Siege of Kut

The Siege of Kut: Mesopotamia, December 1915 to April 1916

by David M. Castlewitz

Reeling from the shock of the Turkish army’s counterattack at the village of Ctesiphon, the Sixth Division of the Indian Expeditionary Force D took refuge at Kut al Amara. Now designated an army corp, Force D was the instrument of Great Britian’s military thrust into Mesopotamia in the autumn of 1915. After occupying Basra earlier in the year, the army was sent to strike at the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire. Only weeks before the Ctesiphon setback, the Sixth had marched through Kut in the pursuit of seemingly assured victory. The late autumn campaign had gotten off to a rousing and invigorating start. The Turk was being beaten!.

Deftly, the Turks manuevered north to protect Baghdad. At Ctesiphon, which had once been the imperial seat of the Sassinid Empire in a bygone age of pagan rule, the Indian and English troops under the command of Major General Charles Townshend, pushed the Turks a little harder. Their goal was Baghdad and the destruction of the Ottoman’s military machine. Ctesiphon lay less than fifty miles south of the prize.

The Turks struck back. The Sixth, nearly 20,000 strong, retreated. It was a headlong retreat, with wounded in rickety, punishing springless carts, men in splints and blood soaked bandages, limping and crawling to the banks of the Tigris. There they awaited riverboat transport out of Hell. Determined not to let his men be annihilated, Townshend organized his effectives for a rearward march while the Turks, exhausted in victory, set about entrenching themselves around Ctesiphon.

On the march, the Sixth spiraled headlong back. What had seemed like a victorious campaign now took on the vestige of a misconveived adventure. The taking of Baghdad would have to wait for another day. In fact, it waited for another eighteen months. During that time, the British suffered one of their worst defeats and humiliations ever. For, the town of Kut became a grave for thousands.

General Townshend knew that his men were exhausted. “I intend to go no further,” he announced to his troops in a special communique issued upon their arrival from Ctesiphon. The general knew his men had been battered too badly. They needed rest. They needed to regroup. Morale needed to be built up again. In Townshend’s opinion, Kut was the best place to hole up and recuperate.

Situated within a gentle loop in the Tigris, Kut is surrounded on three sides by water; only the northern flank is exposed to the gentle plains of southern Mesopotamia. By holding the town, Townshend hoped to keep the Turks at bay. As expressed in his memoirs, My Campaign in Mesopotamia , the enemy would not be able to pass by boat so long as he commanded such a strong position along the riverbank. At Basra, headquaters for Great Britain’s Indian Army in the Middle East, General Nixon, the army corp commander, went along with Townshend’s assessment. Let the Turks take time out to besieged the town. Let them become mired in a costly, static battle. Meanwhile, a relief force could be assembled and Kut’s garrison saved.

During the few short days that Townshend had between straggling into Kut and the beginning of the Turk’s siege, the General worked at fortifying his position and tending to the wounded, who were carried to waiting steamers and Arab dhows and transported downriver to safety. Where the river’s channel went north and then bent sharply east, there was a mud-walled fort. It was approximately 2700 yards from the town. Here, Townshend placed a contingent of men and cannon to anchor his line. From the fort, across the barren plain, he built a network of angled trenches all the way to the river’s west bound channel. It was like drawing a line across the tips of a U for a distance of 2500 yards. Behind this, a second and a third line of defense was established. Across the river, in an area dubbed Woolpress Village, which was actually the site of the area’s olive manufactury, a small contingent of men was enscounced. To the landward side, their defense consisted of a single half circle of trenches. Inside Kut proper, Townshend situated his artillery. For his headquarters, he took over a large, stone building left over from the recent Turkish rule over the town.

Kut was inhabited by six thousand civilians, most of them Arab Muslims. A sprinkling of Christians and Jews were among the natives living in mudbrick homes set on either side of alley-sized, dirt streets. Advised to expell the civilians, Townshend instead went about ensuring their acquiesence to his army’s presence in their midst. He knew what lay in store for Kut’s citizenry if they were forced out. The Ottoman’s Arab allies, especially the Shammar tribesmen that made up their irregular calvary forces, would massacre them. Townshend, against the advice of his staff and even against his better judgement, felt he had a moral obligation to defend these hapless and helpless souls. The only ones he threw out were those he immediately discovered to be troublemakers and Ottoman agents. About a half dozen men suspected of being spies were hanged in the town square. The rest of the population was cowed into subservience.

On 6 December 1915, Turkish guns announced the start of the siege. An artillery bombardment inaugurated General Townshend’s 143 day long ordeal. Under the command of Nur-ud- din, the Turks closed in. They established themselves near the mud-walled fort and directly in front of the first British line.

The English and Indian soldiers knew what to expect. The drill was common in Europe: a steady barrage of artillery, then a frontal assault by infantry. In their trenches, the men of the Sixth waited. There were tough, little Gurkas with their deadly knives; fresh-faced Dorsetshire boys struggling to keep the grit out of their rifles; and tall, dark skinned Punjabis and Rajputs and other Indians fighting in Great Britain’s cause.

The shells raining down on Kut tore date and palm trees from their roots, shattered Arab homes inside the town, wreaked havoc among the horses and mules used to haul the artillery, and put the defenders into a siege mentality. Shoving aside the usual tactics of a long artillery barrage as a formal prelude to a massed infantry assault, the Turks began hammering their infantry against Kut’s defensive wall of entrenched men.

From Woolpress Village and the main bazaar in Kut and from within the fort, British guns gave their retort. Under this intimidating fire, the Turks attacked the fort and, simultaneously, began digging their forward trenches. The ground was tough, like a steel plate. Digging into it was difficult enough during ordinary times; under fire it was harrowing. But, the Turkish army was made up of peasant boys who were used to constant punishment and they prevailed, to the astonishment of many of the English officers who watched their progress.

Taking an offensive-defensive posture, General Townshend had had his engineers construct a bridge across the Tigris near the fort. Using it, he proposed both to attack and defend. The bridge afforded him the opportunity to cross the river at will and stab at enemy weaknesses. The Turks, in a bid to narrow their grip on Kut’s defenders, attacked Townshend’s bridge, which was loosely defended in that first week of December by the 66th Punjabis. What these soliders of British India faced was a bellowing horde of yellow clad Turks bearing down on them with a vengenance borne of hatred for the invader. With gallantry and determination, the Indian soldiers fought back. Until their English officer was mowed down by a determined enemy attack, they held their ground on the east bank in defense of the bridge. Finally, however, succumbing to superior numbers and firepower, they retreated across the river to the relative safety of the fort.

The Turks pressed on, clambering down from sandhills to attack and force a river crossing. From across the open plain between Kut and the site of the bridge, the 7th Gurkas advanced. Only a single machinegun kept the Turks from rushing across the bridge. When the Gurkas arrived, they took up their positions and engaged the enemy in a rifle duel fought across 500 yards of water. For the next seven hours, the British Engineers and the Gurkha infantrymen held off the enemy. When the sun set for 9 December, the duel ended with the Turks still on their side of the river.

General Townshend evidently regretted having given the order for this hastily built bridge of pontoons and boats and planking. While it may have offered him a means of attacking the enemy on the other side of the river, it also gave the Turks the opportunity to swarm in from the east. The bridge had to be removed. It was a “back door” into Kut. Destroying the bridge was the only way Townshend could ensured his force’s safety while they waited for reinforcements and rescue from Basra. General Nixon, the Indian Army Corp commander, had promised Townshend that relief was on its way. Major General Aylmer had been given command of such an expedition. For now, for Townshend, it was a matter of holding out.

“Holding out” meant defense to Townshend. Defense precluded the need for a dangerous bridge by which to cross over and counterattack the besieging enemy. The decision was made. The bridge must go. But, just cutting its moorings on the Kut side of the river wasn’t enough. With its mooring cut, the bridge would merely float into enemy hands. No, it had to remain theirs. That meant cutting the moorings on the Turkish side of the river where the recently attacking infantry had dug in.

To lead this dangerous assignment, a Lieutenant Mathews of the Royal Engineers volunteered. With him went Lieutenant Sweet of the 7th Gurkhas and a party of tough men from his brigade. A long plank was floated on the quiet river and at each end of the plank a gun-cotton charge weighing fifty pounds was securely lashed by rope. In the darkness, the men waded into the river and negotiated the plank alongside the bridge. Some of the dead from that day’s fighting still lay where they fell. A few of the bodies squirmed and one man cried out unconsciously when the Gurkhas tried to move him. To stifle his screams and his agony, out of emotions of both mercy and desperation, they held him under water until he drowned, then continued their treacherous journey to the far side of the Tigris.

Lieutenant Mathews went ahead of his men. He crawled to the Turk’s side of the river and placed the charges at the bridge’s moorings. From where he lay groping for his matches, he could hear the Turks conversing in their trenches. When he struck a match to light the slow burning fuses, the sound seemed as loud as a rifle shot. Then he hurried back across the bridge to the other side, where he waited with his party of Gurkhas for the explosion.

When it came, it was followed by a wild outburst of rifle fire from the Turks. The bridge split in two from the force of the blast and the individual sections floated downstream. Helplessly, the engineers watched. They had succeeded in denying the Turks the use of the bridge, but they had also managed to lose it for themselves. The bridge was completely gone. The defensive posture of Townshend’s Sixth Division was more than merely assured; it was now a military dictate. They would have to wait for relief. There was nothing they could do for themselves except bear up under the Turk’s onslaught. The wiley enemy, meanwhile, moved a division of men towards the eastern flank of Kut. They crossed a waterway called the Shatt al Hai that flowed into the Tigris directly south of the town. Kut was now completely surrounded.

Nur-ud-din, the Turkish commander of the besieging force, attempted to offer General Townshend immediate terms of surrender. He sent a captain with a personal letter outlining his demand. This was rebuffed and the captain was sent back to Nur-ud-din with a scathing retort written by Townshend. The Turkish counter-reply was a massive artillery assault, which the British replied to in kind. Both sides rained shells on one another. Because neither combatant used high-explosive incendiaries, damage was limited to direct hits. Still, homes crumbled, carts disintergrated, animals were disemboweled; and the men settled in to endure as best they could.

The rythmns of a siege now took hold. When the guns sounded, the men took cover. They nicknamed the unseen artillery pieces and learned to recognize the different kinds of guns the Turks employed. They could tell a howitizer from a mortar. One particular piece was an ancient brass mortar, a medieval gun that the Turks had abandoned at Ctesiphon and the British failed to spike when they found it. Afterall, it belonged in a museum, not on a modern battlefield. Out of a grim sort of affection, the British named the mortar Flatulent Flossie and learned to recognize her odd, booming retort whenever she was fired.

At the main bazaar inside Kut, the British assembled four field guns. Other batteries were situated within the nearby mud-walled fort and in palm groves just outside the town. Unfortunately, the hospital staff also set up shop in the bazaar and the Turks, in an attempt to silence Kut’s guns, shelled the area, killing both patients and medical staff in the process.

Upstream, the Turks established their camps. Aerial reconnaissance carried out by British biplanes from Ali Gharbi, 50 miles east of Kut, provided intelligence on these efforts. Five miles upstream, at Shumran, a massive encampment was being built. Also, paddle steamers brought downriver from Baghdad were moored there, along with barges and tugs. The Turks had freedom of movement via the waterway; reinforcements could be brought in without difficulty. Their wounded could be evacuated with ease.

Fretting over the moral decision he had made not to evacuate Kut’s civilians, Townshend issued orders that all officers and men were to be armed whenever they were inside the town. He feared a fifth column developing amongst the Arabs. He knew the Turks had collaboraters within Kut’s native ranks. Every night, using inflated goat skins for bouyancy, Arabs floated across the river to the enemy camp. In the back of Townshend’s mind was the spectre of an armed, civilian insurrection. Afterall, these people had lived as Ottoman subjects for centuries. It wasn’t difficult to assess their true loyalty.

As the second week of December began, the Turks renewed their infantry assaults. Nur-ud-din intended to storm the town by taking the British trenches one by one. Artillery duels ensued. Gun crews seemed to pair off, like rival players in a cricket match, each side lobbing shells directly at the other. Infantry assaults were met with massive fire power, the British marksmen loading and firing and reloading with a casualness borne of constant drill in the mechanics of being a rifleman.

Townshend, when asked, estimated that he needed 5,000 pounds of food a day. At Basra, a daring new plan was formulated to meet this need. Airplanes would be used. A squadron of 14 aircraft, not exactly the cream of the army’s air arm, but certainly servicable, waited at the Ali Gharbi airfield. Generally, these bi-planes had been used to provide aerial reconnasaince and to drop messages on Kut from Basra. Now they were to be outfitted with supplies. Six of the planes could carry up to 250 pounds each, while the other eight could handle a load of 150 pounds. Of course, this meant no machinegun and no observer. For defense, all the pilot had was a pistol.

On the first day, 15 April, 3,350 pounds were airlifted to Kut. The pilots, manuevering to escape small arms fire from below, made their drops from a height of 6,000 feet. Many of the parcels fell into the Tigris because accuracy was impossible. Worse, some supplies fell freely atop the Turks. After a few days, the effort was discontinued. The threat of German Fokkers put a quick end to the world’s first air re- supply mission. Instead, a new and even more daring plan was formulated.

On 10 December, and again on 11 December, Nur-ud-din threw his troops against Kut’s defensive line of trenches and tried to shell the town into submission. They attacked during the dark of night; they attacked at breakfast when they thought to catch the British off guard. They suffered heavy losses as they advanced into the maw of deadly fire. Those few enemy squads that reached the stretches of barbed wire lining the British trenchworks were sliced to shreds when they tried cutting their way through.

The weather was turning cold now. The wind was bitter. Frost lay on the ground in the morning. The British and Indian soldiers had been outfitted for a quick, autumn campaign to take Baghdad. They hadn’t counted on spending the winter in trenches and they didn’t have the proper clothing. Some of the men, especially the Indian troopers, took to wrapping themselves in blankets. Officially, this was frowned upon by the British officers as being “unsoldierly.”

A lull was reached just past mid-December. After suffering over 800 dead, the Turks suspended their frontal assault. Part of the reason was the arrival of the supreme German commander in Mesopotamia, Field Marshal von der Goltz, a man whom General Townshend believed to be the foremost strategist in the world, an idol that Townshend had studied and aspired to emulate in every way.

Herr Feldmarschall didn’t like Nur-ud-din’s strategy. Kut couldn’t be taken by storm. It shouldn’t be taken by storm. Kut should be starved and its Indian Army defenders, this valiant Sixth Division, squeezed into submission. The main body of the Turkish army surrounding Kut should be concentrated on defending against the coming relief force, not wasted in fruitless attacks on fortified positions. Inspecting the tightened ring of trenches stretching from the east arm of the Tigris to the westerly one, the portly von der Goltz was a stunning target as he walked inside a gaggle of picklehaube topped Germans and smartly dressed Turkish officers on an inspection tour. At the brick kilns outside Kut, an artillery officer found the German commander in his sights and couldn’t believe his good luck.

The Field Marshal was some seven hundred yards off when the shell was slammed into the British gun’s breech. When it was fired and had landed near the party of officers, it sent picklehaube flying and the strutting Germans scattering for safety in the trenches. The shell also sent von der Goltz off in a huff, his final orders to Nur-ud-din being to strangle the garrison, not to storm it.

General Townshend, rather than being happy about the insulting shell lobbed so hopefully against his enemy, was enraged. The Field Marshal was his idol! How dare a mere junior officer attack him? Instead of a medal for enterprise, the artilleryman got an official reprimand from his incensed commander.

As December waned and 1915 came to a close, bringing on another New Year in the bitter and static war in Europe, Nur- ud-din launched a Christmas Eve attack against Kut that could have been devastating, an attack that could have presaged victory without doubt. It began at eight at night, under the bright light of the moon, with the 52nd Division newly arrived from Baghdad leading the way. The focus of their attack was the fort, the forward defenses’ eastern anchor. Wave after wave of peasant boys and hardened veterans rammed at the fort’s mud walls.

The defenders manned the ramparts and fired volley followed by volley directly into the faces of the enemy. For hours, the tiny force inside the walls held out. Indians and British, Punjabis and English, they held back the Turks. Reinforcements were rushed up the west bank of the Tigris and engaged the Turks on their flank. From across the river, the Turkish army’s artillery lobbed shells inside the fort, where there was scant cover from bombardment. Artillery fire raked the trenches. Shells again rained down inside Kut.

At the base of the fort’s mud walls, the fighting raged with frenetic intensity. Grenades shattered assault teams and defenders alike. A machinegun cut down one infantry attack after another. In firing lines, and in groups of twos and threes, the Indians and English fought back bravely, desperate to hold their ground and deny the enemy their prize. Finally, the Turks’ effort whithered. Their last attack on the fort was a half-hearted charge that immediately disintergrated with the first few rounds of defensive rifle fire. Faltering in their resolve, the Turks withdrew. They left behind more than two thousand casualties.

In the morning, all that remained of this valiant Turkish gamble were bodies littering the barbed wire defenses on the west side of the fort, dead animals leaving a stench that drifted up to the heavens, and a stray, barking dog yelping amongst its dead Ottoman masters as it sniffed the bodies and scurried to and fro outside the fort. Momentarily, morale was raised within Kut. The defense of the fort brought cheers and praise for the defenders, even while close to four hundred British and Indian casualties were being marked either for the hospital in the town’s bazaar or the cemetery on its outskirts.

As for Nur-ud-din, the Turkish commander, this failed assault signaled the beginning of his fall. Within a month, he was replaced by an anrgy von der Goltz with someone who would understand and heed his orders. The new commander, Halil Pasha, was told to wring the British and Indian forces into submission. Starvation, monotony, certain and near death were to be the scourge at Kut. Meanwhile, every effort would be made to stem whatever relief effort the British might mount from their base at Basra.

Suddenly, in the aftermath of the fort’s gallant defense, a new enemy arose. It was an enemy for both sides. With the coming of January and the new year, 1916, came the rainy season. The heavens exploded. The rain fell in proverbial sheets, and the Tigris, which only a month before had been so low that many feared the Turks might wade across it, rose widly and overflowed its banks. Luckily for the British, the Turks’ forward line was flooded immediately and the enemy forces were sent soaking and beleagured back a thousand yards to new fortifications. Accompanying the discomfort of the flood came a humorous note, one of the few during the long 143 days of the siege. A plague of tiny green frogs descended on the British- Indian lines. While the English soldiers organized frog races, the Indians caught the little amphibians and roasted them for dinner.

For General Townshend, food was a constant source of worry. It was equally a matter of concern to General Aylmer’s relief efforts as well. Without food, the state of Kut’s besieged army would worsen. Aylmer’s immediate directive was to rescue Townshend before his command was starved into submission. This meant assessing Kut’s supply capacity. Unfortunately, accuracy in that endeavor proved to be difficult. Throughout the siege, Townshend kept revising his food estimates. At one time in early January he forecast not more than three weeks’ worth of provisions left for this men. At the end of those three weeks he revised his estimate and now had enough food to last another month. The effect of these revisions was that Aylmer felt obliged to extend his line of march and advance his relief efforts before he had properly assembled an adequate force.

In mid-January, Aylmer attacked at the confluence of Pusht-i-Kuh and the Tigris, about thirty miles east of Kut. The Turks were positioned on the banks of the Tigris. Behind them lay the Suwaikiya marshes. Between the river and the marsh there was a gap of only a mile and a half of open land. Directly in front of the Turks lay a narrow stream, the Wadi. Aylmer hoped to cross the Wadi, punch behind the enemy and get in their line of retreat. Another contingent would strike the flank. Trapped, the 15,000 man enemy would make easy pickings for the artillery. Those not annihilated would be forced to surrender.

This was the British army’s first relief effort at Kut. While it began with optimism, it proved to be the first in several costly attacks that failed to bring even an iota of relief to Townshend’s Sixth Division. The Turks met the headlong British thrust with determination and will. The lead unit, the 21st Brigade came under immediate rifle and machinegun fire. The surgical thrust Aylmer envisioned was blunted. The units meant to pin down the Turkish flank met heavy resistance that effectively checked them before they could get into position. Everywhere along the line, from the banks of the Tigris to the marshes, the British were dealt a disorienting blow. As a result, Aylmer withdrew. The Turks then tightened their line. What faced the British now was a narrow front of less than a mile, one end secured by the Tigris, the other by the marshes. As the rains returned, the British counted up their losses from this initial effort: more than 1000 killed and wounded. At Kut, the loss was measured by the degree of despondency that descended on the Sixth. They had expected rescue. They were dealt a major disappointment.

It was the first of many that Kut’s garrison endured. A little over two weeks later, Aylmer shifted the focus of his attack to the other side of the Tigris, the south bank. About ten miles east of Kut, near the Shatt al Hai waterway, lay the Dujaila redoubt, a fortified position in a narrow defile that lay halfway between the waterway and a thick marsh. To protect this point in their line, the Turks slowly moved hundreds of fresh infantry across a floating bridge at Shatt al Hai, and more troops were brought to the Es Sinn ridge, which ran at a right angle to the redoubt and joined the river.

From Basra, Townshend was ordered to observe the enemy and use his wireless to report their activities, especially their efforts at reinforcing the redoubt. He was further advised to prepare to aid General Aylmer by attacking out of Kut in conjunction with the relief column’s assault at Dujaila. Oddly, the Turkish advance and realignment of defensive troops went unnoticed, and Townshend refrained from exposing his forces to a direct confrontation. Instead, he and his men remained passive bystanders while Aylmer’s 23,000 odd strong division was cut to pieces at the sandbagged walls of the redoubt and all along the narrow gorge. In Kut, all anyone saw of this battle were puffs of smoke from the artillery bombardment. No one saw a single khaki clad soldier strutting across the rolling, gritty dunes. For a report, all they got was that the relief force had failed and would try again another day.

At this time, Aylmer was relieved and Major General Gorringe took over his command. To Kut’s defenders, it made little difference. For them, life had become a habitual bout with starvation and fear. Constantly, the Turks blasted them with shells. Mostly, they lived like moles in their underground bunkers and fortified trenches. Scarcity of food was a constant problem. Horses and mules were shot. Stray dogs were rounded up. Grazing – for the men, not the animals -on the wild carrots and cloves and dandelions became a norm, even when it meant a dangerous, midnight visit to the no man’s land between the forward trench and the Turks’ first line.

By the end of March, the flood and the rain returned. When Gorringe, shifting the main attack once again to the north side of the Tigris, assaulted the Turkish positions between the Tigris and the Sannaiyat marshland, mud was as much the British enemy as were the opposing side’s machineguns and steadfast rifle fire. For this effort, the relief column suffered another 1168 killed and wounded. That was on 6 April. Three days later, Gorringe ordered another assault. This time, the British reached a point 400 yards in front of the Turks. There, they dug in to consolidate and rest.

For Townshend, time was running out. He needed food. He needed supplies. More animals were slaughtered. The Indian troops, being mostly Hindu, were forbiddened to eat horse flesh, so they were in worse shape than the English. Appeals were made to them on the basis of necessity. Religious leaders from India were asked to grant dispensation. But the Indians feared heavenly retribution and the scorn of their fellow Hindus more than they feared starvation.

By mid April, with their front line at Sannaiyat in knee deep mud, the Turks drew back their main line. When Gorringe attacked with a force that had grown to over 30,000 troops and 108 field pieces, he managed only to take over flooded enemy trenches that the Turks had abandoned. Casualties for the relief column mounted and Kut was being slowly starved into submission. Because the Arab population was a burden on the Kut garrison’s food supply, the Turks made every effort to keep the civilian population from deserting the town. Every Arab that tried to float across the river by raft was captured and shot and the rafts sent back with dead bodies draped across them.

Sitting at Amara some 20 miles or so away from Kut was a river steamer, a 900 ton, 210 foot long craft named The Julnar. With her was Lieutenant Commander Cowley, a merchant veteran of the Euphrates and Tigris Steam Company. For the past thirty years he had been piloting boats along the Tigris, so he knew the waterway well. The Royal Navy supplied an engineer, Lieutenant Lewis Reed, to manhandle the steam engine, and a new captain, Lieutenant Firman.

After excusing all the married crewmen, the men that were left were given a rundown on their new orders. The Julnar would be loaded with 270 tons of supplies and sent to run the Turkish blockade of the Tigris. It would be a five hour run against the current, scheduled to begin in the dead of night. This was Kut’s last chance. With new supplies, and renewed morale, Townshend’s Sixth Division could hold out until Gorringe was ready to make another assault. That the officers at Amara were laying bets at 100 to 1 against success made no difference to the men commanding the vessel. They were ready and they were determined.

At a quarter past one in the morning, 24 April, the ship set out from Amara. Atop its mast head, a red light burned. Intelligence reports had said that the red light was a Turkish recognition signal used aboard their river vessels. Intelligence was wrong. The red light meant, “enemy approaching.” Seeing the supply ship, the Turks let loose with their heavy guns. Shell upon shell slammed against The Julnar . Steadily, it forged ahead, Lieutenant Reed nursing his boilers to get the best possible speed from the engines.

A shell hit the bridge. Firman, the skipper, was killed. The ship’s pilot, though wounded, kept the vessel on course towards Kut. Then, a shell exploded in the boiler room. Reed was dead and two crewmen were wounded. The ship, at full speed, barrelled towards Kut, under the Turkish guns lining both banks of the Tigris.

Suddenly, a cable running from bank to bank snagged the ship. Its propellors tore into the metal. The ship spun out of control and bounded onto a sandbank. Turkish artillery opened up and blasted the ship, which lay useless and helpless in the sand. Cowley, the Tigris veteran, tried to surrender by waving a white flag. He was cut down by rifle fire when the Turks stormed aboard.

In the light of day, what greeted Townshend and the men of the Sixth was not a hardy rescue ship ladened with supplies, but rather a charred and battered wreck caught in the sands along the bank of the river. It was a sad ending for the ship and the final scene in Townshend’s long struggle to keep his command alive. With the destruction of The Julnar , there was nothing left to do except ask for terms of surrender.

Dreading captivity, Townshend tried to negotiate parole for himself and his men. The British sent a trio of officers, including a well recommended Captain from Egypt named T.E. Lawrence, to parlay with the Turks. An offer was made. If Kut’s garrison was set free, all its artillery and ammunition would remain. The Sixth Division would no longer fight in Mesopotamia or anywhere in the Middle East. In exchange, the British were willing to pay the Turks 1 million pounds sterling. When this offer was refused, the bribe was upped to 2 million. But, the Turks wanted Britain’s humiliation, not ransom money. The Sixth Divison’s only choice was no choice at all: immediate and unconditional surrender, captivity for its general, his staff, all his officers, and all his men.

For the Sixth, the war was over on 29 April 1916. On that day they spiked their guns and awaited the Turks’ triumphant march into the town. The Arab inhabitants, after centuries of living under Ottoman rule, knew what to expect. Their reward for not having risen up against the occupying army was brutal retaliation. Those identified by neighbors as possible collaborators were quickly executed. Close to 250 were hanged from eight foot tall tripods that the Turks brought with them for just that purpose.

Some of the sick and wounded in Townshend’s command were traded for Turkish prisoners of war. The 13,000 or so effectives, however, were herded up and marched nine miles to a staging area upriver. For Townshend, going into captivity meant a riverboat journey to Baghdad, then a railway trip to Constantinople. For the British officers, captivity meant sitting out the war in a camp and becoming bored with one another’s company. For the rank and file, especially the Indians, becoming the Turk’s prisoner was more deadly. As prisoners, they were pressed into forced labor gangs in northern Turkey. There, many died from neglect and disease. Close to two thousand men were killed at Kut during the siege. Twice that many more died as prisoners. Over 20,000 casualties were suffered by the relief force in their fruitless attempts to save Kut’s garrison. General Townshend himself lived until 1924, when he died in England of natural cause.

As for Kut: ten months after the Turkish victory, the British returned. This time, they took the town. Less than a month later, in March of 1917, they entered Baghdad, ousting the Turks and their German allies, and freeing Mesopotamia from Ottoman rule.

  • The End –

This article originally appeared in the Mar-Apr 1993 issue of Command

published by XTR Corporation, 3547-D South Hiquera, San Luis Obispo CA 93401

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