Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 221st installment in the series.
January 21, 1916: Turks Defeat Brits at Hanna
While trench warfare ground on in Europe with little to show for either side, in other theatres, where the “war of movement” still prevailed, the tide of battle could turn very quickly indeed. Nowhere was this truer than Mesopotamia, as the British advance up the Tigris River came to a sudden halt just short of Baghdad in December 1915, and the would-be conquerors soon found themselves under siege.
After a string of easy victories in the spring and summer of 1915, at the urging of theatre commander General Sir John Nixon, Charles Townshend’s force of 10,000 Anglo-Indian troops made one final leap towards Baghdad in November—only to finally find itself overextended. Confronted with stiff resistance by the reinforced Ottoman Sixth Army at the Battle of Ctesiphon, Townshend led the Indian Expeditionary Force’s 6th (Poona) Division back downriver to the town of Kut-al-Amara, hoping to regroup and resupply here.
This proved to be a fatal mistake: the Ottoman Sixth Army, commanded by the venerable German officer Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, pounced on Townshend’s exhausted force and encircled the 6th Division at Kut – a task made easier by Kut-al-Amara’s relatively isolated location in an oxbow-shaped loop in the Tigris River. In fact, with the neck of the peninsula subject to seasonal flooding, at times Kut-al-Amara was almost an island.
With the British cut off at Kut, after a few failed attempts to retake the town by force the Turks dug in on the opposing river banks and beyond the flood plains – and waited. Townshend’s supplies were running low, so it was only a matter of time before the threat of starvation would compel his force to surrender.
The news that thousands of Anglo-Indian troops were under siege in Mesopotamia, coming on top of the humiliating defeat at Gallipoli, sparked panic and calls for an immediate rescue operation in Britain and India. On January 4, 1916 Nixon ordered Lieutenant General Sir Fenton Aylmer to lead a new relief force drawn from the IEF in southern Mesopotamia, numbering 19,000 men including the 7th (Meerut) Division, north to raise the siege at once.
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But this proved easier said than done: for one thing the Turks, realizing a major victory was within their grasp, also brought up reinforcements as quickly as they could to ensure there was no breakout and fend off any attempt to raise the siege from outside. They had also established a barrage of strong defensive positions down the Tigris River, held by detachments from the Sixth Army, which the British had to overcome one by one.
After heavy fighting, Aylmer scored a tactical victory and ejected the Turks from their first fortified position at the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad from January 6-8, but the majority of the enemy forces simply withdrew upriver to another new defensive position at a place called Wadi. Aylmer ordered his tired, bloodied force to pursue them, but once again failed to encircle the Turks at the Battle of Wadi on January 13, losing even more men in the process. Here the poet Robert Palmer, who would shortly be killed in battle, described his first burial duty in a letter home:
I had never seen a dead man and rather dreaded the effect on my queasy stomach; but when it came to finding, searching and burying them one by one, all sense of horror--though they were not pleasant to look upon--was forgotten in an overmastering feeling of pity, such as one feels at the tragic ending of a moving story, only so oppressive as to make the whole scene like a sad and impersonal dream…
The next position was at Hanna, where the Turks had created a series of entrenched lines stretching north from the river to a nearby swamp, as well as south from the river towards Wadi. Even worse, they outnumbered the British by three-to-one, with 30,000 Ottoman troops facing Aylmer’s Anglo-Indian force, now dwindled to about 10,000.
But the situation was desperate, and Aylmer was under intense pressure from his superiors to raise the siege. Just two days after Nixon was relieved and replaced by General Sir Percy Lake on January 19, reflecting the British high command’s growing alarm about the unfolding debacle at Kut, on January 21 Aylmer attacked the heavily fortified Turkish defenders at Hanna – and unsurprisingly suffered a severe defeat.
Following a brief bombardment that failed to do serious damage to the enemy lines, the 7th (Meerut) Division embarked on a suicidal dash across almost half a mile of flat, muddy terrain, where they presented easy targets for the defending Turks. Aylmer’s small force received 2,700 casualties with no immediate access to medical care, whose sufferings were made worse by a downpour and freezing temperatures on the night of January 21-22. One British officer with an Indian unit, the 4th Hants, later recalled:
The fighting on the 21st was a pure slaughter. It was too awful.... The troops from France say that in all their experience there they never suffered so much from weather conditions. We were wet to the skin and there was a bitter wind coming off the snow hills. Many poor fellows died from exposure that night, I am afraid; and many of the wounded were lying out for more than twenty-four hours until the armistice was arranged the following day.
Edmund Candler, a British war correspondent accompanying Aylmer’s relief force, painted a similar picture: “At noon the rain came down. All day and all night it poured, putting the crown upon dejection. One thought of the wounded shivering in the cold and mud between the lines, waiting for the night and the slow miserable train of gridiron-bottomed carts.” During the truce to collect wounded and dead, Candler met a Turkish officer who confirmed that the British artillery bombardments were coming up short:
The bombardment, it will be seen, had little effect on the Turk save to indicate our point of attack… [The Turkish officer] smiled at the idea of being frightened out by “that dust and smoke.” He had seen bombardments in the Dardanelles. “Oh, no, we do not mind your bombardments,” he said; “when you shell our front line trenches we lie low and fire from the second line; and when you shell our second line, we get up again and fire from the first.”
The results were grim to say the least. According to Candler one British unit, the Black Watch, lost over half its strength (top, soldiers of the Black Watch marching in Mesopotamia): “The Black Watch had gone in 120 strong and came out fifty – twenty-five wounded, twenty-five sound… This for the time being was the end of one of the finest battalions in the British Army…”
The wounded who managed to survive the night were eventually, painfully loaded on to a “hospital ship” (above, a British hospital ship on the Tigris) – actually just a converted river steamer where they were laid out on the decks in freezing temperatures to endure a voyage of several days back downstream to British-held territory, where there were at least primitive hospitals housed in tents. Candler remembered:
We had carried many straight from the carts on to the ship, where they lay covering every inch of the deck. Then we began clearing the tents of such as we could move. Some were left out in the rain on the transport carts all night; it was better than the mud… I heard a subaltern say, by way of comfort, searching vainly for some adequate greeting in this grimly impressive scene: “I suppose this is as near hell as we are likely to see, Sergeant O’Malley.” Sergeant O’Malley drew himself up stiffly and answered in his disciplined, matter-of-fact way, as if he had been asked whether the quarter-guard had turned out, “I should say it was, sir.”
Serbs Land in Corfu
1,500 miles to the west, the first Serbian evacuees from Albania were arriving aboard French ships at the Greek island of Corfu, which had been occupied by the Allies (without the permission of the neutral Greek government) to create a temporary haven for the Serbian soldiers and civilians who survived the Great Retreat (below, Serbian soldiers in Corfu).After a period of rest, recuperation, and resupply, approximately 118,000 Serbian soldiers would form a new army that would eventually be deployed on the new Balkan front created by the Allies at Salonika in northern Greece (again, without Greek permission). In early January Serbia’s King Peter visited Salonika, while the Serbian government in exile was temporarily established in Brindisi in neighboring Italy.
Conditions on Corfu were hardly ideal, however, as the French and British were slow in delivering food and other supplies (below, Serbs resting in Corfu). And once again, the worst off were the thousands of Habsburg prisoners of war who were lucky or hardy enough to have survived the trek over the Albanian mountains in mid-winter, only to be interned on the barren Italian island of Asinara (literally, “the island of donkeys”) near Sardinia.
Ironically, after waiting weeks for evacuation many of the exhausted prisoners died on the ships carrying them to their new island home, according to Josef Šrámek, a Czech prisoner. On January 2, 1916 Šrámek wrote in his diary while aboard ship: “Many people die of exhaustion and being seasick. They are just thrown into the sea and that’s it. Nobody cares about their names.” The situation did not improve once they arrived at Asinara, as scores of prisoners were felled by rampant disease and dehydration. On January 7 Šrámek noted:
Disease is spreading among us. The water is to blame… the stomach starts to ache, diarrhea comes, and as people are weak, sometimes they are dead on the second day. These are the consequences of Albania – all that strain, suffering, etc. People get as far as here and then die. We sleep under tents without blankets, and it’s cold at night… About 140 people died in our camp last night. It is terrible to look at those slim figures.
January 9 brought another grim entry:
The disease is identified – it’s Asian cholera brought from Albania. People who lie down healthy are stiff in the morning. We are crammed into tents by five, and the infection spread very quickly. You can see a poor creature in spasms behind every shrub. They are all very thirsty, so they crawl to the sea to drink, and soon they’re dead. Drink water is extremely rare. A few feeble springs in the rocks are besieged by the thirsty all day.
On January 18, 1916, Šrámek recorded an astonishing death toll: “Cholera is raging horribly. The number of dead is peaking. Today we counted about 1800 of them. We gather them in piles and then bury them in the same grave. Nobody tries to find out the names of the dead.”