Report of the Mesopotamia Commission
Catalogue reference: HO 45/10838/331607



Battle of Ctesiphon.

           57. There are two methods of concealing a failure. The first is to suppress all mention of it. The second is to obscure its significance by the glare of a contemporaneous achievement. The first method was, as we have seen, used at the first battle of Kut. It was the second method which obtained after the battle of Ctesiphon, when the military success of withdrawing all the wounded in the face of a pursuing enemy diverted attention from the grave medical defects which were disclosed in the course of that operation.


          58.We do not here enter fully into the details of the Battle of Ctesiphon and of the lamentable breakdown of medical arrangements which followed it. This is done at length by the Vincent-Bingley Commissioners and elsewhere in our own Report.* [footne: See Part X., para. 24] It will be sufficient to recapitulate that a tactical victory was turned into a strategical defeat: General Townshend was obliged to retire before superior forces with casualties amounting to approximately one-third of the force with which he entered into battle. Over 3,500 wounded had to be removed from the battle field to the river bank, in some cases a distance of ten miles, without proper ambulance transport, and with an insufficiency of medical personnel, of food and of comforts, so that a large proportion had to make their way on foot in spite of their injured condition. When they arrived at the river, the available steamer accommodation was gravely inadequate. The wounded and weary men had to be crowded into steamers and barges without sufficient medical attention, appliances, or conveniences. Some of the wounded were disembarked at Amarah, but the majority went on down to Basra, a journey from the battlefield, which, in some cases, took as much as fourteen days, and the discomforts of which were aggravated for the wounded by the presence on board of many cases of dysentery and other sickness.


           59. Thus the sick and wounded were put to great sufferings during the evacuation from the battlefield to the river bank at Laj, and also during the protracted journey down the river. Though the successful evacuation of the wounded in the face of a superior and pursuing enemy was a fine military performance, it was carried out in a manner which involved for the sick and wounded conditions of neglect, misery, and suffering, which were lamentable. Not a hint of this regrettable breakdown is to be found in the official report sent to England after the battle.


          60. We are reluctant to describe the details of the condition in which many of the wounded arrived at Basra, on account of their sickening horror; but we deem it necessary to quote one witness on this subject, because it brings home the appalling nature of the sufferings which were thus glossed over by the authorities. Major Carter, I.M.S., who was in medical charge of the hospital ship "Varela" at Basra, waiting for the wounded from Ctesiphon, thus describes the arrival of one of the river convoys:-

"I was standing on the bridge in the evening when the "Medjidieh" arrived. She had two steel barges without any protection against the rain, as far as I remember. As this ship, with two barges, came up to us I saw that she was absolutely packed, and the barges too, with men. The barges were slipped, and the "Medjidieh" was brought alongside the "Varela." When she was about 300 or 400 yards off it looked as if she was festooned with ropes. The stench when she was close was quite definite, and I found that what I mistook for ropes were dried stalactites of human fæces. The patients were so huddled and crowded together on the ship that they could not perform the offices of Nature clear of the edge of the ship, and the whole of the ship's side was covered with stalactites of human fæces This is what I then saw. A certain number of men were standing and kneeling on the immediate perimeter of the ship. Then we found a mass of men huddled up anyhow - some with blankets and some without. They were lying in a pool of dysentery about 30 feet square. They were covered with dysentery and dejecta generally from head to foot. With regard to the first man I examined, I put my hand into his trousers, and I thought that he had a hæmorrhage. His trousers were full almost to his waist with something warm and slimy. I took my hand out, and thought it was blood clot. It was dysentery. The man had a fractured thigh, and his thigh was perforated in five or six places. He had apparently been writhing about the deck of the ship. Many cases were almost as bad. There were a certain number of cases of terribly bad bed sores. In my report I describe mercilessly to the Government of India how I found men with their limbs splinted with wood strips from "Johnny Walker" whisky boxes, "Bhoosa" wire, and that sort of thing."

          Were they British or Indian? - British and Indian mixed.


           61.We do not wish it to be inferred that the conditions on all the river steamers reached this pitch of horror. The conditions, for example, in the "Blosse Lynch" and the "Mosul," two ships which on this occasion had been prepared beforehand for the wounded, though unsatisfactory, were probably superior to those in the "Medjidieh." On the other hand there is evidence that the conditions in some of the other boats were as bad as or worse than in the "Medjidieh."


          62. We will now see how the evacuation of the wounded, resulting in such appalling conditions, was officially described by the General Officer Commanding the Expedition. We append two telegrams on the subject:-

From- Secretary of State for India
To- General Nixon, Basra.
Dated December 4th, 1915.
C. 243. On arrival wounded at Basra. Please telegraph urgently particulars and progress.
From - General Nixon, Basra.
To- Secretary of State for India.
Dated December 7th, 1915.
940/28/A. Your C. 243. Wounded satisfactorily disposed of. Many likely to recover in country comfortably placed in hospitals at Amara and Basra. Those for invaliding are being placed direct on two hospital ships that were ready at Basra on arrival of river boats. General condition of wounded very satisfactory. Medical arrangements under circumstances of considerable difficulty worked splendidly.


          We have had great difficulty in ascertaining who actually drafted this telegram and was responsible for its despatch. Sir John Nixon, who was ill at the time it was sent, in his evidence before us stated that he had only a dim, if any, recollection of the circumstance, but he admitted having seen it the day after its despatch, and as it was sent in his name he accepted the responsibility for it.

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