A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part VI: Nixon Gets the Go-Ahead

This will conclude my series on Britain's disastrous decision to advance to Baghdad in October 1915, which would lead to the siege and disastrous surrender at Kut. Earlier parts concentrated on introducing the players in Mesopotamia/Iraq (Part I), the Indian Government and High Command (Part II), and the divided coalition Government in London (Part III), particularly the India Office and War Office. Part IV and Part V traced the debate over occupying Baghdad from the beginning to the October 6, when Sir John Nixon had been ordered not to advance beyond Kut though General Charles Townshend was already at ‘Aziziya, more than halfway to Baghdad (see map at bottom.)

Part V ended with Nixon pleading not to have to withdraw from ‘Aziziya, but his October 6 plea about Townshend's advance used the assurance, "Navigation difficulties have been overcome," to say that Townshend had been able to advance by land routes and towing barges, temporarily overcoming the lack of shallow-draft river steamers. London instead assumed all navigation difficulties had been solved. The debate in London shifted to reinforcing manpower, while Nixon still lacked steamers. This added a bit to the growing divergence in the debate between what was wished for politically and the military realities on the ground.

All the political forces in London (War Office and India Office), the campaign (Gulf Political Agent Percy Cox), and India recognized the propaganda value of taking Baghdad. India was nervous that Turkey and Germany might succeed in persuading the Amir of Afghanistan to attack India, virtually denuded by the export of Indian troops to France, Egypt, East Africa and Mesopotamia. A fall of Baghdad would also, it was argued have an affect on Persia/Iran, officially neutral but with parts of its territory occupied by Russian, Ottoman, and British troops and much of the rest under local or tribal forces, while the teenaged Ahmad Shah Qajar was well-advanced on his way to becoming the last of his dynasty.

The lure of Baghdad, as I have suggested elsewhere, had as much to do with the popularity of the 1,001 Nights as with the actual military value of an Ottoman provincial city.  It was the capital of Harun al-Rashid, not of Halil Pasha and Baron von der Goltz. But it was a potent lure. Percy Cox argued that for the Muslim world, and Persia in particular, the fall of Baghdad would be second only to the fall of Constantinople. And London was in the process of figuring out how to get its vulnerable troops off Gallipoli without disaster. So the temptation of taking Baghdad loomed even larger.

General Nixon had become even more confident that Townshend could take Baghdad with one quick push. (As we saw last time, Townshend begged to differ and was overruled.) Though the word "cakewalk" certainly existed at the time, I can't find anyone using it, depriving us of the wonderful ironies in which a French general in the 1950s and and an American general in the 1960s referred to a "light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam.

In Nixon's defense, he was consistent in saying that while he could take Baghdad with his existing troops (though he was wrong), he could not hold on to it against a Turkish counteroffensive without at least one, and preferably both, of the Indian divisions in France.

Another complication that would reveal itself in the days after October 6, and would be criticized by the subsequent investigating commission, was the tendency of many of the principals (particularly in the India Office and the Indian Government) to communicate by "private" telegrams not shared with other responsible ministries or the field commanders. Thus there were private conversations the content of which many of the principals had not seen.

On October 7, Nixon reiterated that he could not retreat from his present position without disaster, but would not advance without assurance of reinforcement. Also on the 7th, Secretary of State for India Austen Chamberlain asked Nixon how much additional force he needed, not just to take but to hold Baghdad, and also informed the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, that the Cabinet was eager to take Baghdad and asking Hardinge (note: the Viceroy, not the field generals, though Nixon had been asked  a similar question) if one division would be sufficient. Cable traffic for the next day or two centered on whether one or two divisions would be required, as command wanted to assure success without weakening other fronts.

On October 9 Chamberlain telegraphed Hardinge in a private message,
Private. Hope to give you definite information as to possibility of reinforcement in a few days.Meanwhile Nixon should maintain his present position and be prepared to advance if reinforcements asked for can be sent to him. Please instruct him accordingly.
 On the same day, Nixon complained again about the transport problem, but the aforementioned  misunderstanding persisted, and the complaint seems to have made no impression.

On the 11th, Townshend informed his troops they were not to advance until further orders.

Sir Thomas Holderness
But other things were happening in the meantime. An "Inter-Departmental Committee" had been set up by Prime Minister Asquith to resolve the debate and to consider the issue of advancing to Baghdad. Chamberlain named his own deputy, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for India Sir Thomas Holderness, as its Chairman. It included representatives of the India Office, War Office, Admiralty, and Foreign Office. On October 11, it delivered a report that was at best inconclusive and raised questions about taking Baghdad before reinforcement.

The Holderness Committee report, inconclusive as it was, went before the War Committee of the Cabinet (then widely known as the Dardanelles Committee) on October 14, 100 years ago today. Chamberlain, not normally a member, was in attendance. They had before them reports from the General Staff (very likely, as we have seen, echoing Lord Kitchener's views), favoring an advance on Baghdad but also requiring an additional two divisions. But apparently Lord Kitchener himself, unlike virtually everyone else, did not feel that holding on to Baghdad was essential and favored occupying it, destroying military supplies and withdrawing.

The Dardanelles Committee's recommendation of sending two Indian divisions from France was soon overtaken by events: the recall of General Sir Ian Hamilton from command on the Dardanelles, but the Indian Government remained uncomfortable with the idea of taking Baghdad if it had to then be evacuated.

On October 21 the War Committee issued a detailed study which suffered from the deficiencies that plagued the Mesopotamia campaign: poor intelligence and underestimating their adversary. The War Committee estimated that for at least the next few months Nixon would face no more than 9,000 Turkish infantry. Within a month at Ctesiphon, they would face twice that number. The British had a disdainful attitude towards their immediate opponent Nureddin Pasha and seem to have been unaware that Baron von der Goltz was now on the scene, with Halil Pasha in support in Baghdad.

On October 23, 1915, despite divided counsels, uncertainty about whether Baghdad could be held for long (no one then questioning that it could at least be captured), and only the vaguest commitment to (eventual) reinforcements, the Cabinet instructed the Viceroy to instruct Nixon, "Baghdad advance."

Baghdad would not be captured. Townshend would fall back to Kut and be besieged and relief was frustrated by the very lack of river transit the Cabinet thought had been resolved. Within six months, Townshend and his troops would surrender to the Turks in the worst defeat since Yorktown and the largest surrender of British Empire troops in history up to then (exceeded only by the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942). I'll continue the tale next month on the anniversary of the Battle of Ctesiphon.

Anyone wishing to consider modern parallels is of course free to do so, but it clearly was no cakewalk.
Map 8, FJ. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, Vol. II

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Should be required reading for Syria hawks in both Moscow and Washington.