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Kut POWs

British troops on their way to captivity.

As the Arab Bureau in Cairo waited and hoped for an Arab rebellion that would bring down the Ottoman Empire, it was called upon to help British India liquidate yet another disastrous and muddle-headed enterprise in the war against Turkey: a smaller-scale but more shameful Gallipoli by the shores of the Tigris River in Mesopotamia.

A month before the outbreak of the Ottoman war in the autumn of 1914, London had ordered a standby force to be sent from India to the Persian Gulf to protect Britain’s oil supplies from Persia in case they should be threatened. Its initial objective in case of war was to protect the oil refinery at Abadan, a Persian island in the Shatt al-‘Arab, the waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet. On 6 November 1914, the day after Britain declared war on Turkey, this force, by now augmented, moved forward. The Turkish fort at Fao at the mouth of the Shatt al-‘Arab fell after a brief bombardment by a British gunboat, the river sloop Odin; and a fortnight later, several thousand British troops occupied the Mesopotamian city of Basra seventy-five miles upriver. Although the British Indian force had landed in Mesopotamia, it did so to shield neighboring Persia from attack.

Turkish resistance was feeble, for the Basra front was hundreds of miles from the main concentrations of Ottoman troops and supplies near Baghdad. As the British Indian expeditionary force went about rounding out its position in Basra province, it parried Turkish counterattacks with ease.

Drawn into the interior of marshy lower Mesopotamia by the Turkish retreat, an ambitious newly appointed British commanding officer, Sir John Nixon, who had arrived in April 1915, sent his officer in the field, Major-General Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, further and further upstream in quest of new victories but with no great sense of direction or strategic purpose. Finally, Nixon ordered the troops—despite Townshend’s misgivings—to keep on marching all the way to Baghdad.

A successful advance from Basra to Baghdad would have required a mastery of logistics and an abundance of troops, river transport, hospital equipment, artillery, and supplies that British India did not make available to the expeditionary force. The troops were advancing into a country of swamps and deserts, without roads or railroads, and were therefore obliged to follow the meandering course of the shallow, treacherous Tigris River. For this they needed flotillas of river-boats suited to the Tigris. The country was pestilential—there were maddening, sickening swarms of flies and mosquitos—so mobile hospitals and medical supplies would be required. Whereas in Basra the weakened Turks were at the end of their long supply line, in front of Baghdad Townshend’s forces would be at the end of theirs— and would need to have brought with them adequate supplies of food and ammunition.

Though his forces lacked these apparent necessities, Townshend, whose talent for generalship was close to genius, almost fought his way through to victory. But his final triumph, if it can be so termed—at Ctesiphon, about twenty-five miles southeast of Baghdad, and hundreds of river miles from the base of his supply line at Basra—was Pyrrhic: he lost half of his small force. On the night of 25 November he began his retreat.

Townshend had learned that Field Marshal Colman von der Goltz, whom he regarded as one of the great strategists of his time, had assumed overall command of Ottoman forces in Mesopotamia. He had learned, too, that 30,000 Turkish troops were about to reinforce the 13,000 that had opposed him at Ctesiphon. Townshend’s own fighting forces now numbered 4,500; and they were short of ammunition and food.

Townshend believed—with good reason—that the closest safe place for him to make a stand was some 250 miles downstream, but decided—unwisely—that his exhausted troops could not go that distance. After a punishing week-long retreat of nearly a hundred miles, punctuated by battles with the pursuing Turks, Townshend, who had suffered a thousand more casualties, chose to stop and make his stand at Kut el-Amara.

Kut was a mud village caught in a loop in the Tigris River, and surrounded by water on three sides. Sheltering within it and en-trenching the fourth side, Townshend imprisoned himself in a fortress-like position. It made it difficult for the Turks to get in or for him to get out. In the event, von der Goltz’s Ottoman armies left a sufficient force at Kut to guard against a British breakout, and then marched on to entrench themselves downriver so as to block any force Britain might send to the rescue.

Townshend planned to be rescued, but ruined his own chances. Although he had supplies sufficient to last until April 1916, he cabled that he could only hold out until January. The full forces available to rescue him could not be assembled by then—a few weeks more were required—but driven on by Townshend’s inconsistent and increasingly unbalanced cables, the partial forces available launched one premature attack after another and were beaten back. Had they waited until they could attack in force, they might have fought their way through.

On 26 April 1916, the garrison at Kut having exhausted its last rations of food, the War Office in London offered Townshend the services of Captains Aubrey Herbert and T. E. Lawrence in negotiating a surrender. Both were associated with the Arab Bureau in Cairo, and Herbert, a Member of Parliament, had been a well-known friend of the Ottoman Empire before the war. Both had just arrived in Mesopotamia, and Lawrence had already been stricken with the prevalent local fever.

The siege of Kut had by then lasted 146 days, exceeding the records previously set by the famous sieges of Ladysmith (in the Boer War) and Plevna (in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877). It was an epic of heroism—as the defenders faced disease, starvation, and floods—and of heartbreak, as supplies parachuted to them were blown off course into the river, and riverboats sent to their aid went aground or were stopped by chains the Turks stretched across the river.

Townshend, who had never quite recovered from a fever contracted in 125-degree heat the summer before, had become emotionally unbalanced. At some point during the siege he had decided that the Turks might let him and his men go free on parole in return for a payment of a million pounds. Herbert and Lawrence, who went with him on 27—8 April to negotiate terms, were authorized by London to offer even more: ashamed though they were of doing so, they offered the Turks two million pounds. On orders from Enver, who apparently enjoyed Britain’s humiliation in begging to buy the freedom of her troops, the Turkish commander rejected the offer.

The British defenders of Kut thereupon destroyed their guns and unconditionally surrendered. Townshend was treated with courtesy, and sent by the Turks to live in comfort—and indeed luxury—in Constantinople. His diseased, starving troops, however, were sent on a death march—100 miles to Baghdad, then 500 more to Anatolia— and then were put to work on railroad chain gangs. Few of them survived.

Townshend’s forces suffered more than 10,000 casualties between the start of their advance on Baghdad and their surrender. Twenty-three thousand casualties were suffered by the British forces seeking to rescue them from Kut; yet the garrison was carried off into captivity and found death along the way.

It was another national humiliation inflicted upon Britain by an Ottoman foe British officials had always regarded as ineffectual—and whom the Arab Bureau proposed to bring crashing down by internal subversion later in 1916.


Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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