A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part IV: "Mission Creep," 1915 Style

The first three parts of this current series on Britain's disastrous decision to advance to Baghdad in October 1915, which would lead to the siege and disastrous surrender at Kut, 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. Since in what follows you may not be able to tell the players without a scorecard, please read those if you haven't already. You'll also find photos of all the principal players.

Origins: The Lure of Baghdad

Even before Britain declared war on Turkey on November 5, 1914, it had moved Indian Expeditionary Force D to the Persian Gulf to protect the Iranian oilfields around Abadan, with orders to occupy Basra once war broke out. And indeed, as early as November of 1914 there was some discussion of a campaign to take Baghdad. At the time, the British position was far too weak to consider such a plan militarily. The Indian Army was already being dispatched to France, Egypt, Mesopotamia and East Africa. In peacetime the Indian Army consisted of a strength of seven infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades, but in the first six months had mobilized 10 infantry divisions and seven cavalry brigades, now deployed elsewhere in the Empire. The Government of India felt stretched thin, and potentially vulnerable to internal dissidence or outside aggression in the Subcontinent itself, given the activity of German agents operating in Iran. It was believed that the Turks and Germans had sent a joint mission to the Amir of Afghanistan to persuade him to attack India. Though Turkish hopes of an uprising by Indian Muslims were never realized, a new Afghan war against an India stripped of troops was a serious concern.  For this reason and others, the Government of India and the India Office in London would prove reluctant to approve overly ambitious plans.

But after the Ottoman flanking attack aimed at Basra in April 1915, repulsed at the Battle of Shaiba, it became clear that the defense of Basra might require occupying more territory beyond the initial forward lines around Qurna. In June of 1915, General Townshend's force had advanced to ‘Amarna. In a case of "mission creep" before that term existed, each new advance required a further advance to protect what was already held. Adding to this was the fact that each time the Turkish forces fell back, they retreated as much as 90 miles, thus offering the British an opportunity to take more ground.

The political and military leaders of the era were products of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the Lane, Payne, and Burton translations of the 1001 Nights were bestsellers. At least some of the exchanges in the debate to follow suggest they had in mind the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid, not the Ottoman provincial capital of 1915. At leat one appreciation (by the British Political Agent in the Gulf, Sir Percy Cox) suggested that the importance of the fall of Baghdad would be second only in terms of prestige in the Muslim world to the fall of Constantinople, which by the Fall of 1915 the British had realized was unlikely.

Even the military men in the debate to follow acknowledged that Baghdad had little military significance.

But in addition to a limited number of reinforcements from a stretched-thin Indian Army, a problem that had plagued the expedition was a shortage of shallow-draft river transport. (There were few adequate roads and no railroad south of Baghdad.) The Royal Navy dominated the Gulf as a British lake, but once over the bar at Fao, only river steamers could carry food at troops. Once into he Tigris or Euphrates above the marshes, in he dry season, only very shallow-draft steamers could operate, and the Turks had armed gunboats on the rivers. The shortage was constantly complained about by the generals in command, but the demands of other fronts and a shortage of proper vessels meant the problem was not really solved until early in 1916, by which time Townshend had already been besieged at Kut.

The Debate Begins

When Sir John Nixon had arrived to take command in April of 1915, his instructions contained  a directive to report on the feasibilty of an advance to Baghdad and to provide a plan.. He did not immediately do so. Though Nixon seems to have favored advancing on Baghdad the campaign was suspended while Townshend was on sick leave in India, where he apparently discussed te issue with the Commander-in-Chief, India, Sir Beauchamp Duff.

On August 30, 1915, a month before the Battle of Es-Sinn and the occupation of Kut, General Nixon wrote a "Memorandum on an advance to Baghdad," which was still not the "plan" mentioned in his instructions.  It was an argument for the political considerations of advantages to  be gained by the fall of Baghdad, and it suggested that if Townshend could take Kut in a decisive battle, the Turks might retreat the whole 100 miles to Baghdad. He favored a quick advance to Baghdad and argued that a delay would allow the Turks to reinforce. (Remember this was a month before Kut fell.)

The August 30 memorandum for some reason did not reach Duff until September 9, though most communications were by cable. On September 6, Duff had written Nixon with instructions not to advance beyond Kut without first referring to India.  Nixon would later claim to the investigating commission that he did not know the Government did not want him to advance, but besides the September 6 warning, after reading the Nixon memorandum, Duff responded, "Unless we get back troops from France, Egypt or elsewhere, I fear that Baghdad, invaluable as its capture may be is out of the question."

Also in September, before Kut was yet in British hands, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, had similarly communicated with the India office that while he recognized the political value of Baghdad he could not support a campaign without withdrawing one or both of the Indian divisions from France. This was to become a persistent theme: even Nixon would say that while he could take Baghdad with one division he could not hold it without two.

Advance to ‘Aziziya: Fait Accompli?

Despite what appeared to be fairly clear orders not to advance beyond Kut without explicit approval, from India, Nixon did just that, at least in effect by ordering Townshend to pursue the withdrawing Turkish forces After the victory at Es-Sinn on September 28 and the occupation of Kut on September 29, Nixon ordered Townshend to pursue the defeated Turks While this was technically a pursuit rather than an advance, it seemed to go against the intentions of the Government of India that he receive permission before advancing beyond Kut.

Nureddin Pasha was withdrawing to already prepared defenses at the ruins of Ctesiphon, south of Baghdad. Townshend's advance hampered by the usual river transport problems, put him a good 48 hours behind Nureddin, so overtaking him was unlikely. But without conferring with Simla or London, Nixon authorized Townshend to proceed to ‘Aziziya, some 60 miles by land (more by water), and more than halfway between Kut and Baghdad. See map below.) As Townshend struggled upriver, reaching ‘Aziziya October 5 with some difficulty, Nixon meanwhile was cabling his hopes of taking Baghdad, increasingly obsessed with the idea, creating increasing alarm (verging on panic) in Simla and the India Office in London.

That will be the subject of Part V.
Map 8, FJ. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, Vol. II


1 comment:

David Mack said...

100 years later factions in Washington are arguing over the importance of matching Russian military forces in Syria. Instead of Indian army and Ottoman boots on the ground,it is forlorn Syrian rebel groups. The politicians in Washington and Czar Vladimir in Moscow should take a deep breath and find a way to negotiate exits from this morass.