A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, November 21, 2014

The British Take Basra, November 21-23, 1914

A couple of weeks back  I discussed the British landings in Mesopotamia and the "First Fights on the Road to Basra, November 6-12, 1914."  It's time for an update. On this day and the next two a century ago British and Indian forces occupied Basra.

After General Walter Delamain and the 16th Brigade of the 6th (Poona) Division of Indian Expeditionary Force "D" had secured their landings at Fao, Abadan and Muhammara, he was reinforced by the arrival of the another brigade, the 18th, and the Divisional HQ. General Sir Arthur Barrett, Commander of the 6th Division,  took command. Barrett arrived with orders to take Basra.

Fao to Basra, 1914
The Ottoman Army held a forward position at Saihan, only about four miles from the forward British position across from the Abadan refinery. British patrols estimated the Turkish force at 1200 men, three machine guns and four mountain guns. Delamain was assigned to dislodge this forward position and attacked on the 15th with elements of the 2nd Dorsets, 104th Wellesley's Rifles, and 30th Mountain Battery, with the 20th Punjabis and the 23rd Mountain Battery in reserve. They were supported by HMS Odin in the Shatt.

Delamain attacked the Saihan position on the 15th.  The Turkish force was actually some 3100 men, not the 1200 the British expected. The British turned the left flank of the Turks and then rushed the camp in force. The Turks withdrew and the British destoyed the supplies.

HMS Odin
Delamain's orders had been to dislodge the Ottomans, not occupy the ground, so he withdrew. His troops had 9 killed and 63 wounded; Turkish casualties were put at 160.

By November 17 all of Barrett's troops were ashore and it was decided to launch a full-scale attack towards Basra. The Turks had fallen back to a place the British referred to as Sahil, with the bulk of their forces in Zain and Baljaniyya. ("Balzaniyeh" on the map above, but Lorimer's Gazeteer shows it with a j and has the Arabic as well.) As the British forces advanced they found some 3500 Turkish troops and 1000 local Arab allies entrenched along a three-mile front from near Zain to Sahil, with 12 guns. The area was dense with palm groves and was anchored near an old mud fort. Under Barrett's overall command, the 18th Brigade under Brig. Gen. C.I. Fry advanced on the left of the three-mile position while the 16th under Delamain moved on the right, with covering fire from HMS Odin and HMS Espiegle in the Shatt.

A complicating factor was a heavy drenching rain which turned the ground to mud. Once the British artillery came up and found its range it poured heavy fire into the Ottoman lines, but the advance took several hours due to the mud, the Turkish resistance, and the fortified lines after some time the 16th Brigade took the old mud fort that anchored the left of the Turkish line, and with their line flanked the Turks withdrew. The British estimated total Ottoman casualties at 1500 to 2000; they lost four officers and 50 other ranks dead and 21 officers and 414 wounded. (The British casualty lists distinguish between British and Indian casualties. That seems a rather colonial approach and I'm combining the numbers here.)

Ekbatana Sunk in the Shatt
The Turks had sunk three ships in the Shatt near Dabba Island to block the passage, one of them the large Hamburg-American line steamer Ekbatana, but the ships went down in such away that it was possible to maneuver past them.

Investigating the obstruction on November 19, HMS Espiegle came under fire from a Turkish patrol boat and returned fire, setting her aflame. Then she was fired upon by the larger Turkish gunboat Marmaris, and retreated.

This map (from p. 488, "The Persian Gulf. Naval Operations in the Shatt al-Arab (Up to and Including the Surrender of Kurna)" in The Naval Review, Vol.III) shows the site of the Nov. 17th battle, the barrier of sunken ships, and Espiegle's sinking of the patrol boat on the 19th.

On the 20th Barrett learned from Britain's ally the Sheikh of Muhammara that the Turks had not just retreated to Basra but had also abandoned Basra. Odin and Espiegle and a smaller boat, the Indian Marine Vessel Lawrence, were sent to investigate and confirmed this. They put ashore a landing party to stop looting in the abandoned port, and then another. By the 22nd the naval landing parties had raised the Union Jack (or the naval ensign once the ships ran out of Union Jacks according to the Navy Review article) over public buildings. Basra notables asked for more defense against looting and the gunboats proceeded to ferry battalion each of the Wellesley's Rifles and 117th Mahrattas to Basra while the rest of the British force slogged through mud and palm groves overland.

On the 13th General Barrett and the British political agent, Sir Percy Cox, took formal possession of the city, with Cox reading a proclamation in Arabic.

Once again, the ease of taking Basra reinforced the British assumption that the Ottomans posed little challenge. But the taking of Basra alerted Enver Pasha to the threat, and the Turks would soon be reinforced.


David Mack said...

Noteworthy that British/Indian forces came prepared to stop looting in Basra. By 2003, US invasion planners seemed to have forgotten this lesson.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

And the rest of the lessons of the "Mespot" campaign and of 1920-21.