Each month staff at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum look back to what the Norfolk Regiment was doing 100 years ago, and tells their story through objects from the museum’s collection. See previous blog posts here.
Prisoners of war made many items; it kept them occupied, provided mementoes to send home and articles to sell or barter for cigarettes or better food. Turkish prisoner beadwork included lizards, bags, bookmarks, watch fobs and jewellery, but snakes are the most common. They were made in camps in Egypt, Great Britain, Salonika, France, Mesopotamia and Cyprus. Some snakes have a lizard in their mouth.
Items of this nature became increasingly more common toward the end of 1915 and into 1916, particularly among Norfolk’s 2nd battalion fighting in Mesopotamia. They were bartered, swapped and exchanged loosely between men of all ranks who revelled in the exoticism of colour and material. Yet it was here, 100 years ago, that the battalion suffered its most intense four months of the campaign.
Following the allied reverse at Ctesiphon, December 1915 saw the beginning of the great 147-day siege of Kut Al Amara. ‘Kut’ lies approximately 100 miles south of Baghdad, and sat between the Ottoman forces, four days march behind the allies, and the British base at Basra. It was here that the Allied forces, licking their wounds, rallied to face the Ottomans. The siege would be a disaster for the allies who were completely surrounded, hampered by confusing lines of communication and slowly beginning to starve.
After a number of failed relief expeditions from Basra, and in the face of a determined foe, Major-General Charles Townshend finally surrendered the garrison on 29th April 1916. Tens of thousands of his men were made prisoner, with huge amounts dying of disease during captivity. Some mortality-rate figures are as high as 70%.
These prisoner-made mementoes, from both sides, are remarkable pieces of art. Yet behind most of them is a story of death, disease and malnourishment. Particularly those from Mesopotamia in 1915-16.