turks and their German partners preferred the propaganda value of an unconditional surrender. (Most of Kut’s sick and wounded, however, were finally allowed to be taken downriver to Basra, in exchange for healthy Turkish prisoners, since none of them could have survived the journey to Turkey.) Enver was willing to accept the money and Kut’s 43 guns in exchange only for Townshend’s personal parole. “It is obvious,” Kut’s commander radioed Lake,” that I must go into captivity.”
On April 29, Townshend ‘s troops blew up their guns, broke their rifles (only one rifle was retained per company to guard against marauding Arabs), burned their signal books and trenching tools, buried revolvers, hacked saddle s and bridles to pieces, smashed binoculars and cameras, and threw their bayonets into the Tigris. The gunners finally killed and ate Mrs. Milligan, who proved as tough on the table as she’d been throughout the siege.
Townshend’s final communique to his troops concluded: “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your devotion and your discipline and bravery, and may we all meet in better times.” Moments later Kut’s field radio uttered its last message: “Goodbye. Piecemeal.” At that final code word, the radio operators fired their rifles into the set until it erupted in flames. They smashed what was left with their rifle butts and hurled the weapons into the Tigris. Then they joined the column of prisoners and marched out into captivity.
It proved a death march, especially for the British and Indian enlisted men. The Turks turned these “other ranks” over to the charge of Arab guards, who whipped, thrashed, bayoneted, or clubbed with rifle butts any stragglers who fell out of the column as it marched northward through the desert. Prisoners were forced to bribe the Arabs with their boots and clothing for minimal food rations. Many of the younger British soldiers were sodomized, and beaten into submission if they objected to the treatment. Captive British officers occasionally witnessed this abuse and its results as they themselves moved north toward Anatolia. As Captain E.O. Mousley wrote in his postwar memoir, Secrets of a Kuttite:
We tingled with anger and shame at seeing on the other bank a sad little column of troops who had marched up from Kut, driven by a wild crowd of Kurdish horsemen who brandished sticks and what looked like whips. The eyes of our men stared…and they held out their hands toward our boat. As they drag ged one foot after another, some fell and those with the rearguard came in for blows from cudgels and sticks. I saw one Kurd strike a British soldier who was limping along, he reeled under the blows….Men were dying of cholera and dysentery and often fell out from sheer weakness.
Other observers likened the journey to something out of Dante’s Inferno or the cruelties of Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane.
The death rate was appalling. Of the 2,592 British officers and men captured at Ku t, 1,755 died before war’s end. Of the 10,486 Indian sepoys and servants, 3,063 perished in captivity. Townshend himself was treated as Turkey’s “honored guest,”living in relative luxury in an island villa near Istanbul for the rest of the war. His career, however, was ruined, and to so ambitious a man that may have been as painful as death itself.
Baghdad did not fall to the Tigris Force until March 11, 1917, nearly a year after Kut’s surrender, and then only after Britain assembled a force of 166,000 men with adequate supplies, medical support, and transportation.
There are no shortcuts in war. MHQ
ROBERT F. JONES is a journalist and novelist who contributes frequently to MHQ. His most recent novel is Blood Tide (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990).