9/5/1916 Baghdad: captured British officers battle ennui while their men battle starvation

When Townshend surrendered at Kut-al-Amara, the Turks acquired an impressive bag of some 13,000 British and Indian prisoners. They have now been brought up the Tigris to Baghdad. The officers were transported by boat and have been housed in spartan but adequate quarters. The British officers complain about the unappealing food they are being served; the Indian officers are less critical. The officers also complain about the boredom of their confinement.

Perhaps motivated by compassion for their fellow officers, today the Turkish authorities in Baghdad take some of the senior British officers out to dinner. They dine in the city’s premier establishment, the restaurant of Baghdad’s Hotel de France. Here the British are introduced to the German pilot who had been bombing Kut during the siege. He apologises for accidentally bombing their hospital.

Boredom is the least of the problems faced by the rank and file prisoners captured at Kut. There were no boats available to transport them to Baghdad, so the Turks made them march. Marching long distances in the hot weather of Mesopotamia proved difficult for men battling sickness and malnourishment. Many died on the road, either of exhaustion, sickness or murder by the human jackals who prey on stragglers from Turkish prisoner marches. In Baghdad the Turks imprisoned them in a patch of shelterless open ground near the station. Their captors provide no provisions for the prisoners here. They are saved from complete starvation by the US consul, Charles Brissell, who sends food to the prisoners.

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British and Indian prisoners marching to Baghdad (Robert’s Web Pages: War Diary of Edwin Jones)

29/4/1916 Britain humiliated as Kut surrenders

The siege of Kut-al-Amara is over. General Townshend has surrendered unconditionally to the Turks under Halil Pasha. The Turks take some 13,000 prisoners. These include nearly 2,800 British soldiers, of whom 277 are officers, and around 10,500 Indians, of whom 204 are officers.

This is a great triumph for Halil and one he does not have to share. The overall commander of Turkish forces in Mesopotamia had been General Goltz, a German general. However Goltz died just ten days ago, officially of typhus, but there are rumours that he was poisoned at the behest of Turkey’s leaders. His death means that all the glory for Kut’s fall goes to Halil.
As Turkish troops enter the town there are some instances of fraternisation between them and the town’s erstwhile defenders. But the Turks also begin to extract vengeance on local civilians they suspect of treachery during the siege, with the first public executions of collaborators taking place. Turkish officers are also angry that the British have destroyed their cannons before surrendering, as they had hoped to seize these as trophies.

Many of Townshend’s men are in a desperate state thanks to the short rations they have been on. They are despondent at having to surrender but this dismay is tempered with hope, as they think their sufferings are coming to an end. They are wrong.

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Townshend and Halil Pasha (Wikipedia)

British Capitulation at Kut-al-Amara (National Army Museum; a painting by an unknown Turkish artist)

Indian prisoners (Die Welt)

29/4/1916 Kut: another attempt to bribe the Turks

In a last attempt to secure the freedom of the besieged British garrison of Kut-al-Amara, three British intelligence officers today meet with Turkish commander Halil Pasha. Colonel Edward Beach, Captains Aubrey Herbert and T. E. Lawrence have travelled up the Tigris from Basra. Now, blindfolded, they are taken through the Turkish lines to meet Halil.

The British officers make another attempt to bribe Halil to let the Kut garrison go free, but the Turkish commander is still not interested. They also appeal for him to show clemency to any of the townsfolk of Kut who have provided assistance to the British, but Halil curtly tells the three officers that the fate of the town’s civilians is an internal matter for the Turkish authorities. He gives no assurances that there will be no reprisals.

Halil has a request of his own. He reminds Beach and his colleagues that after their long siege the British and Indian troops in Kut are now very debilitated. They will have to be transported away from Kut but the Turks lack the ships to do this, so the prisoners will have to march, something many of them will be incapable of doing. Halil asks the British to supply boats that he can use to bring the prisoners up the Tigris to Baghdad, after which the boats would be returned to the British.

The British decline to supply the ships. Halil draws the conclusion that they are not too concerned with the fate of their prisoners. And if the British do not care about their fate, why should he?

And then abruptly Halil informs the British that the meeting is at an end. He has no more time to speak to them because he has important matters to attend to.

And indeed he does. What the British officers do not know is that Kut has already surrendered this morning. Halil has the occupation of the town and the disposal of the prisoners to oversee.

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Halil Pasha (Wikipedia)

27/4/1916 Kut: Townshend tries to buy his men’s freedom

In Mesopotamia the siege of Kut-al-Amara is drawing to a close. The British garrison has been on short rations for weeks and is now almost completely out of food. Attempts to raise the siege have failed and now imminent starvation obliges General Townshend to discuss surrender terms with the Turks.

Today Townshend meets Halil Bey, the Turkish commander of the besieging forces. The British consider the Turks to be a shifty and dishonourable people, so Townshend has been advised to appeal to Halill’s avarice and vanity in attempt to secure his army’s freedom. He asks Halil to allow his men to retreat from the town without being taken prisoner, promising that they will not take up arms against Turkey again. In return Townshend offers Halil 40 cannons to parade as trophies and one million pounds in cash.

Halil is disappointingly non-committal in response to Townshend’s offer. The British commander returns to Kut with the grim feeling that the Turks will not be satisfied with anything other than the unconditional surrender of his entire army.

map (National Army Museum, London)

24/4/1916 Kut: Gorringe’s last desperate roll of the dice

In Kut-al-Amara the besieged garrison is on the brink of starvation. Attempts to supply Kut by air have delivered far too little food to keep it fed. A relief force under General Gorringe has made a series of attempts to break through the Turkish lines; all have failed. After the last bloody failure, Gorringe accepted that his men would not be capable of another attempt.

Now Gorringe tries one last desperate measure to send food to Kut. He has the Julnar, a steamship, loaded with provisions and sends it up the Tigris to try to run past the Turkish guns to Kut. In Kut, the besieged troops are ready to provide covering fire for the Julnar‘s approach. But the ship never reaches them. The Turks have strung a cable across the river. The overloaded Julnar is unable to break through. The ship is subjected to a deadly fire by the Turks before being boarded. The precious provisions fall into Turkish hands. Surviving members of the crew become prisoners, apart from the ship’s captain, Charles Cowley; he is reportedly murdered by the Turks.

In Kut the garrison realise that they are doomed. Its commander, General Townshend, begins surrender negotiations with the Turks.

image source (Today in World War I)

22/4/1916 Kut: Gorringe’s last attempt to raise the siege

The siege of Kut-al-Amara continues, as do British attempts to relieve their trapped comrades. General Gorringe leads the relief force. After a series of failed attempts to break through Turkish lines, Gorringe’s force is much depleted. Reinforcements are on their way but Gorringe knows that the situation in Kut is now desperate; the starving defenders have no time to wait for his reinforcements. He needs to raise the siege now or the men of Kut will have to surrender.

So Gorringe launches one last desperate attempt to force a way through the Turks to relieve Kut. He attacks at Sannaiyat, on the north bank of the Tigris. Gorringe tried unsuccessfully to break through here earlier in the month. Now history repeats itself. The fighting is bloody, with both sides taking heavy casualties, but Gorringe’s men are unable to dislodge the Turks.

This is the end. Gorringe’s men have suffered too much and are too demoralised to make any further attempt to raise the siege of Kut. There are 13,000 men trapped in the Mesopotamian town; the British have taken more than 23,000 casualties in their attempts to rescue them.

image source (Lightbobs)

17/4/1916 Kut: yet another British relief attempt fails

British attempts to raise the siege of Kut-al-Amara are becoming increasingly desperate. Having been repulsed on the north bank of the Tigris, Britain’s Gorringe is now attempting to break through Turkish lines on the southern side of the river. His advance was delayed by wet weather, which turned the ground into a quagmire, but eventually his men were ready to attack the Turkish positions at Bait Isa. Initial attacks have gone well, with Gorringe’s men overrunning the enemy’s frontlines and taking Bait Isa itself. But now the Turks counterattack.

In a bloody battle the British manage to hold their gains, throwing the Turks back with heavy losses. However the British too have suffered such heavy losses in the fighting that Gorringe realises that he will not be able to make further progress here. He decides to transfer his efforts back to the north bank of the Tigris, to make one last desperate attempt to break through the Turkish lines there before starvation forces the surrender of Kut.

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General George Gorringe (Western Front Association)