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