from 'the War Illustrated' 12th January, 1918
'What Really Happened at Kut'
by Lovat Fraser

Chapters from The Inner History of the War

British positions at Kut after the surrender

The most tragic thing about the tragedy of Kut is that Sir Charles Townshend and the heroic 6th. Division might have been saved. There was one moment when the road to Kut lay open and undefended. I propose to relate and to examine here the story of that unfortunate failure.

Sir Charles Townshend was shut up in Kut on December 4th, 1915, with about 9,500 effective troops, 3,500' followers, and 1,500 sick and wounded. The Tigris Corps, which included units brought from France and Egypt, was hastily formed to relieve him. General Aylmer was in command of the Tigris Corps, and General Gorringe was his Chief of Staff.

The Turks had six fortified positions astride the Tigris below Kut. The advance of the relieving force began on January 4th, 1916, and two days later an attack was made on the Turkish positions at Sheikh Saad, about forty-five miles by water from Kut. General Young-husband was in immediate command, and he attacked on the left bank on January 6th and 7th. His attempts to outflank the enemy failed, and our casualties amounted to 4,202, including 133 British officers. The Turks voluntarily abandoned their position on January 9th, and retired ten miles upstream to the Wadi.

The attack on the Wadi was made on January 13th. General Kemball made a frontal advance, while Younghusband, with the bulk of our forces, attempted a wide turning movement. Younghusband was held up, and Kerhball's force, moving forward under a murderous fire, could not get to close quarters. We had 1,600 casualties, including forty British officers. During the night the Turks retired to the Umm-el-Hannah defile.


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Three Unhappy Battles

The 7th Division, under Younghusband, attacked Umm-el-Hannah pn January 21st, the 3rd Division, under General Keary, together with artillery, co-operating on the right bank. A splendid battalion of the Black Watch, brigaded with two Indian battalions, carried the first line of the enemy trenches, but was driven out. The weather was shocking and the battlefield a swamp. Our casualties numbered 2,741, including 78 British officers, and Kut was still over thirty miles away by the winding river route.

In these three unhappy battles, the very names of which are hardly known to the bulk of the British public, we suffered 8,606 casualties, including 251 British officers. There can be no doubt that the Turks played with us. They took a heavy toll of our unfortunate men, who were advancing over heavy open ground with inadequate artillery preparation, and in one instance with no artillery protection at all. Having mown down our troops, they retired comfortably after dark. The whole story of these battles, and of the men who directed them, must be told some day. Sheikh Saad represented the biggest losses the British have sustained in any battle we have ever fought in Asia, and it is explicitly stated in the Mesopotamia Report that it was fought against orders.

General Aylmer then looked .about for an alternative scheme for relieving Kut. The very last Turkish positions were known as the Es Sinn line, and they stretched for many miles astride the Tigris at distances varying between six to ten miles from the besieged town. The right flank rested on a tributary watercourse called the Shatt-al-Hai, and its keypoint was the formidable Dujailah Redoubt, five miles south of the Tigris. A couple of miles to the north of the Dujailah was a smaller redoubt called Sinn Aftar.

Attack on Dujai'ah

From the very beginning the story of the attack on the Dujailah Redoubt is enveloped in vagueness and uncertainty. It is an established fact that owing to the lack of water the Turks were in the habit of only manning the redoubt by day, and at nightfall most of the troops retired to the Tigris, while others fell back to small camps some distance in the rear. General Gorringe, the Chief of Staff, told the Mesopotamia Commission that he was aware that the redoubt was almost empty at night. In fact, the whole basis of the scheme of the attack seems to have been that if a force could be marched across the desert under cover of darkness it might have seized the redoubt before the bulk of the Turks could arrive. So clearly was this the case that the Vincent-Bingley-medical report actually states that the original intention was to use the redoubt after capture as a "place to collect the wounded" ! On the other hand, General Aylmer, who was in chief command, informed the Commission that he "knew nothing of the short water supply and consequent weakness of the garrison." Small wonder that the Commission describes this statement as "bewildering,"

Whatever the reasons, the plan of the operation was simple enough. Younghusband on the left bank was to keep the enemy busy in front of Umm-el-Hannah. Two columns were to be assembled on the other side of the river after dark, and were to march fourteen miles across the desert to the Es Sinn line. Halfway on the march, Keary, with the right column, was to diverge and get before the Sinn Aftar Redoubt by daybreak.

"Odds Against Success"

Kemball was to go on by a rather circuitous route with four brigades and tackle the Dujailah Redoubt in front and flank, while the cavalry brigade was to work round the right flank of the whole Es Sinn line. If the plan had succeeded, the redoubt would have been carried, the line would have been pierced, and Aylmer would undoubtedly have been shaking hands with Townshend by nightfall.

But General Neville Lyttelton, who has analysed the plan, holds that "the odds against success were high." He quotes Kemball as saying that when Wolseley made a night march to attack Tel-el-Kebir in 1882, he only had to cover three and a half miles with 13,000 men, and he allowed them three and a half hours to complete the march. Aylmer, with a "scratch" army of 20,000 men, planned to march fourteen miles in the dark in nine hours, and Kemball contend? that too much was expected of the troops.

Some of the forces were late in arriving at the rendezvous on the night of March 7th, 1916, and instead of starting at 9 o'clock the column did not move until 10.22. One division lost its way, and the men were so tired that they fell asleep at the halts. Keary's column was in position before Sinn Aftar at 5.30 a.m., and the surprise was complete. Kemball's column, which had farther to go, was 1,500 yards short of the Dujailah at 6.30 a.m.

Even then the plan might have succeeded. Gorringe says that "energetic and bold action " on the part of Kemball would have forestalled the enemy in his attempts to reinforce the Dujailah, and, after having sifted a. good of oral and written testimony furnished by men who were present, I hold that Gorringe is right. This is also the opinion of General Lake, the Commander-in-Chief, as stated in his despatch. If Kemball had pushed straight through, the Dujailah would have fallen at once, and Kut would have been saved. When one of his brigades lay down only five hundred yards from the redoubt they could see the Turks running to man it.

Yet it is understood that Kemball's explanation has been accepted, and nothing in this discussion must be held to suggest that because he did not instantly attack he is therefore blame-worthy. Lake's despatch says that “time was lost by waiting for the guns to register and to carry out reconnaissances."

On the Edge of Success

Most of the statements I have declare that Aylmer's orders were that no attack was to be made without artillery preparation, and that Kemball adhered to his instruction It is at this point that I, like the Commission, grow bewildered, for Aylmer's headquarters were only two miles behind. If the way was clear, why were nearly three hours wasted over the guns ?

Kemball eventually attacked at al 9 a.m., and though he was supported Keary, his men could not reach the J redoubt. One of Kemball's contentions by the way, is that when Keary's column saw at daybreak that the Dujailah was empty, they should have been put in at once, and I think this is sound. At 5.15 in the afternoon the attack on the Dujailah was renewed, and this time some of the battalions, including one or more of Keary's, actually stormed the redoubt and stayed there fifteen minutes, 'I were then driven out by a heavy counter attack, accompanied by strong shrapnel fire, but one who was there has said: "Another 500 men in support, and we should have held it." Why were they not forthcoming ? I do not know. Out losses were 470 killed and 2,877 wounded and missing.

The troops remained before the Es Sinn lines all that night, and Aylmer ordered a withdrawal at daybreak on March 9th owing to lack of water. Kemball wanted to attack again, and said he had enough water for his own men, but permission was refused. Aylmer was recalled on March 12th, and Gorringe succeeded him. There was never afterwards any real chance of relieving Kut, and Townshend surrendered on April 29th, 1916.


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