Modern-day location – city of Al-Kut, also called Kut El Amara, in eastern Iraq, on the left bank of the River Tigris, about 100 miles south-east of Baghdad
Conflict – First World War, 1914-1918, Campaigns in Mesopotamia
Forces engaged – Major General Sir Charles Townshend commanding the 6th Indian Division in the town of Kut: about 12,500 men. Lieutenant General Sir Fenton Aylmer, dismissed and replaced in April 1916 by Lieutenant General Sir George Gorringe, commanding the Tigris Force attempting to relieve Kut: a total of about 40,000 men. Major General Halil Pasha commanding the Turkish troops besieging Kut and holding the positions downstream of the town: a total of about 35,000 men
This month’s battle offers an interesting contrast with the present day and reminds us that the campaigns of the twenty-first century are not the first time the British Army has faced intractable problems in Iraq.
At the beginning of the Great War, Iraq was known as Mesopotamia and was a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The British War Office believed that this enemy outpost was a potential threat to India and British-owned oilfields in Persia. In November 1914, an expeditionary force sent from India landed in the Persian Gulf at the Shatt al-Arab waterway. By Christmas, the force had captured Basra and advanced inland to Qurna at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This early series of successes pleased the authorities in Delhi and London and fed their ambitions. With such weak resistance, could more be achieved, perhaps even the capture of Baghdad?
In May 1915, Major General Townshend received orders to ascend the Tigris to threaten and hopefully take Baghdad. However, his force of about 15,000 men was barely adequate for the task and, because the authorities regarded Mesopotamia as a minor theatre of war, the operation was run on a proverbial shoestring with most of the transport and logistics organised locally. Communications, climate and terrain were all a challenge – summer temperatures in this desert country could reach 450C and the local Arabs were hostile to any intruders – but Turkish resistance was negligible, and progress upriver proved unexpectedly easy. In late September, the expedition reached Kut where the garrison under Lieutenant General Nureddin Pasha had prepared a defence. Manoeuvring to attack unexpectedly from the north, Townshend routed the Turks on September 28 and seized the town. However, most of the fleeing Turks escaped north towards Baghdad.
Under political pressure to take Baghdad, Townshend marched north and confronted the Turks at Ctesiphon, 20 miles south of the capital, on November 22. The Turkish forces outnumbered the British, but Townshend recklessly ordered a combined flank and frontal assault on their entrenchments, across open, flat desert. The Turks stood firm for two days of hard fighting, then suddenly withdrew – but Townshend had lost about 4,600 men, about a third of his force, and was in no condition to pursue.
With Turkish reinforcements approaching from Baghdad, Townshend had no alternative but to retreat towards Kut, a nightmare march under the burning sun, with the riverboats carrying the wounded constantly running aground in the shallow streams of the dry season. Pursued at a distance by the Turks, the troops were continually harassed by Arab tribesmen who sniped at the marching columns and robbed and murdered any stragglers. On arrival at Kut, Townshend refused the opportunity to withdraw any further and deliberately engineered a siege – probably because he had made a name for himself twenty years previously, by successfully holding a besieged outpost on the North-West Frontier, and hoped to repeat this feat. Halil Pasha’s army encircled the town on December 7. Morale among the garrison was low, and rations were already short, as the British management of the supplies was shambolic, and many of the Indian troops refused to eat horsemeat.
Relief expeditions sent from Basra failed well short of Kut in January and March 1916, at the Battles of Sheikh Sa’ad, Wadi and Hanna. The winter rains had now raised the water level of the Tigris which aided navigation but made operations along its banks extremely difficult with much of the land reduced to a knee-deep, mosquito-ridden swamp. Tied to the river that provided its only transport channel, General Aylmer’s troops lacked the numbers and the freedom of manoeuvre to push back the Turks, while the flooded terrain forced them to undertake costly frontal attacks against their entrenched opponents. Once casualties among the relief forces had risen to 23,000, nearly twice the strength of the Kut garrison, London signalled that further efforts could not be justified.
Townshend’s men were now trapped in an insanitary bolt-hole stricken by dysentery, scurvy, malaria and pneumonia, and incapable of serious military action. As hope dwindled, the British made one of the first-ever attempts to supply the garrison by air, dropping sacks of provisions from April 15, but the amounts delivered were hopelessly inadequate. The British were so desperate to avoid defeat that they even sent a party of officers, including the later celebrated TE Lawrence, to offer the Turks £2 million (about £150 million today) to release the trapped men. But it was clear that the Turks had nothing to gain from negotiations and would only countenance unconditional surrender. To add insult to injury, they later publicised the British attempt at bribery, to further humiliate their enemies.
His last supplies exhausted, Townshend capitulated with about 10,000 survivors on April 29, 1916. Along with the Allied debacle at Gallipoli the previous year, his defeat did serious damage to British prestige throughout the Islamic world. At home, Kut’s fall had a similar impact to the loss of Singapore in 1942. Although the siege and relief attempts had cost the Turks about 10,000 men, they probably judged the strategic victory worth the price. About 7,000 of Townshend’s troops perished in forced marches to distant prison camps, and harsh Turkish captivity. However, the General himself lived in comfortable confinement at a Black Sea resort and even received a knighthood during his captivity. After the war he was, unsurprisingly, offered no further military employment.
Following the Kut disaster, the British finally accepted that only massive force would overcome the Turkish position in Iraq. Under a new C in C, General Maude (a much larger force with a flotilla of modern river gunboats) advanced up the Tigris in December 1916, retaking Kut at the end of February 1917 and capturing Baghdad without resistance in March.
Eggenberger. D. – A Dictionary of Battles from 1479 BC to the Present – Unwin, 1967
Hart, P. – The Great War – Profile Books, 2013
Perrett, B. – The Battle Book – Brockhampton Press, 1998
Strachan, H. – The First World War – Pocket Books, 2006
Willmott, H. – World War I – Dorling Kindersley, 2008
This article was written by Tim Barney, a Mirthy public speaker who specialises in military history and technology. Following a career in the IT industry, Tim has embraced the opportunity to pass on some of the fascinating facts and stories he has absorbed over the years.
This is the second article of the new series ‘Battle of the Month’, where Tim is bringing a different battle to life each month.
Tim’s talks can be found at Mirthy Talk Catalogue | Military History.