War history: Time moves on, and names change, but terrain still tests British soldiers
17:00 23 January 2016
After writing about the introduction of compulsory military service at home in Britain, Mike Peters returns to the battlefield − one very familiar to Galloway’s resident military historian.
This week sees the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf War in January, 1991. Then a young sergeant, I took part in what the British Army designated Operation Granby. Readers will probably remember the more dramatic codename used by the American forces: Operation Desert Storm.
I was invited back to Wattisham Airfield this week by the Attack Helicopter Force to talk about my experiences in Iraq. It was ironic timing as I was thinking about writing this article and remembering my time in Iraq in 1991, and my return visit for Gulf War 2 in 2003.
During both wars I had occasionally contemplated what our British Army predecessors had made of the country they knew as Mesopotamia. I concluded that although technology had moved on dramatically between the British expeditions into Iraq’s hinterland, soldiers had changed little. Even as recently as 2003 our concerns and the challenges posed by the terrain had not changed at all. I therefore have some insight into the story I am about to relate.
A hundred years ago this week, the newspapers were reporting the story of a British Army expedition that had run into serious trouble in the Middle East.
The opening weeks of 1916 were not encouraging for those in Allied High Command. The expedition to seize the Dardanelles and capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople had failed. The last British troops had been evacuated from the Gallipoli peninsula, ending almost 11 months of fighting with no gain − in short, an embarrassing and costly defeat.
Although the vital Suez Canal − Britain’s main trade artery to India, Australia and New Zealand − was secure from Ottoman attack, things were not looking promising elsewhere in the Middle East.
In an attempt to weaken Germany by removing ally Ottoman Turkey from the war, Britain and France had committed troops to operations far from the Western Front. As well as Gallipoli and the Suez Canal zone, the British had set out into the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia in search of quick victory.
Mesopotamia − once the cradle of civilisation, and now Iraq − had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, but it was almost surrounded by pro-British enemies. To the east was Persia, now Iran, a long-standing ally over whom the British had considerable financial, economic and political influence. To the south were another group of British allies: the Arab sheiks of Kuwait and the surrounding Arab tribes.
Before the war, the Ottoman Empire had been in terminal decline and the Great Powers eyed its natural assets with hungry eyes. Britain was particularly interested in securing the Mesopotamian oilfields and the pipeline passing close to the city of Basra.
The British relied heavily on oil to fuel its huge merchant fleet and the warships of the Royal Navy. They moved very quickly after the outbreak of war, seizing the river junction at Qurna. The junction is the meeting point of the Tigris and the Euphrates; the two combine 40 miles north of Basra, where they become the Shatt-al-Arab, which flows down into the Persian Gulf.
The region has a well-deserved reputation for extremes of climate. The terrain is mostly flat, open desert. In the winter the mountains to the north are snow-covered; in the spring, the thaw swells the rivers. The rivers regularly flood and cover the plains.
Soldiers in 1914 commented in letters home about the houses on the plains being raised above ground as much as seven feet above water level. In summer there is no water anywhere, other than from the now-reduced rivers. At the time of the Great War, campaign roads were practically non-existent and the majority of movement and trade was accomplished using boats. This lack of infrastructure made communication with Mesopotamia’s capital, Baghdad, difficult.
But British commanders were confident they could drive the Ottoman Army out of Mesopotamia. In 1915 the first serious probes into Ottoman territory were made by British Indian Army troops. A series of easy but small-scale victories reinforced the belief a successful drive on to Baghdad itself may well be feasible. The 6th (Poona) Division pressed on upriver, stretching its supply lines back over hundreds of miles.
The inevitable happened. In November, 1915, the superior Ottoman force confronted the British Indian column. After a bloody fight at Ctesiphon the Poona Division was forced to retreat. The battered force marched back to Kut-al-Amarah. The Turks pursued the retreating force back to Kut and eventually surrounded the exhausted remnants of the 6th, under the command of General Sir Charles Townsend.
There was debate about Townsend’s decision to hold Kut. He believed the town in a loop of the Tigris was important to the British plan. His commander in Mesopotamia, General Sir John Nixon, supported his decision but the Foreign Office advocated a withdrawal to safety further south.
The debate became academic as Townsend’s force was soon surrounded by 10,500 Turkish troops. The 6th Division was cut off on December 7, 1915. Townsend’s quartermasters calculated the division had enough rations to last a month without resupply.
However, there was hope. British and Indian reinforcements were gathering in Mesopotamia. The relief force included battle-hardened Indian troops of the 3rd (Lahore) Division, the 7th (Meerut) Division and the British 13th (Western) Division. Surely these were strong enough to punch through the Turkish troops besieging Kut? More next week.
Galloway have a fully-guided day excursion to the Western Front on Friday, May 13. Visit www.travel-galloway.com to find out more.
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