Think of British military disasters: Galipoli, Singapore, Arnhem. Men such as Percival and Browning have been dammed for evermore But one epic failure that receives very little attention is that of Kut. Recent years have seen Kut fade into obscurity, especially compared to Galipoli – another disastrous Turkish expedition. Here Patrick Crowley, a serving British Army Officer, aims to redress the balance.
Britain launched a campaign to occupy Mesopotamia – modern day Iraq – early in the First World War, in an attempt to occupy the stratgically important oilfields around Basra. Given the growing importance of motor vehicles and oil fuelled warships, it was also another route to undermining the Ottoman Turk Empire, an ally of Germany. The British Government was also following a policy of ‘knocking away the props’, feeling that by eliminating Turkey from the war deadlock on the western front would be broken.
Initially the aim was simply to occupy southern Iraq. But overconfidence, underestimation of the enemy and naive mission creep led to the force attempting a march on Baghdad. After it became clear that Baghdad was not immediately reachable, the overall commander, General Nixon, ordered Major-General Townshend, Commanding the 6th Indian Division, to hold out at Kut. Apparently Nixon was confident in his ability to relieve Kut, and Townshend saw no reason to demur. Quite why it was felt important to hold Kut no-one seems to have pondered.
The relief force has serious problems reaching Kut – once again, they underestimated the ability of their Turkish opponents. There were also serious problems with transport, with only the River Tigris available. Eventually the garrison at Kut ran out of food, giving Townshend no option but to surrender in April 1916. By the end men were resorting to eating dogs, horseflesh and starlings. 11,800 British soldiers, many of them Indian, became prisoners.
There are serious questions asked about Townshend’s conduct after his surrender. Spirited off to a relatively luxurious existence, his soldiers suffered untold horrors. Already in a poor state after months of siege privations, they were beaten on their march into captivity, given poor rations and little or no medical treatment. Yet Townshend appears not to have been concerned about their safety. The treatment of Allied Prisoners by the Turks is clearly one of the most overlooked atrocities in twentieth century warfare – some harrowing stories of suffering emerge. Of the men who surrendered at Kut, 4,250 died in captivity.
So what went wrong at Kut? Firstly, the siege should not have took place in the first place – the force should have withdrawn to Basra. Secondly, the relief force was not strong enough to reach Kut. And at all stages of the campaign senior officers grossly underestimated their opponentss – even though evidence from Galipoli should have suggested that the Turk soldier was no pushover. Another endemic failure seems to have been an inability and unwillingness to organise logistics properly. Finally, in his handling of the surrender, Townshend was guilty of failing in his duty to his men. Overall, it seems that a lot of incompetence went into what transpired at Kut.
This book by Patrick Crowley is an admirable and professional attempt to analyse the campaign, and the reasons for its failure. It is very well researched, and blends strategy with personal histories very well. Unlike a lot of narrative military histories, this book has a very ‘military’ feel, with its strong resonance with lessons learnt, and the evocation of more recent British campaigns in Iraq. In 1916 the 1st/4th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was fighting in Iraq, while in 2004 their successor Regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, fought a siege like action in nearby Amara. The I am a big fan of this relevant style of history, that will be useful to military personnel and interesting to historians alike.