Braddon, Russell. The Siege: The Full, Horrifying Account of the Kut Disaster. New York: Viking Press, 1970. Originally published 1969. 352 pp.
Some wars are so ill-conceived and badly-waged that even when successful, they seem a colossal waste. The Crimean War fascinates me for this reason: whatever Russia and Turkey’s territorial disputes, Britain and France’s intervention for the stated cause is inexplicable, exacerbated by their military commanders’ idiocy. The First World War is even worse, a gruesome, pointless imperialist squabble despite recent efforts by revisionists to invest it with nobility. Of all the misbegotten slaughters generated by that conflict, Britain’s invasion of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) seems singularly pointless.
Russell Braddon’s The Siege depicts the campaign’s most infamous debacle: the siege and surrender of General Townshend’s 6th Indian Division at Kut. This sorry tale of military and political incompetence, resulting in the death or capture of 43,000 Anglo-Indian troops by Nureddin Bey and Halil Bey’s Turkish Sixth Army, proved Britain’s greatest humiliation of the First World War. Braddon eschews dispassionate analysis, lamenting the British and Indian soldiers whose “fate was decided for them by idiots” (10). In spite (or because) of this, it’s one of the best books ever written about military incompetence.
Britain’s involvement in Mesopotamia mixed strategic sense, mission creep and imperial ambition. Given its interest in the Persian Gulf’s oil reserve and hostility towards the Ottoman Empire, the British military’s initial movements weren’t uncalled for. Soon after Turkey declared war on Britain, Indian troops captured the oil fields around Basra in fall 1914. This action resulted in few casualties and secured vital resources for the British military, enhanced by exploratory probes up the Tigris River. But these easy victories encouraged Indian officials to dream bigger: Lord Hardinge, the VIceroy, even envisioned Mesopotamia as a potential colony of Simla’s, ideal for India’s “excess” population.
By fall of 1915, General John Nixon began planning an offensive towards Baghdad. In retrospect, the campaign’s strategic justification seems dubious: the Turks were too weak to counterattack, British resources already stretched thin. Yet Mesopotamia then seemed the only campaign with any potential. The Western Front was bloody stalemate; Winston Churchill’s Gallipoli gambit degenerated into disaster; Russia was retreating, Serbia overrun and Italy bloodily repulsed. “Nowhere, in any of the Allied theaters of war, was there glimmer of hope: except, perhaps at Baghdad” (82). There was also the lingering prejudice that “Asiatic” Turks couldn’t stand against Anglo-Saxons and their Indian allies, despite the evident accruing to the contrary at the Dardanelles.
Enter Major General Charles Townshend. Descended from Field Marshal George Townshend, Wolfe’s second-in-command at Quebec, Townshend was a gallant soldier but a ceaseless climber. He served with distinction in the Sudan, taking part in both the Gordon Relief Expedition and later Kitchener’s Omdurman Campaign. However, he was best-known for defending the Northwest Frontier post at Chitral, India in 1895 against a two-month siege by Muslim rebels. This small but dramatic victory won him a Victoria Cross and an audience with the Queen.
The attendant fame fed Townshend’s already healthy ego. He became aide to Redvers Buller, commander-in-chief in the Boer War, serving in various staff positions and emerging from that disastrous conflict without significant taint. At the outbreak of World War I, Townshend languished in Egypt in nondescript posts. “Chitral Charlie” incessantly badgered superiors for high command, styling himself an expert on military strategy. “Restless, ruthless, highly professional and loyal only to his own relentlessly driving ambitions” in Braddon’s words (30), Townshend finally won appointment to command the 6th Indian (Poona) Division.
Townshend revealed his true character after Nixon proposed an initial, limited advance on the town of Ctesiphon (near the holy site of Salman Pak). Privately Townshend expressed doubts about the , even writing General Archibald Murray of the Imperial General Staff a letter attacking Nixon for providing unclear instructions, insufficient manpower and lack of strategic focus. “All of these offensive operations in secondary theaters are dreadful errors in strategy,” he wrote, “In violation of all the great fundamental principles of war.” Braddon notes that “his military judgment… would prove to have been flawless” (61).
When Nixon consulted Townshend, however, the latter raised none of these objections. Indeed, he even suggested that not only could he achieve Nixon’s objectives, “he would almost certainly pursue the enemy” to Baghdad and win the war (65). Even if the initial idea wasn’t Townshend’s, but it’s hard to credit him for fanning Nixon’s imagination. He privately mused: “Who knows that I shall not eventually become Governor of Mesopotamia?” (27) So in September 1915 Townshend’s 6th Division began their advance, 13,000 strong (a mixture of British and Indian units)1 against Turkish forces three times as large.
Despite this handicap and logistical difficulties, the campaign started well. Using a makeshift fleet of barges and river steamers dubbed “Townshend’s regatta” (44), the General navigated the treacherous Tigress and Mesopotamian swamplands. His soldiers bested the Turks in several battles, though often more by luck more than skill: at Es Sinn, an English brigade became lost deploying and accidentally ended up in the Turkish rear! It seemed that the English estimate of Turkish skill – not to mention Townshend’s own estimate of himself – were vindicated.
Finally, at Ctesiphon (November 22-25, 1915) Townshend’s campaign climaxed. Townshend’s Muslim Indian troops were reluctant to fight fellow Muslims at this holy location,2 while his English and Australian troops were overwhelmed by scorching heat and disease, nicknaming the town “Pissed-Upon.” In the sight of the imposing Arch of Ctesiphon, a Sasanid-era ruin, the British found 20,000 Turkish troops well-entrenched. Despite the enemy’s two-to-one numeric advantage, Townshend insisted on fighting – and thereby doomed his campaign.
With Bonapartian dash, Townshend formulated a complex attack plan involving four separate columns converging on the Turkish lines. Unsurprisingly, the assault miscarried; his lead column found their swampy route unnavigable, while Townshend’s gunboats were unable to adequately support them due to Turkish mines in the Tigris. The British took the initial line of Turkish trenches at bayonet point, only to be rocked backwards by a ferocious counterattack by Nureddin’s troops. Nonetheless the 6th Division held their gains and repulsed Turkish assaults, although at a cost of nearly 40 percent of their strength. Both armies broke off contact, leaving the battle a draw.
Even Townshend saw his offensive no longer stood a chance of success. He fell back on the isolated village of Kut el Amara, surrounded on several sides by the Tigris which made withdraw extremely difficult, and with an Arab population whose loyalty was dubious at best. Inexplicably Townshend decided to stand and fight here, rather than withdraw south to safety, gambling that he would soon be reinforced. Perhaps, as Braddon suggests, he hoped to replicate his earlier glory at Chitral. Instead, Nureddin Bey’s army, reinforced by troops fresh from Gallipoli, surrounded Townshend and began the slow, agonizing process of destroying an army.
The 147 day siege (the longest, land-only siege in British history)3 proved a horrific ordeal for the Poona Division. Drawing on firsthand accounts from surviving soldiers, Braddon recounts their plight in graphic detail. Plagued by dysentery and typhus, besieged by lice and sand flies, harassed by hostile locals, Turkish shells and bombs proved their least nagging worry. The British and Indian troops resisted ferociously, repulsing attack after attack, enduring artillery bombardments and airplane attacks unflinchingly. But Nureddin and his German advisor, Freiherr von der Goltz, knew they possessed the besieger’s natural advantage: time.
After several months, the ammunition ran low; the British were forced to improvise grenades from jam tins, and fired empty shells as makeshift antiaircraft weapons. Unsurprisingly, food ran out. Indian troops received a special dispensation to eat horse meat, though many still refused; British soldiers devoured dogs and rats and considered horse kidneys a delicacy. Arabs attempting to flee the city were discouraged by Turkish artillery barrages; it served Turkish purposes to keep them in the city, thus depleting British resources. Medical supplies proved woefully inadequate, with the men suffering as “their bowels and stomachs disintegrat[ed] into green slime… chang[ing] from lean men into leathery skeletons” (260) under the combined assaults of malnutrition, fly-borne illness and heat over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Even at a century’s remove, their plight makes for painful reading.
These long-suffering soldiers were ill-served by their commander. Townshend, so energetic and decisive a few months prior, froze under duress. His communications with Nixon brimmed with panicked miscalculations of supplies (saying, for instance, he had a month’s worth of food when he really had four) and veiled accusations of indifference. Yet a hastily-organized relief force – ironically led by General Fenton Aylmer, Townshend’s savior at Chitral – suffered 20,000 casualties trying to rescue Townshend, more men than the latter had under his entire command. Nixon unsuccessfully tried bribing Halil Pasha (who had since relieved Nureddin) for the garrison’s relief. A young intelligence captain from Cairo, T.E. Lawrence, took part in this disreputable affair while sounding out the potential for rebellion among local Arabs.
While Aylmer’s troops fought to relieve him, Townshend made no efforts to break out or aid his benefactor. Incredibly, Townshend forbid even sorties against Turkish positions, reasoning that “sorties out… inevitably involve a withdraw in: and too many withdraws sap morale” (142). His only leadership came through increasingly pompous and delusional communiques, which confused his men as often as they inspired. It did not impress them either to see Townshend beating his dog Spot or stalking Turkish soldiers as they urinated, shooting the unwary enemy down like game – though he chivalrously cancelled an artillery strike when he learned General von der Goltz would be in the line of fire.
Meanwhile, Halil’s consistently foiled attempts to resupply Townshend by air and river, mining the Tigris and using heavy guns to ward off rescue attempts. Blaming Aylmer’s failures to breakthrough on incompetence rather than impossible odds, Nixon replaced him with General George Gorringe, whose bullheaded tactics earned him the nickname “Blood Orange.” When Gorringe proved no more successful than Aylmer, the British became so desperate to avoid humiliation that they encouraged a Russian army operating in Persia to march south and rescue Kut. The Russians obliged, though they never got within 150 miles of Baghdad.
Finally, on April 29th, 1915 Townshend surrendered. Despite his declaration to “go into captivity with my troops” (335) the General enjoyed comfortable confinement, hobnobbing with Turkish officials and even becoming an ad hoc diplomat at war’s end. His soldiers weren’t so lucky, enduring a forced march through Mesopotamia, then worse. Some labored on the Baghdad-Berlin Railway; others languished in prison camps, where they endured floggings, sexual assaults, summary murder and general ill-treatment. Meanwhile, the Indian government censored all mention of Kut, even as exchanged prisoners began trickling home and Parliament investigated military misconduct.
Braddon, an Australian journalist, novelist and sometimes historian,4 recounts this disaster in angry, venomous prose. A former POW from the Second World War (recounted in The Naked Island), Braddon makes no effort to hide his contempt for Townshend and his superiors, nor his sympathy for the rankers suffering at their hands. He describes with contemptuous relish how British officers dined on plum cake and champagne while their soldiers ate moldy biscuits and brackish water, or Townshend and staff shipping sporting equipment alongside military supplies. “No one questioned, then, the validity of the social hierarchy” (86) which placed officer comforts above soldier necessities.
It’s true, as recent historians like N.S. Nash (Chitral Charlie) and Charles Townshend (Desert Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia) argue, that General Townshend merely executed India’s ill-advised policies and Nixon’s boneheaded strategy. His tactical ability and physical courage on the road to Kut are commendable (Braddon describes him changing clothes under fire, oblivious to enemy bullets), even if his decision-making often was not. It’s certainly unfair to blame Townshend for his treatment in captivity, as he made efforts (however feeble) to ensure his men’s well-being. And it’s notable that despite his maltreatment of Spot, the soldiers Braddon interviewed almost to a man “believe[d] [Townshend] to be a brilliant leader and a splendid man” (9); some, indeed, would publicly protest the book’s publication.
All the revisionism in the world, however, can only do so much to rescue “Chitral Charlie.” For Townshend made the decision to stand at Kut, a town of marginal importance and limited defensibility. He was responsible for his hysterical telegrams that panicked Nixon and Aylmer into ill-advised rescue attempts. He remained inert while Aylmer’s men died trying to relieve him. Finally, anyone declaring himself a genius equal to Belisarius, Bonaparte and Clausewitz en route to catastrophe invites derision. Anyone more concerned with accession to a peerage than his men deserves limited understanding. Certainly, any General fed on steaks and champagne asking his starving soldiers to “give a little sympathy to me” (209) is indefensible.
Written over a half-century ago, Braddon’s book suffers from being limited in its scope and of its time. While he respectably sketches the strategic background for the campaign, like most Anglosphere writers he offers few glimpses into the Turkish perspective.5 Worst of all, he’s quite content with racism towards Iraqi Arabs, whom he describes only to disparage as thieves and killers. Unfortunate in and of itself, Braddon’s characterization ignores how Iraqis opposed the Sultan’s war, many resisting conscription with arms, and that after Townshend’s surrender dozens of Kut residents were executed by the Turks for supposed collaboration with the invaders.6
Under new management, British troops finally captured Baghdad in March 1917. General Stanley Maude achieved this with 50,000 troops, nearly quadruple Townshend’s numbers, and proper oversight from London rather than Simla. Yet the war didn’t end: Halil’s Turks fought a bloody rearguard action until November 1918, a month after Turkey’s formal surrender. Britain’s new colony exploded into full-blown rebellion in 1920, foreign conquest driving the country’s sectarian difficulties to the fore. Needless to say, we’re still dealing with the fall-out of this ill-judged campaign.