A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Battle of Shaiba, Iraq, April 12-14, 1915

As we move through April, we'll be marking several centennials of developments in the Middle East in World War I during April 1915, including the beginnings of the Armenian tragedy and the landings at Gallipoli. April 12-14 marks the Battle of Shaiba in southern Iraq, a British victory which led to a Turkish withdrawal from the Basra front and an end to the last effort to retake Basra. But it also led to a British decision (unwise, as it would prove at Kut to advance deep into Iraq in the direction of Baghdad.
Gen. Sir Arthur Barrett
Last November I discussed the operations leading to the Basra campaign and the fall of Basra itself, but haven't returned to the Mesopotamian theater of operations since. In December the British had taken Qurna, and settled in, their primary mission having been to protect the refineries at Abadan and the port of Basra. At Qurna, they captured the local Ottoman commander, Subhi Bey.

Süleyman Askeri Bey (Turkish Wikipedia)
On January 2, Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha named a new area commander in  southern Iraq, Süleyman Askeri Bey, a colonel with ties to the Young Turks, himself the son of a general, born in Kosovo, he had served against the Italians in Libya. The main Ottoman headquarters under Khalil Pasha was far away in Baghdad.

The overall commander of British forces in the area was General Sir John Barrett with the 6th Poona Division.

Süleyman Askeri decided to attempt to retake Basra by an end run to the west, through a British position at Shaiba fort, where about 7,000 men under Brigadier General C.I. Fry with the 18th Indian Infantry Brigade was stationed.

Shaiba Fort and British Camp, 1915
The British were encamped with about 7,000 Indian Army troops around the old fort. But spring floods in the lowlands had flooded much of the ground between Basra and Shaiba, making communications difficult, The Ottoman force gambled that this would work to their advantage. But the British camp was surrounded by barbed wire, and while Süleyman Askeri nominally had some 18,000 men, only 4,000 were Ottoman regulars, including the elite Constantinople Fire Brigade Regiment; the remainder were Arab irregulars, mainly local tribesmen.

Mesopotamia 1915 (West Point)
The idea of striking the British from the flank might have made sense if he had a stronger, more professional force, but the Ottoman troops in southern Iraq were dispersed, with some holding the Qurna front and others trying to cut through Iranian territory towards Abadan.

Once it became obvious that there was a threat to Shaiba, the second in command of the 6th Poona Division, Major General Charles Melliss was sent to reinforce Fry at Shaiba. Defeated by the flooded ground, he returned to Basra and eventually reached Shaiba by boat. Melliss was the ranking officer on the scene and took command,

Gen. Fry and Staff
The Ottoman attack began with an assault on the camp on April 12, but after considerable fighting failed. On the 13th the Ottoman forces pulled back to the cover of a nearby wood, but sought to use their Arab irregulars to bypass Shaiba. Melliss, by now on the scene, sent the 7th Hariana Lancers out, but the cavalry unit was badly beaten by the irregulars;  and the 104th Wellesley's Rifles did little better.
Gen Charles Melliss
But the tide turned when Melliss ordered the 2nd Dorsetshire Regiment and the 24th Punjabi Regiment against the Arab irregulars. this time they captured 400 and dispersed the rest. The Arab irregulars faded away.

That left the Ottoman regular forces. On the morning of the 14th it was discovered they had withdrawn to the nearby Barjisiyya woods. Fighting lasted from midmorning until 5 pm. As things seemed desperate and the British artillery was running out of shells, the 2nd Dorsets lunched a bayonet charge and carried the Turkish position. The Ottomans retreated upriver, never to threaten Basra again.

But the British learned the wrong lesson. Convinced the Turks were poorly organized, they decided to advance up the rivers and try to take Baghdad. General Sir John Nixon  took command of a reinforced force in Mesopotamia, and General Sir Arthur Barrett yielded command of the 6th (Poona) Division to General Charles Vere Townshend, who would soon make a name for himself. Unfortunately that name would be Townshend of Kut the man who surrendered more British Empire troops than anyone else up to that time.

A couple of key links:

There's a great collection of photos from Shaiba at this site honoring the Indian Army.

The Indian Army report can be found as"Report on the Operations in the Vicinity of Shaiba 12th-14th April 1915. Simla: General Staff India, 1915," at the  Qatar Digital Archive. The detailed maps unfortunately do not reproduce well,

No comments: