A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, November 6, 2014

First Fights on the Road to Basra, November 6-12, 1914

As i mentioned earlier in my posting of Kipling's "Mesopotamia," Britain's long and agonizing campaign in Mesopotamia (Iraq "Mespot" to the soldiers who fought there) began 100 years ago today.

Walter S. Delamain
I have already noted how even before hostilities began, Britain had dispatched Indian expeditionary Force "D" to the northern Gulf, consisting of the 16th Brigade of the Indian Army 6th (Poona) Division, commanded by Brigadier Walter S. Delamain, to the Gulf, ostensibly to protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company's refineries at Abadan, which were Persian territory but under an informal protectorate by Britain under an understanding with the local ruler of Muhammara (Khorramshahr), Sheikh Khaz‘al.

I've also noted that even before the British declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire on November 5, 1914, the British were moving, declaring martial law in Egypt on November 2 and bombarding the Turkish forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles on November 3. Those were the first British shots fired at Turkey (the Russians, who declared war three days earlier, were already inside Turkish territory in the Caucasus; I'll be discussing that soon.)

Fao to Basra, 1914
Delamain's 16th Brigade had been kept at Bahrain until war became imminent, but on November 3 proceeded to the mouth of the Shatt al-‘Arab its mission expended from protecting Abadan to seizing Basra to guarantee the security of Abadan. They spent the next days clearing mines at the mouth of the Shatt. Once the formal declaration of war came on the 5th, they entered the Shatt. The next day, hostilities began.

HMS Espiegle
I have already mentioned HMS Espiegle, the British armed sloop deployed in the Shatt to defend Abadan despite Turkish threats to fire on her. Once IEF Force "D" had crossed the bar, Ottoman troops opposite Abadan opened fire on Espiegle,  which returned fire to protect the refinery. She soon silenced the Turkish guns, with only two wounded British soldiers as casualties. Turkish losses in the exchange are unclear.

On that same November 6 a century ago, Delamain landed  a small force on the Fao Peninsula, to suppress the guns at and around the fort at Fao. This first British landing force  to set foot on Ottoman territory consisted of about 600 men, including one company each from the 2nd Dorsets (2nd Battalion, Dorsetshire Infantry), the 20th Punjabis (20th Duke of Cambridge's Own Infantry/"Brownlow's Punjabis"), and the 117th Mahrattas, along with some Royal Marines from the HMS Ocean, the only British battleship present but with too deep a draft to enter the Shatt, and at least two mountain guns. They landed a few miles north of the Turkish fort on the morning of the 6th, The small Turkish force put up some resistance and held out until the British brought up heavier artillery; the last resistance surrendered on November 8.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the landing force headed for Sanniyeh (Saniyya), more or less opposite the Abadan refinery (see map above). They encountered multiple problems: a lack of docking facilities, marshy ground, high winds, and no true landing craft, and it took two days, November 8-10, to land the troops. Fortunately they met no immediate resistance. The bulk of the Turkish forces in the region were in Basra, mostly scattered battalions from various regiments; this would soon change.

Gen. Sir Arthur Barrett
Delamain's orders were to take position and await the arrival of the 18th Brigade under the overall commander of the 6th (Poona) Division, General Sir Arthur Barrett, could arrive. But the Sheikh of Muhammara informed the British that a force of Turkish troops from Basra (usually reported as about 600 strong) was planning to attack the camp at dawn on November 11, the day after the landings were complete. With this warning and with further intelligence from the Sheikh that the Turks began moving at 3 AM, Delamain was ready and when the attack acme at 5:30 AM, the attackers were repulsed.

On the 12th, Barrett arrived in the gulf with another of Force "D"'s brigades, the 18th, and elements of the 6th Division divisional troops; on the 14th he took command, and Delamain resumed command of the 16th Brigade.

The first week of the Mesopotamian campaign had reinforced every stereotype the British held about the "Sick Man," the Ottoman Empire, and about "the East" in general (though the bulk of their troops were Indian Army). The Ottomans were unprepared to defend Basra and it, too, would soon fall, leading the British to assume it would be relatively easy to go on to Baghdad. (Do the British use the term "cakewalk?" Did they in 1914?) But they would find that Kut lay on the road to Baghdad.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Worth remembering that Turks, British and Indians were the principal military forces in 1914. Iraqis and Iranians were the contending forces a half century later. For better or worse, they now own these disputes.