Summary for May 1915 – July 1915
2000 miles away from the trench stalemate in France another kind of war was being fought in the desert wastes and river valleys of the Middle East. An old-fashioned war of small armies and large space, where mobility and manoeuvre still counted, where success or failure depended not on millions of men, not on the massed products of industry, but on the personality and leadership of generals… Where rivers were the lifelines of the armies as they had been in the eastern campaigns of Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte. ‘The Great War’, Episode 24, BBC, 1964
Shallow-draught paddle steamers, side-wheelers and stern-wheelers, frequently armed and armoured, were key to the movement of troops where lines of communication in the harsh terrain of the Middle East followed the rivers.
These craft conveyed Sir Garnet Wolseley’s Anglo-Egyptian force up the Nile to relieve the siege of Khartoum, famously arriving two days too late to save General Gordon in January 1885: they also transported the Anglo-Indian 6th (Poona) Division up the Tigris in 1915. Indeed, two of the stern-wheelers from the Khartoum expedition were dismantled and reassembled at Basra. The British-owned company, Lynch Brothers, had for many years transported the wares of the Baghdad merchants along the Tigris: two of their side-wheelers, including the flagship the Blosse Lynch, armed with 18-pounder field guns strapped to their decks, were also brought into service as transports.
The Mejidieh itself was an especially interesting case. Its owner and captain, Charles Cowley, had volunteered his services… As he had been born in Baghdad and spent his working life on the Tigris, he was regarded as an Ottoman citizen and hence a traitor in Turkish eyes. He and his ship were to play as central a part as any of the naval flotilla [during] the campaign, right up to the climax of the drama at Kut in the spring of 1916 when he paid for his patriotism with his life. ‘When God Made Hell’, Charles Townshend, 2009
General Wolseley’s ponderous (probably at the behest of Gladstone’s government in London) but methodical and logistically well-planned military expedition up the Nile contrasted markedly with General Townshend’s ‘dash’ (at the behest of General Nixon, commanding Indian Expeditionary Force D) up the Tigris.
The oilfields were safe. There seemed nothing more for the army to do, but its new commander, Lieutenant Commander Sir John Nixon, was not a man to rest on the defensive. General Nixon had a well-earned reputation for dash, and he himself was under the impression he had been selected for command [by the Indian General Staff] largely on account of this particular characteristic.
Ever-optimistic, Nixon ordered the force commander, General Townshend, to advance. Townshend, too, was a man with Napoleonic aspirations. ‘The Great War’, Episode 24, BBC, 1964
This quarterly account of the 2nd Battalion marks the start of Townshend’s dash to Baghdad, which was to end in the siege and surrender of the Anglo-Indian force at Kut al Amara in April 1916. The 2nd Norfolks went up the Tigris from Basra to the battle of Kurna and then on to the capture of Amara; they spent June and the first half of July in that town, then went back down the Tigris again to Kurna and up the Euphrates to support General Gorringe’s assault on Nasiriyah.
In passing, it is worth noting that Norwich is thought to have the only pub named in honour of Sir Garnet Wolseley, one of Britain’s greatest nineteenth century soldiers. Now renamed the ‘Sir Garnet’, it stands adjacent to Norwich Market and is a well-known landmark.
Dates and events given here are a summary of the narrative related in The History of the Norfolk Regiment, Volume II (1914-1918) by F. Loraine Petre from the published edition of Jarrold & Sons Limited: The Empire Press. The account is supplemented by quotations from diaries and letters, with grateful thanks to the Curator of the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum.
|8 May 1915||The battalion …was inspected by General Townshend, the new commander of the 6th division [atAshar Barracks in Basra].Life at Basra up till May 28th was as tolerable as it could be with a day temperature rising to 120° or over at times.|
|28 May 1915||The battalion started again for Kurna.|
|29 May 1915||Travelling by river steamer, [the battalion] reached Kurna with the temperature standing at 118°.|
|31 May 1915||The day was spent on board watching, but taking no active part in, the battle ofKurna, which, by the evening of that day, had resulted in the capture by the 17th brigade of Norfolk Hill and other small eminences which rose as islands from the surrounding floods, and the retirement of the Turks to the ridge running north fromBahran.An unidentified soldier of the Norfolk Regiment recorded something of the Battle of Kurna in a letter: The great thing to bear in mind is that now all the flat desert is under water, 2ft or 3 ft deep, and covered with rushes and reeds about a foot or so out of the water. Well, the Turks had a force within 3 miles of Kurna, from where they have shelled Kurna for some time past. They were entrenched on sandhills, the only land there is to be seen for miles and miles. When the new order came to go to Amara the problem was how to get them out of the sandhills. It was suicide and madness to attack in the ordinary way, with our fellows wading through the water… so, it was decided to do it in balams, some of which were provided with steel shields in front, and they raised enough to carry 2,500 men. Mountain guns were put on rafts to accompany the infantry.|
|1 June 1915||During the night the Turks had abandoned this position [on the ridge], and the landing of the Norfolk Regiment… only afforded them an opportunity of stretching their legs onshore.|
|2 June1915||At 5 a.m. they again proceeded upstream by boat, with orders to push on to Ezra’s Tomb; thence they were sent on at 2.30 p.m. to KalaSalih.An unidentified soldier of the NR wrote this of Ezra’s Tomb: Fancy it’s a wealthy spot as they are in the middle of building quite a nice wall around it, instead of the usual mud sun-burnt bricks. Lt. Col. Lodge wrote: I went ashore and had a look at the Tomb. It had a green marble dome roof. The inside was draped with blue, red and green material – floor marble. There was a battery R.F.A. [Royal Field Artillery] living around the Tomb.|
|3 June 1915||The steamer was held up by congestion of traffic in the narrow part of the river near Ezra’s Tomb, and it was not until 11.45 a.m. that KalaSalih was reached, where orders were received to follow General Townshend to Amara, which he had taken with a handful of men.An unidentified soldier of the NR wrote: It’s a tricky river to navigate, full of devils elbows etc. We have a large barge on either side [to protect the paddle boxes] and going round the corners they take the bumps, bang into one bank and then off onto the other… The large sloops, Odin, Espiegle and Cleo can get no further, not enough water.
Strategically, as well as tactically, the capture of Amara was a brilliant success, but once again it highlit the question of the logic of the whole British position in Mesopotamia. Every mile the expeditionary force advanced made its logistical situation more precarious. ‘When God Made Hell’, Charles Townshend, 2009
|4 June 1915||The night of the 3rd– 4th was spent at anchor a little below Amara, and by 6.40 a.m. on the 4th the 2nd Norfolk battalion was disembarking at that town, just in time to give support to the utterly inadequate force with which Townshend had ‘bluffed’ the surrender on the previous day.An unidentified soldier of the NR, writing on 5 June, describes the situation: Well, all’s well here in Amara 24 hours now. We were rushed up here to reinforce the navy… The Turks are demoralised, it’s all due to the hammering we gave them at Shaiba, they’ve got no go left. A total of 50 men captured over 700 Turks with the town… never was there such a debacle… This doesn’t seem a bad spot, cooler than Basra.
Message from General Staff to OC 2/Norfolk Regt. 4th June 1915: Arabs reported attacking gardens south of the town on the left bank. Please send a company to deal with them this morning.
Report of Operations of ‘B’ Company 4th June 1915: At 2 p.m. The company was ordered to proceed to the south of the town to drive off some Arab looters. We made a detour round behind the brick kilns to try to get round the Arabs without being seen. Half a dozen Arabs were seen running away, a few shots were fired at them at a range of 1400 yds. No hits.
|June 1915||All June was spent at Amara doing nothing more than cleaning and furnishing working parties, or escorts for Turkish and German prisoners.|
|17 June 1915||…eight officers joined from England [via Bombay] including Major F.C. Lodge.Arrived at Amara about 10 a.m. De Grey came on board and told me that the C.O. Col. Peebles had gone down river, sick. So, found myself in command. Diary of Lt. Col. F.C. Lodge|
|June 1915||The weather was terribly hot, especially when the wind dropped, and there were many cases of heat stroke. At the end of the month 227 men were proposed for a change of climate to India, but the medical officer reduced them to 187… Even the 187 appear not to have gone in the end.I do not know of any other malady so dramatic, or so painful to witness, as heat stroke, with the exception, perhaps, of acute cholera. It is something which belongs to Mesopotamia in a peculiar sense, in that it seems to express in visible and concentrated form the silent hostility of the country… For Mesopotamia welcomes no man. ‘In Mesopotamia’, Martin Swayne (the pen name of Maurice Nicoll, an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps), 1917
An unidentified soldier of the NR, writing on 26 June: The people of Basrah call this a health resort! As though any place out here could be anything but a filthy hot hole. We are all about fed up with it, would rather go anywhere than stop here, and we are hoping against hope that we may get some leave to India… At the present time we are stiff with officers, 33 and 3 more due back, not to mention fellows in India who may be back soon.
|6 July 1915||The battalion paraded at 5 a.m. for service beyond the canal with the striking force, Nothing, however, happened, and there was no fighting.Intelligence had been received that General Gorringe’s force on the Euphrates had pressed up, in the face of stubborn resistance, as far as the bifurcation of the old and new channels of the river. [This was the beginning of the assault on Nasiriyeh]|
|9 July 1915||Major Rumbold (East Surrey Regiment, attached to 2nd Norfolk)… with Lieutenant Campbell and twenty men of the Norfolk machine gun section, and two machine guns, beside a barge with a naval 4.7 inch gun, was sent up the river for duty at Kumait, in consequence of a report that 200 of the enemy with guns had been located at Filah-i-Filah.|
|10 July 1915||Colonel Peebles, who had returned, was also sent up to reconnoitre… and… to bombard Ali Gharbi from a range of 6000 yards. He took with him four officers and 100 more men of the Norfolk battalion, two more 4.7 inch guns on a barge, and H.M.S. ‘Shaitan’ [an armed tug] as escort.|
|11 July 1915||The expedition passed Kumait at noon on the11th, and was at Ali-ash-Sharki by 7.30 p.m.|
|12 July 1915||At 6.15 a.m. a Turkish steamer was sighted at Filah-i-Filah, and some Turkish cavalry on a mound. The latter were soon driven off by artillery fire, which also compelled the steamer and a motor boat to retire upstream.|
|13 July 1915||The reconnaissance returned to Amara at 8.30 a.m.|
|16 July 1915||Received orders to be ready to go down river. The battalion all aboard by 12 noon, except B Company left in another barge to follow later. Got away at 2 p.m. Anchored for the night at Kali Sali. Transferred at Kurna. Diary of Lt. Col. F.C. Lodge|
|18 July 1915||Reached Azami camp on the left bank of the Euphrates.Very hot. Passed village of Chubaush & got into the Atammar Lake at about 1.30 p.m.. We are bound for General Gorringe’s force now south of Nasiriyeh. The lake is falling rapidly, there is about 4′ to 4½’ of water in the channel. …we disembarked 300 men, who by means of hawsers pulled the barges over the rapids, and then the steamer. This took about 3½ hours. The Mejidiyeh is now negotiating the bund [an artificial dam which the Turks had constructed across the Euphrates through which British sappers had blasted a passage]; the Blosse-Lynch is stuck in the lake about two miles off. Diary of Lt. Col. F.C. Lodge|
|22 July 1915||Our Howitzers began registering on the Turkish trenches at 7.30 a.m. … Our aeroplanes went up but soon came down again… They are poor machines, which is a pity as they would be very useful to us as the Turks have none at present. Diary of Lt. Col. F.C. Lodge|
|23 July 1915||The C.O., self and officers in command of companies went out to the front line trenches to have a look round and take stock. We could see the minarets of Nasiriyeh up river. Orders received that we are to attack tomorrow. 2 brigades, the 12th and 30th, to attack. Ours, the 18th, in support. Diary of Lt. Col. F.C. Lodge|
|24 July 1915||The Battle of Nasiriyeh. The 18th Brigade formed the reserve, on the left bank, the 120th Rajputana Infantry alone being sent to the right bank. In the fighting of the 24th the Norfolk regiment played but a small part.The attack started at 6 a.m. and very shortly our wounded began to be brought back – also Turkish prisoners, wounded and unwounded…
The attack succeeded and our troops made rapid progress in spite of the deep water cuts, etc. which had to be crossed….
We got orders in the afternoon to embark the Mejidiyeh and push up the river in close support of the troops on either bank. Steamed up the river slowly and could see what havoc our guns had done. Many unpleasant sights…
Eventually we arrived at the junction where the Shatt el Hai joins the Euphrates. Here the Turks had made a very strong position, but owing to our very rapid advance they had, luckily for us, evacuated it… The Battn. disembarked and occupied the fort. It was now nearly sundown and we were all very weary. Just after sunset we could see, about 3 miles away, a long column of Turks, camels, carts, etc. streaking off to the east… These Turks were evacuating Nasiriyeh. Diary of Lt. Col. F.C. Lodge
|25 July 1915||The other brigades entered Nasiriyeh by steamer and marching… Companies employed in collecting captured material… Other parties employed in burying or burning Turkish dead, a most unpleasant task. Diary of Lt. Col. F.C. LodgeIn this neighbourhood they remained till the end of the month, but not otherwise disturbed.|
With the capture of Amara and Nasiriyah, IEF D had established a presence in the key strategic locations on the Tigris and the Euphrates, and the vilayet of Basra was ready for administration and perhaps annexation by the Government of India.
with many thanks to our regular Mesopotamia researcher for his continued enthusiasm in to the exploits of the Norfolk Regiment in this theatre of war.