The 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment in Mesopotamia
Summary for February 1916
This quarter’s summary from our Mesopotamian correspondent concludes the reports on the siege of Kut al Amara. The diaries of F.C. Lodge and A.J. Shakeshaft of the 2nd Battalion provide the chronology of events (see the posts of March 23rd and April 1st 2016).
It is such an important quarter that the posts have been split into three and will be published on three consecutive days leading up to the 100th Anniversary of end of the siege.
The diary entries are supplemented by short extracts from The Secrets of a Kuttite by E. O. Mousley, Royal Field Artillery – online at: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41213. Edward O. Mousley was born in 1886 at Opotiki, New Zealand (hence the ‘O’ in his name), and studied law at Victoria College, Wellington and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. After the war he went on to write two novels and books on aspects of international law. However, his best known work is his most personal; The Secrets of a Kuttite is notable for its humane insights and guarded humour during the most trying of circumstances.
Thanks, as always, are due to the Curator of the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum, whose knowledge, help and advice are invaluable.
March 1st, 1916
Heavy shelling from all sides from 4 p.m. till 6.15 p.m. Three Turkish (German Morans) aeroplanes dropped 40 bombs [F.C. Lodge records 32 bombs during repeated trips], one 100 lb bomb fell on house near O[fficers’]. Hospital, did not explode. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 2nd, 1916
Shakeshaft took over duties of Staff Capt. 18th Bde. Read now my adjutant. Several bombs dropped on Kut. Twins born Francis Robert & Frances Cecilia. Diary of F.C. Lodge
From this point Captain Shakeshaft’s diary takes a broader view of the conditions within the besieged garrison, and of the repeated but unsuccessful attempts to lift the siege.
The whole night long wild howlings and dismal wailing of the Arabs for their dead and wounded continued and kept me awake. Now and then some other Arab extra full of despair would let out a yell like a steam-whistle that rose high above the universal hubbub. The Jews here cry in a different key altogether, a wobbly vibrato long sustained, much less sweet but not wholly unlike the tangi of the Maoris in New Zealand. A Jewish funeral is a sad little affair. Dressed in long black robes and carrying lights in little tins they escort the dead to a grave way out on the maidan. They walk with bowed heads in twos, a tiny column and a sort of acolyte person following the body. They perform their ceremonies by night so as to avoid drawing fire upon themselves. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
March 3rd, 1916
Guns heard from Aylmer’s column. [He has an identical entries for the 4th and 5th, too.] Diary of F.C. Lodge
I spent a good night in my new quarters, a rather dirty house in the centre of the town. From now on all my mornings were employed in visiting guards and wandering about the town on odd jobs. Fairly quiet day. Great efforts made to induce Indians to eat horse flesh. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 4th, 1916
Scurvy broke out among the native troops. Gunfire heard downstream. Horses rations:- 6lbs. barley, 2lbs. bran, 1 lb. grass, 1 palm tree per week per battery. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 5th, 1916
…a major of the Fourth Field Ambulance … pronounced me bad enough with muscular rheumatism to have to go into hospital. I entered a ward too terrible for words, next bed to a most sad and awful apparition of a poor fellow who had been very ill. It was a long skin-covered skeleton with skinless ears, eyes protruding so far that one wondered how they stuck up at all, teeth on edge, legs thinner than a pick handle, and two arms like gloved broom-sticks catching frantically at various parts of his apparel where creatures of the amoebic world fled before those awful eyes. Add to this the insane chattering, punctuated with a periodical sharp crack as louse after louse was exploded between the creature’s two thumbs, and you have the picture entitled, “A Hospital Shikar*.” Altogether it was a sight utterly terrible. … I discovered later that malaria and dysentery had rendered him temporarily insane. He had been in hospital for the whole of the siege, but was now slowly recovering. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
* A shikar is a hunt or a hunted creature
March 6th, 1916
Some cylinders were observed being unloaded from a boat at Shumran. This gave rise to a gas scare. Respirators issued to troops in the front line. Heavy gunfire heard downstream. Project E to be brought into operation. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 7th, 1916
We are to be ready to move at 4.45 am tomorrow. This is preparatory to putting Scheme E into execution.
Capt. Stace R.E. [Royal Engineers] went over to WOOLPRESS village to fix up a floating mine to be used against the enemy’s bridge down the SHAT-EL-HAI river. Charge 150 lbs of dynamite. Diary of F.C. Lodge
The engineers attempted to float a mine down the Hai on the night of the 6th-7th March, with the object of blowing up the enemy’s bridge. But it was a failure, for it stuck at the mouth of the river on a sand-spit and blew up with an appalling explosion during the night. C.V.F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1919
According to this project [Project E] two brigades under General Melliss and Colonel Evans were to cross the river by a flying bridge near the 7th Rajputs billets and attack the rear of the Turks in conjunction with the force downstream [General Aylmer’s force] which was to attack the Dujailah Redoubt. The garrison of Woolpress (110th & 120th) to make a demonstration on the right bank. The town to be held by the 18th Brigade, less 2/Norfolks. I spent most of the afternoon taking round parties of convalescents to show them the posts they were to occupy when most of the fit troops were engaged in the field. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
…the Turks were evidently aware of Aylmer’s project, as they were strengthening the Essinn position and connecting the Hai and the Dujailah Redoubt with a chain of entrenchments and redoubts. C.V.F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1919
March 8th, 1916: the Battle of Dujaila
Marched off at 4.45 am. to aeroplane field where B Coy is. Here we remained all day, being shelled rather heavily and losing 5 men wounded [Shakeshaft records that 6 men were wounded]. We were awaiting the approach of the relieving column, when we are to embark on rafts, flybridge & so gain the other bank, to co-operate with Genl. Aylmer’s troops. We could see with our glasses, masses of Turks moving about the Essinn ridge & hear heavy gun fire. I also thought I saw our Cavalry miles away towards the T’s bridge over the Shat-el Hai. Nothing happened, but we remained in readiness & full of excitement. Diary of F.C. Lodge
March 9th, 1916
Aylmer made a night march and entrenched opposite Dujailah Redoubt and then bombarded it. This gave Turks time to reinforce threatened point. Attack made and failed. Another attack at 4 p.m. failed. Aylmer wired – unless Turks retired in night he must fall back through lack of water. Turks later said delay saved them. Stood to arms at 5 a.m. Less fire downstream, received orders to return to billets in the afternoon. B Company remained at aeroplane yard. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
Returned to the Serai at 12 noon, all very depressed as Aylmer’s attack must have failed. Diary of F.C. Lodge
The rank and file of the garrison… have altered the name of the relieving general to Faylmer. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
Had General Kemball’s flying column attacked at dawn on the 8th, on their arrival at the Dujaila Redoubt, the Turks would have been taken unawares and badly beaten. The redoubt was practically empty. Only sufficient Arab troops were there to guard the Fort. Most of the Turkish troops having been withdrawn at the time to defend Baghdad against the threatened advance of the Russian Army.
Kemball telegraphed the Headquarters of General Aylmer and his Chief of Staff, General Gorringe, but the advice he received was to await the planned British bombardment before commencing an assault on the redoubt. Due to the delay, the Turkish forces were given time to rush up reinforcements from Magasis and Shumran, and when Kemball’s troops attacked in the dawn light they ran into heavy fire from a now fully-manned redoubt, and they were slaughtered.
However, the Report of the Mesopotamia Commission, 1917, concluded: ‘On the whole we do not see sufficient reasons for imputing blame to the Corps Headquarters for the action they took.’
March 10th, 1916
Communique issued to troops on General Aylmer’s failure to relieve Kut. Turkish officer came from Khalil Pasha to announce result of fighting downstream and to suggest surrender. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
Townshend’s communiqué to the troops began with the text of two telegrams from General Aylmer confirming that he had been unable to break through the Turkish lines and that we would probably have to withdraw to Wadi. It continued:
I know you will all be deeply disappointed to hear this news. We have now stood a three months’ siege in a manner which has called upon you the praise of our beloved King and our fellow-countrymen in England, Ireland, Scotland and India, and all this too after your brilliant battles of Kut-al-Amara and Ctesiphon, and your retirement to Kut, all of which feats of arms are now famous.
…I ask you to give a little sympathy to me, who have commanded you in these battles referred to; and who, having come to the Division as a stranger, now love my command with a depth of feeling I have never known in my life before. C.V.F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1919
In my answer to Khalil Pacha, I wrote that… I saw much chance or relief, and I should not consider the subject of surrender. C.V.F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1919
However, in his report to General Headquarters on the defence of Kut up to 10th March, Townshend recognized that after three months of siege, and with the Tigris moving into flood, swollen with meltwater from the snows of the Caucasus mountains, just one more attempt to relieve Kut was realistic. He rejected surrender, but reflected on the possibility of an honourable evacuation. But, negotiating terms depended upon his ability to hold out, and that would be determined primarily by his food supply.
March 11th, 1916
My regimental birthday – 24 yrs. Heard of Genl. A’s failure to break through. The sickening part was he nearly did get through. Diary of F.C. Lodge
Rather wet. Quiet day. 417 horses killed to save grain. 71 more fed by Stevenson on grass. 800 mules kept going on mule flesh till grass available. 25 horses required daily for food. This meant 400 horses and 500 mules must be left on March 11th. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
Rations have been still further cut down. We get bread and meat, nothing else, and of the former merely four ounces per diem. The garrison is in a bad way. Men go staggering about, resting every now and then up against a wall. I hear that the number succumbing in the trenches is daily increasing. As for the native hospital, the sight is too appalling for words. Skin-covered skeletons crawl about or turn over to receive their nourishment, but nothing else, not even shell fire, engages their attention. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
March 12th, 1916
Trenches and dug outs flooded by a thunderstorm. A white flag came towards Kut, the bearer carried a letter which we afterwards learnt contained the proposal from the Turkish Commander that we should surrender. Genl. Townshend sent a suitable reply, to put it crudely “I told them to go to blazes.” Diary of F.C. Lodge
Last night we felt what we believed to be an earthquake, but which proved to be the sappers trying to dynamite fish in the river, which experiment was completely unproductive. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
March 13th, 1916
More rain. River higher. Diary of F.C. Lodge
March 14th, 1916
Uneventful day, nothing to report. General Aylmer superseded by Gorringe. 5 Mohammedans deserted. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
Aylmer had fought the Battle of Wadi on 13th January, and two major attempts to relieve Kut at the Battle on Hannah on 21st January and the Battle of Dujaila on 8th March; but facing appalling weather conditions, with raw troops, and unable to match Turkish reinforcements, he had been unable to break through.
It is certain that the failure to rescue his fellow-officers and their men at Kut broke General Aylmer’s heart. He had won the V.C. for a very gallant feat at Fort Nilt and honours in all the battles he had fought, and the Turks to this day have sung his praises, recounting that he was the most famous general in the British Army and none they feared and admired more. But he was broken by the task he had been set. The War Office’s decision that his conduct of the operations of the relieving forces had been “unfortunate” he felt bitterly, and when his services were suspended he joined the procession of generals “who went home on sick leave.” Writing to General Townshend, from the camp at Wadi, he says: “I have had a harder time than most people realize. It all looks very easy when you sit in an armchair at the W.O. Give my best wishes to Melliss, Delamain and Hamilton. Good-bye and God bless you all.” These are but short extracts from the manly letter from a fine soldier, who did his best, but was amongst those who came in for all the blame for being unable to accomplish an impossible task. Dorina L. Neave, Remembering Kut, 1937
(Reference to Captain Aylmer’s exploit at the Nilt Fort is made in the 29 December 2015 posting on this site. He was also with General Low’s column which was sent to relieve the siege of Chitral in 1895, where Townshend was one of the officers. As a Royal Engineer, not only did he construct bridges over the turbulent rivers of the North West Frontier that made possible the column’s advance north from Peshawar, but on one notable occasion he had himself lowered from a bridge in a basket to save the life of a soldier being swept along after his raft had overturned.)
March 15th, 1916
River rose 2′ 8”. Water kept out of trenches. Sheet of water about 800 yards and 8 inches deep in front of our first line. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 16th, 1916
River rising, but bunds held. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
It is a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and the only blur on the silvery brightness is the muddied Tigris winding like a yellow ribbon over this flat desert land. …
It was a fine sunset. Away over the muddy plain the Western skies were dragon-red, and clouds stirred by the evening breeze sailed in and out of the luminous belt which reflected a soft pink on the face of the rising moon climbing over the Eastern horizon. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
On 16th March I received a telegram from G.H.Q., dated 14th March, 1916:-
“Please tell Townshend not to make terms with Turks until he hears from me. Acknowledge.”
To this I sent the following reply on the same date.
“Kindly inform Chief India that there was never the slightest intention of any negotiation with the Turks unless there was any doubt in the mind of the Army Commander about relieving me…” C.V.F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1919
March 17th, 1916
River going down a bit. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 18th, 1916
A bombardment began at 5.30 pm. Enemy’s planes dropped bombs, one fell into our Serai, also into the British Genl. Hospital, this bomb did a considerable amount of damage, killed and wounded some of our poor already sick and wounded, 31. [Shakeshaft records 28 wounded and 4 killed]
2 Enemy’s naval 8” guns reported to be in position. Bread ration reduced to 8 oz per day. Diary of F.C. Lodge
River fell considerably during the day. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 19th, 1916
The 5” guns which had their position just outside the Serai moved to another place – thank goodness, as they attracted the enemy’s fire, and we got most of it. News reached us that Genl. Aylmer had handed over to Genl. Gorringe. Diary of F.C. Lodge
Gorringe, who was promoted Lieutenant-General on assuming command of the Tigris Corps, was nicknamed, Bloody Orange, on account of his rude and unpleasant personality, in contrast with the chivalrous and ever-courteous, Aylmer.
H.M.S. “Samana” hit twice by shells. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
Rheumatics bad again. They remind me I had lived in feet of water in my earthy dug-out during the floods, even my bed sopping wet. However, in the heat of the day the aching is less intense. More serious are the increasing cases of enteritis everywhere in Kut. I believe this is essentially a siege malady. The symptoms are violent pains in the intestines and a wish to vomit. It is, I hear, due to bad and insufficient nourishment.
Another shell got the Sumana through the funnel and bridge, killing one of her crew. Tudway’s cabin was completely wrecked. Tudway is a deserving, hard-working subaltern, the only R.N. representative in Kut. He always takes it as a personal insult if his gunboat is hit. She is the apple of his eye. H.M.S. Sumana, an improvised gunboat, is of the greatest importance, as she keeps us in touch with Woolpress, our tiny stronghold on the other bank, which prevents the Turks from coming right down to the river-bank and thus making our waterfront unendurable. She takes across a barge with provisions and reliefs, and makes three or four trips a week. This the Turks know full well, and do their best to send her under during the day. However, she is fairly well protected with maheilas and rafts, though by no means completely. It is a difficult problem to know how to protect her, and engages all Tudway’s thoughts. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
(NB Sub-Lieutenant Lionel Charles Paul Tudway, R.N. was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the citation reads: Sub-Lieutenant Tudway was in command of the armed launch “Sumana,” and showed remarkable ability and coolness in manoeuvring his vessel under heavy fire on the night of the 28th September , and on several other occasions under fire.)
During operations on the Tigris the Army was ably supported by the Royal Navy under the command of Captain (later Vice-Admiral) Wilfred Nunn, D.S.O. Many of the vessels were paddle steamers used for passengers and freight between Baghdad and Basra, but by adding iron plates for protection they became improvised troop carriers. With the addition of guns, searchlights in the bows, sandbags to protect the bridge, and improvised lookout stations, these shallow draught vessels could be employed used to tow maheilas crowded with infantry, ammunition and supplies.
March 20th, 1916
Night bombing by enemy’s aeroplanes began, very unpleasant. Diary of F.C. Lodge
March 21st – 22nd, 1916
Turkish aeroplane dropped bombs night 21/22 about 12.30 a.m. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 23rd, 1916
Aerial observation for our 5” guns, with excellent results on enemy’s naval guns – both put out of action, this was jolly lucky as they fired a heavy shell with high explosive which would have rendered Kut untenable. Arab rumours that Turks intended to attack tonight. All ready, but nothing happened. Diary of F.C. Lodge
Bombardment 3 a.m. till 7 a.m. Estimated that 2000 shells were put into Kut these last two days. Our casualties believed 2 killed, 15 wounded. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 24th, 1916
3 p.m. River higher than last flood level. Extra vigilance. Men to sleep fully equipped with magazines charged and orders to stand to arms at 4.45 am. instead of the usual 5.15 am. This was probably due to an Arab rumour that Turks would attack tonight.
Last issue of from S.&T.* of pine apple, vinegar, limejuice, sardines and sauce. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
* India Supply and Transport Corps
March 25th, 1916
Turkish guns opened at 6 a.m., ceased at 7 a.m. Heavy gunfire downstream. River rose 3′ 5” in 24 hours (6 p.m.) Redoubt flooded out. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
“Hate” during the night. Diary of F.C. Lodge
March 26th, 1916
River reached a level 2 feet higher than the highest January flood, and 6 inches above what the Arabs had told us would be the maximum high flood level. Fort now practically isolated. Diary of F.C. Lodge
Quiet day. End of starling season. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
March 27th, 1916
Enemy’s aeroplane dropped 5 bombs on the Town this morning. Bread ration reduced by 2 oz. Now 8 oz. per day. River gone down a little. Our aeroplane dropped a millstone. [The local millstones for grinding grain had worn out despite being repeatedly recut by masons of the Dorsets.] Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
The day’s bulletin is that the Churches in England are praying for us. How we hope they pray hard.
The water of the floods is now all over the maidan around our old first line, in fact in front of our present first line is a great lake some feet deep, and possibly eight feet above the dry base of our trench.
Over the river all round Woolpress and beyond, and also reaching southward, are shining sheets of water with ever-diminishing green patches between. During the last flood of a few days back the water percolated into Woolpress, which, of course, is on the bank of the river, and wrought great havoc in the trenches and among the men there. It must be an awfully lonely and desolated existence over there at Woolpress, a siege within a siege. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
March 28th, 1916
Sent cable “All well.” Diary of F.C. Lodge
Opinion unanimous that a fortnight to-day will see us en route for Amarah or Mosul*. We are to know nothing about next attempt until General Gorringe’s aeroplanes fly over to observe for guns. Quiet day. 560 cases of scurvy in hospital, all Indians and increasing owing to not eating meat. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
*i.e. either evacuated or marching into captivity
March 29th, 1916
GoC Divn. [Townshend] sent for me and showed me some of the letters (private) he had received from The Viceroy, Lord Landsdown[e], Rippinton [Repington] Times Correspondent, Lord Curzon. Hot day 81°. Diary of F.C. Lodge
The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, who was later criticized for his part in the campaign by the Mesopotamia Commission, was replaced as Viceroy by Lord Chelmsford on 4th April. Lord Landsdowne was a controversial former Viceroy (1884-94). Lieutenant-Colonel Charles à Court Repington had a distinguished military career, but following an affair with a married woman he resigned his commission and became a military correspondent for The Times. Lord Curzon was Viceroy from 1899, and is remembered for promoting British interests in the Gulf and trade with Persia. He fell out with the Commander-in-Chief, India, Lord Kitchener, and was replaced in 1905.
Frederick Thesiger, 1st Viscount Chelmsford, was an uncle of Wilfred Thesiger, whose account of his time spent in the Iraqi marshes around Basra, The Marsh Arabs, 1964, is perhaps the most influential first-hand account that we have of life in the marshes before they were partially drained by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Wilfred Thesiger visited his uncle in India during the latter’s time as Viceroy. (The Life of My Choice, 1987)
March 30th, 1916
Parcels dropped by our seaplanes, they generally manage to do so into the river or on enemy’s side. Diary of F.C. Lodge
“Samana” put out of action by enemy’s gunfire. Seaplane dropped mails into river. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
In August 1915 the Royal Flying Corps had been built up to squadron strength in Mesopotamia. Planes of 30 Squadron began dropping supplies into Kut in February 1916, including critical spares for radios and launches, not to mention the 70 lb millstone which was dropped by parachute on 27th March. This was the commencement of an air supply operation by the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) that sought to beat the Turkish blockade. The aeroplanes available for the work were four BE2c’s of the RFC, one Henri Farman F.27, one Voisin, and three Short Sunbeam seaplanes of the RNAS detachment. The bulk of the food was carried by the land aeroplanes – mainly by the BE2c’s – as the seaplanes suffered from extensive engine troubles and were restricted in their ability to take-off from water and climb in high temperatures.
The aeroplanes were based at Ora 23½ miles from Kut. Because of Turkish small arms fire they had to drop their supplies from 5,000 feet over a marked spot just north of the town. The total number of sorties during the siege was 140, and the flying hours 190. The weight of supplies dropped was 19,000 lbs of which the Kut garrison acknowledged receipt of 16,800 lbs.
We miss very much communication with the outside world. The generals get a few letters and papers by aeroplane, but no one else. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
March 31st, 1916
Thunderstorm at 10 p.m. … Temperature Maximum 80 degrees, Minimum 54 degrees. During the month the weather got very much warmer, consequently flies and evil smells abound in the town. Diary of A.J. Shakeshaft
Native rations, except for meal, have ceased altogether. This may induce them to eat horse. There is nothing against it now as they have the full permission of the Chief Mullahs of India. E.O. Mousley, The Secrets of a Kuttite, 1922
The Chief of Staff India cabled Basra advising, ‘Please inform Townshend that he can quote the Immam Jumma Musjid Delhi saying there is no objection to Mussulmans eating horse-flesh in stress of war, providing it is [properly killed by throat cutting]. Leading Pandit Delhi says there is no objection to Hindus eating horse-flesh. …’
Townshend duly and hopefully quoted the Imam and the leading Pandit: but still his sepoys refused to eat horse-flesh.
The names of those who ate horse-flesh would be betrayed to their villages by those who had not weakened. No girl would marry such a man. No family would welcome back such a son. No father would give his daughter in marriage to the son of such a man. No daughter of such a man would be acceptable in marriage to the son of any other. … It was not damnation they feared – it was being unable to marry off their daughters because they had transgressed without coercion. Every day, therefore, more and more of them reported sick with scurvy. Russell Braddon, The Siege, 1969
Part three of this quarterly update, covering March 1916, will be continued in the next post.