from ‘The Great War’ edited by H.W. Wilson, vol 7, chapter 133
'The Campaign in Mesopotamia
to the Fall of Kut'

Fighting in the Land Between the Rivers

 

The Development of Mesopotamia by Railway Originally a British Project—Opening of the Suez Canal Secures Alternative Route to India and Leads to Decline of British Influence in Turkey—Germany Seizes her Opportunity—Gradual Extension of German Influence over Turkey—The Bremen-Berlin-Bosphorus-Bagdad Bahn—All- Important Question of Eastern Terminus on Persian G^lf— Mission of German Consul-General Stemrich to Purchase Site for Station at Koweit—Fidelity of Mobarek the Koweit Sheikh to Great Britain—Germany Pulls the Wires Through Constantinople—Successful Counter-moves by Great' Britain—Basra the Port on Shat-el-Arab, Finally Selected as Terminus of the Bagdad Railway—History of the Campaign Continued from General Townshend's Retreat upon Kut-el-Amara after his Brilliant Victory at Ctesiphon—Immediate Investment by the Enemv— Difficulties of River Transport—Exploits of Armed Tugs and Gunboats under Captain Nunn R N —Want of Cohesion between Home and Indian Governments—Unsatisfactory Rumours and Reports as to Conduct of'Campaign bv Authorities-Admission by Mr. Austen Chamberlain, Secretary of State for India, that Indian Organisation was at Fault—Heroic Defence of Kut Continued—Brilliant Sorties by Garrison—Gradual Reduction of Rations and Consequent Privations__Strenuous but Unavailing Efforts of the Relieving Force to Break Through Enemy's Lines—Final Surrender of General Townshend from Hunger, after Holding Out for One Hundred and Forty-three Days— World-wide Admiration for his Magnificent Resistance

 

 

Before carrying on the story of the Mesopotamian Campaign from the points previously reached in our history, it will be helpful to the complete understanding of the position, as between Germany and Turkey on the one hand and Great Britain on the other, briefly to set out the story of Germany's varied efforts before the war to intrigue her way to "a place in the sun" in the Persian Gulf.

In order fully to appreciate the measure of sanity which seasoned "the Mesopotamian madness," as the campaign in many quarters was regarded, it is necessary to look backward over a considerable number of years. Time was, well within the memory of the middle-aged, when the Euphrates Valley Scheme, as it was originally called, precursor of the Bagdad Railway, loomed large in the purview of current politics. In some shape or other during the latter half of the nineteenth century it was continually coming to the fore, and received serious, if intermittent, attention from more than one British Administration. The idea of opening up the rich but undeveloped countries constituting Asia Minor, of making Mesopotamia "the granary of the world," and conferring the boon of Western civilisation upon the inhabitants—none of whom had the slightest desire to adopt or capacity to appreciate it—was not made, though it certainly matured, in Germany.

A purely British project in conception, it harked back to the 'fifties, contemporaneous with Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, "the Great Elchi" at Constantinople, and the Crimean War—a muddle indeed, beside which the Mesopotamian Campaign shines as a miracle of management. Germany as an empire was neither born nor thought of. Turkey was then the friend, Russia the bugbear, of the moment—and not only the bugbear of the moment but the nightmare of the future; for it was an article of faith with every well-brought-up Briton most fervently to believe that she cherished sinister designs upon India. Any scheme, therefore, of rapid transport from Europe and across Asia which tended to strengthen the British position against Muscovite malevolence was of a nature to attract and rivet popular attention. The Suez Canal scheme was still germinating in the fertile brain of M. Ferdinand de Lesseps, and the only route to India lay round the Cape. Obviously then, the projection of a railway from Constantinople to the Persian Gulf possessed an element of superlative attraction to the British public. The prospect of obtaining the much-coveted finnan lured many a concession-hunter from the Thames to the Bosphorus, where he was fooled to the top of his bent by wily Turkish officials, and afforded ample opportunity of realising with chastened spirit and lightened purse the truth of Solomon's assertion that "hope deferred maketh the heart sick."

The British Embassy restricted or extended its support with the ebb or flow of opinion in Downing Street; but no firman was ever forthcoming, though the money spent and the energy wasted in endeavours to acquire it, would have constructed a considerable portion of the line.

Times changed and policies with them. The opening of the Suez Canal (originally opposed by Great Britain) in 1869, the acquisition by Disraeli of the Khedive's shares— a masterstroke of genius (176,602 for 3,976,582)—in 1875, the lease of Cyprus from Turkey in 1878, and the occupation of Egypt in 1882, had brought about a change in the spirit of the British dream. The new waterway to India, far more effective than any land-laid line, which could never be an " all red " route, was for all time secure.

To these and other causes, not germane to the present issue, the wane of Britain's influence in Turkey was mainly due. Her influence, which for generations had been paramount (the Sublime Porte trembled at Lord Stratford's nod), gradually declined. Its final withdrawal was the signal for Germany's advance. One of the first visits paid by the Kaiser in 1889, the year after his accession, was to Constantinople. During his stay were sown the seeds of a most unholy alliance, which increased the sum of human wickedness to a greater extent, and added more to the burden of human suffering, than any collusion between the powers of evil in the annals of recorded time. "Mercy and truth had met together; righteousness and peace had kissed each other." The pact between Kultur and Kismet was destined later on to become complete. Abomination of desolation lay in its train. Amongst its first fruits was the massacre of Armenians on a truly Imperial scale. Its aftermath was the monumental monstrosity of the worldwide war.

The aim of the Kaiser's policy, as soon as he had acquired undivided control of the German ship of State by dismissal of "the Pilot" in 1890, was gradually and insidiously to gain ascendancy over the Sultan, a matter not easy, but most important of attainment.

Abdul Hamid was no fool. Not without reason had he been dubbed the acutest and least scrupulous of living diplomatists in embassy chancelleries. In vulpine qualities he out-Heroded Herod—whom, indeed, he excelled in other respects. To promote and foster a revolutionary spirit amongst his people, to stir up the mud that Germany might fish in troubled waters, were aims no less essential. Control of Turkish trade, and finally of the Turkish Army, were, with equal assiduity, to be angled for. These measures, comprehensive as they were of revolution and deposition, took years to accomplish; but German policy neither faltered nor failed. The Old Turks, the dominant class, dignified, conservative, slow to . move, and procrastinating to the crack of doom, did not accord with Teuton ideas or fall into line with Teuton methods of progression. They saw, with uneasiness, the steady growth of German influence, and recalled the story of "Sindbad the Sailor" and the "Old Man of the Sea." They were mindful, too, of the dictum of Fuad Pasha, one of the few statesmen their country had produced, that in Turco-European relations, "C'est toujours la Turquie qui paie."

They stood, an inert mass, desirous only of being left alone to misgovern as they chose, in the path of the Kaiser's ambition, and had consequently to be negotiated out of the way. So it came to pass, after many days and infinite vicissitudes, that the Young Turks, with all the vices and but few of the virtues of the "old" ones, pursuing a policy shaped and guided by the unseen hand in Berlin, attained the ascendancy and ruled in their stead.

Eventually, throughout the length and breadth of the Sultan's domains, which from the religious aspect stretched as far afield as the British dependency of India—-the objective point — German influence reigned supreme. German finance asserted itself on the shores of the Bosphorus and German money flowed freely through all the arteries of Turkish trade. All valuable concessions went to Germany,' amongst them, in due course, the right of construction of that hoary-headed yet evergreen project, the railway line to Bagdad. The Turkish Army, second to none in fighting material, was handed over to German instructors to be taught the parade-step and moulded on the German pattern with a thoroughness typically Teutonic.

Meanwhile, Great Britain gave no sign. To all appearances she was an entirely indifferent spectator of the growing German grip upon the throat of Turkey, and Germany laughed aloud.

When railway development was taken in hand, the work proceeded apace and with characteristic energy. German engineers, artisans, and contractors scoured the country, surveying here and levelling there, and boring through the burial-grounds of a civilisation nobler far than their own The trail of the serpent was over it all.

By 1809 the project had assumed shape definite enough to warrant allusion by the Kaiser, in terms of alliterative grandiloquence, to the "Bremen-Berlin-Bosphorus- Bagdad Bahn" (railway). A year later it became apparent that the moment was opportune to secure a suitable site for the eastern terminus of the gigantic undertaking. Obviously a trans-continental line of this importance, which lacked an outlet at either extremity to the sea, lacked all; and therefore, with admirable forethought, it had been decided that the Oriental terminus should be situated on the Persian Gulf—for choice, on the shore of a natural harbour deep enough to allow vessels of the largest tonnage, actual or potential, to load and discharge their cargoes at its wharves.

Curiously enough, the Persian Gulf is singularly ill-provided with natural harbours answering to this description, and possesses only one, Koweit, on the northwest coast, within convenient distance of the mouth of the Shat-el-Arab, which conforms to it. Its area—some four hundred square miles—is sufficient in extent to contain the navies of the world. It was an ideal location for the terminus of the great railway. Upon Koweit, in consequence, the choice of the German Government naturally fell. Selection of any other place would have been short - sighted and foolish, not at all in accordance with procedure in Berlin. To Herr Stemrich, German Consul-General at Constantinople, was entrusted the task of purchasing the requisite amount of ground—four hundred acres, or thereabouts, in extent —for the site of the terminus. During his voyage from the Bosphorus the distinguished delegate enjoyed plenty of opportunities for reflection on the far-flung and ubiquitous nature of the British possessions. He possibly caught a glimpse of Cyprus in the offing. He certainly steamed through the Suez Canal, in which tlje British holding was no less than forty- four per cent, of the entire capital. He noticed that the island of Perim commands the entrance to the Red Sea, and that Aden, some miles farther east on the opposite coast, occupies a position of vantage. He must have passed various men-of-war of different shapes and sizes on his way up the Persian Gulf, for the illicit gun-running trade kept them constantly on the qui vive. It certainly did not escape his notice, while he scanned the horizon in vain for a sign of the Imperial flag, that they were all flying the White Ensign.

But the mission which had been confided to him was fraught with possibilities of a nature to induce stupendous change. The moment Germany acquired a vested interest on the Persian Gulf its days as a "British lake" would most assuredly be numbered. Indeed, a beginning had already been made. Some time previously (in 1897) a German Vice-Consul had been appointed at Bushire to promote and safeguard the interests of precisely six German subjects. The Hamburg-Amerika line, in consideration of a Government subsidy, had established a service between its home port and Aden, Muscat, and the Gulf. The first steamer, on its initial voyage, had called at all the ports it could possibly enter, while its band, grouped on the bridge, played "Deutschland uber alles," and, as an afterthought, "God save the King." Truly an excellent start.

It was, therefore, with sentiments akin to elation, possibly enhanced by the fact that Great Britain had her hands full at the time of the South African War and might therefore be left conveniently out of account, that the Consul-General and his suite arrived at Koweit. He lost no time in opening up negotiations with Mobarek, the native and principal sheikh, who exercised more or less despotic sway over the 200,000 members of the Uttub tribe, mostly shipbuilders by trade, in which they had attained no slight degree of proficiency. He explained, quite possibly in Mobarek's own language, that he had come all .the way from Constantinople, on behalf of the All-Highest the German Emperor, to purchase some four hundred acres of land abutting on the harbour, which had already been selected, and asked Mobarek to name his price. Mobarek, with befitting humility, expressed himself as only too willing to comply with the august wishes of the All-Highest the German Emperor, and admitted that the question of price could easily be arranged but for the intervention of a slight and, as he feared, an insuperable difficulty. Of what nature? he was haughtily asked. The representative of the All-Highest the German Emperor had arrived just a little too late. How too late? Only the year previously Mobarek had entered into a convention, signed, sealed, and delivered, whereby he was precluded from selling even a square inch of ground in the territory of Koweit without the consent of the other contracting party. And who might the other contracting party be? His Excellency the Viceroy of India. And what was the consideration received? The protection of the British Empire. That heartfelt prayer, the German soul's sincere desire, "Gott strafe England!" had not yet found its way into public utterance, but it requires no great stretch of the imagination to conceive of the fervour with which Consul-General Stemrich gave vent to its nineteenth-century equivalent. Germany ceased to laugh.

The inference, "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther," was perfectly plain. Great Britain, despite preoccupation of a somewhat pressing nature in South Africa, notwithstanding her seeming indifference to German expansion in Asia Minor, had neither slumbered nor slept. She had, on the contrary, kept very wide awake. She had been fully cognisant of and alive to the all-important issues at stake. She had stolen a march on the All-Highest. In a word, she had quietly locked the door of the projected terminus and put the key in her pocket. Threats and cajoleries, blandishments and bribes, were of no avail. Mobarek had not been brought up in an atmosphere of Kultur nor trained to regard treaties as binding only to the extent which suited his personal convenience. Versed probably in no philosophy save the precepts of the Koran, he yet entertained the clearest possible notions on the sanctity of contract. He had given his word, and that ended the matter.

The mission of Consul-General Stemrich thus resulted in a fiasco of the very first order. His report to the Embassy in Constantinople, no doubt, made interesting reading. What to do now? Clearly to induce the Sultan to exercise his right of sovereignty over Koweit and make things as unpleasant as possible for Great Britain through the medium of Mobarek. This was accordingly done, and in the following year, after numerous pourparlers, during which Mobarek, in his endeavours on the one hand to smooth the ruffled feathers of Ottoman dignity and on the other to maintain the advantage of British protection, frequently found himself "between the devil and the deep sea," the Sultan, prompted from Berlin, took a hand in the game and played what looked like a winning card. The sudden appearance of an Ottoman transport crowded with troops in the harbour of Koweit boded ill for Mobarek.

Fortunately, and by the happiest coincidence, one of those White Ensigned gunboats which the Consul-General had had occasion to note on his trip from Constantinople " happened" to be in port at the time. Its captain intimated politely but firmly to the Turkish commander that it would be to the latter's advantage, and prevent all sorts of unpleasant complications, were he to forgo his intention of landing troops and immediately to leave Koweit. The Turkish commander, whose instructions did not cover any contingency such' as that which had unfortunately arisen, there and then, with commendable discretion, weighed anchor almost as soon as he had cast it, and steamed away, leaving the score distinctly in favour of the White Ensign. The Sultan's lead had been roughed in the first round.

A few months later the Porte made another move, this time of a less bellicose nature, and sent a special representative to treat with Mobarek and bring him to terms. The emissary of the Sultan was given courteously to understand, on behalf of the senior British naval officer on the station (a sub-lieutenant would have served), that he could attain no useful object by making any prolonged stay at Koweit. He speedily came to the same conclusion—indeed, there was none other to arrive at— and his sojourn consequently rivalled in brevity and result that of the Ottoman transport.

Abdul Hamid, never at a loss for an expedient, then turned his attention inland, and instructed one of his Arabian henchmen, Ibn Rachid, with a horde of native swashbucklers, to attack Mobarek from the desert. When Ibn Rachid arrived on the scene the first sight which met his view was that of an array of funnels which sprang from the decks of three cruisers in the harbour, whose guns gave him furiously to think. They also were flying the White Ensign. As no mention had been made of the possibility of an encounter with the British Navy in the programme which Ibn Rachid had engaged to carry out, he wisely emulated the example of the Ottoman commander, beat an instant retreat, and headed full gallop for Central Arabia.

The Sultan, urgently pressed by Berlin, replied to this, the third, "retort courteous" which had been addressed to him in his endeavours to assert his sovereignty over Mobarek, by occupying the Bubian Islands, situated to the north of Koweit. Great Britain took no exception to this move beyond affirming that the position as regarded Mobarek remained unchanged, and that he still enjoyed her protection.

Prince von Bulow, the then German Chancellor, had been at some pains meanwhile publicly to declare, " We never for a moment entertained the absurd idea of seeking to acquire a port on the Persian Gulf." Herr von Schoen, his subordinate, was equally emphatic. "The German Government is absolutely opposed to the acquisition of a port in this inland sea." Those grapes were very sour. Frustrated in their endeavours to secure a foothold for their terminus on deep water, the Germans cast about for another site. Obviously the line could not stop at Bagdad. With equal futility might the Canadian Pacific Railway come to an end at Kamloops, or the Paris, Lyons and Mediterranean Railway at Tarascon. Basra, a well-sheltered port, forty-five miles up the Shat-el-Arab, was the next alternative which suggested itself. The bar at the entrance offered a serious but not insurmountable objection. It could be overcome by dredging, and, as things were, vessels drawing sixteen to seventeen feet of water passed over it easily. Basra, moreover, lay within undisputed Turkish territory, where the question of British protection, with concomitant and disconcerting British cruisers, could by no possibility be raised.

The final decision Was, however, not yet. Protracted diplomatic negotiations ensued arising out of Turkey's desire to increase her customs dues. Great Britain demurred. In 1913 Hakki Pasha was sent to London on behalf of the Porte with the object of getting her objection removed; but so long as the Ottoman Government continued its policy of undermining and counteracting British influence in the Persian Gulf, Downing Street remained adamantine. It Was, moreover, an open secret that the additional custom-house receipts were to be applied to the construction of the Bagdad line and its extension to the shores of the Gulf. Unless British interests in these waters were protected by treaty there could be no approval by Downing Street of the proposed increase in the Turkish dues.

Finally it was agreed that the Sultan should exercise sovereign rights over Koweit, subject to full recognition of British protection to Mobarek; Turkey abandoned the Bahrein (pearl fishery) Islands to Great Britain and accorded her the sole rights of buoying, lighting, and policing the whole of the Persian Gulf, which, as a matter of fact, she had long exercised.

Basra was thus promoted to the dignity of the terminus of the Bagdad Railway, but no extension beyond that point was to be undertaken without the consent of Great Britain. The latter claimed no participation in the construction of the line from Bagdad to Basra, but two British delegates were to have a seat on the board of administration of this section. On these terms the desired increase of four per cent, in the Turkish custom-house dues was agreed to.

The outbreak of war brought the Anglo-Ottoman agreement to an end. It also freed Mobarek from Turkish sovereignty, but left him undisturbed in the protection cf Great Britain. In March, 1915, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, traversing the territory won from the Turks, personally conferred upon him the Grand Cross of the Indian Empire in recognition of his loyalty to the Crown. It certainly merited the distinction. Nothing but a scrap of paper bearing the seal of an untutored Mohammedan sheikh stood in the way of the accomplishment of German designs (Prince von Bullow's disclaimer notwithstanding) upon a port on the Persian Gulf. The bond held.

Owing to a variety of causes, some due to climatic conditions and therefore unavoidable, others of a nature within the scope of human intelligence to foresee and consequently to counteract, the Mesopotamian expedition was extremely badly executed. It served, while bringing into the boldest possible relief the gallantry of men and officers in the field, as a monument to the inefficiency, short-sightedness, and lack of co-ordination on the part of supreme authorities. A long series of blunders, alike difficult to understand or excuse, culminated through want of support in the surrender of a larger garrison of troops under the British flag than had so far found record in the history of the Empire.

We may now resume the thread of our history of the Mesopotamian Campaign at the point where it was dropped at the close of Chapter XCIV. By December 7th, 1915, just a week after the victor of Ctesiphon, when almost within sight of Bagdad, had been compelled by lack of reinforcements to fall back upon Kut, where it had been decided that his retirement should end, the investment of his position was complete. The Turks, their line of communications fully open behind them, had hurried heavy bodies of troops down the river and completely surrounded the place. Then began one of the most heroic, gallant, and long-drawn-out defences ever set down to the credit of British arms. During the fateful seven days which had wrought such a momentous change in General Townshend's fortunes, he had taken every conceivable precaution to minimise its effects. Defences had been improved. All shipping, with sick and wounded, together with the 1,350 prisoners captured at Ctesiphon, was despatched to Basra. The only vessel retained was the armed tug S u m a n a, which had rendered invaluable service during the retreat to Kut, and she was reserved for use as a ferry.

The heterogeneous river fleet commanded by Captain Nunn, D.S.O., often under fire from both banks of the river, afforded inestimable assistance in protecting the steamers and barges and refloating them when they took the ground, a matter of frequent occurrence. The shifting shoals and shallows of the treacherous Tigris served the enemy Well. The Shaitan had stranded on the evening of November 28th, and defied all efforts of the Firefly and Shushan to get her off, though they were fortunately successful in salving all her guns and stores. The hull, however, had eventually to be left.

On the morning of December 1st the Firefly, in company with the Comet, after making good practice with lyddite on the occasion of the Turkish attack at Umm-el- Jubail, received a shot in her boiler which completely disabled her. Her consort the Comet (Captain Nunn) immediately took her in tow; but luck was against them. As they were turning down stream in the narrow river both vessels grounded. The strength of the current, combined with the dead weight of the Firefly, which was pressing against her, forced the Comet more and more deeply into the bank. Finding that his own position was hopeless until assistance arrived, Captain Nunn devoted all his energies to getting the Firefly clear, and finally succeeded in sending her careering down stream in the forlorn hope that she would escape disaster.

The Sumana speedily came to the Comet's assistance, but all efforts to dislodge her proved unsuccessful. Meanwhile the enemy's fire had increased greatly in intensity. Several field-guns had been brought up within short range and directed upon the devoted ships. They were, moreover, the target for the Turkish infantry, which poured volley after volley into them and the Firefly (which had speedily taken ground again) at a distance of fifty yards. Very soon it became evident that the Firefly and the Comet would have to be abandoned, for each was badly damaged and in flames. Under an inferno of shot, shell, and rifle fire, the operation of rendering the guns useless and transferring the crews and stores to the Sumana, which seemed to bear a charmed life, was coolly and successfully accomplished.

On the same day, December 1st, a fine feat of endurance was performed by the mixed brigade commanded by Major-General Sir Charles Mellis, V.C., consisting of the 30th Infantry and 115th Hants (Howitzer) Battery R.F.A., and the 16th Cavalry Brigade. It had been sent on, after taking part in the engagement at Umm-el- Jubail, to deal with hostile mounted troops which were interfering with the passage of steamers at Chubibat, some twenty-five miles below Kut. It became necessary to recall them, the increasing strength of the enemy rendering General Townshend anxious to concentrate his forces. So the mixed brigade retraced its steps, having marched eighty miles in three days, during one of which they had been engaged in fighting, without the loss of a single prisoner. To cover over twenty-six miles in a day over Mesopotamian tracks for three days, and arrive at the end of it, as Sir John Nixon, the then commander-in-chief, says in his report, with their valour and discipline in no way diminished, is no mean testimony to grit and physical fitness.

 

 

On the day previous to the completion of the investment (December 6th), the cavalry brigade, with the exception of one squadron retained at Kut, and a convoy of transport animals was marched to Imam Ali Gherbi, some fifty miles down the river, there to be reinforced by infantry and guns from Basra. They fought a rearguard action all the Way, but fortunately with few casualties. Behind this detachment a force under Lieut.-General Aylmer, V.C., was collected with the object of relieving Kut as soon as concentration had been completed.

At Kut the Tigris takes one of its innumerable bends in the shape of the letter U. Upon the peninsula thus formed, of about a mile in width and less than three- quarters of a mile in depth, General Townshend occupied an entrenched position, the village-it scarcely deserves the designation of a town—lying at the most southerly end. He also held the liquorice factory situated on the right bank, which he fortified and garrisoned with two battalions. To the east lay a bridge of boats covered by a bridge-head detachment on the right bank. The besieged were well supplied with stores and ammunition. General Townshend had confidence in himself and his troops, and looked forward to being promptly relieved. He therefore returned a determined refusal to Nuredin Pasha's summons to surrender. So certain was the Turkish commander that the besieged force must as speedily give in that he transmitted this summons, after a heavy bombardment, on the day immediately following the investment —December 8th. On the 9th he delivered a fierce attack upon the bridge-head in sufficient force to oblige the defenders, who of necessity were compelled to husband their resources, to retire. On the following night, December 9-10th, the bridge itself was destroyed by a party gallantly led by Lieutenant A. B. Matthews, R.E., and Lieutenant R. T. Sweet, of the Gurkha Rifles.

During the next three days a continuous bombardment ensued, and a series of attacks were delivered, all of which were successfully repulsed, particularly on December 12th, when the enemy's casualties in two days amounted to a thousand men.

So far the casualties of the besieged force had only amounted to four hundred and seventy. Of the difficulties in the path of the relieving force the chief was the question of transport on the Tigris. The carrying capacity of the river, notwithstanding the ever-increasing number of craft of all descriptions and sizes which crowded it, was still insufficient to the exigencies of the campaign.

As far as Kurna, where the Euphrates joins it and they together flow seaward under the name of the Shat-el-Arab, the Tigris is navigable for ocean-going steamers of moderate draught; but once above it, troubles not only begin but multiply. A draught of anything over five feet means certain and constant grounding, a source of interminable delay, and progress except in the flood season is a matter of impossibility at night. To tie up alongside the dreary stretch of mudbank as soon as it is dark and wait patiently for the dawn is the only course open.

The transports upon which the carriage of stores depended were mostly paddle- steamers drawing between four and five feet of water with a capacity of about five hundred tons. Each of them towed a couple of lighters, and together they moved no faster than the army which it was their business to keep supplied with the necessaries of life, to say nothing of the innumerable other things constantly required by troops on the march. To every brigade was allotted a parent ship which met its wants, and was in turn supplied by attendant mahailas, craft peculiar to the river, and presenting with their high-sloping masts, lateen sails, pointed bows, and lofty stem an exceedingly picturesque appearance. They again were fed by bellums, also indigenous, long, narrow boats shaped like canoes propelled by pole or paddle, the caiques or gondolas of the Tigris, and capable of anything, except upsetting, when managed by their owners. They were frequently used with great effect for the transport of troops over the reedy marshes contiguous to the river and occasionally were even armour-plated.

The call made upon the Indian authorities for vessels of any description suitable to the navigation of the Mesopotamian waterways resulted in a collection of the most heterogeneous craft ever brought together. One in particular, named the Aerial, is worthy of description. Her hull hailed from Brahmaputra, she was fitted with an air propeller, a fifty horse-power Diesel engine, and heralded her movements with a din like unto that of a general bombardment. She once plied as a shikar boat in Assam, where the Government's necessity proved her owner's opportunity, so she changed hands, and found her way to the Tigris under her own steam, a feat of navigation far excelling that of the famous Deutschland. She did great service during the advance upon Ctesiphon, was "stormed at with shot and shell" on more than one occasion, had many hairbreadth escapes, and was finally promoted to the position of an official ferry plying every hour between the field ambulance and the hospital camp "somewhere in Mesopotamia."

Anything that will float can be turned to account on the spur of necessity by the officers of the Royal Navy or Indian Marine. It is not surprising, therefore, that they should have enlisted the services of the gufar, which lays claim, not without justification, to be considered the oldest craft in the world. The gufar is built on precisely the same principle as the Welsh coracle, but is completely circular in shape. An enormous basket covered with skins, or plastered with pitch, answering neither to the impulse of sail nor the control of rudder, it is cast upon the waters at any point between Tekrit and Amara—where it immediately assumes a dual motion analogous to that of the earth—and finds itself after many days. Urged downward at varying degrees of speed by the current, it spins its way to its destination carrying a cargo according to its capacity and a complement of two men. Sometimes a donkey is thrown in as ballast. On arrival, the cargo is disposed of, and the crew wend their way homeward either afoot or on donkey back. Unless, indeed, it be skin-covered, in which case the hide may possibly serve the captain and crew with a shelter by night, the gufar itself is not worth transporting. One skin will outlast several generations, and time is of no value in the eyes of the Mesopotamian. He has practised this form of transit from the beginning of the ages. Gufars went spinning down stream from Nineveh to Babylon in the days of Herodotus, and will in all probability so continue to spin until they have been swamped for ever by the remorseless and ever-rising tide of Western civilisation, together with other quaint relics of an interesting past. That their owners, of their own free choice, will elect to abandon them in favour of an up- to-date motor-boat making thirty knots is a contingency so improbable that it need not be taken into account. They regard all such modern inventions in the light of Sheitanlik (wiles of the devil), most religiously to be eschewed, as fraught with danger to peace of mind in this world and chance of salvation in the next.

It became apparent at an early stage in the Mesopotamian Campaign, that the relations between the Home and Indian Governments were not tuned to the same note of mutual Understanding and co-ordination which—none too soon—had been struck with such admirable precision in the concert of the Allies. The inevitable result—discord in lieu of harmony—ensued. It is a far cry from Delhi to London, however rapid and easy telegraphic communication between them. Two heads on occasion may be considerably worse than one. As regards the medical service, the lack of co-operation between the two centres of authority was particularly and painfully noticeable. Statements Were freely made and passed without contradiction that the whole organisation of the medical department was deficient; that field hospitals were too few in number, while those which did exist were inadequately equipped and completely undermanned; that both doctors and nurses when most needed were rarely to be found, for the simple reason that they did not exist in sufficient numbers to be able to meet the calls made upon them from all points of the compass and at once. Demand considerably exceeded supply. At Ctesiphon the available medical staff could give adequate attention and assistance to five hundred men. Nine times that number, 4,500, urgently clamoured for both. Appalling accounts came to hand of the condition of the wounded, owing solely to lack of medical and nursing aid. Case after case was reported of officers and men, under the most trying climatic conditions, whether of heat or of cold, being left for days with no attention to their injuries beyond that of the first dressing in the field, sometimes barely that; thrown into the same barges as stores, munitions, and horses; as many as six hundred under the charge of a single doctor and one orderly. That these two did their duty nobly went without saying, but what were they among so many? Time and again the Tigris tugs, their decks thickly packed with sick and wounded, hurried down stream to the base unprovided with any means of protection for the men against the bitter cold of a winter's night. The same stricture was applied to the ocean-going steamers which transported the wounded from Basra to Bombay, where they arrived in a pitiable condition. Injuries originally slight in nature had been rendered gangrenous by exposure in torrents of rain or mud-sodden trenches and camps. Precious lives were lost or permanently impaired by neglect, which in turn was - engendered.by faulty organisation.

The enormous demands made upon the R.A.M.C. from the various centres of war in France, Egypt, and the Dardanelles, which in every instance had been responded to in a manner beyond all praise, had depleted the ranks of available medical officers, and the Indian medical service, all-sufficient in time of peace, proved inadequate, as regards numbers, to the strain put upon it in time of war.

The same spirit of lamentable parsimony and optimism, which characterised the conduct of operations at the outbreak of the Boer War, seemed to colour the counsels of the Indian Government. Indian Government's It learnt nothing and it forgot nothing. Mistake It made the fatal mistake of underestimating the powers of resistance of the enemy. The relief of Kut was regarded in the light of a walk-over, and, from the nature of the medical arrangements made, it almost looked as if the wounded were expected conveniently to limit their numbers and requirements to the capacity of the existing medical staff. The usual penalty was paid, and, as usual, by the innocent for the guilty.

An officer writing home said:

What a number of reasons will be given for our failure! Weather has been against us several times, but our worst enemy has been the utter gross slackness, stinginess, and lack of foresight of the Government at home and in India. The latter still firmly believes that we are scrapping with a few. wild savages instead of with a fine lot of very brave Turks who probably have not their equals as trench fighters.

Candid opinions such as these, which appeared in the newspapers from time to time from those in a position to form them, did not make pleasant reading or encourage feelings of public confidence. Complaints, however, were not restricted to the insufficiency of medical officers, nurses, and supplies. They applied in ever- increasing volume to the deficiency of munitions, bombs and hand-grenades in particular, which played so prominent a part in the war, and whereof the troops in Mesopotamia stood badly in need. When they did arrive, at irregular intervals, their quality left much, if not everything, to be desired, and reflected seriously upon the source of their manufacture. About other matters of grave import, uneasiness was felt and questions were asked to which a satisfactory reply never seemed to be forthcoming. How came it, for instance, that there was such a deplorable shortage of transport on the Mesopotamian rivers? Flat-bottomed boats of the particular nature required were not difficult to build, and took no great length of time in construction. Had the dockyards at Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and other Indian ports been utilised for this purpose? Had no attempt been made to turn to account the railway material, left by the Germans at or near Basra for the construction of the Bagdad line, while the Turks were laying down their rails below Ctesiphon at the rate of a mile a day? Was there no telephonic communication at the engagement of Sheikh- Saad between the Headquarters Staff and officers commanding in the field?

Had the signalling apparatus been despatched in as many as eleven separate steamers, reaching their destination on as many different occasions? Was there a dearth of supplies where they were most needed, and a surfeit where least required? In a word, had the organisation of the Indian Government completely broken down?

The Secretary of State for India, Mr. Austen Chamberlain, whose announcement on the subject in the House of Commons was eagerly looked for, had but cold comfort to give. Speaking on March 22nd, 1916, he gave it as his opinion, after paying a deservedly fitting tribute to the valour of the troops engaged, that there had been a lamentable breakdown on the part of the Indian organisation, its only excuse being the extraordinary difficulties attending the conduct of the campaign. He believed that there had always existed an abundance of medical supplies at Basra, but a grave and, as he thought, an inexcusable want of them higher up. due mainly, he did not doubt, to the Gordian knot presented by the problem of river transport.

Boats had to be of exceedingly shallow draught, and were not easy to obtain in anything like sufficient numbers. Many had been requisitioned from as great a distance as Egypt, but were lost en route by perils of the sea General Bingley and Sir William Vincent, distinguished soldier and civil servant respectively, had been sent by the Government of India to investigate matters on the spot, and report upon medical arrangements in connection with the campaign. The advance on Bagdad, Mr. Chamberlain informed the House, had been agreed to by the Home and Indian military authorities, and in addition had met with the approval of the officer commanding in Mesopotamia. He begged members to keep an open mind upon the subject until such time as the report he alluded to had been received and the information before the House was more reliable and exhaustive than that which it then possessed.

The hope previously entertained that the officer commanding had exceeded his instructions (in view of the difficulty of believing that they could have emanated from concerted authority) was thus rudely shattered by the Secretary of State, and the opinion, openly expressed in the House, that an advance upon Bagdad with a handful of twelve or fourteen thousand men savoured of insanity, was fully shared outside. There was nothing for it in the circumstances, however, but to make fresh demand upon the national stock of patience and still further to "wait and see," though the public was getting well-nigh sick unto death of the threadbare policy of shutting the stable door after the steed had been stolen.

To return to the beleaguered garrison at Kut. On December 14th, 1915, the two battalions occupying the liquorice factory rushed the enemy's trenches, which were only two hundred and fifty yards away. Three days later a sally resulted in the bayoneting of thirty Turks, the British loss being only one man slightly wounded. As Christmas approached, the fury of the enemy's attacks increased. He had received a formidable addition to his strength by the arrival of the 52nd Division, which had won its laurels in the Caucasus. Christmas Day saw the besieged hard pressed indeed. The garrison of the fort was unable to withstand the furious attack, which Was delivered in vastly superior numbers, and had to evacuate its position; but not for long, as a determined counter-attack, in which the enemy was repulsed, enabled the British to regain the lost ground.

Fighting of a desperate nature went on during the whole of Christmas Day, and was continued far into the small hours of the following day. Shortly before midnight a fierce onslaught was made on the northern bastion and a temporary footing secured. Forced to retire with heavy losses, the enemy came on again and again, striving to rush the breaches which had been made in the walls, and hurling bombs innumerable. To no purpose. To their indomitable courage was opposed valour greater still, and as the day broke they withdrew. That Christmas Day was likely to linger long in the memory of the garrison of Kut. On the 24th and 25th the British had lost over three hundred of their already depleted numbers. On the other hand, the enemy's losses were sufficiently heavy to warrant his asking on December 29th for an armistice to enable him to bury his dead and remove his wounded, who lay in heaps in front of the fort. Of course, the request was accorded. During the first month of the siege the British casualties were 1,840; the Turkish could not well have been less than 4,000.

Finding it impossible to take the position by assault, except at a sacrifice of life which he was not prepared to make, Nuredin Pasha changed his tactics, and prepared to reduce it by starvation, keeping up a bombardment of an intermittent nature, principally at night, with his heavy guns.

The grim spectre of hunger had not yet made an actual appearance, but its shadow was gradually creeping over the devoted defenders of Kut. Hopes of speedy relief still ran high within its walls, and of rations, if on a reduced scale, there were yet enough to go round. There were always the horses. Fortunately, on January 24th, a large quantity of privately stored grain was discovered. The find proved of incalculable value. To reduce it to flour was now the difficulty. Grinding operations for so large a force were beyond the capacity of the solitary mill. The problem was solved by the simple expedient of calling down a rain of millstones from the sky. Friendly aeroplanes dropped them into soft places of special selection. Oil stored in the naval barges supplied the deficiency of fuel, which by this time was running short. General Townshend, with admirable forethought, had' planted vegetable seeds three days previously (January 26th), anticipating that he would shortly have to cope with the scourge of scurvy. So, indeed, it proved; and by the first week in February, by which time the stores of green food, rice, and sugar had run dry. and the milk at the hospital was reduced to a supply for ten days, the garrison was forced to add the bane of this disease to the sum of its sufferings.

The British troops were then receiving a twelve-ounce loaf of mixed wheat and barley flour, one pound of meat, a few dates and groceries per diem. The rations for the Indians were a pound of flour, half the usual allowance of tea, turmeric chillies and ginger, and a handful of dates. On this small scale the groceries were eked out until March 5th. From that time onward, as the prospect of relief grew less, the rations were gradually and systematically reduced, General Townshend and his Staff sharing every privation with the men.

On April 8th there was no further possibility of running the mill, which had to stop work owing to lack of fuel, though fortunately there was a stock of flour in hand to last another week, when the rations had to be cut down to a quarter, of a pound per man per day, British and Indian alike.

Many, and amongst them several successful, attempts at escape were made by Arab inhabitants after food became scarce. One man, a particularly strong swimmer, aided by inflated bladders, was reported to have made the journey down stream to the British camp at Kurna.

Another—sole survivor of a party of eighteen —arrived, wounded in the leg, on a raft. These men brought firsthand news of the condition of the besieged, all of whom, they said, were in cheerful spirits, fully confident that relief would yet reach them. Their respect for General Townshend, who seems to have been endowed with the same capacity for arousing and maintaining enthusiasm in his men as the hero of Khartoum, amounted to veneration. On April 24th a final attempt was made to get supplies through, and the Julnar, laden with stores of every sort and kind, left Basra, bent on running the blockade. Her mission, however, had been an open secret for three weeks before she started, and the Turks, through Arab sources, knew as much about her every movement as the British authorities. She, consequently, fell an easy prey into the enemy's hands, actually within sight of Kut. To render the process as dangerous as possible by shell fire was their only consolation, but it was not of a satisfying nature.

Attempts to replenish the failing supplies of the garrison by aeroplane had been frequently made, but, except in a few cases—-the millstone episode amongst them— had proved unsuccessful. The Turks boldly claimed that the superiority of their battle-planes enabled them "to shoot down the old British machines one after the other."

The efforts made by the relieving force were alike indicative of the gallantry of the officers and men composing it and of the insufficiency of the means supplied for the accomplishment of their task. Despite temporary and, on occasion, brilliant success, it speedily became evident to those who followed their movements that nothing but a large and immediate accession to their numbers and armament could enable them to overcome the resistance which the enemy was capable of offering.

The odds, almost invariably, were against them at the rate of five to one, and that the Turks were foemen worthy of their steel on even terms had been already demonstrated at Gallipoli. No fewer than a dozen different attempts tc break through were made over a period of four months, practically the whole duration of the siege. On January 7th the Turks were attacked and forced to retreat from their position at Sheikh-Saad, situated due east of Kut on the south bank of the river, some fifty miles down stream. This success enabled an advance to be made a fortnight later on the still stronger enemy's entrenchments at Umm-el-Henna, twenty-seven miles higher up the river. This venture, unfortunately, did not meet with success, the enemy being in too great strength; and until March 6th no further attempt was made.

On that date an attack was directed against Es Sinn, still higher up stream, almost within sight of Kut, but here also the enemy was in considerably superior force, and it was found impossible to dislodge him. Three weeks elapsed, during which the command devolved upon General Gorringe, in place of General Aylmer. He moved against the formidable position of Umm-el-Henna on the north bank of the river, where the British had failed to gain a footing in January. The only line of progress open to him was by frontal attack, as, indeed, had been the case in all prior advances. Outflanking operations, owing to the condition of the country on both sides of the river, were impracticable. He had to move along the strip of high ground contiguous to its banks. The marshes, flooded to the full, extended far on each side. Beyond the marshes lay the desert, firm enough for transport or foothold, but waterless save for a few isolated wells totally inadequate to the necessities of troops and known only to the Arabs. Good progress had been made during a week's fighting by the 13th Division, which had so conspicuously distinguished itself at the Dardanelles and lost 6,000 officers and men out of a total strength of 10,500, thereby disproving the German axiom that no unit could survive the loss of twenty- five per cent, of its strength. The men of the 13th had supported a drain of more than twice that amount, yet showed no sign of reduced vigour. Though in seven days the distance which separated them from Kut had only been reduced by eight miles, they had fought for and carried every inch of the way.

 

 

Trenches had been pushed forward by means of saps to within one hundred yards of the enemy's position at Umm-el-Henna, where he was strongly entrenched in places as deeply as nine feet. At 5 a.m. on the last day of March, the leading battalions of the 13th Division rushed the first and second trenches in quick succession under the support of concentrated artillery and machine-gun fire. Another hour saw them in possession of the third line, and by 7 a.m., after two hours' furious fighting, during which they drove everything before them, they occupied the fourth and fifth line. Information was then received by scouting aeroplanes that the enemy was strongly reinforcing his positions both at Felahieh and Sanna-i-Yat, three and a half "and seven miles away up the river. As the approach lay over very open ground farther advance was deferred until nightfall. At 8 p.m., after a well-earned rest, the forward movement was continued on the left (north) bank, and the Felahieh position was successfully carried in the darkness. The 3rd Division in the meanwhile, under General Keary, had pushed on upon the other bank and 'had met with equal success in capturing the enemy's trenches opposite Felahieh, and consolidated the position, despite a strong counter-attack. On April 9th General Gorringe pressed on to Sanna- i-Yat, but here he found the enemy entrenched in such strength that he had to fall back. General Keary, on the right bank, met with less resistance, and he was able to press onwards until, by April 17th, he had reached a point within eleven miles of Kut. On that and the following day the Turks delivered furious counter-attacks which, at a computed cost of 3,000 casualties, forced the British to retire. A bombardment of Sanna-i-Yat was followed by a fresh assault on the 23rd, but again the position proved impregnable, and once more the British had to fall back.

So in storm and rain and flood, with ever-decreasing forces opposed to ever- increasing numbers, the relief force found itself within eleven miles of Kut, whence the beleaguered British, now in the last extremity of hunger, could see the flashes of its guns.

On April 29th the limit of endurance was reached and the doom of Kut sealed. An ominous message from General Townshend, received by wireless at half-past eleven on the morning of that day at the British Headquarters, stated that he had surrendered.

I have destroyed my guns and most of my ammunition is being destroyed. Officers have gone to Khalil Pasha, the Turkish Commander-in-Chief, who is at Madug, to say that I am ready to surrender. I must have some food here and cannot hold out any longer. Khalil has been told to-day, and a deputation of officers has gone in a launch to bring food from the Julnar, the ship sent by the relief force on the night of April 24th to carry supplies to the garrison of Kut.

Shortly afterwards came another message: I have hoisted the white flag over Kut Fort and town, and the guards will be taken over by a Turkish regiment which is approaching. I shall shortly destroy wireless. The troops go at 2 p.m. to camp at Shamran.

The news, to a great extent discounted by the tenor of the messages from General Townshend intimating that the ej\d was in sight, was received throughout the Empire with profound sorrow. In Great Britain regret was tempered with indignation, for a strong and justifiable feeling existed that the reverse need never have been sustained. Allied and neutral countries were unstinted in their sympathy and admiration. In hostile camps the announcement was hailed with expressions of extravagant delight. Berlin, in delirium of joy, claimed the credit for General von der Goltz and the scientific training which the Turkish Army had received at his hands. Of the fact that never before had so large a British force as 9,000 men capitulated to an enemy the most was naturally made.

Khalil Pasha received the envoys of General Townshend, for whom he expressed unbounded admiration, with the proverbial courtesy of his race. He was specially desirous that the garrison, after all the privations it had undergone, should be generously provisioned, and regretted that his own stores were not sufficiently plentiful to enable him to furnish what was requisite. As soon, however, as the iron pressure of the blockade had been removed, supplies poured into Kut from British sources.

General Townshend, who was permitted to retain his sword, was shortly afterwards sent to Constantinople, where quarters were assigned him at Prinkipo, the principal amongst a group of islands in the Gulf of Ismidt. He carried with him into his enforced retirement the sympathy, respect, and admiration of his countrymen. For nearly five months he and the troops he so ably commanded had acquitted themselves under conditions of the utmost difficulty and of a nature to test character, whether in bravery or endurance, to the core.

The story of Kut and its gallant resistance will never die. It may well inspire the pen of a great poet in the future, even as the defence of Lucknow impelled that of Tennyson in the past. Lucknow held out for eighty-seven days, Kut-el-Amara for one hundred and forty-three. To the survivors of the historic siege in Oude, after all their sufferings—heat like the mouth of a hell or deluge of cataract skies, Stench of old offal decaying and infinite torment of flies—came final relief at the hands of Outram and Havelock, and, as a fitting climax, the supreme consolation that Ever upon the topmost roof our banner of England blew. No such happy issue out of all their afflictions was in store for the heroes of Kut. For them, despite privations even greater, though endured with the same magnificent fortitude for nearly half as long again, was reserved the crowning humiliation of being forced by hunger alone to lower the flag.