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

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Siege of Kut: Some Observations

by Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester 

British Soldiers at Kut During the Siege

Descriptions of British soldiers’ lives under military siege include words such as gallant, heroic, even plucky. This thin optimism fundamentally serves the home front and politicians and does nothing to alleviate the horrors of the actual circumstances. On the other hand, the resourcefulness, stalwartness, and humor of the British and Indians under siege at Kut for 146 days do stand as testimony to the reserves of strength in those soldiers when tried to their utmost.

One example of such humor in Ronald Millar's Death of an Army: the Siege of Kut 1915–1916 is a mock menu proposing a dinner to be held on 28 February 1916 in honor of the 16th anniversary of the relief of Ladysmith—at the “Optimus Hotel, Kut.”

In the tradition of The Wipers Times and similar wartime soldiers’ publications, the menu and program show through humor, sarcasm, and song the detachment and despair that coexist under siege and in the trenches. Food and drink in both circumstances are a constant topic, at Kut even more so. In reality, of course, food dwindled to horseflesh, here noted as “Cutlets, Jaipur Pony Superb” for the Entrée. The after-dinner program makes witty comments on the conditions and predictable digs at army administration and the ever-delayed Relief Force:

·      Pt I: 8. Two Step  ‘Be Quick and Get Under’ [by] A. Dugout

·      Pt. II: 1. March  ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ Percy Lake[1]

·      Pt. II: 2. Cornet Solo  ‘I Hear You Calling Me’  Aylmer[2]

The counterpart of this joshing is the need to mend and make do, to revise and invent to be able to keep up the defense and hold out while other supplies besides food dwindle or are non-existent—weapons and ammo. The defenders had artillery, to a degree, but no mortars at all. Given the periodic raids and imminent attack from the Turks, mortars were needed for their short-range, high-trajectory qualities. Both the weapon and its shells were improvised, thanks to several companies of Royal Engineers serving with Townshend’s force:

            …’jam pot’ grenades, or bombs, were made. These were jam tins containing gun-cotton charges which were then topped up with pieces of metal, old rusty nails, broken glass,Turkish shrapnel picked up at the fort… [p 107]

         Future Grenades    

There were some unsatisfactory attempts at creating mortars from wood and baling wire (which Millar describes as “Elizabethan weapons”), but the answer came from the Gnome 80 [not 70, as Millar states] engines from the Martinsyde S1 aeroplanes[3] left at Kut:

The answer to the problem of the wooden mortars was supplied by Captain [R.E.] Stace’s modifications to the Gnome aircraft engines. He had converted the cylinders of the radial engines into mortars and two of these arrived at the fort. At first they threw 3-lb. T.N.T. aeroplane bombs which were fairly accurate up to a range of 300 yards but occasionally snags occurred. Loose collars were attached to the bomb so they would fit snugly in the cylinder. These sometimes failed to drop off when fired and spoiled the projectile’s trajectory. This failure often caused the bomb to land inside the fort. The mortar gunners developed skills similar to those of ornithologists and could spot a ‘collared’ or ‘collarless’ bomb immediately and remove themselves quickly from the vicinity of the explosion. Captain Stace, however, solved the problem by adapting the gun so that it could fire the ‘jam pot’ bombs which fitted snugly in the barrels of the Gnome mortars without collars. [pp 111–112]

Gnome 80 engine, c. 1915
Photo from

Martinsyde S1 scouts in Mesopotamia
Photo from

The Relief Force attempts never could break through, and Townshend’s only option was an honorable surrender, which tragically took his soldiers into a grim death- and disease-ridden captivity. By the end of both siege and captivity 5,476 British and Indian troops had died. There can be no accounting of the deaths of the Arab civilians trapped in Kut or dispatched by the Turks upon their capture of the town.

[1] Lt.-Gen. commanding the Mesopotamian Force charged with relieving the siege.

[2] Lt.-Gen. led first failed relief attempt.

[3] Millar uses the plural of engines and implies plural aircraft as well, but according to Trevor Henshaw in The Sky Their Battlefield II (2014) only one Martinsyde S1 was “…now [December 1915] abandoned at Kut owing to damage or inability to evacuate” (p 295).

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