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Turkey in the First World War
The operational area of Mesopotamia in the First World War covered the lands watered by the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, corresponding roughly to modern-day Iraq. The terrain in this area consisted of swamps and deserts, which made treavel extremely difficult. The Ottomans had conquered the region in early 16th century, but they could never establish an efficient system of administration there. The distance between Istanbul and the southernmost city in Mesopotamia, Basra, was 3,470 kilometers, corresponding to a trip of four months for a caravan.
Before the war, there were two Turkish units stationed in Mesopotamia: XII Corps (35th and 36th Divisions) at Mosul and XIII Corps (37th and 38th Divisions) at Baghdad.
The next target of the Indian division was the town of Basra, which was defended by a force of 2,900 troops commanded by Suphi Paşa. Basra fell on November 22, with a Turkish loss of 1,200 prisoners, including Suphi Paşa himself, and three cannons.
Enver Paşa’s order to Süleyman Askeri Bey was to retake the Shatt-al-Arab region at any cost. Süleyman Askeri divided his forces in two. The Euphrates Wing was to be under his command and it would advance to Basra via Nasiria. The Tigris Wing was given to the command of Mehmet Fazıl Paşa and it was composed of the 35th Division and Arab cavalry units.
The British maintained a cavalry brigade at Basra, which held the town of Shaiba at the southern approach to the town of Basra. Süleyman Askeri’s forces first captured Nasiria, and then entered the desert in the direction of Qurna.
On April 12, early in the morning, Turks attacked the British camp at Shaiba with 3,800 troops. Continuous attacks on that day and the next day failed to produce any results and after a British cavalry counterattack, the Turkish offensive was called off. Turkish casualties were 1,000 men with another 400 taken prisoner.
Due to the unexpected success in Mesopotamia, the British (i.e. the Indian Office and the Indian General Staff) decided to continue to advance up the river. General Townshend arrived in Qurna to assume the command. Driving onward, the British compared the river port of Amara on May 3. After a brief pause due to the seasonal flooding, British forces took Nasiria on Euphrates on July 24, and 1,800 Turkish soldiers were taken prisoner.
The rapid advance of the British up the river influenced the Arabs as well. They were realizing that the British had the upper-hand and therefore changing sides and joining the British efforts against the Turkish Army. In Amara, Arabs raided the military hospitals and massacred the Turkish soldiers there.
Defending Selman-ı Pak (Ctesiphon)
Ctesiphon was on the river of Tigris and it was also close to the holy city of Karbala. The fortified zone was on the left bank of Tigris and it was occupying a front line of 10 kilometers. Nurettin Paşa was building his defensive formations there. He established two defense lines with three kilometers between them and his right flank was secured by the river.
In Ctesiphon, the 45th Division joined Nurettin Paşa’s forces and by November 17 the 51st Division also arrived with its 7 infantry battalions and a Schneider howitzer battalion. Nurettin Paşa was relying on 20,000 men armed with 19 machine guns, 52 artillery guns and some cavalry. 38th and 45th Divisions garrisoned the first defense line, whereas the 51st Division held the second one.
The column nearest to the river immediately ran into heavy rifle and artillery fire, and was brought to a standstill before they reached the first Turkish line. To the right, another columns reached its first objectives by capturing the first defensive line, but suffered heavy losses.
Around noon that day, the British cavalry attempted to outflank the Turks, but did not succeed. However, the British were gaining the upper-hand and Nurettin Paşa ordered a counter attack to be launched by the 51st Division which was lying in reserve. Fighting continued until late evening and both sides suffered heavy casualties.
On November 25, Townshend ordered withdrawal. The retreat was followed by the Turks and harassed by Arabs. The exhausted and depleted British force was urged back to the defenses of Kut-al-Amara, which was reached on December 3. In Ctesiphon, the British suffered 4,500 casualties. Turkish losses were 9,500 out of 35,000 men in total. The 45th Division lost 65 percent of its troops.
The Second Battle of Kut
In the meantime, the Turkish Sixth Army was reorganized into two corps, the XIII and the XVIII. Nurettin Paşa, was given to the command of the 72-years old German Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz. Nurettin was not happy and he expressed his feelings in a cable he sent to the High Command in Istanbul: “The Iraq Army has already proven that it does not need the military knowledge of Goltz Paşa… The dilemma of sending a non-Muslim general to Iraq, which has a Muslim population and where we declared a Holy War, is remarkable.”
Turkish forces launched several attacks during December 1915 but they were all repulsed. Meanwhile some additional reinforcements arrived in Mesopotamia from the Third Army. The year 1916 began with the Turkish XVIII Corps, composed of 45th and 51st Divisions, encircling the town and the XIII Corps with the 35th and 52nd Divisions blocking the British relief force about 30 km down the Tigris.
On January 20, Enver Paşa replaced Nurettin Paşa with his own uncle, Col. Halil Bey. Field-Marshal von der Goltz was technically in command of the whole Mesopotamian campaign, but daily operations were now left to Turkish commanders.
During January 1916, both Townshend and Aylmer launched several attacks in an attempt to break through the Turkish lines. All of them failed. Halil Bey knew the conditions in which the British had to live. He did not want to waste his troops when he had the advantage, as the British were faced with a chocie between starving or surrendering. In February, he received the 2nd Infantry Division as reinforcement. This unit joined the XIII Corps.
March and April 1916 witnessed a series of British attempts to break through the encirclement and General Aylmer’s attempts to relieve Kut. None of these attempts succeeded and their costs were too heavy. Both sides suffered high casualties. Food and hopes were running out for Townshend in Kut-al-Amara. Diseases were spreading rapidly and could not be cured.
Only very small quantities of supplies could be dropped from the air to Kut, but they were far from meeting the needs of the British.
Field Marshal von der Goltz died of cholera on 19 April. A few days later, Townshend decided to surrender. On 26 April he asked for a 6-day armistice and permission for 10 days food to be sent into the town. Halil Bey requested talks with Townshend the next day. During the talks, the Turkish side demanded unconditional surrender but Townshend offered a sum of one million pounds sterling, all the guns in the town, and a promise that the men would not again engage in fighting against the Turkish army. Meanwhile the British garrison in Kut used the armistice time to destroy anything useful left in the town: howitzers, ammunition, stocks, etc. At the end, Townshend was forced to surrender unconditionally.
At 1:00 pm on April 29, 1916, after a siege of 147 days, a Turkish infantry regiment entered Kut-al-Amara to receive the surrender. By 2:30 pm that day the Turkish flag was raised at the Town Hall. Overall, Townshend surrendered 13,309 men, including 272 British and 204 Indian officers, as well as 40 artillery pieces, three airplanes, two river steamers and 40 automobiles. The siege also cost them 1,000 KIA, 7,000 wounded and 731 died of diseases and starvation.
What the Ottoman High Command should have done after the victory in Kut-al-Amara was to strengthen its positions and reinforce the units. In this way, a renewed British offensive could be repulsed and Iraq could be kept in Turkish hands. However, instead of doing this, Enver Paşa decided to use the existing troops in Mesopotamia for a campaign in Iran against the Russians. Halil Paşa was strongly opposed to this plan. He thought this was nothing but an adventure, which can only end in disaster. He sent several letters and cables to Enver criticizing his decision. Since it was Enver who was in power, the XIII Corps was deployed to Iran.
At this point, one should browse through Halil Paşa’s memoirs to find out what he was thinking about the overall situation: “At that time we had won a magnificent victory in Iraq. But what we won was just a battle. The war was still going on. Therefore we should have left the victory behind and plan what we should be doing next. It was obvious that the British would not let us get away with it. There would be surely a revenge, a bigger settlement…. However, it was not the logic, which was working, it was dreams. Some German officers in Baghdad were playing some weird games. It was all about Iran!… One day I received an order from the High Command in Istanbul. It was asking me to leave sufficient forces to defend Tigris and to use the rest of my forces to reinforce the Iranian front and capture the town of Kermanşah. Yes, it was only dreams!… This would be nothing but an adventure. I immediately replied to the High Command. I said that the British, who didn’t forget their defeat at Kut, have now gathered a force of 100,000 rifles only 110 kilometers south of Baghdad. When they are doing this, it would be only an ignorant and bloody adventure if we move our forces from the Tigris to some place in the middle of Iran. However, the Deputy Head Commander was insisting on operations in Iran. When they were insisting, I was refusing…”
Maude’s move enabled Halil Paşa to concentrate his forces on the Tigris route. He reinforced the XVIII Corps, commanded by Col. Kazım Bey, which now contained three divisions: 45th, 51st and 52nd.
On February 23, Maude launched an attack on both flanks, crossing the Tigris river. Realizing the threat of being encircled, Halil Paşa authorized immediate withdrawal. Rear guard actions bought enough time for Turks to evacuate most of the infantry.
The new Turkish defensive line was along the Diyala River, 15 kilometers below Baghdad. Halil Paşa had only 12,500 men left for the defense of Baghdad. The High Command had realized the mistake of sending the XIII Corps to Persia after the victory in Kut. Under the command of Ali Ihsan Bey, this corps was called back to Mesopotamia. However it was too late. XIII Corps could reach Hanekin on the border between Iraq and Iran only on March 14 after walking 400 kilometers in 3 weeks. By that time Baghdad was already lost.
General Maude restarted his advance on March 5 along the east bank of the Tigris. Three days later the British had reached the Diyala. An immediate British attempt to cross the heavy rapid-flowing river failed, although night-crossings did succeed in establishing a small bridgehead the following evening. Maude’s aim was to outflank the Turkish forces and move directly to Baghdad.
The next day, Gen. Maude entered Baghdad amidst celebrations of the local Arabs. Baghdad was lost. It was a city, which was held by the Ottoman Empire for centuries. It had a huge emotional importance for Turks. Losing Baghdad was not an important strategic loss, but it was a psychological catastrophe.
Halil Paşa took his army about 60 kilometers up the Tigris. Now the right flank of the Sixth Army was resting at Ramadiya on the Euphrates and the left flank in Persia. He moved his headquarters to Mosul. Gen. Maude did not pause to celebrate his victory in Baghdad and continued onwards to seek the capture of the railway at Samarrah, after which wide-scale operations were largely halted until the autumn.
British supply lines were inadequate, Mesopotamian summer was too tough and Maude was worried that Halil Paşa was preparing new armies for an offensive to take back Baghdad. Thus, by late March 1917, the situation in Mesopotamia was stabilized. Baghdad had left the Turkish history for good.
Maude dispatched Gen. Alexander Cobbe at the head of two divisions further up the River Tigris to tackle newly established Turkish defensive positions some 13 kilometers north of Samarrah. Cobbe attacked Turkish lines on November 5 and succeeded after three hours fighting in taking the Turkish front line, although heavy British cavalry losses were incurred during a charge on the Turkish second lines. Turkish troops had to withdraw.
Gen. Maude, who had successfully commanded British operations in the Mesopotamian theater so far, died of cholera on November 18. He was replaced by Gen. William Marshall.
Meanwhile the war was coming to an end and London was thinking about post-war arrangements. They saw a great interest in the seizure of Mosul and its oil resources. In addition to the oil, the area had to be cleared of the remaining Turkish influence, before the armistice was signed.
Gen. Cobbe commanded a British force from Baghdad on October 23, 1918. Within two days it covered 120 kilometers, reaching Little Zap River, where it expected to meet and engage the Turkish Sixth Army operating under Ismail Hakkı Bey.
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