The 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment in Mesopotamia
The March and Captivity following the Surrender at Kut al Amara
On 27, 28 and 29 April, 2016, three lengthy postings on this site marked the centenary of the British and Indian surrender at Kut following a siege of 146 days, the longest in British military history.
The war against the Turks in Mesopotamia never received the attention in Britain that the carnage of the Western Front did, but such was the shock of the Kut surrender, that on May 4, 1916, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, made a statement to the House of Lords:
… Noble Lords will not fail to realise how tense was the strain borne by those troops who for more than twenty weeks held to their posts under conditions of abnormal climatic difficulty, and on rations calculated for protraction to the furthest possible period until imminent starvation itself compelled the capitulation of this gallant garrison, which consisted of 2,970 British and some 6,000 Indian troops including followers.
General Townshend and his troops in their honourable captivity will have the satisfaction of knowing that, in the opinion of their comrades, which I think I may say this House and the country fully share, they did all that was humanly possible to resist to the last, and that their surrender reflects no discredit on themselves or on the record of the British and Indian armies. …
Following the fall of Kut 1,136 of the very sick and wounded were exchanged for the same number of Turkish prisoners. Preference for those who were to be evacuated was decided by Turkish doctors, and preference was given to Muslim soldiers. British and Indian, they were evacuated by British hospital ships to Basra with four British officers. These men were probably the most fortunate of the whole Kut garrison, since those who remained became, in the words of Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Minister of War, ‘The honoured guests of the Turkish Government’.
The French pictorial newspaper, Excelsior, published pictures in its June 17, 1916, issue under the heading, En Mésopotamie. L’Évacuation des Blessés, Après la Reddition de Kut-el-Amara:
The following officers of the 2nd Battalion went into Turkish captivity:
Major F.C. Lodge, DSO, Major W.E. Cramer Roberts, Captain A.J. Shakeshaft, Lieutenant H.L. Peacocke, Lieutenant J.F.W. Read, Lieutenant H.S. Bullock, Lieutenant F.V. Portsmouth, Lieutenant T. Campbell, Lieutenant and Quarter-Master J.T. Richardson.
We are fortunate in having the diaries of Francis Cecil Lodge and Alfred Joseph Shakeshaft on which to draw for an account of the early days of the march when the officers and other ranks were able to keep in touch. However, it was Turkish military policy to separate the officers from their men, and on May 4, 1916, their lives began to diverge. We know little of the individual stories of the other ranks from this point, since the conditions which they had to endure meant that few of them survived to return to Norfolk, and none of them were able to keep written records. So, we must piece together as much of their captivity as is possible from second-hand accounts.
A paper presented to the British Parliament in November 1918, entitled Report on the Treatment of British Prisoners of War in Turkey, believed that 16,583 officers and other ranks, British and Indian, were taken prisoner by Turkey from the beginning of the war, 13,672 of whom were taken at Kut. It further reports:
Of these, 3,290 have been reported dead, while 2,222 remain untraced, and we must believe that they, too, have almost all perished unnamed, how or where we cannot tell in any single case. The all belonged to the force which surrendered at Kut, and it is therefore certain that they passed living into Turkish hands, but not one word was ever afterwards heard of any of them.
The report gives the figures for the Kut Garrison as they were known in October 1918:
The table shows some striking differences in the survival rates of officers and other ranks. No officers, British or Indian, were untraced: their whereabouts had been made known by the local Turkish officials through the unstinting efforts of the American Embassy and later by the Dutch Legation in Constantinople. Many more other ranks, British and Indian, were untraced presumed dead. The death rate, including those untraced, was also far higher among the other ranks: 60% of British soldiers and 51% of Indian soldiers who had been taken at Kut. The British and Indian officers protested vigorously and often courageously against the separation from their men, their belief that there is no privilege without responsibility was unshakeable, but Turkish policy and Kurdish whips probably saved the lives of many of them.
These figures do not quite equate with those given by A.J. Shakeshaft in his diary for total strength of the Kut Garrison at surrender:
- British Officers 277
- Indian Officers 204
- British Ranks 2,592
- Indian Ranks 6,988
- Followers 3,248
- Total 13,309
AJS notes that the Turks pretended not to know what followers (i.e. transport drivers, stretcher bearers, private servants, etc.) meant and included them as fighting men.
We know the names of the men of the 2nd Battalion, Norfolk Regiment who surrendered at Kut from the records that Acting Regimental Sergeant Major Aldridge was able to put together after the war. This list is held in the archives of the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum, and we are grateful, as ever, to the curator of the RNRM for her help and encouragement in making them available.
The next part of this account of the march and captivity will focus on the diary accounts of the officers, F.C. Lodge and A.J. Shakeshaft. This will be followed with an attempt to reconstruct the somewhat different experience of the other ranks. As the Report on the Treatment of British Prisoners of War in Turkey, puts it:
The officers who were left in Bagdad, and who watched [the men] depart, could only feel the greatest anxiety and dread.
The truth of what happened has only very gradually become known, and in all its details it will never be known, for those who could tell the worst are long dead. But it is certain that this desert journey rests upon those responsible for it as a crime of the kind which we will call historic, so long and terrible was the torture it meant for thousands of helpless men. If it is urged that Turkish powers of organisation and forethought were utterly incapable of handling such a problem as the transport of these prisoners, the plea is sound enough as an explanation; as an excuse it is nothing.