The Siege of Kut-al-Amara: At War in Mesopotamia, 1915-1916

The Siege of Kut-al-Amara: At War in Mesopotamia, 1915-1916

by Nikolas Gardner


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Kut-al-Amara was the site of one of the longest sieges ever endured by British forces. On December 3, 1915, the 6th Indian Division under Charles Townshend sought refuge from pursuing Turkish forces inside the walled town. With no heavy artillery to destroy fortifications, the Turks circled the town, subjecting it to intermittent shelling, small arms fire, and infantry attacks. British relief units made repeated attempts to break through the Turkish lines. Meanwhile, within Kut-al-Amara a different sort of war was going on. Townshend's division was made up of Muslim sepoys, who had misgivings about fighting the Turks. Not only were the Turks fellow Muslims but they served the Ottoman Sultan, recognized by many as the Caliph, the spiritual and temporal head of Islam. The Turks played upon this potentially divided loyalty with a propaganda campaign intended to encourage desertion. Then, when a shortage of food forced the garrison to supplement its rations with horsemeat, Muslim and Hindu soldiers were faced with violating dietary restrictions in order to survive. For British officers, prolonging the defense of Kut was complicated by the need to combat disaffection and starvation among the Indian rank and file. A significant event in the British campaign in Mesopotamia, the Siege of Kut-al-Amara offers important insights into Britain’s imperial army and its role in the Middle East during World War I.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253013842
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/16/2014
Series: Twentieth-Century Battles
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nikolas Gardner is Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the War Studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario.

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The Siege of Kut-Al-Amara

At War in Mesopotamia 1915â"1916

By Nikolas Gardner, Spencer C. Tucker

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Nikolas Gardner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01384-2




IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND THE OUTCOME OF CHARLES Townshend's unsuccessful advance on Baghdad and the siege of Kutal-Amara that followed, it is essential to understand the soldiers who participated. Like the other formations of the Indian Army in the initial stages of the First World War, 6 Indian Division consisted primarily of Indian personnel. Each of its three infantry brigades had three Indian battalions and a single battalion of British soldiers. Attached to the division in November 1915 was an additional infantry brigade of similar composition. Townshend's force also included a cavalry brigade comprising three regiments of Indian cavalry, a battalion of Indian Pioneers, three companies of Indian Sappers and Miners, six British artillery batteries as well as a "Volunteer" battery composed of mixed-race Eurasian personnel, and an assortment of divisional troops including a signal company and an ammunition column. In the fall of 1915 Indian personnel made up approximately 78 percent of the strength of Townshend's force. The division was also accompanied by approximately 3,500 Indian followers. These included "higher" followers such as stretcher bearers and animal drivers, who formed distinct units, and "lower" followers such as cooks, bhistis (water carriers), and sweepers, who were attached to combat units.

Existing accounts of the Mesopotamia campaign acknowledge the composition of 6 Indian Division, and include a variety of anecdotes that offer glimpses of the war primarily through the eyes of the British personnel who comprised the bulk of its strength. There has been no systematic assessment, however, of the response of its soldiers to service in Mesopotamia. Nor have historians evaluated the relationship between Charles Townshend and his subordinates. Accordingly, this chapter will provide an overview of the soldiers of 6 Indian Division, focusing in particular on the Indians who comprised the majority of its strength. It will discuss their motivations for service and their response to the conditions they encountered in Mesopotamia up to the fall of 1915. It will also consider Townshend's ambitions, his previous experiences with Indian soldiers, and the way that these factors shaped his interaction with his subordinates, and ultimately his command decisions, in 1915 and 1916.


Discerning the motivations of Indian sepoys and followers and their responses to the Mesopotamia campaign poses significant challenges. The vast majority of Indian soldiers and followers in this period were illiterate, and consequently generated no written records of their experiences during the campaign. While some sepoys employed scribes to write letters on their behalf during the First World War, the bulk of the letters that survive refer to conditions on the Western Front. Thus, in order to understand the experiences of Indians serving in 6 Indian Division in 1915–1916, it is necessary to examine the correspondence of their counterparts serving in Europe as well as the few existing letters written by Indians in Mesopotamia. This material must be treated with caution. Dictated to scribes who seem to have relied on stock phrases and coded language intended to escape scrutiny by censors, the letters were also intended to be read to public gatherings in India. It is therefore highly unlikely that they reveal the inner most thoughts of most Indian soldiers. Moreover, this correspondence is available to the historian only in the form of excerpts of letters translated and included in the reports of British censors. These factors filter and possibly distort our understanding of the way Indians responded to overseas service during the First World War.

Given these limitations to the evidence produced by Indians themselves, it is also necessary to draw upon the diaries, correspondence, and memoirs of British officers and soldiers who served with them. This evidence is also problematic, as it provides the perspective of individuals with an imperfect understanding of the motivations and priorities of Indian soldiers. British regimental officers serving in Indian battalions often had extensive knowledge of the language, habits, and religious practices of their subordinates, and their observations can provide useful insights into the state of Indian morale. Their accounts, however, can also paint a distorted picture of Indian soldiers' experiences. Based on a careful examination of sepoys' letters, David Omissi has argued that these officers overestimated their own role in maintaining Indian morale and discipline. According to Omissi, "The cult of the British officer partly reflected the tendency of the ruling elite to explain other processes in terms of themselves. It also suited the British to believe themselves essential. It gave them a sense of purpose, and inflated their self-esteem."

Thus, while the observations of British officers can help shed light on the experiences of Indians in Mesopotamia, we should not simply accept these officers' characterization of their subordinates as dependent on their leadership. Certainly, regimental officers played a vital role as intermediaries between Indian soldiers and the higher command structure of the Indian and British Armies in the midst of a conflict of unprecedented scale and intensity. As a result, the loss of familiar British officers had a detrimental effect on the morale of their Indian subordinates. Nonetheless, soldiers' letters make clear that this was certainly not the only, nor even the predominant, factor that influenced their behavior. Therefore, rather than conceiving of Indian soldiers as dependent on their British officers, this chapter will follow recent scholar ship in interpreting the relationship between sepoys and the command structure above them in contractual terms. Rather than simply serving their "sahibs" with steadfast devotion, Indian soldiers agreed to perform a defined set of tasks over a specified duration, in return for which they received a range of tangible and intangible rewards and benefits. These included regular pay and rations, adequate medical care, and the prospect of a pension for themselves or their families if they were wounded or killed on active service. In addition, Indian soldiers expected their superiors to support their traditional beliefs and practices, including religious ceremonies and dietary requirements. Their morale suffered when they believed the command structure to be in breach of its contractual obligations. Under the conditions they faced in Mesopotamia they could and did reconsider their commitment to service.

The response of Indian soldiers to these conditions was shaped by a variety of factors, including their ethnic and religious identities. The composition of the Indian Army at the outset of the First World War was the product of recruitment and retention strategies developed in response to the Mutiny of 1857. In the decades after the uprising, and particularly from the 1880s, the focus of the army's recruiting efforts shifted steadily northward. By 1914, soldiers from Nepal, Punjab, and the North-West Frontier Province of India comprised 80 percent of the strength of the Indian Army. Colonial authorities defined the inhabitants of the areas from which they recruited as "martial classes," assigning recruits from specific ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups such as Gurkhas, Sikhs, and Rajputs to homogenous regiments or companies. The British extolled supposedly inherent characteristics that made specific groups particularly suitable to military service. At least as important as any of these alleged martial traits, however, was their perceived amenability to British rule. These groups usually inhabited remote and overwhelmingly rural areas with low rates of literacy, authoritarian social structures, and little exposure to Western notions of self-government. Not surprisingly, they had also abstained from the uprising in 1857. In addition to recruiting from ostensibly compliant sections of Indian society, British military authorities emphasized distinctions between different groups to reduce the likelihood of their Indian subordinates uniting against them. By supporting specific religious practices, dietary restrictions, and religious ceremonies, the British facilitated the construction of unique identities for the groups they recruited. They sought to reinforce and perpetuate these identities by recruiting sepoys and followers from particular communities and even families. Gordon Corrigan has observed, "In some areas pre-war recruitment had become more and more incestuous, with specific small villages, sub clans and families providing most of their menfolk to one or two regiments."

Thus, at the outset of the First World War, 6 Indian Division was an intricate mosaic of "martial" classes grouped into distinct battalions and companies drawn from specific areas. For example, the 2nd battalion of the 7th Gurkhas consisted entirely of Gurkha sepoys from Nepal. The 20th Infantry Regiment contained companies of Sikhs, Muslim Pathans, and Hindu Dogras. The 120th Infantry included a company of high-caste Rajputs and two companies of lower-caste Hindus, all from the state of Rajputana, as well as a company of Muslims from the area around Delhi. The regimental followers emanated from the same locales as the soldiers. According to H. H. Rich, a lieutenant in the 120th, "The cooks and bhistis were of the same class as the sepoys; often their relatives who could not make the physical grade; sometimes young men for whom there was no vacancy, and who were waiting until one cropped up." Given their line of work, sweepers were "untouchables," of a lower caste than the sepoys, but in the 120th they were interrelated. Thus, even followers of the lowest class were recruited from highly specific sources.

While these practices reinforced distinctions between ethnic and religious groups in the army and Indian society more generally, the regimental system also provided a means for individual soldiers to gain status within their own communities. In particular, loyal service to the king-emperor of India was a means of acquiring izzat, a concept similar to honor or prestige. Omissi has observed, "Judging from their letters, Indian soldiers fought, above all, to gain or preserve izzat–their honour, standing, reputation or prestige." Izzat did not derive solely from military service. Indeed, its acquisition on campaign had to be balanced against the maintenance of izzat associated with the ability to maintain one's family and property at home. The wife of a Pathan illustrated this reality in a letter to her husband in the army, admonishing him: "If you want to keep your izzat then come back here at once." Thus, it seems that most Indians who enlisted neither anticipated nor desired an extended deployment overseas. On the contrary, most expected to participate in small-scale operations in the Subcontinent, operating against "Afghan tribesmen or urban crowds." In 1914, however, the scale and duration of the First World War was largely unknown to most senior British military and political leaders, let alone sepoys from remote villages in India. Therefore, most Indians do not appear to have anticipated that the conflict would entail unprecedented sacrifices on their part. For some, the prospect of travel overseas may have been an enticement. Thus, most Indian soldiers appear to have welcomed the outbreak of war in 1914 as an opportunity to accrue izzat in a campaign of limited duration while serving alongside familiar comrades and even relatives from their own communities.

During the first two years of the campaign in Mesopotamia, however, a combination of factors progressively corroded Indian morale. Foremost among these was the inadequacy of the logistical system supporting IEFD. Port facilities at Basra, the principal point of entry for supplies arriving in Mesopotamia, were woefully inadequate from 1914–1916. Moreover, there was not enough river transport available to supply the force as it advanced up the Tigris from Basra. In the fall of 1915, British ships operating on the Tigris were able to provide only 150 of the 208 tons of supplies required by Townshend's force on a daily basis. Consequently, British and Indian units faced a growing shortage of essential supplies such as blankets, tents, clothes, and boots. They also lacked adequate rations. The only fruits or vegetables shipped from India in this period were onions and potatoes, which often spoiled due to a lack of cold-storage facilities in Mesopotamia. This dearth of fresh produce had a particularly detrimental effect on the Indians, who received much smaller rations than their British counterparts. To supplement these rations, British military authorities provided the Indians with an allowance so that they could purchase food in accordance with their "custom, caste and religion." In the relatively austere environment of Mesopotamia, however, they were unable to secure sufficient quantities of meat, fruits, or vegetables on a regular basis. As a result, medical authorities noticed the appearance of scurvy among Indian soldiers as early as March 1915. The disease grew more prevalent as the campaign progressed and the nutritional deficiencies of Indian soldiers worsened. According to Mark Harrison, "over 11,000 Indian troops succumbed to scurvy in the last six months of 1916."

In addition to scurvy, soldiers suffered from dysentery due to a lack of clean drinking water. The incidence of malaria also increased significantly during the summer of 1915. Shortages of medical supplies and personnel inhibited the treatment of these diseases, as well as wounds suffered in battle. Throughout 1914 and 1915, IEFD lacked sufficient numbers of field ambulance beds, stretcher bearers, and medical officers. This not only prolonged the suffering of the sick, it also meant that soldiers wounded in combat were left lying on the battlefield, where they risked being robbed or killed by Arabs allied with the Ottomans. Nor could sick and wounded personnel expect a prompt return to India. According to Kaushik Roy, until June 1915 there was only one hospital ship available to evacuate casualties from East Africa and Mesopotamia to Bombay. While the dearth of adequate rations, supplies, and medical care did nothing to increase the enthusiasm of Indian soldiers for the campaign in Mesopotamia, the uncertainty of a prompt return home for those who became casualties was likely even more vexing. An Indian soldier who sustained a wound while on active service generally believed that he had faithfully fulfilled his commitment to the army, and he expected to be discharged and allowed to return to India. Sir Walter Lawrence, commissioner for Indian hospitals in England and France, explained in a letter to Lord Kitchener in 1915, "His simple idea is that he has done his duty, and that having been wounded it is his right to go home." For wounded sepoys, the inability of the command structure to honor its perceived obligation and promptly extract them from an inhospitable environment and return them to their homes was particularly discouraging.

For those soldiers who remained with their units, the loss of leaders and comrades also strained morale. As discussed above, it is possible to overestimate the extent of sepoys' devotion to their sahibs. Nonetheless, experienced British officers were essential to the cohesion and effective performance of Indian units in combat. At the beginning of the First World War an Indian battalion at full strength contained seventeen Indian Viceroy's Commissioned Officers (VCOs) and thirteen British King's Commissioned Officers(KCOs), including a medical officer. Given that most Indian officers were illiterate, KCOs played a vital role in interpreting and disseminating operation orders to their Indian subordinates. In addition, they led these subordinates personally in battle. According to Corrigan, "British officers led from the front. They had to, even when it was patent tactical nonsense so to do. If you want to lead men who do not share your culture, background or cause, you have to demonstrate your own belief in that which you have ordered them to do."


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Table of Contents

1. Charles Townshend and His Army: 6 Indian Division in the Fall of 1915
2. Townshend's Advance on Baghdad: September-November 1915
3. Retreat from Ctesiphon: 25 November-7 December
4. Outset of the Siege: December 1915
5. Operations of the Relief Force, January 1916
6. Deprivation and Defeat: February-March 1916
7. Innovation, Starvation and Surrender, April 1916

What People are Saying About This

author of Hitler's Panzers - Dennis Showalter

Gardner, among the most promising of a new generation of military historians, has written a significant, archival-based analysis of the siege and of the use of the Indian Army on a large scale in a modern, non-European campaign [which] should cast useful insights on the pre-history of today’s troubled Iraq.

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