Category Archives: Mesopotamian Front

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

11 MARCH, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later

The main battlefronts in Europe were still relatively quiet, but 11 March 1917 was a lively Sunday for strategically dubious Allied adventures elsewhere.  In Mesopotamia, British imperial forces led by General Maude completed the capture of Baghdad, and near the frontline north of Salonika an Allied offensive met German-led resistance at what became known as the Battle of Lake Prespa.

Ottoman loss of Baghdad was no great surprise.  Maude had been poised to take the city since the recapture of Kut in February had left some 75,000 British troops only 70km downriver, and Ottoman front commander Khalil Pasha could muster only 10,000 troops for its defence.  Another two divisions – perhaps 20,000 men – were on their way from the Persian frontier but not expected to arrive in time to aid the defence, and Ottoman units in other theatres were too far away to be of any help (27 February, 1917: Payback).

Unwilling to retreat beyond the city, Khalil began preparations for a forward defence at Ctesiphon, where General Townshend’s army had come to grief in 1916, but then changed his mind and fell back on Baghdad itself.  He chose not to flood the land approaches from the south, and though fortifications were prepared to the southeast of the city, on the River Diyala, and on either side of the Tigris some 35km downriver, they were incomplete when British units reached the Diyala on 8 March.

The Diyala was 100 metres wide and in full flood, and immediate British attempts to cross it were repelled.  Although a small bridgehead had been established across the river by the following morning, Maude switched the focus of his attacks to the weaker Tel Aswad position on the west bank of the Tigris.  Khalil was informed of the manoeuvre by a squadron just arrived from the German Army Air Service, and duly moved most of his own troops to meet it, leaving only a single, depleted division to defend the Diyala.  This was overrun early on 10 March, prompting Khalil to abandon the Tel Aswad defence and retreat to protect the Berlin to Baghdad railway station, without which any reinforcement from the north was impossible.

Like all Ottoman field commanders by 1917, Khalil was beset by German advisors, but he resisted their demands for a counterattack and, after a sandstorm had ended fighting early for the day, ordered the evacuation of Baghdad that evening.  British forces marched in unopposed the next morning, cheered on by a local population accustomed to smiling for conquerors, and from that point Ottoman influence in Mesopotamia and Persia came to an effective end.  Now well placed to provide support for Russian operations on the Caucasian Front, or to threaten the Turkish heartlands, Maude began immediate preparations to secure his new position with further northward advances.

Baghdad greets its British conquerors in 1917. Looked better then than now…

Over in Salonika, French General Sarrail’s command of Allied forces on the front was formalised in January 1917, in line with the British government’s commitment to overriding its own generals in favour of the Western Front battle plan proposed by new French c-in-c Nivelle (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear).  Encouraged to divert German strength from France by mounting a spring offensive, and with little choice about the general location of an attack, he chose to mount a carefully coordinated repeat of the Monastir Offensive into Serbia that had failed the previous autumn (19 November, 1916: Fake News).

There was no reason to expect a better outcome for the Allies this time.  Rampant sickness in the Allied camp and the need to police the nascent civil war in Greece had left only about 100,000 of Sarrail’s 600,000 troops available for frontline duties.  Operational coordination between various national units remained shaky to say the least, and the Serbian element was in particularly bad shape, displaying clear signs of mutinous war-weariness.  Meanwhile the German and Bulgarian force occupying excellent defensive positions on high ground all along the front was healthier, slightly larger and – thanks to air reconnaissance – fully aware of Allied movements before Sarrail attacked on 11 March.

Sure enough, the offensive went horribly wrong in a hurry.  Franco-Serbian units advanced between Monastir and Lake Prespa, while at the other end of the front General Milne’s British force launched a supporting attack around Lake Doiran, but secondary assaults planned for multinational forces at the centre of the front failed to take place at the appointed time.  Efficient, air-assisted transfer of reserves enabled defenders to halt the Franco-Serbian advance within a week, by which time the Allies had gained a few hundred metres of land at the cost of 14,000 casualties to battle or sickness. By 19 March German counterattacks had driven the western end of the Allied line back onto Monastir, forcing Sarrail to abandon further attacks elsewhere, and fighting died down on 22 March with the Allies still occupying Monastir but in range of German artillery.

German cavalry in Macedonia, in case you thought sideshow wars were mechanised.

That was the last major action on the front during 1917.  A British attempt to resume attacks around Lake Doiran failed in late April, and early May saw more inconclusive fighting in the area, along with a small advance around Monastir by French and ‘Venizelist’ Greek troops.  By the middle of the month mutiny had broken out among Russian units at Salonika, and with discontent spreading to French and Serbian troops, Sarrail abandoned all offensive operations for the rest of the year.

So while the British capture of Baghdad at least offered the outside chance of striking deep into enemy territory, albeit secured at a ridiculously high cost, attempts to extract some strategic value from the bloated Allied commitment to Salonika had sunk to new depths of counter-productivity.  Instead of distracting German resources from the impending renewal of slaughter in France, they had left a large Allied force paralysed by disease, mutiny and the all-consuming turmoil of Greek politics, destined to remain an inactive blot on the military landscape until the War’s last weeks.  So why didn’t they just pack up and leave?

The immediate answer is that it was too late for the Allies to pull out. With Greece on the point of a civil conflict created by the question of which side to join at war, and with the Central Powers poised to invade the country from northern Macedonia, an Allied withdrawal would have been a betrayal of promises made to pro-Allied Greek leaders, a gift to the enemy and a propaganda disaster.

It would have been possible to give up on Salonika back in late 1915, when the pointlessness of trying to aid Serbia had been clear to most strategists, but British, Russian and Italian plans to do just that had been vetoed by the French.  The insistence by the French military and government on maintaining a force in Greece was in part a product of their own propaganda, which had transformed the defence of Serbia from an excuse for war against Germany into a sacred duty for the French people.  This had rebounded as noisy popular opposition to any withdrawal from Salonika – but behind the facade of public outrage, generating support for the project among the elite classes, lay hard-nosed imperial opportunism.

French strategists had long considered the eastern Mediterranean, encompassing pretty much everything from Serbia to the Lebanon, as their field of influence to the exclusion of other empires, and intended to fill any economic vacuum left in the region by an Ottoman Empire generally regarded as on its deathbed.  In that sense Salonika in 1917 was, no less than Baghdad, a beachhead for future expansion by a western European empire.

Like the British Empire in Mesopotamia, the French Republic had blundered into sacrificing thousands of lives and vital resources at Salonika, and was forced to carry on blundering by its greed for post-War power.  Given the heritage industry’s desperately old-school obsession with demonstrating the futility of the First World War, you’d think it would pay more attention to the conflict’s most spectacularly useless sideshow.

27 FEBRUARY, 1917: Payback

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).

This appears to be the first time I’ve posted a map of the Mesopotamian Front. Sorry.

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.

Khalil Pasha: pretty good field commander, bad taste in wallpaper…

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.

A little obscure, I grant you, but this is the best map of the battle I could find.

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.

13 DECEMBER, 1916: Prestige Fixture

With fighting in Europe all but suspended for the winter, this week in 1916 provided plenty of other news to divert the heritage industry’s Eurocentric gaze from the Somme and Verdun.  The end of Joffre’s military dominance in France marked a watershed in the grim history of the Western Front, changes at or near the top in the governments of France and Britain made for big talking points, and on 12 December an offer by the Central Powers of peace negotiations on the basis of pre-War frontiers hit the headlines, though it was essentially a diplomatic PR exercise for the benefit of neutrals, and received the expected outright rejection by Entente powers in too deep to accept anything short of manifest victory.

One way and another all these things were important, but mass media’s commemorative showreel is unlikely to include the event that left the biggest footprint for the future from that week – the re-launch, on 13 December, of the British Empire’s attacks into what is now Iraq.

The first British attempt to advance from the port city of Basra up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Baghdad (and even beyond) had come to a sticky end in April, when lazy planning, blinkered leadership and consistent underestimation of an intelligently organised enemy had culminated in the surrender of General Townshend’s battered army at Kut, on the Tigris.  After a long pause to completely reorganise command structures and supply systems, a process that involved transfer of responsibility for the campaign from the Indian Army to the regular British Army, recovery of Kut was the renewed invasion’s first objective.

British Mesopotamian Front c-in-c General Maude could call on about 150,000 troops by late 1916, and had been supplied with increased numbers of machine guns, field artillery and armoured cars, along with state-of-the-art trench fighting equipment, vastly improved medical facilities and 24 modern BE-2C fighter aircraft, some equipped for the game-changing task of photo-reconnaissance.  Local Ottoman commander Karabekir Bey had meanwhile strengthened his trench systems but received no substantial reinforcements, and mustered about 50,000 ill-equipped fighters. Bottom line, the British were making sure this time – but why were they bothering?

Karabekir was a sharp operator, and kept his career on the rise by transferring to the Caucasian Front once he'd experienced British firepower at first hand.
Karabekir was a sharp operator, and kept his career on the rise by transferring to the Caucasian Front once he’d experienced British firepower at first hand.

Manpower was the British Empire’s most precious commodity in late 1916. Ground troops were needed on the Western Front, at Salonika, in Egypt and Palestine, in East Africa and as garrisons for colonial stations or bases all over the world.  They were also needed in Mesopotamia, but only to guard Basra.

Britain’s stated objective in Mesopotamia, and the reason troops had arrived there in 1914, was to protect valuable oil supplies from the Persian Gulf, and every advance since had been justified as a form of ‘forward defence’ against potential threats to Basra.  In strategic terms, Mesopotamia did offer a route to conquering the Ottoman Empire by the back door, but nobody thought it an efficient route, and by late 1916 British ‘easterners’ (those strategists committed to pursuing victory away from the Western Front) viewed Palestine, with its valuable Mediterranean trading links, as a far more promising means to that particular end.

Advancing up the Tigris and Euphrates might also open a link with Russian forces in Persia, and might indirectly help Russian efforts on the Caucasian Front, but these were not high strategic priorities in London.  In fact, having watched as the British Indian Army and government blundered into a ghastly dead end for no real reason beyond an instinctive desire to attack an apparently feeble enemy, London’s only real excuse for opting to do it all over again was the restoration of imperial prestige.

Restricted to a limited offensive and instructed to minimalise casualties (I know, but it was another way of warning against over-ambition), Maude deployed his 50,000 front line troops on either side of the Tigris, and opened the operation with a preliminary bombardment during the night of 13–14 December, in time to get some fighting done before the region’s winter rains set in.  At dawn next morning, the British right began the first infantry attack, drawing Karabekir Bey’s reserves to defend positions around the settlement of Sannaiyat, less than 20 miles by river from Kut, before cavalry led the main British advance up the left bank, meeting only light resistance and making rapid progress.  By 15 December, Maude’s left was in position to cross the river and encircle the Sannaiyat defences, having suffered less than 300 casualties, but he opted for caution and instead consolidated the new position, making only one, half-hearted attempt to cross the river on 20 December.

The RFC's BE-2C fighters transformed the picture available to British commanders in Mesopotamia.
The RFC’s BE-2C fighters transformed the picture available to British commanders in Mesopotamia.

While Maude was demonstrating exactly the restraint his masters had in mind, his success was changing their minds, and he was ordered to push further upriver as soon as feasible.  January would see the beginning of a steady British campaign to retake Kut, using the same tactics of bombardment, advance and consolidation, and the prize that had drawn Townshend’s army to disaster, Baghdad, would soon be back on the British agenda.  This was an altogether more professional and considered invasion, led by a pragmatic commander and spared the gruesome horrors that had blighted the disgracefully ill-prepared Anglo-Indian attempt, but the British still hadn’t curbed a tendency to seek territorial acquisition for its own sake.

That brings us back to prestige, and as I’ve mentioned before prestige really mattered in the Arab world.  It is arguable that recovery of imperial prestige in Mesopotamia, however partial, helped the British orchestrate the Arab Revolt, smoothed their path through Palestine and facilitated their political dominance of the post-War Middle East – but any difference it made was marginal and the cost, in terms of casualties, resources and diversion of resources from other theatres, was ridiculous.

In that sense, Mesopotamia fulfilled a similar role to (and was even more disease-ridden than) Salonika, which was consuming even more Allied resources for even less return in an indirect attempt to revive French imperial prestige.  Then again, if we’re talking outcomes, nothing going on in Macedonia was destined to match the global ill winds stirred by Britain’s adventure in Mesopotamia and the artificial creation of Iraq that followed.  The real story of modern Iraq began here, and that seems worth remembering.

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

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.

 

22 NOVEMBER, 1915: Whoops, Apocalypse!

These days, most of us have worked out that invading Iraq can be more complicated than it looks.  Just when you think you’ve got the job done, everything goes pear-shaped and it turns out you haven’t conquered anything.  It’s fair to say that Britain was just one of a number of nations to learn this lesson the hard way during the twenty-first century’s opening decade – but in Britain’s case it was a lesson relearned.

A century ago, British imperial troops were invading what is now Iraq and was then the province of the Ottoman Empire known as Mesopotamia.  They were approaching Baghdad up the rivers from Basra and their commanders were confident that the enemy was all but beaten – but they were wrong, and on 22 November 1915 the penny began to drop.

This may sound ridiculous, but the British attempt to take Baghdad was essentially an accident.  A plan to protect Royal Navy oil supplies by occupying Basra had clicked into action the moment Ottoman Turkey entered the War in the autumn of 1914, but that had been the limit of British imperial ambitions in the region.  The operation’s expansion into an invasion stemmed from London’s inability either to control the actions of General Nixon, the Indian Army officer in command of the front, or to divert forces it could control from other fronts.  Before you start scoffing, I should point out that this sort of long-range strategic drift was not uncommon at a time when international (let alone intercontinental) communications were clumsy and unreliable, so the British high command’s failure to keep its eye on the ball in Mesopotamia can be seen as understandable, if reprehensible.  It’s a lot harder to understand what General Nixon was up to.

Operating through a command chain that took in the Viceroy of India en route for the Colonial Office and the cabinet in London, Nixon seems to have decided at an early stage that his poorly equipped colonial force was more than a match for any defence the Ottoman Empire could muster.  His view seems to have been cemented by early encounters with defenders, many of them Arab tribesmen fighting as irregulars, who were in the habit of retreating to regroup whenever the going got rough – and at some point it seems to have occurred to him that Baghdad, glory and possibly a major influence on the wider War were well within his grasp.

If this all sounds a little vague, it’s because Nixon kept things that way.  Every advance he ordered from Basra up the rivers Tigris and Euphrates was sold to London as a form of ‘forward defence’, a necessary step to secure oil supplies against Ottoman counterattacks.  The British government and high command, their attention elsewhere and their authority filtered through colonial agencies, found it most expedient to simply acquiesce.  Given that appalling suffering and loss of life in pursuit of mere tactical advantage were about par for the wartime course, London’s willingness to let Nixon play soldiers comes as no great surprise – and in the autumn of 1915 the British seemed to be getting away with it.

On 6 October the latest advance by British forces had taken the fortified town of Kut, on the Tigris about 120km from Baghdad, and Ottoman defences had again melted away upriver.  Nixon’s field commander, Major-General Townshend, was an ambitious veteran of several colonial campaigns, and experienced enough to recognise the danger of long, fragile supply lines from Basra.  Townshend wanted to halt his tired troops and consolidate at Kut, but Nixon stayed true to form and ordered a further advance on Baghdad.

This could hardly be presented as forward defence, and the British cabinet vetoed the plan at first, but the Indian government, echoing Nixon’s confident predictions from Basra, persuaded London into a change of heart.  The cabinet authorised the advance on 24 October, added the proviso that it was to halt if it met any serious opposition, and repaid Nixon’s confidence with a promise of two Indian Army divisions from the Western Front as garrison troops for Baghdad. Nixon on the other hand, repaid Townshend’s pleas for caution by turning down his request for extra transports and trench warfare weapons.

The advance did meet serious resistance, at Ctesiphon, a small, riverside settlement only 40km from Baghdad that had once been a much more important town, and was now the main Ottoman position for the forward defence of Baghdad.  Some 18,000 Turkish Army troops, the majority veterans of earlier campaigns, were drawn up in double lines of solid trenches on either side of the Tigris, with artillery protecting them on each bank and mines protecting the river itself.

Townshend reached Ctesiphon with about 11,000 men, supported by a monitor (that’s a very basic warship for river work, a slow, floating platform for a heavy naval gun) and a gunboat.   Aware that he was too weak to attack simultaneously on both sides of the river, but hardly less confident than Nixon that the enemy would wilt in the face of fierce fighting, Townshend chose to carry on advancing.   On 22 November he launched attacks at three points along the eastern wing of the Turkish front and, repeating a tactic that had won an audacious victory downriver at Es Sinn in late September, he opened the operation with a surprise night attack against the Turkish left flank.

The flank operation failed to surprise anyone because the attackers got lost in the dark, and although the main attacks took the first line of Turkish trenches, the second line was defended much more fiercely than any British field commander had imagined possible. The Turkish second line held through the first day’s heavy fighting, and the British just about maintained their grip on the first line against two Turkish counterattacks next day.  That night, with Townshend’s active strength down to less than 4,500 men and Turkish casualties approaching 10,000, rumours of British reinforcements on their way persuaded local Ottoman commander Nur-Ud-Din to order a retreat – but the rumour was false and Townshend’s moment of triumph was to be short-lived.

Once convinced that British reinforcements were a mirage, Nur-Ud-Din reversed the retreat, a change of heart spotted and reported to Townshend on 25 November by the lone British aircraft operating in the area.  With supplies running out and wounded in desperate need of medicines, Townshend had little choice but to order a withdrawal of his own.

Pursued all the way in terrible conditions, Indian Army forces staggered back into Kut on 3 December, by which time they had lost their two warships and buried hundreds of wounded, condemned by lack of medical supplies and facilities.  Unlike thousands before them in Mesopotamia, their grim, avoidable deaths at least made some difference to something, because scrutiny of the defeat at Ctesiphon forced London to address a shocking lack of proper arrangements for casualties in the theatre.

Townshend might have attempted to retreat further, but he decided to spare his surviving troops further punishment and fortify Kut while awaiting reinforcements.  Turkish resistance at Ctesiphon had shocked the British and Indian governments into finally seeing the folly of Nixon’s ways, and they began a rapid build up of strength on the Mesopotamian Front with the initial aim of relieving Townshend – but in the meantime Turkish forces established a siege of Kut that would end in one of the British Army’s most ignominious wartime defeats.

I’ll get back to you on the siege of Kut, but for now Ctesiphon seems worth a shout from posterity.  The battle was a turning point in the Mesopotamian campaign, the moment at which the British government began to take seriously the strategic implications of conquest in the Gulf.  As such, it was the foundation for postwar British occupation of Baghdad, and that was the seed from which the British cultivated and shaped the modern state of Iraq.   So I think it’s fair to say that the accidental invasion of 1915 turned out a lot more complicated than expected.  Shame it turned out to be forgettable.

07 NOVEMBER, 1915: Russian Landings Menace Teheran

 

There’s no need to saddle this post with a clever title. A simple rendition of the headline does a perfectly good job of grabbing the modern reader’s attention. Back in early November 1915, on the other hand, the arrival of a Russian invasion force on what was then Persian soil caused relatively little international stir, not least because very little information about the place reached the west quickly, if at all. Partly for the same reason, and partly because it doesn’t fit easily into a sepia-tinted commemoration package, you could hardly say modern Iran’s involvement in the First World War is well known now. Well I’m no expert, but I’ve done a little research into the subject in my time, so just in case the modern history of Iran ever becomes relevant to the wider world, here’s a sketch.

Persia in 1915 formed an independent, but economically undeveloped and internally unstable buffer between two empires, Russia and British India. An Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 had arbitrarily divided the country into spheres of influence, giving Britain a free economic hand in the south and Russia the same in the north. While the British maintained prewar control over oil supplies from the southwest of the country through a network of financial and military support for local authorities, the Russians ensured order in the north by stationing thousands of troops in the region, and a central, neutral zone became an arena of intense competition between Russian, British and German agents.

The outbreak of war gave German elements in Persia a chance to undermine Anglo-Russian dominance by gaining the support of the 18 year-old Shah Ahmed Mirza and tribal leaders in the regions. British operations in southwest Persia in support of Mesopotamian Front forces – which included occupation of the port of Bushire in October 1914, and of the inland pumping station at Ahwaz the following spring – provided German ambassador Prince Heinrich of Reus with plenty of ammunition for a propaganda campaign that was backed by lavish spending on arms and pensions. By autumn 1915, British influence in the south was restricted to a few garrison enclaves, and Germany controlled 15 of the 17 Persian banks, and in early November, when the Swedish-officered Persian gendarmerie agreed to operate under German control, Persia seemed on the brink of an alliance with the Central Powers.

Enter the Russians, as always able to spare a few thousand men for a bit of imperial business. An expeditionary force from the Caucasus of 6,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, all under the command of a General Baratov, sailed across the Caspian Sea in a ramshackle armada of small ships and landed at the northern Persian port of Phalevi (then called Enzeli) on 7 November. According to contemporary Russian sources another 5,000 troops had already arrived, but this has never been confirmed and anyway makes no difference to the fact that no other force in the region could begin to match Baratov’s army as it began a slow westward advance.

The Shah, who had been careful to remain on good personal terms with all sides, promptly cooled relations with the Germans. He declined a German offer of protection, and remained in the capital while the chief German agent, Wassmuss, coordinated small actions by the gendarmerie and other irregulars intended to delay the Russian advance.

General Baratov didn’t need much encouragement to delay. Although he soon pushed Wassmuss and his forces west to the Mesopotamia border, his vastly superior force was held there until the following March, when he crossed the frontier to reach Karind, some 200km from Baghdad. His next advance, in June 1916, was halted by Ottoman forces and driven back into Persia, but by then the British South Persia Rifles had begun restoring order in the south of the country and any danger of an alliance with Germany had evaporated.

The South Persia Rifles was a force of native troops raised by the British with the Shah’s permission and organised along the lines of the British Indian Army. By the end of 1916, SPR commander Sir Percy Sykes could call on almost 4,000 troops in five brigades, including 450 cavalry, and had quelled most opposition in the British sphere. With the Russians in passive control of the north, Persia remained relatively stable until late 1917, when fallout from October Revolution ushered in a fresh period of unrest in the country, of which more another day.

I mention this small part of a small campaign as another reminder of how much of the modern Middle East was shaped by the actions and ambitions of the Great Powers during the First World War.  Lest we forget…

5 NOVEMBER, 1914: Regional Redesign, Part 1

As mentioned in what I can’t help calling my last post, Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war a hundred years ago today.  During the four years of hard fighting that followed, this particular conflict was regarded as a ‘sideshow’ in Britain, seen by many as an unwarranted distraction from the war in Europe.  Popular British history has been treating it the same way ever since.

Big mistake.

British heritage and remembrance don’t completely ignore the Anglo-Turkish war, but they are only really interested in the Gallipoli campaign and Lawrence of Arabia.  Gallipoli was a bona fide military disaster, a classic example of lions being led by donkeys, a horror story for the troops that made much of the fighting in France look tame, and an exercise that did little or nothing to shorten the wider war.  For all its well-used dramatic potential, the campaign’s greatest importance lies elsewhere, in its enormous effects on national self-consciousness in Australia and New Zealand, whose men did much of the fighting, and in its galvanising effects on the career of Kemal Ataturk, the overwhelmingly dominant figure in modern Turkish history.

Meanwhile Lawrence provides an amazing story, and the Arab Revolt he helped lead played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, but the tale is usually referenced with little regard for context.  By context I mean the British Empire’s conquest, often slow and painful, of pretty much the entire Middle East.

On what we usually call the First World War’s Palestinian and Mesopotamian Fronts, British imperial armies fought their way north from Egypt towards Turkey, and northeast from Basra, up the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates to Baghdad.  In the process and in the aftermath, they provoked and then controlled a comprehensive geopolitical redesign of the region to suit British and French strategic requirements, effectively creating the Middle East we know today.

You’d think, given how much trouble it’s been causing ever since, that this uncontroversial truth would be well known to all of us, but I keep surprising literate, generally well-informed people with the news.  On current form I can’t see the heritage re-run having much to say about it, so I will.

Fighting on the Palestinian Front didn’t get going until 1915, and I’ll get to it in detail then, but a British attack on Mesopotamia was primed and ready to go by the time war with Ottoman Turkey broke out.  With naval units already patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates), and five thousand troops from India waiting to go ashore, the operation was intended to be a limited affair.  Its sole stated aim was to protect vital oil supplies from Abadan, on the Persian bank, by seizing the Ottoman port of Basra on the opposite bank.

General Barrett, in command of the Indian Army force and under direct orders from the British Indian government, had been instructed to take Basra as a form of ‘forward defence’, in other words as a preventive strike against a likely base for future Turkish aggression.  This concept, arguably mirrored in US foreign policy since 1945, turned out to be a recipe for deeper entanglement, while London’s willingness to leave the theatre under Indian government control for eighteen months, using only limited Indian Army resources, turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

Basra was taken without much trouble on 23 November, and forward defence prompted an advance upriver to take Qurna, at the junction of the two rivers, in early December.  These easy victories, along with the defeat of a counterattack by Ottoman regulars and Arab tribesmen the following April, blew forward defence out of the water as far as new commander General Nixon and the Raj government were concerned.  By mid-July Nixon had pushed on another hundred or so kilometres up both rivers to take a couple of lightly-defended Turkish bases, at which point he decided that Baghdad, 400 kilometres further on, was a feasible target.  Assured by Nixon that his force was equipped for the job, Indian Viceroy Lord Hardinge backed the idea, and though the London government wouldn’t provide Nixon with non-Indian resources, it closed its eyes and let the offensive go ahead in early September 1915.

Nixon’s force, led in the field by General Townshend, was anything but equipped for the job.  It lacked sufficient artillery, modern weapons, medicines and modern transport, while the absence of railways or usable roads in the hinterland left it completely dependent on supplies sent by boat from Basra, a port far too small and primitive for the amount of traffic required.  Hampered by a chronic shortage of boats and by failure to reform a chaotic logistic system, repeatedly ordered forward by a blindly optimistic Nixon (who spent most of his time in Basra), advancing Indian Army troops faced regular Turkish forces, the guerilla warfare of local ‘Marsh Arabs’, searing heat, floods, disease and mirage as their supply lines lengthened.  Ghastly failure beckoned.

Townshend’s force met no serious resistance until late November, but by then it was desperately short of everything.  Arms, ammunition, mules, engineering equipment and medicines were all running out, and manpower was dwindling in a warzone where casualties could only be treated by sending them back to Basra in a boat, so that most wounds were a death sentence.  When Turkish forces made a determined stand at Ctesiphon, just forty kilometres from Baghdad, Townshend could only retreat to the fortress of Kut, where survivors were soon surrounded and besieged by four divisions of Turkish regulars.

The siege of Kut, which ended with Townshend’s surrender the following April, was a resounding propaganda success for the Ottoman Empire that forced London to get properly involved in the Mesopotamian campaign.  By the end of the summer break in operations (nobody fought in temperatures above fifty Celsius) British Army officers were in charge of some 150,000 men in the theatre, modern equipment was arriving , Basra was being rebuilt and sweeping reforms were transforming the supply system.  The opening phase of the war in what is now Iraq had ended.  The British were no longer blundering into conquest as a form of forward defence gone mad.  They had a plan.  It was a big, ambitious plan, and it’s a story for another day.