General Aylmer Haldane, British Commander-in-Chief in Iraq, 1921
THE SCENE OF THE MANCHESTER COLUMN DISASTER JULY 1920: THE CAMP ON THE RUSTUMIYYA CANAL
The spot chosen for the camp was a naturally strong one. It was sited to the east of the road from Hilla to Kifl in the angle between the road and the canal.
On three sides there were earthen banks a few feet above the level ground which served on the southern side to retain the ten-foot-wide canal while on the east was an irrigation cut of lesser width. The protection of the third side, which bordered the road, consisted of a dry ditch with a low bank on both sides of it. Beyond this side to the west and making an acute angle with the road, outside the perimeter selected for the camp, ran a line of mounds, possibly the remains of an ancient canal bank of which all other traces had disappeared. Since the highest of these was around ten feet above level ground, and the highest point in the vicinity, these positions were also occupied.
Only on the fourth side facing north-west were there no naturally defensible features and so at 5.30 p.m. those men who were still fit enough were ordered to commence digging trenches along this line. However, a few minutes later an orderly from the cavalry troop stationed on the railway line galloped into the camp with news that a large party of Arabs were tearing up the rails and destroying the culverts. This was followed by the arrival of a wounded cavalryman and then, shortly afterwards, by the remainder of the cavalry with worrying news: at least 10,000 insurgents were said to be advancing on the camp and were only about two miles away. Although this estimate of enemy combatants was later revised down to about 3,000, the British and Indian troops were clearly heavily outnumbered.
A short time later both sides opened fire, although there was some delay in getting the British artillery into action because the British gunners, who were also the column’s telephonists, were currently trying to get in touch with Hilla by attaching their instruments to the telegraph line. By 7.50 p.m. the fighting became more intense and the Arabs were seen to be working round the flanks of the encampment, some of them closing to only 150 yards from the camp perimeter. Colonel Hardcastle was aware that he had been ordered to avoid an engagement with superior forces but he was now in a quandary: his orders indicated that the column should probably withdraw to a position of greater safety, nearer to Hilla; but with nightfall approaching he also knew that conducting such a movement in good order would be extremely hazardous. What he did not know, however, was that within the next twenty-four hours reinforcements from the Rumaytha relief force would be available at Hilla ready to be sent on the short distance to support Hardcastle’s men. If the Manchester Column had dug in and taken advantage of their superior firepower they would probably have been able to hold their position until those reinforcements arrived.
In the event, Colonel Hardcastle’s judgement seems to have failed him. Instead of taking a firm decision as commanding officer, he called all the officers to a council, including the two POs accompanying the column, Lieutenant Tozer and his superior, APO Captain W.E. Hunt. These two urged an immediate withdrawal, claiming that, seeing such a force of British troops pinned down in this manner, all the local Arabs would rise up and even Hilla itself might be overwhelmed and captured. The outcome of the conference was that a decision was taken to abandon the camp and retire northwards towards Imam Bakr and Hilla. ‘B’ Company of the Manchester Regiment was to act as the advance guard split into two files either side of the AT wagons and artillery. They would be followed by ‘A’ and ‘D’ companies; the Sikh Pioneers and the two squadrons of the Scinde Horse would make up the rearguard.
At 8.40 p.m., in a darkness unrelieved by any moonlight, the Manchester Column begins to move off in the direction of Hilla along what is little more than a dirt track. For the first half mile of progress the column holds together well. Morale has now improved somewhat. British and Indian soldiers have enjoyed at least a few hours of rest and they are relieved to be returning to the modest comforts of Hilla after the privations of the march. And for the time being they are able to fend off sporadic attacks by mounted insurgents who are reluctant to come into close combat with their better-armed opponents.
Then, suddenly, there is a commotion among the AT wagons. Something has panicked the mules and horses, which begin to charge off in different directions. In the pitch darkness, the men of ‘A’ and ‘B’ companies of the Manchesters have no idea what is happening until careering transport wagons carve through their ranks. In the chaos, the inexperienced young infantrymen who cannot get out of the way are trampled, injured and killed while the rest are split up into isolated groups of men left stranded and in many cases separated from their officers and NCOs.
From now on any sense of there being an organised military formation has disintegrated. Loose horses, led by a white pony, continue to career up and down the road on which some of the Manchesters are endeavouring to make an orderly retreat. The combat degenerates into a scattering of individual fights between little groups of British and Indian troops and a swirling mass of Arab horsemen and foot soldiers. As they retreat, the gunners halt for a few minutes, firing their guns into the Arabs at almost point-blank range, and with drawn swords the sowars of the Scinde Horse make repeated charges into the enemy tribesmen to prevent them surrounding and capturing the guns and gunners. In the course of these charges, all six of the cavalry’s British officers have their horses shot from under them; two of their officers are badly wounded and the senior Indian officer, Risaldar Muhammad Azim, who has shown the greatest coolness and bravery throughout the fighting, is shot in the stomach and dies shortly afterwards. And as the struggle to extricate the guns dies down, two-thirds of the cavalry are now fighting on foot.
In another of these close-quarter combats the twenty-six-year-old Captain George Henderson, commanding ‘D’ Company of the Manchesters, orders his men to fix bayonets and leads a charge into the nearest mass of insurgents.16 For a while this body of rebels pulls back but within minutes they have recovered and threaten to surround Henderson’s men. Once again he leads a charge at bayonet point towards the Arabs but this time he is badly wounded. Nevertheless, after this show of resistance, the insurgents pull back, turning their attention to the substantial amount of equipment, rifles and ammunition in the AT wagons which the Manchester Column has had to abandon. At this point Henderson manages to extricate his men and escape up the road to Hilla. After a few hundred yards the men of ‘D’ Company halt at a defensible position. It is only now that the severity of Henderson’s wound becomes apparent. He asks a sergeant to lay him down on the canal embankment where they are sheltering. His last words, spoken to one of his NCOs are, ‘I’m done now, don’t let them beat you.’ Henderson was later awarded the Victoria Cross ‘for most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice’.
Meanwhile, Captain Glover and 128 men of ‘B’ Company of the Manchesters, originally at the head of the column, have become completely disorientated and have veered away from the Hilla ‘road’ to the left, on a track leading to Birs Nimrud. At some point along this track they are surrounded and attacked by a swarm of mounted insurgents. None of these men would ever be seen again. Glover and his men were later classed as ‘missing’, but according to a survivor from another unit, they were ‘slaughtered to a man’, a conclusion broadly confirmed by a subsequent court of inquiry.
By around 6.00 a.m. on 25 July, some men of ‘D’ Company of the Manchesters and other units had eventually managed to find their way back to Hilla. But what of the remainder of the column? The first Major General Leslie heard of the Manchester Column, since he had been informed of its advance to the Rustumiyya canal, was at 10.30 p.m. the previous day, when he received a telegram from Hilla saying that the column had been in action and was ‘withdrawing to Hilla under fire’. As he later described it to his wife, ‘I knew only too well what this meant with six guns and a lot of transport withdrawing at night and so few infantry to protect them.’
If Colonel Hardcastle had decided that the Manchester Column remain in its fortified camp it would probably have been able to defend its position until reinforcements arrived, especially since the Rustumiyya canal provided an adequate water supply. Indeed, while the column was beginning its ill-fated retreat to Hilla, Leslie was commandeering as many railway trucks as possible with which to transport the Royal Irish Rifles from Diwaniyya to Hilla from where they could be rushed to support the Manchester Column. Then, at 10.30 in the morning of 25 July, Leslie received the news he had been dreading: the Manchester Column had ‘suffered disaster’; only two guns had reached Hilla and the rest of the column was believed to be returning but ‘its whereabouts was unknown.’
Leslie had little choice but to continue with the entrainment of the Royal Irish Rifles in the hope that these reinforcements might yet do something to obviate the ‘disaster’. So at 11.30 a.m. the train carrying the Irish Rifles, accompanied by Leslie himself, left Diwaniyya station, arriving at Hilla at 6.00 that Sunday evening.
At Hilla Leslie found ‘everybody in a state of the utmost gloom’. And to his amazement, instead of retiring to Baghdad as Leslie had ordered, General Wauchope was still in situ, having decided, on his own account, to stay on to ‘advise’ his replacement Colonel Lukin. Not surprisingly, the scant information being received as regards the fate of the Manchester Column had more or less unhinged him. ‘General Wauchope is almost a gibbering lunatic,’ Leslie later informed his wife and immediately packed the unfortunate brigadier off to Baghdad.
Indeed, such was the ‘gloom’ at Hilla that Colonel Lukin – apparently aided and abetted by Wauchope – had begun to turn two large buildings in the town into a fortified position from which to make a ‘last stand’. Leslie at once put a stop to this and, going round the outskirts of the town, he selected the best spots for piquets, had them manned and put what Arab levies were available into the most easily defended ones. The remnants of the Manchester Column were placed on the least exposed side of the town and a general night-time curfew imposed on the town’s residents.
And as this most depressing Sunday wore on, an account – albeit a very provisional one – of what had happened to the Manchester Column began to emerge. Writing from Hilla in the evening, Leslie described how he intended to set up a court of inquiry into the affair but in the meantime his initial account of the debacle was as follows:
At 8.00 p.m. – i.e. after dark – the Officer Commanding took the fatal resolve to retire on Hilla. Some transport carts stampeded and panic set in. The Arabs closed right in on them and the withdrawal became very much disorganized. I understand that only one squadron of the 35th Horse and a portion of the Pioneers under their British officers continued to conduct an orderly rearguard action. I hear, but don’t yet believe, that the men of the Manchester Regiment never recovered the panic. The gunners behaved well, firing their guns at ranges of 80 yards or so. The Arabs got amongst some of the teams stabbing the horses with daggers. They had one gun out of six hopelessly over-turned in a large water channel and it had to be abandoned after the breech block and sights were removed. They also had to abandon some ammunition wagons. The cavalry lost very few men, the Pioneers had 24 missing and 6 wounded out of 141, but the Manchesters account for only about a dozen known killed or rather less wounded, but have nearly 200 missing! They also lost practically all their Lewis guns. It looks bad for them, but one must await the enquiry … A very bad show of which I do not see the end …
In fact, as we have seen, some of the Manchesters did put up a strong fight, but overall Leslie’s initial views as to the extent of the defeat were largely borne out by the final tally of casualties. The disastrous night action south of Hilla cost the British 178 killed or missing, 150 captured and 60 wounded – a loss of 388 from a total of around 800 men. In addition, considerable amounts of ammunition and an 18-pounder field gun were captured by the insurgents. The loss of the field gun was to have further unfortunate consequences.
It didn’t take long before news of the rout of the Manchester Column, and in particular the capture of so many British infantry by the rebels, spread throughout the country. Indeed, it reached the coffee houses and mosques of Baghdad almost as soon as it reached the British GHQ, via the occupiers’ own telegraph and telephone system. So panicked were the military authorities in Hilla that they failed to take the elementary precaution of transmitting news of the disaster in code. Since there were many sympathisers and supporters of the insurgency working in the British telegraph and telephone offices, tales of the British mishap – some of them wildly exaggerated – were already sweeping through the narrow streets of the old city by the Sunday afternoon.
Gertrude Bell apparently did not hear about the incident until she arrived at work the following morning. In a letter to her father dated 26 July she begins with some private family matters after which she describes how, ‘Things have moved a little since I wrote last week. We have relieved Rumaytha and at the same time our own minds, for the couple of hundred people who had been shut up there for 3 weeks were a great anxiety.’
But then, after discussing the political situation in Baghdad, the letter continues,
The above was written before breakfast. When I got to the office I found that the whole complexion on the Euphrates had changed. All the tribes are out … Whether we can hold Hillah or not I don’t know … But it’s a bad business. The military authorities seem to me all through to have been more inept than it’s possible to conceive. The crowning scandal was the despatch two days ago of a battalion of the Manchesters from Hillah to Kifl. They were ordered to leave at 4 am and left at 10, with one day’s rations and water bottles. You remember that hot and barren road? Think of marching down it in July at midday! 17 miles out of Hillah they were dropping about with heat stroke. The tribes attacked – not viciously, I gather, but it was more than enough for the Manchesters, for there wasn’t a kick left in them. The tribes carried off the artillery and ammunition they were convoying down to Kifl … I believe there are more troops coming from India but unless they send a new higher Command with them, I think they may easily send 20 divisions in vain.
Inept or not, on receiving news of the Manchester Column disaster, any reluctance that General Haldane felt with regard to requests for reinforcements evaporated entirely. However, so far, both Haldane and Wilson had contrived to confuse the War Office as to exactly what reinforcements were required. On 18 July, the day after Churchill announced to the cabinet that, in response to General Haldane’s request, an additional full division was being mobilised to reinforce the beleaguered garrison in Iraq, a bemused War Office received a telegram from GHQ Baghdad informing them that they should postpone the dispatch of any more units, except the one brigade which Haldane had originally requested on 8 July. Given that on 18 July the battle for Rumaytha was still in the balance, Haldane’s apparent willingness to postpone substantial reinforcements – in his own words ‘from motives of economy’ – must have seemed inopportune to say the least; and to complicate matters further, the following day, Wilson (as usual ignoring instructions to refrain from commenting on purely military matters) offered his opinion that there was no need for any additional units – what was needed was to bring all the existing units up to strength. While that observation may have had some merit, its impact at the War Office merely added to the general state of confusion. Five days later, any clarity about reinforcements for Iraq further dissolved when Haldane telegrammed the War Office asking that ‘divisional staff and ancillary services’ should be sent ‘at the earliest opportunity’ from which it was inferred that, after all, Haldane was still expecting ‘the remainder of the division at an early date’.
Meanwhile, on 21 July, the cabinet had been informed of the military action on the road to Rumaytha. ‘The fighting was severe’, it was recorded, ‘but our attack was successful and a counter-attack by the enemy after dark was beaten off.’ After which the cabinet, seemingly reassured that matters in Iraq were not quite so bad as they had expected, moved on to grapple with the host of other problems with which they had been struggling with since the end of the war – the ‘Bolshevik threat’, Poland, the Irish rebellion, Egypt, strikes etc. etc. And in spite of Churchill’s fierce admonition to the contrary, no decision was taken about the withdrawal of British troops from Persia to support the counter-insurgency campaign on the Euphrates. Then, on 26 July, in the aftermath of the Manchester Column disaster, Haldane requested not one, but two divisions of reinforcements.
Replying two days later, Churchill informed Haldane that ‘the provision of any such [second] division is extremely problematical and that as regards Ordnance and Royal Army Service Corps personnel we are at the end of our resources’, to which he added, more in hope than expectation, that Haldane should consult with the civil commissioner, and decide ‘a definite course of policy’ but one which would bear in mind the limitation of Britain’s military resources.
Whilst your difficulties in the situation are fully appreciated, we think that it should be possible for the civil and military authorities on the spot to arrive at an agreed appreciation of the political situation on which you can estimate your military requirements and formulate a definite military policy, including the number of days supply reserves considered essential.
What Churchill apparently did not understand was that ‘an agreed appreciation’ between Haldane and Wilson was simply not possible: these two men had fundamentally different objectives. As the insurgency gained momentum, Wilson’s main preoccupation was, more than ever before, the safety of his ‘young men’, scattered all over the country, facing a very real threat of capture or murder. To counter this threat Wilson believed that the army should be deployed so as to provide as much protection to his young POs as possible. Haldane, on the other hand, was increasingly worried by his lack of any reserve with which to counter a really serious threat – for example a coordinated attack on Baghdad itself. Indeed, in the telegram of 28 July, Churchill had explicitly ordered him to hold ‘some reserve in your own hand over and above the troops necessary to meet your visible military requirements at any one time’, until more troops arrived from India. The only way Haldane could do this was by withdrawing outlying units and concentrating his forces nearer to the capital while at the same time refraining from responding to each and every request for support from the Civil Administration. A fortnight after receiving Churchill’s response to his request for further reinforcements, Haldane therefore issued the following instructions to his officers.
Responsibility of Officers.
On two recent occasions on the advice or recommendation of a political officer, risks quite unwarrantable from a military point of view have been taken by officers in command of troops. Unfortunate results have followed …
Having described these ‘unfortunate results’ as involving both losses of men and equipment but also contributing to the spread of the insurrection, the GOC-in-chief,
impresses on all officers in command of troops the responsibility which they incur should they act in a manner not strictly in accordance with sound military principles, more especially in a country such as Mesopotamia where the climate is in itself our greatest enemy. Political like other information is often untrustworthy and must not be blindly accepted; and to keep his Division quiet at all costs is with the political officer a natural and paramount instinct.
General Haldane, however, was making it abundantly clear to his officers that no such ‘instincts’ should be countenanced.
The G.O.C.-in Chief does not wish in any way to cramp the initiative of officers but there is a wide distinction between initiative and rashness. The present situation is such that the least set-back must have harmful results and it is every officer’s duty to reflect before acting and realise how great a responsibility he accepts if he is not certain in his own mind that he can fully justify his action.
Haldane could not have made it clearer. Henceforth Wilson’s ‘young men’ were going to be left to fend for themselves until victory over the rebels was in sight. After such an injunction no officer who cared for his military career was going to send troops to the aid of POs unless explicitly ordered to do so by the GOC-in-chief himself. To Wilson, the order was little more than a death sentence for some of those under his command and for whom he had the deepest respect and affection.
And among those to whom General Haldane’s order was addressed there were some army officers who would have been equally unhappy with the wording of the order. It contained strong implications – indeed virtually accusations – that one or other senior officer had indeed, been taking ‘risks quite unwarrantable from a military point’ and behaving in a manner ‘not strictly in accordance with sound military principles’. Major General Leslie, for one, would have bitterly resented these words because from the testy encounters with his commanding officer which he had already experienced, he had a strong impression that Haldane was in some way pointing the finger of blame at him for the setbacks of the past few days. For his part, Leslie had taken to referring dismissively to his commander-in-chief as ‘the early-Victorian baronet’.
Meanwhile, official opinion fluctuated wildly as to the advisability of withdrawing from the Mosul vilayet in order to concentrate British forces in the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra and hopefully forestall any further catastrophes like the Manchester Column debacle. However, in a telegram of 24 July Sir Percy Cox, recently arrived in Britain to brief the cabinet, weighed in with his own views on the matter. ‘I can only contemplate with the greatest dismay the suggestion that we should withdraw from Mosul,’ he stated. Apart from the impact upon ‘our prestige throughout Mesopotamia’,
I regard the maintenance of our position in Mesopotamia as a factor of enormous importance to our general interests in the Middle East and India. From an economic point of view I think it is common knowledge that the possibilities of Mesopotamia in oil, cotton and wheat make it a great country of promise … Oil is of course, an uncertain quantity but the prospect is at any rate sufficient to attract to Mesopotamia the interest and capital of very large concerns.
And he continued by pointing out the key importance of holding on to Basra (control of which would be threatened by any withdrawal from more northern parts of Iraq).
We have previously considered the control of the port of Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf to be most important for the strength of our position in those waters. It is especially so now a days in view of our large vested interested in Abadan and in the oil of Arabistan; but its value would be entirely vitiated were Baghdad in the hands of a hostile Power.