A century ago today, in Mesopotamia, the series of actions known as the Second Battle of Kut came to an end, when British imperial forces halted their latest advance up the River Tigris, pausing for recuperation about 100km beyond Kut, at Aiziyeh. Three days earlier they had recaptured Kut, the small town on a bend in the river that had been taken by Ottoman forces almost ten months earlier.
The surrender of General Townshend’s besieged army in Kut had been one of the most humiliating defeats in British imperial history, and the crowning blunder of an offensive campaign on the Mesopotamian Front that had been unnecessary, costly and largely carried out off the cuff by British colonial authorities based in India (5 April, 1916: Decline and Fall). This was payback time.
Other than payback, more usually described as recovery of prestige, it’s difficult to see why the British Empire had bothered to resume its push up the Tigris and the Euphrates. The whole point of the operation in Mesopotamia, as launched in August 1914, was to protect Basra, the main outlet for the Empire’s oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. Basra hadn’t been even remotely threatened since the autumn of that year, but a string of British Indian Army commanders, vaguely backed by an inert colonial administration in India, had spent the next eighteen months finding reasons to go onto the attack.
Those reasons boiled down to opportunism and an underestimation of Ottoman defensive capabilities so comprehensive it can only be called arrogant. Justified by a notional concern for the ‘forward defence’ of Basra, and underpinned by the inability of Indian officers and administrators to view the front as part of a global strategic picture, advances had been allowed by a British government preoccupied with carnage elsewhere and unwilling to commit first-line resources to the front – but the disaster at Kut had forced London to take direct control of the situation.
Reinforcement, re-equipment, reorganisation and replacement of commanders had seen a far more professional and much larger force under British Army General Maude conduct a very effective limited offensive in mid-December 1916, establishing the front-line less than 30km from Kut. Impressed by Maude’s success, and moved by a growing interest in post-War control of the Arab world as a whole, the British high command ordered him to prepare a second, more ambitious offensive, aimed at taking Baghdad, for early 1917 (13 December, 1916: Prestige Fixture).
Unlike his Indian Army predecessors, Maude was more interested in steady, safe progress than gallops for glory. After mining operations had brought his forces close to the fortified position of Khadairi Bend, on a loop in the Tigris directly north of Kut, he launched a preliminary thrust up the left bank of the river on 9 January. Preceded by the heaviest artillery bombardment yet seen in the theatre, and by two days of diversionary attacks elsewhere along the front, infantry attacks gradually forced back two lines of Ottoman trenches, repelling two counterattacks to take the Khadairi Bend position by 29 January.
By that time Maude had begun a separate attack, again preceded by a heavy bombardment and again strictly limited in its aims, which took the main Ottoman strongpoint south of Kut, a fordable stretch of river along the Shatt-al-Hai, before flooding prevented further operations on 16 February. The following day, Maude tried an attack on drier ground around the front established in December at Sannaiyat. Repelled by well-established trench defences and soon called off, it did have one interesting side effect, in that it persuaded regional Ottoman commander Khalil Pasha to abandon plans for an attack into Persia.
The eastern Mesopotamian frontier with Persia and had been a busy, if relatively small-scale theatre of war throughout 1916. Russian General Baratov had moved his 15,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry slowly west from Teheran since taking control of northern Persia in late 1915, and had crossed the frontier in March 1916, but his next advance, in June, had failed to dislodge Ottoman defenders at Khanaqin, on the River Diyala. From that point the momentum had shifted to Khalil, who sent a corps to reinforce the Khanaqin position and, as British hopes of direct Russian support for the Mesopotamian campaign faded, began preparations for a swoop through Persia to get behind British positions (7 November, 1915: Russian Landings Menace Teheran).
The prospects for that particular ‘what if’ were already fading when Maude began his 1917 offensive, because Khalil was running short of manpower. While the British could call on 75,000 front-line troops, Khalil’s front-line force had shrunk to about 10,000 men by mid-February, and only another 3,000 or so were stationed upriver for the defence of Baghdad. Despite its failure, the attack at Sannaiyat demonstrated that the British were strong enough to mount separate operations on successive days, and triggered the recall of the corps near the Persian frontier– but the decision came far too late to make any immediate difference.
At dawn on 23 February, Maude launched a carefully prepared thrust across the river north of Kut, intended to cut off Khalil’s line of retreat. Dummy preparations all along the line distracted Ottoman reserves, and RFC aircraft denied Khalil the benefit of aerial reconnaissance, enabling British engineers to complete a pontoon without being detected. Once British troops were across the river their surprise attack effectively decided the battle, but skilled Ottoman rearguard actions held the attackers short of Kut itself, and by the time the town fell the next day Khalil’s army had slipped the trap.
Khalil retreated on Baghdad and Maude pursued, but British cavalry was unable to dislodge Ottoman machine gun posts along the Baghdad road until slower armoured cars – used for the first time in the theatre – arrived and broke through. Three Royal Navy gunboats meanwhile overtook British ground forces, a fact they discovered on 26 February when they were attacked by four Ottoman ships, including the captured British monitor Firefly, at Nahr-al-Kalek, on the Tigris about 30km beyond Kut. A gunnery duel followed and the British won hands down, sinking three ships, recapturing the Firefly intact and going ashore to take several hundred ground troops prisoner. The action delayed Khalil’s retreat, as did the predatory attentions of the region’s independent Marsh Arabs, but Maude never came close to catching up and abandoned the pursuit at Aiziyeh on 27 February.
The Second Battle of Kut (the First was the failed British attempt to relieve the siege in April 1916) was a British success, and forms part of what amounted to the final conquest of Mesopotamia under Maude’s command – but the problem that had vexed his Indian Army predecessors remained unsolved. Great gains had been made and prestige restored, but the Ottoman army remained essentially intact and able to regroup. The difference this time, as Khalil waited at Baghdad for his reserves from Persia, was that the British possessed the reserve strength, equipment, supply system and command professionalism to keep up the pressure without becoming vulnerable to a counteroffensive.
For General Maude, Baghdad beckoned, but although the imperial strategists guiding his efforts were enthusiastic about the city’s possible capture, they were still unsure about why it was necessary and what good it might do for the bigger picture. Sound familiar? Well yes, and history has every right to condemn Britain’s default imperial expansion for its long-term effects on regional stability, but when it came to weighing the pros and cons of conquest there was one big difference between the early 20th century and the early 21st. When they contemplated seizing Baghdad in 1917, powerful men in London had no need to consider what Baghdad might do to them in return.