The Mesopotamian campaign of World War One was fought by forces of the British Empire, opposed by the Ottoman Empire. The campaign ended with a British victory.
The origins of the campaign lay at sea, with the adoption by the Royal Navy of oil-fired turbines for the new generations of warships that were rolling off the stocks. Much of Britain’s oil supply was sourced from the recently developed oil fields at Ahwaz in the Arabistan province of Persia. The importance of an uninterrupted oil supply to the British meant that it was essential that the area be secured from disruption as the likelihood of Turkey joining the war grew ever greater in the autumn of 1914.
A 1912 agreement had laid out that India should take responsibility for any possible campaigns within the area of the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia. Officially, therefore, the Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) ‘D’ was to be raised by, and under the control of, the British-run Indian government based at Delhi. However, there is no doubt that the British government in London still retained a desire to interfere directly in the conduct of operations. This may not have mattered but, right from the start, the two governments had markedly different strategic visions: London wanted a defensive operation, but Delhi had a offensive mindset.
The first troops to be dispatched to Mesopotamia were the augmented 16th Indian Brigade, made up of regular British and Indian battalions. The day after the Turkish declaration of war, the 16th Indian Brigade fought its first action, capturing the Fao Fort and Turkish cable station located close to the entrance of the Shatt. The troops sailed on up the Shatt beyond Abadan and landed at Sanniyat, where they established camp to await the arrival of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Barrett and the rest of the IEF.
A weak counterattack by the Turks was repulsed and afterwards a series of minor actions were fought, culminating in the capture of Basra. The campaign could have been over. The primary objectives of securing the oil fields and the pipelines from Persia had been achieved. Basra proved not to be an ideal base because, although it was a minor port, it lacked many of the basic modern amenities. Whatever the season, movement by land was always extremely difficult, with few passable roads and no railways.
As the Navy explored further up the river, it became apparent that the Turkish forces had fallen back the fifty miles to Qurna, which lay at the old confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris. Barrett decided that in order to consolidate his position at Basra he must establish a defensive outpost at Qurna. It would prove a remarkable operation, and the IEF captured the city. Thus far the operations had been a triumph, and Turkish resistance again was negligible. Yet Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy in Delhi, and the Indian Army Headquarters based at Simla were becoming increasingly ambitious.
All these events took place against a backdrop of the constant attentions of the local Marsh Arabs who were hostile to anyone – Turkish or British – who trespassed for long on their domain. They were not particularly effective, but they were irritating. The British themselves strengthened the IEF with the 12th Indian Division commanded by Major General Sir George Gorringe.
When the long anticipated Turkish blow fell, it was beaten off – not without difficulty – at the Battle of Shaiba in a series of engagements which prevented a large Turkish and Arab force from descending on to Basra via the Euphrates from the west. At this time, Barrett had fallen sick and had been replaced as overall commander by Lieutenant General Sir John Nixon. Nixon had been briefed by General Sir Beauchamp Duff, the Indian Army Commander-in-Chief, who charged him not only with the responsibility of guarding the oil fields and occupying the Basra vilayet (province), but also – more dramatically – with planning an advance on Baghdad. From this point in the campaign the Indian government effectively wrested the initiative from London.
On the ground the operations became divided in focus. Gorringe had been dispatched to clear the area around the Persian oil wells and along the Karun River of any Turkish or Arab threat in order to allow pumping (which had been interrupted) to resume. Gorringe’s operations were successful and the oil began to flow again, but meanwhile the operations of the 6th Indian Division, commanded by Major General Charles Townshend, were rather more dramatic in their nature. Nixon decided to order his new subordinate to advance along the Tigris some ninety miles to Amara, having obtained the grudging consent first of Lord Crewe and then of Austen Chamberlain, his replacement as Secretary of State for India after the formation of a Coalition Government.
To try to reduce the enormous risks, Townshend planned a staged advance, carefully preparing a coordinated naval and artillery bombardment on the Turkish outposts before launching his assault. Stunned by the shell fire, the Turkish outposts were overwhelmed. What happened next was simply amazing. With one brigade swiftly embarked aboard paddle steamers, Townshend and his staff aboard the Espiegle, accompanied by the other sloops Clio and Odin, set off up the Tigris in hot pursuit of the Turks. Before the Turks had a chance to realize what was happening, it was too late. The follow-up infantry arrived just in time to consolidate the gains.
In the next phase in these endlessly extended operations, Nixon dispatched Gorringe with the 12th Indian Division to fight their way along the convoluted channels of the Euphrates to secure the town of Nasiriyah. After some incredible logistical difficulties and some stiff fighting, they managed to eject the Turks from their positions. Now almost all the Basra vilayet was secure. Yet Nixon was still not satisfied, this time pointing to the concentration of Turks gathering at the town of Kut al-Amara, some 120 miles beyond Amara at the confluence of the Tigris and the Shatt-al-Hai Canal, which led across to the Euphrates.
Slowly the troops advanced up the Tigris, some taken in shuttles aboard river transports, but many having to march far more miles than was good for them across inhospitable terrain in the blazing sun. After concentrating at Sheikh Sa’ad, they made a feint attack on the main Turkish defences of the Es Sinn trench lines on the west bank, before assaulting on the east bank. This time the Turks retired in relatively good order as the British river boats could no longer charge ahead, given the worsening navigational conditions on the Tigris. In the event, Townshend entered Kut a day after Es Sinn.
Nixon had no intention of stopping as thoughts of capturing Baghdad filled his mind, and he ordered Townshend to pursue the Turks. Townshend, however, had a very different perception: considering the British lines of communication to be weak he wanted to stop. Chamberlain was also concerned about further advances to Baghdad, but Nixon simply brushed his objections aside. The War Office in London allowed itself to be reassured that there were indeed enough troops and means of river transport to make the capture of Baghdad perfectly feasible. Permission was granted for a further advance. Townshend remained unconvinced.
At the Battle of Ctesiphon, Townshend faced a roughly equal number of entrenched Turks well dug in on both sides of the Tigris. He again chose to attack on the east bank, trying to pin the Turks with a frontal attack while his flanking column maneuvered around. For two days the fighting continued, then suddenly the Turks withdrew. But this time there was no question of a British pursuit. Townshend’s force had suffered some 4,600 casualties and his men could do no more. Ctesiphon was a truly Pyrrhic victory. Townshend had no reserves; advance was impossible yet his men could not stay perched out in the open desert. Retreat was the only option.
Townshend’s exhausted troops finally reached Kut. Nixon decided that Townshend should stand and fight. The Turks besieged the British lines, which lay across the loop in the river that contained Kut. In December the Turks launched a speculative series of attacks which were repulsed with heavy losses, after which they settled down to siege operations with the intention of starving the British out. Hitherto, Townshend had performed well during the Mesopotamian Campaign in 1915, but his conduct and judgement during the siege were poor.
With Townshend bottled up in Kut, the Indian and British governments were unified at last in their response to operations in Mesopotamia. Still smarting from the final humiliating evacuation from Gallipoli in January 1916, the British were desperate to prevent another disaster at the hands of the Turks. A new Tigris Corps began to form in Mesopotamia under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Fenton Aylmer, VC, although it was matched by the Turkish divisions arriving from Gallipoli.
The bulk of the Turkish forces began marching past Kut, leaving just enough behind to lock in Townshend, and moved down to occupy defensive lines in front of Sheikh Sa’ad. The underlying characteristic of the British attack was urgency. At the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad, the Battle of Wadi and the climactic Battle of Hanna, the British and Indian troops went through hell. It wasn’t just the grimly efficient Turkish forces that were hindering Aylmer’s progress. The weather broke, lashing the troops with freezing rain. Medical arrangements broke down again and Mesopotamia became a hell for the wounded.
Nixon was invalided back to India but his baleful influence on the campaign still remained. His replacement in charge of the IEF ‘D’ was General Sir Percy Lake, who had been Chief of General Staff in India and was deeply implicated in Nixon’s ambitious plans. During all these efforts the Kut garrison was able to contribute nothing; the Turks may not have been able to break in, but at the same time neither could Townshend’s men break out.
Given the imminence of the annual floods in March, which would greatly impede relief operations, Aylmer, prodded on by Lake, decided not to await the arrival of further reinforcements. He launched another frontal attack against the Dujaila Redoubt, a continuation of the Es Sinn positions on the west bank of the Tigris. This, too, was a total disaster. Aylmer was sacked and command was handed over to the newly promoted Lieutenant General George Gorringe. It was at this point that Townshend discovered more food in Kut, meaning his forces could hold out until April. But by the time they had discovered this reassuring fact, the damage had already been done by the unnecessary rushing of Aylmer’s relief operations.
Over the first month of the siege, the general health of the men probably improved, such was their dreadful condition on arrival, and the beneficial effect of full rations coupled with a period of relative ease. But, inexorably, the rations declined in both quantity and quality, with the meat portion being made up from bullocks, mules and horses. The artillery officers kept their personal chargers till very last. Many Indian troops refused to eat horse meat for religious reasons and suffered accordingly. But those who suffered worst of all were the Arab occupants of Kut. The situation grew increasingly serious and a terrible decline set in towards the end of March.
Having taken over operations, Gorringe found himself as hard-pressed for time as Aylmer had been. He was forced to try a frontal attack on the eastern bank of the Tigris, using the newly arrived 13th Division to smash through first the Hanna trenches, then the lines at Fallahiyeh, Sanniyat and finally Es Sinn. Gorringe laid his plans carefully, forgoing an artillery bombardment to secure early surprise in the attack. The Turks held their ground.
In desperation the operations switched to the west side of the Tigris, with two more attempts to strike at the Bait Asia trenches in front of the Es Sinn lines. But any progress was soon reversed by determined Turkish counterattacks. So Gorringe returned to the east bank with a final assault on Sanniyat. It was the last forlorn hope; everyone realized that the Kut garrison was on its last legs. But there was to be no fairy tale ending; just another deeply depressing disappointment for the relief force. The Tigris Corps could do no more; the Turks had fought them to a standstill. There was no food left in Kut.
Townshend was forced to bow to the inevitable. He requested a six-day armistice and commenced to parley over surrender terms. Some of the negotiations seem fanciful to the modern eye, with Townshend offering the Turks £1,000,000 and envisioning a scenario whereby his men give their parole and so are allowed to march out with colors and spend the rest of the war in India, having promised they would never fight on a Turkish front again. All his requests were rejected out of hand. They sought, and ultimately extracted, an unconditional surrender from Townshend.
While Townshend himself was treated well and most of his officers were treated reasonably, the other ranks faced a dreadful ordeal. Already weakened, their treatment at the hand of the Turks was at best uncaring and sometimes veered into downright brutality. Things would get worse during the long march to Baghdad and beyond. Thousands would die through what could best be described as ‘aggravated neglect’ by the Turks.
A German expedition crossed Persia to reach Kabul, in a bid to persuade the Emir to raise an army for the invasion of India. German consuls in the United States bought arms for shipment to Indian revolutionaries. Their agents penetrated nationalist movements throughout North Africa and Central Asia, and their propaganda was disseminated from locations in Constantinople and neutral Bern. And yet there was no holy war. The Muslim soldiers of India remained loyal to the British. Germany’s global strategy was checked. The British, as well as the French and Russians, were right to take the danger seriously. In doing so, they warded it off – at least for the time being.
The consequences of hubris could not have been clearer than the ashes of the Mesopotamian Campaign as viewed from the perspective of May 1916. It was fought with insufficient troops and inadequate logistical arrangements; a campaign which ignored the unique terrain characteristics of the region and was underpinned by the presumption that the Turks were not capable of serious opposition. Britain had to face up to a second shattering defeat by the Turkish Army. The British did what they should have done from the start if they had been serious about the capture of Baghdad:bthey reorganized their transport and supply system from top to bottom.
The four divisions that were already there were brought up to their full strength of some 160,000 men and were now collectively known as the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force (MEF). This time the British were serious. There was also a change in the High Command, with the appointment of Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude to replace General Sir Percy Lake. Maude, although unwilling to move until he was certain of success, was intent on achieving total victory over the Turks in Mesopotamia.
Maude made his first carefully planned move. Bad weather caused the suspension of operations but fighting recommenced in January 1917, with Maude’s forces making considerable progress. Turkish morale began to crack as large numbers were taken prisoner.
Maude conceived of a plan to avoid more direct frontal assaults on the Sanniyat lines by making a crossing on to the east bank of the Tigris at the Shumran Bend upstream of Kut. It was an exceptionally risky operation, but Maude tried to ensure that preparations were thorough: three pontoon bridges were prepared, all personnel were carefully trained, and deceptions and a diversionary attack at Sanniyat were planned to pin the Turkish reserves, while overall there was a heightened sense of secrecy. Kut fell as the Turks retreated towards Baghdad.
There was much discussion over the correct course of action but, in the end, Maude’s conviction that the Turks were well and truly beaten held considerable weight in view of his cautious performance to date. As such he was given permission to commence the advance to Baghdad. Whatever the logic of taking Baghdad, militarily it proved the right decision. The Turks failed to inundate the plains around Baghdad and, when defenses on the line of the River Diyala were swept aside, they withdrew from the city, leaving Maude’s troops to enter Baghdad.
The Russians had been crippled in the aftermath of the March 1917 Revolution which caused an increasing deterioration in Russian military morale. So it was that Maude found there was still much hard fighting to be done. Battle followed battle, but the campaign never seemed to be quite over. Usually the British won and gained a few more miles of desert and the latest ‘essential’ tactical prize, but occasionally there were painful reverses. Operations were finally suspended during the long hot summer of 1917.
Maude’s attitude had not changed over the summer break; he was still resolved on the destruction of all organized Turkish resistance. So the campaign continued: pushing ever higher up the Tigris, Euphrates and Diyala rivers. Then Maude himself died of typhoid and General Sir William Marshall took overall command of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force. The guiding hand had been stilled, but operations continued unabated.
Over the last year of the war the British pushed north toward the Mosul oilfields and across to the Caspian Sea. In his instructions to Marshall, Robertson, always the realist, called for consideration to be given to how the Mesopotamian army could be reduced. This pious hope attained greater urgency when the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917 seemed to indicate that the Palestinian Campaign (being waged in tandem) offered a greater potential for successful operations against Turkey. In consequence, two divisions were redeployed to Palestine. Yet plenty of troops still remained in Mesopotamia.
Following the long lull during the hot season of 1918, the Turkish situation was desperate and Marshall was ordered to advance on Kirkuk with the intention of dominating the Mosul oil fields. The operations were successful and, following the signing of the Armistice of Mudros, the whole Mosul area was successfully occupied and the four-year campaign was finally over.
Mesopotamia was a tragedy from start to finish, fought in circumstances of exceptional difficulty. For the first two years it was starved of resources. It also proved to be the graveyard for the reputations of many generals, even though the tactical skills they had demonstrated had by and large been adequate. But in the end the British won: the Empire had gained its oil fields and one more sector of the globe was under British control.