The Battle of Ctesiphon
November 22-25, 1915
The Great Arch at Ctesiphon
In late November 1915, the Anglo-Indian "Force D" confronted an Ottoman force twenty miles south of Baghdad at Ctesiphon. The result of this battle ended the British advance to Baghdad and resulted in one of the more resounding British defeats of the war. The events leading up to the Battle of Ctesiphon showcase the tenuous nature of the British position in the Middle East and the ramifications of military indecision. British forces under the purview of the Indian Government landed in the Vilayet of Basra in 1914 as a military demonstration. The conflict between the Home Government and India Office over the aim of the campaign would have calamitous consequences for Mesopotamian campaign. The capture of Basra was meant to protect British commerce, safeguard Persian Gulf oil, and to project British influence in the region (Busch, 1971). The Anglo-Indian force overtook Basra and accomplished their initial goal, but the scope of their mission would change in the coming months. Circumstances changed when Sir John Nixon took command of the operation in April of 1915. Nixon received orders to secure the Basra region and to draw up plans for an eventual advance on Baghdad, which he interpreted as a call for immediate advance (Busch, 1971). Nixon ordered the Anglo-Indian forces of Major General Townshend to advance to Amara and Nasiriya. At this point in the campaign, Basra was under British control and the Persian Gulf oil supply was secured. The British decision to press their advantage would have unfortunate results.
Indian Troops on the March
The downfall of the Mesopotamian campaign was indecision. The capture of Amara and Nasiriya was followed by the fall of Kut on September 29. This series of victories opened the way to Baghdad, but the issue over whether or not to seize Baghdad became cumbersome. The Mesopotamian theater was the third focus of British Middle Eastern Operation behind the Suez Canal and Gallipoli. After weeks of political wrangling, it was decided that Baghdad could be taken if it could be held. This was by no means a blanket endorsement of the seizure of Baghdad, but Secretary of State for India Austen Chamberlain cabled that the advance would be approved and Nixon ordered Townshend to advance. The prestige of capturing Baghdad was a driving factor and Nixon ignored reports of an Ottoman force in the area. Townshend's fourteen thousand man force met the Ottoman advance guard at Ctesiphon. Townshend's troops sustained enough heavy damage to withdraw to Kut and wait for reinforcements. The Ottoman forces encircled Townshend at Kut and laid siege to Townshend's forces. The end result was the surrender of Townshend and his ten thousand remaining soldiers, who were all marched into captivity. Four thousand soldiers would die while in captivity (Keegan, 1998, p. 301). The result was embarrassing for the British and refocused attention on the Middle Eastern theater. Historian Briton Cooper Busch describes the campaign by saying "a demonstration had become an invasion, a successful advance had become a humiliating military setback (Busch, 1971, p. 54)." The blame for the Ctesiphon disaster can be levied at many different individuals and groups, but the end result was the zeal and indecision of the India Office and British Government turned an efficient demonstration into an inefficient debacle.
By Matt Church
University of Louisville
Busch, Briton Cooper Busch. Britain , India, and the Arabs 1914-1921. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Viking Press, 1995.
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