Plan to Capture Baghdad Goes Sour;
Too Far from Reinforcements, A Humiliating Retreat
Special to The Great War Project
(19-22 November) At this moment in the First World War a century ago, the British press ahead with their apparent successful offensive in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq).
They see the success of attacks that seize the Iraqi towns of Basra, Kurna, Amara, and now Kut, on the Tigris River. Consequently they see no reason to change the strategy of their desert campaign.
On November 21st the commander of the Mesopotamia campaign, General Charles Townshend, “attacked the Turkish defenses of Ctesiphon (TESS-ih-fon),” on the Tigris River, writes historian Martin Gilbert, “as a prelude to what was intended to be a rapid march on Baghdad, a mere twenty-two miles away.”
Capturing the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon “would virtually guarantee the British control of the approaches to Baghdad and its eventual seizure,” writes historian Michael Neiberg. “Ctesiphon thus enticed the British forces, but it sat on good defensive ground and the Ottoman Empire had more men in the city than they had in past battles.”
For the British, “the earlier good fortune of Basra, Kurna, Amara, and Kut was over,” observes Gilbert. Of the 8,500 British and Indian troops who went into battle at Ctesiphon, more than half were killed or wounded. Despite almost twice that number of casualties, the Turkish defenders, far from panicking and fleeing as they had in earlier battles, not only stood their ground but counter attacked.”
“Some of these troops,” writes Michael Neiberg, “were among the most experienced and elite soldiers in the Ottoman Empire.”
But the British have no respect for the Ottoman commander and, “they thought that Ottoman morale was low.”
Gilbert reports that the British, four hundred miles from the Persian Gulf, “could expect no reinforcements of any sort; the Turks could, and did call on the resources of Baghdad, only a few hours march away.”
British gunboats, deployed on the Tigris River, are also part of the battle, but they are forced to pull back because the river is heavily mined. The British battle plan is unraveling.