A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Second Act in Mesopotamia: the Second Battle of Kut, February 23-24, 1917

We stopped following the centennial of the British Mesopotamian campaign in World War I after General Townshend's disastrous surrender of British and Indian troops at Kut in April 1916. The twin shocks of Gallipoli and Kut stalled British efforts in the Middle East for much of the rest of 1916, despite a successful advance across Sinai.

After Kut, the British had to reorganize the forces in Mesopotamia, and the new commander, Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, who in January had been the last man off the beach at Gallipoli, was ordered to consolidate in the south rather than resume the advance on Baghdad.

Baratov (on right)
In fact the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), General Sir William Robertson, considered that Baghdad was not a major strategic prize. But as 1916 wore on, the British felt that Russian successes in the Caucasus and northwestern Iran under Gen Nikolai Baratov justified resuming an offensive toward Baghdad, squeezing the Turks between the British and the Russians and isolating Iran from German influence..  (In 1916, of course, no one foresaw the Russian collapse into revolution the next year.)

Kazem Karabekir Bey
By September 1916, British policy began to shift to a new advance on Baghdad, and in December Maude launched his advance up the Tigris. Advancing initially on both banks, supported by riverine forces, he was able to defeat or brush aside small Ottoman garrisons throughout January. Winter rains and several fortified positions delayed the advance. The main Ottoman force opposing Maude were elements of the Ottoman XVIII Corps under Kazim Karabekir Bey, with some 17,000 troops around the town of Kut. were faced by 50,000 frontline troops under Maude. Requests for reinforcements sent to overall commander Khalil Pasha (Halil Kut) were to no avail. The mistakes of 1915 would not be repeated.
Situation at Kut, February 22, 1917 ("1915" is a typo)

The "Second Battle of Kut" was more a battle of maneuver than of combat. As Maude's superior force approached Kut, he crossed the Tigris at Shumran Bend on February 17, threatening the Turkish right, while the rest of the force moved on its left. Outflanked and outnumbered, and certainly mindful of Townshend's disaster after letting himself be besieged, Karabekir Bey chose to extract himself from his untenable position. By February 24, the Ottoman force was retreating up the river, ursued by Maude's riverboats.

The Second Battle of Kut in some small measure may have offset the shock of the surrender, but it also marked the arrival of a much more competent commander, Less than three weeks later, Maude would enter Baghdad.

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