A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Surrender at Kut, 1916, Part II: Townshend Advances, Retreats, and is Besieged

This is Part II of my post on the British military disaster at Kut in Iraq in 1916. Part I, introducing the various British and Ottoman officers in the Mesopotamia campaign, appeared on Wednesday.

The maps in this post are from the West Point historical series via Wikimedia Commons. For photos and profiles of the participants, see Part I.

Britain had occupied Basra and its oilfields with Indian Army troops in December 1914, after Turkey had entered the war in late October. After taking Basra and Qurna, the British settled in for a while, but after defeating an Ottoman assault at Shaiba on April 12-15, the British became overconfident. Sir John Nixon was named overall commander, while on the Turkish side Nureddin Bey took over after his predecessor killed himself following defeat at Shaiba, (For Nixon and Nureddin, see part I.) Note that the victory at Shaiba was in April 1915. Ten days after it, British and ANZAC forces landed at Gallipoli.

Nixon felt that the ineffective Ottoman resistance might make it possible to advance up the rivers, and turned to General Charles Townshend and his 6th Indian (Poona) Division, ordering him to advance to Kut or, if possible, even to Baghdad.

Townshend set out and on June 3 took ‘Amara; he reached Kut (also known as Kut al-‘Amara) on September 24 and captured it on September 28.

Townshend referred to remain at Kut. But things were not going so well on the Eastern Fronts.The Gallipoli campaign was stalled; in the Balkans Austria had defeated Serbia, and Bulgaria had entered the war on the side of the Central Powers; the Turks had overland links to their allies. German Field Marshal von der Goltz (See Part I) was en route to take over the Mesopotamian campaign but had not yet arrived. Townshend was ordered to advance the less than 100 miles or so to Baghdad; even if after taking it, he had to withdraw, it would be a symbolic demonstration.

Townshend had one Indian Division advancing up the Tigris with some naval and logistical support; Nureddin had four divisions, but under strength (about 18,000 total to Townshend's 12,000-13,000). Two of Nureddin's divisions were recruited in the Arab provinces, and two were ethnically Turkish.

Turkey had belatedly realized the Anglo-Indian threat in Mesopotamia. Not only was von der Goltz dispatched to the theater, but reinforcements were on the way and on October 5, the Turkish 6th Army was constituted in Mesopotamia.

In the meantime, Townshend's push up the Tigris had continued. Near the town of Salman Pak and some 40 miles upriver from Kut, lay the ruins of the ancient Parthian and Sassanian Persian capital at Ctesiphon, al-Mada'in ("the cities") in Arabic. Only 20 miles or so from the outskirts of Baghdad, it was there that Nureddin chose to make his stand. Within a fortified line within a loop of the Tigris, with well-positioned artillery and his freshest division across his front, Nureddin was in a strong defensive position..
The Arch at Ctesiphon
The two-day battle, known to the British as the Battle of Ctesiphon and to the Turks as the Battle of Salman-i-Pak, was tactically indecisive but strategically a defeat for the British. Though Turkish casualties were higher, Townshend lost roughly 40% of his effective fighting strength (4,600 men) in killed, wounded, or captured, and decided to retreat. The wounded were gathered at the great Arch of Ctesiphon, the Taq Kisra or Arch of Chosroes.

On November 24, Townshend, too weakened to continue to Baghdad, withdrew towards Kut.

The Battle of Ctesiphon, though militarily a draw, was a strategic victory for the Turks. British soldiers, puzzled at how to pronounce "Ctesiphon," reportedly nicknamed it "Pistupon."

Townshend reached Kut December 3. Nureddin, and the by now real commander Field Marshal von der Goltz, arrived December 7.

Kut lay in a loop of the Tigris and appeared to be an eminently defensible position (the literal meaning of "Kut" is "fort"), since the British had thus far controlled river access. Townshend decided to await relief there and make a stand.

It was a mistake. Logistics were already an issue, the Ottoman forces were reinforcing, and the campaign was now under the command of a veteran German field marshal and military historian fully at home with Ottoman troops, and Townshend was soon fully encircled by the Turkish Sixth Army, with the river blocked by artillery positions and mines.

Part 3 will address the multiple failed relief expeditions, the failed attempt by British intelligence (represented by T.E. Lawrence and Aubrey Herbert) to bribe the Turkish commander to release Townshend, and finally the surrender itself and the subsequent imprisonment of the garrison.

Turkish 6th Army entrenchments during the Siege of Kut, 1916: 

1 comment:

David Mack said...

"Shock and awe" did not work for the British over the long term, a lesson that Pentagon military planner you talked to should have learned. This venture did leave a British cultural stamp on Basra that was still there when I spent a month at the U.S. Consulate in 1966.