If there is a forgotten campaign of the First World War, a forgotten army on par with the forces that fought for the Allies in Burma a few decades later, it may very well be those forces that fought in Mesopotamia, a lesser known front of a lesser known front. But fight there they did, and the Irish were there too.
The war in Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – was an extension of the larger war against the Ottoman Empire, that would see larger scale fighting – and attention – to the battles taking place on the Gallipoli peninsula, in the Caucuses and eventually in Palestine. But another side of the conflict was along the course of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in a land that the Ottomans barely controlled themselves.
Mesopotamia was nominally Ottoman, but in reality the Empire had been military occupiers of the region for as long as they had held it, dealing with the rebellious natives near constantly. But the region was worth fighting for, for much the same reason as great powers consider it fighting for nowadays: its oil supplies. In an industrial world, controlling a vital source of oil could be important, not only for keeping your own machines and ships of war going, but for denying them to the enemy.
Before the war, the British were the main commercial players in the region, with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company being state-funded. When the war began, but before the Ottomans had officially entered the conflict, the British had sent troops to garrison oil refineries in the region. The soldiers were mostly Indian, a recruiting area that routinely goes little-noticed in popular histories of the war. The Ottomans, for their part, had little regard for the region or the possibilities of fighting over it: when they did enter the war officially, what troops their were in Mesopotamia were actually reduced, sent to fight on other fronts considered more important.
In early November 1914 the British enacted their own plan to secure their strategic interests in the region, landing an army of Indian soldiers at Fao, on the point where the Shatt-al-Arab meets the Persian Gulf. They were briefly held up dealing with the few hundred Ottoman troops there, before they were able to consolidate their beachhead and strike out for Basra, the first major town in their path. This fell to the Allies by the 22nd of the month, with the Ottoman’s barely putting up any resistance, preferring to flee several hundred miles back, to Baghdad.
Fighting in the region, which was mostly desert, was dependent on the rivers. What civilisation existed in Mesopotamia was connected to the course of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and armies needed to be connected to them too, as the primary source of water and as a very important means of transportation. The Mesopotamian Campaign would be one fought as much in terms of correctly implemented logistics as it was with guns, and so the early successes of the British were not the death blow they could otherwise have been.
Throughout the course of 1915, it still seemed as if the British held the initiative in the region. Ottoman efforts to counter attack the British positions failed in April, and the British then advanced in turn, with a small army, under the command of a Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, sent along the course of the Tigris, with its eventual aim being the town of Kut, with the possibility that it could go even further, and onto Baghdad, if the opportunity was there. Townshend’s force made steady progress, repulsing a slew of Ottoman counter-pushes, but its advance became steadily more difficult to supply the further it got from Basra. On the 28th of September, they took Kut.
They should probably have left well-enough along with that, but the decision was taken to attempt an effort at Baghdad, even if the British would have to abandon the city after its capture. By then, the Ottoman’s had decided Mesopotamia was worth fighting over after all, and troops had been pulled from other fronts to serve there. Townshend’s advance ran into trouble at the Battle of Ctesiphon in November, just 25 miles from Baghdad, and he was obliged to retreat back to Kut. The newly re-constituted Ottoman armies followed, and by December Kut, and the 30’000 Imperial soldiers there, were besieged.
The following months of the Mesopotamian Campaign were centred on the relief of Kut, and it is here that Irish troops enter the story. Repeated efforts were made to break through to Kut, at the end of 1915 and into 1916, and among the soldiers that attempted to do this were elements of the Connacht Rangers.
The first battalion of that regiment was now in the Mesopotamian theatre, following its merger with the second. The second had suffered cruelly on the western front, and a lack of recruits coming from Connacht had necessitated the combination of the two, who arrived into the region in January 1916. There, they became part of the “Tigris Force” under General Fenton Aylmar, the ramshackle force that was put together with the aim of liberating the besieged Kut.
This force had already suffered some setbacks by the time the Rangers were put into the firing line. The Battle of Shiekh Sa’ad and the Battle of the Wadi were failures, as the Tigris Force attempted to break through to Kut but found themselves unable to breach reinforced Ottoman defences. The Rangers missed these encounters, as they were taking the 100-mile trip upriver to join the larger force, but were in place on the 21st January, when another breakthrough was attempted in the Battle of Hanna. By then, they had been obligated to take on several hundred men from the Territorial Army to fill in holes in their ranks, though fresh drafts of Irish troops would take over eventually.
At Hanna, a defile on the way to Kut, the Tigris Force advanced into the teeth of Ottoman defences. The Ottomans picked their ground well, placing their lines with impassable marshland to one side and the swollen Tigris to the other. It being winter, the harsh desert sun had given way to violent rainstorms and low temperatures, and it was in such conditions that Aylmar ordered elements of the Tigris Force forward, among them the Connacht Rangers.
The attack – little more than a full-frontal assault with little in the way of tactical ingenuity – foundered quickly. Indian troops went ahead first and were thrown back. The Rangers were among those sent in as part of a second wave, but the terrible weather made for poor visibility, and their momentum was hopelessly lost as they struggled through the flooded ground and the retreating Indian troops. Finally breaking clear and approaching the enemy, the Rangers took 280 casualties, including their commanding officer, and were thrown backwards just like those that went before. The action at Hanna was another failure, that ended with 2’600 casualties incurred, and the situation was compounded by the relentless weather which exasperated the plight of the wounded, and ensured that the relief force itself was in trouble with its own supplies.
Another desperate effort was made to break through to Kut after, at Dujaila Redoubt on the 8th of March, a fight in which the badly hit Rangers were kept in reserve. Despite heavy casualties to the Ottomans, their line held, and the Tigris Force had to retreat to maintain its own tenuous line of supply. At a position called “Thorny Nullah”, the Rangers were involved in a brief, bitter encounter with Ottoman troops wherein they successfully held quickly set-up defence lines, part of a larger effort wherein Aylward was able to maintain the possibility of his army striking one more time at Kut.
On the 17th April, the Rangers were again in the sights of the enemy, as the Ottomans launched a surprise pre-emptive assault on the Tigris Force, as it massed on the right bank of the Tigris in preparation for an assault on the village of Beit Aissa. The Rangers were part of a force that was briefly assailed from three sides in this night attack, but they held their ground. Another 187 men became casualties though, stretching the possibilities of the battalion continuing to function to the utmost.
With that, Kut had to be left to its fate, with future efforts at relief or resupply largely impossible. On the 29th April, Townshend surrendered, with over 13’000 British Imperial troops going into captivity, a disaster that was among the worst calamities that the British military suffered in the course of the war. Thousands of the PoW’s would never make it home.
It was undoubtedly a major Ottoman victory, but in some ways, it merely poked the bear. Many in British politics were ambivalent about the Mesopotamian operation – Bonar Law would famously later say “I wish we should never have gone there” – but the defeat at Kut and the loss of so many troops galvanised opinion to a certain extent, and insured that the British presence in the region would not be withdrawn, but instead reinforced in preparation for future campaigning, now with the twin goal of securing the oil fields and gaining revenge.
As was common throughout the British Army, Irishmen served in numerous regiments and units, not just the “named” Irish ones. One Corporal, from Killorglin, County Cork, first saw conflict serving in Mesopotamia with the Royal Field Artillery at this time. While he was firing artillery at the Turks, he first heard about a sudden and dramatic rebellion at home, a moment that would awaken a hither-to dormant political consciousness. For Tom Barry, the Iraqi desert would be the start of a battlefield career that would eventually lead to the Cork countryside.
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