The campaign in Mesopotamia

This section of the Long, Long Trail will be helpful for anyone wishing to find out about the fighting in the campaign in Mesopotamia.

Why did British forces fight in Mesopotamia?

The Anglo-Persian Oil Works at Abadan. Imperial War Museum image Q25656

The Anglo-Persian Oil Works at Abadan. Imperial War Museum image Q25656

There were considerable British business interests in Mesopotamia, notably in the shape of the established oil refinery at Abadan and a main supply pipeline coming in from distant wells. There were also reports of vast oil deposits further north. From a military viewpoint this was becoming of strategic importance, for the dominant Royal Navy was increasingly oil-powered, and the economic self-interest is clear. The first military steps were taken to secure Abadan.

For centuries before the Great War, Mesopotamia had been part of the Ottoman Empire. Lying along its eastern border was Persia, generally friendly to the British. The Arab Sheiks of nearby Kuwait and Muhammerah also supported Britain; the Arab tribes of coastal Mesopotamia often changed sides. Germany had for many years before the war assiduously developed the Ottoman Empire as an ally, which it saw as an important part of the Drang nach Osten (“Thrust towards the East”: Germany wanted new lands, new markets). The Ottoman army was led by German ‘advisors’. Although the campaign began principally to secure oil supplies for the Royal Navy, victory over the Ottoman Empire became believed by some – notably David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill – to be a less costly way towards defeat of Germany than the painful battering at the Western Front. Pushed by Germany – which also tried to encourage a Jihad (Muslim Holy War) against the British – the Ottoman forces proved to be a deadly and difficult foe. When the Ottomans began to crumble to defeat in 1917 and 1918, the British Army found themselves in a tangled web of politics and deceit and facing a new threat in the form of armed Muslim factions across all of Iraq and Syria.

The Mesopotamia campaign (yellow box) and its location relative to the related campaigns at Gallipoli (red box) and Egypt and Palestine (blue)

The Mesopotamia campaign (yellow box) and its location relative to the related campaigns at Gallipoli (red box) and Egypt and Palestine (blue)

Inhospitable ground

Mesopotamia is an ancient land through which run the great Rivers Tigris and Euphrates.  The two rivers meet at Qurna, 40 miles north of Basra, where they come together to form the Shatt-al-Arab, a complex river delta which flows into the Persian Gulf. The land is for the most part desert and is very flat. The rivers flooded the plains when the winter snows in the northern mountains thawed. The small towns and villages that existed along the river banks in 1914 were generally constructed several feet above water level. There is virtually no water in this land except that from the rivers. There were very few roads, so all transport had to be by boat along the rivers. The major centre of population was Baghdad, almost 570 miles upstream from the Gulf.

Opening moves

Britain relied heavily on oil to keep its dominant navy at sea. It determined very quickly on the outbreak of the war with Germany to protect its interests by occupying the oilfields and pipeline near Basra. It then pushed out a force to seize the river junction at Qurna. More

1915

1915 saw some tactical moves by the British to seize important or threatening points beyond Basra. After an early string of cheap successes, eyes increasingly fell on the lure of the Mesopotamian capital, Baghdad. The 6th (Poona) Division advanced upriver, leaving a very thinly stretched supply line of hundreds of miles behind it, only to receive a bloody repulse at Ctesiphon. A ragged and dispiriting retreat back to Kut-al-Amara began.

  • The Turkish attempts to recapture Basra (The “Miracle of Shaiba”) (11 – 14 April 1915)
  • The Capture of Nasiriyeh (27 June – 24 July 1915)
  • The first advance on Baghdad (including the Capture of Kut-al-Amara) (12 September – 7 October 1915)
  • The Battle of Ctesiphon (22 – 24 November 1915)
  • The retreat to Kut-al-Amara (25 November – 3 December 1915)

1916

The Turks pursued the retreating 6th (Poona) Division to Kut, and soon surrounded and cut it off. British forces in Mesopotamia were now growing, the arrival of the experienced 3rd (Lahore), 7th (Meerut) and 13th (Western) Divisions bringing a significant increase in strength. These formations were ordered to advance north along the Tigris to relieve Kut. They ran into strong and stoutly defended lines and suffered some hard knocks. Although they got close to Kut, they failed to break through and relieve it and garrison there was surrendered on 29 April 1916. It was an enormous blow to British prestige and a morale-booster for the Ottoman Empire.

  • The siege of Kut-al-Amara (7 December 1915 – 29 April 1916)
  • The efforts to relieve Kut
    • The Battle of Sheik Sa’ad (7 January 1916)
    • The Battle of the Wadi (13 January 1916)
    • The Battle of the Hanna (21 January 1916)
    • The Attack on the Dujaila Redoubt (7 – 9 March 1916)
    • The Battles of the Hanna and Fallahiyeh (5 – 8 April 1916)
    • The Battles of Bait Aisa and Sannaiyat (7 – 22 April 1916)
  • The surrender of the Kut garrison (29 April 1916)

1917

Lessons were learned. Following the fall of Kut, the British ordered Major-General Stanley Maude to take command of the British army in Mesopotamia. He introduced new methods, which culminated in a decisive defeat of the Turks in February 1917 and the capture of Baghdad in March 1917. On this day, the Berlin-Baghdad railway was captured, and German schemes for Turkey were finished. Given the continually depressing news in France and elsewhere, this was a sinificant and newsworthy achievement. British forces (and Russians, advancing from the north and east) closed in on the Turks throughout the autumn of 1917, and into the Spring of 1918. Despite making great advances, however, and the additional pressure coming from the north-west where British forces in Palestine defeated the Turks, no decisive victory was gained.

  • The Battle of Mohammed Abdul Hassan (9 January 1917)
  • The Battles of the Hai salient, Dahra Bend and the Shumran Peninsula (11 January – 24 February 1917)
  • The Capture of Baghdad (11 March 1917)
  • The Battle of Istabulat (21 April 1917)
  • The Battle of ‘The Boot’ at Band-i-Adhaim (30 April 1917)
  • The Battle of Tikrit (5 November 1917)
Wounded Turks being tended at an Indian advanced dressing station after the action at Tikrit on the Tigris river, Mesopotamia, November 1917. During the assault on a well dug-in enemy British, Sikh and Punjabi troops distinguished themselves. Imperial War Museum image Q24439

Wounded Turks being tended at an Indian advanced dressing station after the action at Tikrit on the Tigris river, Mesopotamia, November 1917. During the assault on a well dug-in enemy British, Sikh and Punjabi troops distinguished themselves. Imperial War Museum image Q24439

1918

  • The Action of Khan Baghdadi (26 March 1918)
  • Turkey signs Armistice (1 October 1918)

The cost

Conditions in Mesopotamia defy description. Extremes of temperature (120 degrees F was common); arid desert and regular flooding; flies, mosquitoes and other vermin: all led to appalling levels of sickness and death through disease. Under these conditions, units fell short of officers and men, and all too often the reinforcements were half-trained and ill-equipped. Medical arrangements were quite shocking, with wounded men spending up to two weeks on boats before reaching any kind of hospital. These factors, plus of course the unexpectedly determined Turkish resistance, contributed to high casualty rates.

  • 11012 killed
  • 3985 died of wounds
  • 12678 died of sickness
  • 13492 missing and prisoners (9000 at Kut)
  • 51836 wounded
  • data from “Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire” (London: HMSO, 1920).

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