Earlier this week (November 22-25) was the 100th anniversary of World War I’s Battle of Ctesiphon, the point at which Britain’s 1915 campaign to take Baghdad went from a bad decision in theory to a bad decision in fact. That campaign, in short, consisted of the 6th (Poona) Division of the British Indian Army, under General Charles Townshend, hoofing it into central Iraq, stretching its supply line too thin in the process, and encountering much tougher than expected Ottoman resistance. With the Ottomans able to get reinforcements and supplies much easier than the Brits could, they had little trouble isolating and eventually crushing Townshend’s force.
Charles Townshend, British commander during the Mesopotamian Campaign. Townshend was captured at Kut and spent the rest of the war living in what sounds like a pretty luxurious captivity in Istanbul. (Wikimedia)
Ctesiphon was the first heavy engagement of the offensive, and it ended in a tactical stalemate, as both the British attacking force and the Ottoman defenders took heavy losses and ordered a retreat on the final day of the battle. But it turned into a strategic Ottoman victory when their commander, Nureddin Ibrahim Pasha, realized that the Brits were in even worse shape than his forces were (because of the supply line issue), and turned his army around to pursue them. Rather than retreating all the way back to Basra and safety, Townshend opted to hole up at Kut, a town about 100 miles south of Baghdad, and the resulting almost six month Siege of Kut ended in April 1916 in what is often described as the single greatest military defeat in the history of the British Empire–over 10,000 men of the 6th Division were taken captive, and many thousands more were killed in the fighting. The Brits finally took Baghdad in 1917, but only after the Ottoman capacity to wage war had been significantly weakened across the board.
The Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn put together a two-part series (that link will take you to part 2, which then has a link to part 1) on Ctesiphon this week, and if you’re interested in World War I and/or military history I highly recommend reading it. Last month Dunn did a six-part series (again, I’m linking to the last entry, which has links to all the others) on why the Brits made the ultimately disastrous decision to march on Baghdad in 1915 in the first place, and last summer he wrote a three-part series on the British surrender at Kut. I probably don’t cover as much World War I here as I should, except insofar as the fallout from that war has some bearing on contemporary events in the Middle East, so hopefully these will satisfy any WWI buffs out there.
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