Yesterday marked the centennial of one of the worst military fiascos in British history, the surrender of the 6th division of the Indian Army to the Ottomans at the Iraqi town of Kut. Kut followed right on the heels of the Battle of Ctesiphon in November 1915, and its final result turned that indecisive battle into a major strategic Ottoman victory. While neither side got the better of the fighting at Ctesiphon, the Brits, owing to the zealous ineptitude of their commander, Major General Charles Townshend,
were left in the far more challenging situation, having overextended their supply routes and had their offensive blunted deep in enemy territory. Townshend, for reasons I assume made sense to him at the time, opted not to make a beeline for British territory after Ctesiphon, instead choosing to hole up at Kut and await reinforcements. He believed that Kut was defensible and that British control over the Tigris River would allow them to ferry reinforcements to bolster his forces. He was, as it turns out, completely wrong (he also believed that pinning the Ottomans down at Kut was necessary to keep them from attacking the Brits further south, but logistically the Ottomans couldn’t possibly have undertaken an offensive in southern Iraq). The Ottomans drove off three separate British overland relief attempts and managed to prevent most British ships from getting upriver to Kut. In a last-ditch attempt to save the army, Britain sent representatives, including T.E. Lawrence (who wasn’t quite “Lawrence of Arabia” yet) to negotiate a ransom payment to the Ottomans. The Ottomans rejected any payment, and Townshend was left with no choice but to surrender.
As he has often done with respect to World War I history, the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn has written a three-part history of the Siege of Kut, including an overview of the campaign, a look at the circumstances that led to the siege, and a description of the relief attempts and Townshend’s eventual surrender. So you should go and read those for more detail on the siege. The one thing I wanted to highlight was what happened to Townshend after the battle, because it’s really a microcosm of the entire war. Continue reading