A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 2, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part I

It has been some time since we looked at the British campaign in Mesopotamia (Iraq) a century ago. But in the last days of September and first days of October 1915, or a century ago right now, the British government in London, the British government of India in its summer capital in Simla, and some of the commanders on the ground (not all) made a hasty decision that, over the six months that would follow, would lead to the surrender of a British Empire army. Even as Britain was realizing its failure at Gallipoli and preparing to withdraw its Australian, New Zealand, and British troops from that particular disaster, it was creating another along the Tigris. Gallipoli wasted lives and accomplished little, but the British were able to withdraw and evacuate in late 1915 and early 1916. But in Mesopotamia, or "Mespot" as the soldiers named it, they would blunder into a months-long siege and ultimately surrender an Army at Kut. In this current series I want to look at how the fateful decision to take Baghdad was made, largely on political grounds rather than military (in fact, the plan was to take Baghdad and then withdraw). I will leave it to your own conclusions what parallels might be drawn with later foreign decision making in Mesopotamia.

First we should review some of the background so far. Even before the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, Britain had determined to use Indian Army troops to protect the oilfields and refinery around Abadan in Iraq, and to do so, determined to take the port city of Basra in Ottoman territory.

For those wishing to refresh their memories, past blogposts on the beginnings of the campaign:

October 1914: Anglo-Ottoman Maneuvering in the Gulf, Part I

1914: Pre-War Maneuvering in the Gulf, Part II:Contesting the Shatt and the Dispatch of Force "D"

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

The British Take Basra, November 21-23, 1914

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

After each stage the British would test Ottoman defenses and move forward up the Tigris. further securing their Basra operational base. After Shaiba, the Ottoman leadership did not try to recapture Basra: the bulk of the Turkish fleet (and some German and Austrian vessels, were concentrated in the Mediterranean defending the Straits, or in the Black Sea against the Russians. British naval supremacy in the Gulf remained unchallenged. But as the British moved upriver, the big Royal Navy combatants could not follow, only riverboats. The original goal of securing Basra soon faded under the lure of Baghdad. (Remember the 1,001 Nights were widely read in 19th and early 20th century Britain.)

Dramatis Personae
Gen. Sir John Nixon, upstaged by his hat
In April of 1915, General Sir John Nixon had taken over as overall commander of the Mesopotamian campaign. An Indian Army officer and veteran of the small colonial wars of the Victorian era, Nixon was considered experienced, but not in wars against a major power.

The Ottoman commander on the Iraq front at this time was Nureddin Pasha (Nurettin Paşa). A member of the Committee on Union and Progress (the Young Turks) and a veteran of the occupation of Yemen and the Balkan Wars, he also took up his Iraq in April 1915 after his predecessor committed suicide.

Nureddin Pasha
Mesopotamia, particularly southern Mesopotamia, was not a priority for the Ottoman Minister of War, Enver Pasha. Constantinople itself was threatened by the Allied Forces at Gallipoli, and Russian troops were on Turkish soil on the Caucasus Front. Nureddin, who would later play a major role in the Turkish war of independence, was a fighter but the priority given to other fronts meant he lacked resources, particularly the farther he was from Baghdad.

General Nixon was the overall theater commander, but the commander of the army column advancing upriver was Major General Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, Commander of the 6th Indian Division, a veteran of war in Sudan (decorated at Omdurman), in India, and in the Boer War. In June his column had reached ‘Amara. In September the advance had been resumed.
 On September 28 1925 at Es-Sinn near Kut al-‘Amara on the Tigris, the British Indian Army defeated an Ottoman force and occupied Kut. I won't go into the tactical details of the battle here, which Wikipedia handles fairly well; on September 29, the expedition occupied Kut, a place that will forever be linked (and not in a good way), with Townshend's name.
The fall of Kut was not an unalloyed success. Though Nureddin had lost, he was able to retreat safely upriver to the ruins of Ctesiphon. Indian Army casualties had been higher than anticipated, supply lines from Basra were now stretched thin, as was medical support. But there was another temptation before Nixon and Townshend: Kut was only 100 miles downriver from Baghdad.

The Bulgarian Factor
In the debate about advancing further to Baghdad that was to follow, British and Indian government officials had to take into account some broader geopolitical and strategic factors.

After the failure of the Suvla landings and the August offensive in Gallipoli to make any progress off the beaches, it was obvious to most that the forces would eventually have to be evacuated. A Western success, even a limited one, against the Ottomans might redeem a bit of the failure of Gallipoli. But there was a major strategic shift in the making.

Even only a year into the Great War, it was probably easy to forget that the war had begun over the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Austria's demand for revenge against Serbia. Austria had been kept quite busy dealing with Russia in the east and, from earlier in 1815, with Italy, which had entered the war on the Allied side. But it had also fought on the Serbian front and the Serbian Army was in serious trouble.

Bulgaria had been neutral in the war. It had pan-Slavic sympathies with Russia, but had lost territory to Serbia in the Second Balkan War. But by the Fall of 1915 the Central Powers had successfully wooed Bulgaria with temptations of recovering lost territory from Serbia, Romania (which would soon enter the war on Russia's side), and Greece. Bulgaria's Tsar Ferdinand cut a deal and at the time we are discussing, was poised to enter the war and invade a weakened Serbia from the south as Austria-Hungary pushed in from the north.

1915 German or Austrian postcard
But there was a big implication for the Ottomans. A pro-Central Powers Bulgaria and a defeated Serbia could mean unimpeded rail connections between Berlin and Vienna and Constantinople. German assistance could flow directly overland, and that would be a boon to the Ottomans. The German-language "Bulgarien mit uns!" postcard, while a bit of a step down from the Hohenzollern motto "Gott mit uns," reflects this. Bulgaria's entry would eventually bring Romania and Greece unto the fight, and tie down an Allied landing force at Thessalonika.

So in the debate over the "On to Baghdad" question, the impending entry of Bulgaria on the other side was also a factor in the Anglo-Indian calculus.

In Part II, we'll look at the debate itself.

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