Indian cavalry on patrol, c.1918
While General Haldane’s attention was focused on the besieged garrison at Rumaytha, the insurgency continued to spread, gathering in more and more tribesmen, their sheikhs swept up in a great swell of religious fervour and primitive patriotism which gave them little room to manoeuvre, even when their sheikhly interests might have been better served by remaining obedient to the British. By mid-July 1920 around 35,000 Arab tribesmen were in arms and the number of British garrisons and outposts at risk of being cut off and destroyed was increasing.
In particular, fears grew for the safety of the British outpost at Kufa, where a small detachment of Indian troops from the 108th Infantry Regiment was keeping a wary eye on the rebellious city of Najaf seven and a half miles to the south-west. Kufa, a town of around 3,500 inhabitants, situated on the right bank of the channel of the same name, lay thirty-three miles south of the British base at Hilla. For twenty-one miles of that distance a narrow-gauge railway, built during the war, ran as far as Kifl, another small British outpost and railway terminus and the point where the Hindiyya branch of the great Euphrates divides, forming two further channels, the Kufa and the Shamiyya. As early as 11 July, the stationmaster at Kifl had reported that attacks on the railway station and telegraph lines were anticipated and the railway staff were authorised to withdraw north to Hilla. However, the following day, the PO for the Hilla Division, Major Pulley, considered it safe enough for the railway staff to return.
Meanwhile, Major P. Fitzgerald Norbury, the PO for the Shamiyya Division, accompanied by his youthful APO, Captain Mann, began a series of visits to the sheikhs of the Khaza’il, Bani Hasan and Shibl tribes, attempting to bribe them to abandon the al-Fatla, who were currently the most actively engaged insurgents. But this was to no avail and on 13 July the al-Fatla and their allies began to threaten Kufa.
The defenders of Kufa totalled 730 men, 486 of whom were Indian troops of the 108th Infantry plus their four British officers. The only other fighting men were a motley force of 115 Arab and Persian levies commanded by six British officers and three British NCOs. There were also 102 Indians and fourteen British employed by the Civil Administration. However, Norbury had selected a strong defensive position of stone buildings on the edge of the town and adjacent to the river and ensured that this strongpoint was well stocked with supplies and ammunition. Moreover the gunboat HMS Firefly had just arrived at Abu Sukhair, a few miles south of Kufa, having steamed down from the Upper Euphrates, and could easily return to Kufa in a few hours.
Signs of hostility began to show themselves on 14 July when insurgents opened fire on a British launch carrying supplies which would have certainly been captured without the intervention of Firefly, after which the gunboat was ordered upriver to Kufa. Then, on 20 July, the British base in the town came under sporadic rifle fire.
By the following day the British outpost was completely encircled and the attacks grew fiercer. Soon a number of buildings near to the British defensive perimeter were set on fire and Norbury and Mann repeatedly led fire-fighting parties to try to extinguish the flames. On 22 July, in the course of another of these sorties, Captain Mann was shot and killed by the Arab attackers. Wilson had lost yet another of his ‘young men’. Meanwhile, insurgent raiding parties began to threaten Kifl and on 23 July its railway station was overrun by a section of the Bani Hasan tribe, and the railway staff, who had been ordered back to their posts on 12 July, were captured and taken prisoner to Najaf.
As the military situation in the Shamiyya Division deteriorated, on Thursday 22 July Major General Leslie, still at Diwaniyya, was summoned to Baghdad for a conference with the GOC-in-chief and the following day was flown up to Baghdad for the meeting with Haldane. Afterwards he paid a visit to his own 17th Division HQ and it was there, later that Friday morning, that he received a telegram from Colonel R.C.W. Lukin, commanding officer at Hilla, who had replaced the ‘hysterical’ General Wauchope a few days earlier. With Kifl overrun by rebel tribesmen and the Hilla–Kifl railway cut in a number of places, Colonel Lukin informed Leslie that he was under intense pressure from the local PO, Major Pulley, to send out a detachment towards Kifl, in order to ‘show the flag’ in the hope that this would deter the ‘wavering’ northern sections of the Bani Hasan from joining the insurgency. The telegram requested authorisation to do so.
The only troops at Hilla available for this purpose were the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment (less one company), a field artillery battery, a field ambulance section, a company of Indian pioneers and two squadrons of Indian cavalry, in total around 800 men, all units from the 18th Division which had been sent to Hilla, on GHQ’s order, to form a column there for the purpose of retaking Kifl and relieving Kufa – but only when a sufficiently strong force had been assembled.
Colonel Lukin’s telegram informed Leslie that he intended to send a column made up of the units currently available down the road to Kifl to a point six miles south of Hilla called Imam Bakr, which had been reconnoitred and was reported as having a good supply of water for both animals and men. The objective was to ‘show the flag’ as requested by the PO. Lukin asked Leslie to approve this move and to authorise a continuation of the advance towards Kifl if circumstances allowed.
Leslie, who by now was fully aware of his commanding officer’s strictures about sending out under-strength columns at the behest of POs, decided to pass the request to the GOC-in-chief himself, so he telephoned GHQ and, in the presence of his own two staff officers, he read out Colonel Lukin’s telegram to Brigadier General Stewart, Haldane’s general staff officer who had taken the call. A few minutes later, Stewart replied, giving GHQ’s permission for the Manchester Regiment and other units to advance towards Kifl but, for the time being, to go no further than Imam Bakr, which was to be considered ‘an outpost of Hilla’. The commander of the column was also ordered to avoid becoming engaged with superior hostile forces. Leslie then transmitted these instructions to Lukin at Hilla, sending a copy of his telegram by special dispatch rider to GHQ, and later that day he boarded an aircraft at Baghdad to fly back to Diwaniyya.
Precisely why General Haldane authorised the Manchester Column’s movement to Imam Bakr is something of a mystery. It was completely inconsistent with his previously stated objections to making an ‘unready push’ and the manoeuvre had no clear objective. Certainly, there was no reason why GHQ should defer to the judgement of the PO who had been pressing for the column’s dispatch. One possible explanation is that Haldane was expecting the arrival at Hilla of some of the units from the Rumaytha relief column he was planning to withdraw north from Diwaniyya and which could then be sent on immediately to reinforce the Manchesters at Imam Bakr. It was this more substantial force which would then advance further towards Kifl and Kufa.
However, when the Manchester Column was sent out on the afternoon of 23 July, neither Colonel Lukin at Hilla nor the officer commanding the column, Colonel Hardcastle, had any idea that reinforcements were en route to them and might be arriving shortly, a communications failure that was to have tragic results.
To better understand the course of events which was now about to unfold, let us first examine the terrain through which the column was to move. Between Hilla and Kifl the landscape was almost entirely flat and featureless except for the ruined Babylonian tower of Birs Nimrud – locally reputed to be the Tower of Babel – which would have been just visible, situated on a mound, about ten miles south-west of the column’s point of departure. At that time of year the terrain itself was a mixture of grey-brown desert covered with scrubby ‘camel thorn’ bushes intersected by a number of half-empty canals which fed off the Hilla branch of the Euphrates. Where these irrigation canals watered the land, rice fields – some of them quite extensive – broke the monotonous vista. Two of these irrigation canals, the Amariyya and the Nahr Shah, ran roughly north–south, to the east of the road and the 2’6” railway line from Hilla, while two smaller canals, the Mashtadiyya and the Rustumiyya lay broadly east–west. Imam Bakr – the position six miles south of Hilla where Colonel Hardcastle had been ordered to halt, make camp and water the cavalry and transport teams from local wells – was a short distance north of the point where the road and railway line crossed the Mashtadiyya canal. As to the ‘road’ to Kifl along which the column would march – it was little more than an unmetalled track.
Let us try to picture the small British force on Friday 23 July 1920 as it begins its advance into enemy territory under the baking Mesopotamian sun. A few months earlier the newly planted rice fields and small plots of winter wheat ready for harvesting would have been bright green and dotted with spring flowers, but now all has turned to drab dusty yellow. There is nothing to raise the men’s spirits as they set off towards their equally cheerless destination.
‘B’ Company of the Manchesters, under the command of Captain G.M. Glover, are at the head of the column followed by ‘A’ Company. But after only a couple of miles these pale young men from Lancashire in their solar topees and baggy shorts are already in a sorry condition, sodden with a fine perspiration, like a downy mist, which seems to leak out of every pore, and desperately thirsty; but the British Army believes that troops should refrain from drinking water in the heat of the day while marching, so ‘water discipline’ is being rigidly enforced. Behind them march a company of sepoys – strong, lean men of the 1st Battalion the 32nd Sikh Pioneers, ready in an instant to drop their rifles and seize their entrenching tools; normally a six-mile march would be nothing to them but with the shade temperature touching 120°f, even these tough, experienced soldiers are beginning to suffer. The six horse-drawn 18-pounder guns of the 39th Royal Field Artillery battery are in the centre of the column together with 150 ‘Animal Transport’ (AT) carts each pulled by two mules, carrying ammunition and the impedimenta required for constructing a camp. As their Indian drivers whip them forward, the animals churn up the fine dust of the alluvial soil, choking the men of ‘D’ Company of the Manchesters who are marching behind them. And in the rear, and on either flank, are two squadrons of the 35th Scinde Horse, the pennants of their lances fluttering in the scorching breeze of the shamal as they scan the horizon for enemy tribesmen; but, as often as not, in the shimmering heat, what first appears to be a horseman is just a mirage – or nothing more than a six-foot high clump of wild liquorice or a strangely twisted grey-leaved native poplar tree.
Forty-four-year-old Colonel R.N. Hardcastle, in command of the column, marches with the infantry, alternately on horseback or on foot, resting his mount. The son of a ‘gentleman of independent means’ of Wakefield, Yorkshire, Colonel Hardcastle joined the army with the rank of second lieutenant in December 1897.9 By now he is a very experienced soldier. He fought in the Boer War of 1899–1901, serving with the Manchester Regiment’s 1st Battalion, and was awarded the DSO for bravery in September 1901. In 1914 his unit formed part of the British Expeditionary Force in France and between 18 and 20 October it saw very heavy fighting at Richebourg-l’Avoué, where Hardcastle, by now a captain, had to assume temporary command of the battalion after its lieutenant colonel was sent to hospital. In April 1915 he was promoted to major and the following year his unit was sent to Iraq, where it took part in the futile campaign to relieve General Townshend’s men besieged at Kut al-‘Amara and during which Major Hardcastle was wounded. By July 1918 Hardcastle, now with the rank of brevet lieutenant colonel, was commanding the 1st Battalion of the Manchesters in General Allenby’s successful campaign against the Turks in Palestine. It was with the same rank that Hardcastle was placed in command of the Manchester Regiment’s 2nd Battalion in November 1919.
Many of the column’s other officers are equally experienced and decorated. But brave and experienced as they may be, these officers are no less affected by the intense heat than their men and on arrival at Imam Bakr in the early evening all ranks are exhausted and some have already collapsed from dehydration and heatstroke.
At this point events begin to take an unfortunate turn. In spite of the enforcement of ‘water discipline’, the column has insufficient water supplies for an operation in such extremes of temperature.10 Colonel Hardcastle has been assured that there will be plentiful water supplies at Imam Bakr but when his cavalry patrols reach the nearby wells it is discovered that the water is so brackish that even the animals refuse to drink. However, the column is within a short distance of the Mashtadiyya canal so the men and animals trudge onwards to that location. But once again they are disappointed – the Hilla branch of the Euphrates, from which the matrix of irrigation channels is fed, is very low this year and there is no water entering the Mashtadiyya canal. So the weary and despondent British and Indian troops march back to Imam Bakr.
However, a junior PO accompanying the column who is familiar with this area, Lieutenant P.H.S. Tozer, is sent out scouting for alternative sources of water and soon returns informing Hardcastle that there are adequate supplies in another canal, the Nahr Shah, further to the south-east; there is also a good defensive position at which to make camp eight miles south of Imam Bakr, where the railway and Hilla–Kifl road cross another canal with water, the Rustumiyya. So Hardcastle now sends a message back to Hilla informing Colonel Lukin that he intends to continue his advance to the Rustumiyya, asking his senior officer to approve the movement.
On receiving this request, at 00.15 on 24 July, Colonel Lukin sends a telegram to Major General Leslie at Divisional HQ Diwaniyya informing him of the column’s plight and of his intention to allow the column to advance further southwards towards Kifl, principally to obtain water but also to continue to ‘show the flag’ in this unsettled area. Leslie is informed by Lukin that he has authorised the column to set off from Imam Bakr ‘in the morning’.
At this point Leslie is still hours away from his HQ, being flown back from his conference with Haldane in Baghdad. When he does eventually receive Lukin’s message at 10.40 a.m. on Saturday the 24th, he is puzzled by the expression ‘in the morning’ – does Lukin mean he is intending to order the advance to begin this morning (in which case he would have already departed) or the following morning – on the 25th? He therefore telegraphs back to Hilla asking for clarification, at the same time informing Lukin that substantial reinforcements will soon be on their way to him from the units which are expected to return to Hilla from the relief of Rumaytha.
Meanwhile, it has been confirmed that the Nahr Shah canal does indeed contain adequate water supplies and Hardcastle has sent part of the column there with the animals without further authorisation. The operation is successful but because of difficulties leading the horses and mules down the steep banks of the canal, they can only be watered in small batches.
Consequently the party does not return to the camp at Imam Bakr until 8.15 a.m. An hour later, Hardcastle has still not received a reply from Hilla to his telegram of 00.15 as to a further advance to the Rustumiyya canal, so because the temperature is already above 100°f, he decides to give the order to advance without waiting any longer. However, it is not until 4.00 that afternoon that Leslie receives a telegram from Lukin at Hilla informing him that the column has already set off ‘that morning, early’. The stage is now set for a tragic denouement.
By midday on Saturday 24 July, Colonel Hardcastle and his men eventually reached the Rustumiyya canal, by which time 60 per cent of the Manchester Regiment troops were so exhausted and affected by the heat as to require, in the opinion of the column’s medical officer, a complete rest for twenty-four hours. However, the column was now close to Kifl, whose single white minaret could clearly be seen from the canal bank, and, faced with the possibility of an attack by marauding bands of insurgents, Hardcastle decided that a protected camp would have to be constructed. So after only a few hours’ rest the men were set to work preparing a defensible position while two troops of the Scinde Horse were posted as standing patrols on the road and light railway line leading to Kifl.