British Disaster at Kut-el-Amara
General Townshend's Surrender

[The New York Times/Current History, June 1916]

Major Gen. Charles V. Townshend's Anglo-Indian expeditionary force, which started out a year ago to capture Bagdad, and which had been besieged since the 8th of last December at Kut-el-Amara, surrendered unconditionally to superior Turkish forces on April 28, after a heroic resistance of 143 days. According to British official figures, the surrendered army consisted of 2,970 English and 6,000 Indian troops; the Turkish figures, which probably include servants and followers of Indian troops, place the total at 13,300. General Townshend destroyed his guns and munitions before yielding, but Khalil Bey, the Turkish commander, captured much booty, including a large sum of money.

The Turkish official report adds:

In addition to General Townshend, we captured at Kut-el-Amara General Povna, Commander of the Sixth Infantry Division; General Dabmack, Commander of the Sixteenth Brigade; General Hamilton, Commander of the Seventeenth Brigade; Colonel Evans, Commander of the Eighteenth Brigade, and an officer named Smith, Commander of Artillery. The number of officers made prisoners is 551, of whom half are Europeans and half Hindus. Of the soldiers captured 25 per cent, are Europeans and the remainder Hindus.

Although the enemy destroyed a large quantity of arms before the fall of Kut-el-Amara and dropped others into the Tigris, we have found up to the present time forty cannon, twenty machine guns, and nearly 5,000 rifles, which will be ready for use after slight repairs have been made. We also took a large amount of ammunition, one large ship, one small ship, four automobiles and three aeroplanes. Arms and ammunition which were dropped into the Tigris are being recovered by us.

This new and dramatic disaster to British arms, second only to that at the Dardanelles, is again a result of underestimating the strength of the enemy. General Townshend and his men have received only praise for the heroic tenacity with which they maintained an impossible position so many months. The initial blunder is laid at the door of the India Office, which set too large a task for so small a force. The original expedition was under the direction of General Sir John Nixon; after the failure to reach Bagdad he was superseded by General Sir Percy Lake, who is still in general command of the Mesopotamian operations. The fighting, however, has been led throughout by Townshend, Gorringe, and Aylmer. The relief force under Aylmer is still hemmed in a few miles below Kut.

The story of this attempt to capture the legendary location of the Garden of Eden from the Turks and Germans is long and romantic, as well as tragic. It begins with a series of brilliant successes, among the most notable of which was General Townshend's victory over the Turks at Kut-el-Amara in September, 1915, on his way up the Tigris Valley to Bagdad. All the earlier operations have been described in detail by General Nixon in an official report issued April 5, 1916, part of which is reproduced verbatim after the close of the present article. General Nixon's operations to clear Mesopotamia of Turkish resistance were carried on chiefly by collaborating forces under Townshend and Gorringe, consisting of two divisions of Anglo-Indian troops, or a few over 40,000 men. His report covers the six months from April to September, 1915, and includes the following achievements of British troops:

Clearing Persian Arabistan and securing and repairing the pipe line to the oil fields.

General Townshend's advance from Basra toward Bagdad—as far as Ctesiphon.

The battle of Kurna and the capture of the town on May 31 by General Townshend.

The battle of Amara and the taking of that town by General Townshend on June 3, with 740 Turkish prisoners.

The capture of the Arab stronghold of Nasiriyah, on the Euphrates. July 24, with 1,009 prisoners and many rifles and stores.

General Townshend's victory at Kut-el- Amara on Sept. 28, where a strong army under Nur-ed-Din Bey was defeated, thus clearing the way for an advance toward Bagdad.

From Kut-el-Amara General Townshend pushed northward, part of his force following the old caravan trail and part the river, where his troops were transported by boats, most of which had been brought from India and were as primitive as those which the Turks and Arabs brought to oppose them. By Nov. 22 he had fought his way nearly 100 miles northward to Ctesiphon, within eighteen miles of Bagdad. There he was attacked by an overwhelming force and suffered a severe defeat. Though he regained the lost ground the next day, he saw nothing but a siege before him. His water supply gave out, and he decided to retrace his steps and await reinforcements. This retirement, accomplished under extraordinary disadvantages, was hailed in England as a remarkable achievement. Not only did General Townshend ward off the pursuing Turks with comparatively small losses, but he succeeded in taking with him all his wounded.

The main body pushed ahead, but on Dec. 5 Townshend determined to make a stand with the rear guards, at the scene of his previous victory, Kut-el-Amara. This guard, consisting of something over 10,000 men, made an intrenched camp around the place, while the remainder of his force passed on down the Tigris.

Kut-el-Amara is nothing but a mud collection of ramshackle houses on somewhat raised ground. Behind the river front are a mosque and a collection of one or two storied Arab houses.

Three days after he began to intrench, (that is, on Dec. 8,) Townshend's communications with the main body of troops were cut off, and ever since then he has been besieged. Almost daily attacks were made by the Turks. Townshend is said to have captured over 3,000 Turks and Arabs by sorties.

When it became evident that Townshend was so beset that he could not fight his way out, steps were taken to send a relief expedition. Thirty thousand Indian troops were dispatched, and two Anglo-Indian divisions, which had been fighting in France, were transported to the head of the Persian Gulf, making, with the remnants of Townshend's main expedition, a relief force of 90,000 men. General Sir Percy Lake was placed in command of the entire forces, in succession to Sir John Nixon, and command of the relief expedition itself was given to Major Gen. Aylmer.

This expedition was poorly supplied in regard to transport and river gunboat service, and Aylmer's march up the river again turned to a retreat after the first dash. The march began on Jan. 6, when the advanced guard left Gherbi, about eighty miles by river southeast of Kut-el-Amara. By Jan. 8 he had reached Sheikh Saad, forty miles to the north, where he defeated the Turks in two pitched battles. Between Jan. 15 and 19 he reached Orah, and on Jan. 21 he was at El Gussa, only eight miles from Kut-el-Amara. On the following day he attacked the Es Sinn intrenchments, which the Turks had built across the river eight miles from Kut, but failed to take them. Floods came to add to the trouble, due to lack of equipment, so that his position became almost as precarious as was Townshend's at Ctesiphon. Like him, Aylmer retreated.

Up to this time the campaign had been under the direction of the India Office, but the War Office in London now took a hand, and a large body of Colonials, including the Thirteenth Division of Gallipoli fame, with full equipment and supplies, was sent from Egypt, together with a flotilla of gunboats. In February Aylmer again started from his base at Gherbi, and General Lake himself joined the expedition. By the middle of March the expedition was near El Owasa and defeated the Turks there, after having met with a reverse at Felahie.

On April 5 the British force carried by assault the Turkish intrenched position at Umm-el-Henna, twenty-two miles from Kut-el-Amara. The next day the capture of Felahie was officially announced. Even then the relief expedition was about fifteen miles further away from Townshend's beleaguered force than it was on Jan. 21. Formidable masses of Turks were gathered on both sides of the Tigris below the invested town, holding intrenched and strongly fortified posts to contest the further advance.

The fighting in this region has been severe ever since, but the relief force, although gaining some ground, was never able to win a decisive victory.

The losses on both sides recently have been heavy. On April 14 it was admitted that the Tigris army had lost 8,100 men up to that time. Since then there have been several battles between the Turks and the relief expedition. In one engagement alone, according to the Turkish accounts, the British lost 4,000 men. General Townshend's surrender was brought about by the starvation of his forces. Attempts were made to carry supplies to him by aeroplane, but the location of Kut in a bend of the river made it difficult for airmen to land. A shipload of provisions on its way to him ran aground in the Tigris only four miles from the hungry soldiers. With this final misfortune he decided that surrender was the only course left for his beleagured army.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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