Battles from Basra to Kut

The Ottoman Empire joined the First World War on October 29th 1914. It was just two weeks after the Indian Division of the British army had left the port of Bombay, which was then a British colony, for Iraq as part of the "Mesopotamian Campaign". The targets of the British were the oil and gas wells on Basra coast of Iran.

The British landed on the Gulf of Basra on November 3rd 1914 and deployed in Abadan, a city in central west of Iran where oil fields are located. Two days later they seized the Al Faw Peninsula, a strategic region under the Ottoman army's control, which was used for supply and shipment. At that point, the Ottoman Empire had moved their troops to more vital fronts such as the Dardanelles, Sarikamish and Palestine. The defence of entire Iraq was left to only a small number of soldiers from the 38th Division.

The British forces entered Basra without much difficulty and captured the strategically-located Qurna region, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, on November 9th, 1914. As the Ottomans tried to form a new line of defence, the British army was making plans to seize Baghdad.

Ottoman secret service member becomes commander

Ottoman Secretary of War and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Enver Pasha appointed Lieutenant Colonel Suleyman Askeri as the commander of the forces in Iraq.

One of the founders of the Ottoman secret service, Suleyman Askeri, was hoped to fortify Ottoman defence by organising local tribes in Iraq like he previously did in Libya. He launched an offensive against British positions on April 12th, 1915, but lost. Unable to stand defeat, Askeri committed suicide, while Ottoman troops retreated to Nasiriyah.

New war commanders

After the death of Askeri, Colonel Nurettin Bey (known as Nurettin Ibrahim Konyar after 1934), who later played an important role during the Turkish War of Independence as well, assumed command of Ottoman troops as the General Commander of the Iraq area. The colonel, also known as "Bearded Nurettin", reached Baghdad on May 19th, 1915.

British forces under General John Nixon's command, on the other hand, increased their number of troops, upgrading their military presence in the region to corps level. Nixon appointed Major General Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend to the command of the Sixth Indian Division of the British army. Townshend was ordered to chase the withdrawing Ottoman troops and if possible, capture Baghdad.

Being aware that the number of regular troops in the region was insufficient, Colonel Nurettin Bey withdrew his soldiers towards Baghdad in a controlled manner through tactical battles that would slow down the advance of British forces. British army captured Amara and Nasiriyah in June and July, respectively. Ottoman troops, which retreated without any losses, formed a new line of defence to the north of Kut al Amara.

A German pasha in command of Ottoman army

The British campaign was increasingly becoming a serious problem both for the Ottoman Empire and their ally, Germany. Secretary of War Enver Pasha gathered the forces in Iran and Iraq, with new reinforcements, under the name of the 6th Army and appointed 72-year-old German Field Marshall Volmar von der Goltz to its command.

British forces attacked the Ottoman line of defence above Kut al Amara on April 27th 1915. After two days of fighting, the city fell to the British. Major General Townshend fortified the city with ditches, high trenches and artillery as this location was going to be the operating centre for his Baghdad campaign.

Townshend's miscalculation

Colonel Nurettin Bey withdrew his soldiers to the Ottoman army's last line of defence in Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. Colonel Khalil Bey, commander of the 3rd Army's Right Wing in Eastern Anatolia, which was dispatched to the region for support purposes on Enver Pasha's order, came under Colonel Nurettin Bey's command on November 15thwith two divisionshe was in command of. Khalil Bey was Enver Pasha's uncle although he was actually one year younger than him.

British Major General Townshend ordered his troops to attack the Ottoman forces on November 22nd 1915. Unable to advance after a day-long fierce fighting, British troops started to retreat.

Ottoman forces followed the fleeing British soldiers. Nurettin Pasha's cavalries frequently attacked withdrawing enemy units, which forced Townshend to take refuge in Kut al Amara. The British general estimated that they could withstand a siege for two months with the ammunition and food they have, and thought they could launch an attack on Baghdad again once they received help from Basra. However, things did not turn out the way he expected.

The siege of Kut al Amara

British troops arrived in Kut al Amara on November 3rd. As the Indian Division reinforced their positions in the city, Ottoman forces besieged them. Colonel Nurettin Bey sent a message to Townshend, asking him to surrender. The British commander refused it. In the meantime, Goltz, who reached Baghdad on December 7th, went to Kut al Amara to see the situation on the ground.

Colonel Nurettin Bey objected when he heard that Field Marshall Goltz had been appointed to the command of the newly formed 6th Army. He thought that a non-Muslim commander would not leave a good impression on the people in the region and had told Istanbul that Ottoman officers had the experience and knowledge to cope with the British.

Colonel disagreed with Goltz regarding war plans, too. He wanted to launch an offensive against the British forces immediately and inflict a decisive defeat on them while Goltz thought it would be wrong to make such a move before reinforcing forces arrived.

British forces in Kut al Amara pushed back the Ottoman offensive which was launched on Nurettin Bey's order. The Ottoman army suffered heavy losses. As a result, Goltz dismissed Nurettin Bey and appointed Khalil Pasha to the command of the Tigris Corps of the 6th Army.

Besiege and fight at the same time

Khalil Bey was going to keep Major General Townshend's soldiers under siege and at the same time fight the support forces that would come from Basra.

The Ottoman army besieged Kut, dug well-supported trenches around the city and placed barricades to prevent enemy troops coming via the river.

British commander of the Mesopotamian Campaign, General Nixon dispatched Lieutenant General Fenton John Alymer and his 19,000 men to Townshend's assistance. Alymer tried to cross Ottoman lines repeatedly between January-March 1916. However, his forces suffered very heavy losses and retreated. This failure led to the dismissal of General Nixon and the appointment of General Percy Lake as the commander of the Mesopotamian Campaign.

Challenging natural conditions and diseases

Soldiers were mostly under blazing hot sun. The campaign was taking place in an area between Euphrates and Tigris rivers characterized by swamps, reeds and irregular floods which made deployment of military units difficult. Diseases were all around because of swamps and mosquitoes.

Contagious diseases such as typhus were a common enemy to both armies. Among the victims of typhus was the commander of the Ottoman 6th Army, Goltz, who died of the disease at the age of 72 in Baghdad. Khalil Bey, who was only 33 years old at the time, commanded the 6th Army first by proxy and then as the principal commander when he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and Governor of Iraq on April 22nd 1916.

A bribe offer of one million pounds

Nurettin Bey and Khalil Pasha sent three letters in total to General Townshend asking him to surrender. The British general refused each time.

Townshend's men fell weak due to hunger and diseases. Having lost his hope, the British commander made various offers to Khalil Pasha so as not to be taken prisoner. He asked to be allowed to walk free in return for not fighting against the Ottoman army, suggested to hand over all his weapons and offered to give Khalil Pasha a cheque of one million pounds. Khalil Pasha's response was that after so much fighting it has become a necessity to take British soldiers captive and that British weapons would be of no use to them. He also refused Townshend's one-million-pound bribe offer saying he considered it as "a joke".

The British came with a second offer after their first one had been rejected. Among the ones, who brought the letter of offer to Khalil Pasha, was a notable name: Thomas Edward Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia as he is more commonly known - the famous British spy who provoked the Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Having noticed that their bribe offer annoyed Khalil Pasha, the British were trying to correct their mistake. According to the new offer, two million pounds were going to be paid to the Ottoman Empire while the other demands remained the same.

One last try with “Julnar”

The last attempt to help the British troops besieged in Kut was the sending of the steamboat "Julnar", which ran ashore with 270 tonnes of food and ammunition on board after the Ottoman forces opened fire. Turkish soldiers named the captured ship, which otherwise would have helped Townshend to withstand the siege two more months, "Kendi Gelen" (literally meaning Coming Itself). The ship joined the Ottoman transport fleet with its three operative machine guns.

In the meantime, food shortage was forcing the British troops in Kut al Amara to slaughter and eat horses and mules.

Captured generals

In addition to diseases and lack of food, the British forces were increasingly running out of ammunition. Townshend destroyed what is left of their weapons and ammunition, and surrendered with his 13,309 men, including 6 generals and 476 officers, on April 29th 1916. This was the highest number of British troops captured in a long time.

Khalil Pasha gave Townshend's sword and two guns back to him and told the British commander that from then on he was not a captive, but a guest of the sultan.

After a siege of 147 days, captured soldiers were sent to Aleppo and various cities in Anatolia while Townshend and his officers were taken to Istanbul. Their journey from Baghdad to Istanbul took 22 days. Townshend remained in exile in Heybeliada and Büyükada for nearly 2.5 years until the end of the First World War in November 1918. Enver Pasha welcomed Townshend very warmly and made sure he felt more of a guest than a captive. Although he was under police surveillance, the British could act freely. Because Townshend was the highest ranked British soldier in Istanbul he participated in the Armistice of Mudros. When he finally returned to London in 1919, there were only his wife Alice, his elder daughter Audrey and his dog Spot at the port waiting to welcome him. The British army made it clear that he would not be given a new mission upon his return. The siege of Kut al Amara brought the end of Townshend's career.

After Kut al Amara…

Despite the Ottoman Empire gained victories in the Dardanelles and the Iraqi front, their success did not last. The British reinforced their forces in Iraq with troops from other fronts and launched another attack on Kut al Amara 8 months later – this time with an army of 50,000 soldiers.

They captured Kut al Amara on February 25th 1917, followed by Baghdad on March 11th 1917.

The victorious commander of Kut al Amara got the surname Kut after the enactment of the surname law.

Major Clement Attlee, who got seriously injured in Kut al Amara when a shell fragment hit his leg, served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951.