Today in Middle Eastern history: the Surrender of Kut (1916)

Today is the anniversary 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,

Speaking of which (Wikimedia)

were left in the far more challenging situation, having overextended their supply routes only to have 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 dig in at Kut and await reinforcements. He believed that pinning the Ottomans down at Kut was necessary to keep them from attacking British positions further south, but logistically the Ottomans couldn’t possibly have undertaken an offensive in southern Iraq, so this was probably mistaken.

Townshend also believed that Kut was defensible and that British control over the Tigris River would allow them to ferry in reinforcements to bolster his forces. On these points he was, as it turns out, completely wrong, as the Ottomans drove off three separate British overland relief attempts and managed to prevent most British ships from getting upriver. 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 with the Ottomans. The Ottomans rejected any payment, and Townshend was left with no choice but to surrender.

A map of Britain’s 1915 Iraq offensive, including Ctesiphon and Kut (Wikimedia)

As he has often done with respect to World War I history, former Middle East Institute editor 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.

World War I was the archetype of meat-grinder warfare. Officers were usually chosen from among the Gentlemanly Classes, regardless of merit, and so many of them fell into one of two groups: those who had no idea what they were doing and those who felt no particular misgivings about sending thousands upon thousands of enlisted men off to be slaughtered in operations that were poorly conceived and that frequently wouldn’t have gained much even if they’d been tactically flawless. After all, enlisted men tended to be riff-raff, and while you don’t want to spend your soldiers’ lives too cheaply, who’s really going to miss a few thousand working class types when all is said and done?

Townshend seems to have been squarely in the latter group, and his army included a large number of Indian soldiers who were deemed even more expendable than poor Englishmen. So it apparently didn’t phase him in the slightest that he and his top officers were all ferried upriver by boat and on to Istanbul, where Townshend was treated as a foreign dignitary and became good friends with Ottoman Minister of War (and the most powerful man in the empire) Enver Pasha, while his men were death-marched overland to prison camps in Anatolia. Of the ~12-13 thousand British soldiers who surrendered to the Ottomans at Kut, fully a third of them died either on the march or in the camps. As far as anybody knows, Townshend asked after the condition of his men all of once, and having not gotten a straight answer, never asked again.

Townshend remained in luxurious “captivity” in Istanbul for the rest of the war. Simply by virtue of his presence in the Ottoman capital, he had a hand in negotiating the Ottomans’ military surrender to Britain in 1918, which he later (without merit) claimed was entirely his doing. He finally returned home and was stunned to find that he wasn’t given a hero’s welcome, then stunned again when the British Army told him that his services were no longer required. The British government wanted to try Enver Pasha for war crimes, mostly over the Armenian Genocide but also in part over the post-Kut death march, but Townshend, astonishingly, denied that the march ever took place (how would he have known?) and said he would testify in his pal Enver’s defense. Incredibly, or maybe predictably (I don’t know anymore), he was elected to Parliament after he left the army, though to be fair this was before the details of his military service had really been investigated.

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Author: DWD

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