24 APRIL, 1916: Heroes and Villains

A hundred years ago today, in Dublin, Irish nationalists occupied the main post office and proclaimed a provisional independent government of Ireland. This was the first action of what is now called the Easter Rising against British colonial rule, and anyone with a TV in Britain can tell you it copped for the heritage treatment a few weeks back.  Odd decision, that, and for all that I’m impressed with the resurrection myth’s tenacity I prefer to commemorate the Rising on the day it actually began.

The British heritage industry’s editorial stance was equally odd, though less surprising, in that while dwelling on the rebellion’s brief narrative (and of course every crumb of human interest) they seem to have largely ignored the question of why the rebellion took place.  That may be a matter of embarrassment, because when it comes to Ireland the British have been on the wrong side of history for a very long time – so, with apologies to any Irish reader for being brief and occasionally facile, here’s some background.

The Normans got conquest of Ireland underway, establishing control of an eastern tranche of the country (known as The Pale), and by the later Middle Ages English influence dominated the whole island.  For the next few hundred years Ireland suffered straightforward, often brutal, few-benefits-attached exploitation and oppression, bolstered by colonial seeding of English lords and labour.  Subject to complete union with the UK since 1801, its population of less than five million remained predominantly rural and Catholic in the early 20th century, and industrial development was concentrated in the northern province of Ulster.

In Ireland as elsewhere (if more slowly than in England), the nineteenth century brought literacy and political awareness into mass culture, and with them came a surge of popular nationalism. By the 1880s a movement for autonomy (or Home Rule) had won support from the British Liberal government, but the carrot of Home Rule was destined to dangle for some time, suspended by furious opposition from British conservatives and from the Protestant, pro-British, ‘Unionist’ majority in Ulster.

Home Rule bills were defeated by Parliament in 1886 and 1893, and though the Asquith government – along with southern Ireland’s 84 Westminster MPs – eventually managed to pass one in May 1914, it caused nothing but trouble.  Ulster promptly descended into something close to civil war, and British party politics went into crisis mode when it appeared that British soldiers in Ulster would refuse to fire on Unionists if called upon to enforce Home Rule. Known as the Curragh Mutiny, this sparked the resignations of regional commander General Gough, all his officers, Army chief of staff Sir John French (yes, him) and war minister Seeley – and made the British Army establishment’s opposition to Home Rule, let alone independence, abundantly clear.

The crisis was still in progress, and no new war minister had been appointed, when the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand brought down Europe’s diplomatic dominoes and Home Rule was shelved for the duration.  Ulster quieted down, and Irishmen from every province enlisted in droves to fight for the Empire.  Most Irish nationalists were caught up in the war fever that infected most of Europe, and their politicians gave official support to the British war effort, but some of their more militant fellow travellers reacted with anger and understandable frustration.

Nationalists had no reason to suppose that the good intentions of a few Liberal politicians represented the views of the British ruling class., and every reason to suspect that war meant the days of reforming governments at Westminster were over for the foreseeable future.  Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that some nationalist elements sought to exploit the War – as nationalists had exploited the Napoleonic Wars – by seeking German aid for their cause.  More surprisingly, there weren’t many of them and they didn’t get far, though German agents in the USA did recruit a small number of ex-patriot Irish nationalists to carry out sabotage operations.

The same German agents made contact in New York with one relatively eminent nationalist who was out to make a difference – retired Anglo-Irish diplomat Sir Roger Casement.  Casement travelled to Germany in the autumn of 1914, arranged with German authorities to have Irish PoWs placed in a separate camp, and set about trying to recruit them for a nationalist army.  Few detailed records of the enterprise survive, and those that do are more shaky than wiki-world would have you believe, but it’s generally accepted that no more than a few dozen of the 2,000 prisoners involved signed up for his Irish Legion.

Casement is still a controversial figure – lionised in Ireland, but dismissed as a traitor and subject to character smears by many British commentators – but there’s no doubting his optimism, given that all the men he was trying to recruit had volunteered to fight for Britain.  To be fair, he was also let down by the German authorities, who treated him with benevolent neglect.  They never came close to keeping promises of weapons and training for the Legion, ignored his strategic advice about Irish affairs and generally payed more attention to their sources inside Ireland, in particular the militant Military Committee of the Irish Volunteers.

I’m not getting into the minutiae and individual lives of Irish republican politics here – you haven’t got the time and I might get the nuance wrong – but broadly speaking the movement was represented by three significant organisations.  Sinn Fein was nationalism’s relatively new political wing, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, and known as the Fenian Brotherhood in the US) was its long-established agitprop organisation, and the Irish Volunteers was its militant, activist cell.  The Volunteers alone refused to officially support the British war effort in August 1914, and the Military Committee, a splinter group within it, had begun planning a wartime uprising by early September.  That said, it’s worth pointing out that these organisations overlapped all over the place, and that many of the principal figures involved in the Easter Rising belonged to all three.

The Committee had begun making practical arrangements for a rising by May 1915.  Though never given the full support of the Volunteers, Sinn Fein or the IRB – who all considered an uprising premature, inappropriate and unlikely to win popular support – the Committee was in contact with German agents and delayed plans in the hope of significant backing from Germany.  When Casement and the Committee eventually co-presented a scheme for a German invasion to coincide with the rebellion, Berlin turned down the idea, agreeing only to send arms to Ireland.  Despite opposition from nationalist politicians (the plan was hardly a secret, though theoretically kept from the British), the Committee went ahead anyway, and the date of the rising was set for 23 April 1916.

Up to a point the Germans kept their word, sending a few thousand old rifles and a handful of machine guns to southwest Ireland on a disguised steamer in early April.  They also sent Casement, by submarine, to act as a figurehead for the rebellion, but the British were way ahead of them, using intelligence from the United States to catch both the guns and Casement, who was captured on 20 April, stripped of his knighthood and hanged as a traitor.   News of the losses sparked another round of calls for the rising to be cancelled from leading nationalist figures, which cut down the number of people taking part but only postponed the event for one day.

The Rising went ahead on 24 April and, as TV documentaries have been at pains to point out, lasted less than a week.  Following the post office occupation, rebels took several buildings covering roads into Dublin after fierce street fighting with British garrison troops, but attempts to storm Dublin Castle and the local arsenal failed.  The Empire fought back with ruthless efficiency.  Britain put the whole of Ireland under martial law from 27 April, and troops led by General Maxwell forced the surrender of surviving rebels on 1 May.  About 300 were killed in the fighting, roughly a third of them military personnel, and another 1,000 or so were wounded or reported missing.

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Dublin after it was shelled by a British gunboat… that’ll teach them to mess with the post office.
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This was always a form of civil war… 35% of the troops killed during the Rising were Irish born.

That’s about where the British heritage story ends, and it tends to dismiss the Rising as a failure.  From a simply historical point of view – in other words without taking sides – that’s nonsense.  Of course it didn’t sweep the rebels to political power in a liberated Ireland, but none of the Rising’s main protagonists expected that it would.  In its intended role as a demonstration of Irish intent and impatience, it could hardly have been more successful.

The enormous international splash created by the Rising amounted to a massive propaganda victory for Irish nationalists, particularly in the USA, a constituency the British government dared not upset as long as it remained neutral. The government’s relatively mild reaction in the aftermath of the Rising –’only’ 14 rebels were executed and those imprisoned were given amnesty in 1917 – was an attempt to soothe US opinion that made very little difference, and nothing an increasingly divided administration could do would restore Britain’s popular reputation in southern Ireland.  By 1919, when enforcement of Home Rule was finally due, southern Irish politics had shifted decisively away from the compromise it represented, and after three years of sporadic civil war the Independent Irish Free State was established in 1922, with Ulster becoming an autonomous province within the United Kingdom.

Whatever your view of the violence it entailed, the modern standards we like to set for other countries insist that Irish nationalism in 1916 was a just cause – just as they make Britain an evil empire straight out of central casting.  Opposed or let down by their supporters, manifestly doomed to failure and, at best, imprisonment, the Easter rebels were in effect successful martyrs for that cause.  At the time, of course, they were officially British, and it seems a shame British popular history can’t treat them with the respect it reserves for violent rebels with a cause like Oliver Cromwell or Robin Hood.

17 APRIL, 1916: Devil’s Pie

Just a quick sidelight on the War today, as much a case of me asking questions as answering them, because I don’t know a lot about today’s token anniversary.   On 17 April 1916, Italy announced the prohibition of trade with Germany.   Italy had been officially at war with Germany since the previous August, and I’ve yet to find anything that tells me why it took almost eight months to stop business between the two countries.  If I’m going to speculate – and I am – my guess is that trade was more important than any state of war in 1916, and that gives me something to say.

A hundred years on, it’s easy to assume that Europeans of 1916 (or at least Western Europeans) viewed the world with the same post-imperial pessimism we think of as normal today.  In 2016, deep down inside, we all know European civilisation is over the hill.  We’ve been everywhere, done it all and enjoyed a prolonged spending spree, but now we can see the end of the supply line and a future of permanent (if relative) austerity.   In 1916, for all that the previous couple of years had been disastrous beyond anyone’s wildest nightmares, most Europeans still lived an age of optimism.

Science and technology were providing wonders at an unprecedented rate, the conquest of nature for human benefit seemed all but complete, and the rest of the world was still an apparently limitless source of bounty waiting to be carried off. Before the War, most Europeans took for granted that the future was always going to be better than the past, and even in 1916 they were living in a narrative that saw the shock and horror of total war as a course correction on the road to the Promised Land.

Depending on nationality or class, the Promised Land took many forms.  Some Europeans dreamed of independence from empire, others of turning independence into the prosperity enjoyed by the richest countries.  Socialists and liberals saw a future of social justice, some of their political masters sought preservation of traditional pecking orders, and plenty from both sides of that particular fence regarded defeat of an historical enemy as an acceptable version of paradise.

My point is this.   War today is a means of keeping what you have in a shrinking world, but a hundred years ago war it a means of winning prizes in an expanding world.  In order to win the prizes wars had to be won, but no nation or empire could fight wars, let alone win them, without wealth, generated or borrowed.  In the early twentieth century, the way to wealth on a national scale had been taught to the world by the British Empire and was pretty much set in stone. Taking control of territory (by annexation or colonisation) supplied raw materials that could be turned into goods that could be traded for wealth.

There was no other way; there had been no other way since the opulence of monarchs had ceased to be the main indicator of national wealth; and there’s still no other way.

For smaller economies – and in 1916 that meant pretty much everyone except the European empires and the USA – there was an obvious catch: you needed wealth before you could grab more territory.  So in order to fight wars and win prizes, available trading opportunities had to be exploited to the full.  That made trade sacred, the first and fundamental priority in the affairs of sovereign states, the only route to a Promised Land the whole human race could see on the horizon.

I know this is all very generalised, and it may have nothing to do with wartime trade between Italy and Germany (there could, for instance, be legal or contractual reasons behind that), but it is a reminder of an important thread running through the entire conflict. Entering the War, staying neutral, invading neighbours, carving up collapsing empires, blockading the oceans, grabbing colonies or even coming from colonies to aid the mother country… every kind of First World War was about trading for a shot at the treasure.

In age of optimism about the future, that meant no good guys or bad guys.   Belgium, France, Serbia and a host of other sovereign states (even Britain) might have claimed to be fighting a defensive war, but none of their buckets hold water once you disqualify countries invaded because their own invasions failed, and any state that committed an expeditionary or colonial force abroad oxycontin dosage.   So that’s today’s heritage subversion message:  every state fighting the First World War was in it for greed.

12 APRIL, 1916: Crater Creators

I’ll do something different today.  It’s not a good day for anniversaries, and I’ve touched on most of the ongoing action away from the Western Front in the last few weeks.  I could spend a while cataloguing the carnage taking place at Verdun, but I think I can trust other people to do that for you,  Besides, the beginning of the latest German assault on 9 April (from the northeast of Verdun, attacking on both sides of the River Meuse) had coincided with the arrival of heavy rain, which went on for twelve straight days and reduced fighting to a chaotic, murderous mud-fest.  So today I’m offering up a slice of basic background information, aiming to put some flesh on a bare word that loomed over the First World War like an angry god.  Artillery, that’s the word.

Say what you like about tanks and aircraft, or about the terrible impact of machine-guns, the big gun was the weapon that dominated the First World War.  Nobody expected this, any more than they expected a long, static war, and nobody had really prepared for it.

Improvements in big gun technology during the late 19th century had produced breech-loaded weapons with (more accurate) rifled barrels, but though most modern field armies were equipped with these in 1914, hundreds of old muzzle-loaders and smooth bores were still in service.   Old guns were mostly used by old battleships, coastal defences and the fortresses dotted all over mainland Europe, but were hastily redeployed for front-line duties as artillery came to be seen as the defining factor in trench warfare.

Artillery, old and new, came in various sizes and was generally classified by the diameter of its barrel (e.g. 6-inch, or 150mm), although some British guns were named for the weight of their ammunition (6-pounder, etc.).  The lightest and smallest modern artillery pieces used for front-line action in 1914 were 37mm (work out your own inches) ‘mountain guns’, also known as ‘horse artillery’. Used for difficult terrain, support of fast-moving cavalry or colonial work against ill-protected enemies, they were essentially anti-personnel weapons, though they could wipe out light cover.

Next up, and the main support weapon for major armies in 1914, was the long-barrelled field gun, firing a high-velocity shell at a low trajectory. Restricted in range and weight of shell because they were required to be mobile in support of infantry, the most modern ‘quick-firing’ (QF) field guns had a recoil system that automatically bounced the barrel back into firing position. This was the artillery seen as most important by planners expecting a fast-moving war, and by 1914 the French 75mm, German and Austrian Krupp 77mm, British 18-pounder, US 3-inch and Russian 3-inch field guns were all pretty much of a muchness in performance terms.  Smaller armies had to buy in QF guns from the major powers.

The planners were wrong. Field guns weren’t ideal weapons for knocking out trench fortifications, so their importance dwindled from the autumn of 1914 and their design remained essentially static throughout the War.  Some bigger models were produced (Russian 100–105mm guns, for instance), but they were too cumbersome to support infantry effectively, and anyway less useful for blasting trenches than howitzers, heavy guns or mortars.

Originally designed to shoot over castle walls, howitzers lobbed a heavy shell a shorter distance through a shorter, wider barrel. Medium howitzers (roughly 120–160mm) were mobile weapons, intended to keep up with infantry attacks, but nobody thought they’d need them in August 1914.  The British were relying on museum pieces, the French Army was doing without medium howitzers altogether (instead attaching a small disc to field-gun shells to make them fall short), and Russia was only just starting to manufacture new models.  Once static warfare set in, the French and British rushed every medium howitzer available into action, and introduced new models during 1915 – but they were playing catch-up, because Germany and Austria-Hungary had developed a range of modern medium howitzers before the War, giving the Central Powers a qualitative advantage on the main fronts that lasted until late 1916.

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Field gun…
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… and howitzer

 

 

 

 

Trench stalemate, and in particular the development of ‘breakthrough’ tactics, soon turned heavy artillery into an important field weapon.  The theory that a concentrated assault against a single point could break through an enemy line called for the heaviest possible bombardment of defenders’ positions just before the attack.  Spreading from the Western Front to other theatres during 1915, breakthrough tactics kept failing, and failure kept being attributed to insufficient firepower.  Heavy guns – until then used for static defence of fortresses and coasts, or aboard major warships – were seen as the answer, and the German Army again held the initial advantage.

Germany’s gigantic, mobile howitzers – the 420mm Krupp ‘Big Bertha’ and the 305mm ‘Schlanke Emma’ – had reached service just in time to perform their allotted task of destroying Belgian fortresses in August 1914, and their success prompted a general rush to find heavy guns for the Western and Eastern Fronts. Fixed guns were stripped from fortresses all over Europe , but their clumsiness often made them useless, vulnerable or both, and new heavy weapons soon followed.

Theoretically mobile across muddy, shell-shattered ground, the new heavy field guns were generally bigger than 170mm, and could eventually send a 65-100kg shell as far as 30km, while heavy howitzers (200-400mm) lobbed projectiles of up to about 900kg to a distance of up to 18km.  In April 1916, the German Army still had the edge in heavy guns, but from the end of the year it was overtaken by superior Allied production capacity.

Along with portable mortars (for lobbing projectiles over short distances, and ideal for trench warfare), enormous railway guns (train-mounted and used behind front line areas) and adaptations of field guns for anti-aircraft use, those were the big guns responsible for the devastated landscapes we associate with the Great War. Their design didn’t change much during the War because constant escalation of production requirements kept manufacturers too busy to manage much technological innovation, but the artillery-related fields of targeting, ballistics and ammunition made up for that.

Line-of-sight targeting wasn’t generally an option around trench warfare if you wanted to stay alive, so balloons and spotter planes became crucial artillery adjuncts, aided by advances in photo-reconnaissance and radio technology.  Meanwhile the science of ballistics, little more than a matter of compensating for and replacing worn barrels in 1914, expanded to take in wind, humidity and other variables.

Leaving aside the older, smooth-bore guns in use on secondary fronts, which still fired solid cannonballs, the first big problem with ammunition was getting enough of the stuff, as the War’s opening weeks made estimates of shell requirements look ridiculous. The more industrialised economies had adjusted within about a year, but until then shell shortages were a major issue for all the main armies.

Trench warfare also altered the kind of ammunition used by modern artillery.  In 1914 most guns fired shrapnel, which is good at killing people but does little harm to barbed wire, trench fortifications or enemy guns.  So high explosive shells, barely beyond the experimental stage in 1914, became the artillery ammunition of choice on static fronts, and again Germany held a technical advantage into late 1916, when the British and French were finally able to find an explosive as stable and reliable as German TNT.

The problem of transporting ever-bigger guns across difficult terrain (whether shell-battered or tropical) was never really solved during the War.  Pack animals – usually horses in Europe, but often mules or oxen elsewhere – were still struggling to do the job in 1918.  Lorries were hardly ever used unless propaganda was involved, and the few big guns put on early tank tracks by Britain and France were an experimental irrelevance.

And there’s the rub.  From 1915, offensives on the Western, Eastern and Italian fronts were typically supported by anything between 3,000 and 8,000 big guns, expending millions of rounds of ammunition and creating a level devastation that left them bogged down as soon as they tried to advance.  Like so much other contemporary technology, First World War artillery could dish it out – and I mean really dish it out – but couldn’t take advantage of it.

I know that was a long, rather dull piece, short on revelation and derring-do, but artillery’s simultaneous hour of glory and most ghastly failure is stamped across every word, image and folk memory of the First World War, so I figure you might as well know something about it.

5 APRIL, 1916: Decline and Fall

One hundred years ago, on the banks of the River Tigris, British imperial forces in Mesopotamia launched their last and biggest attempt to relieve General Townshend’s 6th Indian Division, besieged in the fortified town of Kut el Amara (Kut for short). That’s my cue to catch up with the painful shambles that was Britain’s wartime invasion of modern Iraq,

I last wandered around the Mesopotamian Front a few months back (22 November, 1915: Whoops, Apocalypse!), when Townshend’s attempt to push up the Tigris towards Baghdad was turned back by solid Ottoman defence at Ctesiphon.   In true colonial style, and despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, British commanders had assumed Turkish defenders would run away under any kind of pressure.  Instead, they had chased Townshend’s surviving troops back down the river to Kut.

Sitting in a U-bend on the Tigris, Kut was difficult to defend or relieve, offering excellent positions for besieging forces on surrounding floodplains, but it was well stocked with supplies and Townshend’s troops were in no fit state for further travel, so he opted to set up for a siege.  His men began fortifying the town on 4 December, building a perimeter of shallow trenches behind mud walls, with outposts on the far side of the river, and he sent his (otherwise useless) cavalry units back to Basra to join relief efforts on 6 December, but he turned down the opportunity to withdraw the rest of his force before Ottoman troops under Colonel Nur-Ud-Din surrounded the town next day.  At that point Kut contained some 10,000 British imperial troops (three-quarters of them infantry), about 2,000 sick and wounded, and 3,500 non-combat personnel, along with around 6,000 local inhabitants, some held as hostages against insurrection.

Turkish attacks on the perimeter began on 9 December and went on until Christmas Eve, when Nur-Ud-Din launched a major offensive against the northeast rim.  Anglo-Indian machine-gun fire won that particular day, repelling the attack and inflicting 900 casualties against 315 losses, before Nur-Ud-Din turned to meet the first British relief effort from Basra, leaving only a holding force at Kut.

Townshend’s retreat, along with news of the appalling lack of provision for sick and wounded troops in Mesopotamia, had generated shocked disbelief in London, and three divisions of reinforcements had immediately been earmarked for the theatre. Front c-in-c General Nixon – characteristically optimistic from his safe haven in Basra, and informed by Townshend that he had supplies to hold out for two months – sent the first of them straight upriver to relieve the garrison.  The job proved a lot less straightforward than he had imagined.

Throughout the Mesopotamian campaign to date, British efforts had been hampered by a desperate shortage of river transport craft.  The division rushed forward by Nixon was still waiting for most its supplies on 4 January, when its commander, General Aylmer, began an advance from the forward British base at Ali Gharbi, some 200km upriver from Basra.

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A British hospital ship on the Tigris – and a tragically rare sight

Moving along both banks of the Tigris, about 19,000 British troops (supported by 49 artillery pieces, three monitor gunships and two aircraft) had covered only 15km when they met 22,500 entrenched Turkish troops with 74 guns at Sheikh Sa’ad.  A preliminary British attack on 6 January and a full-scale assault along the west bank next day, backed by a secondary drive along the other bank, made little progress at the cost of 4,000 casualties before the Ottoman force withdrew to new positions upriver on the night of 8/9 January.

Exhausted, and still about 50km short of Kut, Aylmer’s men occupied abandoned Turkish trenches and struggled to cope with their wounded, Nixon’s staff having made provision for only 250 casualties.  Nixon had fallen ill in Basra and would soon be replaced, but sickness didn’t dim his capacity for deluded optimism. On the grounds that reinforcements would somehow reach the front through the supply bottleneck, and boosted by a (completely false) rumour of Russian support operations from Persia, he ordered Aylmer into a second attack.

By the time Aylmer’s 10,000 remaining troops resumed their advance on 13 January, new Turkish commander Khalil Pasha had returned his troops to Sheikh Sa’ad, deploying them along the east bank of the Tigris, with reserves 5km upriver at the Hanna defile. When the British attacked the east bank, struggling to manoeuvre in heavy seasonal rains, they were driven back and lost 1,600 casualties before Ottoman defenders retired to prepared reserve positions.  Vetoing a proposal by Townshend to come out of Kut and attack the Turks from behind, and with reinforcements still delayed amid the rainy chaos of the river, Nixon ordered Aylmer into a further series of frontal assaults.  These achieved nothing but more casualties and general exhaustion before being called off after a final, particularly costly effort on 21 January.

Aylmer now declared Kut doomed, but Nixon’s replacement in Basra, General Lake, demanded one more try.   Through February, while trench warfare raged in the Hanna area, Aylmer awaited reinforcements and planned an attack on the Dujaila Redoubt, at one end of an Ottoman line manned by 25,000 troops in strong positions.  With the flood season almost due, Aylmer was still waiting for one of his new divisions when Lake ordered the attack to begin before 15 March.  Aylmer obliged and scheduled his assault for 6 March, but rain forced a postponement and it eventually began in the early hours of 8 March.

Leaving a small force at Hanna, Aylmer sent 35,000 men and 62 artillery pieces on a 20km night march to the Reboubt, where they were concentrated for a ‘breakthrough’ operation of the kind that had been failing all over Europe for the last year.  It failed.  Alerted by the preamble of a conventional artillery bombardment, Turkish machine-gunners pinned down the British infantry attack 700 metres short of the Redoubt.  A secondary assault was launched too late to exploit a brief weakness in the Turkish line, and Townshend again abandoned plans to join the attack from Kut when he heard of the initial stall.  The whole operation had collapsed by late afternoon, when the British retreated to their original positions, bereft of another 3,500 casualties.

Aylmer was replaced by General Gorringe a few days later, and what was now known as the Tigris Corps spent the rest of March reinforcing for one last shot at saving Townshend’s bacon.  By now optimism had faded, even in Basra, and nobody in a position of command believed Kut could be relieved, but prestige really mattered in the essentially colonial context of contemporary Middle Eastern affairs.  At a time when British diplomats were working to earn the trust of Arab potentates elsewhere, Townshend’s plight was giving British imperial prestige a battering – so the attempt had to made.

And so to 5 April, when about 30,000 British troops, including a newly-arrived division of Gallipoli veterans under General Maude, began their attack on a similar number of Turkish defenders with an assault on the Hanna trenches.  Finding the first line of trenches deserted, they moved on to attack and take the next Turkish line after a hard fight in the afternoon, while a smaller attack on the other bank of the river made some progress against lighter opposition, but the day cost another 2,000 British casualties.

Three costly frontal attacks on the third line of Turkish trenches, at Sannaiyat, failed on 6, 7 and 9 April, before Gorringe gave up and switched his main thrust to the secondary bank, where the fortified Bait Aisa position was taken on 17 April and held against strong Turkish counterattacks that night.  Losses, and the fact that floods had cut the land route from Bait Aisa to Kut, prevented further British advance.  After a final, almost token effort against the Sannaiyat positions on 22 April, which brought Tigris Corps losses since January up to 23,000, the relief of Kut was effectively abandoned.

Inside Kut, the end was coming.  Townshend’s original claim that he needed urgent relief had been based on full rations for his troops, and in late January it had occurred to him to reduce rations, but by mid-April he had lost another 1,000 troops and survivors were too ravaged by sickness and hunger to manage much fighting.  Morale was terrible, supply drops from British aircraft were too small to make any difference, and the last hope of substantial resupply disappeared on 24 April, with the failure of a quixotic attempt send an armoured blockade runner, the Julnar, through Turkish lines. Townshend opened negotiations with Turkish commanders two days later.  After they refused to parole his troops, he surrendered unconditionally on 30 April.

That was a pretty long trawl through the siege, taking in five months and four engagements officially regarded as battles, so what’s my point?

First of all, in a year when the ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of the Western Front is bound to get plenty of airing, it’s worth remembering that the best generals on both sides tended to be found on the major fronts.  The Indian Army generals leading the imperial fight in Mesopotamia  behaved like 19th-century colonials. They underestimated their enemies, wasted lives on ill-judged, ill-organised military gambles, and regularly ignored military realities in pursuit of imperial glory. Nothing illustrates this better than the shambles of their supply lines and their horrific inability to arrange care for the wounded.

Secondly, though the saga of Kut had no great strategic significance for the War as a whole, and means little to the British today, it was and is important to the Arab world.  A huge propaganda success for the Ottoman regime, it was an embarrassment for the British that wouldn’t go away, because Townshend – whose cheery attitude to life under siege was noted by his starving men – enjoyed the rest of the War as an honoured and much-publicised prisoner in Baghdad (and took a lot of stick for it in post-War Britain).  For some historians, Kut was a fatal blow from which British prestige in the Middle East never recovered, and while I wouldn’t go that far, the defeat did knock a big hole in the aura of invincibility that had given Britain a uniquely influential role in Arab affairs for the past century.