When war broke out with Turkey the occupation of Basra was urged as a means of diverting Turkish troops from the threatened attack on the Suez Canal and Egypt, and of protecting the Anglo-Persian oil line, an important source of supply for the British Navy. Accordingly a mixed British and Indian Force, which was despatched to Mesopotamia with this object, defeated the Turks at Sahil, and on 22nd November, 1914, entered Basra. On 9th December the garrison of Qurna, 40 miles higher up, surrendered with nine guns.
Much of Mesopotamia is waste sandy loam, subject to sand storms during the hot weather and turning into an adhesive mud during the wet season. As there are few roads or even tracks, the rivers are the chief means of communication, but they have swift currents, are liable to floods and are encumbered with numerous shallows. Few troops were available for further operations, and the difficulties of transporting them and their supplies were very great.
Some months elapsed before reinforcements arrived, and the Turks, encouraged by the delay, took the initiative, but were driven back at Shaiba on 14th April, 1915. During May Gen. Townshend, having collected or improvised some sort of water transport, advanced with one division up the Tigris and, taking the garrison of Amara more or less by surprise, occupied the town on the 29th. At the same time the advance was consolidated by troops under General Gorringe which cleared the enemy from the district between Ahwaz and Amara and in July advanced up the Euphrates and took Nasiriya.
The water transport, barely sufficient for the original expedition, had now to serve twice the number of men, and the problem of supplying the troops with food and ammunition and of dealing with the sick and wounded became very serious. Nevertheless General Townshend was ordered to advance. On 29th September he defeated the enemy at Kut, captured the town with 1,700 prisoners and much war material, and followed up the victory by sending his cavalry in pursuit to Aziziya, 50 miles farther up the river.
It was generally considered that to continue the advance, without substantial reinforcements and greatly improved transport, would be unwise, even disastrous, and early in October the Government of India ordered a halt. Why this order was afterwards waived is not clear. The British Government seem to have represented that, prospects in Gallipoli being uncertain, a striking success in the East was desirable, and the military authorities may have been too sanguine. Whatever the reason, a few reinforcements were sent but no transport, and in November, when the Turks had organised their defences, the advance was renewed. On the 21st our men drove the enemy out of Laj, pushed on nine miles, and on the 22nd attacked the main position at Ctesiphon, only sixteen miles from Baghdad. Two lines of trenches were captured, but enemy reinforcements compelled the British to retire to the first line. They were now outnumbered by about two to one, and on the night of the 25th/26th a retreat was ordered. On 3rd December, after a series of rear-guard actions, Kut was reached in safety.
The town lies on a strip of land, one mile broad and two deep, with the Tigris on three sides of it. Across the neck of this strip entrenchments were dug, and buildings on the farther, that is the south side of the river, were also fortified. On the 9th the Turks commenced the assault and drove in the southern outpost. Four attacks on 10th December were beaten back and, after a period of comparative rest, a fifth on the 24th, supported by heavy reinforcements, met with a like fate. Meanwhile the enemy, in order to hold up any relieving expedition, erected strong fortifications below the town, chiefly at Es Sinn on the south bank and at Hanna and Sanna-i-Yat on the north bank where there were extensive marshes.
The winter rains now set in, turning much of the country into a morass, but early in January, 1916, a relieving column under General Aylmer, although hampered by lack of transport, reached Hanna, twenty miles away, where it was checked and had to retire. A second attempt on the night of the 9th/10th March, this time on the south side of the river towards the Dujaila Redoubt, miscarried in the darkness, and, after severe fighting, the troops were withdrawn. At the third attempt the 13th Division, under Gen Maude, captured five lines of trenches at Hanna on 5th April, and on the 9th, after the advance had been held up by floods, breached the Sanna-i-Yat defences.
South of the river our troops reached Bait Aissa, but neither body could get any farther.
Although rations had been reduced to a half and then to a fourth, and supplies had been dropped from aeroplanes, all food in Kut, including the battery bullocks and mules, had now been consumed, and on 29th April, arms and ammunition having been destroyed, the town, after a siege of five months, surrendered.
Corp. H. J. Belben (4th Hants, Educ), serving with one of the relieving columns, died of disease at Amara on 19th January, 1916.
The British spent the summer and autumn of 1916 on the defensive, but the time was fully occupied by Sir Stanley Maude, now commander-in-chief, in organising transport, in accumulating stores, in training the reinforcements which were being freely sent, and generally in preparing for an advance. The Turks also laboured incessantly, constructing on the south side of the river at Kut, one within the other, four elaborate trench systems, the outermost of which extended for about thirty miles. The British attack opened on 13th December with a bombardment of the Sanna-i-Yat defences. This was only a feint, for the main body, crossing the desert, advanced towards Kut along both banks of the Shatt-el-Hai which connects the Tigris with the Euphrates. The ruse succeeded and the defending troops were taken by surprise. Heavy rains now fell for several weeks, but the troops pressed on and by 19th January, 1917, after much desperate fighting, had cleared the enemy from the four trench systems east of the Hai and had reached the Tigris. This success was followed on 3rd February by the storming of the defences which covered the junction of the Tigris and the Hai, and by the 15th the enemy had been cleared from the elaborate defences west of the Hai. On the 16th the attack at Sanna-i-Yat was resumed with success and, while the enemy's attention was engaged there, the Tigris was crossed on the 23rd at Shumran to the west of Kut.
Next day the British broke through at Sanna-i-Yat and the Turks everywhere retreated in disorder, the retreat being hastened by our cavalry and by gun-boats on the river.
Aziziya was reached on the 27th and, after a brief halt while the lines of communication were being organised, the troops went forward again, occupying Ctesiphon on 6th March without resistance. The Diyala was crossed on the night of the 8th/9th, and on the 11th our troops entered Baghdad.
At each stage of the advance many prisoners were taken and at Baghdad, the terminus of the railway from Constantinople, much war material, including railway and hospital equipment, arms and munitions, was seized.
Major G. R. Treadwell (6th E. Lanes, Educ.) was killed on 5th February, 1917, and Lance-Corp. A. E. Morris (8th R. Welch Fusiliers, Educ.) and Arthur Walker (8th R. Welch Fusiliers, Tram.) on the 15th, all to the west of Kut.
Operations in Upper Mesopotamia.
The capture of Baghdad was immediately consolidated by stationing strong outposts up the Tigris,
MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA.
Diyala and Euphrates. Mushaidiya, situated on the first, was seized on 16th March after a sharp encounter with the enemy; Baquba, on the second, on the 18th; and Feludja, on the third, on the 19th. On the 23rd a force from Baquba occupied Shahraban, twenty miles to the north-east, and, after several conflicts with the Turks who were being driven out of Persia by the Russians, established touch with the latter at Kizil Robat, on 2nd April. On the 21st the enemy were defeated at Istabulat in front of Samarra, an important position on the Tigris and the railway, and two days later that place was seized as well as more war material.
The first attack, on 11th July, upon Ramadi, thirty miles up the Euphrates from Feludja, was a failure, but a second attempt succeeded on 29th September, when 3,500 prisoners and the bulk of the enemy's remaining stores in this part were captured.
In the midst of these striking successes Sir Stanley Maude, to whom so much of their credit was due, died of cholera at Baghdad on i8th November, 1917. General Sir W. R. Marshall, his second-in-command, was entrusted with the conduct of affairs and during 1918 Hit and Khan Baghdad on the Euphrates were captured in March with 4,000 prisoners, and the enemy was routed and pursued to a point beyond Ana This put an end to any risk of an attack down the Euphrates. At the end of April the Turks were defeated at Kirkuk, north of the Diyala, with further heavy losses. The offensive up the Tigris was resumed in October, and on the 27th the enemy were attacked by our infantry at Sharqat, while cavalry and armoured cars blocked the lines of retreat. On the 30th the whole force to the number of about 7,000 with all stores, etc., surrendered. Mosul, 550 miles from Basra, and 200 from Baghdad, was occupied a few days later.
The terms of the armistice with Turkey have already been given.
Capt. J. T. Snelgar (5th Wilts, Educ.) was awarded the M.B.E. for general good work as adjutant and for staff work in connection with the capture and occupation of Kirkuk.
Sergeant A. Peters (7th Glouc, Tram.) died of typhus on 10th July, G. F. Jago (R.A.S.C, Educ.) of typhoid on 30th November, and B. A. M. Dunning (R.E., Tram.) of dysentery on 6th December.
Persia and Caucasia.
After hostilities between Germany and Russia had definitely ceased towards the end of 1917, it was feared that the enemy might penetrate through the southern parts of Asiatic Russia, and so threaten our positions in Mesopotamia and to the north-west of India. A military mission, despatched from India in the early part of 1918, therefore occupied Meshed and established posts on the railway at Krasnovodsk, Askhabad and Merv. These four places are all to the east of the Caspian Sea.
For the same reasons it was necessary to strengthen our positions up, and to the north-east of, the Diyala. Hamadan, in north-west Persia, and Rasht were occupied, the occupation of the latter involving us in conflict with the native tribes. Access was secured to Enzali, a port on the Caspian near Rasht, and a small expedition was sent in August to help in the defence of Baku, the important centre for oil on the west coast of the Caspian. The local levies proved to be quite unreliable, so that the brunt of the fighting fell upon our troops, and in September they were withdrawn to Enzali. The expedition, however, had the result of inducing the ex-Russian fleet on the Caspian to side with the Allies, and so checked German or Turkish hopes of an advance to the east.
After the armistice with Turkey a British force was stationed between the Caspian and the Black Sea in order to keep open the Batum — Tiflis — Baku railway, and to maintain communications across the Caspian with the British force, mentioned above, at, and near, Krasnovodsk.
Lieut. H. A. King (Camel Corps, Educ.) died in east Persia on 4th November, 1918, of enteric.