British Imperial Forces Surrender at Kut
Anglo-Indian forces surrendered at Kut in modern day Iraq on April 29, 1916 bringing to an end a calamitous campaign to take Baghdad. British forces landed in Basra in 1914 as a military demonstration. Protecting British commerce, securing Persian Gulf oil, and projecting British influence were the original goals of this demonstration, but the situation changed drastically in the coming months (Church, 2005). In April 1915, Sir John Nixon took command of British forces in Iraq and received orders to draw up plans for an advance on Baghdad. Nixon interpreted this as an order to advance on Baghdad and ordered forces under Major General Townshend to advance (Busch, 1971). Anglo-Indian forces seized Amara, Nasiriya, and Kut by September 29, 1915. With Persian Gulf oil supplies secure and a foothold in Mesopotamia established, the opportunity to capture Baghdad still loomed large. Mesopotamia was the third focus of British Middle Eastern Operations behind the Suez Canal and Gallipoli. With stalemates at the latter two, it is presumable that British leaders were searching for a morale boosting victory in the region. The Home Government, Indian Government, and military authorities wrangled over whether or not Baghdad should be taken and ultimately Austen Chamberlain, Secretary of State for India, approved an advance on Baghdad. Officials decided Baghdad could be taken if it could be held and this decision doomed British forces in Mesopotamia.
April 29, 1916
Upon receiving approval, Nixon ordered Townshend's forces to advance on Baghdad. British military intelligence believed the nearest Ottoman forces to be between 350 and 400 miles away (Keegan, 2000). The Ottomans managed to pull together enough reinforcements to send troops to confront the British advance. British forces met the Ottoman advance guard at Ctesiphon in November of 1915. The resulting battle inflicted enough damage upon British forces to convince Townshend to order a retreat. Townshend believed his forces to be overextended and ordered a retreat to Kut, where they entrenched themselves near the Tigris River to await reinforcements. British forces had two months of supplies, but were confronted by Ottoman forces that were masters of siege warfare (Keegan, 2000). Ottoman forces encircled the British positions with earthworks and laid siege to Townshend's forces. Between January and March 1916, four attempts to break Ottoman lines by Townshend's forces and a relief force were repelled. The last attempt known as the battle of the Dujaila Redoubt left a thousands combatants dead (Keegan, 2000). After this setback, annual floods stemming from melted snow from Zagros Mountains swelled the rivers (Keegan, 2000). The resulting floods cut Kut off completely from reinforcements. Surrounded by floodwaters and Ottoman forces, Townshend's forces surrendered. Townshend and 10,000 survivors went into captivity. Captivity was harsh and 4,000 soldiers died in enemy hands. Kut was retaken in late 1916 when a British force of 200,000 overran 10,000 Ottomans.
Historian Briton Cooper Busch summarized the campaign by stating "a demonstration had become an invasion, a successful advance had become a humiliating setback (Busch, 1971, p. 54)." Like Salonika, a British campaign against a seemingly inferior force resulted in a stalemate and drained resources. Worse yet, the British forces were humiliated and humbled by an enemy that was supposed to be no closer than 350 miles. British prisoners endured brutal treatment in captivity and only 6,000 of 10,000 survived. All of this was due to indecision over whether or not to take Baghdad and the lack of satisfaction with the initial objectives. The capture of Baghdad would do nothing to turn the tide in the Middle East, that would happen in Palestine and Greater Syria, Baghdad only served to bring about significant loss.
By Matt Church
University of Louisville
Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Viking Press, 1995.
Busch, B.C.B. Britain, India, and the Arabs 1914-1921. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
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