Christmas in Mesopotamia

For members of the Norfolk Regiment serving in the Middle East 1915  wasn’t a particularly happy Christmas…

Christmas 1915 in Mesopotamia

On 3 December 1915, the 6th Indian (Poona) Division, in retreat down the Tigris from the Battle of Ctesiphon, marched back into Kut al Amara having suffered heavy casualties – the 2nd Battalion, Norfolk Regiment was reduced to just seven officers and 234 other ranks. The Turkish 6th Army pursuing them arrived on 7 December, and thus began the longest siege in British military history, ending with the Anglo-Indian surrender on 29 April 1916. The siege is usually calculated at 147 days from 4 December.

General Townshend issued a long communiqué to his troops, beginning:

I intend to defend Kut el Amara and not to retire any further. Reinforcements are being sent at once to relieve us. The honour of our Mother Country and the Empire demands that we all work heart and soul in the defence of this place.

Communications were always difficult during the first phase of the Mesopotamian campaign, and the men of the 2nd Battalion, Norfolk Regiment would have had little or no contact with home at Christmas 100 years ago.

This postcard, one from two sets of six, probably dates from 1917 when the Union Flag was eventually raised over Baghdad, pictured in the distance. In 1915 the flag would flown over Kut al Amara, but victory was a long, painful way off.

This postcard, one from two sets of six, probably dates from 1917 when the Union Flag was eventually raised over Baghdad, pictured in the distance. In 1915 the flag would have flown over Kut al Amara, but victory was a long, painful way off.

The postcards were published and printed by The Times Press in Bombay (Mumbai) for the Women of the Bombay Presidency, who presented them to the troops. On charity postage stamps issued in Bombay, Lady Willingdon is named as President of the Women’s Branch of the Bombay Presidency War & Relief Fund. Her husband was Governor of Bombay, and had assumed responsibility for the care of the wounded from Mesopotamia.

Bombay Presidency stamp

Marie Adelaide, Marchioness of Willingdon, was a woman of enormous energy and organizational ability. The Lady Willingdon Scheme provided antenatal and postnatal care, trained Indian midwives, appointed lady health visitors, gave lectures on maternity care, and provided free pasteurized milk to poor mothers and infants in Bombay. The cost was met by public subscription, and was the most advanced maternity care system in India at the time. Lord Willingdon became Viceroy in 1931, and to this day a teaching hospital in Lahore, Pakistan is named the Lady Willingdon Hospital in honour of his wife’s achievements.

Marie Adelaide, Marchioness of Willingdon © National Portrait Gallery

Marie Adelaide, Marchioness of Willingdon
© National Portrait Gallery

 

In Kut al Amara on Christmas Eve, 1915, a determined assault was made by the Turks, and early on Christmas morning the fort was penetrated, but was driven back. ‘B’ and ‘D’ companies of the 2nd Norfolks were sent into the north-eastern bastion to reinforce it. By 3 a.m. the attack was over. The bastion was a mass of ruins, strewn in all directions with dead and fragments of bodies. The day was spent in clearing up the bastion and putting it in a state of defence. For the ensuing night ‘A’ and ‘C’ companies relieved ‘B’ and ‘D’ in the bastion, and the next day the battalion, on relief by the 76th Punjabis, returned to the serai to eat their Christmas dinner a day late.

 

(For an account of the experience of the Norfolks during the momentous siege and the subsequent forced march and captivity, two quarterly updates to the campaign will follow during April 2016, in which T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – will make his first appearance in the story.)

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