Before Paul took us through the events during the Mesopotamia campaign, he introduced us to a set of people who became involved, one way or another, in the area. Some were to go to lead armies in the 2nd world war and one to become a Prime Minister. The influence and experiences of the war in Mesopotamia were going to be felt for 40 years after the armistice.
Major-General Charles Townshend who advanced from Basra as far as Bagdad before he was forced to retreat.
Lt-General Stanley Maude, the last man evacuated from the Gallipoli campaign, who led the army in Mesopotamia to take Bagdad.
Major Clement Atlee (6th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment) who was sent to Mesopotamia after the evacuation of Gallipoli and was wounded in 1916. After the war he went into politics and became Prime Minister of the UK after the 1945 general election.
General Claude Aukinleck, a major in the 62nd Punjabis (6th Indian Division) who took part in a fruitless arrack to relieve the siege of Kut in January 1916 and was also a participant in the advance on Bagdad in 1917.
Major-General Percy Hobart, an engineer who saw service in Mesopotamia before concentrating on armoured warfare, advocating wider use of tanks, forming and training the ‘Desert Rats’ in WW2. After the attack on Dieppe in 1942 he was instrumental in designing ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ which aided the D-Day landings in 1944.
Field-Marshal Bill Slim, who served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (13th Division), was wounded in Mesopotamia before transferring to the Indian Army in 1919.
Lt-General George Gorringe, who commanded the 3rd Indian Army Corps during the Mesopotamia campaign before transferring to the Western Front where he commanded the 47th Division.
Gertrude Bell, writer, traveller, political advisor and administrator, who was sent to Basra in 1916 to advise Chief Political Officer Major-General Percy Cox over maps and relations with the Arab opposition to Ottoman occupation during the advance on Bagdad in 1917.
After the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War as an ally of the central Powers, an Indian Expeditionary Force was despatched in November 1914 to the Shatt al Arab waterway so as to seize control of the port of Basra and to safeguard the British interests in Persian Oil. After Ottoman attacks had been repulsed (April 1915), General John Nixon was sent to take command and his first action was to instruct Major-General Charles Townshend, commanding the Indian Sixth Division, to advance to Kut (along the river Tigris) with the intention of taking Bagdad. The land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates has always been known as Mesopotamia and its history goes back to biblical times with stories of Noah and Abraham. It is a very flat country which is prone to flooding when melt water, augmented with rain, flows down to the Shatt al Arab. At this time the only logical form of transport along the river is by steamer. The water on the land is too deep for infantry to advance but too shallow for boats.
To protect Townshend’s western flank, Major-General George Gorringe advanced up the Euphrates and defeated an Ottoman army at Nasiriyah in June 1915. There was no strategic need to advance further into Mesopotamia to Kut and on further to Bagdad, but both Nixon and Townshend were keen for reasons of prestige. There was also an element of autonomy in the administration of the army in Mesopotamia as these officers were responsible to the Viceroy of India and not to London. Townshend’s army set out (May 1915) by land and by boat and, for the first few months, had spectacular success. His lack of logistics, and especially medical provision, were no hindrance at the start of the campaign. Bahran and Amarah had fallen to the Indian troops by June with very little fighting. Lack of clean drinking water and the absence of hospital ships meant that frequent bouts of dysentery with sickness and diarrhoea slowed down the advance. Kut was taken in September and then, after a halt lasting 9 weeks, Townsend advanced again. By November the army had reached Ctesiphon, 22 miles from Bagdad. Here Townshend’s advance was halted by a battle with Ottoman troops. Not only had Townshend underestimated the number of Ottoman troops but he failed to take into account the number of heavy guns brought up to oppose him. Townshend decided he would withdraw and reached Kut in December. Here his army was besieged by increasing numbers of Ottoman troops, under a German commander Baron van der Goltz. All attempts to relieve Townshend ended in failure and eventually, in April 1916, he was forced to surrender and around 13,000 troops went into captivity.
Nixon was dismissed from his position commanding the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force and was eventually replaced by Lt-General Stanley Maude (after the evacuation from Gallipoli, Maude replaced Gorringe as commander of the Tigris Corps). Maude set about re-building his mixed force of Indian and English troops in Mesopotamia. He started by solving the logistical problems in Basra by building proper roads (for the lorries he brought in) and a railway. Rest camps, hospitals and supply dumps became the priority before Maude made plans to advance north on both sides of the Tigris in December 1916.
Maude’s advance was methodical, well organized and successful. Despite the thick mud, which had always caused problems with moving troops in general, hand to hand fighting with Ottoman troops continued relentlessly. But mud also jammed up all weapons especially Lewis guns. Maude’s advance was relentless. Kut was taken in February 1917 and his men advanced on Bagdad which was taken in March. From Bagdad, Maude planned further advances but first he had to made sure of his supply lines and the care of his men over the intense heat of the summer. His first attack on Ramadi was not successful but a second attack in the cool of the autumn (September) saw a British success. After Ramadi, Maude’s forces took Tikrit. During a further lull in proceedings, Maude was taken ill with cholera and died in November 1917. His successor, General William Marshall halted operations for the winter.
In 1918 the advance continued, this time it was much more mobile. Troops were ferried north in lorries accompanied by armoured cars and a cavalry brigade. Marshall was ordered to transfer troops to Palestine for the Megiddo campaign (September) and his advance stalled. Troops and transport were also transferred to the Dunsterforce operating out of Persia in the Caucasus forcing the Ottoman troops away from valuable oil territory.
Hostilities finished with the Armistice of Mudros (30 October 1918) by which Ottoman Turkey withdrew from fighting the Allies.
The last action, to occupy Mosul and its oil rich territory, was accomplished after the armistice in November 1918.
General Cox’s work was not finished. He had earlier co-ordinated with Abdulaziz Ibn Saud of the House of Saud over an Arabic uprising against the Ottoman Turks. This co-operation continued after the Great War was over as Ibn Saud fought with the Rashidi tribe for control of the Arab peninsular. Cox moved to Tehran as Ambassador to Persia (1918) but moved back to Bagdad when the Iraqi revolt broke out in 1920. He was instrumental in the choice of Faisal bin Hussain as the first king of Iraq.
Report by Peter Palmer