The operational area of Mesopotamia in the First World War covered the lands watered by the rivers of Euphrates and Tigris, corresponding roughly to modern-day Iraq. The terrain in this area consisted of swamps and deserts, which made travel extremely difficult. The Ottomans had conquered the region in early 16th century, but they could never establish an efficient system of administration there. The distance between Istanbul and the southernmost city in Mesopotamia, Basra, was 3,470 kilometers, corresponding to a trip of four months for a caravan.
Before the war, there were two Turkish units stationed in Mesopotamia: XII Corps (35th and 36th Divisions) at Mosul and XIII Corps (37th and 38th Divisions) at Baghdad.
The Turkish High Command was not expecting any major offensive in this region and therefore, by November 1914, the entire XII Corps was deployed to Syria, whereas the headquarters and the 37th Division of the XIII Corps were en-route to the Caucasus. The Sixth Army Headquarters was scaled down and became the “Iraq Area Command” with the 38th Division under its command.
In the meantime, the British were planning to land troops in the Shatt-al-Arab region -where Tigris and Euphrates reached the Persian Gulf after merging with each other into one single river- in order to protect their oil interests. A reinforced infantry division from the Indian Army, the 6th Poona Division, was going to undertake this task. After receiving intelligence on these plans, the Turks redeployed portions of the 38th Division at the mouth of Shatt-al-Arab under the command of Lt.Col. Süleyman Askeri Bey, The rest of the Turkish defensive force was stationed in Basra.
The British offensive began with the naval force bombarding the old fort at Fav, which was located at the exact point where Shatt-al-Arab meets the Persian Gulf. The fort was defended by 350 Turkish troops and four cannons, which remained helpless against the Indian troops landing there and capturing the fort on November 6. By mid-November, half of the Poona Division was already ashore.
The next target of the Indian division was the town of Basra, which was defended by a force of 2,900 troops commanded by Suphi Pasha. Basra fell on November 22, with a Turkish loss of 1,200 prisoners, including Suphi Pasha himself, and three cannons.
After this unexpected and relatively easy success, British forces advanced further along the river. The Turks had withdrawn to Qurna. After some regiment scale battles fought around the town, Qurna fell on December 9. Turkish losses were a further 1,200 prisoners and nine cannons, which meant that the 38th Division was already reduced to debris.
Enver Pasha had realized the mistake of underestimating the importance of the Mesopotamian theatre. The 35th Division, which was commanded by Mehmet Fazıl Pasha, was called back to Iraq, and the 38th Division was reconstituted.
On January 2, 1915, Süleyman Askeri Bey, assumed the Iraq Area Command and the Governorship of Baghdad. His rank was too low for these duties, but he was a well known personality within the Committee of Union and Progress, and he was admired by Enver Pasha. He was brave and dedicated, yet his world view was sometimes too narrow and childish. Turkish historians quote him saying: “Deploying troops to Iraq is nothing but murder. We can easily draw the enemy to the sea using the local clans and we can use our forces to attack India and Beludjistan.” As soon as he took the command, Süleyman Askeri Bey sent letters to Arab sheikhs in an attempt to organize them to fight against the “infidels”.
The First Battle of Kut
Enver Pasha’s order to Süleyman Askeri Bey was to retake the Shatt-al-Arab region at any cost. Süleyman Askeri divided his forces in two. The Euphrates Wing was to be under his command and it would advance to Basra via Nasiria. The Tigris Wing was given to the command of Mehmet Fazıl Pasha and it was composed of the 35th Division and Arab cavalry units.
The British maintained a cavalry brigade at Basra, which held the town of Shaiba at the southern approach to the town of Basra. Süleyman Askeri’s forces first captured Nasiria, and then entered the desert in the direction of Qurna.
On April 12, early in the morning, Turks attacked the British camp at Shaiba with 3,800 troops. Continuous attacks on that day and the next day failed to produce any results and after a British cavalry counterattack, the Turkish offensive was called off. Turkish casualties were 1,000 men with another 400 taken prisoner.
British forces pursued the withdrawing Turks who were forced to retreat another 120 kilometers up the river, to Hamisia. Meanwhile, Süleyman Askeri Bey, who was wounded at Shaiba, was trying to conduct the operation from his camp bed. He was briefly taken to hospital in Baghdad for treatment, but he wanted to be with his men. He was disappointed (especially about the performance of his Arab levies) and depressed. He shot himself.
Meanwhile in Istanbul, the General Staff did not even possess a proper map of Mesopotamia. First they tried to draw a map with the help of some people who used to work in Iraq before the war. When this failed, two German maps scaled 1/1.500.000 were brought in. Nurettin Pasha, who was appointed to the command of the Sixth Army (Iraq Area Command), received two orders by Enver Pasha: defending every inch of Iraq and launching an attack when the situation stabilizes. In the meantime, reinforcements were flowing in too.
Due to the unexpected success in Mesopotamia, the British (i.e. the Indian Office and the Indian General Staff) decided to continue to advance up the river. General Townshend arrived in Qurna to assume the command. Driving onward, the British compared the river port of Amara on May 3. After a brief pause due to the seasonal flooding, British forces took Nasiria on Euphrates on July 24, and 1,800 Turkish soldiers were taken prisoner.
The rapid advance of the British up the river influenced the Arabs as well. They were realizing that the British had the upper-hand and therefore changing sides and joining the British efforts against the Turkish Army. In Amara, Arabs raided the military hospitals and massacred the Turkish soldiers there.
General Townshend knew that the opposition was weak. The Mesopotamian summer was over, the river was low and all conditions were favorable for a British advance. On September 1 they began to move, arriving the river town of Kut-al-Amara on September 26. The town was defended by 12 Turkish battalions, which included a high number of Arab soldiers. A total of 38 guns were providing artillery support. Early on September 28, Townshend attacked on Turkish positions. At the end of the day Turks were in retreat. Kut-al-Amara was now in British hands and Turks suffered 1,700 casualties, and lost 1,300 prisoners and 17 cannons to the British. After the loss of Kut-al-Amara, Turkish forces retreated a distance of 150 kilometers up the Tigris river and positioned themselves in Selman-ı Pak (the ancient Persian town of Ctesiphon), 35 kilometers south of Baghdad.
Defending Selman-ı Pak (Ctesiphon)
Ctesiphon was on the river of Tigris and it was also close to the holy city of Karbala. The fortified zone was on the left bank of Tigris and it was occupying a front line of 10 kilometers. Nurettin Pasha was building his defensive formations there. He established two defense lines with three kilometers between them and his right flank was secured by the river.
In Ctesiphon, the 45th Division joined Nurettin Pasha’s forces and by November 17 the 51st Division also arrived with its 7 infantry battalions and a Schneider howitzer battalion. Nurettin Pasha was relying on 20,000 men armed with 19 machine guns, 52 artillery guns and some cavalry. 38th and 45th Divisions garrisoned the first defense line, whereas the 51st Division held the second one.
Early morning on November 22, Townshend’s British and Indian forced attacked the Turkish lines in Ctesiphon, supported by artillery fire and naval gunfire from armed river boats. He had divided his forces in four columns. Three of them would make a frontal attack, and one (mixed cavalry and infantry) would sweep around the east to outflank the position and move on Baghdad itself.
The column nearest to the river immediately ran into heavy rifle and artillery fire, and was brought to a standstill before they reached the first Turkish line. To the right, another columns reached its first objectives by capturing the first defensive line, but suffered heavy losses.
Around noon that day, the British cavalry attempted to outflank the Turks, but did not succeed. However, the British were gaining the upper-hand and Nurettin Pasha ordered a counter attack to be launched by the 51st Division which was lying in reserve. Fighting continued until late evening and both sides suffered heavy casualties.
The next day, another attempt by Townshend to flank the Turks through a cavalry attack failed, mainly because of a fierce sandstorm. Nurettin Pasha was trying to resist by sending whatever troops he had against the British. He could only capture back some of the territory lost the previous day. Townshend was equally hopeless. He had seized the first line, but it seemed impossible to break through. He had already suffered extreme losses and the Indians were surrendering in panic.
On November 25, Townshend ordered withdrawal. The retreat was followed by the Turks and harassed by Arabs. The exhausted and depleted British force was urged back to the defenses of Kut-al-Amara, which was reached on December 3. In Ctesiphon, the British suffered 4,500 casualties. Turkish losses were 9,500 out of 35,000 men in total. The 45th Division lost 65 percent of its troops.
The Second Battle of Kut
In the meantime, the Turkish Sixth Army was reorganized into two corps, the XIII and the XVIII. Nurettin Pasha, was given to the command of the 72-years old German Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz. Nurettin was not happy and he expressed his feelings in a cable he sent to the High Command in Istanbul: “The Iraq Army has already proven that it does not need the military knowledge of Goltz Pasha… The dilemma of sending a non-Muslim general to Iraq, which has a Muslim population and where we declared a Holy War, is remarkable.”
The Sixth Army pursued the retreating British forces into Kut. The siege of Kut began on December 7, 1915, with Turkish divisions encircling the town, digging a series of trenches across the neck of the bend in Tigris in which the town was located and cutting it off from Basra. Meanwhile Townshend calculated that there were supplies in Kut for a month. He suggested an attempt to break out and retire, but this was rejected by Sir John Nixon, commander of British forces in Mesopotamia, who ordered him to remain and hold as many Turkish troops around Kut as possible. A relief force, under the command of Gen. Aylmer was to be sent to Kut.
Turkish forces launched several attacks during December 1915 but they were all repulsed. Meanwhile some additional reinforcements arrived in Mesopotamia from the Third Army. The year 1916 began with the Turkish XVIII Corps, composed of 45th and 51st Divisions, encircling the town and the XIII Corps with the 35th and 52nd Divisions blocking the British relief force about 30 km down the Tigris.
On January 20, Enver Pasha replaced Nurettin Pasha with his own uncle, Col. Halil Bey. Field-Marshal von der Goltz was technically in command of the whole Mesopotamian campaign, but daily operations were now left to Turkish commanders.
During January 1916, both Townshend and Aylmer launched several attacks in an attempt to break through the Turkish lines. All of them failed. Halil Bey knew the conditions in which the British had to live. He did not want to waste his troops when he had the advantage, as the British were faced with a choice between starving or surrendering. In February, he received the 2nd Infantry Division as reinforcement. This unit joined the XIII Corps.
March and April 1916 witnessed a series of British attempts to break through the encirclement and General Aylmer’s attempts to relieve Kut. None of these attempts succeeded and their costs were too heavy. Both sides suffered high casualties. Food and hopes were running out for Townshend in Kut-al-Amara. Diseases were spreading rapidly and could not be cured.
On April 24, an attempt by the paddle steamer Julnar to reach the town by river failed. At around 7:00 pm that day, Julnar, which was loaded with 270 tons of supplies, left the port of Felahiye. Its lights were switched off and the British artillery was firing upon the Turkish coast batteries, so that the engines of the ship could not be heard. Julnar managed to pass through the first defense lines without any trouble and it was sailing towards Kut. However, when it reached the Maxis Pass, elements of the Turkish 3rd and 7th Regiments opened fire. There were explosions on board, which cost the lives of many sailors, including the captain himself. After one and a half hour, Julnar ran ashore and survivors were taken prisoner. The ship was full with flour, rice, biscuits and canned meat. This “booty” was welcomed by Turkish troops who were also suffering from food shortage.
Only very small quantities of supplies could be dropped from the air to Kut, but they were far from meeting the needs of the British.
Field Marshal von der Goltz died of cholera on 19 April. A few days later, Townshend decided to surrender. On 26 April he asked for a 6-day armistice and permission for 10 days food to be sent into the town. Halil Bey requested talks with Townshend the next day. During the talks, the Turkish side demanded unconditional surrender but Townshend offered a sum of one million pounds sterling, all the guns in the town, and a promise that the men would not again engage in fighting against the Turkish army. Meanwhile the British garrison in Kut used the armistice time to destroy anything useful left in the town: howitzers, ammunition, stocks, etc. At the end, Townshend was forced to surrender unconditionally.
At 1:00 pm on April 29, 1916, after a siege of 147 days, a Turkish infantry regiment entered Kut-al-Amara to receive the surrender. By 2:30 pm that day the Turkish flag was raised at the Town Hall. Overall, Townshend surrendered 13,309 men, including 272 British and 204 Indian officers, as well as 40 artillery pieces, three airplanes, two river steamers and 40 automobiles. The siege also cost them 1,000 killed in action, 7,000 wounded and 731 died of diseases and starvation.
Turkish losses are mentioned by Col. Halil Bey in his memoirs: “My army has lost more than 300 officers and 10,000 men during the siege of Kut and against the relief forces. However, on the other hand, it took five generals, 481 officers and 13,300 men from the British army as prisoners of war. Casualties of the British relief force total 30,000 men.”
General Townshend and his staff were sent to Baghdad on May 1. After a brief stay in Baghdad, on May 12, Townshend and some other British officers left Baghdad under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel İshak Bey. After a 20-day trip through Anatolia, Townshend arrived in Istanbul. On the way, in Pozanti, he met Enver Pasha who assured him proper treatment as a prisoner of war. General Townshend spent the rest of the war under house arrest on Büyükada, one of the Prince Islands on the Sea of Marmara.
Halil Bey, who became an overnight hero, was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and received the honorific “Pasha”. He was 33 years old. After the capture of Kut-al-Amara, the campaign in Mesopotamia stalemated. Halil Pasha began to fortify the banks of Euphrates and Tigris. There was little action for the remainder of 1916.
What the Ottoman High Command should have done after the victory in Kut-al-Amara was to strengthen its positions and reinforce the units. In this way, a renewed British offensive could be repulsed and Iraq could be kept in Turkish hands. However, instead of doing this, Enver Pasha decided to use the existing troops in Mesopotamia for a campaign in Iran against the Russians. Halil Pasha was strongly opposed to this plan. He thought this was nothing but an adventure, which can only end in disaster. He sent several letters and cables to Enver criticizing his decision. Since it was Enver who was in power, the XIII Corps was deployed to Iran.
At that time we had won a magnificent victory in Iraq. But what we won was just a battle. The war was still going on. Therefore we should have left the victory behind and plan what we should be doing next. It was obvious that the British would not let us get away with it. There would be surely a revenge, a bigger settlement…. However, it was not the logic, which was working, it was dreams. Some German officers in Baghdad were playing some weird games. It was all about Iran!… One day I received an order from the High Command in Istanbul. It was asking me to leave sufficient forces to defend Tigris and to use the rest of my forces to reinforce the Iranian front and capture the town of Kermanşah. Yes, it was only dreams!… This would be nothing but an adventure. I immediately replied to the High Command. I said that the British, who didn’t forget their defeat at Kut, have now gathered a force of 100,000 rifles only 110 kilometers south of Baghdad. When they are doing this, it would be only an ignorant and bloody adventure if we move our forces from the Tigris to some place in the middle of Iran. However, the Deputy Head Commander was insisting on operations in Iran. When they were insisting, I was refusing… (Halil Pasha in his memoirs)
What Enver did not know was that, even in the second half of the year 1916, the British were making important changes in their army in Mesopotamia. Until the loss of Kut, they had always relied on Indian General Staff for the operations in Mesopotamia. But now London was determined to take over handling of the campaign. Gen. Sir Frederick Stanley Maude was sent to assume the theater command and two fresh infantry divisions were made available to him. By the end of the year, he had a force of 166,000 men of whom 107,000 were Indians. Maude had also built up a big river fleet.
Maude’s move enabled Halil Pasha to concentrate his forces on the Tigris route. He reinforced the XVIII Corps, commanded by Col. Kazım Bey, which now contained three divisions: 45th, 51st and 52nd.
Satisfied that British preparations were approaching completion Maude requested -and after a pause was granted- permission from London for an advance upon Baghdad. The British attack was eventually launched on the night of December 13/14 on both banks of the Tigris. Progress was slow however, because there was heavy rain and minimizing casualties had priority. It took a full two months to clear the west bank of resistance below Kut, and included the capture of the fortified Hadairi Bend on January 29, 1917. On February 17, British forces arrived in Sannaiyat, 20 kilometers south to Kut.
On February 23, Maude launched an attack on both flanks, crossing the Tigris river. Realizing the threat of being encircled, Halil Pasha authorized immediate withdrawal. Rear guard actions bought enough time for Turks to evacuate most of the infantry.
The new Turkish defensive line was along the Diyala River, 15 kilometers below Baghdad. Halil Pasha had only 12,500 men left for the defense of Baghdad. The High Command had realized the mistake of sending the XIII Corps to Persia after the victory in Kut. Under the command of Ali Ihsan Bey, this corps was called back to Mesopotamia. However it was too late. XIII Corps could reach Hanekin on the border between Iraq and Iran only on March 14 after walking 400 kilometers in 3 weeks. By that time Baghdad was already lost.
General Maude restarted his advance on March 5 along the east bank of the Tigris. Three days later the British had reached the Diyala. An immediate British attempt to cross the heavy rapid-flowing river failed, although night-crossings did succeed in establishing a small bridgehead the following evening. Maude’s aim was to outflank the Turkish forces and move directly to Baghdad.
On the morning of March 10, Halil Pasha decided to retire from his position to instead protect the Baghdad-Berlin railway. Sandstorms ended operations for the day; by the time the weather had settled Halil Pasha had decided upon a general retreat from Baghdad itself. Thus at 8:00 pm on March 10 the evacuation of Baghdad was underway.
The next day, Gen. Maude entered Baghdad amidst celebrations of the local Arabs. Baghdad was lost. It was a city, which was held by the Ottoman Empire for centuries. It had a huge emotional importance for Turks. Losing Baghdad was not an important strategic loss, but it was a psychological catastrophe.
Halil Pasha took his army about 60 kilometers up the Tigris. Now the right flank of the Sixth Army was resting at Ramadiya on the Euphrates and the left flank in Persia. He moved his headquarters to Mosul. Gen. Maude did not pause to celebrate his victory in Baghdad and continued onwards to seek the capture of the railway at Samarrah, after which wide-scale operations were largely halted until the autumn.
British supply lines were inadequate, Mesopotamian summer was too tough and Maude was worried that Halil Pasha was preparing new armies for an offensive to take back Baghdad. Thus, by late March 1917, the situation in Mesopotamia was stabilized. Baghdad had left the Turkish history for good.
In September 1917, General Maude renewed operations and his first target was Ramadiya. The Turkish garrison was encircled as the British seized numerous ridges above the town. An attempt to escape by Turkish forces on the night of September 28 was stopped by the British cavalry. Having realized that they had no options, Turks surrendered on September 29.
Maude dispatched Gen. Alexander Cobbe at the head of two divisions further up the River Tigris to tackle newly established Turkish defensive positions some 13 kilometers north of Samarrah. Cobbe attacked Turkish lines on November 5 and succeeded after three hours fighting in taking the Turkish front line, although heavy British cavalry losses were incurred during a charge on the Turkish second lines. Turkish troops had to withdraw.
Gen. Maude, who had successfully commanded British operations in the Mesopotamian theater so far, died of cholera on November 18. He was replaced by Gen. William Marshall.
For most of the year 1918, the Mesopotamian theater remained quiet. The British had to move troops to Palestine, and the Turks were enabled to receive reinforcements. Nobody wanted to fight in Mesopotamia anymore.
Meanwhile the war was coming to an end and London was thinking about post-war arrangements. They saw a great interest in the seizure of Mosul and its oil resources. In addition to the oil, the area had to be cleared of the remaining Turkish influence, before the armistice was signed.
Gen. Cobbe commanded a British force from Baghdad on October 23, 1918. Within two days it covered 120 kilometers, reaching Little Zap River, where it expected to meet and engage the Turkish Sixth Army operating under Ismail Hakkı Bey.
Turkish forces retreated to Sharqat, a further 100 kilometers to the north, but nevertheless they came under attack by the British forces on October 29. Being aware of the armistice talks, Ismail Hakkı Bey decided not to fight and not to attempt to break through. Within a day he surrendered although Turkish lines were not breached yet. Mosul was occupied by a British cavalry brigade on November 1, 1918, in violation of the terms of the armistice agreement. The war in Mesopotamia was over.