Chitral Charlie by N.S. Nash

Since studying the Operation Market Garden from an early age, I have had a keen interest in military incompetence. Arguably, one of the most well-known military disasters was that of Arnhem. Whether Boy Browning was culpable has been debated ever since. On the other hand, modern historians nowadays accept that Arthur Percival could not have done much more than he did to save Singapore from surrender.

Yet perhaps the greatest military disaster to befall the British Empire was that of Kut. During the Great War British and Indian troops advanced in Mesopotamia – modern Iraq – against the Ottoman Turk. In command was Major-General Charles Townshend. Townshend had joined the British Army in the late Victorian period. It is interesting that he chose a military career, as he had a very keen interest in the theatre and performing arts, and liked moving in those circles.

It is probably surprising that Townshend managed to reach the rank of Major-General at all. He spent large periods on leave gallivanting around Europe and North America, and swapped cap-badges for a hobby. But perhaps worst of all, he had a nasty habit of alienating his superiors, and even officers who supported him soon grew tired of his obsessive letter writing. He was constantly hassling commanders for a better posting, or bemoaning his supposed ill-fortune.

So why did the Army not simply cut him off at a lower rank? Firstly, Townshend did serve in the Sudan under Kitchener, and on the North West Frontier in India. He was awarded a total of NINE mentions in despatches. Secondly, patronage still counted for much in the British Armed forces, and ability and potential were not always the final arbiter of a career.

Regulars will by now be fed up of reading my opinion of military biographies – ie, that they are mostly hopelessly inadequate. Yet this attempt by ‘Tank’ Nash is very fair. It bears no baggage, recognises Townshend’s service but also calls his indiscretions and weaknesses very accurately.

Townshend at first advanced into Iraq, pushing the Turk’s onto the back foot. Drunk on victory, he decided to stand at Kut, and await reinforcements. The reinforcements never arrived, and eventually, after a bloody siege, Townshend and his men were captured. Many of them died brutally, yet Townshend spent the rest of the war in luxury in Constantinople. Not only did he show little concern over his men, but when he returned home he could not understand why he came in for such criticism. Incredibly, he felt that he could act as an envoy to the Turks, and could not comprehend that the Army was keen to get shot of him as soon as possible.

Townshend has many similarities with Browning. Both had shown bravery early in the careers, but then spent time away from active soldiering, and hence were rusty when war came. And worst of all, both careers were driven by ambition and patronage rather than ability. And lost battles were the result.

Chitral Charlie is published by Pen and Sword

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Chitral Charlie by N.S. Nash

  1. John Erickson

    Forgive a bit of ignorance. The Mesopotamian Campaign was basically a “sideshow” of WW1, no? I’m thinking along the lines of WW2 and the CBI theatre. If that’s the case, was Townshend’s assignment there a form of exile, shoved off to an unimportant theatre (as compared to the Western Front)? Just curious….

  2. James Daly

    There are two schools of thought about Mesopotamia (and indeed Galipoli, the same arguments hold true). Firstly, that with the change to oil fired ships, and increased use of motor vehicles, the allies wanted to secure an important oil producing region (nothing much changes there). Secondly, that rather than face up to the meatgrinder on the western front, the allies wanted to ‘knock away the props’ and eliminate the germans supposedly weaker allies.

    The sad thing is, the failings Townshend showed at Kut were also well evident on the Western Front. In both World Wars the British Army showed some very dubious selection policy.

  3. Les Beard

    How about making up a list of WWI generals who should never have got beyond colonel, if that far?

  4. James Daly

    Lets start with the Generals thats were up to it in WW1.

    I’ll start with Monash, Plumer, and Allenby (not so much for Western Front, but Palestine).

  5. Les Beard

    You’ll upset the Canucks if you don’t add Currie to your list.
    However, it’s the duds I’m interested in.
    Hamilton, Hunter-Weston, Haking for proven starters and, surely, the jury is still out on Haig and Gough and the classical intriguers, Wilson and Robertson.
    Would Haig have got the job in the first place had Grierson not had a heart attack?
    And, I wonder if Kitchener would’ve eventually moved against him – Lloyd George would’ve backed him with glee.
    This may surprise you coming from an Ozzie, but McCay should’ve been sacked after Gallipoli and definitely after Fromelles.
    Pershing was over-rated.
    And tell me, James, to your knowledge, has anyone ever done a forensic job on MacArthur and WWI?
    What a vainglorious and ungrateful showpony.
    His treatment of the Australian Army in WWII was scandalous.

    • James Daly

      Its ironic that in WW1 the colonial generals seem to have been better than the Brits. I suspect it is down to the fact that they were not entangled with the patronage system and the intrigue that pervaded the British Army.

      On the whole I don’t think WW1 was a golden age for generalship – it was very much an NCO and subaltern’s war. Perhaps the greatest influence of WW1 was that it shaped the career of men such as Brooke, Montgomery and Alexander.

      re MacArthur, I’m not sure if anyone has done a study on him. If they have I suspect it will have been by a sychophantic scholar from the mid-west who will tell us that he was the best thing since sliced bread (a la the biographies of Patton and Marshall).

  6. Les Beard

    Not a bad point about the NCO’s and Subalterns.
    There’s a great pic in the AWM Archives of a very young Leslie Moreshead [9th Div.2nd AIF.El Alamein] in a Gallipoli dugout.
    His experiences in the botched camaign sewed mistrust of British Generalship that carried over into WWII.
    Blamey, Monash’s C.O.S, was even more jaundiced to the point where during his commands in the M.E. in WWII, luminaries such as Churchill, Wavell and Brooke detested him.
    Can’t imagine he lost any sleep over it.

  7. Les Beard

    Forgot to mention that best thing I’ve read on MacArthur is Manchester’s “American Ceasar.”
    Good read, but went a bit light on his WWI exploits with the “Rainbow” Division.

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