The Battle of Kut


Fighting in the Fertile Crescent

from 'the War of the Nations' - British troops charging Turkish positions




GENERAL TOWNSHEND was back in Amarah by the end of August, 1915, from his sick leave to India. Great preparations were being made for a planned advance on Kut, though at this time we were still registering temperatures of 110 to 117 in the shade ! Our river transport had been increased, but the important land transport for an advance in such a country was very inadequate. The General recorded this at the time in a letter to Sir John Nixon: "I am afraid my advance will seem too slow to you, but it cannot be avoided, when I have to battledore and shuttlecock my transport about to fetch up troops and stores in homeopathic doses.”

The troops were being moved up the river in steamers and barges to Ah Gharbi. Apparently the main body of the fighting force was to be concentrated there. Barges were lashed port and starboard of a steamer with the dual purpose of protecting the vessel in the narrow, twisting stream and also to accommodate a greater number of troops. Our company was on a barge starboard of the steamer. We were continually scraping the banks, running so close, in fact, that we could easily have stepped ashore

Perhaps the most striking feature of that memorable up-river trip was the utterly primitive state of the people who dwelt on the lonesome banks. Those marsh Arabs were conspicuously scanty as to clothing. The children just ran around in their birthday suits, wearing nothing but a smile, while their elders seemed to wrap themselves indifferently in bits of sacking.

We passed tiny farmsteads and ragged habitations. Natives in rags were tilling the land, working ancient water wheels with bullock power, fishing from broken-down jetties - yet they appeared picturesque in a rugged sort of way. At some points we scraped the river bank for miles, and there men, women and children ran alongside our barge to trade with us in eggs, chickens, fish, and any odd ornamental bits they happened to be wearing.

Some of them dropped into the water, awaited our coming, then, one hand on the barge rail, they waded the slushy water, looking about as attractive as scarecrows after a downpour. Trading with these primitive folk resolved itself into a game of chance. The method was to throw your rupees into the sack-cloth of the dirty but smiling women - which single garment did duty as blouse, skirt and shop counter - and a small basket of eggs would be handed over the rail to you, if you were lucky!

One charming damsel, with a face like a dockside labourer, waded up to the rail where I was standing. One saw that though she was still young she was as hard and taut and as full of muscle as a prize-fighter. She slipped off her bangle, a bit of beaten bronze and the only ornament she possessed, and offered it for sale. I held up two rupees as a suggestion of the price-then equivalent to half a dollar. The hefty maid laughed her consent, and opened her mouth widely and invitingly. One at a time I threw the rupees into it. Deftly she caught each one. And then-she did precisely nothing! She remained standing, while the steamer continued its way upstream. She seemed to be shaking with mirth.

“Say, Tiger !” laughed Steve, “I guess you're the funniest thing that dame's seen in years.”

We reached Ah Gharbi, to find the place swarming with troops. All manner of activity was giving the area the appearance of an immense army at work. A vast expanse of the desert was covered with tents of all sizes and shapes-this, we later learned, was merely a stunt to give the enemy's intelligence the impression that the Mesopotamian Force was very much greater that it actually was. We totalled 11,000 combatants and about thirty guns.

It was from this centre that the real hardship began. We were force-marched through the desert for five nights, passing through villages and hamlets without firing a shot. Sheik Saad, Hannah and Sannaiyat we took in our stride. By September 15 (1915) we were massing at Abu Rummanah preparatory to the battle of Kut-which was bigger than anything we had so far encountered. We were then about eight miles from the Turkish lines.

The Turkish commander, Nur-ud-Din Pacha, had been concentrating his forces throughout the hot months, digging in hard and strengthening his position. He had settled in at Essinn, just below Kut, with three divisions, a mounted brigade and thirty- eight guns -I0,000 regular troops and 3,500 Arabs. At this point the Turks were sitting astride the Tigris with the fixed determination to keep the British out of Kut, since, once we had taken that town, there would be every likelihood of our continuing the advance via Ctesiphon to Baghdad.

Johnny Turk had therefore made an excellent job of his defences at Essinn in order to protect Kut. He was about eight miles from Kut, had entrenched himself on both sides of the river, and had a bridge of steamers chained together across the stream.

Though the British infantry units were in position for the attack by September is, they had to remain idle for ten days while the river transport brought up the artillery and the howitzer battery. It was not until the night of the 25th that the last of these ships arrived. Such was the state of our transport facilities even after months of preparation. We know now that this state of affairs was due entirely to the niggardly attitude of the Indian Government, which was at that time controlling the campaign. General Townshend had begged in vain.

On the eve of this historic battle General Townshend published the following communiqué to the troops:

‘The Secretary of State has telegraphed to General Sir John Nixon (Commander-in-Chief in Mesopotamia), wishing the 6th Division a speedy and complete success, to crown all their previous efforts, and to assure them that their services are not forgotten.

In conveying this message to the troops, Major-General Townshend wishes to say that the Division has fought five engagements in the last eleven months, and has gained in the Empire a reputation second to none, be it on the banks of the Yser in Flanders, or on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates in Mesopotamia.

There is no need for him to remind the troops of what their King and Country expect of them, and he hopes that a good blow now may well end their Mesopotamian labours."

By a bold and brilliant piece of strategy, General Townshend defeated the Turks at Essinn and advanced on Kut. Briefly, he rolled up the Turkish left flank after leading them to expect the attack on their right. On September 27 the feint was made on the right bank, a bridge was built, the crossing from right to left bank and the deployment of the infantry opposite the enemy's left flank were silently carried out during the night, and the enemy was taken completely by surprise.

Such are the historical facts of that battle. It is always interesting to the soldier who played his little part to learn afterwards just how it was done, for he himself can have no definite idea while the thing is actually taking place. He moves like an automaton. He does as he is told. He is there merely to obey commands. As Tommy would say - " Orders is orders."

My recollections of the affair are a little more hectic. I know that our company was part of a massed body that marched mile upon mile through that grim and silent night. The order had gone forth that no man must speak throughout the march, nor fuss with his equipment, nor do anything likely to create the slightest sound. It seemed to me that we were marching many miles into the desert-away from the river we had crossed - and that we were actually retreating.

We plodded on hour after hour, like a great ghost army, crunching the sand with phantom feet. Orders would come along, whispered from mouth to mouth, so that we changed direction like men on a drill square. One had the eerie impression-there being nothing to do but march and think-that the ghostly hand of some all-powerful deity was moving us hither and yon as a man moves pawns on a board.

Anon the platoon commander would turn and whisper halt. The platoon would drop in its tracks, like a row of cards, silently. But there was no cigarette space. Any sort of light was strictly forbidden. In a few moments we were up again-crunch, crunch, crunch. It was the creepiest experience, moving on and on, to heaven knew where or what.

Dull, thudding feet. The monotonous thud-crunch was beaten into our ears. We must have presented a weird spectacle, a gaunt but ghostly shape looming through the glowering darkness of the night, a grim and sullen thing on a grisly and gloomy mission. No singing, no talking, no smoking - only the monotonous crunch of feet leaping in and out of the sand.

God! How one must fight to stop oneself thinking during the long and ghastly hours!

Though our feet were in step, it seemed to me that bodies swayed drunkenly in the dim column ahead, like stalks of wheat in the wind. And some wag of a fellow would whisper in a hollow sepulchral voice: " How long, 0 Lord, how long !

Afterwards we knew, of course, that that long night march was not a retreat, but a great, wide, sweeping manoeuvre on the enemy's left flank and rear. That is to say, we were working round the left of him in order to get behind his trenches before we struck. We were told that there were about eight miles between Johnny Turk and ourselves when we massed together for the big attack. I'll swear we marched twenty miles that night. A wide enough turning movement, in all conscience I

Dawn came and still we marched. So far as we could see, we were merely marching across the desert, since there was nothing to see but sand and sand, fold upon fold of wretched sand.

“Blimy !" quoth Cockney Joe, "we're lost !”

At the time we were doing it, it certainly seemed a purposeless thing to do. Nobody ever tells a soldier anything. So we were inclined to ask ourselves why on earth we were being dragged across the desert in this aimless fashion

Then the rumour went along the ranks that we were taking Johnny Turk by the back door. We were advancing on his rear ! The British Army lives on rumours. Nevertheless, as the sun came up we realised that this was one of the rumours that must come true. There was the great golden ball rising on our left flank. We were then marching south. It was an extraordinary experience, to march out of the night into the dawn and realise we were trekking down country instead of up country, as we had been doing for nearly a year.

But with that tell-tale sun rising to greater and greater heat, there was no mistaking the direction. Soon the strange outline of things came over the horizon. We began to pick them out. As we drew nearer they took more definite shape. We saw in the distance the earthworks, the dumps and stations that mark unmistakably a fighting force's rear lines.

No sooner had we got into view than a terrific burst of firing broke out, shattering the morning stillness. But it was not directed against us! Johnny Turk was defending himself against a frontal attack. It was then that we fully realised what this night manoeuvre to the rear of the enemy's lines really meant. But surely something had gone wrong? Could it be that the section of our force which had advanced for the frontal attack had so exposed itself that there was no option but to go into action ? Looking back on it now, I know that such must have been the case.

At all events, we were suddenly wakened up out of our listless marching. The order went forth to prepare for action. Apparently we were late for the rendezvous. It mattered not that we had marched all night when the order to " double came. Double we did, at that steady, military jog-trot that keeps men going indefinitely.

Then we saw the cavalry gallop into action. It was a cheering sight. They seemed to spring out of nowhere, out of the heat haze on both flanks, close in, and race hell for leather towards Johnny's back door. And we ran behind them, deployed into action. At the command of one man the whole desert had come alive. Men laughed and shouted, exhilarated by this sudden springing to life, relieved beyond measure by the action that broke the dead monotony of a night's marching.

When you tap that well of feeling in man which is called "boyous adventure," you tap more than you know. Streams of excitement and passion and blood-lust are brought bubbling to life. And who shall say at what point these may be dammed ?

We went to that job of slaughtering the Turk in the manner of a lot of boys suddenly let loose in the playing fields. To us it was just an exciting adventure after the dread monotony of the hours that had gone before. Damnable as it undoubtedly is, there is a thrill about such a charge. Maybe it is that the beast in man is never far from the surface. It needs no great inducement to make the thing raise his ugly head.

Miraculously the weariness was shed and we were thudding along towards those trenches with fixed bayonets as though refreshed after a night of sound sleep. The thrill of the action had lent us a spurious strength and vitality. We could not get to those trenches quickly enough. We had trapped the other fellow, and that was advantage enough. There is nothing like having the advantage to give a fellow confidence! Johnny Turk was far too busy replying to the frontal attack he had expected and prepared for, to appreciate what was happening behind him - that is, until we were right on top of him.

We swarmed into the communication trenches without meeting any opposition. There was nothing to stop us at that point except the usual motley of cooks, stretcher bearers, officers' servants and such odd men generally to be found behind a fighting line. These we took in our stride. Getting in at the back door like this was no end of a lark!

It was then that we saw how busy the enemy had been during the hot "idle" months. He had built up a wonderful system of trenches, and had every justification for believing that the Britishers would not be able to oust him. He had reckoned without our back- door manoeuvre. The communication ways led us through wing trenches, third and second line trenches up to the main fire trenches.

To appreciate fully what that fighting below ground was really like, one should have some idea of a trench. Not every one has seen a trench. Briefly, it is an elongated grave (how true !), deep and narrow, so that two men could hardly pass each other in the confined space. The communications were at right angles with the front line trenches, and from one to the other were turnings and angles leading to rests and dug- outs. All along the subterranean passes we were jumping upon surprised men, the bayonet would strike once, and we would pass on.

The trapped men, busy defending themselves against the frontal attack, had hardly a chance to turn to those who were paying a morning call by way of the rear entrance.

The result was those trenches became a veritable slaughterhouse. Our sudden appearance brought the greatest confusion to the hapless men unable to face both ways. The dug-outs behind the main fire trenches were raked with the bayonet. Men dropped their arms and threw up their hands, thinking naturally that we had come over the top from the frontal attack, and that being so, the show was all over.

Here was the element of surprise with a vengeance ! I cannot forget how extraordinarily thrilling it was suddenly to turn a bend in the trench and come face to face with an astonished Turk ! I never saw so much surprise revealed in the faces of men as during the hectic hours of that memorable morning. One after another we came upon them, all registering that rather silly look of amazement. it is so easy to down a man when he is taken by surprise.

Nor was the manoeuvre without its element of humour. I came upon Cockney Joe, that under-sized little devil all wire and thong, at the door of a dug-out, busily cutting the buttons off a Turk's trousers ! Already he had four prisoners standing in a line, each one holding his waistband to prevent his trousers falling down! And he was at work on a fifth. There were more Turks inside that dug-out, but the little Cockney-himself hardly more than half the size of the men he was taking prisoners!

He would only allow one man to come forth at a time, for he held a hand grenade and was quite prepared to throw it in the dug-out should the Turks fail to understand him. He knew that so long as his prisoners' hands were occupied holding up their trousers they were helpless. He told us later that by such means he managed to capture a score of men single-handed. It is probable that he exaggerated. He had a tendency that way.

We reached the front-line trenches to find that the fire of our own force was still coming over. In such an expediency there was only one thing to do. We had to silence these Turks who were busily replying to the fire of our brothers-in-arms out there, lest we receive some of the fire ourselves !

To be shot by our own men was hardly the thing we had bargained for. I fear that in the desperate circumstances we went to it with unusual ferocity. The majority of the Turks were standing on the fire-step, their backs to us, heads down on the rifle-butts, pressing the clips and firing as fast as they could go.

They were stuck in the back and pitch-forked unmercifully to the floor of the trench, for all the world as if one were stabbing sausages and dropping them into a can! Thus we passed along the front-line trench, sticking and dropping these unwary men, trampling them under foot in a frightful scramble of blood-lust and sickening death. In that shambles the yelps and grunts and squeals, the cries of pain and the curses of Allah, made an appalling chorus for the crackling fire. True, as we progressed, those on the fire-step ahead were made aware of our presence. Many swung their rifles round and fired into their own trenches.

The raid went on for hours, scrambling up one trench and down another, and it was difficult at times to avoid clashes with our own men. Presently we realised that the fire was dying down. We rounded up the prisoners, collected our dead and wounded-a surprising number! Then a concerted thudding of feet, and we knew what it felt like to have a body of men charge and bombard one's trenches. They, however, had been warned of our presence. We joined forces and set to work to clear the entrenchments.

The Turks, we learned, had been working on this entrenching system since June. They had made elaborate use of plates, sleepers, timbers and other railway material that had been specially brought down from Baghdad to strengthen the field fortifications. And after all their work, a simple trick of military strategy had beaten them.

We had no means of knowing at that time what had happened on the front as a whole, since our responsibility was the left flank situated six miles from the Tigris. We knew vaguely that the river had been blocked by the Turks and that the enemy had a strong force on the right flank - where they had expected to fight the big battle. Nor did we care. By noon of that memorable day most of us were exhausted. We had marched all night, made a charge and stormed the trenches during the morning, so that it was not surprising to find men dropping down with sheer weariness. Added to which was the problem of water. The heat was blazing down and we were too far from the river. There was a marsh some distance from the entrenchments, but the water was poisonously bad. Just the same, many of the men were in such a state that they would drink anything, however filthy. Finally the order went round that we might rest for a while. We sank down in those trenches that stank of blood and the unhygienic habits of Johnny Turk and slept the sleep of the exhausted.

It seemed that I had hardly closed my eyes when I was being booted to my feet again. We were going straight into action ! The Turks had brought up their reserves from the right bank of the river and across their bridge of boats near Kut with the intention of restoring the battle on the left wing. We climbed out of these fortifications and went to meet them. That was at sunset and some twenty-four hours since we had started out on this ghastly job.

We met Johnny in the open and gave him all the lead he asked for. He was not keen on a fire-fight in the open, and less keen about our advance with fixed bayonets. He retreated. He drew us towards his artillery fire-and we didn't like that. We dug in, each man working feverishly with his entrenching tools to make a hole big enough to shield himself. It is somewhat surprising to find how quickly one can make a trench, piling the dug earth in front of oneself the while, in such circumstances Men do astonishing things under the stress of fire.

Darkness descended. The scream of shells was dying down. We burrowed and burrowed like great moles, sank deeper into our holes. Johnny Turk turned off the fireworks, at least so far as our bit of front was concerned. We could hear an inter- mittent phut-phut in the distance, but evidently not meant for us. So we sank down and dozed while nursing the rifle-butt.

Steve, who had used a gun on all sorts of odd spots while I was still at school, was of the opinion that the battle of Kut was over. He argued that Johnny Turk would have driven us back and back in order to regain his trenches, if he had been strong enough to do so. He was right. When daylight came we were given the cheering news that Johnny had abandoned his defences and had passed on under cover of darkness.

As to the obstruction across the Tigris - thereby hangs a tale of wonderful determination and courage on the part of Lieut. Commander Cookson, who was in charge of our naval unit. It should be noted that the river at this point had a navigable channel only half the width of the stream at Basrab, and that the trenches on both sides reached the river banks. The Commander went forward with his three gunboats at dusk under tremendous fire. The obstruction was found to be a flying bridge made by an iron lighter running on chains.

The Commander left his ship in a small boat, axe in hand, paying no heed to the terrific fire blazing all around him, an enfi1ade that riddled his ships and the little boat in which he worked. He was shot dead while in the act of severing the cable.

We captured 1158 prisoners and fourteen guns in the battle of Kut. Altogether the Turks lost 1,700 killed and wounded, and our casualties amounted to 1,229 killed and wounded.

General Townshend became the hero of the hour, and deservedly so. The men swore by him. Their confidence in him was nothing short of amazing. Even the Turks began to think him irresistible. The attitude of our prisoners was one of reverence. This great General had achieved the impossible. He had routed the enemy from fortifications they had been building for months Thus far, his troops had never been beaten. They had taken everything before them-thanks to his splendid generalship. But no thanks were due to the Indian Government for its niggardly attitude in the matter of adequate divisions, munitions, transport and general supplies.

This attitude was yet to prove the downfall of Townshend and his gallant troops.

In his story of the campaign, General Townshend wrote:

The battle of Kut-el-Amarah can be said to have been one of the most important in the history of the British Army in India. There had been nothing of its magnitude either in the Afghan War or the Indian Mutiny, for it was fought against troops well armed and of equal numbers to ourselves. In addition we ejected them from a very strong and up-to- date position commanding ground as flat and as open as a billiard table with nothing to check their fire-sweep."