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Campaign in Mesopotamia

( Originally Published 1918 )



IN our previous discussion of the British campaign in Mesopotamia we left the British forces intrenched at Kurna, and also occupying Basra, the port of Bagdad. The object of the Mesopotamia Expedition was primarily to keep the enemy from the shores of the Gulf of Persia. If the English had been satisfied with that, the misfortune which was to come to them might never have occurred, but the whole expedition was essentially political rather than military in its nature.

The British were defending India. The Germans, unable to attack the British Empire by sea, were hoping to attack her by land. They had already attempted to stir up a Holy War with the full expectation that it would lead to an Indian revolution. In this they had failed, for the millions of Mohammedans in India cared little for the Turkish Sultan or his proclamations. Through Bagdad, however, they hoped to strike a blow at the English influence on the Persian Gulf. The English, therefore, felt strongly that it was not enough to sit safely astride the Tigris, but that a blow at Bagdad would produce a tremendous political effect. It would practically prevent German communication with Persia, and the Indian frontier.

As a matter of fact the Persian Gulf and the oil fields were safe so long as the English held Kurna and Basra, and the Arabs were of no special consequence. The real reason for the expedition was probably that about this time matters were moving badly for the Allies. Serbia was in trouble in the Balkans, Gallipoli was a failure, something it seemed ought to be done to restore the British prestige. Up to this time the Mesopotamia Expedition had been a great success, but it had made no great impression on the world. The little villages in the hands of the British had unknown names, but if Bagdad should be captured Great Britan would have something to boast of ; some-thing that would keep up its prestige among its Mohammedan subjects.

Before the expedition to Bagdad was determined on, there had been several lively fights between the English forces and the Turks. On March 3d a Turkish force numbering about twelve thousand appeared at Ahwaz where the British had placed a small garrison to protect the pipe line of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The British retirement led to heavy fighting, with severe losses.

A number of lively skirmishes followed, and then came the serious attack against Shaiba. The Turkish army numbered about eighteen thousand men, of whom eleven thousand were regulars. The fighting lasted for several days, the Turks being reinforced. On the 14th of April, however, the English attacked in turn and put the whole enemy force to flight. The British lost about seven hundred officers and men, and reported a Turkish loss of about six thousand. In their retreat the Turks were attacked by their Arab allies, and suffered additional losses. From that time till summer there were no serious contests, although there were occasional skirmishes which turned out favorably to the British.

By this time the Turks had collected a considerable army north of Kurna, and on May 31st an expedition was made to disperse it. On June 3d the British captured Amara, seventy-five miles above Kurna, scattering the Turkish army. Early in July a similar expedition was sent against Nasiriyeh, which Ied to serious fighting, the Turks being badly defeated with a loss of over two thousand five hundred men.

Kut-el-Amara still remained, and early in August an expedtion was directed against that point. The Turks were found in great force, well intrenched, and directed by German officers. The battle lasted for four days. The English suffered great hardship on account of the scarcity of water and the blinding heat, but on September 29th they drove the enemy from the city and took possession. More than two thousand prisoners were taken. The town was found thoroughly fortified, with an elaborate system of trenches extending for miles, built in the true German fashion. Its capture was the end of the summer campaign.

The British now had at last made up their minds to push on to Bagdad. General Townshend, whose work so far had been admirable, protested, but Sir John Dixon, and the Indian military authorities, were strongly in favor of the expedition. By October, Turkey was Ale to gather a large army. She was fighting in Transcaucasia, Egypt, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Little was going on in the first three of these fronts, and she was able therefore to send to Mesopotamia almost a quarter of a million men.

To meet these, General Townshend had barely fifteen, thousand men, of whom only one third were white soldiers. He was backed by a flotilla of boats of almost every kind,óriver boats, motor launches, paddle steamers, native punts. The British army was almost worn out by the fighting during the intense heat of " the previous summer,. But their success had given them confidence.

In the early days of October the advance began. For some days it proceeded with no serious fighting. On the 23d of October it reached Azizie, and was halted by a Turkish force numbering about four thousand. These were soon routed, and the advance continued until General Townshend arrived at Lajj, about seven miles from Ctesiphon, where the Turks were found heavily intrenched and in great numbers. Ctesiphon was a famous old city which had been the battle ground of Romans and Parthians, but was now mainly ruins. In these ruins, however, the Turks found admirable shelter for nests of machine guns. On the 21st of November General Townshend made his attack.

The Turks occupied two lines of intrenchments, and had about twenty thousand men, the English about twelve thousand. General Townshend's plan was to divide his army into three columns. The first was to attack the center of the first Turkish position. A second was directed at the left of that position, and a third was to swing widely around and come in on the rear of the Turkish force. This plan was entirely successful, but the Turkish army was not routed, and retreated fighting desperately to its second line. There it was reinforced and counter-attacked with such vigor that it drove the British back to its old first trenches. The next day the Turks were further reinforced and attacked again. The British drove them back over and over, but found themselves unable to advance. The Turks had lost enormously but the English bad lost about one-third of their strength, and were compelled to fall back. They therefore returned on the 26th to Laj j, and ultimately, after continual rear guard actions, to Kut. There they found themselves surrounded, and there was nothing to do but to wait for help.

By this time the eyes of the world were upon the beleaguered British army. Help was being hurried to them from India, but Germany also was awake and Marshal von Der Goltz, who had been military instructor in the Turkish army, was sent down to take command of the Turkish forces. The town of Kut lies in the loop of the Tigris, making it almost an island. There was an intrenched line across the neck of land on the north, and the place could resist any ordinary assault. The great difficulty was one of supplies. However, as the relieving force was on the way, no great anxiety was felt. For some days there was constant bombardment, which did no great damage. On the 23d an attempt was made to carry the place by assault, but this too failed. The relieving force, however, was having its troubles. These were the days of floods, and progress was slow and at times almost impossible. Moreover, the Turks were constantly resisting.

The relief expedition was composed of thirty thousand Indian troops, two Anglo-Indian di-visions, and the remnants of Townshend's expedition, a total of about ninety thousand men. General Sir Percy Lake was in command of the entire force. The march began on January 6th. By January 8th the British had reached Sheikh Saad, where the Turks were defeated in two pitched battles. On January 22d he had arrived at `Umm-el-Hanna, where the Turks had intrenched themselves.

After artillery bombardment the Turkish positions were attacked, but heavy rains had converted the ground into a sea of mud, rendering rapid movement impossible. The enemy's fire was heavy and effective, inflicting severe losses, and though every effort was made, the assault failed.

For days the British troops bivouacked in driving rain on soaked and sodden ground.

Three times they were called upon to advance over a perfectly flat country, deep in mud, and absolutely devoid of cover against well-constructed and well-planned trenches, manned by a brave and stubborn enemy, approximately their equal in numbers. They showed a spirit of endurance and self-sacrifice of which their country may well be proud.

But the repulse at Hanna did not discourage the British army. It was decided to move up the left bank of the Tigris and attack the Turkish position at the Dujailah redoubt. This meant a night march across the desert with great danger that there would be no water supply and that, unless the enemy was routed, the army would be in great danger.

General Lake says: "On the afternoon of March 7th, General Aylmer assembled his sub-ordinate commanders and gave his final instructions, laying particular stress on the fact that the operation was designed to effect a surprise, and that to prevent the enemy forestalling us, it was essential that the first phase of the operation should be pushed through with the utmost vigor. His dispositions were, briefly, as follows: The greater part of a division under General Younghusband, assisted by naval gunboats, controlled the enemy on the left bank. The remaining troops were formed into two columns, under General Kemball and General Keary respectively, a reserve of infantry, and the cavalry brigade, being held at the Corps Commander's own disposal. Kemball's column covered on the outer flank by the cavalry brigade was to make a turning movement to attack the Dujailah redoubt from the south, supported by the remainder of the force, operating from a position to the east of the re-doubt. The night march by this large force, which led across the enemy's front to a position ,on his right flank, was a difficult operation, en-tailing movement over unknown ground, and requiring most careful arrangement to attain success."

Thanks to excellent staff work and good march discipline the troops reached their al-lotted position apparently undiscovered by the enemy, but while Keary's column was in position at daybreak, ready to support Kemball's attack, the latter's command did not reach the point selected for its deployment in the Dujailah depression until more than an hour later. This delay was highly prejudicial to the success of the operation.

When, nearly three hours later, Kemball's troops advanced to the attack, they were strongly opposed by the enemy from trenches cleverly concealed in the brushwood, and were unable to make further ground for some time, though assisted by Keary's attack upon the redoubt from the east. The southern attack was now reinforced, and by 1 P. M. had pushed forward to within five hundred yards of the re-doubt, but concealed trenches again stopped further progress and the Turks made several counter-attacks with reinforcements which had by now arrived from the direction of Magasis:

It was about this time that the Corps Commander received from his engineer officers the unwelcome news that the water supply contained in rain-water pools and in Du j ailah depression, upon which he had reckoned, was in sufficient and could not be increased by digging. It was clear, therefore, that unless the Dujailah redoubt could be carried that day the scarcity of water would, of itself, compel the troops to fall back. Preparations were accordingly made for a further assault on the re-doubt, and attacks were launched from the south and east under cover of a heavy bombardment.

The attacking forces succeeded in gaining a foothold in the redoubt. But here they were heavily counter-attacked by large enemy reinforcements, and being subjected to an extremely rapid and accurate shrapnel fire from concealed guns in the vicinity of Sinn After, they were forced to fall back to the position from which they started. The troops who had been under arms for some thirty hours, including a long night march, were now much exhausted, and General Aylmer considered that a renewal of the assault during the night could not be made with any prospect of success. Next morning the enemy's position was found to be unchanged and General Aylmer, finding himself faced with the deficiency of order al-ready referred to, decided upon the immediate withdrawal of his troops to Wadi, which was reached the same night.

For the next month the English were held in their positions by the Tigris floods. On April 4th the floods had sufficiently receded to permit of another attack upon Umm-el-Hanna, which this time was successful. On April 8th the Turkish position at Sanna-i-yat was attacked, but the English were repulsed. They then determined to make another at-tempt to capture the Sinn After redoubt. On April 17th the fort of Beit-Aiessa, four miles from Es Sinn, on the left bank, was captured after heavy bombardment, and held against serious counter-attacks. On the 20th and 21st the Sanna-i-yat position was bombarded and a vigorous assault was made, which met with some success. The Turks, however, delivered a strong counter-attack, and succeeded in forcing the British troops back.

General Lake says : "Persistent and repeated attempts on both banks have thus failed, and it was known that at the outside not more than six days' supplies remained to the Kut garrison. The British troops were nearly worn out. The same troops had advanced time and again to assault positions strong by art and held by a determined enemy. For eighteen consecutive days they had done all that men could do to overcome, not only the enemy, but also exceptional climatic and physical obstacles, and this on a scale of rations which was far from being sufficient in view of the exertions they had undergone, but which the shortage of river transports, had made it impossible to augment. The need for rest was imperative."

On April 28th the British garrison at Kutel-Amara surrendered unconditionally, after a heroic resistance of a hundred and forty-three days. According to British figures the surrendered army was composed of 2,970 English and 6,000 Indian troops. The Turkish figures are 13,300. The Turks also captured a large amount of booty, although General Townshend destroyed most of his guns and munitions.

During the period in which Kut-el-Amara was besieged by the Turks, the British troops had suffered much. The enemy bombarded the town almost every day, but did little damage. The real foe was starvation. At first the British were confident that a relief expedition would soon reach them, and they amused themselves by cricket and hockey and fishing in the river. By early February, however, it was found necessary to reduce the rations, and a month later they were suffering from hunger. Some little help was given them by airplanes, which brought tobacco and some small quantities of supplies. Soon the horses and the mules were slaughtered and eaten. As time went on the situation grew desperate; till almost the end, however, they did not lose hope. Through the wireless they were informed about the progress of the relief expeditions and had even heard their guns in the distance. They gradually grew, however, weaker and weaker, so that on the surrender the troops in the first lines were too weak to march back with their kits.

The Turks treated the prisoners in a chivalric manner; food and tobacco was at once distributed, and all were interned in Anatolia, except General Townshend and his staff, who were taken to Constantinople. Later on it was General Townshend who was to have the honor of carrying the Turkish plea for an armistice in the closing days of the war.

The surrender of Kut created a world-wide sensation. The loss of eight thousand troops was, of course, not a serious matter, and the road to India was still barred, but the moral effect was most unfortunate. That the great British nation, whose power had been so respected in the Orient, should now be forced to yield, was a great blow to its prestige. In England, of course, there was a flood of criticism. It was very plain that a mistake had been made. A commission was appointed to inquire into the whole business. This committee reported to Parliament on June 26, 1917, and the report created a great sensation. The substance of the report was, that while the expedition was justifiable from a political point of view, it was undertaken with insufficient forces and inadequate preparation, and it sharply criticized those that were responsible.

It seems plain that the military authorities in India underestimated their opponent. The report especially criticized General Sir John Eccles Nixon, the former commander of the British forces in Mesopotamia, who had urged the expedition, in spite of the objection of General Townshend. Others sharing the blame were the Viceroy of India, Baron Hardinge, General Sir Beauchamp Duff, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in India, and, in England, Major-General Sir Edmund Barrow, Military Secretary of the India office, J. Austin Chamberlain, Secretary for India, and the War Committee of the Cabinet. According to the report, beside the losses incurred by the surrender more than twenty-three thousand men were lost in the relieving expedition. The general armament and equipment were declared to be not only insufficient, but not up to the standard.

In consequence of this report Mr. Chamber-lain resigned as secretary for India. In the House of Commons, Mr. Balfour, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, supported Lord Hardinge, who, at the time of the report, was Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He declared the criticism of Baron Hardinge to be grossly unjust. After some discussion the House of Commons supported Mr. Balfour's refusal to accept Baron Hardinge's resignation, by a vote of 176 to 81. It seems to be agreed that the civil administration of India were not responsible for the blunders of the expedition. Ten years before, Lord Kitchener, after a bit-ter controversy with Lord Curzon, had made the military side of the Indian Government free of all civilian criticism and control. The blunders here were military blunders.

The English, of course, were not satisfied to leave the situation in such a condition, and at once began their plans for a new attempt to capture Bagdad. The summer campaign, however, was uneventful, though on May 18th a band of Cossacks from the Russian armies in Persia joined the British camp. A few days afterwards the British army went up the Tigris and captured the Du j ailah redoubt, where they had been so badly defeated on the 8th of March. They then approached close to Kut, but the weather was unsuitable, and there was now no object in capturing the city.

In August Sir Percy Lake was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, who carefully and thoroughly proceeded to prepare for an expedition which should capture Bagdad. A dispatch from General Maude dated July 10, 1917, gives a full account of this expedition. It was thoroughly successful. This time with a sufficient army and a thorough equipment the British found no difficulties, and on February 26th they captured Kut-el-Amara, not after a hard-fought battle, but as the result of a successful series of small engagements. The Turks kept up a steady resistance, but the British blood was up. They were remembering General Townshend's surrender, and the Turks were driven before them in great confusion.

The capture of Kut, however, was not an object in itself, and the British pushed steadily on up the Tigris. The Turks occasionally made a stand, but without effect. On the 28th of February the English had arrived at Azizie, half way to Bagdad, where a halt was made. On the 5th of March the advance was renewed. The Ctesiphon position, which had defied General Townshend, was found to be strongly entrenched, but empty. On March 7th the enemy made a stand on the River Diala, which enters the Tigris eight miles below Bagdad. Some lively fighting followed, the enemy resisting four attempts to cross the Diala. However, on March loth the British forces crossed, and were now close to Bagdad. The enemy suddenly retired and the British troops found that their main opponent was a dust storm. The enemy retired beyond Bagdad, and on March 11th the city was occupied by the English.

The fall of Bagdad was an important event. It cheered the Allies, and proved, especially to the Oriental world, the power of the British army. Those who originally planned its capture had been right, but those who were to carry out the plan had not done their duty. Under General Maude it was a comparatively simple operation, though full of admirable details, and it produced all the good effects expected. The British, of course, did not stop at Bagdad. The city itself is not of strategic importance. The surrounding towns were occupied and an endeavor was made to conciliate the inhabitants. The real object of the expedition was attained.



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