A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 9, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part V: India Halts Nixon

This is Part V of a series of six.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. Part IV traced the debate over occupying Baghdad from the beginning to the point where General Sir John Nixon ordered General Charles Townshend to advance from Kutn al-‘Amara to ‘Aziziya, despite having instructions not to advance beyond Kut without clearing it with the Government of India. 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  in Parts I-III.
Map 8, FJ. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, Vol. II
On October 3, with Townshend already en route to  ‘Aziziya but encountering transport delays, Nixon telegraphed that he felt the retreating Turks were concentrating at the ruins of Ctesiphon, but that he could open the road to Baghdad and take the city with his existing forces, He conveyed his intention to concentrate at ‘Aziziya (which Townshend had already been ordered to do anyway).

Townshend had never been enthusiastic for the advance beyond Kut. Also on October 3, from aboard a steamer on the Tigris he signaled Nixon's headquarters at Kut that
"you will see . . . that there is no more chance of breaking up the retreating Turkish force . . . They have also probably been reinforced from Baghdad . . . If I may be allowed to express an opinion I should say that up to the battle of Kut our object has been the consolidation of the Basra vilayet and occupation of the strategic position of Kut . . .If Government does not consider that the occupation of Baghdad is yet politically advisable owing to doubt of the Dardanelles situation [Gallipoli] and consequent possibility of any small force we might put into Baghdad being driven out again by superior forces from Anatolia, and so obliged to retreat along an extremely long line of communications infested by hostile or semi-hostile, and o news of retreat actively hostile, Arabs,then we should on all military grounds occupy ourselves with consolidating our position at Kut. The plan of entering Baghdad on the heels of a retreating and disordered force was upset by the sudden fall of water rendering our progress in ships of great difficulty and toil and extremely slow. On the other hand, if Government were to desire to occupy Baghdad then I am of the opinion that methodical advance from Kut by road by two divisions or one army corps, or one division closely supported by another entire, exclusive of line of communication troops . . . is absolutely necessary unless great risk is to be incurred. It is absolutely impossible to send laden ships up river now.
The coming campaign would give rise to many questions about Townshend's military judgment, but it's hard to fault his reasoning here. The fall in the river was delaying his advance, and he recognized, as even Nixon did, the risks of occupying Baghdad with only a single division.

But by this time, Nixon was obsessed with the lure of Baghdad. He had his Chief of Staff send Townshend the following reply, as quoted in the official history [punctuation from the official history];
Your (telegram) . . . does not seem to take into account the appreciation of the situation in my (telegram) which I sent you last night [footnote: referring to Nixon's October 1 telegram  to India] . . . . The Turkish force there (i.e., at Ctesiphon) is inferior in numbers and moral [meaning morale] to the force you successfully defeated at Kut, and the position is not nearly as strong. It is the Army Commander's intention to open the way to Baghdad, as he understands another division will be sent here from France* and he would like to know your plan for effecting this object with the force you had at Kut plus maybe four squadrons and a R.H.A. [Royal Horse Artillery] battery.
 *The official history adds a footnote to the statement about a division from France, "Apparently he had received private information concerning this, as no official information to this effect by this date can be traced in the records." Though promises would be made in coming days the additional division seems to have been mostly something Nixon hoped for but had not been promised officially.

Townshend would later claim that he doubted a division from France could arrive in time, but that he felt he had done his best and been overruled by his superior officer. He later claimed that he remained unconvinced, but nevertheless in his response to Nixon he said:

My information I consider, points to a different estimate of the hostile force being concentrated at Ctesiphon . . . you did not mention the arrival of a division from France and that makes all he difference in your appreciation. I will wire my plan to-morrow morning as it requires some careful thought . . .
Meanwhile, Nixon's October 3 telegram announcing his decision to concentrate at ‘Aziziya and move on London set off alarm bells at the India Office in London. On October 4, before seeing the telegram, the Military Secretary, General Barrow (See Part III) wrote a minute urging caution about any advance to Baghdad without reinforcements. The Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, supported the suggestion of the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, to withdraw the Indian divisions from France and create a reserve in India. Hardinge, as we have seen, felt India had been stripped bare of troops and feared the Germans and Turks might succeed in efforts to persuade the Amir of Afghanistan to attack India.On the 4th Chamberlain wired Harding asking about Nixon's intentions, and emphasizing that "if, owing to navigation troubles, there is no probability of catching and smashing the retreating enemy, there is no object in continuing the pursuit."

On the same day, Nixon telegraphed asking if an additional division would be provided from France so that he could hold Baghdad once taken. Note that the day before he had assured Townshend such a division was on the way.

On October 5, Townshend reached ‘Aziziya.

Also on the 5th, Chamberlain cabled Hardinge that the Cabinet was appointing a committee to consider the advance.but warning "Kitchener can hold out no hope  of reinforcements from Europe or Egypt."

The same day, Sir Percy Lake, Chief of Staff, India, cabled n assessment that Turkish forces in India were estimated at 7500 infantry, 600 cavalry and 28 guns, and that while Nixon had earlier said he did not expect the Turks to be reinforced, developments in the Balkans and Gallipoli could allow the Turks to reinforce in Mesopotamia. Lake argued that unless Nixon could be assured that an additional division could be withdrawn from France by the end of October, Nixon would not be authorized to go further. This was approved by the Commander-in-Chief, India, Beauchamp Duff, and the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. Nixon was ordered by Lake to stop his advance:
No reinforcements can at present be spared from India, so that unless the Secretary of State can arrange for the despatch of an Indian division from France you cannot advance to Baghdad. This being so, we see no advantage in an immediate forward concentration at Aziziya which can hold no advantage to us except as a step to Baghdad. Chief considers you should not advance in strength beyond Kut el Amara until it is certain that we may expect reinforcements from France which we consider very doubtful.
But Townshend was already arriving at ‘Aziziya.

On October 6, the Political Department of the India Office generated a two-page memo, "Advance to Baghdad: Political Considerations." Beginning by quoting a telegram from Percy Cox saying that in terms of influencing events in Persia and Afghanistan the fall of Baghdad would be second in importance only to the fall of Constantinople itself, it discussed all the political ramifications, but also recognized that an occupation of Baghdad followed by withdrawal might have a negative effect.

On the 6th as well, the Government of India wired the India Office in London notifying them that Nixon had been ordered to halt but emphasizing the advantage of taking Baghdad and the dangers if it were taken and then abandoned, urging that one or both Indian divisions be withdrawn from France, and increasing the estimate of Turkish infantry available from 7,500 to 8,500.

Still on October 6, Nixon sent another telegram arguing for an advance. In keeping with his tone of optimism, he continued to push for an advance, but one phrase he included would lead to a major misapprehension in London:
Navigation difficulties have been overcome by lightening ships and utilising them for towing laden barges and by marching troops with land transport . . . Enemy appears to be no longer retreating but has occupied Ctesiphon position and thereby constitutes a threat to us. Our information is that his troops, especially those locally recruited, are so demoralised by defeat at Kut al Amara in a position which they considered impregnable.They are now so near Baghdad that Nur-ud-Din will have difficulty making a determined stand with men who are close to their homes and wish to desert. I consider that there is every probability of catching and smashing the enemy at Ctesiphon as soon as 6th Division has fully concentrated at Aziziya and reinforced by drafts and cavalry now on their way from Basra. If on the other hand we retire from Aziziya to Kut the enemy and whole tribes will place their own construction on such a movement.
 He went on to argue that the enemy was weakened and vulnerable and that the opportunity  to take Baghdad should not be missed. It was typical Nixon: dubious intelligence, underestimating Nureddin's morale, and special pleading. But in the next stage of the ongoing debate between Nixon, India, and London, those far from the scene would seize on that one line near the beginning, "Navigation difficulties have been overcome."

The subsequent qualifying phrases indicate that Nixon meant that the navigation difficulties had been temporarily overcome during Townshend's advance to ‘Aziziya.by the expedients of using land transport for the troops (slower and more difficult than river transports) and towed barges.Nixon continued and would continue to complain of the lack of shallow-draft boats.

But in the debate between Nixon, the various ministries in London, and the Indian Government in Simla, "Navigation difficulties have been overcome" was read as meaning just that, and the focus would shift to the question of finding sufficient troops. Despite continuing reluctance on the side of the Indian Government, the weight of the debate was about to shift, in part due to the political arguments rather than the military caution, toward the "On to Baghdad" side of the scales.

We are beginning a three-day holiday weekend in the US, after which the tale will continue in Part VI.

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