The 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment in Mesopotamia
More insights into the lesser known WW1 Campaign in Mesopotamia from our researcher.
Summary for November 1915 – January 1916
This quarter’s posting covers the most momentous episodes of the Mesopotamian camapign so far: the battle of Ctesiphon, the British retreat to Kut al Amara, the early stages of the siege of Kut, and the first relief expedition. The sources are the journals of Major F.C. Lodge, commanding the 2nd Battalion, Norfolk Regiment (Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum), and Captain A.J. Shakeshaft, also of the 2nd Battalion (The National Archives).
Thanks and appreciation for her help and advice, as always, go to the Curator of the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum.
Earlier postings on this site contained maps which may be helpful to new readers: https://norfolkinworldwar1.org/tag/mesopotamia/
On 30th October 1915 the 2nd Battalion was encamped at Azizieh on the Tigris upstream of Kut al Amara, and the ‘Mesopotamian Minstrels’ performed a concert ‘under the distinguished Patronage of Major General C.V.F. Townshend CB DSO and by kind permission of Nur Din Pasha’.
Since their arrival in Mesopotamia the Norfolks had fought or been held in reserve in five engagements: Shaiba, Kurna, Nasiriyeh, Amara and Es Sinn (Kut). The question now was whether General Sir John Nixon (the Commander-in-Chief of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’) would instruct General Townshend to push on further upstream to Baghdad.
Although the Turkish forces had abandoned the Es Sinn position on 28th September and the 6th Division had taken Kut al Amara, General Townshend had been unable to land the knockout blow. Nur ud Din’s entire force had retreated in good order up the Tigris, where they were to reform and be reinforced ready to make another stand at Ctesiphon. The Official History of the War describes the situation as follows:
In the course of the first year, our small force, ill-equipped as it was for warfare in a land of roadless swamp and desert, attained considerable success. The faulty initial Turkish dispositions by which Mesopotamia was denuded of adequate means of defence, the heavy losses which their Third Army suffered in its attempt to invade the Caucasus and the effort Turkey had to make in defence of the Dardanelles, all contributed to facilitate this success. But it led to our under-estimating the enemy’s capacity and to our overlooking or disregarding our own insufficient means. As a result, in the next six months, we found ourselves involved in misfortune, attended by heavy loss of life and by much misery and suffering for thousands of our men. F. J. Moberly, The Campaign In Mesopotamia, 1914-1918. Volume 4. Compiled, at the request of the Government of India, HMSO, 1927
In his now famous letter, dated August 8th, 1915, and written at Simla in India whilst recovering from relapsing fever, Townshend wrote:
The question is where are we going to stop in Mesopotamia? I stayed with the Viceroy last month, but could not get anything out of him as regards our policy in Mesopotamia. … We have certainly not good enough troops to make certain of taking Baghdad. Quoted in C.V.F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1920)
The convenience of Kut al Amara as a halting place was described by General Sir Edward Barrow, Military Secretary to the India Office, and quoted in the Report of the Mesopotamia Commission in 1917:
If we sit tight at Kut-el-Amara, we can consolidate our control of the Basra Vilayet, and fortify a strong position at the apex of the triangle formed by the Tigris and the Shatt-el-Hai, which with our naval command of the rivers, would be unassailable by all but any but a very superior force accompanied by heavy artillery, while it would at the same time completely cover the main approaches to the territory now occupied by us.
The Report continues: There were other considerations in favour of calling a halt. The 6th Division had had very hard work, and almost continuous fighting in a very trying climate, and though it had done all that was demanded of it, it was not the fine fighting machine it had been.
Russell Braddon in The Siege, 1969 writes:
The Battle of Essinn, though convincingly won, had left between Townshend and Baghdad a large, well organized enemy force: and once the shallows of the Tigris had denied his flotilla a successful pursuit of that force, the condition upon which he had predicated an advance to Baghdad had ceased to prevail. He had pursued Nureddin for sixty miles [to Azizie] without catching him: now it was time to come home.
However, policy differences between London and India, and indecisiveness in London brought about a drift of events which eventually favoured the ‘forward policy’ advocated by Sir John Nixon. Townshend had requested that IEF’D’ should be made up to two divisions, but the meagre reinforcements received were described by him:
I have never seen such a wretched class of recruits in the whole of my Indian experience… There were also troubles as regards to the Mohammedan element in the Indian troops at this time. There existed a widespread spirit of unwillingness to advance against the Holy Place of Salman Pak, the tomb of the devoted servant of the Prophet, at Ctesiphon. CVFT, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1920
Russell Braddon maintains that this description of most Muslim troops is untrue:
His Mohammedan troops had been shielded from the knowledge that they would one day fight upon the soil of Suliman Pak by Townshend’s own long-standing policy of referring to it always as Ctesiphon, which meant so little to those under his command that most of them were unable even to pronounce it. Sestiphon, they called it; or Setiphon; or Pissedupon – but never Ctesiphon. The Siege, 1969
There were some desertions by Muslim troops, and Captain Shakeshaft records one such:
23rd October 1915: Several desertions took place among the 20th Punjabis (transborder Afridis) so they were sent down and the 66th Punjabis substituted.
Captain Amarinder Singh in Honour and Fidelity: India’s Military Contribution to the Great War 1914-1918, 2014, enlarges:
Though the Turkish propaganda had no effect on the Punjabi Muslim troops who made up the bulk, the 20th had a company and-a-half of trans-frontier [frontier with Afghanistan] tribes. On the night in question, an Afridi guard on duty shot dead another sentry and the guard commander, who were both Sikhs, and pursued by fire from the picket, deserted to the troops with another Afridi.
Nikolas Gardner in his paper, British Prestige and the Mesopotamian Campaign, The Historian, 2015, offers some explanation:
The inadequacy of the port facilities at Basra as well as river transport on the Tigris resulted in shortages of medical supplies, clothing, and rations, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables. The lack of fresh produce had a particularly detrimental effect on the Indians, who received much smaller rations than their British counterparts. To supplement these rations, British military authorities provided the Indians with an allowance so that they could purchase food in accordance with their “custom, caste and religion.” In Mesopotamia, however, they were unable to secure sufficient quantities of meat, fruits, or vegetables on a regular basis. Nor could sick and wounded personnel expect a prompt return to India.
While the inadequacy of the logistical system undermined the ability of the British to support the beliefs and practices of Indian soldiers, casualties to British and Indian officers left the rank and file without the leadership to which they were accustomed…
Townshend also wrote to the Viceroy: ‘These troops of mine are tired, and their tails are not up but slightly down.’ This was not the case, and most would have followed ‘Our Charlie’ wherever he led them. Braddon suggests that it was Townshend’s tail which was slightly down, following a debilitating illness and confronted with an advance on Baghdad with tired troops, insufficient reinforcements, and an unreliable supply line.
(NB At a later date, it is hoped to present a more detailed account of the decision to move on Baghdad in the context of CVFT’s career.)
Nur ud Din Bey (later Pasha) was born into a high ranking military family, in the city of Bursa, in 1873. He graduated from the Ottoman Military Academy in 1893 as an infantry Second Lieutenant. He knew Arabic, French, German and Russian, as well as Turkish. After a distinguished career in which he served in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, he was promoted Colonel in 1908. In April 1915, following the suicide of Suleiman Askeri Bey, he became Commander of the Iraq Area..
Khalil Pasha was the Commander-in-Chief of the Ottoman Sixth Army in Mesopotamia, and Nur ud Din’s superior officer.
Baron von der Golz had reorganized the Ottoman Army in the 1890’s, and in October 1915 Enver Pasha, the Ottoman War Minister and overall Commander-in-Chief, put him in charge of the Sixth Army at Ctesiphon. Following the battle he pursued General Townshend’s 6th Division back to Kut al Amara, and supervised the siege.
|1st November 1915||The 2nd Battalion is still with the rest of the 18th Brigade at Azizieh.
Cold morning. Some pamphlets were found in front of our barbed wire, written in Arabic and Hindustani exhorting all Mohammedan troops to cease fighting their co-religionists: they were dealt with in a manner suitable to such literature. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
|4th November 1915||The “Mejidieh” came up from Amarah towing barges on which were our warm winter kits… We took out what warm clothing we required, for the nights were getting very chilly now. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Horribly dusty again. Fished after tea & lost my long spoon bait which caught in a snag. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
|5th November 1915||H.M.S. “Firefly” arrived, she was a very sweet looking craft with a very high mast. She carried one 4.7 gun and several machine guns. She was the first of the twelve new river gunboats that were sent out from England in sections and fitted together at Abadan. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Had a Battn. parade at 12 to tell the men that the G.O.C. had asked that all troops may be relieved during the winter months after taking Baghdad. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
|11th November 1915||Our Brigade (the 18th) left camp for El Kutunie at 7.15 am which placed was reached at about 10 a.m. I told off 1 Coys as advanced guard… We occupied the old fort which we had tried to blow up previously… [on 28th November, although the Norfolks had had no fighting] We have cleared a certain amount of the thick undergrowth nearby so as to lessen the chances of a rush or snipers’ attentions.
The monitor “Firefly” and “Samana” went up river and fired a few shell (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
We were all up by 5.30 a m. and after a hasty breakfast, proceeded to pack the camels, which was the only form of transport allowed for our kits. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
|12th November 1915||There was a large wood north of the camp and our Battalion had to furnish a protective detachment of one company here by day, whose duty it was to reconnoitre through the wood and along the river bank at intervals. … We spent a very pleasant day sitting in the cool shade of the trees and Hall and I agreed it was one of the best days we had spent in Mesopotamia. This was the first time we had come across a decent sized tree other than the ubiquitous palms. As all the Arabs in this vicinity are hostile, we whiled away the time by occasionally having a pot shot at one, when he advance along the opposite bank. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)|
|13th November 1915||The Norfolks stood to arms during a cavalry reconnaissance towards Zuur, but were not called up.
Rumbold took his company “C” along river bank, through the wood, to co-operate. The party returned about 3 pm. result of reconnaissance not divulged. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
|14th November 1915||We lost an aeroplane near Baghdad, 2 officers now prisoners. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
|15th November 1915||The next echelon now moved up from Aziziyeh, consisting of the 16th Brigade, the Cavalry Brigade and the Divisional Artillery. Sir John Nixon and Staff arrived… accompanied by a huge crowd of hangers-on, who were hoping to find jobs in Baghdad. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Our posts fired at some Arabs during the night. It was found in the morning that they had removed about 40 yards of telephone wire. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
|16th November 1915||Sir John Nixon inspected us and remarked on the fitness of the men. This is rather curious when one compares his remarks with those of Surgeon General Hathaway at Amarah some three months before, who had recommended that a large percentage be sent back to India, which of course had not been done. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)|
|18th November 1915||We spent a busy day to-day, striking tents, packing up surplus mess stores and carrying them down to one of the barges to follow us by water, as our dash for Baghdad was to commence on the morrow. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)|
|19th November 1915||Left El Kutunie at 8.15 am. The 110th & ourselves formed the Advance Guard… A certain amount of shooting as we got near Zuur which we reached about mid day. There was a long delay before we settled down into our bivouac; our transport did not reach us until 10.30 pm. A very dusty perimeter camp, and a bitterly cold night. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
I was very grateful for my greatcoat which I kept strapped to my saddle. …we lighted small fires of camel thorn and clustered around these to keep warm. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
The force which advanced on the road to Baghdad, on 19th November 1915, consisted of the 6th Division, the Cavalry Brigade, the 30th Brigade (12th Division), and forty two guns of all sorts – a total strength of under 14,000 combatants, of whom 8,500 were infantry. Of the Turkish forces, Captain Amarinder Singh writes this:
‘Townshend now estimated the enemy strength at 13,000 regular infantry and thirty-eight guns, The Turkish account puts the strength of the 15th Division comprising the 7th, 9th, and 44th Regiments, which had recently arrived, up to 18,000 troops. The Turkish account further adds that the 35th and 38th Divisions were in a better condition than they had been at Kut, although their morale was comparatively low. The 51st Division, comprising Anatolian Turks and the 45th were in good shape.’
|20th November 1915||The 18th Brigade was the first to move, with the 110th as vanguard, followed the the 2nd Norfolk Battalion.
Left Zuur about 8 am. We formed the vanguard with the 110th as the main guard, cavalry ahead. A certain amount of opposition from the enemy’s cavalry. Reached Lujj… [A seven mile march on a dusty road] Received orders to move with 110th at least 2 miles up the Baghdad road… [To reconnoitre, take ranges, and cover the Lujj camp] Saw a few of the enemy’s cavalry who ‘haired off’ as we approached. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
We now obtained a good view of the famous arch of Ctesiphon, said to be the ruins of the banquetting hall of the Phoenician kings. It stands out like some gigantic building as compared to the puny objects around. The enemy’s position consisting of many miles of trenches and reboubts formidably protected by barbed wire entanglements, all around the famous arch. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
|21st November 1915||I could see the Arch of Ctesiphon quite distinctly this morning. Had a conference of C.O.’s and Adj’s at 12 noon on the prospected night march… Battalion marched off to our starting point at 6.40 pm. We had a meal about 5 pm. … Left divisional rendezvous at 8.30 pm in 3 columns, A. B. C. & Cavalry. Bad going at first but improved later. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
A military description of the Battle of Ctesiphon is beyond the scope of this posting and many authoritative accounts are available, not least by General Townshend himself (My Campaign in Mesopotamia). CVFT was an acknowledged authority on strategy and tactics, especially those of his miltary hero, Napoleon Bonaparte. Here follows a succinct summary of the battle from Captain Amarinder Singh:
The Turkish force commander at Ctesiphon, Colonel Nur-ud-Din, had organized his defence in two lines. The right was entrusted to the GOC 35th Division while the entire left was under the GOC 51st Division, Muhammed Ali Bey.
On the 21st, Townshend issued his operational orders. Column ‘A’ under Major General Delamain consisting of the 16th Infantry Brigade (2nd Dorsets and 104th Rifles) and the 30th Brigade (24th Punjabis, less half battalion, the 2/7 Gurkhas, the 66th Punjabis, and the 117th Mahrattas), the 82nd Battery Royal Field Artillery (six guns), the 1/5 Hants Howitzers (four guns), and half a company of the 22nd Sappers.
Column ‘B’ under Brigadier General W.G. Hamilton comprised the 18th Infantry Brigade (2nd Norfolks, 7th Rajputs, 110th Mahrattas, and the 120th Infantry [Rajputanas], the 63rd Battery R.F.A. (six guns), and half a company of the 22nd Sappers.
Column ‘C’ under Brigadier General F.A. Hoghton included the 17th Infantry Brigade (1st Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 22nd Punjabis, 103rd Mahrattas (less half battalion), and the 119th Infantry, 76th Battery R.F.A. (six guns), 86th Heavy Battery R.F.A. (one section two guns), 17th Company Sappers, 48th Pioneers, and one squadron of the 23rd Cavalry Divisional Cavalry).
A ‘flying column’ under Major General Mellis comprised the 6th Cavalry Brigade, 6th Battery R.F.A. (six guns), 7th Lancers (four squadrons), 16th Cavalry (three squadrons, 33rd Cavalry (three squadrons), Maxim Battery, motor machine-gun section (two armoured cars and two lorries), 76th Punjabis with enough transport to carry half the battalion at a time.
His plan, in brief, was for Column ‘C’ to carry out a preparatory attack, Column ‘B’ with the ‘Flying Column’ to launch the turning attack, and Column ‘C’ would then carry out the decisive onslaught. The columns would move out on the night of 21-22 November.
At 0700 on the 22nd, the naval bombardment of the Turkish defences commenced. All the columns advanced as planned and the battle continued all day with the Turks moving in reinforcements as and when required to check any British breakthrough. Townshend had no reserves. By 1700 hours, Townshend had come to the conclusion that he would not make any further advance that day and ordered the columns to concentrate at ‘VP’ (‘Vital Point’ – Ctesiphon) for a renewed attack the next morning. As the concentration took place, Townshend, however, came to the conclusion that casulaties were exceedingly high and it would not be possible to renew the attack. General Hoghton could muster 700 men, General Delamain 1000, and General Hamilton about 850.
The casualties suffered by Townshend were very heavy. Of the 317 officers, 130 had been killed or wounded; 111 Indian officers had become casualties out of the 255 that went into battle that morning and of the 12,000 other ranks, over 4,200 had been killed or wounded. The 24th Punjabis, 104th Rifles and the 110th lost 60 per cent of their strength. The Turkish casualties were put at 9,500, though Turkish accounts put them at 6,188.
Colonel Nur-ud-Din, aware of Townshend’s predicament, launched an attack at 14.30 hours which carried on throughout the night and the next day, and by 1930 hours on the 25th, General Townshend had ordered the withdrawal to Lajj. On the 27th, an aerial reconnaissance indicated a strong Turkish force approaching Lajj, and Townshend moved out of Lajj that very afternoon, covering the 22 miles to Aziziya that very night. On 30 November, the withdrawal to Kut commenced, and it was reached on 2 December. The men were hungry and exhausted. For twelve days, Townshend’s force, largely composed of young soldiers had been fighting, marching or working continuously without sufficient food or water and often deprived of sleep. The 44-mile withdrawal carried out in thirty-six hours was severe test of their discipline. During the small engagements at Umm at Tabul during the retirement on 1st and 2nd December, the British losses were 37 killed, 281 wounded, and 218 missing. The Turkish casulaties numbered 748. Captain Amarinder Singh, Honour and Fidelity: India’s Military Contribution to the Great War 1914-1918, 2014
The Turkish position on the left bank (looking downstream) of the Tigris about Ctesiphon had been strongly fortified. Its right was at the apex of the southerly bend of the river, due south of the Arch of Ctesiphon, whence it extended a little east of north for nearly six miles to two fortified mounds know to the British as ‘Vital Point’ (V.P.).
There were two lines of trenches; there was also an ancient High Wall, which consisted of hard clay banks up to 40 feet high with very steep sides, 3 miles south of the main line, used for observation by the Ottoman forces. Looked at from the British side, the whole position was perfectly flat; the only features visible were the Arch of Ctesiphon, the High Wall, the mounds of the V.P. and the slight rise of ground on which was sited the Turkish second line. This second line had its right on the river, about a mile behind the High Wall, and extended parallel to the first line, but considerably overlapping its left.
|22nd November 1915||Battle of Ctesiphon. Reached our rendezvous, ie the gap in the dry high level canal about 2 am. … We took up a position of readiness and then took any rest that was going… At dawn we could see the enemy in formed bodies about 4 miles off; a squadron of Turkish cavalry approached but no notice was taken as we did not want to disclose our whereabouts. … The 110th and ourselves issued from our position about 7.45 am in Artillery formation. We were on the right. We moved over perfectly level ground with no cover of any sort. The visibility of objects was very difficult owing to mirage. We advanced in perfect silence for some time when suddenly rifle & machine gun fire was opened upon us and we were soon heavily engaged. … We could make very little progress and we were being heavily fired into from our right. … I was hit… just as I had got into the 1st line, the shot came from the right point and luckily for me I had just turned to the left to see how things were going, the bullet passing obliquely under my left ribs. It knocked me over for a time. Cramer Roberts took over command from me. I had a most unpleasant hour or so lying out in the open: there were 3 or 4 machine guns firing hard, luckily they were all high. … I reached the field dressing station where I found several officers and men, some badly wounded, also a Turkish officer. … Stayed at the field ambulance for some considerable time and then orders came for us to move to V.P. or (Vital Point) the strong point in the Turkish position, which had been captured by us. We made to make a long detour as the Turkish Artillery was busy. At last we reached a point somewhere near V.P. and were preparing to doss down when we were ordered to move inside the barbed wire round V.P. as it was not considered safe outside owing to marauding Arabs. The trenches were filled with dead Turks and, where I eventually laid down, the odour was so unpleasant that they had them either removed or buried. Spent a most uncomfortable night, ground very hard and there was constant movement of carts close to us which raised clouds of dust. No food since yesterday except a tin of milk between 4 of us. Luckily the Turks had had enough so there was little or no firing during the night. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
In all we were 21 officers and 519 men in the Battalion. Two of the officers… were with Brigade Headquarters.
We tried to snatch a few hours sleep, but it was a bitterly cold night and lying on the hard ground without even a blanket was hardly conducive to sleep. As a matter of fact I did get and hour or two sleep and woke up about daybreak, with a dreadful cramp and feeling stiff in every joint of my body. We sat and shivered munching hardboiled eggs and biscuits, awaiting events.
At about 8 a m. our Battalion moved out from behind the cover of the sandhills. … After advancing for about half an hour in artillery formation, we came under very heavy rifle fire… Even at this early stage of the day we began to get a large number of casualties. Cooke was hit in the foot, whilst I was talking to him, so I had to leave him to be carried back by the stretcher bearers. Major Lodge was also wounded early in the day, probably from the fire of one of the machine guns, which the Turks had cleverly concealed.
By about 11 a.m. the whole Battalion was in the firing line and we were advancing by short rushes under a hail of bullets. About 11.30 we found it impossible to advance further owing to the heavy casualties we were suffering…
About 1 p.m. …the order came down the line from Major Cramer-Roberts, now commanding the Battalion, to advance. So we sprang forward and gained another 100 to 150 yards by short rushes. Just as we were about to move off, my company sergeant major Porter was hit in the foot. I pulled off his boot and told Corporal Edwards who was near me to look after him, as I had to lead my company forward.
About 2.30 or 3 p.m. I noticed a number of troops, possibly about 3 battalions, advancing across our left front out of a sunken road on the river bank, at about 1400 yards range. The question was were they Turks or our own Column C. Owing to the dense mirage I could not make out for certain. But presently our guns opened fire on them and there was no longer any doubt. They were Turkish troops who had crossed the river and were preparing to launch a counter-attack. … To our front the view was distinctly unpleasant, the country appeared to be black with troops massing for the counter-attack. They proceeded to advance in thick masses, all had their bayonets fixed. I distinctly saw the sun’s rays shining on them.
Our left flank [was] exposed, so we had to retire back to our original positions. As soon as we reached our old position Corporal Edwards asked me if he might go back and bring some men in. He went out three times a distance of some 100 yards, under a hail of bullets, bound up three men’s wounds and carried them back on his shoulder in rear of our line. I recommended this act of heroism very highly and the G.O.C., Division, recommended him for the V.C. Northcote was dangerously wounded during this retirement and had to be carried in. [Captain G.B. Northcote – see the posting on this site from the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum on November 1, 2015.]
It was great relief to me when the sun went down, for we all felt sure that the enemy would never counter-attack by night., after the appalling loses he must have suffered during the day.
As was usual in all our battles there were no ambulances, nothing but transport carts in which the wretched wounded had to suffer hellish agonies, jolting over the uneven ground. It was a hideous nightmare, this walk back some 1400 yards, through a mass of dead or suffering and shattered humanity. I found Major Drum, our Brigade Major, he gave me orders that we were to retire on V.P. and some limbered wagons, the only sort of vehicle available, were sent out to bring in the wounded. I shall never forget the sight of one poor fellow with a compound fracture in the leg trying to sit or hang on to a limbered wagon. Before retiring we searched round the field and brought in all our wounded, the dead had to be left on the field. At about 8 p.m. the Battalion formed up and commenced retirement on V.P. There was no firing now, but the numerous camp fires in the distance showed that the Turks had not fled to Baghdad or even beyond the Diala.
We reached V.P. about 11 p.m. after a very tiring march and were allotted a position inside the wire enclosure by the Staff captain. The place was one mess of corpses after fighting here earlier in the day. Fortunately we met our mess cart at V.P. and had some hot tea and food and then tried to snatch a few hours sleep in preparation for what might await us on the morrow. The night was dreadfully cold. Hall and I lay side by side with our greatcoats and a Turkish blanket over us, but the cold was so intense that every now and then we had to get up and walk about. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Fighting for their lives, Townshend’s exposed men found their rifles jammed with dust, and were obliged to kick back the bolt after each shot – thereby exposing their heads to the sniper’s bullet. … Separated from their battalions, men formed scratch units and fought till they had no more ammunition. Then they lay low and fell instantly asleep. …
Townshend hoped that Nureddin would disengage. … Though the Nureddin of Essinn might have done so, the Nureddin of Ctesiphon did not dare to. Along with the reinforcements that had reached him that day had come Khalil Pasha; and Khalil had left a sick-bed in Mosul simply to be present at this battle, and to ensure that it ended in a Turkish victory.
Uncharacteristically, therefore, and to Towshend’s surprise, Nureddin returned to the attack. Time after time, the Turks stormed their way into Townshend’s trenches. Time after time, with grenades, rifle butts and bayonets, they were driven out again. Russell Braddon, The Siege, 1969
When day dawned on 23rd November the results of yesterday’s battle were clearly seen on the bloodstained field, strewn with the dead of both sides; for if the British had suffered heavily, the enemy had lost still more. The casualties in the Norfolk battalion had been terrible; half the machine-gun section had been wiped out but the rest of it were doing determined service, for which Lieutenant Campbell afterwards received the Military Cross. At nightfall General Townshend decided to establish his force in the captured Turkish first line trenches, and the 18th Brigade were withdrawn to V.P.
Trenches were full and spewing over with dead. Piles of Turkish corpses, dyed yellow with lyddite, lay everywhere. In every irrigation ditch the water ran red as those who were slightly wounded attempted to keep those who were helpless or unconscious from dying. Every dried-up water-course was littered with wounded who, frozen over-night, groaned with thirst now that the sun was high. A crazy convoy of of ammunition and commissariat carts jolted load after load of bleeding men to the river’s edge – passing an endless line of men who preferred to crawl.
The carts had no springs, and only straw or corpses to cushion their iron-slatted floors. In each there were three lying, three sitting. For some a journey of ten miles to the hospital vessels provided by Surgeon-General Hathaway and the India Government – steel barges and lighters, which would be towed by paddle-steamer first to Kut, then all the way to Basra. No beds; a few straw mattresses for the lucky; bare, hot iron for the rest. Russell Braddon, The Siege, 1969
|23rd November 1915||Colonel Lodge being now one of the wounded, his diary departs for a few days from that of Captain Shakeshaft.
In the morning I found that the regiment was near & Cramer Roberts came round to see me and from him I learnt that our casualties had been very heavy especially amongst the officers, 14 out 19 had been either killed or wounded. I got a cup of tea and a biscuit which was most acceptable. My wound did not trouble me much except when I tried to get up which I could only do with assistance. GoC orders to move early to High Wall where they were collecting all wounded. We halted about half way to our destination, having had to make a wide detour owing to Turkish Artillery. … Shells came very close to us as we moved on and so did an extended line of Turks, these we avoided, and reached High Wall about dusk. The place was a mass of carts, wounded, and the Indian Cavalry Brigade. Our small party hunted round for a place to sleep and found a slight depression on the slopes of High Wall, this was necessary as the Turks were shelling the place and a good deal of rifle fire was coming our way. Managed to get some sardines and biscuits from the Q.M. of the Dorsets. No blankets and it was a cold night. … A strong attack by the Turks was made during the night and a counter attack by our 18th Brigade. Altogether it was a very disturbed night with heavy firing all round. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
When day dawned a dreadful sight presented itself to our gaze, the trenches in V.P. were filled with dead Turks and outside the wire were scores of bodies of our own men. Early in the morning Q.M. Sergeant Eastel arrived with ration carts from Lejj, so that the men were able to have a meal, the first they had had since leaving Lejj on the evening of the 21st. Shortly after breakfast I had to read out to a “battalion” of 250 men a communiqué from Sir John Nixon to the effect that we were to remember that the goal set before us by our King and Country was still to be attained – namely the capture of Baghdad… This published to a force that had lost more than 50 percent of its fighting strength, while the enemy had been reinforced by several divisions sent down by rafts from Mosul.
Soon after breakfast the Turks began shelling V.P. and this continued all morning… The evacuation of the wounded had now started and long lines of carts were on their way to and from Lejj. … About 2 p.m. the Division left V.P. for High Wall.
On our arrival at High Wall we were told to halt and await further orders as a Turkish counter-attack was expected. About twenty minutes later we were ordered to reinforce the position on the left of the 16th Brigade, who were at Delamain Redoubt. Just as we got into the trenches at Water Redoubt, a hail of bullets passed overhead and we could hear Turks or Arabs singing in the distance. … It was now just getting dark and it looked as if there would be some hot work during the night. Major Cramer-Roberts sent Hall off to the left to get in touch with the 120th. As he did not return after having been gone some twenty minutes I went off to look for him. On reaching the 120th trenches I found one of their officers who told me that an officer of my regiment had just been killed, while passing an exposed place in the trench. He showed me the body and to my grief I saw that Hall had been shot through the head, probably by a sniper concealed nearby. … We suffered two casualties that night, Hall and a man of A Company. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
In what had become a killing match, he [Townshend] remained confident that the Turk would tire first. … And that night, at last, Khalil agreed to a withdrawal beyond the Diyala. … For the moment, then, the victory was Townshend’s. But only by default. And if this was victory, defeat could hardly have been worse. … Across the plain of Ctesiphon there sprouted a forest of reversed rifles, bayonets in the sand: each marking the resting place of a man killed or wounded. Of his 8,500 bayonets, he had lost 4,000. Russell Braddon, The Siege, 1969
When the morning of 24th November came there was no enemy in sight. Aerial reconnaissance reported his retreat again to the Diala. …and in the early afternoon had my entire force united in my hand at High Wall, and all the wounded evacuated to Bustan, where they were put on the ships and sent off to Kut. I replenished ammunition, food and water for the force, and was again ready for all events. Thus all immediate anxiety was removed from my mind.
I could now give myself up to quiet thought and reflection concerning the position of my shattered force. From a strategical and tactical point of view, the situation was as bad as could possibly be imagined – that was evident. … On November 25th, 1915 I issued my orders for the retirement to Lajj, and also two communiqués to the British and Indian troops composing the division, with the object of keeping up their moral (sic) during the retreat…
______Communiqué to the British and Indian Troops.
… I cannot express my admiration and gratitude for the heroism displayed by all ranks. To show with what stern valour you fought, you drove four divisions out of a very strong position and forced them to retire beyond the Diala River. But our numbers were too few to put them to rout; we have had more than 4,000 men killed and wounded, the Turks losing many more than this figure. …you will be proud to tell them at home that you fought at the battle of Ctesiphon.
The troops must know that I have ordered a move back to Lajj for the following reasons:
Food and supply question. The ships are exposed to fire on the river at Bustan, and the enemy can with cavalry accompanied by guns stop their progress up river to opposite this camp.
At Lajj I can await in security the arrival of reinforcements at Basra from France and Egypt due in a week’s time.______
In the afternoon, as I anticipated, aerial reconnaissance reported the advance of three large columns, estimated at a division each, from the Diala marching south towards us; another large column was marching separately to the north-eastward, moving evidently to execute the turning manoeuvre I had expected. … I saw that I must retreat this night (25th November)… C.V.F Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1920
|24th November 1915||The 24th was passed at High Wall, burying the dead and covering the retirement of the 17th Brigade from Vital Point.
We received orders, before dawn, to move to Lujj. All wounded able to walk went in, the lying down cases in carts, or any other vehicle that could be used. We were a ragged crew. The distance was about 8 miles. I walked the whole way except for a 2 mile lift in an artillery limber, this was so bumpy I preferred to walk. Arrived at Lujj about 8 am. having left High Wall at 5. All our ships were up. Wounded put into tents, or on board ship. I had my wound dressed on the Blosse Lynch. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
We were ordered back to High Wall, which we reached about 9 a.m. Rations were waiting for the Battalion, so all the men had a good meal. During the course of the morning Major Cramer-Roberts read the formal service over Hall and two others. At about 4 pm. the 16th & 18th Brigades under General Delamain marched out to cover the withdrawal of the 17th Brigade from V.P. We marched out about two miles and then returned unmolested after dark. We passed a fairly quiet night, only a few shots being fired in the distance. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
|25th November 1915||The Battalion found a burial party of 25 men at 10.30 am. The rest of the Battalion was employed on digging trenches and putting our section of the wall in a state of defence.
We were occasionally shelled during the day, but no damage was done. The General now decided that as the present position was untenable, he would retire to Lejj, there to await reinforcements, so orders were issued for withdrawal the following morning. These orders were barely issued when one of our aeroplanes flew over and dropped a message that the Turks were advancing from the Dialah in three columns, in all about 10,000 strong. This was about 4.30. From a position of vantage on the wall I could see long column of infantry moving over the distant sandhills. About half an hour later we received orders to retire to Lejj in 2 hours. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
General Townshend had now decided to retire to Lajj to await reinforcements. The retirement was ordered to commence in two hours, anything that could not be carried being burnt or buried. The 18th Brigade acted as rearguard in this retreat, the Norfolk battalion being the last of all to leave High Wall at 8.30 p.m. and reached Lajj at 2 a.m. on the 26th after an unmolested march which was rendered very unpleasant by a heavy thunderstorm.
|26th – 30th November 1915||During the 26th, and the early part of the 27th, prospects seemed more cheery and the army began entrenching and settling itself down to wait for reinforcements. At 12.45 p.m. came news of a fresh Turkish advance, and there was nothing for it but to pack up and be off. At 2.30 retirement to Azizieh was ordered, all tents to be left standing in order to deceive the enemy… The rearguard arrangements were as before, the 2nd Norfolk again having the honour to be the last in the column. It was 21 miles from Lajj to Azizieh, and the battalion was thoroughly weary when it reached the latter at 10 a.m. on the 28th. The 29th was passed quietly in improving defences and loading stores on barges. It had been intended to continue the retreat at noon on the 30th, but the advance of the Turks caused the time to be advanced by four hours. The march covered about ten miles to Umm-at-Tabul, where rifle and artillery fire at night showed that the Turks were hard on the heels of the British.
All wounded have gone down to the river, they had had to return the first effort as the Turks had sent a force down behind us and stopped them. Genl. Nixon & Staff also went down taking a larger escort. These managed to clear the enemy and our ship got safely to Amara. I went aboard the Salimi, the only boat left, it was full of wounded sepoys. I managed to get a cabin of sorts which I shared with another officer. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
At this time it appeared to be the general idea that we should stop at Lajj and there await reinforcements, though where they were to come from Heaven only knows… Consequently we gaily pitched our tents and dug trenches around the camp. … We got a mail here which was distinctly cheering… I saw Colonel Lodge on board the “Mosul” on his way down to Kut… We spent a quiet night in our tents, undisturbed by any of the now familiar sounds of battle. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Left Lujj at about 7.15 am. escorted by the Samana. We were sniped off the village of Strahala, near Zeur, the Samana fired her 3 pounder & maxim which shut them up. Passed El Kutunie at 2.15. Arrived Azizieh just before dusk. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Everyone still in an optimistic frame of mind and busy completing trenches around our camp. This happy frame of mind was rudely shaken at 12.45 p.m. when reports came in that the Turks were advancing upon us from the direction of Busten and we should probably have to retire. All was now bustle to get kits etc. packed up or destroyed. The scene on the river front baffles description, steamers were being hastily loaded and everything that could not be carried was either burnt or consigned to the Tigris. At 2.30 p.m. orders were received for the retirement to Azizieh. … We left Lajj at 5.30 p.m. There was a certain amount of sniping en route but nothing serious. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Started again 5.45. Passed some of 14th Hussars who have just arrived in the country, going up to join the Divn. Stuck in the mud shortly after leaving Berghala, where we remained until next morning. One of the native wounded died, we buried him in the river. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
We marched via Seur and El Kutunie… We arrived Azizieh at about 10 a.m., very weary after our 21 mile march. After allotting the defensive sections to the companies, parties were sent to draw fresh clothing, so each man was able to get a change. The work of loading barges and destroying stores was proceeding as at Lajj. We were joined here by the 14th Hussars and ½ battalion of the R.W. Kent Regiment, who formed a very welcome addition to our depleted force. Spent a quiet night. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Got off the mud at 6 am. Passed a couple of steamers going upriver. Arrived at Kut el Amara about 4pm. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Day passed quietly [at Azizieh] (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Had a fairly good night. … The Turks are holding up steamers at Shaik Saad. … An assistant surgeon re-dressed my wounds which were quite clean and healthy. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Received orders at 6.30 a.m.to be ready to move at noon. This was changed owing to further advance of Turks on El Kutunie. At 7.30 we received orders to be ready at 8.15 a.m. Our Brigade covered the evacuation of the camp and undertook the duty as rearguard. Our Battalion rear party as usual. We had a quiet peaceful march to a place called Um-at-Zabul, where we arrived about 4 p.m. … When I was talking to the Brigade Major a brisk fire was opened on our bivouac, so all lights were extinguished. Shortly after a mountain gun opened fire on us, so it was evident that the Turks had overtaken us, however one could do nothing until morning. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
|1st – 3rd December 1915||On the 1st warning was given that the G.O.C. intended to attack the pursuers. The march on the 2nd was unmolested, except by the usual firing by Arabs, and carried the force to Shumran, a short way above Kut, into which it marched on the morning of the 3rd.
Received orders at 6 a m. that it was the intention of the G.O.C. to attack the enemy who had presumably taken up a position on a mound some 2,800 yards N.W. of our bivouac on the road to Azizieh.
At 6.30 a.m. the 2/Norfolk Regt. with the 7th Rajputs on the right deployed to the attack and took up position in a large nullah, just outside the camp. On looking through our field glasses at about 6.50 a.m. we were astonished to perceive in the dim morning light an enormous camp which had suddenly sprung up during the night around the mound about 2,800 yards distant. We could hardly believe our eyes yet there it was, a camp with all the tents aligned with military precision, horse lines and hosts of men lined up in front. In shorter time than it takes to tell our three field batteries had opened fire and in the twinkling of an eye all was dire confusion, horses and men rushing here and there and tents being levelled to the ground.Two of our companies advanced about 200 yards out of the nullah, the other two remained in support. It was not long before the Turks had got our range and shrapnel soon began to whizz over our heads. H.M.S. “Firefly” & “Comet” were both hit and had to be abandoned, the latter sank. About 8.15 orders came through that we were to retire as soon as the 16th Brigade had got clear of the camp. The C.O. sent back two companies and shortly after sent me after them. In moving out of the nullah I received a slight graze on my right cheek from a bullet. The leading line of the Turkish infantry was now only some 600 yards away, all had their bayonets fixed and seemed intent on business. [NB Nullah is an Anglo-Indian term for a stream bed, frequently dry.]
By 10 a.m. the whole force got clear away without pursuit, our casualties were about 500. We then retired along the road towards Kut. The 30th Brigade had now undertaken our duty of rearguard. We had a long tiring march until we reached Konkey Village or Sheik Saad about 10 p.m., a collection of mud huts on the banks of the Tigris. About midnight we bivouaced outside the village. It was a bitterly cold night the men had no rations of blankets and suffered very much from the cold. We marched about 27 miles on this day. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
The Division moved off about 6.30 a.m…. On the rearguard passing out of the village the stone bridge was blown up. We marched till 1 p.m. then we halted for three hours. There was a certain amount of sniping from hostile Arabs on the right bank, but a few rounds soon dispersed them. We here allowed the tug towing the bridging pontoons to pass by. She had been heavily sniped all the way down stream. … The men were now suffering much from hunger and fatigue, several motor lorries took some of the stragglers along and deposited them a few miles along the road and then returned for more. About 4 or 5 o’clock a motor ambulance came along with cauldrons of stew and potatoes; the men filed past and filled their canteens. Thanks to this they were encouraged to greater efforts. Till then they had had no rations since the evening meal on the 30th ult. at Um-at-Zabal. In about 8 p.m. we halted at a place about two miles from Kut. Shortly after arrival our eyes were gladdened by the sight of carts containing rations and blankets sent out by the Quartermaster who had gone on to Kut with the transport. Thanks to him the Battalion retired to their blankets thoroughly refreshed.
At the end of to-day we had marched 46 miles in 33 hours, including a battle and no rations issued since leaving Azizieh on November 30th.
At 7.30 a.m. we marched off en route for Kut. On approaching the town we heard heavy firing from the right bank, which meant trouble with the Arabs as usual. We halted just outside the town and the Brigade Major detailed our Battalion to occupy the Serai. On reaching the town we were ordered to line the river bank, as Arabs were looting the opposite village, Woolpress, and the 110th & 120th Regiments were detailed to cross the river under fire. These Regiments soon restored order in the village and occupied the place. The Battalion then marched into the Serai. About 10 a.m. two companies were sent on patrol and restored order among the Arabs in the town, they returned about one hour later. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft) [NB Serai, short for caravanserai, is an inn for travellers usually arranged around a quadrangular court]
The Division came in today. The Battn is billeted in the Serai. The Battn had a very hard time during the retirement. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
The Serai… a large building with a number of small rooms looking onto the square; the officers are billeted in these rooms. … There was one big room upstairs which we appropriated as a mess-room. There were a number of small rooms downstairs in which we managed to put two of our weak companies; the remaining two had to bivouac in the square. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
From this date onwards, till the surrender at the end of April, 1916, the battalion formed part of the garrison at Kut. There were many attempts to relieve them from outside which ended in failure.
The town of Kut itself is a collection of Arab houses on the left bank of the Tigris with a population of about 6,000 souls. It is about 205 miles from Basra. The river frontage is about 1½ miles long. All the streets run on to it, there are about seven streets running up from the river. Running parallel with the river front was the usual oriental bazaar with a wooden roof. The widest part of the Tigris opposite Kut is only about 250 yards wide. Just opposite Kut is the Shatt-al-Hai, which connects up with the Euphrates near Nasarieh. During the summer there is hardly any water in the Hai, but in winter there is a fair stream. It is about 100 yards wide. The most prominent feature of Kut is the mosque with its blue-tiled minaret, about 80 feet high, which is visible for miles around. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
The first entry in Townshend’s diary after the troops had got safely into Kut is quite characteristic of the man: ‘I mean to defend Kut as I did Chitral.‘ Erroll Sherson, Townshend of Chitral and Kut, 1928. (Townshend’s role in the siege of Chitral is described in a posting of 29th December, 2015 on this site.
SPECIAL ORDER. PROCLAMATION TO THE TROOPS
I intend to defend KUT-AL-AMARAH and not to retire any further; reinforcements are beginning to be sent up from BUSRA 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. We must dig in deep and dig in quickly and then the enemy’s shells will do little damage. We have ample food and ammunition, but Commanding Officers must husband the ammunition and not throw it away uselessly.
The way you have managed to retire some 80 to 90 miles under the very noses of the Turks is nothing short of splendid and speaks eloquently for the courage and discipline of this force.
(sd) C.V.F. Townshend. Major-General. Commanding. 6th Division.
KUT-AL-AMARAH. 4th December 1915.
When reinforcements arrived in the shape of half a battalion of the West Kents, they were greeted with shouts of, ‘How many are you?’ – to which they replied, ‘Half the West Kents,’ – Townshend’s troops grumbled, ‘That’s no bloody good. We need half the British Army!’ Russell Braddon, The Siege, 1969
On 4th December, the morning after I reached Kut, I sent the following telegram to the M.G.G.S. [Major General, General Staff], where Sir John Nixon was:
“I am making Kut into as strong an entrenched camp as possible in the given time, the enemy’s advanced guard being some ten miles distant and the main body five miles beyond that. As it is reported that Von der Goltz is at Baghdad now, in command of the Turkish Army of six divisions, I shall expect him to turn this place, leaving a force of observation at Kut to contain me. The relieving force will possibly have to fight a second battle of Essinn. I have shut myself up in Kut reckoning with certainty on being relieved by large forces now arriving at Basra. …” CVFT, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1920
4th December, The whole battalion was out digging galleries and communication trenches down to the river and making dugouts in the Serai. The position was divided up into the following sections:-
- (a) N.E. of 1st Line [of defence], Middle Line & Fort to be held by 17th Brigade.
- (b) N.W. of 1st Line and Middle Line to be held by 16th & 30th Brigades, alternately.
- (c) 2nd Line and general reserves to be either the 16th or 30th Brigade, whichever was not in the front line.
- (d) Woolpress Village [Including the licourice factory on right bank opposite the town.] and Kut town held by the 18th Brigade. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Kut had distinct natural advantages for a siege; there was a large area to defend, but it was surrounded on three sides by water. The neck of the river loop was the vital line to be held; as it was possible to wade the river at low water. Hence, in the early days the troops were much engaged in trenching and extending barbed wire. The village of Woolpress (so named because the British thought that the presses they knew to be in the factory there were for making felt, when in fact they were licourice presses) and the licourice factory were also occupied and included in the plan of defence.
Townshend knew about sieges; he had witnessed Khartoum in 1885 and had organized the defence of Chitral in 1895. He had food supplies for 30 days for the British and 60 days for Indian troops as well as ample ammunition (roughly 800 rounds per rifle). Braddon suggests that a British soldier on full rations consumed daily a pound of meat, a pound of bread, three ounces of bacon, four ounces of onion, six ounces of potatoes, three ounces of jam, one ounce of tea, two and a half ounces of sugar, plus salt, butter and cheese.
However, there were also 6,000 Arabs for whom Kut was home. Townshend considered expelling them from the town, but he could not risk inflaming Arab opinion in Mesopotamia should women and children die in the desert or the men be killed by the Turks.
|6th December 1915||The Cavalry left this morning … About 4 pm, some Turkish Infantry, about 1 Battn., could be seen coming towards Kut on our bank of the river, in extended order, supported by 2 or 3 Battalions in column of fours, also cavalry… (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Official day of commencement of siege. … The hospital had been in tents in the open north of the town. The bazaar was now cleared and the hospitals were placed there. … As the lateral communications [within the town] were extremely bad, short cuts were made… These short cuts held many surprises to the uninitiated, sometimes one would go right through an Arab house, sometimes a Turkish bath or a stable. … As I had an attack of fever this evening the doctor ordered me to bed early. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
|7th December 1915||I had to stay in bed all day to-day, which was not pleasant in an upper room as the Turks dropped a number of shells into the place during the day. The Battalion employed as usual on digging fatigues. Quiet night. Turkish infantry advanced from N.E. and established themselves in watercuts, about 450 yards from Fort. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)|
|8th December 1915||The enemy opened with his artillery at 8 a.m. and kept it going for some time. … More artillery fire in the evening: one shell burst in our sheep pen killing several. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
I came off the sick list this morning. Battalion on digging fatigues all day. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
|9th December 1915||A lively gun and rifle fire began early this morning. One of our men was digging just below my room when a shell came and went between his legs without bursting. It was amusing to see his face of utter astonishment: he went on digging until I ordered him to take cover, which was lucky for him as several burst in the serai compound. Fire slackened after about noon but began again about 4 p.m. A number of Arab snipers appeared on the right bank, near Woolpress Village, they kept up their fire till dusk. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Three men were wounded whilst on fatigue at the river front. Turks established within 1,700 yards of our front line. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
|11th December 1915||I returned to duty today, my wound has healed well. My mare “Geraldine” was hit by shrapnell bullets as were 5 other of our horses. Fire abated about 1 pm. The Battalion formed a large digging pary under Cramer-Roberts at 7 pm. They worked till 12.30 am. Sniping all night. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
|12th December 1915||Bombardment commenced at daybreak and continued throughout the day. About 1.45 p.m. a shell penetrated the north wall of the Serai and wounded five of our men, two of whom died. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)|
|14th December 1915||The Battalion ordered to occupy part of the second line trenches to-night. Marched out about 7.30 p.m. and took over trenches from 1/4th Hants. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)|
The same routine prevailed for the Norfolk battalion for several days; fatigue parties, intermittent shelling, sometimes replied to by the British, and cold nights in the trenches – Major Lodge records 33.8° F (1°C) on 17th December.
On 18th December, A.J. Shakeshaft commences his diary entry, ‘To-day the relieving force was beginning to be concentrated at Ali Garbi. They would be ready to advance by January 3rd.’ Major-General Sir Fenton Aylmer had been appointed to command the force. Townshend had known Aylmer since the Hunza-Nagar campaign of 1891. On 10th December 1915, Aylmer had sent a telegram to his old compatriot: ‘Have assumed command Tigris line. Have utmost confidence in defender of Chitral and his gallant troops to keep the flag flying till we can relieve them. Heartiest congratulations on brilliant deeds of yourself and your command.‘
However, Townshend was beginning to be anxious about his position. On 9th December, in a gallant action for which they (the officers, that is) were awarded the D.S.O., two officers and a handful of Gurkhas had cut the retaining cables and blown-up the pontoon bridge across the river, thereby ensuring that the Turks could not use it as an assault route into the town. Nonetheless, by 22nd December, A.J. Shakeshaft records, ‘Owing to the river being so shallow at the S.E. portion of the town near the 7th Rajputs billets, it was feared that the enemy might make an attempt to cross here, consequently our Battalion was detailed to spend the night in the gardens there.’
|21st December 1915||C.O.’s mare “Geraldine” died from the effects of her wounds. … A few shells were fired at our only ship the “Samana”, Cmdr. Tudway, during the night. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
|23rd December 1915||My eyes have been troubling me for some time and, in spite of Osmond’s our doctors treatment, they are very much inflamed and sore. The dust in the trenches does not improve them. … I was ordered by the medical officer to remain in serai owing to the state of my eyes. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
|24th December 1915||Soon after our return to the Serai, about 7 a.m. a heavy bombardment and particularly heavy rifle fire opened on the right bank. … About 11.30 the enemy attacked the fort, whose walls had been shattered by the heavy bombardment (80 shells per minute), in large numbers, captured the N.E. bastion and was not driven out till late in the day. About 12.45 we received orders to stand to arms… All this time the town was being heavily bombarded. … At 7.30 we were ordered to move to the N.E. Section to be ready to reinforce the fort. … A hellish noise was proceeding from the fort. Our progress along the trenches was necessarily slow as we were continually meeting wounded men returning from the fort. …we learnt that the fort had been attacked again at about 8.30 p.m. The Turks were holding the N.E. bastion and were advancing in great masses. …Major C.R. [was asked] to send up two companies to reinforce the fort at once. “B” (Read) and “D” Company (Portsmouth) were sent, but on arrival they found the 48th Pioneers had taken up the position they should have occupied, so Colonel Brown (O.C. Fort) ordered our two companies to occupy a nullah about 400 yards back and wait in reserve… (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)|
|25th December 1915||Received a message from Cramer-Roberts to say that the Battn. had moved into the fort. This reached me about 3.30 a.m. Got up at once and made my way to the fort, about 1½ miles off with Rogers, my servant, carrying my kit (bedding). It took us over an hour to reach the fort, owing to the crowded communication trenches. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
About 2 a.m. “B” & “D” Companies were ordered into the fort and relieved the 48th Pioneers at the barricade N.E. bastion. About 3 am. the enemy gave up the attack against the barricade and sniping continued till dawn when three parties were sent along the communication trenches into the N.E. bastion, which by this time had been abandoned by the enemy, leaving large numbers of dead behind them. The bastion was then re-occupied. About 3 a.m. Headquarters and “A” &”C” entered the fort and were held in reserve near the gate. Major Lodge arrived at the fort soon after dawn and took over from Major Cramer-Roberts.
I went round to the N.E. bastion with the C.O. The scene baffles description. The place was one mass of ruins and human remains scattered around. The whole day was spent in clearing the bastion and putting it in a state of defence. … We had two men killed and two wounded during the course of the day. At 5.30 p.m. “A” &”C” Companies relieved “B” &”D” Companies and occupied the N.E. bastion during the night of 25th/26th December. The night passed quietly. I went round to the N.E. bastion every two hours during the night. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
|26th December 1915||I sent off 2 companies to the Serai at 5 a m. under Cramer-Roberts. I remained with the other two until relieved by the 76th. I got back to Serai about 9 a.m. Visited our wounded in hospital, a filthy, dirty hole, they are doing well I’m glad to say. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Had a most excellent Christmas dinner at 1 p.m. Received Xmas message from H.M. the King, our Colonel-in-Chief, by wireless. Fatigue party of 100 men at the brick kilns from 7 p.m. till 12 midnight to dig communication trenches to the fort. Quiet night, so I had a good night in bed. The first for a fortnight. Last issue of fresh meat except for Battery oxen. Tinned meat ration ½lb. per man now issued. (Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft)
Russell Braddon, The Siege, who had the opportunity to interview veterans while researching his book in the 1960’s, points out that the officers ate a five-course meal including asparagus, plum pudding and whisky in their mess while the other ranks ate bully beef and biscuits, and a tin of pineapple and condensed milk shared between six in their trenches.
|28th December 1915||Up at 3.30 a.m. and left for the fort at 4 a.m. Arrived there 5.30 a.m. We hold the North & West face. Dug outs fairly comfortable, but the shelter for men holding the fort walls very bad, in some places there is no protection from weather. … Major Gilchrist went out after dark and brought in 5 wounded Turks who had been out for 3 days. They were very grateful. We had managed to pass food and water out to some of them, but owing to the Turkish trenches being within 40 yards of us it was not possible to do more. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
|29th December 1915||Quiet night; only a few snipers busy as they always are. … Three Turks, including a Bimbashi (Major) who was drunk approached the fort under a flag of Truce, asking for a temporary armistice to enable them, so they said, to bury their dead. They were kept under guard, blindfolded, while an answer was received from Genl. Townshend. The G.O.C. refused the request; as he would not deal with a subordinate commander. Neruaddin Pasha is the Turkish Commander, and the only man authorised to ask for an armistice. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
During the time that the flag of truce was in front of the walls there was no firing. Our men looked over the fort wall and the Turks took the occasion to stand up outside their trenches and look at us. Their trenches were full of men. They were very sturdy, thick set, bronze-faced fellows, just ideal fighting men. (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)
During January one day passed much the same as another, with persistent Turkish sniping, bombardments and fatigue duties. The weather deteriorated; it was bitterly cold at times with heavy rain. By the middle of the month the flood season had begun, compelling both the Turks and the British to abandon their front trenches. General Aylmer’s relief force, fighting its way up the Tigris, was facing tough Turkish opposition as well as the appalling weather.
14th January 1916: I had no illusions as to Aylmer’s difficulties, or his real progress. It began to look as if he could not relieve me before large Turkish reinforcements arrived… CVFT, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1920
Meanwhile, following the Christmas assault… In the hospital, some fifteen hundred men lying on bug-ridden charpoys cared little what day it was. Haggard medical officers moved swiftly from one wound to the next, pouring iodine. Those who needed bedpans rarely got them. Those fortunate enough to have a mug of tea could place it, between sips, only on the earthen floor – where immediately it swarmed with ants. Russell Braddon, The Siege, 1969
Every evening I used to go through the hospitals to see the poor fellows lying wounded there, and have a chat with them. All wanted good news – and I always acted as if I were full of spirits; but it was acting all the time. Several times I was told: “You’ll get us out of it, General. We know that… They all had a touching confidence in me… Surely no General has ever had a more devoted command than my Sixth Division. CVFT, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1920
|7th January 1916||Misty. Usual firing & bombing. large bodies of Turks reported moving down stream to the ESS-SINN position. Sounds of fire below ESSINN position. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
|8th January 1916||Heavy rain all day. Streets of Kut and trenches ankle deep in mud and water. By night the trenches were almost waist deep in water. No fresh meat, tinned meat issued. Fuel now running very short, doors and window frames issued for wood ration and crude oil used as much as possible for cooking purposes. Usual sniping by day and night. Our men threw some bombs [Mills bombs – hand grenades] into Turkish saps. Two counter saps on front face [of the fort] under construction. (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)|
|10th January 1916||Camel and cart convoys seen going to and from Es Sinn, also guns going down. Fatigues last from dark (about 6.30 p.m.) till about 8 p.m. Turkish ships dressed with flags for the evacuation of Gallipoli. (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)|
|12th January 1916||Pte. Catchpole, one of my bombers, and a very gallant man, was killed early this morning by a sniper. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
|13th January 1916||A mountain gun opened fire on the fort about the tea time and killed 3 of my men who were sitting between the two walls – one man also wounded.
The enemy exploded a mine under the barbed wire of our 1st line trenches west of Reboubt C. they then tried to rush forward and occupy the crater, but were prevented by our fire & bombs – our wire had to be repaired. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
The diary entries continue with the theme of rain, heavy rain, more rain, and flooded and filthy trenches.
|21st January 1916||At about 5.30 a.m. water in front of the first line defences broke into trenches. This was partly due to the river being in flood and the heavy rains, both uniting proved too strong for the parapets and water was soon ankle deep in the trenches. Impossible to repair them, several men drowned. N.W. Section abandoned, the men retiring back in the open carrying picks, shovels, etc., exposed to Turkish fire. Suffered many casualties. About 8 a.m. the Turks were flooded out of their trenches. They too had to evacuate their front line. We were ready for them they must have lost about 300 men. (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)|
|22nd January 1916||Relieving force attacked UMM-EL-HANNAH position but failed to break through, they suffered very heavy casualties. The attack took place in atrocious weather, through seas of mud & water. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Sortie parties set out from the fort about 5.30 p.m., one under Lieut. Read and one under Lieut. Bullock, in front of our section to explore the enemy’s saps and first line trenches. They found them abandoned and under 2 feet of water. (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)
|24th January 1916||Quiet day. Rations down to ¾ normal scale. Horseflesh issued for the first time. Temperature almost at freezing. (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)|
|25th January 1916||Read with 4 men went out of the Fort to reconnoitre the enemy’s abandoned trenches. He found several pamphlets written in Urdu urging our native troops to rebel, murder their officers and commander; these precious documents were tied together in small bundles, weighted with mud, and evidently got ready to throw in our trenches. … They met the fate they deserved. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
On 26th January, General Townshend issued his second communiqué of the siege, in which he explained his policy of sitting tight at Kut:
COMMUNIQUE TO THE TROOPS
The relief force under General AYLMER has been unsuccessful in its attempts to dislodge the Turks entrenched on the left bank of the river… …
By standing at KUT, I maintain the territory we have won the last year at the expense of much blood, commencing with your glorious victory at SHAIBA. …
Our duty stands out plan and simple. It is our duty to our Empire, to our beloved King and Country, to stand here and hold up the Turkish advance as we are doing now… …
…God knows how I felt our heavy losses and the sufferings of my poor brave wounded and shall remember it as long as I live and may truly say that no general I know of has been more loyally obeyed and served than I have been in command of the Sixth Division. …
We will succeed; mark my words – but save your ammunition as if it were gold.
(sd) C.V.F. Townshend. Major-General. Commanding. 6th Division.
KUT-AL-AMARAH. 26th January 1916.
|29th January 1916||Horse and mule now on the menu. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Last issue of sugar and white bread. Quiet day. (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)
|30th January 1916||General Townshend visited the fort. (Diary of F. C. Lodge)
Quiet day. (Diary of A.J Shakeshaft)
|31st January 1916||Frosty – 11° of frost. [-6°C] (Diary of F. C. Lodge)|
The writer of this post apologizes for its extraordinary length, but not for attempting, however inadequately, to convey through the words of those who were there or of those who talked to those who were there, something of the experience of the men of the Norfolk Regiment in this often overlooked campaign. The next quarter, to the end of April 1916, will be concerned with the deteriorating conditions at Kut al Amara, the failure to relieve the siege, and the surrender of the Anglo-Indian force.
Short biographies of the two diarists, Major Francis Cecil Lodge and Captain Alfred Joseph Shakeshaft, will follow shortly on this site.