War history: After 147 days the siege ends. But is there worse to come after surrender?

Major-General Townshend, Khalil Pasha and other unidentified officers after the surrender of the Kut

Major-General Townshend, Khalil Pasha and other unidentified officers after the surrender of the Kut garrison in 1916 - Credit: Archant

The siege of Kut-al-Amarah... It hasn’t been looking good for the allied soldiers. Can they turn the tables? Mike Peters Galloway’s resident military historian, discovers what happened next in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) 100 years ago

A paddle-steamer that was transformed into a gunboat in a bid to help end the siege at Kut

A paddle-steamer that was transformed into a gunboat in a bid to help end the siege at Kut - Credit: Archant

At the end of January it was obvious to the opposing commanders that the initiative now rested with the Turks surrounding the British garrison and dominating all routes into Kut.

Command of the British force had been transferred from Sir Fenton Aylmer to the newly-arrived Sir George Gorringe and, boosted by the arrival of the 13th Division, the available strength in the relieving force at Kut was 30,000. The Turks smelt victory and reinforced as well, bringing up draft reserves from nearby Baghdad. There was now parity in numbers.

Gorringe decided to open the attack by sending General Maude’s men against the Hanna Defile once again, despite an earlier failure in storming the same position. However, in the interim, Ottoman commander Khalil Pasha had established two deep trench lines at Fallahiyeh and Sannaiyat. Attacking at dawn on April 5, Maude was surprised to discover the first Turkish line unoccupied. He ordered his troops to regroup and prepare to mount a frontal assault upon Fallahiyeh that evening. Fallahiyeh was taken following an advance across mud-soaked terrain, but at heavy cost to the British.

A secondary attack along the opposite bank encountered relatively light opposition. Despite these successes, casualties reached approximately 2,000 on the first day.

Sannaiyat was a much tougher nut to crack. Successive British attacks were launched and repulsed. The British took a further 1,200 casualties. In spite of heavy rain, Gorringe, now frustrated with the Ottoman defence of Sannayiat, decided to focus his main attack on the Bait Asia position. Eventually the forward Turkish positions fell on April 15 and Bait Asia on the 17th.

Far from being outdone, Khalil Pasha counter-attacked with 10,000 Turkish troops. The British defended their position with grim determination, inflicting 4,000 casualties. British losses were equally heavy, making further progress along the riverbank towards Kut impossible.

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Aware of the predicament of the Kut garrison and unable to wait for 5,000 reserves marching to join his force, Gorringe decided to launch a final attempt on Sannaiyat on April 22, 1916.

The attack would be preceded by an artillery bombardment, but because of floodwater only a single brigade could attack at a time.

Khalil had the foresight to evacuate his first two lines of defence, thereby sparing his men from artillery fire. His intent, once the British had overrun the abandoned positions, was to counter-attack in force, a very similar idea to the strategy that would become known as elastic or flexible defence later on in the war.

As the British attack ventured forward, it began to break up over what was now effectively a bog and was mown down by artillery and machine gun fire. The plan was well executed by the Turks; the British were to suffer a further 1,300 casualties.

By now the operation to relieve Kut had cost the British 23,000 casualties and no further attempt would be made, save for a final desperate and unsuccessful bid to send supplies through on an armoured ship.

With no prospect of relief or resupply, the siege of Kut was over. Sir Charles Townshend surrendered unconditionally on April 29, 1916. The siege had lasted 147 days and, in addition to the military threat, men had also struggled with starvation and malaria while awaiting relief.

Desperate to avoid another humiliating defeat so soon after Gallipoli, the British Government even tried to purchase safe haven for Townshend and his starving men. The Turks, keen to secure another victory over a western Army, refused the British offer of £1million. And there you might think this story ends. But a further tragedy would unfold.

The following day 277 British and 204 Indian officers, together with 2,592 British and 6,988 Indian other ranks, were taken into captivity, together with 3,248 Indian non-combatants. Approximately 345 badly-wounded or sick men (mainly Indians) were exchanged for Turkish prisoners and sent to Basra. For the remainder, the chances of survival were low.

Of the 2,592 British troops captured at Kut, about 1,750 died on the march or later in the camps. Of the 6,988 Indian troops, about 2,500 died in similar fashion.

As POWs, the British and Indian prisoners were paraded through the streets of Baghdad, to be spat at and reviled. Then the nightmare began as they embarked upon a 1,200-mile forced march across the Syrian Desert. Over 2,500 men would be prodded with rifle butts and whips. Starvation, thirst and disease would take their toll and only 837 soldiers would survive the march and years in captivity. Many, already emaciated, were further debilitated by the desert climate and harsh conditions.

As many Ottoman officers turned a blind eye or lost control, Turkish troops and guards relieved captives of their water bottles, boots and uniforms, leaving the POWs in rags. If a prisoner collapsed he was left to fend for himself. If any found shelter, these were often filled with vermin. Soldiers had to resort to begging from passing Arabs for scraps of food. Many were robbed, stripped of their last clothing and left to die.

Those men who survived the march entered prison camps where they received insufficient food and faced epidemics of dysentery, cholera and malaria. Many prisoners were incarcerated in civilian jails with common criminals. Prisoners sat in bare cells filled with vermin, few washing facilities, no exercise, and prayed for the war to end. Many were moved from location to location under similar regimes.

Many would be put to work, and eventually die, on the mountainous section of the Constantinople to Baghdad railway. Rudimentary hospitals did what they could but the sheer magnitude of dealing with the administration and movement of so many POWs fell immeasurably short of humane.

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