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.)
|Gen. Sir John Nixon, upstaged by his hat|
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.
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|
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.