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

Friday, May 3, 2019

Captured at Kut-al-Amara: A Letter from a Prisoner of War

Column of Prisoners Taken at Kut-al-Amara

The author of this letter, Captain Ian Martin, served as a doctor with the Indian Medical Service in the First World War and in late 1915 was based in the town of Kut-al-Amara, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Early military successes in Mesopotamia had fostered a belief that Baghdad could be captured with relative ease, but Major General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army failed to seize the city from the Ottoman forces and retreated to Kut. The Turks besieged the town on 7 December 1915, and the blockade remained in place when Captain Martin began his letter dated 1 April 1916.

It is an occupation rather suited for All Fool’s Day to sit down to write letters when it is by no means certain that the said epistles will ever leave Kut… I have put off writing so long that I have reached the stage of being thoroughly bored with the siege and all that pertains to it. The four months of our investment are in retrospect like the troubled night of a fevered sleeper.

The beginning of the siege with its incessant rabble of musketry and crash of shells came as a douche of cold reality on our peaceful hospital. For at first we who had remained at Kut throughout the advance on Baghdad, the fight at Ctesiphon and the sullen retreat to the shelter of the river loop, had found it almost impossible to get hold of what really was happening. The arriving army, on the contrary, jaded and spiritless though it appeared to be, was yet more than awake to the true state of things. So Townshend and his men settled down in a methodical fashion to dig themselves in.

Two days after the last of the army had straggled in the first of the enemy shells began to arrive. Since then scarcely a day — I can recall none — has passed without several of these messengers of fear and hate. Every day the investing line crept closer; every day the bombardment of the town became heavier. Every night at dusk and each morning at dawn the crackle of musketry grew into a roar — continuous but varying curiously in intensity — it comes to the ear in regularly recurring waves of sound rather like the whirling of a gigantic policeman’s rattle, punctuated freely by the muffled boom of our field guns firing star shells.

Soldiers of the 6th Poona Division in Captivity

Finishing with an abrupt postscript scrawled in a shaky hand and dated 15 July 1916, Captain Martin was now a prisoner of the Turks.

The forebodings in the opening page of this letter have proved too horribly true. Here I am after much journeying and many tribulations sitting in my blanket shelter at (a camp whose name I forget) about three days march from Ras-al-Ain which is the southern terminus of the still incomplete Baghdad–Aleppo railway. At my feet runs a little muddy stream almost dry — around and upon my feet are myriad of insects — mostly biting flies, but including some thousands of ants, great and small — houseflies, big horseflies and several unknown and noxious small species. Overhead the Eastern Sun, smiting me through my thin blankets — which are disposed upon sticks about six inches above my head. I eat weird oriental food cooked in a fashion by my Indian orderly. But you must excuse me, for a gust has blown my shelter down! I shall resume another day…

Survivors of the Captivity on Their Way Home, 1919

The siege ended on 29 April with the surrender of the now starving British and Indian troops, after 147 days. Approximately 13,000 soldiers were captured and were to endure terrible conditions of deprivation as prisoners of war. 

Note: The Editor has been unable to discover whether Capt. Martin survived his captivity.

Source: The Telegraph, 1 February 2014


  1. Captain Martin had a much better chance of surviving than did the OR's and the Indian soldiers. The British officers were held in better quarters, plus as Martin mentions they were allowed to keep their servants and also to buy food.

    1. James, Major General Ian Martin was my Grandfather. He survived and his legacy from the siege of Kut is that he insisted in living with the soldiers and many officers joined him as a result of his choice. There, he made a significant contribution to the chances of survival of his colleagues at great risk to himself. His captors found this baffling and at first attempted to prevent him. He had a distinguished career in the Indian Medical Service where he rose to the rang of Deputy in charge of the service. He was a leader in the development of the modern field hospital, although not credited with that and of course refined in the Korean War after he retired to the Island of Skye. He lost a brother in the Somme. He had a sister who became one of the first female professors in medicine and another brother who became a psychiatrist.

  2. Ian Martin is not listed in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, so he almost certainly survived the war

    1. Adrian, thank you: correct! Please see my belated reply to James above.