As of today, Turks marks the anniversary one of the British Army’s worst defeats in the First World War, at the battle of Kut al-Amara.
It’s been a century since the last victory of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. On April 29. 1916, Ottoman troops defeated the British army in the city of Kut in Iraq and captured 13,309 British soldiers, including six generals and 476 officers. The triumph of the Ottoman army in Kut came only a few months after its great victory in the Dardanelles in northwestern Turkey. This incident, which went down in history as the last victory of the Ottoman Empire army and a significant defeat on Britain’s part, risk being forgotten as time goes by.
Battles from Basra to Kut
The Ottoman Empire joined the First World War on October 29th 1914. It was just two weeks after the Indian Division of the British army had left the port of Bombay, which was then a British colony, for Iraq as part of the “Mesopotamian Campaign”. The targets of the British were the oil and gas wells on Basra coast of Iran. Britain was desperate to protect its oil supplies in the region.
The British landed on the Gulf of Basra on November 3rd 1914 and deployed in Abadan, a city in central west of Iran where oil fields are located. Two days later they seized the Al Faw Peninsula, a strategic region under the Ottoman army’s control, which was used for supply and shipment. At that point, the Ottoman Empire had moved their troops to more vital fronts such as the Dardanelles, Sarikamish and Palestine. The defence of entire Iraq was left to only a small number of soldiers from the 38th Division.
The British forces entered Basra without much difficulty and captured the strategically-located Qurna region, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, on November 9th, 1914. As the Ottomans tried to form a new line of defence, the British army was making plans to seize Baghdad.
Ottoman secret service member becomes commander
Ottoman Secretary of War and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Enver Paşa appointed Lieutenant Colonel Suleyman Askeri as the commander of the forces in Iraq.
One of the founders of the Ottoman secret service, Suleyman Askeri, was hoped to fortify Ottoman defence by organising local tribes in Iraq like he previously did in Libya. He launched an offensive against British positions on April 12th, 1915, but lost. Unable to stand defeat, Askeri committed suicide, while Ottoman troops retreated to Nasiriyah.
Time line of the Battle of Kut:
July 24th, 1914, World War I started.
October 16th, 1914, 6th Indian Division of the British army departed from Bombay.
October 29th, 1914, Ottoman Empire entered the war.
November 3rd, 1914, British forces landed on the Abadan coast in Iran.
November 5th, 1914, British forces took al Faw from the Ottomans.
November 22nd, 1914, British forces occupied Basra.
November 1914, Lieutenant Colonel Süleyman Askeri was appointed to the command of the Ottoman forces.
April 14th, 1915, Süleyman Askeri committed suicide after he was defeated by the British forces.
April 22nd,1915, General Townshend was appointed to the command of the British forces advancing to Baghdad.
May 19th, 1915, The new commander of Ottoman forces Colonel Nurettin Bey arrived in Baghdad.
June 3rd, 1915, British forces captured Amara.
July 25th, 1915, British forces captured Nasiriyah.
September 29th, 1915, British forces captured Kut al Amara.
October 5th, 1915, Ottoman forces were gathered under the 6th Army. Field Marshall Colmar von der Goltz was appointed to the command of the Iraq Corps.
October 9th, 1915, Colonel Halil Bey, commander of the 3rd Army’s Right Wing, which was fighting against the Russians at the time, was sent to the Iraqi Front along with two divisions in his command.
November 15th, 1915, Halil Bey came under Nurettin Bey’s command with his men.
November 22nd, 1915, British forces were defeated at Salman Pak.
December 3rd, 1915, Retreating British forces deployed in Kut al Amara.
December 7th, 1915, General Goltz reached Baghdad. Nurettin Bey besieged Kut al Amara.
December 14th, 1915, The British failed to break the siege.
December 17th, 1915, A second attempt by British forces to break the siege failed.
December 24th, 1915, Nurettin Bey’s offensive failed.
January 7th, 1916, The British forces failed to rescue the city of Kut during the Battle of Sheikh Saad.
January 13th, 1916, Battle of Wadi. The second rescue attempt of the British forces failed.
January 16th, 1916, Nurettin Bey handed over the command to Halil Bey.
January 21st, 1916, Battle of Hannah. The third rescue attempt of the British forces failed.
February 8th, 1916, Battle of Sabis. The fourth rescue attempt of the British forces failed.
March 6-9, 1916, Two breakout attempts by British forces failed.
March 10, 1916, Colonel Halil Bey called on General Townshend to surrender.
March 11th, 1916, Another rescue operation by the British forces failed.
April 19th, 1916, Goltz Paşa died in Baghdad due to typhus.
April 20th, 1916, Another rescue operation by the British forces failed.
April 22nd, 1916, Halil Bey was promoted to the rank of general and became the commander of the Iraq Corps.
April 24th, 1916, The British attempt to send help to their besieged forces by sea failed. Ottoman soldiers captured the ship named Julnar.
April 26th, 1916, General Townshend declared that he was ready to surrender.
April 29th, 1916, British forces surrendered at 13:20. The loss was a huge humiliation.
Townshend’s Letter Of Surrender
COMMUNIQUE NUMBER SIX
The GOC has sent the following letter to the Turkish Commander-in-Chief:
29 APRIL 1916
Hunger forces me to lay down our arms, and I am ready to surrender to you my brave soliders, who have done their duty, as you affirmed when you said: “Your gallant troops will be the most sincere and precious guests.”
Be generous then: they have done their duty. You have seen them in the Battle of Ctesiphon; you have seen them during the retirement; and you have seen them during the siege of Kut for the last five months, in which I have played the strategic role of blocking your counter-offensive and allowed time for our reinforcements to arrive in Iraq.
You have seen how they have done their duty, and I will be certain that the military history of this war will affirm this in a decisive manner.
I send two of my officers, Captain Morland and Major Gilchrist, to arrange details.
I am ready to put Kut into your hands at once, and go into your camp as soon as you can arrange details, but I pray to you to expedite the arrival of food.
I propose that your chief medical officer should visit my hospitals with my primary medical officer. He will be able to see for himself the state of some of my troops – there are some without arms and legs, some with scurvy. I do not suppose you wish to take these into captivity, and in fact the better course would be to let the wounded and sick go back to India.
The Chief of the Imperial Staff, London, wires me that the exchange of prisoners of war is permitted. An equal number of Turks in Egypt and India would be liberated for the same number of combatants.
Accept my high regards.
Commanding 6th Division and Forces at Kut
I would also add to the above that there are strong grounds for hoping that the Turks will eventually agree to all being exchanged. I have received notification from the Turkish Commander-in-Chief, to say I can start for Constantinople soon. Having arrived there, I shall petition to be allowed to go to London on parole and see the Secretary of State for War and get you exchanged at once. In this way I hope to be of great assistance to you all.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your devotion to duty and your discipline and bravery, and may we meet soon in better times.
29th April, 1916
Commanding 6th Division
Memoirs of Halil Paşa
Historian and writer Şevket Süreyya Aydemir authored the memoirs of the victorious commander of the Battle of Kut al Amara, Halil Paşa. The memoirs were serially published in the daily Akşam in 1967, 10 years after Halil Paşa’s death. Paşha’s memoirs were collected into a book (titled Memoirs of the Kut al Amara Hero, Halil Kut – Editor: Erhan Çifci) for the first time in honour of the 100th Anniversary of the Victory of Kut al Amara.
A sad farewell to Erzurum
Halil Bey was only 33 years old when he was ordered to go on a campaign in Iraq and had not become a paşa yet. The 3rd Army’s Right Wing, which he was a member of, was still at war with the Russians, but he was ordered to set off immediately.
“I visited the commander of the army in Erzurum, Mahmut Kamil Paşa before leaving the front. I still remember something he told me then. He held my hand, looked me in the eye and said in a sad voice: ‘Halil, you will go to Iraq and save Baghdad, but Erzurum will fall…’ We separated in tears. Yes, we did save Baghdad – at least for a while. But Erzurum was going to fall and it did. I, on the other hand, had to run to Iraq with the 51st and 52nd divisions in my command. Problems were getting increasingly complicated.”
A journey of life or death
Halil Bey immediately departed. He was diagnosed with appendicitis while they were on the side of the Siirt Stream, but it was impossible to operate on him there. He could not ride a horse under the circumstances either. They made a make-shift raft with the sheepskin they got from the villagers. The commander, who suffering from severe pain, was placed on the raft and carried by the river.
“The situation was very bad. My appendicitis could burst, which would immediately lead to peritoneal inflammation. In short, I could die any minute. But I didn’t. We went down to the south over the Siirt Stream. There was a terrifying silence around. But at the same time it was wildly magnificent. Finally, our raft reached Mosul.”