A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, November 23, 2015

November 22-23, 1915: The Battle of Ctesiphon, Part I

We last left the Mesopotamian Campaign a century ago in October, with the British decision to advance to Baghdad, which I dealt with at length in six posts: Part I. Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI.

As we saw, there were major differences  in perception between London, India, and the generals on the ground, and differences between the Regional Commander General Nixon and the commander of the advance, General Townshend. All are introduced in some detail in the earlier series.

Townshend made his way slowly as he advanced from Kut al-‘Amara to Baghdad. He had reached ‘Aziziyya in October.

Some 40 miles up he Tigris from Kut, and some 20 miles southeast of Baghdad, the Turkish forces under Nur al-Din Pasha (later known as Sakallı Nurettin Paşa) were solidly entrenched on both sides of the Tigris at the old Parhian and Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon (Arabic Al-Mada'in), where a loop in the Tigris makes for a good defensive position.

The British had fought against Nureddin  several times during the advance up the Tigris and had a low of his military skills. What they did not appreciate was that Nureddin reported to the Governor of Baghdad Khalil Pasha (known postwar as Halil Kut) and, as of mid-October the the new Commander of the Ottoman Sixth Army, the aging Prussian Field Marshal Baron von der Goltz though he had yet to take the field.

Furthermore when the decision to advance was made in mid-October The War Committee estimated that for at least the next few months Nixon would face no more than 9,000 Turkish infantry. In fact, at Ctesiphon Nureddin had four divisions, under strength but still numbering 18,000 men to Townshend's reinforced single division with about 11,000. But the Turks had been entrenched for weeks behind two lines of trenches, and south of that a 20-foot-high ancient wall. They also had 52 artillery pieces situated to cover the river.

Nureddin's four divisions were the 35th, based in Mosul before the war and amix of Arab, Kurdish, and other ethnicities; the 38th, based in Basra and mostly Arab; the newly formed 45th, raised around Pozanti near Adana;  and the 51st, a veteran regiment that had served in the Caucasus and at Gallipoli.

Townshend's force consisted of the 6th (Poona) Division with supporting troops, consisting of four infantry brigades and one of cavalry,and two river gunboats, HM Gunboat Firefly and an older gunboat, the Comet. Firefly was the first of a new class of riverboats known to history as the Tigris Flotilla but called at the time "Small China Gunboats" to conceal their intended use in Mesopotamia. With them were two small river launches, Shaitan and Sumana. The stern-wheeler riverboats Shushan and Messoudieh were towing boats with 4.7 inch naval guns. The problem was that this small flotilla and its guns were on the river, and the powerful Ottoman artillery controlled the river.
Official History, Campaign in Mesopotamia, Volume II
If you're thinking that's a pretty formidable position, a superior force with superior artillery barring the river and he route to Baghdad, you're right.

Part II will discuss the battle itself, The most visible landmark of the battlefield was the Great Arch of Ctesiphon,in the nearby town of Salman Pak, remnant of a Sasanian Palace. In Part II, we'll discuss the battle itself.
Official History, Campaign in Mesopotamia, Volume II

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