the British Army repositions in southern Iraq and
considers troop pull-outs, an uncomfortable
anniversary passes largely unnoticed.
British military commanders hoped the
handover of a key base to Iraqi authorities would
be a smooth one. But optimism has not been matched
by reality. With 1,200 British troops just
withdrawn from Camp Abu Naji, al-Amarah, jubilant
Shi'ite militiamen from Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi
Army are claiming victory.
rocket and mortar rounds had been crumping into this
in southern Iraq for months and providing what
British military commanders call a "static
target". The abandoned base - in eastern Maysan
province - was comprehensively ransacked by
insurgents on August 23. Military spokesmen say
this is not a British retreat, merely a
"repositioning" to fight insurgents more
effectively in the areas bordering Iran.
Even as the handover was failing, London
was claiming last week that half of Britain's
8,500 troops may be withdrawn from their Iraqi
sectors as early as next year. Under a "transition
plan" just published, Britain's Ministry of
Defense (MOD) envisages a phased reduction from
the four provinces under UK control by mid-2007. A
partial handover to Iraqi government forces is
hoped for. Under this plan, a core of 4,000
soldiers will remain indefinitely, based in Basra
"to protect the [Iraq] investment".
government ponders greater troop reductions, the
efficacy of British strategy in Iraq is again
coming under scrutiny. And British soldiers are
not the only rumored departure. The British media
continue to conflate difficulties experienced in
Iraq with the domestic unpopularity of Prime
Minister Tony Blair, just back from vacation in
Barbados. Blair's exit from Downing Street during
2007 has been widely anticipated. He himself says
he will not serve a full third term in office.
Meanwhile, a baleful 90th anniversary has
passed largely unnoticed. Further north from
al-Amarah is a town which resonates in British
history. One hundred miles southeast of Baghdad
lies Kut-al Amarah.
Kut continues to haunt
modern British planners as the ultimate case study
of how to fail militarily in the Middle East.
Kut to the chase Almost a
century ago, as the Great War raged, Kut caused
shudders across Britain. This summer British
historians commemorated the 90th anniversary of
the Battle of the Somme of 1916 with exhaustive
and high profile analysis. But with British forces
still engaged in Iraq, the anniversary of Kut
received little comment.
This is hardly
surprising. Sitting on a bend of the Tigris River,
Kut was the nadir of Britain's 1914-18
Mesopotamian campaign. The Battle of Kut in 1916
presaged the end of empire and rivaled earlier
humiliations at Gallipoli, the fall of Singapore
in 1942 and the Suez episode of 1956.
50% troop withdrawals take place in 2007, the UK
will be presented with a balance sheet of
strategic achievement versus lives lost. The story
may yet prove to be a good one. It may not. That
document has yet to be written. The British will
balance their badly-needed reconstruction efforts
for ordinary Iraqis versus 115 of their soldiers
killed in Iraq since 2003, the latest just on
Ninety years ago at Kut the
balance sheet was clearer. It was a butchers' bill
of suffering soldiery, an object lesson in
military failure and a showcase of over-weaning
The Battle of Kut will
forever be associated with the ill-fated
leadership of a single British Army commander -
Major General Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend.
Like General Percival at the fall of Singapore 36
years later, his actions have prompted controversy
Hyper-ambitious and obsessed
with promotion, Townshend was the darling of the
North West Frontier of India, feted for his
defense of Chitral in 1895. He spotted new
opportunities for victory following the outbreak
of the Great War in 1914. After Allied forces'
failure at Gallipoli in 1915, other Middle Eastern
assets were ripe for the taking. Among these were
the oilfields of Persia and Iraq - the latter in
1914 a province of the Ottoman Empire garrisoned
by the Turkish Army.
Above all, the
glittering prize of Baghdad beckoned would-be
conquerors. In 1915 Townshend sailed up the Shatt
al-Arab from Basra, leading a force from the
British Army's 6th Division, largely composed of
Indian troops. At first all went swimmingly. For
the first six months British forces routed the
Turks as far forward as Ahwaz.
northward up the Tigris, to take Amarah and the
Turkish positions at al-Qurna, Townshend went on
to mount a successful river-borne assault backed
by artillery. So supremely confident was this
assault it was nicknamed the Tigris Regatta.
Townshend watched the attack from his own personal
steamer. Over 1,000 Turkish prisoners were taken.
The regatta made further stately progress up the
But Townshend's laurel wreath was
about to be snatched and flung into the Tigris. As
at Gallipoli, Germany's wartime policy of
providing military advisors for her Turkish allies
again paid off. German Field Marshall Colmar von
der Goltz promptly set about reorganizing Turkish
forces even as the allure of taking Baghdad grew
in Townshend's imagination. The British mounted a
new attack on Turkish positions at Kut itself,
succeeding more by accident than design.
Townshend's subordinate, General Houghton,
successfully carried the day despite becoming lost
in the featureless landscape at the critical
moment. But the British and Indian forces suffered
Next came Ctesiphon.
Arriving in November 1915 at the site of this
ancient battlefield, 30 miles southeast of
Baghdad, once capital of the Persian Empire and
dominated by a monumental arch, Townshend attacked
the opposing Turks, inflicting over 9,000
casualties. But the price was high - 4,600 British
and Indian troops lost across the exposed terrain.
Townshend was unable to press home his advantage.
He now made the critical error of falling back on
Kut with the apparent aim of resisting an enemy
Nemesis, in the form of three
Turkish divisions led by von der Goltz, duly
arrived. Townshend and 12,000 British and Indian
troops found themselves besieged in Kut. Their
forces were well dug in but starvation loomed
unless a relief force could arrive in time.
A force was eventually sent under
Lieutenant General Sir Fenton John Aylmer to
resupply Kut by river steamer and repeated British
frontal attacks were made. They all failed. The
British lost a further 20,000 soldiers and the
supply port of Basra became a choked bottleneck.
Offers were made - by T E Lawrence - to bribe the
Turkish besiegers with the sum of 1 million
pounds. The Turks, rightly sensing victory,
rebuffed all overtures. Inside Kut the defenders
were now eating their horses. Emaciated from
disease and hunger, 1,750 soldiers and an unknown
number of civilians died. On April 29, 1916, after
a siege of 146 days, Britain's most senior army
commander, Lord Kitchener, authorized surrender.
The Empire's shame was acute. Over 10,000
soldiers went into captivity. Worse was to follow.
Townshend did not stay with his men. He agreed to
be taken to Constantinople, his "prison"
consisting of a yacht anchored in the Bosphorous,
complete with servants. This action and his
inflexibility remain a cautionary tale taught in
military staff colleges to this day.
was left of his army now faced brutal treatment.
Marched across the desert to prison camps,
hundreds died of thirst, disease and the
attentions of Arab irregulars nipping at the heels
of the column. Over 4,000 died on this death march
and later under harsh conditions in Turkish prison
camps. Like the remnants of the Crusader army
marched into captivity after the Battle of Hattin
in 1187, the defeat at Kut echoed around the
The British Army reeled from
the aftershocks. But, as so often in the alchemy
of British military history, shambles was turned
into victory. By December 1916, with popular
attention in Britain centered on the Western
Front, a new British commander, General Sir
Frederick Stanley Maude, determined to avenge the
defeat. Like von der Goltz, Maude would die in
Mesopotamia of typhus, but by the turn of 1917 he
had deployed a reorganized force of 150,000 men
and made the supply port of Basra finally
efficient. After launching his forces from desert
trench positions, Maude advanced toward Baghdad,
outflanking the Turks as he went. By February 24,
1917, the Turks were in headlong retreat and the
scene of Townshend's failure was retaken. The
so-called Second Battle of Kut was over. Baghdad
was taken on March 11.
Even so, a British
strategic victory in Mesopotamia proved elusive.
At war's end in November 1918 a force of 50,000
Turks was still tying down a British Army three
times its size. Up to 40,000 British soldiers had
died during the campaign. Kut's horrors lingered
on in British memory long after Iraq's tribal
revolt of 1920 and beyond the end of Iraq's
monarchy in 1958.
The events at Kut are
now almost a century old. The British war cemetery
at Kut, restored by US forces in 2003, has now
been vandalized beyond repair by insurgents.
Today, the warning of Kut does not figure highly
in stated British strategy. Yet Kut has not been
forgotten, acknowledged by senior British officers
as a specter sitting at the map table.
the past three years modern al-Kut, and its
300,000 inhabitants, has been run by US, Polish
and Ukrainian coalition troops. Taken in 2003 by
US forces and designated part of Multi-National
Division Central-South, Kut is currently run
jointly by the Poles and the US.
south, the British sector - Multi-National
Division South East - remains a key link in the
chain of coalition strategy for Iraq. Covering
Shi'ite-majority areas and the key Iraqi cities of
Basra, Amarah and Nasiriyah - it currently hosts
around 7,200 British troops. Supported by
Australian soldiers, this force continues to
maintain the UK's security commitment to
reconstruction in southern Iraq (Operation TELIC).
A further 1,300 British soldiers operate elsewhere
British commanders are sanguine
as to the military challenges. In the wake of the
Camp Abu Naji withdrawal in Maysan they say they
will be conducting new guerrilla-style operations
in the borderlands of eastern Maysan province.
Deploying a highly mobile force of around 600 men
- modeled on British Special Forces fighting in
North Africa during World War II - commanders say
its role will be to chase and finish off
If the security and material
situation in southeastern Iraq improves as planned
in the next nine months - permitting a 50% drawing
down of British forces in 2007 - Blair will claim
vindication for his commitment of British forces
If Abu Naji is the model, the
auguries are not good. Whether Blair will still be
in office next year, to see the planned
withdrawals, is also entirely another matter.