British Defeat Turks at Shaiba

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 178th installment in the series.

April 14, 1915: British Defeat Turks at Shaiba 

The Mesopotamian theater assumed an outsized role in British strategy because of its proximity to Persia, which allowed the Turks to threaten the oil supply for Britain’s Royal Navy.  To protect the crucial pipeline from attacks by the Turks and their tribal allies, the British government of India mounted an invasion of Mesopotamia using British and Indian troops beginning November 6, 1914, followed by the capture of the southern port of Basra on November 21 and the strategic town of Qurna, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow together, on December 19. 

As the Anglo-Indians began consolidating their position in southern Mesopotamia, on April 12-14, 1915 the Turks mounted a counterattack at the Battle of Shaiba, where around 4,000 Turks and 14,000 Arab tribesmen attacked 7,000 British and Indian troops entrenched southwest of Basra. Against the odds the British inflicted a decisive defeat, which ended the threat to Basra – but also made them overconfident, setting the stage for a disaster of their own.

Amphibious Preamble

The Battle of Shaiba had an odd amphibious preamble, as the great rivers flooded during the spring, covering floodplains for miles around – albeit just a few feet deep in most places. Subsequently controlled by massive dams, these seasonal inundations cut off British land communications between Shaiba and Basra, forcing them to deliver supplies by water. The Turks then attacked the British supply system with native sailboats, forcing the British to respond with improvised war vessels. A British transport officer described the battle in an area that had been dry land just a few months before:

… we had joined boats together with platforms, on which were mounted machine guns and mountain guns covered with straw… a small force issued from Basra, with the intention… of clearing our watery lines of communication of the Turkish bellums met with on the previous day… There was about two feet of water and one foot of mud, and the battle was fought in boats on what is usually the Basra-Zobeir road.

Battle of Shaiba 

After failing to cut the Anglo-Indian force off by water, the Turks opened the land battle in the early morning of April 12, 1915 with an artillery bombardment meant to cut the barbed wire in front of the British trenches, followed by an infantry attack that evening (giving them plenty of time to prepare). However the artillery failed to destroy enough barbed wire, and the infantry advance was turned back with bloody losses.

Giving up on the idea of a frontal attack, on April 13 the Turks simply tried to go around the Brits, hoping they wouldn’t sally out from their secure position to risk an open engagement in the desert. But they gambled wrong, as four British and Indian brigades ventured out and eventually forced them to retreat with artillery support (top, Indian artillery in action at Shaiba). After this defeat the Turkish commander, Suleiman Askari, killed himself and the Turks’ tribal allies – sensing which way the wind was blowing – withdrew to a safe distance to await the outcome of the battle.

On the third and final day of the Battle of Shaiba the British commander, Major-General Charles Mellis, took the fight to the Turks with an attack on the main Turkish camp in a nearby palm grove called Barjisiyeh Wood (above, Gurkhas, British colonial troops from Nepal, escort Turkish prisoners of war after Shaiba). Fierce combat ensued, culminating in a dramatic bayonet charge that left the Turkish trenches full of dead. Colonel W.C. Spackman, a medical officer with the British forces in Mesopotamia, described the battle, when he was responsible for treating both British and enemy wounded:

Our troops passed slowly over the horizon and into the sand-dunes, disappearing into the dust, accompanied by a continuous roar of artillery and musket fire as battle was joined. It was not long before the wounded and stragglers began to return… Pause to imagine being brought in, with other wounded with broken limbs or massive injuries, on a mule cart without springs, travelling for miles across the rough desert under a burning sun. Imagine the pain and the thirst. That evening cartloads of dead and wounded Turks were brought in, the dead, dying, and wounded all mixed up, the job of sorting them out being an appalling experience.

Later Spackman toured the battlefield and came across the Turkish trenches: 

Most of the Turkish dead were lying where they had fallen, a pitiful sight, and highly unpleasant too. One large trench, which had been taken by a bayonet charge, held about 200 bodies. The ground behind that trench back to the wood was also dotted with bodies. I then found the Turkish field hospital, which was in a shocking mess with dead and wounded still lying there.

Following this debacle the Turks retreated upriver, and the British commander, Sir John Nixon, decided to press his advantage by sending a force under Major General Sir Charles Townshend to follow them, resulting in the short-lived and ill-fated escapade known as “Townshend’s Regatta.” Beginning in May 1915 Townshend gathered a flotilla of steamboats and flat-bottomed river craft and raced up the Tigris in pursuit of the withdrawing Turks, making it a hundred miles upriver to the town of Amara before he finally overreached and went down to defeat. 

Meanwhile, after the betrayal at Shaiba the Turks decided they could no longer rely on their Arab tribal allies, long notorious for their treachery, resulting in a rapidly widening breach that strengthened the hand of Arab nationalists who wanted independence from the Ottoman Empire. The seeds of the postwar order in the Middle East, such as it was, had been sown.

Central Powers Plan New Eastern Offensive

Back in Europe the dynamic was about to shift dramatically in May 1915. After the Western Front settled into stalemate in the fall of 1914 and German winter attempts to break through bled into the snow in early 1915, the victors of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, General Paul von Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff, finally persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm II and chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn to switch the main focus of the German effort to the Eastern Front, reinforcing the earlier decision made at a meeting on New Year’s Day.

They received support from Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, who had once again failed to liberate Galicia from Russian control in a series of bloody campaigns over the first three months of the year, culminating in the humiliating loss of the key fortress town of Przemyśl along with over 100,000 Habsburg troops. The Germans were also alarmed by the formation of a new Russian force threatening Eastern Prussia, the Twelfth Army, as well as the prospect of intervention by hitherto neutral countries like Italy and Romania, whose governments believed the Allies – despite some setbacks – were about to conquer Constantinople and win the war.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff argued that Germany could preempt these threats, protect its hapless ally Austria-Hungary, and maybe even end the war with a massive combined offensive against Russia. Unlike Germany in the Second World War, no one seriously entertained the ambition of conquering Russia in its entirety; instead they hoped to take enough territory (and threaten enough future losses) to force Russia to abandon Britain and France and make a separate peace. Then Germany could turn back to the Western Front and with all its strength and finish the war. 

On April 13, 1915 Kaiser Wilhelm and Falkenhayn agreed to the plan presented by Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Conrad for a major offensive on the Eastern Front. Having identified a weak spot in the enemy defenses between the Russian Third and Fourth Armies, the generals proposed transferring eight German divisions from the Western Front and allotting six of these to a new combined Austro-German Eleventh Army, which would then attack carry out a concerted attack on the Russian lines along with the Habsburg Fourth and Third Armies. They also shifted the Habsburg Second Army south from Central Poland to the Galician front, where it would guard the southern flank along with the German Südarmee (South Army), while the Army Detachment Woyrsch under Remus von Woyrsch extended its lines south to fill the gap this left in Poland.

To win German cooperation, Conrad had to swallow his pride and cede command of the operation (which he had already done most of the planning for) to German General August von Mackensen, whose star was rapidly rising under Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The offensive, scheduled to begin May 2, 1915, would center on a stretch of Russian trenches between the Austrian Polish towns of Gorlice and Tarnów. Initially hoping for a limited breakthrough, the Central Powers commanders would be amazed by their success as Russian defenses unraveled, leading to a major reversal for the Allies known to history as the Great Retreat.

Rumors of Gas Attack at Ypres

At first Falkenhayn agreed to the Eastern offensive only reluctantly, still believing the war would ultimately be settled on the Western Front – and also curious (if skeptical) about the potential of a new weapon developed at the urging of Fritz Haber (below), the brilliant German Jewish chemist who led Germany’s pioneering efforts in nitrogen fixation: poison gas. The result was the first major gas attack of the war at the Second Battle of Ypres, beginning April 22, 1915. 

The Germans had already tried to use poison gas in violation of two international Hague treaties on at least two occasions, but without success. On October 27, 1914, the Germans fired tear gas shells at French positions near Neuve Chapelle (later the scene of the first big British offensive of the war) but amid the smoke and shellfire these failed to make much of an impression. Then on January 31, 1915 they fired shells containing benzyl bromide, another eye and skin irritant, against Russian positions at the Battle of Bolimów, but the air was so cold the gas failed to vaporize. 

However the situation would be very different at the Second Battle of Ypres: here Fritz Haber developed a system using highly toxic chlorine gas instead of relatively “mild” lachrymatory agents, delivered from portable pressurized tanks instead of shells due to a shell shortage. With luck the gas would be blown over the enemy lines by steady southwesterly wind (of course in this and subsequent gas attacks there was a considerable risk if the winds should change direction). 

By mid-April the Germans had assembled 5,730 cylinders filled with 171 tons of chlorine gas along a four-mile-long stretch of the front north of Ypres. The Germans tried their best to keep their plans secret, but the Allies received plenty of warning, principally from a German deserter who told the French on April 14. However when the attack failed to materialize on the night of April 15-16 as predicted (the Germans called it off at the last minute because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction) the Allies disregarded this and other reports as mere rumors or psychological warfare intended to shake their confidence. 

In truth there wasn’t much the Allies could do to prepare their troops for this entirely novel form of warfare anyway, and French and British commanders decided that repeating the rumors would only unnerve their men without adding appreciably to their readiness. As a result the French and Canadian divisions in the frontline at Ypres were taken completely by surprise when the new horror swept over them on April 22, 1915.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

- Dash Rapid 6-Egg Cooker $17 (save $3)

- Keurig K-Café Single Coffee Maker $169 (save $30)

- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

- HP Neverstop Laser Printer $250 (save $30)

- HP ScanJet Pro 2500 f1 Flatbed OCR Scanner $274 (save $25)

- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

- Swingline Desktop Hole Punch $7 (save $17)

- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

- PILOT G2 Premium Rolling Ball Gel Pens 12-Pack $10 (save $3)

Toys and games

Selieve/Amazon

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- EXERCISE N PLAY Automatic Launcher Baseball Bat $14 (save $29)

- Holy Stone HS165 GPS Drones with 2K HD Camera $95 (save $40)

Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

- DEWALT 20V MAX LED Hand Held Work Light $54 (save $65)

- Duck EZ Packing Tape with Dispenser, 6 Rolls $11 (save $6)

- Bissell MultiClean Wet/Dry Garage Auto Vacuum $111 (save $39)

- Full Circle Sinksational Sink Strainer with Stopper $5 (save $2)

Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

- A Christmas Story 20-Inch Leg Lamp Prop Replica by NECA $41 save $5

- SYLVANIA 100 LED Warm White Mini Lights $8 (save 2)

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- Malden 8-Opening Matted Collage Picture Frame $20 (save $8)

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- LEVOIT Essential Oil Diffuser $25 (save $5)

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

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In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.