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Siege of Kut
Part of the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I
Townshend, Khalil Pasha after Fall of Kut B.jpg

Charles Townshend and Halil Pasha after the fall of Kut
Date7 December 1915 – 29 April 1916
Kut-al-Amara, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq)
Result Ottoman victory

United Kingdom British Empire

 Ottoman Empire
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Charles Townshend Surrendered Ottoman Empire Nureddin Pasha
Ottoman Empire Halil Pasha
German Empire Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz
45,000 25,000
Casualties and losses
30,000 dead or wounded
10,000 captured including 6 generals
10,000 dead or wounded

The Siege of Kut Al Amara (7 December 1915 – 29 April 1916), also known as the First Battle of Kut, was the besieging of an 8,000 strong British-Indian garrison in the town of Kut, 160 kilometres (100 mi) south of Baghdad, by the Ottoman Army. In 1915 its population was around 6,500. Following the surrender of the garrison on 29 April 1916, the survivors of the siege were marched to imprisonment at Aleppo, during which many died.[1] Historian Christopher Catherwood has called the siege "the worst defeat of the Allies in World War I".[2]

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Throughout 1915 the British Indian Army had been marching up the Tigris River triumphantly winning battle after battle as it closed in on Baghdad, but no longer. This week finds that army in dire straits, under siege at Kut with no relief in sight. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War Last week we saw the remnants of the Serbian army and even the civilian population fleeing to and through the Albanian mountains from the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian invaders. The refugees were in dire straits and many froze and starved to death. Further north, the Italian front had gone quiet as the fourth battle of the Isonzo River had ended, and indeed the arrival of winter had shut down most of the action on all of the European fronts. Here’s what followed. There were no offensives on the Western Front since battles in Artois and Champagne had ended a month ago, and it seemed there would be none until after the winter, though last December and January the First Champagne Offensive raged on and on, so you never know, but there was still action. This week the Germans concentrated reinforcements and reserves in Flanders and Artois but didn’t take much ground. They even lost a bit of it as flooding on the 7th in the Yser region forced them to abandon many of their advanced trenches there. On the 8th, 6 British airplanes bombed a German storage depot in the Somme region and the aerodrome at Hervilly. A British cargo boat ran aground off the Belgian coast and three German hydroplanes tried to sink it, but they were driven off by Allied planes, and deep snow in the Vosges prevented anything but artillery attacks over there. But if the British weren’t especially active on one front, on another one they certainly were. On December 5th, British forces met the Bulgarians for the first time as the Bulgarians attacked them in Macedonia at two points, Demir Kapu gorge and on the Rabrovo-Doiran road. The first of those managed to gain the British trenches, but the counter attack was successful and they drove back the Bulgarians. The second Bulgarian attack, with far superior numbers of men to the British, took the first British trench line, but couldn’t reach the second. East of the Vardar River General Georgi Todorov continued to attack the British with around 100,000 men. On the 6th, under the cover of a dense mist they managed to get close unseen and pounded the mostly Irish regiments with high explosive shells. The British were forced back several kilometers. Now, French General Maurice Sarrail, also on the Vardar with his forces, faked an attack on Ishtip and then before the Bulgarians realized what he was doing had gotten away with all of his stores and gone to Krivolak, blowing up bridges and tearing up railroad tracks behind him. By the 5th he had reached the north end of Demir Kapu gorge, not too far from the British positions, and there the French finally had to fight. The Bulgarian attack was determined but the French held them off and managed an almost ridiculously precarious retreat. The only way out was a single narrow railroad running on a narrow shelf that was cut into the rock high above the Vardar River. But they made it with all their supplies, and got to Gradetz where they dug in. The Bulgarians attacked them on the 8th and 9th, but were driven off, and on the 10th the French had made contact with the British left flank. But it wasn’t just in Macedonia that the British were being forced back. It was also happening in Mesopotamia. For nine days General Charles Townshend had been leading his forces back down the Tigris River away from Ctesiphon. The British Indian forces had won the battle there, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, for the casualties taken had destroyed their own fighting capability. There were no reserves and they couldn’t just hang around in the open desert, but the retreat to Kut was a nightmare. The transport facilities were totally inadequate. I’m gonna read you a quote that’s not for the squeamish, so some of you may want to fast forward. This is from Major Robert Carter of the Indian Medical Service about the arrival of a hospital ship on the Tigris. “I saw that she was absolutely packed... with men... when she was about 300 or 400 yards off it looked as if she was festooned with ropes. The stench when she was close was quite definite, and I found that what I mistook for ropes were dried stalactites of human feces. The patients were so huddled and crowded together on the ship that they could not perform the offices of nature clear of the edge of the ship... we found a mass of men huddled up... They were lying in a pool of dysentery about 30 feet square. They were covered with dysentery and dejecta from head to foot. With regard to the first man I examined, I put my hand into his trousers and I thought that he had a hemorrhage. His trousers were full about to the waste with something warm and slimy. I took my hand out and thought it was a blood clot. It was dysentery.” Behind these wounded, Townshend and his forces made it to Kut on December 3rd where his superior, General John Nixon, thought he should stand and fight. Could Townshend succeed as he had at the siege of Chitral in 1895 or would Kut fall? Well, the Ottoman attacks throughout the month were repulsed with heavy losses, so they left enough men to hold Kut under siege and marched past Kut to take defensive positions down river at Sheikh Sa’ad. Inside Kut were 14,500 British and Indian troops and their dependents and about 6,000 Arab civilians. All of these needed to be fed, and on December 7th, Townshend claimed he had enough food to last for 60 days, and kept his men on full rations, while demanding that Nixon send a relief force. That would take some time. And here’s another note to round out the week. On December 6th, Essad Pasha declares himself pro-allies. You may not remember him, but he was Minister of War and Minister of the Interior in Albania briefly in 1914. He revolted against the Prince and was exiled to Italy, but now he was back and had a tiny kingdom he’d carved out of Albania where he welcomed Serbian refugees and expelled all Austrians and Bulgarians. And there you have the week; isolated events in the west, the Eastern front at a standstill, but huge action in the Balkans as the French, British, and Serbs fought the Bulgarians, while thousands of Serbian soldiers and civilians were still fleeing into the frozen mountains of Albania to escape the invaders. In the Middle East the British were bottled up at Kut, and at Gallipoli... Right, Gallipoli. I haven’t mentioned Gallipoli this week, but there was a development; a big one. On December 7, 1915 the politicians finally made up their mind, the British would evacuate Gallipoli. Peter Hart wrote a great book on Gallipoli, but here’s a quote from another book of his, “The Great War”, that sums up his feelings about Gallipoli: “Apologists for the Gallipoli campaign have long tried to boast of what could have been, with a heavy emphasis on “if only”. This fails to recognize that the Allies fought the campaign with levels of naval and military support that were considered acceptable until the Turks defeated them. Time and time again Hamilton promised success, again and again he failed. Gallipoli was one of a series of military Easterner adventures launched without proper analysis of the global strategic situation, without consideration of the local tactical situation, ignoring logistical realities, underestimating the strength of the opposition, and predicated on a hugely optimistic assessment of the military capabilities of their own troops. Not for nothing is hubris regarded as the “English disease”... vital resources had been drawn away from where they really mattered... Gallipoli achieved nothing but to provide the Turks with an opportunity to slaughter British and French troops in copious numbers in a situation in which everything was in the defenders’ favor. Meanwhile, back on the Western Front was the real enemy: the German Empire. Men, guns, and munitions were in the process of being deployed to Gallipoli during the first British offensive at Neuve Chapelle; they were still there when the Germans launched their deadly gas attack at Ypres in April, during the debacles of Aubers Ridge and Festubert, and during the first great push at the Battle of Loos in September... This was the real war- Gallipoli was nothing but a foolish sideshow.” Peter Hart’s book about Gallipoli was a tremendous help for my research and I highly recommend it. If you want to get a copy of it, you may want to check our Amazon store where we get a commission for each purchase you make. Find the link below this video. Winston Churchill was the architect Gallipoli and of course an important man throughout the war and the 20th century. If you want to find out more about his deeds in World War 1, click right here for our biography episode. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Murray from New Zealand! A big thank you from the other end of the world, Murray. If you want to help our show financially, check out our Patreon page. Don’t forget to subscribe.



Situation at Kut on 28 September 1915.
Situation at Kut on 28 September 1915.

The 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army, under Major-General Charles Townshend, had fallen back to the town of Kut after retreating from Ctesiphon. The British Empire forces arrived at Kut around 3 December 1915. They had suffered significant losses, numbering only 11,000 soldiers (plus cavalry). General Townshend chose to stay and hold the position at Kut instead of continuing the march downriver towards Basra. Contained within a long river loop, Kut offered a good defensive position although supply lines from distant Basra were stretched.

The siege

The siege by Ottoman 6th Army forces
The siege by Ottoman 6th Army forces

The pursuing Ottoman forces under Halil Pasha arrived on 7 December 1915. Once it became clear the Ottomans had enough forces to lay siege to Kut, Townshend ordered his cavalry to escape south, which it did, led by Lieut. Colonel Gerard Leachman. The Ottoman forces numbered around 11,000 men and were increasing steadily with additional reinforcements arriving constantly. They were commanded by the respected but elderly German general and military historian Baron von der Goltz. Goltz knew the Ottoman army well, as he had spent 12 years working on modernizing it, from 1883 to 1895. After three attacks in December, Goltz directed the building of siege fortifications facing Kut. He prepared for an attack from Basra, using the Tigris River, by building defensive positions further down the river designed to cut off a river-borne relief.

After a month of siege, Townshend wanted to break out and withdraw southwards but his commander, General Sir John Nixon saw value in tying down the Ottoman forces in a siege. Nixon ordered transports from London, but none had arrived. The War Office was in the process of reorganizing military command; previously the orders had come from the Viceroy and India Office.

However, when Townshend—inaccurately—reported that only one month of food remained, a rescue force was hastily raised. It is not clear why Townshend reported he only had enough food for one month when he actually had food for more than four months (although at a reduced level), but Townshend would not attempt an infantry retreat unprotected through hostile tribal lands without river transport. Nixon had ordered this with reinforcements, commanded by his son, but by December they were still only in the Suez Canal. The confusing communications would prove a critical delay.

Medical facilities in Kut were headed by Major General Patrick Hehir.[3]

Relief expeditions

The first relief expedition comprised some 19,000 men under Lieutenant-General Aylmer and it headed up the river from Ali Gharbi in January 1916.

Battle of Sheikh Sa'ad

The first attempt to relieve Kut (the Battle of Sheikh Sa'ad) came on 6 January. Aylmer's advance force was a division or two, under Major-General George Younghusband. Part of the cause of delay was the debate in Cabinet over whether one division would be an adequate force, or whether two divisions should be sent. Deliberations were painfully slow. The ageing General Maurice insisted on being informed at every turn as the evidence came into the Committee of Imperial Defence; which was further complicated by a restructuring involving the setup of a new sub-committee system and transfer of military responsibilities. At least three urgent memoranda were sent from General Nixon demanding transports to evacuate Townshend's division. By Christmas his health had broken down, and he requested a return to Bombay.

Nixon's replacements with additional staff as a mandatory requirement moved forward from Ali Al Gharbi towards Sheikh Sa'ad along both banks of the Tigris. Younghusband's column made contact with the Ottomans on the morning of 6 January 5.6 km (3 12 mi) east of Sheikh Sa'ad. British efforts to defeat the Ottomans were unsuccessful.[4]

The following day, on 7 January, Aylmer arrived with the main body of his forces and ordered a general attack. Younghusband led the attack on the left bank and Major-General Kemball took the right. After heavy fighting all day, Kemball's troops had overrun Ottoman trenches on the right bank, taking prisoners and capturing two guns. However, the Ottoman left bank held firm and they carried out supporting manoeuvres from the north.

After little change on 8 January, renewed British attacks on 9 January resulted in the Ottomans retiring from Sheikh Sa'ad. Over the following two days the Ottomans were followed by Aylmer's force but heavy rains made the roads virtually impassable.[4]

Battle of Wadi

The Ottomans retreated for about 16 km (10 mi) from Sheikh Sa'ad to a tributary of the Tigris on the left bank known by the Arabic toponym simply as the Wadi (meaning "the river valley"). The Ottomans made their camp beyond the Wadi and on the other side of the Tigris opposite the Wadi.

On 13 January, Aylmer attacked the Ottoman Wadi position on the left bank with all of his forces. After putting up a stiff resistance the Ottomans retreated 8 km (5 mi) to the west and they were followed by Aylmer's troops.

Battle of Hanna

The Ottomans then made their camp upstream of the Wadi at the Hanna defile, a narrow strip of dry land between the Tigris and the Suwaikiya Marshes. British losses at the Battle of Hanna amounted to 2,700 killed and wounded, which was disastrous for the garrison in Kut.[5]

The British Headquarters in Kut
The British Headquarters in Kut

Later efforts

At this point, Khalil Pasha (the Ottoman commander of the whole region) came to the battle, bringing with him a further 20,000 to 30,000 reinforcements.

Following the defeat of Aylmer's expedition, General Nixon was replaced as supreme commander by Percy Lake. More forces were sent to bolster Aylmer's troops. He tried again, attacking the Dujaila redoubt on 8 March. This attack failed, at a cost of 4,000 men. General Aylmer was dismissed and replaced with General George Gorringe on 12 March.

The relief attempt by Gorringe is usually termed the First Battle of Kut. The British Empire's forces numbered about 30,000 soldiers, roughly equal to the Ottomans. The battle began on 5 April and the British soon captured Fallahiyeh, but with heavy losses, Beit Asia was taken on 17 April. The final effort was against Sannaiyat on 22 April. The Allies were unable to take Sannaiyat and suffered some 1,200 casualties in the process.

In April 1916 No. 30 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps carried out the first air supply operation in history. Food and ammunition were dropped to the defenders of Kut, but "as often as not their parcels go into the Tigris or into the Turkish trenches!"[6]

All the relief efforts had failed, at a cost of around 30,000 Allied killed or wounded. Ottoman casualties are believed to have been around 10,000. The Ottomans also lost the aid of Baron von der Goltz. He died on 19 April, supposedly of typhoid. After Goltz's death, no German commander took his place in Mesopotamia for the rest of the war.

Surrender of the British army

An Indian soldier after siege of Kut
An Indian soldier after siege of Kut

British leaders attempted to buy their troops out. Aubrey Herbert and T. E. Lawrence were part of a team of officers sent to negotiate a secret deal with the Ottomans. The British offered £2 million (equivalent to £150 million in 2016[7]) and promised they would not fight the Ottomans again, in exchange for Townshend's troops. Enver Pasha ordered that this offer be rejected.[8]

The British also asked for help from the Russians. General Baratov, with his largely Cossack force of 20,000, was in Persia at the time. Following the request he advanced towards Baghdad in April 1916, but he turned back when news reached him of the surrender.[9]

General Townshend arranged a ceasefire on the 26th and, after failed negotiations, he simply surrendered on 29 April 1916 after a siege of 147 days. Around 13,000 Allied soldiers survived to be made prisoners. Historian İlber Ortaylı states that "Halil Pasha acted like a gentleman to the surrendering British officers" and offered "to take the PoWs up towards the north in river boats in case fuel could be provided from British bases nearby."[10] The offer was rejected by the British. 65–70% of the British and 15–30% of the Indian troops died of disease or at the hands of their Ottoman guards during captivity.[11][12] However, historian Marc Ferro suggested a different image. According to Ferro, the surrendered British and Indian forces were forced to march around the city of Baghdad while being maltreated by the Ottoman troops supervising their march.[13]

Townshend himself was taken to the island of Heybeliada on the Sea of Marmara, to sit out the war in relative luxury. The author Norman Dixon, in his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, described Townshend as being "amused" by the plight of the men he had deserted, as if he had pulled off some clever trick. Dixon says Townshend was unable to understand why his friends and comrades were ultimately censorious over his behaviour.[14]

In British Army battle honours, the siege of Kut is named as "Defence of Kut Al Amara".


Jan Morris, a British historian, described the loss of Kut as "the most abject capitulation in Britain's military history."[15] After this humiliating loss, General Lake and General Gorringe were removed from command. The new commander was General Maude, who trained and organized his army and then launched a successful campaign which captured Baghdad on 11 March 1917. With Baghdad captured, the British administration undertook vital reconstruction of the war-torn country and Kut was slowly rebuilt.[16]

Some of the Indian prisoners of war from Kut later came to join the Ottoman Indian Volunteer Corps under the influence of Deobandis of Tehrek e Reshmi Rumal and with the encouragement of the German High Command. These soldiers, along with those recruited from the prisoners from the European battlefields, fought alongside Ottoman forces on a number of fronts.[17] The Indians were led by Amba Prasad Sufi, who during the war was joined by Kedar Nath Sondhi, Rishikesh Letha, and Amin Chaudhry. These Indian troops were involved in the capture of the frontier city of Karman and the detention of the British consul there, and they also successfully harassed Sir Percy Sykes' Persian campaign against the Baluchi and Persian tribal chiefs who were aided by the Germans.[18][19]

See also


  1. ^ Peter Mansfield, The British Empire magazine, Time-Life Books, vol 75, p. 2078
  2. ^ Christopher Catherwood (22 May 2014). The Battles of World War I. Allison & Busby. pp. 51–2. ISBN 978-0-7490-1502-2.
  3. ^ McK, A. G. "Obituary Notice: Sir Patrick Hehir, Major-General". Proceedings. Royal Society of Edinburgh. 57: 416–416. doi:10.1017/S0370164600013961 – via Cambridge Core.
  4. ^ a b Baker, Chris. "Sir John Nixon's Second Despatch". The Long, Long Trail. Archived from the original on 31 May 2008. Retrieved 5 August 2014.
  5. ^ Baker, Chris. "The Battle of the Hanna (21 January 1916)". The Long, Long Trail. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 5 August 2014.
  6. ^ Spooner, Reverend H. Private Papers; Imperial War Museum Documents 7308. Entry for 16 April 1916 (quoted by Rogan 2016 p. 263)
  7. ^ United Kingdom Gross Domestic Product deflator figures follow the Measuring Worth "consistent series" supplied in Thomas, Ryland; Williamson, Samuel H. (2018). "What Was the U.K. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  8. ^ David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, p. 201
  9. ^ Cyril Falls, The Great War, p. 249
  10. ^ İlber Ortaylı, "100. Yılında Kut'ul Amare Zaferi" (The Victory of Kut at its Centennial), Hürriyet, 24 April 2016, p.6
  11. ^ Davies, Ross (20 November 2002). "The tragedy of Kut". The Guardian.
  12. ^ Gardner, Nikolas (2014). The Siege of Kut-al-Amara: At War in Mesopotamia, 1915–1916. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 165.
  13. ^ Ferro, Marc (2002). The Great War. New York: Routledge. p. 75. ISBN 0-415-26734-X.
  14. ^ Dixon, Dr. Norman F. On the Psychology of Military Incompetence Jonathan Cape Ltd 1976 / Pimlico 1994 pp95–109
  15. ^ Jan Morris (22 December 2010). Farewell the Trumpets. Faber & Faber. pp. 3–4. ISBN 978-0-571-26598-5.
  16. ^ Howell, Georgina. Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell. London: Macmillan, 2006. p. 311
  17. ^ Qureshi 1999, p. 78
  18. ^ Sykes 1921, p. 101
  19. ^ Herbert 2003


  • Herbert, Edwin (2003). Small Wars and Skirmishes 1902–1918: Early Twentieth-century Colonial Campaigns in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Nottingham, Foundry Books Publications. ISBN 1-901543-05-6.
  • Qureshi, M Naeem (1999). Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics: A Study of the Khilafat Movement, 1918-1924. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-04-11371-1.
  • Rogan, Eugene (2016). The Fall of the Ottomans. Penguin Books.
  • Spackman, Tony, ed. (2008). Captured at Kut, Prisoner of the Turks: The Great War Diaries of Colonel W.C. Spackman. Pen & Sword Military. ISBN 184415873-X.
  • Sykes, Peter (1921). "South Persia and the Great War". The Geographical Journal. Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society. 58 (2): 101–116. doi:10.2307/1781457. ISSN 0016-7398.

Further reading

  • Barber, Major Charles H. (1917). Besieged in Kut – and After. Blackwood.
  • Barker, A.J. (1967). The Bastard war: The Mesopotamian campaign of 1914-1918. Dial.
  • Braddon, Russell (1970) [1969]. The Siege. Viking Adult. ISBN 0-670-64386-6.
  • Davis, Paul K. (1994). Ends and Means: the British Mesopotamian Campaign and Commission. Associated University Presses.
  • Dixon, Dr. Norman F. (1994) [1976]. On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Pimlico.
  • Gardner, Nikolas (2004). "Sepoys and the Siege of Kut-al-Amara, December 1915 –April 1961". War in History. 11 (3).
  • von Gleich, Gerold (1921). Vom Balkan nach Bagdad: militärisch-politische Erinnerungen an dem Orient. Scherl Verlag.
  • Harvey, Lt & Q-Mr. F. A. (1922). The Sufferings of the Kut Garrison During Their March Into Turkey as Prisoners of War 1916–1917. Ludgershall, Wilts: The Adjutants's Press.
  • Herbert, Aubrey (1919). "Mons, Anzac & Kut". Hutchinson.
  • Keegan, John (1998). The First World War. Random House Press.
  • Long, P. W. (1938). Other Ranks of Kut. Williams & Norgate.
  • Mouseley, Capt. E. O. (1921). The Secrets of a Kuttite: An Authentic Story of Kut, Adventures in Captivity & Stamboul Intrigue. Bodley Head.
  • Moynihan, Michael (1983). God On Our Side. Secker & Warburg.
  • Sandes, Major E. W. C. (1919). In Kut & Captivity with the Sixth Indian Division. Murray.
  • Strachan, Hew (2003). The First World War. Viking.
  • Townshend, Charles (2010). When God Made Hell: The British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq, 1914–1921. Faber and Faber.
  • Wilcox, Ron (2006). Battles on the Tigris. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military.

External links

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