Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

The Fall of Kut

"'O Captains unforgot,' they cried,

Come you again or come no more,

Across the world you keep the pride,

Across the world we mark the score."

—Sir H. Newbolt.

About the same time as the close of the tragedy of Gallipoli, another British expedition was ending in disaster. Again the expedition was directed against the Turks. Before even the bombardment of the Dardanelles had begun, German agents were busy around the Persian Gulf, which for long had been one of Britain's happy hunting grounds. And on the barren shores of the Gulf, across the waters from Bombay, British warships had ridden at anchor bringing to the Persians peace for many a long year past. Now India herself seemed threatened by Turkey, and a small British force was dispatched from India to the Turkish Headquarters at Basra—the old seaport of Mesopotamia at the head of the Gulf, the ancient home of Sinbad the Sailor.

Basra was successfully taken, and the British flag flew from the German Consulate there. But the Turks were still in force to the north, and it was decided to advance to Kurna, some 50 miles from Basra—the junction of the old Euphrates and Tigris—on to Amara, another 90 miles, and possibly to Kut, yet 150 miles upriver from Amara.

General Townshend was in India when he was given command of the expedition. Arriving at Basra toward the end of April 1915, he hurried up the Tigris for his first sight of Kurna. As far as the eye could see, the country was under flood, from which the Turkish positions stood up almost unapproachable. Townshend had a number of barges prepared and the troops were embarked. Then he manoeuvred his queer flotilla around the astonished Turks, and on 3rd June he was in Amara with much booty and many prisoners, while the Turks were in full retreat up the river. Kut lay beyond, and beyond Kut lay Bagdad—the prize of all this theatre of war. Townshend decided to push on to Kut, 150 miles up the river. Risks grew greater as the base was left farther and farther behind, and the lines of communication grew longer and longer. Transport was difficult; the floods had left large swamps; the sun shone pitilessly down, a blinding glare over the desert lands and across the blue waters. There was no shade to relieve the soldiers. But, in spite of fearful discomforts, the expedition moved on, now wading through water, now re-embarking in their shallow boats, through creeks and swamps and thick date groves under the cloudless sky, and ever tormented by swarms of flies.

On 26th September, Kut was attacked, and after a long and hard-fought battle, the Turks again retreated, leaving Townshend and his now somewhat reduced division in possession.

It were well had the expedition stopped there. But the thought of Bagdad lured them on—Bagdad, terminus of the highway from Germany and Constantinople, the great religious and trade centre of those parts. Townshend was now 300 miles from his base. His troops had suffered badly, and were weary with ten months' incessant fighting. That they should advance in this condition to the conquest of a mighty province of a still powerful empire might well seem a rash enterprise; besides which, the Turks were flushed with victory at Gallipoli, and by their side stood their German taskmasters to keep them to their work.

"We have great need of a striking success in the East," ran a message from England. And General Townshend, mindful of his record of unbroken success, albeit with battle-worn and weary troops, moved onwards toward Bagdad.

The troops had to make the journey of 100 miles by land, but the autumn days were bright and clear, and the season well fitted for an advance. For some distance they marched without opposition, but when they were within some 30 miles of Bagdad, the unwelcome news came that 13,000 Turks had prepared a position at a place called Ctesiphon, which had been strongly fortified under German supervision.

Bravely enough the little Anglo-Indian force beat itself against the enemy's fortifications, until three days had been spent in battle, and aeroplanes reported that more and more reinforcements were reaching the Turks, who were losing heavily. Townshend had lost one-third of his men, and there was nothing for it but to retreat. With considerable skill he extricated his force, and fell back to Kut. On 2nd December, "the solitary minaret of Kut in the desert sky-line" appeared, and soon the remains of the little force, that but a month before had set out with high hopes, staggered back into the little town. "Never have I seen anything like the exhaustion of the troops after we reached Kut," wrote Townshend. "Eight hundred sick and wounded go down to-day. I am making Kut into as strong an entrenched camp as possible in the given time."

The time was indeed short, for a famous German General was in command of the Turkish army at Bagdad.

"I intend to defend Kut, and not retire any farther," said Townshend to his troops. "Our numbers are too few to put the enemy to rout. We have had 4000 men killed and wounded. You have added another page to the glorious battle roll of the army in India, and you will be proud to tell them at home that you fought at the battle of Ctesiphon."

So some 10,000 men, with provisions for two months, entrenched themselves at Kut, while the enemy placed their guns all round, and soon began a terrific bombardment. By 5th December, Townshend and his force were completely besieged, and the Turks barred the road to any relief force that might try to come. Attempts at relief there were, and on a large scale, but all, including that of Generals Aylmer and Gorringe during the months of January and March 1916, failed with grave losses.

While efforts at relief were causing thousands of casualties, the brave defenders within Kut were dying daily from actual starvation. Horse-meat was their main food, with a small amount of barley bread. Rice and sugar had come to an end in February, and milk had run out. Christmas Day was ushered in with a renewed assault, and 315 men were killed and wounded.

On 10th April, Townshend again addressed the troops: "The Relief Force has not yet won its way through. I must reduce our rations to 5 ounces of meal for all ranks—British and Indian. In this way we can hold out till 21st April. The whole British Empire is ringing with our defence of Kut."

At last the end came. It was 29th April, when a wireless message rang through the world: "Have hoisted the white flag over Kut." There was nothing left, but to surrender. It was a weary and broken force that now laid down their arms after holding out for 147 days. Kut had been held to the utmost limit of human endurance. Even the enemy realised this, and when General Townshend offered the Turks his sword in surrender, it was refused. He passed, as a prisoner of war, to Constantinople, where he remained till October 1918. But the rank and file were condemned to "unparalleled sufferings and barbarities" till half of them had perished.

The fall of Kut was but an incident in the great world struggle, but its tragedy lay in the unsurpassed heroism and endurance of the troops, and the disappearance of the whole valiant army into captivity.


The Middle East.

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