Kut Siege in Third Month; Chaos Among Allied Reinforcements.

A Crucial British Loss

Special to The Great War Project

(8-11 March) While the meat grinder that is the Verdun battlefield in Western Europe churns on, the plight of the British contingent under siege in the desert Mesopotamian town of Kut on the Tigris River is becoming more desperate by the day.

In February of 1916, “waves of reinforcements were shipped from France to Basra,” writes historian Eugen Rogan, to break the Ottoman siege. “They arrived piecemeal, often separated from their artillery or horses in the haste of their transport.”

British and Indian wounded at Siege of Kut, 1916.

British and Indian wounded at Siege of Kut, 1916.

“The chaos of the docks turned Basra into a bottleneck, where units were held up for weeks while sorting their guns and horses before setting off for the front.”

All the while, the British troops trapped at Kut are running out of food and ammunition.

And from there it gets worse. “Inadequate river transport,” writes Rogan, “meant that most troops had to march the 200 miles from Basra to the front line near Kut.”

Two divisions of relief troops are promised to the British, They arrive “but far too slowly and unevenly to achieve numerical superiority over Turkish forces.”

British troops in Mesopotamia, 1916

British and Indian troops in Mesopotamia, 1916

The British commander of the reinforcements faces an impossible option. “Ideally,” observes Rogan, “he would wait until all his reinforcements had arrived before engaging the Ottomans. However with each passing week, fresh Ottoman troops were also reinforcing” their army, while the British troops inside Kut “grew weaker and sicker due to shortages of food and medicine.”

The British launch their offensive at Kut at this moment in the war for the Middle East, Rogan reports, as the siege enters its third month. The target is the high ground south of Kut, “the last major defensive point before Kut.

The British launch a surprise attack by moving their reinforcements at night.

It doesn’t work. In the dark, the British troops are disoriented and delayed. At sunrise, they are still too far from the defending Turkish troops to be effective. They expect a strong defense from the Turks. But the British do not realize that the Turks pull back. “The Turkish trenches were empty,” reports Rogan, “and the Ottomans were totally unprepared to repel an attack.”

But fearing terrible casualties, the British stop and open artillery fire. This alerts the Turks to the British positions. They wisely return to their trenches.

The Turkish general in command orders his troops to fight to the last man to defend their ground. But the British make a blunder. “The enemy did not send their infantry forward while their artillery was firing on us” the Ottoman commander says. “We benefited from this mistake and all of our troops managed to arrive.”

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia, 1916.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia, 1916.

Sarcastically the Ottoman general “expressed his full gratitude to the British generals for giving him three hours to get his men into position,” writes

The battle begins. Thousands of English and Indian soldiers dash across the plain. The Turks have only one battalion to confront them. Both sides start firing.

“The enemy made every effort to reach us,” says one Turkish officer, “but their forces were melting under the heat of our fire.”

The Turkish battalion holds its positions until more of their troops arrive that afternoon. “By evening, the British could no longer sustain the attack and withdrew.”

“We had an absolute victory against the enemy,” trumpets the Ottoman commander. It is a crucial victory. It “proved a great boost to Turkish morale,” writes historian Rogan, “and left the British despairing of ever relieving…the increasingly weakened army in Kut.”

A century ago, the Ottoman commander sends a messenger to the British commander, “inviting him to surrender.”

The British commander declines the offer.