Siege of Kut
British Army at Kut-El-Amara Surrenders After 143 Days' Siege Relief Army of 90,000 from India Fails to Unite with Gen.
British Garrison, 9,000
British Relief Army, 90,000
General Aylmer, Commamler-in-Chief
British Mesopotamien Army, 20,000
General Sir Percy Lake
General Sir John Nixon
Turkish Army, 200,000 (estimated)
General Khalil Pasha
General von der Goltz
For the first time in 140 years—or since the American Revolution—an English Army was forced to surrender, when the famished remnant of General Townshend's Mesopotamian Army on April 29, 1916, laid down their arms to the Turks at Kut-el-Amara after sustaining a siege of 143 days. When General Townshend's Expeditionary Force started on its ill-fated campaign to Bagdad in October, 1915, it numbered less than 25,000 men. These had diminished gradually in several battles with the Turks, and when General Townshend finally took refuge in Kut-el-Amara, on the banks of the Tigris River, he had an effective force of about 9,000 men. The strength of the Turkish forces has been variously estimated up to 250,000. They were under the command of a German military instructor, General von der Goltz, assisted by General Khalil Pasha.
All efforts to bring relief to General Townshend had failed. One British Relief Army, 90,000 strong, under the command of General Aylmer was being organized at Ali Gherbi. The First Division of the Army of Relief, commanded by General Younghusband, which had started for Kut-el-Amara on January 4, 1915, was advancing in two columns along both banks of the Tigris. The British Mesopotamian Army, commanded by General Sir Percy Lake, and numbering 20,000 men, also endeavored but without success to break through the Turkish ring and relieve the beleaguered British forces.
Turkish Sorties Repulsed General Townshend's garrison, then well supplied with provisions and hoping for speedy relief, were busily engaged during the month of January, 1916, in repelling the frequent sorties of the Turks. The January floods, which compelled the retirement of the Turks from their intrenchments around the Kut to the higher ground a mile or two away, also worked to the advantage of the British garrison.
Attempts to Reach Kut-el-Amara
The British Mesopotamian Army, under command of General Sir Percy Lake, which had been operating near by, strove mightily to break through the Turkish ring and relieve the beleaguered garrison. The Mesopotamian Army, advancing on February 22, 1916, along the right bank of the Tigris to Urn-el-Arak, bombarded a Turkish stronghold at El-Henna across the river, stampeding the Turks. Two weeks later the army had pushed forward to Es-Sinn, seven miles from Kut-el-Amara, and assailed this Turkish stronghold. The Turks were driven from their first line trenches in the early assault, but recovered the position on the same day. General Lake then withdrew to his former position, 23 miles from Kut-el-Amara. On March 10th, a division of General Lake's army drove back a body of Turks that had occupied an advanced position on the Tigris. A period of stagnation now set in.
The Indian Relief Army Advances
Meanwhile, the British Relief Army from India, under command of General Aylmer, was fighting its way along the desert to the relief of Kut-el-Amara. On January 8, 1916, this army defeated the Turks in two pitched battles at Sheikh Saad, and by January 22, 1916 had advanced to Umm-el-Hanna, where the Turks were strongly intrenched. The British bombarded the position, but the Turkish reply was so effective that the British withdrew with heavy losses. General Aylmer was then succeeded in command by General Gorringe.
The spring floods had now set in and the whole region was a sea of mud, rendering all military movements difficult. The British troops were obliged to bivouac, during a downpour of rain, in soaked and sodden ground, sinking ankle deep in mud. Any advance made must be over open country, affording no protection from shell fire, against elaborate trenches built for the Turks by German engineers under the direction of General von der Goltz.
British Relief Army Repulsed at Dujailah
Undismayed by the repulse at Umm-el-Hanna, General Gorringe decided to move up the left bank of the Tigris and across the desert at night and launch a surprise attack on the Turkish position at the Dujailah redoubt, seven miles below the Kut. It was a risky enterprise, inasmuch as the British Army would be removed from its water supply and in event of a repulse would be in a position of grave danger. However, on March 7, 1916, the plans were finally perfected. General Kemball's division of infantry, covered by a cavalry brigade, was to attack the Dujailah redoubt from the south, while General Keary was to attack on the east side. The remainder of the army was held in reserve. Unfortunately, General Kemball's division was delayed three hours in opening the attack, and for lack of coordination, the whole movement failed. The British, with heavy losses, thereupon fell back on Wadi.
Relief Army Gives Up the Fight
Owing to the heavy floods, the English Army could not renew their operations until April 4th, when a second and successful assault was made upon Umm-el-Hanna. On April 8th, the British attacked Sanna-i-yat, ' but were repulsed. Turning to the fort of Beit-Aiessa, on April 17, 1916, they captured that position after a heavy bombardment, holding it against several counterattacks. A two days' assault on Sanna-i-yat followed, April 20-21st, resulting in a victory for the Turks. The Relief Army had fought day and night, for 18 consecutive days, on both banks of the Tigris; had advanced time and again to assault positions of great strength defended by superior forces; had contended against the obstacles of flood, heat, lack of water, and scarcity of food. Utterly exhausted from facing a foe that greatly outnumbered them, they were near to the end of their resources. They could not force the Turkish lines. Consequently, the garrison at Kut-el-Amara could hope for no aid from them.
One Final Effort to Send Food to Kut
One last desperate effort to relieve the now famished and emaciated garrison at Kut was made on the night of April 24, 1916. A ship, laden with provisions, attempted to run the gauntlet of Turkish guns commanding the entire stretch of the Tigris between Sanna-i-yat and Kut-el-Amara, but it ran aground near Magasis. At the same time an attempt was made to send food by airplanes, but the Turkish anti-aircraft guns riddled the planes with shot, bringing them crashing to the ground.
Plight of the Garrison
The sufferings of the garrison, meanwhile, were intense. In the early stages of the siege, there was food in plenty for the 10,000 British and Hindu soldiers and the 20,000 civilians living in Kut. Arab traders sold stocks of jam, biscuits and canned fish at exorbitant prices. These supplies being soon exhausted, all were forced to depend upon the army commissariat. In February, the ration was a pound of barley-meal bread and a pound and a quarter of mule or horse flesh. In March, the ration was reduced to half a pound of bread and a pound of flesh. In April it was four ounces of bread and twelve ounces of mule flesh, which was the allowance operative at the time of the surrender. The food problem was made more difficult by the religious scruples of the Indian troops, who refused to eat horse and mule flesh, lest they should violate the rules of their caste. In this emergency the English troops were required to give most of their grain allowance to the Hindus.
Disease spread among the horses and hundreds were shot and buried. The diminished grain and horse food supply necessitated the shooting of 2,000 starved animals; the fattest of these carcasses sufficed to feed the garrison for 40 days. Stores of grain had been found secreted in several houses, but could not be used because of lack of a mill to grind it. This difficulty was overcome when British airplanes, in response to a wireless appeal, succeeded in dropping millstones inside the city. Scurvy, however, soon set in and many deaths resulted because the mule and horse meat was boiled in the dirty muddy water out of the Tigris without salt or seasoning.
Stray cats furnished many a "wild rabbit" supper; ginger root took the place of tea; a species of grass was cooked as vegetables and it gave a relish to the horse flesh. When the milk supplies ceased, the hospital diet was confined to corn flour, or rice water for the sick. On April 22, 1916, the last of the reserve rations had been issued; all the artillery, cavalry and transport horses, mules and donkeys had been consumed, save only five mules. From April 25, 1916 to April 29, 1916, the garrison subsisted on slim supplies dropped by aeroplanes. The garrison and populace were by this time so attenuated as to resemble walking skeletons.
The Surrender of Kut-el-Amara
On April 29, 1916, the 143rd day of the siege, after destroying his guns, munitions and wireless equipment, General Townshend hoisted the white flag of surrender. The surrendered army was composed of 2,970 British and 6,000 Hindu troops. The Turks agreed to supply their captives with food sent up the Tigris from the English base. It was also arranged that wounded prisoners should be exchanged and this was done. No reprisals were attempted on the civilian population. The prisoners were removed without delay to Bagdad and from there to Constantinople (Istanbul). Very few of the prisoners of war survived the treatment they received at the hands of the Turks in Constantinople.
British Relief Army Defeats the Turks
For a month after the surrender of Kut- el-Amara, quiet reigned along the Mesopotamian battle front. On May 19, 1916, activities were renewed, when the Turks vacated their position on the south bank of the Tigris at Beit Eissa. General Gorringe's Indian Relief Army at once advanced and attacked the Turks at Es-Sinn, driving them out of the strongly fortified position known as the Dujailah Redoubt. They were assisted in this operation by a force of Cossack cavalry, which had ridden 200 miles over mountains 8,000 feet high from their base in Kermanshah, Persia, to join the British.
Having cleared the south bank of the Tigris of Turks for a distance of ten miles, the British now shelled the Turkish positions on the north bank of the river, but failed to dislodge them. On June 10, 1916, the Turks sank three British barges on the Tigris. The extreme heat prevented any further operations in this theater of war from May to July.