The Destruction of the Manchester Column II

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The Destruction of the Manchester Column II

General Aylmer Haldane, British Commander-in-Chief in Iraq, 1921


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

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

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.

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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