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The Mesopotamia campaign

The Mesopotamia campaign

Turkey's entry into the war on 29 October 1914 immediately prompted Britain to open a new military front in the remote Ottoman province of Glossary - opens new windowMesopotamia (present-day Iraq).

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Rapid progress

British and Indian troops, sent to the Persian Gulf in early November to protect British oil interests at Glossary - opens new windowAbadan, made rapid progress inland against weak Turkish resistance. In less than a month, they had occupied the towns of Glossary - opens new windowBasra and Glossary - opens new windowKurna, capturing more than 1,000 Turkish prisoners and losing just 65 of their own men.

Despite the unforgiving climate, British forces continued to march steadily up the River Tigris in 1915. By 28 September, under the leadership of Glossary - opens new windowGeneral Charles Townshend, they had taken the town of Glossary - opens new windowKut-al-Amara just 120 miles south of Mesopotamia's major city, Baghdad. Scornful British estimates of Turkish fighting capabilities seemed to be amply borne out by events - witness, for example, the timorous surrender of 2,000 Turkish soldiers to a tiny British advance force in the garrison town of Glossary - opens new windowAmara in June 1915.

Report of Mesopotamia Commission - opens new window
Report of the
Mesopotamia Commission (187k)

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The tide turned quickly, however, at the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowCtesiphon (22-26 November 1915). Envisaged as a trouble-free prelude to the final march on Baghdad, it was a bloody affair, in which Turkish troops - under the command of Glossary - opens new windowYusef Nur-ed-Din - withstood heavy casualties to defeat Townshend's attacking forces.

More than half of the 8,500 British and Indian troops who fought at Ctesiphon were killed or wounded. The survivors then endured a dangerous and exhausting retreat to Kut-al-Amara without decent medical or transport facilities.

The siege of Kut-al-Amara
Bolstered by 30,000 reinforcements, Turkish troops besieged Townshend's forces in Kut-al-Amara before the Allied troops could act on the British War Cabinet's advice to withdraw further down the Tigris. The siege of Kut-al-Amara lasted 147 days, before the 11,800 British and Indian troops inside the garrison town finally surrendered on 29 April 1916.

Rev. Harold Spooner diary - opens new window
Diary from the
siege of Kut (162k)


Lord Kitchener's Kut speech - opens new window
Kitchener's speech
on the fall of Kut

Conditions during the siege were appalling. In bitterly cold weather and with little medical treatment, many of the soldiers did not survive the winter. Several attempts were made to relieve the besieged town, but they encountered stubborn Turkish resistance and all ended in failure. For instance, the relief force under the command of Glossary - opens new windowGeneral Aylmer suffered heavy losses at Glossary - opens new windowHanna in January 1916 and at Glossary - opens new windowDujaila two months later.


Brutal treatment
The surrender of Townshend's army in late April 1916 shocked people in Britain, for whom the Mesopotamia campaign had previously been a distant - and largely successful - venture. Kitchener rushed to defend the honour of the British and Indian forces at Kut-al-Amara, but it was impossible to avoid the fact that - after the humiliating retreat at Gallipoli - Allied forces had suffered another defeat at the hands of the despised Turks.

While the surrender of Kut-al-Amara led in London to the creation of a parliamentary committee of enquiry into operations in Mesopotamia, far more horrific repercussions were taking place on the ground. Captured British and Indian soldiers were brutally treated on their march to Turkish prisoner-of-war camps in Glossary - opens new windowAnatolia. Of the 11,800 men who left Kut-al-Amara with their captors on 6 May 1916, 4,250 died either on their way to captivity or in the camps that awaited them at the journey's end.

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Renewed success

Despite the setback at Kut-al-Amara, the British position in Mesopotamia was far from hopeless. Indeed, with reinforced troop divisions and a new leader in Glossary - opens new windowGeneral F S Maude, British and Indian forces again advanced rapidly up the Tigris in early 1917.

Kut-al-Amara was recaptured on 24 February, and Ctesiphon, where the previous British advance had been checked in November 1915, was taken soon afterwards. On 11 March, British troops finally entered Baghdad. The path was cleared for an advance into northern Mesopotamia, towards the heart of the Ottoman empire in Anatolia. When the war with Turkey ended on 30 October 1918, British forces in Mesopotamia had reached as far north as the oil-rich district of Glossary - opens new windowMosul, which was captured on 3 November.

During the four years of fighting in the region, more than 31,000 officers and men from the British and Indian armies had died in combat or from disease.

Indian army officer after Kut - opens new window
Indian army soldier
after the siege of Kut

British troops entering Baghdad - opens new window
British troops entering Baghdad

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

CAB 19/2-27: War Cabinet commission on Mesopotamia campaign.
WO 32/5113: Report on state of nutrition of garrison at Kut-al-Amara, 1916.
WO 32/5204: Report on siege of Kut-al-Amara by Lieutenant H McNeal, Royal Field Artillery, Dec 1915-Apr 1916.
WO 106/52: Various material on operations in Mesopotamia, 1914-16.
WO 106/914: General F S Maude's dispatches on operations of Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force, Apr-Oct 1917.
WO 302: Various maps from Mesopotamia campaign, 1914-18.

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