Mesopotamian Campaign
British troops defeat the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia
6 November 1914 - 14 November 1918
author Paul Boșcu, January 2017
During the Great War British and Ottoman forces fought for control over Mesopotamia and its rich oil fields. Although the British did suffered some drawbacks, such as the successful ottoman siege of Kut, they managed to capture Baghdad and, in the end, defeat the Ottoman Army.
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 British government had already appreciated the vulnerability of strategic oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. It was decided that military operations in that area should be directed from India, under political control of the India and Colonial Offices in London. Initially there was no input from the War Office, as the troops involved were from the Indian Army. This split command system led to confusion and near-disaster.

Indian official opinion was divided. On the one hand, it was attracted to the control of Mesopotamia in order to secure India. Moreover, a major victory against the Turks would settle Muslim sentiment in the subcontinent, an argument which grew in force as the setbacks on the Gallipoli peninsula mounted. On the other hand, this argument cut two ways: another setback in the war against the Turks would be disastrous for British prestige in the Islamic world. Ambition overrode caution.

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.

The oil pipeline ran alongside the Karun River to the Shatt al-Arab and the refineries on Abadan Island. Turkish-controlled Mesopotamia itself was the alluvial plain formed by the mighty Euphrates and Tigris Rivers as they meandered their way to the Persian Gulf, joining together before passing by the town of Basra which lies at the head of the Shatt al-Arab estuary about seventy miles from the sea.

Turkish troops had already been mobilized and moved forward into the Basra region, occupying an area right down to the entrance of the Shatt al-Arab. The Royal Navy had dispatched the sloop Espiegle, accompanied by an armed merchantman the Dalhousie, to lie off Abadan as a tangible representation of Britain’s concern. Furthermore, the Indian government was ordered to raise and dispatch a land force in case military operations were required.

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.

London was engaged in a continental war in Europe and had its eye on the Turkish threat to the Suez Canal and Egypt. Hence it was looking to mount an essentially defensive campaign in Mesopotamia tailored to securing the oil fields and not much else. In contrast, although initially reluctant to do anything due to commitments elsewhere and the continuing threat on the North-West Frontier, Delhi soon came to envisage a full-scale campaign, intended to bring not just Abadan, not just the town of Basra, but the whole of Mesopotamia right up to Baghdad under British control.

The Indian Army had been undergoing a prolonged period of economy due to the perceived reduction of the threat emanating from Russia, and the prevailing expectation was that it would only be deployed internally on the North-West Frontier. Therefore, little attention had been paid to its new external Imperial obligations. This meant it was not well equipped with artillery, transport, medical facilities or any of the other requirements of modern warfare.

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.

The British General Staff’s estimates of 60,000 troops being sent to reinforce the Ottoman 6th Army were grossly exaggerated. The Turks had about 17,000 men in Mesopotamia at the outset of the war. It had no heavy artillery and it was four to six weeks’ march from Constantinople.

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.

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.

Barrett's troops landed on the eastern bank, but then faced the monumental problem of crossing the swollen Tigris, as wide as the Thames in London. Royal Navy sloops forced their way past the town, to a point from which they could provide distracting artillery support, while two Indian battalions managed to cross higher up the river on 8 December. The Turks found themselves cut off and they surrendered.

The British and Indian troops were accustoming themselves to the pleasures of service in Mesopotamia. Qurna was reputedly the site of the Garden of Eden, but conditions had deteriorated somewhat since those halcyon days. Hot during the day, often cold at night, with naggingly persistent winds which soon stirred up clouds of choking dust, when not actually immersed in water the flood plain was still chopped up by canals and deep waterways dotted around with marshes and brackish lakes.

Digging trenches was difficult, as below two feet in depth they became flooded, and breastwork trenches had to be built up to provide protection. The flies were everywhere and, in conjunction with the poor-quality water supplies and sanitation, soon led to a disturbing incidence of dysentery.

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.

The Arabs’ natural antipathy was increased by the potent combination of the ‘Holy War’ declared against the British by the Turks, coupled with well placed bribes for the more venal. As a result, the British camp was disturbed every night by the persistent rattle of pot-shots from a conglomeration of archaic weapons that could have provided a brief history of firearms.

It was also difficult to judge the strength of the opposing Turkish forces and the legitimacy of various rumored threats against Qurna, Basra and the oil fields in Persia. All too soon the British began to appreciate the merits of the old Arab saying that ‘God had created hell but it wasn’t bad enough so he created Mesopotamia’.

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.

London’s point of view was summarised by Lord Crewe in a telegram sent after the battle: ‘Any advance beyond the present theatre of operations will not be sanctioned by Government at this moment, and I presume Nixon clearly understands this. During the summer we must confine ourselves to the defence of oil interests in Arabistan and of the Basra Vilayet. If an advance to Amara with a view to establishing an outpost for the purpose of controlling tribesmen between there and Karun, thus adding to the security of the pipeline, is possible after smashing the enemy in the direction of Karun, I should be prepared to sanction it. Any proposal involving possible demands for reinforcements or undue extension is to be deprecated however. Our present position is strategically a sound one and we cannot afford to take risks by extending it unduly. In Mesopotamia a safe game must be played.’ Lord Crewe clearly did not appreciate the scope of Nixon’s instructions.

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.

Now Townshend was facing a true test of his capabilities, for no advance from Qurna would be easy. The whole area was flooded, with the Turks ensconced on low hill positions that peeked above the marshes. Advance was only possible by boat. So the assaulting 17th Indian Brigade had to take to the waters. This was an incredible undertaking demanding enormous preparations: ‘An average of sixty-five boats per battalion was necessary. Each bellum (boat) was to carry ten men, two to pole, eight to fight, with their equipment, reserve ammunition, water, two picks, two shovels, 30 feet of rope and caulking materials, two spare poles, and four paddles. In addition, boats had to be found for the Signal Company and for the field ambulance, and also for machine gun sections and a battery of mountain guns. These latter were mounted on rafts, made from two bellums decked together, the guns protected by steel plates and the whole roofed over with reeds to make them more inconspicuous. It was decided that the bellums should also be armoured by placing two long strips of boiler-plating across the boats, bow and stern, projecting about 3 feet on either side and only just clearing the water: the idea being that, if held up by frontal fire, the men could jump out and, wading behind the projecting wings of armour, push their boat forward. ‘Expert’ opinion was against the scheme.’ (Captain Henry Birch Reynardson, 1st Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry) ‘Expert’ opinion was right. The armor made the boats top-heavy and caused them to snag in the reeds or run aground.

Townshend was widely considered a tactically brilliant commander – not least by himself. He had studied military history deeply and attempted to put into action the maxims of his hero Napoleon. During his career he had already attracted much attention for his determined and ultimately triumphant defense of the besieged fort of Chitral on the North-West Frontier in 1895.

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.

‘We had never seen a bombardment in Mesopotamia before, and now that about forty guns, from 5-inch to 10-pounders, were hard at it, we were suitably impressed. Norfolk and Gun Hills disappeared in a cloud of smoke and dust, which drifted like a dirty smudge across the clear blue of the sky. The bombardment continued for half an hour, then lifted off Norfolk Hill and concentrated on Tower Hill and Gun Hill, while the mountain battery took on Norfolk Hill and sprinkled it with shrapnel, while the boats began their slow advance. After the bombardment that Norfolk Hill had suffered, it seemed that nothing could have remained alive, but as the boats of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry approached, it was clear that somehow or other a good many of the garrison were still very much all there. A line of grey puffs broke out all along the position, and the boats came under a sharp rifle fire; at the same time the enemy guns opened fire – shooting very erratically – on the sloops in the river. Norfolk Hill was carried with the bayonet soon after seven o’clock, at the cost of one officer killed and five men wounded – surprisingly light losses considering that the company concerned was under rifle fire at a range of 100 yards while they disembarked and waded up to the trenches. These, well-sited and provided with overhead cover in places, were simply full of dead and wounded.’ (Captain Henry Birch Reynardson, 1st Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry)

Mile after mile, the ramshackle convoy sailed up the narrowing uncharted river, bypassing obstacles and risking mines or deadly ambush. Perhaps the Turks could, or should, have done more to punish his daring, but Townshend gave them no time to think. He harried them mercilessly. Even when the sloops ran out of water beneath their keels, he merely transferred his retinue to the shallow-draught gunboats and launches to continue the chase with a mere hundred or so men. Only colossal chutzpah carried them through.

‘My first idea was to wait until my leading brigade should arrive in ships, as the probability was that the Turkish troops at Amara would defend the town. Indeed I felt certain that they would fight, and that it would be ridiculous to attempt to take the place with the armed tug Shaitan, with a 3-pounder gun and some ten hands as a crew, and the Comet, a small paddle-wheel river steamer, armed with a 12-pounder and a total crew of fifteen seamen and British soldiers doing work of marines. Captain Nunn was anxious that I should go on and chance it – as is the way with sailors. But I said emphatically, “No, I won’t do anything foolish. I must unite some troops before attacking, for there is sure to be a defence!” But, after waiting for about an hour, I told Nunn that after all I would go on and chance it. I told him to send the Shaitan about 2 miles ahead as an advanced guard; and we followed with the Comet, Shaitan, and Lewis Pelly, armed tug-boats, and three 4.7 guns towed in horse boats. At 1.30 pm I was alongside the customs house at Amara, where the Turkish commander in the Battle at Qurna, Halim Bey, the Governor of Amara, Aziz Bey, three or four colonels and some thirty or forty officers came on board to surrender. A whole battalion of the Turkish pompiers from Constantinople sent off word that they were ready to surrender at the barracks; so I told Nunn to send one of his naval officers. Accordingly he sent a lieutenant with the coxswain of the boat and a British soldier from the Dorsets, who, I think, was acting as a marine. These three received the surrender of the battalion and marched them down to the quay and on board one of the big iron lighters there, as I wanted them in the lighter and anchored in mid stream under our guns! It must be remembered that I had only about twenty-five British sailors and soldiers with me. To keep up appearances, I made a scene with the Governor, who said he had no supplies available. I spoke of the 15,000 troops close on my heels with a fleet of ships.’ (Major General Sir Charles Townshend, Headquarters, 6th Indian Division)

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.

The same old arguments were deployed: if only they could capture Kut all would be well, the Basra vilayet would be safe and the oil fields secured. This, however, was nonsense as an advance to Kut would achieve little more than elongate what was already a severely over-stretched line of communications. Kut only had any significance if it was to be used to launch an attack right up the Tigris to Baghdad: that, indeed, was Nixon’s real objective, in sharp contrast to the far more pragmatic inclinations of Austen Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for India.

After Nasiriyah the Turks were digging defensive positions on both banks of the Tigris some eight miles south of Kut, and Townshend was faced with a difficult task. The shortage of river transport was having a terrible effect on the whole supply and reinforcements chain stretching right back to Basra, which was itself still in chaos. The main problem was the Tigris. Plagued by strong currents and winding like a corkscrew, the river was only navigable through a narrow channel. Townshend asked for more troops, more munitions, more transport. Nixon’s reply was terse: he was told to ‘cut his coat according to his cloth’.

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.

The attack was carefully planned by Townshend in his trademark style, using the cover of night to switch his forces by pontoon bridge across the river and then launch a complex combination of fixing and flanking attacks. It did not go entirely according to plan but, after a hard-fought battle, the Turks fell back beyond Kut.

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.

‘The Army Commander does not seem to realise the weakness and danger of his line of communications. We are now some 380 miles from the sea and we have only two weak divisions, including my own, in the country. There is my division to do the fighting and Gorringe’s to hold the line of communications from Kut to the sea. Thus there is no possible support to give me if I receive a check.’ (Major General Sir Charles Townshend, Headquarters, 6th Indian Division)

‘I was determined to carry out the operation if it could possibly be done, and it was my plain and simple duty to carry out the orders of my superior to the best of my ability, although his orders were against my better judgement. Personally, I had no doubts in my mind as to the extreme gravity of the results of this advance – an offensive undertaken with insufficient forces, and not only that, but an offensive undertaken in a secondary theatre of the war, where our strategy should have been to have remained on the defensive with minimum forces sufficient for that purpose. All my study indicated disaster to me.’ (Major General Sir Charles Townshend, Headquarters, 6th Indian Division)

Townshend felt that any further advance was unwise without at least two divisions to make the advance and a third to hold the lines of communication. He was also well aware of the increasing navigational difficulties for his flotillas in the shallows of the Tigris above Kut. But no one was listening, and Townshend had little choice but to obey orders.

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.

The retreat was difficult in the extreme. The exhausted troops had a long way to march under the burning sun, and their accompanying boats were constantly running aground. All the while the Arabs sniped around the columns. Not far behind them were the Turks; once they realized the British were retreating, they soon launched a pursuit.

The total inadequacy of the transport facilities showed up in the evacuation of the wounded. From start to finish this was a disaster: everything that could go wrong did go wrong. ‘I was standing on the bridge in the evening when the Medjidieh arrived. She had two steel barges without any protection against the rain, as far as I remember. I saw that she was absolutely packed, and the barges, too, with men. The barges were slipped, and the Medjidieh was brought alongside the Varela. When she was about 300 or 400 yards off it looked as if she was festooned with ropes. The stench when she was close was quite definite, and I found that what I mistook for ropes were dried stalactites of human faeces. The patients were so huddled and crowded together on the ship that they could not perform the offices of nature clear of the edge of the ship. A certain number of men were standing and kneeling on the immediate perimeter of the ship. Then we found a mass of men huddled up anyhow – some with blankets, some without. They were lying in a pool of dysentery about 30 feet square. They were covered with dysentery and dejecta generally from head to foot. With regard to the first man I examined, I put my hand into his trousers and I thought that he had a haemorrhage. His trousers were full almost to the waist with something warm and slimy. I took my hand out, and thought it was a blood clot. It was dysentery. The man had a fractured thigh, and his thigh was perforated in five or six places. He had apparently been writhing about the deck of the ship. Many cases were almost as bad.’ (Major Robert Markham Carter, Indian Medical Service, SS Varela) The scandal triggered by this suffering was so great that a full-scale inquiry was later ordered into its circumstances by the British government.

Things did not go according to plan. The Turks stood firm; even when their first line of trenches was overrun, they stuck fast in the second line. It was a real soldiers’ battle, devoid of tactical sophistication, with both sides launching frontal attacks across the open flat desert and both suffering severe casualties.

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.

‘Townshend is a hopeless incapable dreamer and ass – vain as a peacock and full of military history comparisons, but as a practical soldier one’s grandmother would be as good. Sometimes one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at his incapacity! He never goes near his men or rarely – never goes near the front line of trenches and sees things for himself. But he is not the only rotter – there are several in high places. I tell you honestly, although it sounds conceited for me to say it, but I can say it to you, I am the best man in this force of the senior Generals and what I suggest is accepted at once. It is not saying much though, but there are amongst the seniors an awful set of incompetents.’ (Major General Charles Meliss, VC, Headquarters, 30th Indian Brigade) Meliss was certainly not alone in criticizing Townshend’s conduct during the siege.

Townshend’s tactical position was dire, but he appeared to be in no doubt that he would be relieved. All told, there were 14,500 British and Indian troops and dependants in Kut, with some 6,000 Arab civilian inhabitants who had been allowed to stay for humanitarian reasons and who also needed to be fed. Stupidly, no proper search had been undertaken by Townshend’s staff at the commencement of the siege to determine the food stocks at Kut and thereby maximize the period they could resist. Townshend claimed he had enough food to last for only sixty days, that is, until early February 1916. Somewhat perversely, he decided to adopt the position of keeping his men on full rations and demanding immediate relief from Nixon.

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 relief operations that followed had some similarities with the earlier phases of the campaign. The British were confident, but they still lacked sufficient river transport or a robust enough supply chain to maintain operations some 200 miles from their rudimentary base at Basra. They were also short of artillery suitable for trench warfare conditions. Above all, they were in a hurry this time, with the pressing necessity to relieve Kut.

Many of the Turkish troops had acquired an ominous proficiency in defensive operations on the battlefields of Gallipoli that would serve them well in the Tigris campaigns. They also had a competent leader in the German officer assigned to take command of them, Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz, who may have been seventy-two but who would prove to have one last effective campaign in his old bones.

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.

Aylmer was aware of the dangers of attacking up the Tigris before he was ready, but he was being pressured by both Townshend and Nixon to make haste. The result was disaster.

The Turks had amassed equal and opposite forces along a series of strong defensive positions at Sheikh Sa’ad, Sanniyat and Es Sinn. These layers of concealed trenches left Aylmer very little room for maneuver as they were carefully sited to leave a gap of just a mile or so between the river and the flooded marshlands on either side. Frontal attacks across flat open ground with inadequate artillery preparation against experienced and determined opponents was a recipe for disaster.

Early on, Aylmer realised that he was in deep trouble: ‘I determined to continue the advance on Kut, but it is my distinct duty to point out that it is a most precarious undertaking, for which I, of course, accept full responsibility as I consider the situation demands a supreme effort to relieve Townshend.’ (Lieutenant General Sir Fenton Aylmer, Headquarters, Tigris Corps)

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.

In Mesopotamia as in Gallipoli, the British forces had overreached themselves. Easy victories at the outset had spurred on Sir John Nixon’s ambitions. Grandiose notions of a converging movement linking with the Russians coming down through Persia and Azerbaijan did not help. But the real difficulty was that Nixon was not subject to firm direction.

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.

Aylmer had tried various diversionary and flanking tactics, but he was not a lucky general as Townshend had been. Even where he achieved tactical surprise, it was often undermined by an insistence on sticking to the defined program, which allowed the Turks to regroup. Moreover, the Turkish resistance was nowhere near as shaky as it had been in 1915. Even when sections of the redoubt were breached, the Turks launched successful counterattacks and so it had to be done all over again.

British efforts became more and more frantic, but the Turks held firm. There was nothing new, no tactical innovations, just hard slog for very little gain – and an awful lot of losses.

It is incongruous that even as these terrible sacrifices were being made to rescue the Kut garrison, Townshend discovered that there was a great deal more food than he had originally believed. This reflects badly on the original scaremongering estimates, which were belatedly revealed as the product of shoddy staff work: ‘No accurate account was made of all food supplies available; nor were they seized. In our village there were, lying in the open and in huts, quite 400 tons of barley and wheat and not until March did Supply and Transport bestir themselves about this – by which time two floods had occurred and much had been stolen. Of course our people never anticipated a siege of five months and were always expecting relief in a week or two. Still if Arabs had all been expelled except, say, five hundred coolies for digging, etc. – and if every pound of food had been rigorously collected and the whole force put on half rations from December 3rd, we could have lasted for 6 to 8 months, and would have given time for an overwhelming force to collect.’ (Major Ernest Walker, Indian Medical Service, attached to 120th Rajputana Infantry Regiment)

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.

‘Poor Don Juan has taken his last hedge! I have hitherto managed (to) extend his reprieve, but today the order came. I gathered his last feed of grass myself. His companions stood by him trembling as the quick shot despatched one after another. Not so he! Now and then he stamped, but otherwise stood perfectly still. I asked the NCO to be careful that his first bullet was effective and to tell me when it was over. I kissed Don on the cheek “Goodbye!” He turned to watch me go. Shortly afterwards they brought me his black tail, as I asked for a souvenir. Strange as it may seem we ate his heart and kidneys for dinner, as they are now reserved for owners. I am sure he would have preferred that I, rather than another, should do so.’ (Lieutenant Edward Mousley, 82nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery)

‘The Arab children make their appearance in groups wailing piteously. Once the babes in their mothers’ arms used to cry the whole day long, but the unfortunates are probably since gone. The Arab population has been dying by the hundreds and they look dreadfully shrunken and gaunt. Arabs continued to wait around the butchery for horse bladders on which to float downstream. They are shot at by the Turks, who want them to stay on here and eat our food, or else they are killed by hostile Arabs. Every night they go down and a little later one hears their cries from the darkness.’ (Lieutenant Edward Mousley, 82nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery)

Towards the end, trapped in an insanitary, disease-ridden enclave plagued by dysentery and diarrhea, scurvy, malaria and pneumonia, and with few medical facilities, the troops had been rendered incapable of serious military action: ‘Up to this time the men were moderately cheerful and in fair spirits. One saw, however, how deeply they were disappointed each time the relief failed. From this time onwards there was a rapid lowering of stamina, vitality, physical condition and health generally to the end of the siege. When Kut capitulated the whole garrison was in an exceedingly low state of health. During the last month of the siege, men at fatigues, such as trench-digging, after ten minutes work had to rest a while, and go at it again; men on sentry-go would drop down, those carrying loads would rest every few hundred yards; men availed themselves of every opportunity of lolling about or lying down. There were instances of Indians returning from trench duty in the evening seemingly with nothing the matter, who laid down and were found dead in the morning – death due to starvation asthenia. Men in such a low state of vitality can stand little in the shape of illness – an attack of diarrhoea that they would have got rid of in a day or so at the beginning of the siege, often ended fatally – all recuperative power had gone. At the end of the siege I doubt whether there was a single person equal to a 5-mile march carrying his equipment.’ (Colonel Patrick Hehir, Indian Medical Service)

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.

The wily Turks fell back from the Hanna lines without resistance, willing to forgo a few miles of desert in order to make the carefully planned assault miss the target. At Fallahiyeh it was a different matter and, although the Brits took the Turkish trenches, the casualties were high. Gorringe then sent an Indian division forward to take over the attack on Sanniyat, but a slaughter ensued, with lines of khaki bodies marking where the attacks had broken down.

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.

In their anxiety the British had tried to drop stores by air. This was the first time resupply had been attempted in this way, as aircraft still had modest load carrying capacities: ‘The first visit of aeroplanes took place bringing sacks of food which they dropped from a good height and we soon knew that this was the beginning of a new scheme for enabling us to hold out longer. At first thought it appeared ridiculous to think of feeding a starving garrison of our size with food dropped by a handful of aeroplanes, but short calculations of weight carried each trip, etc., soon revised ideas and the clamour was as to why it had not been started much earlier. It was only in the mornings and evenings that the aeroplanes could fly, owing to the heat which overheated their engines and the number of trips per day seemed fearfully disappointing. The Turks were not long in grasping what was up and forced the machines to fly high, but double-sacking was strong enough in most cases. One native had the ill luck to be hit by a falling sack and was so injured that he died. A few sacks fell in the river and some had to be marked down and recovered after dark but the quantity eventually proved enough to keep us going until 29th April.’ (Major Alexander Anderson, Volunteer Artillery Battery, Indian Army)

The amounts being dropped were derisory compared to the needs of the garrison; indeed, the air missions were more precursors of the future than of any real practical assistance to Townshend. A final desperate attempt to dispatch 270 tons of supplies aboard the steamer Julnar ended in predictable failure and, with that, all hope was gone.

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.

‘Before daylight further orders came to destroy the guns and everything remaining of any military value. We had no desire that the Turks should get anything out of us and we set to with a will. With the help of the rest of the cartridges all the leather work, rifles (after being well-broken), saddles, tents, directors, telescopes, telephones, compasses, papers etc., were burnt in a trench. The Supply and Transport meantime were at work next door shooting the few remaining animals and burning the carts. Last of all we destroyed the guns – a slab of gun cotton in the breech which was tamped and closed and another slab in the muzzle – and there was precious little left of them to call guns. Having a spare slab for the last gun, it got a double charge and most of one side of it flew through the air and landed through the roof of an Arab house 2–300 yards away!’ (Major Alexander Anderson, Volunteer Artillery Battery, Indian Army).

Britain’s humiliation in the Middle East and Central Asia was complete. Its worst fear, that of resurgent Islam in the empire, seemed to be about to be realized. ‘For me’, von der Goltz had written home, ‘... the hallmark of the twentieth century must be the revolution of the colored races against the colonial imperialism of Europe.’

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.

‘At Shumran we joined the rest of the garrison encircled by armed sentries on a desolate and completely bare strip of land close to the Tigris. We had been without food or drink since the previous day and like castaways were without protection from the elements – there being no provision whatsoever for even our most simple needs. When at last we were issued with sour and mildewed Turkish ration biscuits, devoured somewhat ravenously to ward off the pangs of hunger, our stomachs were in no fit condition for such treatment. Fortunately, for some like myself it resulted in violent sickness, but in not a few cases men died during the following night in frightful agony from gastroenteritis. There were many such deaths during the next few days and it was unnerving having to watch their bodies taken away.’ (Private Harold Wheeler, 1/4th Hampshire Regiment)

‘A daily trek of not more than 10 or 12 miles along the featureless dusty desert track seemed never ending as with parched lips, burning brows and aching limbs we struggled to keep on the move. Even when it was absolutely necessary to fall out to satisfy the call of nature, the mounted Kurds would adopt a menacing attitude shouting, “Yallah! Yallah! Imshee!” and what sounded like “Bollocks!” making indiscriminate use of the whip to force us to our feet. Those suffering from dysentery or other ailments, obliged to drop out on the march, were shewn no compassion whatsoever by the escort and if unable to catch up with the column were left by the wayside to die, or worse still to be butchered by Arab brigands hovering around, who would strip them of their uniform and clothing. One day on the march I noticed the body of a British soldier, completely naked, by the side of the track and witnessed a Turkish officer placing a topee over his abdomen – possibly the only humane act known to have been performed on this terrible march.’ (Private Harold Wheeler, 1/4th Hampshire Regiment)

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 defeats at Gallipoli and Kut overshadowed a far more significant albeit limited victory, the successful defense of the Suez Canal against Turkish attack in February 1915 and July 1916. The key waterway linking the British Empire in the east with that in the west was held, and the threat of revolution in Egypt was contained.

One explanation for the Central Powers’ failure was that ideologies were on the cusp. The force of religion, on which holy war relied, was declining, while that of nationalism was not yet as developed or as powerful outside Europe as it was within. The Young Turks played both cards, as did the Germans, but in doing so they sent a contradictory message. Islam was universal in its appeal, while nationalism was particular.

The nationalism of the Young Turks translated into imperialism when carried beyond the frontiers of Anatolia. It therefore conflicted with the message of genuine independence that the Germans wished to convey. But Wilhelmine Germany was tied to the coattails of Turkey. It could never become a force to undermine overseas imperialism when it itself lacked the military clout to translate promises into deeds.

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 reorganization of the logistical system was a massive undertaking, extremely costly and demanded a huge allocation of scarce resources to the campaign. But they had no choice if British prestige was to be restored. The War Office took control of the campaign from the rather more financially hamstrung and incompetent Indian administration in Delhi.

In April 1916, Major General George MacMunn was appointed Inspector General of Communications. He was appalled by what he found on his arrival at Basra: ‘As we entered the anchorage, a melancholy sight appeared, twenty ocean steamers loaded with supplies and military stores lay awaiting unloading and had been so for weeks, so devoid was Basra of wharfage, port labour or port craft to handle all that was now pouring into the river. The staff in India in modern times had not studied modern movement and logistics, while even at the War Office the organisation of longshore and river service was only partially understood.’ (Major General Sir George MacMunn, Headquarters, IEF ‘D’)

MacMunn brought out specialists to revitalize – or, more often, create – the requisite logistical necessities. Thus a prominent consulting engineer, Sir George Buchanan, was sent out to organize the port facilities Basra needed if it were to act as the base for such a major expedition. Land was reclaimed, navigational channels and harbors were deepened, jetties and warehouses were built. The Indian Labour Corps was brought in to do the manual work and release troops for the front. Huge reinforcement camps appeared and several military hospitals were established.

A special class of steamer was designed and constructed at great expense specifically for conditions on the Tigris: shallow draught and capable of dealing with strong currents. The results of these endeavors, P-50 steamers, would begin to arrive in late 1916 and proved invaluable. As more and more barges and steamers were pressed into service, the amount of tonnage carried forward increased massively while the evacuation of the sick and wounded improved in tandem.

A railway line was constructed to alleviate the river congestion in the narrows between Qurna and Amara, while further upriver a light railway helped move supplies from Sheikh Sa’ad to behind the front line area. Gradually a proper metalled road with bridges over the innumerable creeks was constructed, pushing forward from Basra right up to the front. A company of transport lorries was soon toiling back and forth. The situation was by no means perfect: the line of communications was still overly long and prone to disruption, but at least it was not the farce that had so badly hampered operations in 1915.

Military supplies of every kind poured into Mesopotamia. The munitions position had radically improved since the outbreak of war and by late 1916 batteries of guns and howitzers could be sent out, along with a munificence of ammunition supplies. They would supply one devastating response to the Turkish trenches. All the paraphernalia of modern war was flooding in, from machine guns to mortars, purpose-built bridging materials to reconnaissance and scout aircraft – everything the Tigris Corps could need.

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 was determined to take a more ‘hands on’ command of his forces than his predecessor and so moved his headquarters up to the front. He had been given clear instructions by the Chief of Imperial General Staff, General Sir William Robertson, which restated the necessity of securing the oil fields, the pipelines and the Basra area. The prospect of taking Baghdad was raised but only with the stern warning that ‘This further advance should not be undertaken unless and until sanction for it is given.’

During the summer of 1916 the Tigris Corps remained stuck in its trenches with the Turks still well entrenched in front of them. Both sides were in a relatively quiescent mood: the Turks resting while the British restocked their depleted divisions.

By the autumn, Maude’s forces had been split into two corps: Gorringe had been replaced by Lieutenant General Alexander Cobbe as commander of the I Indian Corps, while the III Indian Corps was commanded by Lieutenant General Sir William Marshall.

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’s generalship was not so very different from that of Townshend, it was just that this time everything required for success was firmly in place, his advance was not hemmed in by the floods and he was not under the same pressing time constraints as Aylmer and Gorringe.

Using a night march and a bombardment of the Sanniyat lines to deflect attention, the cavalry and the 13th Division managed to cross the Shatt al Hai feeding into the Tigris on the western bank opposite Kut. The Turks were then thrown into further confusion when RFC bombing missions managed to harass the Turkish steamer responsible for their pontoon bridge into releasing its tows and thereby scattering vital pontoons all across the Tigris. This denied the Turks the means of rapidly crossing the river and, over the next few days, Maude attempted to further threaten their communications, thereby forcing them to withdraw.

A vital factor in British successes was the increasing intensity of the artillery barrages which had the potential to overwhelm any Turkish response – modern mechanical war was coming to Mesopotamia. The Turks still held the formidable Sanniyat positions on the eastern bank of the Tigris, but as a whole the Turkish forces were starting to struggle.

The Turkish commander, General Khalil Pasha, had been overconfident in the ability of his forces to hold back the British on the Tigris and hence had detached several divisions to engage in abortive secondary operations in Persia, thereby leaving far too few troops to face the revitalized British. Hubris, it seemed, was not a solely British failing.

The Turks, though still fighting stubbornly, were racked by disease; their supply system was inefficient and they failed to stem Maude's relentless advance.

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.

The boats were launched into the water at the Shumran Bend. Once the Turks spotted them they opened up a rapid fire. However, the British held the bridgehead just long enough to allow a pontoon bridge to be created. When it became apparent what was happening, the Sanniyat positions were skillfully evacuated by the Turks as they fell back to avoid being cut off. For a moment it was like the old days under Townshend: the naval gunboats raced off up the river, harassing the retreating Turks and sinking most of their shipping.

Some 7,000 Turks were captured in the operations, while large quantities of artillery, machine guns, mortars, supplies, transport equipment, bridging equipment and riverboats were captured or destroyed. Although Maude had a four-to-one numerical superiority over the Turks, his army had overcome severe physical and psychological difficulties following Townshend's humiliation.

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.

In many ways the capture of Baghdad did not really change the overall situation, as had been pointed out in the wise words of warnings from the likes of Robertson, who counselled not to risk too much in capturing the city. For the capture of Baghdad was not an end in itself; it certainly did not mark outright victory. The Turks still had to be harried and pursued back to avoid their posing a future threat; it was still necessary to prevent them from uniting their forces, and certain key points would have to be secured to stop them flooding the whole area by manipulating the river waters.

Mesopotamia was like a vast sponge sucking in British military resources. Everything had to be done for the best of military reasons, but what had really been gained once the oil fields had been secured in 1914? The whole Mesopotamian Campaign had become an object lesson in mission creep: the original goal had been achieved, but enormous risks had been undertaken to achieve a progression of ostensible objectives that had no real justification.

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.

The resumption of fighting saw a slightly different situation as the Russian collapse freed up Turkish troops for offensive operations against Maude’s forces. But the British too had been busy and had extended their supply lines forward to create an effective modern transport system that stretched from Basra to Baghdad. The threat of marauding Arabs along the lines of communication had been reduced by a combination of pacification and slaughter.

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.

Maude was buried in the Baghdad North Gate War Cemetery, a British war cemetery in which casualties from both World Wars are located.

General Stanley Maude gravestone epithet reads: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He fought a good fight. He kept the faith.’

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.

This was a world away from the original aims and objectives of the campaign; this was fighting for the sake of it, with localized priorities and tactical considerations rather than some rational analysis of where troops were best deployed on a global basis.

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.

At the point of surrender there was an active strength of some 217,000 British and Indian soldiers serving in Mesopotamia (plus some 71,000 in the Labour Corps and 42,000 in the Inland Water Transport), but in all over 675,000 troops had been deployed over that period, of whom 92,500 had become casualties.

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.

After the war, centuries of Ottoman domination in Iraq ended, for the defeated Turks could not hold on to Arab territories. The British reneged on their promise, given by T.E. Lawrence, to create an independent Arab state in exchange for Arab support against the Ottomans during the war. The British ruled Iraq from 1920 until 1932.