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.

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.


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