Early battles in Mesopotamia (Basra and Qurna, 1914)

 

British forces involved in Mesopotamia in 1914
(Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force / Indian Expeditionary Force “D”)

  • Indian Expeditionary Force “D”
    • 16th Indian Infantry Brigade
      • 2nd Bn, the Dorsetshire Regiment
      • 20th DCO Infantry (Brownlow’s Punjabis)
      • 104th Wellesley’s Rifles
      • 117th Mahratta Infantry
      • 16th Brigade Signals Section RE
    • 1 Mountain Brigade RGA
    • 22nd Company, Queen Victoria’s Own Sappers & Miners
    • 125th Combined Field Ambulance (3 Indian and 1 British Section)
    • 13th Mule Corps
    • A detachment from 12th Mule Corps
    • The rest of the 6th (Poona) Division (arrived from India 12 November 1914)

The campaign

29 September 1914

HM ships “Espiegle” and “Dalhousie” entered the Shatt-al-Arab and moved to Muhammerah

16 October 1914

The convoy containing Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’ moved from Bombay and sailed straight to the head of the Gulf without stopping, and anchored off Bahrein.

The capture of Basra, 5 – 21 November 1914

5 November 1914

The orders given to Brig-General W. S. Delamain – then commanding Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’ – were to protect the oil refineries, tanks and pipeline at Abadan and cover the landing of reinforcements if these should be required. Only if hostilities with Turkey were to become fact should he try to occupy Basra too, and to do this the rest of the 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army would arrive. News came through that Turkey had attacked Russia on the Black Sea coast, and war was declared on this day.

6 November 1914

600 British troops including some Royal Marines were landed near the old fort at Fao, which they captured. The rest of the Force sailed on to a place where they could safely disembark, at Sanniyeh. Considerable difficulty was encountered as there were no barges, tugs or small boats suitable, and land transport was poor. These were factors that remained throughout the Mesopotamia campaign.

Part of a map from the British Official History of Military Operations in Mesopotamia. Crown copyright. It shows the seaward entrance to the Shatt-al-Arab and the relative positions of Basra, Abadan and Qurna.

Part of a map from the British Official History of Military Operations in Mesopotamia. Crown copyright. It shows the seaward entrance to the Shatt-al-Arab and the relative positions of Basra, Abadan and Qurna.

11 November 1914

British camp was attacked by 400 Turks. The attack was repulsed with heavy loss and the Turks withdrew some four miles.

12 November 1914

A reconnaissance in force inflicted further losses on the Turks near Saihan. Conditions were poor, with thick dust, mud and heat mirage. The remainder of the Poona Division now landed.

19 November 1914

Early in the day the 16th and 18th Brigades attacked the Turk fortress at Zain in a heavy rainstorm which slowed the advance to a walk. After an accurate bombardment the fort fell, leaving over 1000 Turkish casualties; the rest of the enemy streamed away, saved only by a mirage appearing which obscured the fleeing target of the British artillery. Cavalry were unable to pursue due to the heavy mud. British casualties in the advance of 2000 yards of open ground were 353. The Turks tried hurriedly to block the river by towing a string of ships across and sinking them. However, a cable broke and left a gap wide enough for one vessel at a time to pass.

20 November 1914

BarrettGeneral Sir Arthur Barrett, commanding the 6th (Poona) Division, received news from a local arab sheikh that the Turks had withdrawn and abandoned Basra. Two battalions (104th Wellesley’s Rifles and 117th Mahrattas) embarked immediately and sailed to Basra. After their retreat from Basra, the Turks took up a position where they could make stand against a further British advance. The best position was at Qurna (see below).

Basra is a city on the River Euphrates, inland from where the river flows into the head of the Persian Gulf. In 1914 it had a population of 60000, of a mixture of Christians and Muslims. The city is an island, cut off from the mainland when the rivers flood. Land communications were most difficult, with few roads along the banks of the rivers and none inland. Today the city is called Al-Basrah.

21 November 1914

104th Wellesley’s Rifles and 117th Mahrattas entered Basra in the evening. The British officially took possession of the city on 23 November. In this action the British secured oil supplies in the Middle East: this had immense strategic implications, as this oil field supplied most of the Royal Navy’s fuel. To the Turks, the loss of Basra caused more loss of face than strategic damage.

The capture of Qurna, 3- 19 December 1914

Qurna lies at the confluence of the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates, where they join to become the Shatt-al-Arab 40 miles above Basra. It is said to be the legendary site of the Garden of Eden. Qurna is pronounced ‘Gurna’.

View of the River Tigris at Qurna. Imperial War Museum image Q25668

View of the River Tigris at Qurna. Imperial War Museum image Q25668

3 December 1914

A small force of two and a half Indian infantry battalions embarked and sailed upstream. They disembarked 3 miles downstream of Qurna and found themselves in a firefight that had broken out between Turk defences on-shore and the gunboats carrying the infantry. Uncompleted trenches gave the Turkish defenders little cover and gradually the British force advanced towards Qurna. Once they gained the bank of the Tigris across from the village, no further advance could be made due to a hail of Turkish bullets from the opposite bank a quarter of a mile away. The British were forced to retire to the landing point.

6 December 1914

No further attempt was made until reinforcements arrived at dawn on the 6th, when the infantry was made up to five battalions, with some mountain gun batteries also arriving. In the interim, the Turks had advanced across the Tigris and were now on the same bank. Consequently when the British tried to advance they had to fight again through the same date groves as before. No effort, however, succeeded. Eventually, while the enemy troops in Qurna came under fire from Royal Navy vessels on the Euphrates, an Indian Army Sepoy (Private) managed to swim the wide Tigris and take a line across. More men joined him and a wire hawser was dragged across. This became the basis for a ferry, and troops began to cross. Before the Turks in Qurna knew what was happening, the infantry had encircled the town. The Turkish garrison surrendered. 42 Turkish officers and over 1000 men were captured.

The oil installations at Basra were made completely safe by this action. Unfortunately the relative ease with which the Turks were defeated at Qurna led the British and Indian leadership to believe that further advances would be equally cheap. British losses at Qurna were a little over 300; the Turks lost around 1500.

Part of a map from the British Official History of Military Operations in Mesopotamia. Crown copyright.

Part of a map from the British Official History of Military Operations in Mesopotamia. Crown copyright.

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The campaign in Mesopotamia

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