Nasiriya Falls to British; Eye al-Kut Next

Ottoman Forces Retreat in Face of British Juggernaut

Special to The Great War Project

(23-25 July) The British offensive in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) gains another victory with the fall of Nasiriya.

British and Indian troops take control of the city on this date a century ago.

A British boat bridge at Nasiriya on the Euphrates, summer 1915.

A British boat bridge at Nasiriya on the Euphrates, summer 1915.

The success of the British offensive in Mesopotamia – and the weakness of Turkish resistance — encourage the British Expeditionary Force to probe deeper into the desert territory, despite the severe heat, disease, and the logistical challenge as supply lines lengthen to the breaking point.

The next target is the town of Kut.

The British offensive gains support from the indigenous Arab population of southern Mesopotamia. All spring and into the summer of 1915…,

Arab civilians rise up in open revolt against the occupying Ottoman forces.

The Turks are facing a myriad of battlefield challenges. “The Ottomans had fielded ill-trained and poorly supplied troops to face the Anglo-Indian juggernaut,” writes historian Eugene Rogan. “High rates of desertion among Iraqi recruits exacerbated losses through heavy battlefield casualties, leaving Ottoman forces severely under-strength.”

In the spring of 1915, the Turks face an additional challenge. “The towns and villages of the Middle Euphrates rose in rebellion,” reports Rogan.

The first rebellion breaks out in the city of Najaf, the center of Shia pilgrimage in Iraq. “Iraq’s Shi-ite communities had grown increasingly disaffected with their Sunni Ottoman rulers,” writes Rogan, “resentful of being drawn into a global war that increasingly disrupted their lives.”

Fresh Ottoman troops arrive in Najaf to search for deserters – an increasingly serious problem in the Turkish units. In response, groups of deserters take up arms and attack the Turks in Najaf.

British troops in the Mesopotamia campaign, circa 1915.

British troops in the Mesopotamia campaign, circa 1915.

Reports Rogan, “The townspeople made common cause with the rebels, as deserters from the surrounding countryside converged on Najaf to make a stand against the Ottomans and the global war they had imposed on the unwilling people of Iraq.”

After three days, Najaf falls to the rebellious Arabs. So in the summer a century ago, other desert towns, including Shi-ite Karbala, rise in revolt.

In the town of Hilla, “the Ottomans put up a desperate fight,” observes Rogan, “but found themselves outnumbered.”

Into this chaos, the British Expeditionary Force arrives, pressing hard north toward Baghdad. They easily seize Amara, even before the main body of British troops arrive. “The surrender of hundreds of Turkish and Arab soldiers to an advance party they could overcome easily reflected the collapse of Ottoman morale.”

Next stop for the British: up the Euphrates River to Nasiriya. But this time the Ottomans establish unexpectedly tough defenses there.

Initially the Ottomans convince Bedouin forces to fight against the British. But soon the Bedouins take the measure of the situation and turn against the Turks. “The Ottoman soldiers were caught between two fires,” writes one Turkish soldier later, “from the Bedouin and the British.”

On July 24th a century ago, the British open their full-fledged attack on Nasiriya with “salvos of artillery fired from steamships” on the river.

The fighting turns vicious as the British mount wave after wave of bayonet charges. Still, Rogan reports, the Ottomans force the British to fight for every yard. Both sides suffer serious casualties.

At night, the Turks withdraw, and the following day, the townspeople deliver Nasiriya into British hands.

And so the British eye their next target, the town of al Kut, more than halfway between Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf, and Baghdad.

In Kut, retreating Turkish troops numbering 2,000 join a garrison of 5,000 stationed there.

It will prove to be Britain’s greatest challenge so far in its Mesopotamia campaign.