War history: Trapped. Will a desperate rescue bid succeed and free the First World War troops?
PUBLISHED: 16:16 30 January 2016
Mike Peters last week told of troops left surrounded in Mesopotamia. Today, Galloway’s resident military historian explains what happened next.
One hundred years ago this week, things were becoming increasingly desperate for the 6th (Poona) Division. Minus its cavalry, it had been surrounded in the town of Kut since December 7, 1915 − almost two months without resupply or reinforcement. A relief force − including the battle-hardened Indian troops of the 3rd (Lahore) Division, the 7th (Meerut) Division and the British 13th (Western) Division − was assembled in the south. Surely these well-equipped and well-trained forces were strong enough to advance north and punch through the Turkish troops besieging Kut?
The British held out resolutely into the New Year. However, as each week passed, the garrison grew weaker and supplies dwindled, and the besieging Ottoman forces increased steadily in number and power.
The Turks were commanded by Baron Von Goltz, a German career soldier and military historian who had spent 12 years modernising the Ottoman army. Under his direction, the Turks dug a belt of fortifications facing in on the defenders and sealing off Kut. They also built formidable defences further down the Tigris, preventing British reinforcements sailing up the river.
Lieutenant General Fenton Aylmer commanded the Anglo-Indian relief force. Initially, he could call only on the 6th Indian Cavalry Brigade and the 35th and 28th Indian Brigades, soon to be joined by initial elements of the 7th (Meerut) Division. This force had seen action in France and had suffered heavy losses, which, in turn, impacted on Aylmer’s ability to direct operations, as he had almost no staff support.
The hotch-potch collection of brigades under Major General Sir George Younghusband received orders from Aylmer to move upriver from Ali Gharbi just after the New Year. Aylmer would remain at Ali Gharbi to await reinforcements.
Winter rains had turned the terrain into a quagmire, with no opportunity for cover − as Younghusband described in a letter: “Having no cavalry or aeroplanes or other means of reconnoitring, and the country being as flat as a billiard table, the only way of reconnoitring the Ottomans was to march on till we bumped into them.” And bump into them they did.
On January 5, Younghusband’s men were informed by local Arabs of well-dug-in Ottoman troops just upriver. At about 10.30am the following day Younghusband’s troops began to “bump into” Ottoman emplacements.
With no way of gaining better observation he ordered his forces on both sides of the river to attack. Lacking elevated ground, effective aerial reconnaissance or sufficient cavalry, the British and Indian troops had to feel their way forward, under fire, to discover where the Ottoman positions started and ended.
Younghusband was unable to effectively manage his forces as he tried to manage the battle on both sides of the river. By afternoon, the left bank attack had failed, although, on the right, Ottoman troops began to give way.
The fighting carried on through the day as the Anglo-Indian troops battled to relieve their starving comrades and the Ottoman Turks resisted. Casualties mounted as the Turks, although outnumbered four to one, held on to their positions.
By 1600 hours, casualties among Younghusband’s force were approaching 600 killed or wounded. Reluctantly, he called off his attack and withdrew to reorganise.
Finally, on January 7, Aylmer arrived with reinforcements. A second attack was planned. Younghusband would lead the attack on the left bank and Maj Gen Kemball on the right − but not until the attack had started on the left bank.
At daybreak, a heavy shroud of fog hung over the area. At midday it cleared, but with the breakthrough of the sun came a spoiling attack from Ottoman troops. Though this was driven back, the main attack on the left bank was delayed. Eventually, Younghusband’s troops launched the attack but, in the face of Turkish fire, failed to make headway.
Kemball’s forces were better able to spot Ottoman positions, and Indian troops quickly captured Ottoman outposts. By the end of the day the right-bank defences were in the hands of Kemball’s brigade.
The Ottomans, their flank now open to British fire, began to withdraw. They would retreat some seven miles to pre-prepared positions along a dry riverbed (Wadi). By January 9, British and Indian troops had also managed to occupy the left bank positions.
Aware of the desperate plight of the Kut garrison, the relief troops battled on through worsening weather and ever more difficult terrain.
Another major attack was launched on January 13. It floundered due to lack of accurate maps and aggressive Turkish defence. However, by dusk the Ottomans withdrew and Aylmer ordered his tired troops to prepare to push forward.
After these defeats, the relief force, now greatly depleted, was ordered once again to attempt to break through Ottoman lines. After a short bombardment on January 20 and 21 the 7th Division charged the Ottoman lines. In an advance across 600 yards of flooded no-man’s land the British and Indians sustained 2,700 casualties. Well-sited Ottoman machine gun posts forced them to abandon the assault and withdraw.
Medical care was practically non-existent and, with temperatures dropping to freezing at night, many casualties suffered unnecessarily. Morale began to plunge.
In the aftermath of this series of defeats, Alymer was relieved of his command. The Ottomans saw the opportunity for victory in Mesopotamia, the chance to take Kut and destroy the relief force. Khalil Pasha, the Ottoman commander for the region, joined the battle, bringing 30,000 reinforcements. This gave the Turks parity in numbers for the first time. The stakes were ever higher and the scene set for what both sides hoped would be the decisive battle.
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