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.