A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Remembering "Mespot" and an Earlier Military Disaster in Iraq: The Surrender of Kut, 1916, Part I

Note: This is Part I of what will be (at least) a three part post.

Those who do not remember history, it is said, are condemned to repeat it. With Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and various Kagans telling us why we need boots on the ground, many seem to assume Americans have severe short-term memory loss. One of the big mistakes in the Iraq war was the lack of understanding of Iraq's history. In early 2003, I spoke to a senior Pentagon planner and remarked that if we went in, I hope we didn't make the kind of mistakes that Britain made in 1920. This senior Pentagon official, just weeks before the war started, asked me what had happened in 1920.

I suppose he found out eventually: a widespread insurgency against the occupier, just like happened to us, and in many of the same places.

But 1920 was not Britain's worst moment in the Middle East. Kut was. It was to remain the largest surrender of British Empire troops in history, 12,000, until the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. (For US readers: Cornwallis had 9,000 at Yorktown.) And it was the Ottoman Army, long derided as corrupt and untrained, representing the "Sick Man of Europe," that took their surrender. (Though earlier in 1915, those perceptions began to change, at least to those British and Anzac troops stuck in Gallipoli.)

The whole Mesopotamian Theater of Operations acquired the soldiers' nickname "Mespot," pronounced "mess pot," and a reminder of the usual perceptiveness of the ordinary infantryman.

There is a frequently quoted (though variously attributed) story of a dialogue by German or other generals about the British: "The British soldiers fight like lions." "Yes, but they are lions led by donkeys." When it comes to British generalship in Mesopotamia in 1915-16, that is a slur on a determined and reliable beast of burden. The main British general in question, Major General Sir Charles Townshend, managed to get his force totally surrounded and cut off, and a succession of other generals, one after the other, failed to relieve him. The story is largely forgotten, but the surrender was a huge defeat, and though Townshend himself would sit out the war in a nice Turkish villa and his officers were also well attended to in captivity, the Indian enlisted men died in huge numbers in less well-appointed Turkish prisons, often of starvation.There are even some celebrity cameos, including T.E. Lawrence (not yet a celebrity and not yet "of Arabia"), as "the Negotiator."

Dramatis Personae

Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend came from a military and political family; his great-great-grandfather, George, First Marquess Townshend, had served in the Seven Years' War, was third under Wolfe at Quebec, and after Wolfe's death and Monckton's wounding, took command. He rose to the rank of Field Marshal. Apparently the Field Marshal gene didn't pass down. The younger Townshend's memoir of the war is even more divorced from other accounts than most generals' memoirs, which are always self-serving, but more about that anon.

When Turkey entered the war, the India Office felt that it would be wise to seize the oilfields north of Basra for the war effort. Led by the British Indian Army combined with the Royal Navy's dominance in Gulf and Indian waters, Britain moved to seize Basra and its oil-laden hinterland. It was, to use a term from a later era, a cakewalk.

Basra was taken in November 1914, less than a month after Turkey formally became a belligerent and six months before Gallipoli, and the largely absent Ottoman resistance led to overconfidence and, in time, what a future generation would call "mission creep."

Overlooking the fact that the Royal Navy could hardly operate in force on the Tigris and Euphrates, it was decided to use the Army to take Baghdad. It could have worked; British and Indian troops in the overall theater greatly outnumbered Ottoman; Turkey was preoccupied in Gallipoli, the Caucasus front with Russia, and Sinai-Palestine. But the Turks had interior lines of communication, some decent commanders and experienced troops, and, in this theater, General Feldmarschall Colmar Freiherr [Baron] von der Goltz (Goltz Pasha) of the German Army. Von der Goltz, who had trained the Ottoman Army since the 1870s, had been recalled from retirement at the beginning of the war, and sent to his old Ottoman turf. But he did not get on well with the head of Germany's Military Mission in Turkey, Gen. Liman von Sanders, and also was not a favorite of the Minister of War, Enver Pasha. Von der Goltz was accordingly stuck in what looked initially to be  backwater theater of the war, Mesopotamia.

Field Marshal von der Goltz
But whatever his flaws, Goltz was a Prussian Field Marshal who had joined the Prussian Army in 1861 (over 50 years before), served against Austria in 1866 and in the Franco-Prussian War, taught military history in the Prussian and later Imperial German military academy, and trained the Turkish Army during and after the Russo-Turkish war. And whatever Enver or Liman von Sanders may have thought of this 70-year-old man, a Prussian Field Marshal of the old school was still a Prussian Field Marshal of the old school.

Nureddin Pasha
From April 1915 the Ottoman military commander had been Nureddin Ibrahim Pasha (known as Nurettin Paşa in modern Turkish orthography), who took command of the Iraq Area Command when his predecessor committed suicide. A member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, the "Young Turks") and a multilingual figure with experience in the Arab provinces and a command of Arabic, he was the commander when Townshend began his advance.

Khalil Pasha
Nureddin Pasha's superior in Baghdad, and later successor at the front, was Khalil Pasha (later known as Halil Kut in modern Turkish, since he took his greatest victory as a surname).

An uncle of Enver Pasha, Khalil Pasha has also long been accused in complicity and active involvement in both the Armenian and Assyrian massacres. As governor of Baghdad Province and from April of 1916 commander of the Ottoman Sixth Army, he would be the man to accept Townshend's surrender. He would lead an interesting life in Moscow and Berlin until returning to Turkey after the Republic in 1923; he lived until 1957.

Gen. Sir John Nixon, upstaged by his hat
These were the frontline commanders. But Townshend's superiors were hardly Marlboroughs or Wellingtons either. Lieutenant General Sir John Eccles Nixon, Commander-in-Chief of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force, had gained most of his military experience in the Second Afghan War and other British Indian conflicts around the periphery of the Raj. His experience seems to be all colonial Indian, except for a cavalry command in the Second Boer War. He was not a match for a Prussian Field Marshal van der Goltz, even if Goltz was 70.

Nixon's first effort to relieve Townshend would be led by Sir Fenton John Aylmer, 13th Baronet of Donadea.

He had won the Victoria Cross in a local campaign in India and, as a baronet, obviously had clout in society. He was less impressive in he field, and was soon turned back by the Turks. (The details will be recounted in the future parts of this post.)
Lt. Gen Sir Percy Lake
After Aylmer's failure, Nixon himself was replaced with Lt. Gen. Sir Percy Lake, who had mostly colonial experience and had served as Chief of the Canadian General Staff, though not Canadian. His knighthood dated from early 1916 as he was being posted to save Townshend.

When Lake took command, he tried another relief mission: General George Gorringe replaced Aylmer, and had slightly more military success, but still failed to relieve Townshend. Gorringe may have been a better general, but he still fell short.

In the end, Townshend surrendered, and all these British generals were sacked, kicked upstairs, or otherwise shunted aside. General Maude, who both succeeded to authority and succeeded in the field, is a story for another day.

But while I've introduced the dramatis personae, I still need to tell the tale. Please stay tuned.

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