Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, October 9, 2020

Recommended: "Voices of Mesopotamia" from the Imperial War Museum

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The entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War in October 1914 threatened British interests in the Middle East. The British government decided to send troops to Mesopotamia —present-day Iraq—to protect the valuable oil fields near Basra. A British and Indian assault force landed there in November and achieved early successes against the Turkish troops of the Ottoman Empire, capturing first Basra and then Qurna. British gunner Jack Callaway described the Battle of Qurna, which took place in December 1914.

Well we opened up and cleared the village of course and it was burned down. The Turks were cleared back but we withdrew, because there was no intention to hold it at that time. And they were 15-pounder guns they had, the Turks, very old type and not much of a worry really! It was all sort of excitement really, in a sense; I don’t know, not knowing what was to happen, of course. Infantry would be a bit different for them, especially advancing in open desert which is not very funny.

The Battle of Nasiriya in July 1915 was another defeat for the Turks. British officer George Channer was in command of eight machine guns during his battalion’s advance.

We’d had to advance – the men had had to advance – through fairly good cover, through long grass, and by 12 o’clock they’d advance about 400 yards. At the end of that I remember seeing a small body of Ghurkhas – about seven being led by another – making for a trench which was about 300 yards in front of me. So I gave them covering fire, and at that moment the whole of our front became alive; the Hampshires on the right I could see in the palm trees. They advanced to the enemy position and these got out of their trenches and bolted backwards, back to Nasiriya. And that was the end of the battle.

Henry Shortt was a medical officer attached to the 33rd Indian Cavalry Regiment who arrived in Mesopotamia in late 1914. He remembered an early encounter with Turkish troops, and the surprising ease of fighting them.

I saw one Turk firing at us from behind a bush. I jumped off my horse, threw the reigns to my orderly and seized hold of this man’s rifle. And we had a tug of war; I was only using one hand as I had a revolver in the other! And suddenly a blinding flash in my face, didn’t know what it was – temporarily blinded. As soon as I could see, I had a hold of the Turk’s rifle; he was lying on the ground. I could’ve shot him but I didn’t because he was unarmed, then we let him go. Major Anderson, when I re-joined the rest, he said he was astonished how easily his sword had gone through a Turk. He said it was just like going through butter! He was so astonished.

The Allies were lulled into a false sense of security by their early victories and thought themselves militarily superior to the Turks. Spurred on by this, they overstretched their already precarious supply lines by pushing on towards the Mesopotamian capital, Baghdad. Near the ancient city of Ctesiphon in November 1915, the 6th Indian Division—which included Private F Finch—suffered a sobering defeat.

At about 20 November, we had orders to advance onto Ctesiphon. Our brigade was on the left of the division. We marched along in ordinary formation – fours – I suppose, until about eight o’clock in the morning. We’d had a very cold, horrible night, frozen; I don’t think anybody had a sleep because it was so cold. We was very pleased when the reveille or the sound to come and we started on the march. We went along, we opened out, we couldn’t see anybody but we opened out, I suppose the forces that be, the generals, might have seen the enemy, or thought they did, but we opened out in platoon formation, opened but not in battle formation. At about eight o’clock we halted. Had an idea that the enemy had gone; he wasn’t occupying any position at all there. They sent a reconnoitring patrol out in the front and all of a sudden bang! bang! guns and everything they started to fire; those people, well they was mowed down.

The Allies sustained heavy casualties at Ctesiphon. They were forced to retreat to Kut, a town they had previously captured. George Channer was among them.

The casualties at Ctesiphon were very heavy. In my battalion we had over 35%; but in some regiments they had over 60; and we had not calculated for such heavy casualties. And so resources were very severely strained and were very inadequate. I remember seeing the wounded coming onto one of the steamers; they were coming along in army transport carts, they’d had rough field dressings put on them the night before and they were laid on the deck as we went down the river. General Townshend realised that his troops had been fought to a standstill during these three days. And so the retirement to Kut began.

Private R Hockaday of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment also took part in the retreat to Kut.

We had to turn around and make tracks over the same ground that we’d just come up. We had to retire on the flank which was very orderly at first, but the Turks were pushing us on very quickly and as we came on they were advancing more and more and we were getting a little bit out of disorder. Eventually we arrived at Kut. Kut was a very flat place, just like a table and we had to start digging in. The next day they were there shelling us and we had to dig our trenches everything under their shell fire and artillery fire and rifle fire and machine-gun fire. And I can tell you it made us work because the more you got down under the shelter the safer you were.

The exhausted 6th Division, commanded by Major General Charles Townshend, dug in at Kut and waited for reinforcements. From 7 December 1915, they were placed under siege by the Turks. Conditions in Kut steadily worsened, as British officer Henry Rich recalled.

We had seven weeks of plenty, followed by ten weeks of adequacy, gradually getting less and less, then finally we had four weeks of starvation which was complete hell. Townshend always thought he was going to be relieved within six weeks and he just used up his rations in that six weeks. And then after the relieving force had failed to get through he suddenly found out that by commandeering all the Arab food and piles of grain and using the mules he could hold out for another 84 days. But you hadn’t got enough in your stomach and you get very tired of meat by itself, it tastes like a bit of chewed tin in the end. And four ounces of bread is about three small slices and that’s got to last you twenty-four hours. By the time we got to the end, the bread was all barley with a lot of sweepings from where it had been stored and quite a bit of the stone grindstones in it. The meat was good; there’s no doubt that mule is quite good – better than horse.

Private Hockaday witnessed first-hand the effect inadequate rationing had on his comrades.

And as time went on we had to reduce our rations. Well, as time went on people began to get weak and dying a bit, you know. You couldn’t do anything while they were living, you know. After they were dead, you carried them out and buried them. But while they were living they had to just stay amongst you in the trenches.

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