Principal Eden to Armageddon: World War I in the Middle East

Eden to Armageddon: World War I in the Middle East

The definitive and epic account of World War I in the Middle East.The Great War in the Middle East began with an invasion of the Garden of Eden, and ended with a momentous victory on the site of the biblical Armageddon. For the first time, the complete story of this epic, bloody war is now presented in a single, definitive volume. In this inspired new work of history, Roger Ford describes the conflict in its entirety: the war in Mesopotamia, which would end with the creation of the countries of Iran and Iraq; the desperate struggle in the Caucasus, where the Turks had long-standing territorial ambitions; the doomed attacks on the Gallipoli Peninsula that would lead to ignominious defeat; and the final act in Palestine, where the Ottoman Empire finally crumbled. Ford ends with a detailed description of the messy aftermath of the war, and the new conflicts that arose in a reshaped Middle East that would play such a huge part in shaping world affairs for generations to come. 24 pages of black-and-white illustrations
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To Baghdad and Beyond

With the failure to relieve Kut al Amara before Townshend was forced to surrender, the British Tigris Corps and the Turkish Sixth Army were left facing each other in impotence at Sannaiyat and east of Bait Isa, each exhausted by their recent efforts.

In the despatch he sent authorising Sir Percy Lake to open negotiations for the surrender, Kitchener laid down guidelines for him to follow thereafter: broadly, he was to take up a defensive posture, not retreating, but keeping his forces in place as far as possible, in order to discourage the Turks from sending troops to confront the Russian expeditionary force which had reached the Persian frontier, north of Baghdad. Lake replied that he would encourage Gorringe to act aggressively wherever possible, which prompted the CIGS to issue a clarification (to Duff). It began: ‘At present ... we do not attach any importance to the possession of Kut or to the occupation of Baghdad .... Lake would probably be directed to fall back to Amara, or even to Qurna, if no other consideration were involved ...”1

As Moberly says in the Official History, ‘the description of the British campaign for the seven or eight months following the surrender of Kut is mainly a narrative of efforts to put matters on a proper footing.’ Those efforts began with changes to the order of battle, which saw the 35th, 36th and 37th Brigades constituted as the 14th Division,2 and the 12th, 34th and 42nd Brigades constituted as the 15th (on the Euphrates front, at Nasiriya and Khamisiya).3 The 41st Brigade, now made up of four weakened battalions,4 was at Basra. Detachments were located at points on the Tigris from Qurna to Ali Gharbi, the strongest contingent being at Amara.5 There was a small force in Arabistan, and two and a half battalions at Bushire. The return of the 13th Division to Egypt, for redeployment to France, was discussed, but the proposal was eventually dropped.

Later the overall command structure was modified, Lt.-Gen. Sir Stanley Maude (as he became; th; e promotion was a temporary one, but was made substantive as a reward for his success in taking Baghdad) taking over from Lt.-Gen. Sir George Gorringe6 as commander of the Tigris Corps on 11 July. On 28 August Maude assumed overall command in Mesopotamia in succession to Sir Percy Lake. Maj.-Gen. Walter Cayley took over command of Maude’s 13th Division, while Maj.-Gen. Alexander Cobbe succeeded Sir George Younghusband in command of the 7th. Maude reorganised his force into two corps on 15 November, Cobbe taking over I Indian Army Corps,7 with Maj.-Gen. Vere Fane succeeding him in command of the 7th Division, and Lt.-Gen. William Marshall, who was then commanding the 27th Division at Salonika, taking over III Indian Army Corps.8 A group of logistics experts were drafted in at brigadier level to run supply and transport operations.

On a more exalted level, Gen. Sir Charles Monro replaced Gen. Sir Beau-champ Duff as Commander-in-Chief in India when the latter was recalled to London to give evidence before the Mesopotamia Commission (see page 93), and at an even higher level, David Lloyd George was appointed Secretary of State for War on the death of Kitchener9 on 5 June.

Additional combat and support units, including three British and six Indian battalions raised to replace those which had formed the infantry component of the 6th Division—they retained the same designations as the originals (but were not brigaded in the same fashion), and were employed as replacements for depleted formations—arrived in theatre during the course of the summer and autumn, and some troops were rotated back to India.10 By mid-July the authorised establishment of the expeditionary force stood at some 41,500 British and 54,500 Indian personnel (and there were over 32,000 Indian camp followers present), though by no means all of them were combat troops. Their numbers stood at around 60,000 infantry and 4,600 cavalry as of late October, and by then there were about 225 guns in theatre,11 plus those aboard the naval flotilla. In order to hold stores and lodge personnel in transit, the area around Basra protected from inundation by earth berms now extended to around 123km (48 square miles), with accommodation for 15,000 and hospital facilities for 7,000 (and there were places for twice that number of sick and wounded at Amara).

Reshuffling and reorganising to one side, there was to be little movement on the ground. On 19 May reconnaissance revealed that the Turks had pulled back on the right bank, leaving the Bait Isa and Chahela positions unoccupied. In the event, the Sinn Abtar and Dujaila Redoubts also proved to have been abandoned, and by the morning of the twenty-first the British front on the right bank had been pushed up to a line following that of the depression from the latter to Maqasis, allowing the heaviest guns to control the Turkish crossing point on the Shatt al Hai. The position on the left bank remained unchanged. Elsewhere, on the Euphrates front all was quiet save for sporadic mischief. In Arabistan the Bakhtiari were firmly in control of the region through which the pipeline ran, and oil was flowing at an ever-increasing rate. There was, however, still unrest further east, in southern Persia, which required a strong garrison at Bushire and considerable efforts on the part of Sir Percy Sykes’ South Persia Rifles to contain, though the situation there improved as the year progressed.

Above all, the hiatus in activity gave Maude—a very much more competent soldier-manager than any of his predecessors—the time to develop a conceptual plan for the war in Mesopotamia where none had existed before beyond the ambition to capture Baghdad and the dire necessity to relieve Kut.

There was some apprehension in Maude’s headquarters when rain fell on 6 December, but it came to very little, and did not upset his plan to go onto the offensive within days. His strike, he had decided, would fall on the right-bank positions, and the troops he would employ would be from Marshall’s III Corps, its 14th Division already occupying the area west of Sinn Banks-Dujaila Redoubt and its 13th Division on the way up from Amara, plus Keary’s 3rd Division.

The operational plan was straightforward: the 6th and 7th Cavalry Brigades, now organised as a division, would loop around to the east of the Dujaila Redoubt, secure the Hai crossing at Basrugiya, and then move northwards to a point opposite Shumran. III Corps’ infantry would advance to the Shatt al Hai, clear its left bank of hostile troops as far as Kala Haji Fahan, just short of the (very extensive) main Turkish positions opposite Kut, and bridge the waterway north-west of Basrugiya. By way of diversion, I Corps would launch a feint attack against the left-bank positions at Sannaiyat. Maude would then confront the Turks on both sides of the waterway, and target the enclave downstream at the Khudhaira Bend. The advance to and across the Hai went according to plan during the early hours of 14 December, and by the morning of 18 December the infantry were in contact with the Turkish defensive positions

The following day Maude sent a strike force comprising the 35th, 37th and 40th Infantry Brigades, with five field batteries, sappers and No. 2 (Mobile) Bridging Train, to advance to the Husaini Bend above Kut, to cut the enemy’s lines of communication. The operation was abandoned after some eight hours. No one above the rank of brigadier was involved, and it may actually have been a feint, albeit with the hope of achieving success by surprise.

There was no question of trying to take the Khudhaira Bend position by direct assault, but instead it would be necessary to sap up to it. Work began on 26 December, but that day it started to rain in earnest, and it continued almost unremittingly until 6 January. Despite the bad weather, considerable progress had been made with the saps, and Keary’s 3rd Division was assembled to assault the enemy’s right, over a front extending to around fifteen hundred metres. The Hai Salient, Shumran and Sannaiyat positions were to be bombarded to cover his intentions; Marshall, opposite the two former, was to push his infantry forward if conditions allowed.

Zero hour was fixed for 0845 on 9 January; it came in heavy mist (which persisted until well into the afternoon), and by 0900 the entire sector, through to the second-line trenches, was in British hands. Then the Turks counterattacked in strength around their centre, and the position was reversed, and by 1500 the Turks had regained all but about four hundred metres of their first-line trenches. However, after darkness fell the Turks evacuated their first line and some of the second, and by the morning of 10 January the Khudhaira position had been reduced to little more than half its previous size. That night Maude ordered renewed efforts to clear it; the 8th and 9th Brigades were unsuccessful at first, but over the next seven days the Turks were slowly driven back into a small pocket on the left of their original position, and during the night of 18 January they retired across the river.

Maude asked Marshall for proposals for clearing out the Hai Salient on 10 January, believing that the offensive against the Khudhaira Bend positions would be speedily concluded. Marshall pushed forward the next day on both banks of the waterway but met stiff resistance. Lacking artillery, which was committed to bombarding the Khudhaira pocket, he could but suspend his operation until it was released to him, but then heavy rain intervened, and it was 25 January before he was able to go onto the offensive once more.

The 13th Division was to spearhead the attack, the 39th Brigade on the west bank, and the 40th, on the east, advancing along the line of the Hai under cover of a creeping artillery barrage from a total of over a hundred guns and howitzers, the 38th Brigade on the right flank, and the 35th (of the 14th Division) on the left ‘shooting them in’ and standing ready to advance themselves. The 39th made some progress initially but was then driven back to its starting point. The 40th Brigade fared better, and by nightfall it was in possession of the Turkish first-line positions across a front fifteen hundred metres wide.

During the night the 14th Division’s 36th Brigade, held in reserve, relieved the depleted 39th. It attacked at 1040 the next morning, and within ten minutes had stormed its objective and held it against repeated counterattacks. By nightfall it had increased the area the British held on the west bank of the Hai, and made still more gains during the night. There was little action on the east bank that day, but bombing parties from the 40th Brigade made inroads on their right, and broadened the front.

By the start of the third day, Turkish resistance on the west bank of the Hai was beginning to show signs of faltering; the 36th Brigade, supported by massed artillery, was able to gain a significant amount of ground at comparatively little cost in a three-phase attack, while on the east the 40th, though it continued to extend to the right, made less headway. The following day, however, the balance was redressed, and proportionately greater gains were made on the east bank; by nightfall on 28 January the first- and second-line trenches there were in British hands, and the Turks had fallen back to create a new perimeter approximately six hundred metres back from the original, their troops on the west bank, where the front was much narrower, being driven back until they were not quite level with them. Marshall, conscious that the men on the east bank would be vulnerable to defenders in Woolpress Village and across the Tigris in Kut if they advanced further, decided to concentrate his efforts to the west of the Hai, and spent the next two days repositioning his forces.

The defensive positions in the entire salient, but particularly on the west bank, were tightly packed—between the first line and that which was to be the objective on 1 February, when the offensive was renewed, there were no less than eight lines of fighting trenches, linked by communications trenches and littered with strongpoints—and in consequence much of the fighting was at close quarters, which both caused severe congestion and limited the support the assault troops could expect from machine guns and artillery. In the event, the advance on the west bank stalled, two Sikh battalions suffering very heavy casualties in the process,12 while that on the east made unexpectedly good progress. During the night the 38th and 40th Brigades on the east bank were relieved by the 8th, and crossed over the Hai to broaden the front towards the Shumran Bend, uncommitted formations of the 13th Division also being brought up.

Mist and fog persisted throughout 2 February, and it was not until daybreak on the third that the advance restarted. The main force on both banks of the Hai immediately made good an advance to the Turkish picket line and those on the far left made inroads into the less heavily defended area to the west. The advance was most successful on the east bank, and before daybreak the next morning the entire zone was found to be clear of defenders, and was speedily occupied. There was a withdrawal on the right bank of the Hai, too, but not the complete evacuation of the salient which Maude had hoped to see, and by nightfall on 4 February the Turks’ front line ran due west across the Dehra Bend from Woolpress Village towards the apex of the Shumran Bend; the line was continuous for perhaps the first three kilometres, but then petered out into isolated posts. Maude, having lost over eight and a half thousand men killed, missing and wounded since the Kut offensive started on 13 December, adopted a cautious approach, and halted his infantry while the artillery redeployed and its guns were re-registered.

On 9 February the decisive operation to clear the Turks out of the Dehra Bend commenced with an attack on the front immediately west of Woolpress Village. The two Lancashire battalions of the 38th Brigade in the forefront made heavy going of it, but had taken their objectives by the end of the day, while to their left the 39th Brigade made better progress against less heavily manned positions, advancing in a north-westerly direction towards the river (though the cavalry, to its left, was thwarted by a combination of entrenched infantry and floodwater from reaching the river upstream of the Shumran Bend). Fresh units were brought into the front line and the following day the Turks were driven out of their position west of Woolpress Village; by nightfall the right bank of the Tigris for a kilometre and a half upstream from the mouth of the Hai was in British hands, and that night the Turks withdrew to shorten their line. Even though their position was by now theoretically untenable, the defenders were very tenacious indeed, holding their ground in the face of repeated attempts by the British infantry to penetrate their positions, and inflicting heavy casualties, and it was not until 16 February that all resistance was extinguished and the right bank of the Tigris to a point upstream of the Shumran Bend was in British hands.

With that it was possible to bridge the river upstream of Kut and force the Turks to retire or risk envelopment. By 24 February the last of them were leaving Kut; HMS Mantis landed a party of matelots the following morning, and the Union Flag was raised over the ruins of the town once more. The Second Battle of Kut was the decisive engagement in the theatre; from then on the Turks were never able to offer the same degree of sustained, long-term resistance. It is intriguing to speculate what would have been the outcome if an alternative strategy—that no effort should have been spared to prepare more favourable defensive positions nearer to Baghdad, that the entire Kut position, including Sannaiyat and Shumran, should have been evacuated in favour of them, and all available Turkish forces in the region, then numbering around 30,000 combatants and set to rise, concentrated there—had been adopted, as some, Kazim Karabekir amongst them, had suggested.

Be that as it might have been, the surviving Turks were actually retreating in fairly good order, most of their guns and matériel having been recovered intact. The rearguard was well handled, and kept the advancing British off the main body while it passed through Imam Mandi and Qala Shadi. The Cavalry Division failed to make any real impact, though it did keep the enemy—who, by the evening of the twenty-sixth, had reached the Nahr al Kalek Bend, some fifty kilometres, as the crow flies, upstream from Kut—in sight. More effective were the gunboats of the Royal Navy; on the morning of 27 February Maude asked Capt. Nunn to take a flotilla13 upstream and inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy, and Nunn complied with a will. It began passing stragglers by about 1400, and soon came up with the captured Firefly (now renamed Suliman Pak, the name by which the Turks knew Ctesiphon14) and the Pioneer. The former gave a good account of herself, hitting Mantis and severely damaging Moth, but was eventually run ashore and abandoned, as were Pioneer, Basra and the captured tug Sumana.

More importantly, perhaps, the flotilla then came within sight (and shot) of the Turks’ main body, which lost its discipline as a result, ‘turning the orderly retreat ... into a panic-stricken flight, as was clear from the spectacle that met our aircraft and advancing troops next morning’, as the Official History has it. A Turkish source says that Halil Pasha arrived in Baghdad that day, having already abandoned all hope of holding the city, and had signalled Ali Ihsan to retire from Persia (see Chapter 9) with all speed.15

The British advance slowed then, Maude being concerned that the combat troops would outpace the supply train. He allowed III Corps and the Cavalry Division to proceed no further than Aziziya after the Turks evacuated it on 28 February (and subsequently moved his advanced headquarters there), while I Corps, having in the meantime policed the battlefields around Kut and secured the line of communications, concentrated at the Nahr al Kalek Bend. Then he ran into a net of political/strategic wrangling surrounding the advisability, or not, of attempting to occupy Baghdad, reminiscent of the arguments which had raged in the autumn of 1915, the CIGS doubting his ability to hold the city with the troops at his disposal, while Monro in India wished him to press on regardless, and give the Turks no opportunity to reorganise for its defence, which view Maude reinforced in his own despatches. Robertson reappraised the situation reports, changed his mind and gave his approval on 3 March.

Maude’s advance continued on 5 March, the Turks falling back before it. By the following morning they had reached the Diyala River, where the 51st and 52nd Divisions were joined by the 14th, which had begun arriving in the theatre from the Caucasus in mid-February, and which had by now absorbed the remnants of the 45th. With its arrival the 52nd Division was sent across to the right bank of the Tigris.

Halil had wasted days on trying to recondition the defensive positions downstream of the Diyala before accepting that they could not be made good, and it was 1 March before he had ordered trenches dug on the far bank of the river. By the sixth the line extended for some twelve kilometres from the river’s confluence with the Tigris, but unconvinced that it would hold, Kazim Karabekir, XVIII Corps’ commander, decided that it was to be employed as a forward position only, and began preparing another defensive line five or six kilometres to the rear, anchored on the Tigris at Qarara. The outcome was unavoidable: when Maude’s forces appeared at the Diyala on 7 March, the defensive positions were incomplete and the river itself proved to be the biggest obstacle. Ferrying men across in pontoons against active opposition, even under cover of darkness, proved very expensive, and by the morning of 9 March little more than a hundred were across; they survived repeated attempts to overrun them, however, and the following night—by which time they were running very short of ammunition—were joined by two complete battalions, with sappers and pioneers. An enlarged bridgehead was secured by 0600, and by 1000 the British perimeter had been pushed out by fifteen hundred metres, with patrols extending beyond that. Some two hours later a bridge was completed near the river’s mouth, and the remainder of Cayley’s 13th Division crossed. By then the Turks had transferred most of their men to the right bank of the Tigris, and on the left had withdrawn to the secondary positions running north-eastwards from Qarara.

There had also been considerable discord concerning the siting of defences on the right bank, the line selected by the Turks—it was that which they had employed in 1915, when Townshend threatened the city, and followed the Umm at Tabul sandhills from Lake Aqarquf16 to the Karada Bend of the Tigris—being rejected by a German specialist as being too close to the city. He decided on another, five kilometres further south, which required ten kilometres of trench to be dug. Something over half its length, eastwards from a disused railway embankment at Tel Aswad, had been completed by 7 March, when Kazim ordered work on the Umm at Tabul line restarted to provide a fall-back position.

Maude sent the 14th Division’s 35th Brigade across the Tigris by steamer, at a point near Bawi, on the evening of 7 March. Brig.-Gen Thomson advanced during the night, and by daybreak was opposite the mouth of the Diyala. By that time No. 1 Bridging Train had arrived at Bawi, and threw a pontoon-bridge across; it was in commission by 1430. The Cavalry Division was then sent over, followed by the 7th Infantry Division. The cavalry followed the riverbank for ten kilometres as darkness fell, and then struck out to the west, aiming to hit the Mahmudiya-Baghdad road near the Shawa Khan ruins; its maps were inaccurate, and in the dark it soon lost its way. At daybreak it was surprised to find itself approaching a line of sandhills which, a patrol reported, hid an entrenched defensive line; the Turks appeared not to be aware of the British presence. There was a proposal to charge the line to disperse the enemy, but the divisional commander, Brig.-Gen. SF Crocker, vetoed it, and ordered a move westwards, to locate the enemy’s right flank. This revealed its existence to the Turks, and the entire force, save one squadron left to screen the infantry, hastily withdrew to the Tigris; Crocker, who commanded the 6th Brigade, was replaced as divisional commander by Brig.-Gen. LC Jones of the 7th the following day.

By that time the 7th Infantry Division’s vanguard unit, the 28th Brigade, had reached the vicinity of Shawa Khan. The Turkish positions extended much further than its commander had estimated, however; the flank was not located, and when Fane, the divisional commander, came up, at around 1300, he found the situation deadlocked. He ordered more men up, but that failed to get the advance going again, and as night fell he ordered the battalions to dig in. He had been out of contact with Cobbe, by now himself established at Shaikh Aswad, for much of the day, but communications were restored around 2000. The corps commander asked him if he needed further reinforcements; Fane asked him for an additional brigade and a howitzer battery, and to instruct the cavalry to act vigorously on the left the following day.

At around 0500 on 10 March reports of the Turks falling back from the Tel Aswad line to the Umm at Tubal sandhills began to reach Fane’s headquarters; Cobbe had instructed him to press the enemy if he showed signs of retiring, and he ordered his brigades to advance along the line of the disused railway embankment, the 19th on its far side, the 28th on the near with the 35th to its right, and the 21st in reserve. Against them the Turks numbered around 5,300, Kazim having brought the 51st Division from the left-bank positions overnight, with its seven battalions holding the line between the railway and the Tigris, and the 52nd (six battalions) on the far side of the embankment, with a battalion in reserve at Tel Ataf, three kilometres to the north. The defenders deployed thirty guns, including modern German 12-cm and 15-cm howitzers.

Fane received reports from aerial reconnaissance at about 1000, and decided that the Turks meant to make a stand at the positions he was approaching. He rethought his dispositions, and ordered the 28th Brigade to fall back and become the divisional reserve, the 35th to extend to cover the area between the embankment and the river, the 19th to cover the sector between the embankment and the operating railway line (which had by now been cut by cavalry patrols), and the 21st to cross it and deploy with the intention of rounding the Turkish right flank. All the while the wind from the south was getting up, and by noon had become a veritable storm, the dust reducing visibility to a hundred and fifty metres and often much less. This, and almost constant artillery fire, hampered Fane’s redeployment, and it was not completed that day.

By sunset on 10 March, despite the poor visibility, Fane’s intentions were obvious to the Turks. There was discord in their headquarters, Halil having seemingly convinced himself that he must at least make an effort to defend Baghdad, while Kazim and the commanders of the 51st and 52nd Divisions dissented, arguing that if driven back, they would have to retreat through the streets of the city itself. Better, they argued, to break off and withdraw now, while they still had some freedom of choice ... After a short internal debate, Halil agreed, and issued orders accordingly: the 51st and 52nd Divisions were to withdraw up the right bank of the Tigris to Samarra, the 14th up the left (though in the process a force would be detached to proceed to Baquba, to cover the withdrawal of Ali Ihsan’s XIII Corps from Khanaqin), while a detachment at Musayib on the Euphrates, and the reserve at Tel Ataf, would retire on Falluja, some sixty kilometres west of Baghdad. The withdrawal, while confused and disorganised, went undetected by the British until around 0200 on 11 March, some hours after the rearguard had departed. At 0900 that morning, the men of the 1/5th Buffs (the East Kent Regiment) entered Baghdad, and one of its company commanders planted the Union Flag on the citadel.

Since the Turks had abandoned Baghdad precipitately, they had been forced to leave a vast stockpile of matériel and goods, and in the few hours between them pulling out and the British arriving, Arabs and Kurds looted extensively, destroying or despoiling much of what they could not carry away, and the first priority was to restore order. Equally, however, there were urgent military requirements to be met, organising the defence of a city which had no natural exploitable features and pushing troops forward, both to co-operate with the Russians in Persia, should that prove possible, and to harry the Turks and prevent them from demolishing the flood defences on the Euphrates or Tigris. Aerial reconnaissance soon identified large bodies of enemy troops on the right bank of the latter within around thirty kilometres of Baghdad, and on 13 March Cobbe’s I Corps, less the 3rd Division, was sent to confront them. He was hindered by inaccurate maps and spotty intelligence, but his cavalry patrols located the Turks at breakfast time the following day, five kilometres south of Mushahida Station.17 Their positions were found to be over ten kilometres long, stretching westwards from the Tigris to a low, conical mound, later known as Bhopal Hill, which lay just beyond the railway line, the 51st Division to the right, the 52nd to the left; the main strength was in the centre, where they occupied a triple line of trenches with excellent fields of fire across open ground.

Cobbe instructed Fane to advance a brigade each side of the railway. He placed the 21st, with two battalions of the 19th in support, to form the divisional reserve, on the western side; the men were to cross the line surreptitiously, by way of the numerous culverts beneath it, and deploy on a front four hundred metres wide. The 28th Brigade was to advance up the eastern side of the line, the troops to form up some two and a half kilometres short of the Turkish positions. It took some considerable time for the five battalions to cross the line, and it was not until 1520 that the 21st Brigade began its advance, and 1600 before it came up to the 28th’s line. Both brigades soon came under heavy fire, the 21st getting the worst of it, and the advance slowed; the field artillery was brought up to operate at shorter range, but still the defenders clung to Bhopal Hill, and it was not until sometime after 1830 that the positions upon it, and eastwards to the railway, were taken. With their right flank thus turned, the Turks could but fall back from their main defensive positions.

Night was falling by this time, and the subsequent advance on Mushahida Station, across broken ground, was slow. Once again, it was the spearhead units of the 21st Brigade which reached the objective first, at around 2330. By first light the following morning, the entire area from the station to the river was in British hands, at a cost of just over five hundred casualties. The Turks were believed to have suffered perhaps twice that number, but the remainder escaped; aerial reconnaissance put the main body of them some forty kilometres to the north by the morning of 16 March. The 21st Brigade, plus an artillery battery and a company of sappers, were left to secure the area, and the rest of the corps returned to Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Maude had instructed Marshall to push a brigade group up towards Falluja, having been informed that north of the town the embankment closing the Sakhlawiya Canal—which linked the Euphrates with Lake Aqarquf, and thus with the Tigris—was to be breached, threatening the entire area with inundation (the embankment was indeed breached; only a barrier hastily thrown up between the Tigris north of Khandimain and the Mahsudiya Canal prevented the resultant floods from reaching Baghdad). On 19 March the 7th Infantry Brigade, with support troops, reached Falluja; the Turks had trenches covering the town, but declined to stand, and the town was occupied by mid-afternoon.

On the Persian front, Maude had but scant intelligence. From reports he received from the liaison officer with Baratov’s Cavalry Corps (by way of Tiblisi, Petrograd, London and Delhi; he later received permission to communicate directly with the Cossack’s headquarters, but the link was never good) he knew that the Turkish 2nd Infantry Division, part of the force sent to confront the Russians, was retreating down the road from Kermanshah, making for Khanaqin, and expected its arrival by about 20 March, but of the 6th Division which had preceded it he had no news; it could conceivably be waiting to fall on Baratov’s flank, or it could simply be making for the border itself. On 12 March he sent a troop of armoured cars to reconnoitre the road to Baquba; they exchanged fire with enemy infantry at the town, and then withdrew. A lorry-mounted infantry battalion followed two days later; there was a delay while scouts determined just how many enemy troops were in the area and where they were located, then they crossed the Diyala under cover of darkness some way to the south of the town, near the village of Buhriz. By nightfall on 18 March Baquba was in British hands, and a bridge across the river had been completed.

Maude now made preparation to send a substantial force—most of Keary’s 3rd Division, less the 7th Brigade, plus the 7th Cavalry Brigade and two brigades of field artillery and a howitzer battery—towards Khanaqin.18 The column reached Jalali, where the bridge across the Mahurut Canal had been destroyed, by nightfall on 21 March. Keary was under pressure from Maude to make haste to confront the retreating Turks who, he believed, were intent on crossing the Diyala and making for Kirkuk by way of Kifri. ‘You should get in touch with the enemy and act vigorously so you can pin him to his ground,’ Maude exhorted. Keary did his best to comply. Two companies of Sikhs were ferried across to protect a bridging operation, and the advance was able to continue the following morning.

Reconnaissance revealed the Turks to be entrenched before Shahraban in sufficient numbers to dissuade him from a frontal assault, but Maude sent him a re-run of the previous day’s sharp signal, adding that it looked very much as if the Turks had been slipping away across the Diyala all night (which in fact they had not), and he changed his mind. That night he sent two infantry battalions forward; when they reached Shahraban they found the Turks had decamped. Keary pursued, but was checked by artillery at the Haruniya Canal.

The next day he resumed his advance. A couple of kilometres beyond lay the southern extremity of the Jabal Hamrin—an isolated ridge at its southern extremity, then a rampart forming the western wall of a fertile plateau, running over two hundred and fifty kilometres from south-east to northwest into Kurdistan—which nowhere rose higher than about two hundred metres but which provided excellent cover with first-rate fields of fire over the exposed plain below. While Keary judged that he outnumbered the Turks by perhaps three to two, this was certainly no place to mount a frontal assault, and he decided instead to hold them in position with something under half his force while trying to turn their left flank with the rest, rolling them up towards the Diyala as they advanced. Though in the course of it British troops reached the foothills of the Jabal Hamrin, the attempt eventually failed, and by the evening of 25 March Keary’s men had retired to the line of the canal.

Maude, furnished at last with an effective wireless network, had a tendency to interfere in the management of fairly small engagements when he wasn’t otherwise engaged, and this was no exception.19 Having been kept informed of the situation, he sent Keary a series of quite unnecessary ‘advisory’ signals, the first telling him to go onto the defensive if he could not prevail, a second questioning the need to withdraw. Keary replied that he had met ‘the spirit and scope’ of Maude’s instruction to pin the enemy to his ground, but that the Turks had proved too strong for him. Only late that night did Maude reply that he was satisfied with Keary’s actions. They had cost the lives of 122 men, with 316 more missing in action, and 727 wounded.

That same day the Cavalry Division had been ordered to penetrate between the Diyala and the Khalis Canal to the north, with the objective of seizing the bridges over the latter at Delli Abbas and Lambarak and blocking any southerly/westerly Turkish movement in that sector. The 7th Brigade encountered Turks in strength—perhaps two and a half thousand infantry, with ten guns—on the right bank of the river near Avashik; it broke off and withdrew, to bivouac some ten kilometres away, where it was joined by the 6th Brigade. It was not clear whether these enemy troops were men of the 6th Infantry Division, retreating from Persia, or of the 14th who had withdrawn up the Diyala when Baghdad fell. Aerial reconnaissance showed that the Turks were also holding the line of the Adhaim (Al Uzayim) River (another left-bank tributary of the Tigris, further north), and were present east of it in numbers, too; these were men of XVIII Corps who had crossed the Tigris after being pushed north from Mushahida. Maude feared an attempt by these forces to link up with those on the right bank of the Diyala in order to attack Brig.-Gen. Lewin’s 40th Infantry Brigade, which had occupied Diltawa and Sindiya on 24 March.

The left of Lewin’s line came under artillery fire early on 27 March, as did gunboats on the river near Sindiya, and Maude instructed Marshall to assemble a force to deal with the threat while the cavalry and Keary’s column continued to pin the enemy troops they confronted. By nightfall on 27 March Marshall had moved up the rest of Cayley’s 13th Division, with a view to launching an attack on the twenty-ninth. The ‘Affair of Duqma’, as it became known, occupied the 13th Division for the day, its 39th and 40th Brigades stemming the Turkish advance. When they came to push on the following morning, they found the Turkish positions empty.

Meanwhile, more and more troops from Ali Ihsan Pasha’s XIII Corps were arriving from Khanaqin; Maude received information that the regiment which had opposed Keary on the Jabal Hamrin had crossed the Diyala, to be replaced by another, and that the main body of the corps could be expected momentarily, and would also cross the Diyala, to line up on the left of XVIII Corps. He estimated the Turks’ total strength at around 13,000 infantry with at least 60 guns, half of them on the Jabal Hamrin, on both banks of the Diyala, the rest between that river and the Tigris, with concentrations near Mara and in the Chaliya/Lubi region, to the west.

The Cavalry Division continued to operate between the Diyala and the Khalis Canal, encountering only small groups of Turkish troops moving northwards. By nightfall on the twenty-eighth it had become apparent that the expected surge of troops through that area to join up with XVIII Corps had not materialised, those men having opted to make for Kifri, on the road to Kirkuk, instead, though the Jabal Hamrin positions were still occupied. The following day the cavalry occupied Delli Abbas and the 13th Infantry Division regrouped at Diltawa. Intelligence reports revealed that the Turks had completed a bridge across the Diyala at Dekke, south-west of Khanaqin, and that units remaining north of the Jabal Hamrin were using it to retreat to Kifri, where Halil Pasha had now set up his headquarters, instead of being forced to traverse the Jabal Hamrin ridge in order to cross by way of the bridges on its southern side. It soon became clear that the troops facing Keary were retreating along the ridge, perhaps in the hope of escaping by the same route. That same day there were reports of Russian forces from Kermanshah having arrived, at long last, at Qasr-i-Shirin, having been held up for ten days at the Pai Tak Pass by the Turkish rearguard. The latter, and those who had held the Jabal Hamrin positions against Keary, undoubtedly saved XIII Corps from being caught between two Allied forces and enabled it to fight another day.

Though the Russians were physically poised to enter the Mesopotamia theatre, they were reluctant to do so, Gen. Radatz, in local command, believing his mission to have been limited to clearing the Turks out of Persia. Maude communicated this to Robertson, who wrote to his Russian counterpart, Alexeyev, asking him to confirm that he would co-operate. Alexeyev replied asking for material assistance (Maude sent forty-six lorryloads of supplies to Qasr-i-Shirin; the convoy came under artillery fire at Qizil Ribat (As Sadiyah), and sixteen vehicles had to be temporarily abandoned, but were later recovered), acknowledged that discipline in the Russian Army was breaking down and suggested that it would be some time before it was restored.20 Robertson read between the lines and told Maude not to expect much of the Russians, pointing out that if they collapsed completely, Turkish forces then in the Caucasus might well be diverted to Mesopotamia. He also reconfirmed his mission in the light of these developments: as instructed (on 28 February) Maude was to ‘establish British influence’ over the Baghdad vilayet, which stretched east to the Persian border to a point some thirty kilometres north of Khanaqin, north to beyond Tikrit on the Tigris, west to Ana on the Euphrates and south, following a line roughly parallel with the river’s course (beyond which there were no major settlements for hundreds of kilometres), to Nasiriya.

Maude’s private opinion, expressed in letters, was that a great opportunity had been lost; had the Russians been able to make a last push, the Turks, short of rations and ammunition, would have retreated to Mosul before the spring of 1917, with all that would have meant for the campaign. The premise was that the Turks in the theatre were so diminished that even a fairly minor offensive on their left flank would have seen them in retirement. The reality was rather different: XIII Corps, reinforced, if that is the right word, by the 14th Division, amounted to 11,000 rifles, 1,350 sabres and 60 guns; its rearguard had held off Radatz’s column for ten days and its vanguard had done the same to Keary in the Jabal Hamrin. Russia’s I Caucasian Cavalry Corps was worn out and demoralised, while its VII Caucasian Corps was snowbound hundreds of kilometres away, and unable to assist even if its commanders wished to (and there is no evidence that they did). Even if the February Revolution had not occurred, it is doubtful whether the Russian forces in Persia—who had been living off the land since the previous spring, in an area not noted for its productivity—could have performed as Maude wished.

The Russians aside, Maude’s imperative was to deal with the Turkish XVIII Corps, and do so before it could be reinforced, as intelligence reports suggested it soon would be, by 6,000 Turkish troops who had passed through Aleppo on their way to Mosul in mid-March, and were expected at Samarra any day.21 Maude put the corps’ strength at 4,300 infantry and 28 guns on the Adhaim, 3,200 infantry and 16 guns near Balad, on the right bank of the Tigris, and 2,200 infantry and 10 guns at Samarra, forty kilometres upstream. He ordered two columns formed, each with an infantry division, cavalry and artillery, a bridging train and a flight of aircraft. Marshall was to command that on the left bank, Maude himself that on the right, with Fane as his man on the spot. Marshall’s right flank, potentially vulnerable to Ihsan’s XIII Corps, was to be covered by the Cavalry Division.

By nightfall on 5 April, the head of Maude’s column had reached Sumaika, on the Baghdad-Samarra railway22 (though the bulk of its troops, of Fane’s 7th Division, were still guarding the lines of communication north of Baghdad, awaiting relief by elements of Keary’s 3rd Division brought back from Shahraban); Marshall’s column, which chiefly comprised Cayley’s 13th Division, was still in the process of assembling. By the next night Maude’s column had closed up on Sumaika, and Marshall’s had reached a point north of Duqma. On 7 April Maude issued an operations order: the right-bank force would advance to a line from Balad Station to a point opposite the mouth of the Adhaim; the left-bank force would drive the enemy back across the Adhaim but would not itself cross the river, and the Cavalry Division would contain the Turks behind a line from Delli Abbas to Garfa. The right-bank force advanced as planned, but was brought up five kilometres short of Balad Station by an entrenched defensive line spanning the railway tracks and stretching, on the left, as far as the Dujail Canal, rather more than a kilometre distant, and flanked on the right by a strip of broken ground. Fane pushed the 28th Brigade forward up the line of the railway, favouring the eastern side. The advance was checked momentarily when it came within rifle range, but the 51st Sikhs made skilful use of the broken ground and outflanked the defenders; some managed to make good their escape, but, pinned in their trenches, many prisoners were taken (and so, later, were thirty very valuable railway wagons), and by 1430 the station was in British hands. The following morning, 9 April, Fane advanced to Harba, which was as far as the supply line could then reach; it was reported that the defending Turks had retreated to prepared positions at Istabulat, twelve kilometres further up the line.

The previous day Marshall had asked Maude to allow him to cross the Adhaim. Maude refused, and proved to have been prescient: on the morning of the ninth, patrols reported the threat to the right flank materialising, and in some strength. The cavalry did its best to hold it in check, but by 1030 a large formation of infantry, plus around five hundred regular cavalry, were advancing across a five-kilometre front. Around noon they halted, and began to consolidate their position, north of Bint al Hassan. That afternoon, Maude issued an estimate of the number of troops Marshall faced: 6,000, with 32 guns, on the right flank, and 4,300, with 28 guns, on the line of the Adhaim River. He announced that he would deal first with the threat on the right—the 2nd and 14th Divisions advancing from the north-east—and ordered Marshall to redistribute his forces accordingly, O’Dowda maintaining a brigade group (the 38th) on the Adhaim line while Cayley marched south overnight with the remainder of the 13th Division and a cavalry detachment, in order to be in position to launch a flanking attack on the Turks on the morning of 11 April. The nature of the terrain meant that the march of around twenty kilometres took seven hours, but by 0500 Cayley’s column had crossed the railway line, and there he called a rest-halt, sending his cavalry on ahead to reconnoitre.

They found the Turks at around 0530: they were on the move in a southwesterly direction along the Delli Abbas-Diltawa road. Cayley sent the 40th Infantry Brigade forward to occupy a line of mounds west of Chaliya, facing roughly east, with the 39th Brigade echeloned out to its left and the 66th Field Artillery Brigade in support, and by 1000, by which time the Turks had reached Shaikh Muhammad Ibn Ali, they were in position; they achieved complete surprise, and the 39th Brigade, advancing, forced the Turks’ right wing to fall back. Their left was unaffected, however, and was soon in contact with the Cavalry Division, reinforced by the 1/2nd Gurkhas, which, following orders, promptly withdrew. Seeing the cavalry retire (leaving the Gurkhas isolated, with around three kilometres between them and the right of the 40th Brigade), Cayley assumed they had been pushed back by the Turks. Fearing a wheeling movement to turn his right flank, he extended in that direction.

In the meantime, Marshall23 had received somewhat garbled reports of the way the action was developing (he knew nothing of Cayley’s redeployment), and had become convinced that the Turks were trying to work around both of Cayley’s flanks. At 1140 he had ordered Brig.-Gen. Thomson—who was holding a defensive line some five kilometres to the west, from the Diyala to Sindiya by way of Abu Tamar—to advance with all available forces. Thomson complied, arriving at Cayley’s headquarters at 1500, by which time the enemy infantry had withdrawn out of machine gun range, and the battle had settled down into an artillery duel. With fresh troops on hand, Cayley soon went back onto the offensive, Thomson’s men being sent forward on the right together with the 1/2nd Gurkhas to straighten the British line, driving the Turks back before them. By the time night fell they had taken Shaikh Muhammad Ibn Ali, and the British position extended north-westwards from there as far as the railway.

The next morning, cavalry patrols reported that the Turks had withdrawn some way, but, it soon became clear, only to consolidate their position, which now stretched north-westwards from Bint al Hassan, across the Sindiya-Delli Abbas road, at which point the line curved round to the north; some ten kilometres separated the Turkish and British lines. It proved difficult to pinpoint the enemy’s location, and Cayley decided to reconnoitre before committing himself; it was early afternoon before he was confident of the situation, and two hours more before the 35th Brigade, on the right, and the 40th, on the left, began to advance. By 1800 they had reached a point level with the junction of the Khalis and Tawila Canals, and had come under artillery fire; as darkness fell the order to halt and dig in was given, the advance to continue at 0530 the following morning. During the night the 40th Brigade’s 5th Wiltshires and 4th South Wales Borderers moved forward a further kilometre, the 55th Field Artillery Brigade moving up behind them. When the time came to resume the advance they were pinned down by gunfire; however, the 35th, on the right, made some progress after initial delays in front of Bint al Hassan, taking its outposts just before noon, and that allowed the British guns to be brought up and the effectiveness of counter-battery firing to be improved. By nightfall on 13 April the British line had come within long machine gun range of the Turkish positions, and there the men dug in once more.

During the morning of 14 April Maude told Marshall that he had good reason to believe that the Turks would hold their position during the day but then, with the coming of darkness, fall back into the Jabal Hamrin; he proposed to follow only as far as the line they abandoned and then to turn his attention to crossing the Adhaim, confronting the remnants of XVIII Corps and improving the resupply position of Fane’s 7th Division at Harba so that it could advance on Istabulat. His information proved accurate; when the troops moved forward once more, they encountered no opposition, and at 0800 the next morning they occupied the Turkish line. However, patrols found the Turks still occupying Delli Abbas; if Maude thought their withdrawal a precursor to a retreat on Kifri and Kirkuk, he was mistaken.

Maude instructed Cayley to consolidate, withdrawing Thomson’s 35th Brigade and the 1/2nd Gurkhas but leaving him 16 squadrons of cavalry. His task was to slow the advance of XIII Corps should they return, and he could call on the support of the 37th Infantry Brigade and its attached cavalry and artillery, which was drawn up at Baquba and along the line from there to Sindiya. The remainder of Marshall’s column—the 35th and 38th Brigades, plus cavalry and a mixed bag of 40 guns and howitzers—was to cross the Adhaim and drive back the Turkish forces on the right bank, and occupy what was known as the Barura Peninsula—a long spit of land formed by the Tigris having doubled back upon itself—where Fane’s bridging train was to construct a crossing of the Tigris. The first phase, which saw two battalions ferried across by pontoon, and a third utilising a ford some way upstream, was completed by 0800 on 18 April, and a bridge across the Adhaim was finished by noon. By 1400 the whole of the Kabaj Peninsula, as the area between the Adhaim and the Tigris upstream of its mouth was known, was in British hands, and troops were advancing against meagre opposition along the line of the old Nahrwan Canal, taking considerable numbers of prisoners. Long before nightfall the Barura Peninsula had been sealed off, and the entire Turkish 40th Regiment was in captivity.

By now Cobbe had arrived at Harba to take command of the right-bank force, and had begun to put together a plan to drive the Turks back from their positions at Istabulat. He originally estimated that the positions were held by close on ten thousand Turkish infantry, but later reduced that by a quarter, and subsequently further still; it was suggested that the reduction in numbers there indicated that men from XVIII Corps were being pulled back to Samarra, perhaps with the intention of transferring them to operate alongside XIII Corps.

An essential precursor to that attack was the construction of a Tigris crossing to allow Marshall’s column to reinforce Cobbe’s at need; work began early on 19 April, and a pontoon-bridge 250m in length was completed at Sinija by that evening. By that time Cobbe’s force had advanced to within four kilometres of the Turkish lines at Istabulat, and was ensconced behind a high earth bank (the remains of an ancient wall) from the Jibbara Mounds, on the riverbank, to a point south of Al Khubn, on the canal. To the left of the canal the terrain was flat and featureless and, worst of all, very stony, making it next to impossible to dig in,24 though to the right, closer to the river, it was more practicable. It was here, on the north side of the canal, that the main force of the attack would fall, Cobbe decided, even though the topography would push the assault force into a narrow front—and one controlled by two large redoubts—by the time it reached the enemy lines. The attack was timed for the morning of 21 April, and in preparation for it, a force in brigade strength would push forward during the early hours of 20 April and occupy an advance line astride the canal, 1,500m forward of the main position, in order to facilitate the establishment of gun emplacements. That preparatory advance proceeded according to plan, and by the morning of 20 April everything was in place.

There was, however, a potential problem, not before Istabulat but along the Adhaim and the Diyala, the threat coming from XIII Corps. For some days Maude had been receiving intelligence reports of Turkish troops massing at Band-i-Adhaim (‘Gates of the Adhaim’; a topographical feature rather than a settlement), and now it seemed they were moving south along the river towards Satha, while the garrison at Delli Abbas had been more than doubled, to around 2,400 infantry and three squadrons of cavalry, and was showing renewed signs of wishing to advance towards Diltawa.25 Maude’s reaction was to order Marshall to go onto the defensive, while Cobbe took on XVIII Corps and then came to his assistance.

Cobbe’s plan called for the 7th Infantry Division to launch a straightforward frontal attack on the Turks’ left, supported by all available artillery. The 21st Brigade would spearhead it, securing the canal bridges as it advanced26 on its northern side, with additional troops from the 19th Brigade poised south of the canal to exploit the 21st’s success. At 0505 on 21 April, after a short artillery bombardment, the 21st Brigade advanced. They soon overran the Turkish outposts, but by 0535 were coming under heavy rifle and machine gun fire from the main defensive positions. On they pressed, taking first the northern and then the southern redoubts, whereupon the trenches between the two fell. In the process all three battalions had taken heavy casualties, and the reserve was sent to reinforce them. Meanwhile, the 19th Brigade’s 92nd Punjabis had begun to advance on the far side of the canal, along the line of the railway; they took Istabulat Station at around 0645 and then advanced to within 800m of the main defensive line and dug in as best they could under heavy small-arms fire. There they were to remain for the rest of the day, securing their brigade’s left flank, and were later joined by the 8th Brigade’s 56th Rifles. Behind them the main body of the brigade set out to advance more than three kilometres across the open plain. Though they came under heavy fire they did not waver, the 1st Seaforth Highlanders taking seven hundred metres of the enemy front-line trenches south from the canal bank.

Fane ordered all his artillery switched to the far left, hoping that the 21st Brigade would succeed in penetrating the enemy line between canal and river; it was soon evident that the positions were too strongly held, however, and the attempt was abandoned before it had begun. Later in the afternoon the Turks made a determined attempt to take back Istabulat Station but were repulsed. Throughout the night the men of the 19th and 21st Brigades, assisted by sappers and pioneers, worked to improve their positions, while new gun emplacements were constructed to allow the artillery to be brought up to focus its attention on a ridge in front of the trench line the 19th now occupied, where many machine guns were sited. Further support would come from artillery from a column under Brig.-Gen. Thomson which Marshall had sent to find enfilading positions on the left bank. In the event, such preparations proved unnecessary, for by 0330 patrols were reporting the Turks to be withdrawing from their positions north of the canal. They appeared to be holding to the south, but in time that area, too, was reported free of enemy troops. By 0930 on 22 April, Fane’s two forward brigades had advanced through the enemy positions, and had reached a line some two kilometres to the rear. At that point Fane halted them and sent the reserve 28th Brigade through their lines, the revamped formation continuing through the Istabulat ruins. They had come under sporadic artillery fire as they had advanced, but at around 1315, having reached a line some twelve kilometres on from the previous morning’s starting point, they began to take rifle and machine gun fire from entrenched positions along a ridge some fifteen hundred metres away. Fane called a halt while reconnaissance patrols went out and the guns were brought up.

During the course of the morning, cavalry sent across from the left bank on the eve of the battle had embarked on a wide circling sweep out to the left, as far as the Aj Jali Canal, and had then followed its line northwards. By noon it had come into contact with the Turks on the ridge and had withdrawn just out of gunshot, and had sent back a rider to inform Fane of the situation; he returned with orders—to close up to the 28th Brigade—at 1515, and Lt.-Col. Cassels, the column’s commander, complied immediately, sending his guns into action while patrols searched for the Turks’ right flank. Meanwhile, the advance by Thomson’s column on the left bank of the Tigris had kept pace with that of Cobbe’s infantry, and had now arrived at a point within sight of the left of the Turkish line, where it was anchored on the river. Unobserved, the guns were worked forward to high ground, and began to pour shells into the Turkish positions. Fane’s own artillery had also come up, and it, too, now opened fire. Under cover of the bombardment four hundred metres of trench were taken, with over 300 prisoners and two machine guns. Through the late afternoon the Turks counterattacked strongly, and it was after 1700, with barely an hour and a half of daylight left, before the positions could be said to have been consolidated. Despite Maude urging him to make all haste, Cobbe understood that he was unlikely to gain further ground that day and called a halt. Once again, when the British advance recommenced the following morning, the Turkish positions were found to be empty. The lead units reached Samarra Station by 1000. It had been torched, and attempts had been made to destroy the sixteen locomotives and much rolling stock left there,27 but in their haste, the Turks had been clumsy, and several locomotives and around 60 per cent of the trucks were salvageable, and were soon back in service, easing enormously the supply situation up the Tigris beyond Baghdad.

The main body of XVIII Corps was found to have withdrawn all the way to Tikrit, fifty kilometres north of Samarra, where a defensive line was formed on both banks of the river. Their numbers there were put at around 5,000 rifles, with 24 guns. However, a strong detachment—around 2,400 infantry, with ten guns—had been left on the right bank some twenty kilometres north of Samarra, near Daur (Ad Dawr28). Samarra itself—an important settlement since at least 5500BCE, and once the Abassid Caliphate’s capital, but by now very much reduced—was occupied on 24 April, and four days later the pontoon-bridge erected at Sinija was dismantled and moved up. With its rail link to Baghdad and its dominant position close to the point where the Tigris issued on to the Mesopotamian plain, this was a logical place for the British to set up an advanced base. The 7th Infantry Division was quartered there and two more infantry brigades of the 3rd Division were located between there and Baghdad Station along the line of the railway, the 8th with its headquarters at Balad, and the 9th with its at Kadhimain.

Maude’s ambition to destroy XVIII Corps as a fighting force before it could link up with XIII Corps had not been achieved, but forcing it back up the Tigris had a similar effect, at least for the moment, by dramatically increasing the distance between the two groups, and he was now free to return his attention to the Turks advancing down the Adhaim and the Diyala Rivers. Reports from Gen. Radatz suggested that the Turkish rearguard facing him across the Diyala had been reduced to less than three thousand men; those who had left had moved towards Band-i-Adhaim, where around 5,000 infantry were expected to be assembled, and there were over two thousand more—what remained of the 14th Division—at Tulul en Nor, halfway to the Adhaim’s confluence with the Tigris, and moving south.

When Maude issued a new operations order to Marshall, on 23 April, it was that latter force on which he focused, telling him to despatch troops sufficient to deal with it immediately. Marshall pleaded for time to reassemble his assets—chiefly to recover the column Thomson had led up the left bank of the Tigris to support Cobbe, which was now at Kadisiya—and Maude agreed to a twenty-four-hour delay; the following day he ‘suggested’ that perhaps Cayley’s force was unnecessarily strong, and Marshall ordered it reduced by two infantry battalions (of the 39th Brigade), half its artillery and some cavalry, which were to march to join him.

That evening Marshall left two battalions of infantry and some field guns to defend the Barura Peninsula, and another battalion and a section of guns near the mouth of the Adhaim, and the rest of his force moved north towards Dahuba. His main force would make a night march on a compass bearing to a nullah thought to be about fifteen hundred metres south-west of the Turks’ prepared positions, in time to launch a frontal attack the following morning, while Thomson’s column marched to threaten the right flank. The 7th Cavalry Brigade was to loop around to the right to cut the Turks’ lines of communication and prevent reinforcements from coming up from Satha.

Marshall’s maps were unreliable, and the 38th Brigade, in the lead, found itself in contact with enemy troops as soon as it became light. Marshall told O’Dowda to await the arrival of Thomson’s column (which had gone even further astray, and was by now some three kilometres north of the Turkish forces), but when reports from the cavalry indicated that the Turks were withdrawing, Marshall changed his mind and told O’Dowda to press on. He brought a third battalion up, and together they pushed forward under heavy but erratic rifle and machine gun fire and the cover of their own artillery, driving the Turks before them and occupying their positions, while a fourth battalion moved up the right bank of the Adhaim and half of a fifth kept pace on the left. By about 0800, the 7th Cavalry came into contact with the head of a Turkish column moving south-west from Tulul en Nor. ‘V’ Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, was in the process of unlimbering its guns when Turks—the 14th Division, in retreat—appeared from the south and began to form up in close order, offering excellent targets. Something close to panic ensued when they were engaged, and the Turks fled for the river, and it was only the appearance of Turkish reinforcements from the north which prevented their complete annihilation.

By now—around 1100—the temperature had already climbed well above 40°C, and Marshall called a halt while his men regrouped and recovered from twelve hours’ virtual non-stop marching and fighting. There was no shade on the open plain, but for once, due to the proximity of the Adhaim, they had adequate supplies of drinking water. When Marshall reported the situation to Maude, he told him to press on as soon as possible, re-engage with the 14th Division before it could recover, and then deal with the rest of XIII Corps’ troops in that sector.

As the afternoon wore on, there were signs of unrest in the Turkish lines, and that, combined with intelligence sent from Army headquarters, suggested that the Turks’ 2nd Division would not stand at Tulul en Nor, but would retreat towards the Jabal Hamrin that night. Maude told Marshall he was sending extra artillery up to the left bank of the Adhaim (from Baquba by way of Sindiya), and detaching the 40th Brigade from Cayley’s command to join him (by way of the Barura positions), and Marshall began to prepare an order for the next day’s operations, essentially, to pursue the enemy as closely as possible, to prevent him from regrouping. In the event he was forestalled; at around 1830 he received aerial reconnaissance reports that the Turks were already on the move. With his own assets still fairly widely distributed, there was no question of him pressing them closely. Maude did not hector him for once, saying ‘there is no object on calling on troops for unusual exertion’, but added: ‘But you are to move as early as practicable and secure Band-i-Adhaim .... Report when you are ready to move.’

In fact, the next morning’s departure was fairly leisurely—the main body of the column moving off at 0930, following an advanced guard comprising the 7th Cavalry and the 35th Infantry Brigade—and so was the day’s progress; the column bivouacked for the night of 25 April at Tulul en Nor, having covered no more than fifteen kilometres, with lengthy rest stops. The following day the column advanced no further than Satha, but during the night and the early hours of 27 April, the 35th Infantry Brigade, together with cavalry, field artillery, a howitzer battery and one of 60-pounder guns, moved up four or five kilometres further, Thomson occupying positions in sight of the Turks’ own, on both sides of the river near the village of Adhaim. His instructions were to familiarise himself with the terrain and register his artillery.

Thomson’s reconnaissance suggested that the left (eastern) side of the Adhaim—little more than a stream except when in spate, the river meandered in a bed two to three kilometres wide, fringed by bluffs and cliffs up to ten metres high—was marginally more attractive than the right, which was dominated by an encroaching spur (‘the Boot’, so called because its eastern extremity opened out to a transverse ridge). On the left the Turkish line was anchored on a hillock (‘the Mound’), whence it stretched to the riverbank cliff, with secondary positions and gunpits to the rear. On the right it ran from the Boot to a ridge of high ground about three kilometres away, once again with supporting positions and gunpits to the rear. In all the Turkish defensive line was some six kilometres in length and was, all agreed, skilfully placed and provided excellent fields of fire. It was manned, Marshall estimated, by around 6,000 men, the 2nd Division holding the west bank, the 14th on the east.

During the daylight hours of 27 April there was little activity beyond the occasional Turkish shell, but after dark two battalions of the 38th Brigade crossed the river and moved up to join the men Thomson had sent across. The following day registration of the guns commenced; it was hindered by poor visibility, but that allowed the newly arrived 40th Brigade to be pushed forward in relative safety to relieve the mixed bag from the 35th and 38th, and during the night additional artillery was brought up. Attempts to complete registering the guns the following day were hampered once more by high winds which kicked up thick clouds of dust and grounded the aircraft.

By nightfall the 40th Brigade was lined up around two kilometres short of the Turkish positions on the east bank across a front about two kilometres wide, stretching to a feature known as ‘Three Ridges’, with four batteries of field artillery, most of the cavalry and the reserve 38th Brigade to the rear. As soon as it was fully dark, the 38th Brigade was to take up a position northeast of Three Ridges, facing west. On the other side of the river, the 35th Brigade, plus two Gurkha battalions from the 37th, were drawn up at and west of an isolated mound in the river bed (‘the Island’), three kilometres back from the Turkish line, across a rather wider front.

Throughout the night there was to be a general artillery bombardment which, at 0500, was to be concentrated for 36 minutes on the east-bank trenches. The 40th and 38th Brigades would converge under cover of that bombardment and take the positions. The 38th took the Mound with little opposition, but discovered that it was not the key redoubt it had been thought to be, but more in the nature of a masking position; having taken it, the three forward battalions came under very heavy fire from a trench line to the north and from a series of mounds to the west, which separated them from the 40th Brigade. That brigade’s lead battalions—the 4th South Wales Borderers and the 8th Cheshires—carried their primary objectives easily, too, and by 0540 the latter had reached and passed the second line, advancing into the village and driving the Turks before them. However, instead of stopping then, and consolidating, as their orders had specified,29 they set off in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. To their right the Borderers also overran the second line, or so they thought; in fact, by the purest chance they had found a wide gap in it, and had bypassed the positions themselves. Seeing the Cheshires well ahead, they then hurried to catch up.

Around 0615, Turkish guns started to shell these now isolated battalions, and massed machine guns located along the transverse ‘foot’ of the Boot joined in. The Cheshires and the Borderers, caught in the open, took such cover as they could, some in firing positions facing west, others in the gulleys and watercourses running down to the river. They had long outrun their communications wire, and it was not until around 0700 that the 40th Brigade’s headquarters learned of their predicament; straight away, Brig.-Gen. Lewin ordered his two reserve battalions, the 5th Wiltshires and the 8th Royal Welch Fusiliers, to push forward to support them but not to advance beyond the village. By now the wind had got up again, and visibility was much reduced by dust and sand, and the Turks had taken full advantage of that, sending a regimental-sized force from the 2nd Division to cross the Adhaim to the north. They looped around to the east, and came upon the scattered and disorganised British infantry from the right and rear, forcing them to withdraw in the direction of the village, capturing many during hand-to-hand fighting in the process. Eventually, exhausted and almost out of ammunition, the survivors reached the relative safety of what had been the Turkish second line. Owing to the poor visibility, artillery support had been withdrawn, and was not reinstated until some time after 0900, when the guns took the village under fire and forced the Turks there to withdraw. In the meantime, the 38th, ignorant of the 40th’s plight, had managed to make very little headway against the positions to the north of the Mound and had also come under fire from the Turks sent to take the Borderers and Cheshires in the rear; when Marshall instructed O’Dowda to push his battalions on towards the village, he replied that he was unable to comply.

On the west bank, the 35th Brigade’s initial task had been limited to adopting a defensive posture lest the Turks should counterattack, save for the 102nd Grenadiers, who had worked their way along the foot of the cliff towards the Boot. Later the 2/9th Gurkhas came up on their right, to the meagre shelter of a linear mound, but could proceed no further due to the sheer weight of fire coming from the positions along the ‘calf’ of the Boot. Those positions were subjected to a heavy artillery bombardment which lasted from 0700 to 1000 but seemingly had little real effect, though under cover of it a second Gurkha battalion, the 2/4th, was sent up to extend the line further to the right. As the morning progressed, there was no reduction in the weight of rifle and machine gun fire coming from the Boot, or from artillery posted north of there and of the Mound. Soon after midday the wind began to drop, however, and as the dust settled large numbers of Turkish infantry were seen to be moving north-eastwards. Fearing this was the precursor of a further attack on the left-bank positions, which were much weakened by the losses the Cheshires and the South Wales Borderers had sustained, Marshall ordered one of the Gurkha battalions still in reserve on the right—the 1/2nd—across the river, together with the howitzers. The move was completed by 1500, but in the event, no attack materialised. As night fell the situation remained unchanged, and Marshall began making preparations for a night-time assault on the Boot; it proved to be unnecessary for the Turks withdrew into the Jabal Hamrin under cover of darkness. By AJ Barker’s reckoning, this had been the bloodiest engagement of the entire Mesopotamia Campaign, in terms of losses as a proportion of those committed.

The Battle of the Boot, as it became known, was the last in the offensive cycle which had commenced with the advance on Kut, on 14 December. It had been an expensive campaign, costing the British some 18,000 battle casualties (and well over twice that number hospitalised due to illness in March and April alone), but now it was time to call a halt. As the spring progressed and became summer, so the temperatures rose still higher, until by July the daytime norm in Baghdad stood at around 50°C, and locals ‘proclaimed it the hottest season in the memory of man’. With the hinterland of Baghdad cleared, and the city secured, there was no appetite in such conditions for chasing the Turks into the mountains; that could wait for autumn.


To Constantinople!

On 19 August 1914 Sir Louis Mallett, Britain’s ambassador to the Sublime Porte, cabled Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, suggesting that in the event of war with Turkey he consider a naval operation to force the Dardanelles and threaten Constantinople. This was not a novel proposal; Adm. Sir John Duckworth had done it in 18071 (at considerable cost), but though it had been considered on no less than five subsequent occasions, no further attempt had ever been sanctioned. However, Elefthérios Venizélos, the Prime Minister of Greece, had coincidentally offered to put the Greek Army and Navy at the disposition of the Allies, and on 31 August Churchill and his counterpart at the War Office, Lord Kitchener,2 agreed to form a joint committee to evaluate the proposal. The Director of Military Operations, Maj.-Gen. Charles Callwell, was asked for his opinion and wrote a few days later saying it was feasible—the Greeks having available the 60,000 men he thought the minimum requirement—though it would be a very difficult undertaking.

By the time of the first meeting of the War Council, on 24 November, Churchill had become convinced of the desirability of mounting such an operation, and suggested that to do so would offer the best protection possible for the Suez Canal (by the simple expedient of taking Turkey out of the war). He did, however, throw in a caveat, repeating Callwell’s opinion that it would be a difficult undertaking and require the involvement of at least 60,000 soldiers as well as warships, and by now it was clear that the Greek offer would not be accepted for political reasons.3 In stepped the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener. There was no question of sending that number of troops—any number of troops, in fact—to the Eastern Mediterranean with the situation in Northern France seemingly on a knife-edge, he pronounced, and with that Churchill withdrew his proposal.

No more was heard of it until the new year. By Christmas the Russians and the Turks were locked in battle at Sarikamiş; faced with what he believed to be a successful envelopment; the most senior Russian officer in the theatre, the incompetent Alexander Myshlayevski, panicked, and that resulted in a false appreciation of the situation there being made at the headquarters of the Stavka, the Russian High Command (see Chapter 6). The outcome was a request from Grand Duke Nicholas, the Russian commander-in-chief, that Britain launch some sort of diversionary activity.

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15. Gallipoli and The Dardanelles

 Kitchener received that request on the morning of 2 January 1915, and immediately sent a copy over to Churchill; later in the day the two met to consider their response. Churchill once more brought up the subject of a ‘descent’ on the Dardanelles from Egypt, and Kitchener accepted that it was one viable possibility, but stressed that he had no troops to spare for it. In the event, Kitchener replied to the Grand Duke that ‘steps will be taken to make a demonstration against the Turks’, but carefully avoided specifying where or when it would take place, or what form it would take, and ended by saying that he didn’t believe it would have the desired effect anyway. In fact, by the time the telegram reached Russia the Battle of Sarikamiş was effectively over, the Turks decisively beaten and the need for a diversion gone, but the Russians did not see fit to withdraw the request for a diversion, and by that time the notion had developed an impetus of its own.

The next morning Adm. of the Fleet Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord (the professional head of the Royal Navy), aware of the existence of the correspondence, chipped in with a wild proposal of his own. He advocated stripping Sir John French’s British Expeditionary Force in France of all Indian and 75,000 British troops (they were to be replaced by Territorials from Britain on the basis that ‘anyone could stand in a trench and hold a gun’) and sending them off to land at Besika Bay, just south of the Dardanelles on the coast of Anatolia. Simultaneously, troops from Egypt would feint at Haifa and land at Alexandretta with the objective of marching on ‘the oil fields of the Garden of Eden, with which by rail it is in direct communication’ (which, of course, it was not), while the Greeks landed their army on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the Bulgarians advanced on Constantinople and the Russians, the Servians (sic) and the Rumanians went for Austria. Finally, Vice-Adm. Doveton Sturdee would force the Dardanelles with obsolete Majestic- and Canopus-class battleships4 which were scheduled for disposal anyway, and threaten Constantinople with bombardment.

Churchill does not record how long it took him to discount most of Fisher’s plan, but he fastened onto the last element as entirely sensible, and it became a central plank of his own strategy. The very same day he cabled Vice-Adm. Sackville Carden, the commander of the squadron blockading the Dardanelles, asking his opinion of the merits of such a scheme. Carden took two days to reply, and then was cautiously supportive. ‘I do not consider the Dardanelles can be rushed,’ he said, adding, ‘They might be forced by extended operations with large numbers of ships.’ Well, like the original Jingoists, Churchill had the ships ... He had no less than forty-three such otherwise-largely-useless ships, in point of fact, and if that proved insufficient, France had at least a dozen more ... With those sorts of numbers to hand, he could have lined them up side by side and ploughed through the Straits in a phalanx ...5

Churchill kept his own counsel at a meeting of the War Council that afternoon, save for reading out Carden’s terse telegram; it generated considerable interest. When he returned to the Admiralty he sounded out senior staffers, and found them unanimously favourable, and the following day he asked Carden to elucidate.

Carden delivered a proposal for a four-phase naval operation on 11 January,6 and Churchill wasted no time in circulating it, to general enthusiastic approval. Only in one particular was an amendment suggested: to employ the new ‘superdreadnought’ Queen Elizabeth7 to bombard the forts, something she could achieve from well outside the range of their own guns.8 The just completed ship was, as luck would have it, actually under orders to proceed to the Mediterranean for gunnery trials; why not kill two birds with one stone?

Churchill circulated the proposal on 12 January, and the War Council met next day and unanimously9 accepted it, resolving ‘That the Admiralty should ... prepare for a naval expedition in February to bombard and take [italics added; the point was not lost on the Dardanelles Commission10] the Gallipoli Peninsula with Constantinople as its objective.’

The First Lord now wrote to his counterpart in Paris, Augagneur, to acquaint him with the outline of the plan; Augagneur offered four obsolete battleships. Churchill also wrote informing Grand Duke Nicholas and asking him to ensure that the Russian Black Sea Fleet would co-operate by initiating an action off the northern entrance to the Bosporus (and that an army would be brought to the Crimea, ready to be transported to the Turkish capital in the event of the operation succeeding; Nicholas did that, depriving Russian forces on the Caucasian front of sorely needed reinforcements for many months).

‘Up to about January 20 there seemed to be unanimous agreement in favour of the naval enterprise against the Dardanelles,’ wrote Churchill later. He was mistaken, however; there was a dissenter: Fisher. The First Sea Lord had never been fully convinced that a purely naval operation, without a landing, could achieve the desired result; he had remained silent previously, but now he made his doubts known and opposed the plan with the only means at his disposal, demanding the withdrawal of the Queen Elizabeth11 in the belief that without her it could not go ahead. Churchill declared that the operation did not depend on the presence of one ship, and eventually Asquith intervened on his side; Fisher threatened to resign, but was convinced to remain by Kitchener reminding him of his duty.

By 15 February, the ships earmarked for the operation were assembled in Mudros’ spacious harbour, the island of Lemnos having been made available by the Greek government, and two battalions of marines from the Royal Naval Division, which were to supply the personnel for landing parties should they be required, joined them. That day Adm. Sir Henry Jackson, who was then attached to the Admiralty specifically to advise on matters concerning the war in Germany’s overseas colonies, but was also consulted on matters relating to Turkey, wrote a new memorandum underlining the need to send a military force ‘to assist in the operation or, at least, to follow it up immediately the forts are silenced’. Kitchener capitulated, and at the War Council the next day it was resolved to send the 29th Division, plus forces from Egypt if required, to Mudros at the earliest possible date.

At the Council’s next meeting three days later—the day the bombardment of the outer forts commenced—Kitchener announced that he had changed his mind; that he could not consent to the despatch of the 29th Division (he had been influenced by his own General Headquarters, by Churchill’s account; by the French, according to the Official History12). Churchill protested; Kitchener held firm. The only concession he would make was to authorise the employment of ‘the Australasian Army Corps’ (ANZAC13) to aid the fleet. Churchill appealed to the Prime Minister once more, but he did not dare overrule Kitchener for fear that he would resign in protest, and could only attempt to persuade him. Something did, but it wasn’t the Prime Minister.

Kitchener had sent Lt.-Gen. Sir William Birdwood, ANZAC’s GOC, whom he knew well and trusted, to Mudros to assess the situation for himself, and on 5 March Birdwood reported ‘I am very doubtful if the Navy can force passage unassisted.’ On 10 March Kitchener did a volte face, telling the War Council ‘he felt the situation [in France] sufficiently secure to justify the despatch of the 29th Division [to the eastern Mediterranean]’ (though only as a loan).14 The operation would have its military component brought up to the level thought to be required, even if no one—least of all Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton, who was appointed to command the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on 11 March15—had the vaguest idea how it was to be deployed.

Before proceeding we should perhaps look at the physical features of the Dardanelles Strait, the Hellespont of ancient times. It is just seventy kilometres in length from their mouth to the Sea of Marmara; at the mouth it is little more than four kilometres wide, from Sedd el Bahr (Seddülbahir) to Kum Kale, and at the Narrows, between Kilid Bahr (Kilitülbahir) and Chanak Kale (Çanakkale), only 1,400 metres separate Europe from Asia. The average depth of water is fifty-five metres, increasing to a maximum of around ninety. The Strait have counter-currents; that on the surface runs from the Sea of Marmara towards the Aegean, but the deep current runs in the opposite direction; both run at four to five knots. There is no tide to speak of.

By the time the German military mission under Otto Liman von Sanders arrived in Turkey at the end of 1913, plans developed during the wars with Italy and in the Balkans for strengthening the Strait’s naval defences were already being put into effect, with forts reconstructed and to a limited extent rearmed with modern guns. Over the autumn and winter of 1914/15 a German coastal defence specialist, Vice-Adm. von Usedom, oversaw repairs and improvements to the forts and to the communications infrastructure linking them with spotting positions. Many additional guns were brought in, including a regiment of modern 15-cm field howitzers, which were installed in dead ground, and by February there were eighty-two operational guns in fortress emplacements, and 230 in field emplacements. There were also torpedo installations commanding the Narrows at Kilid Bahr. Out in the Straits a total of ten lines of mines—around 370 in all—had been laid by then, the mines anchored at around four and a half metres below the surface at intervals of a hundred to one hundred and fifty metres. However, many had been in place for six months, and their condition was uncertain. Nets had been deployed to deter submarines.16

The naval bombardment of the four outer forts began at 095117 on 19 February. In all, one hundred and thirty-nine shells were fired, to little effect. For the next five days the weather intervened, and no bombardment was possible. It resumed on the twenty-fifth, and in the light of experience gained on the first day, when it had been difficult to determine which ship had fired which shell, just four ships participated, Agamemnon targeting Cape Helles, Queen Elizabeth Sedd el Bahr and then switching her fire to Cape Helles, while Irresistible fired on Orkanie and Gaulois on Kum Kale, on the Asiatic shore. Queen Elizabeth knocked out the Cape Helles battery after eighteen rounds had been fired, and Irresistible eventually achieved a similar result at Orkanie; thus all four of the Turks’ long-range guns were eliminated. This allowed the ships to approach, and their fire to be more effective. That evening and the following day the entrance was swept for mines—none were found—and on the afternoon of the twenty-sixth three ships entered the Strait and continued the bombardment, coming under fire themselves from the intermediate defences and field artillery batteries. Later, demolition parties with marine escorts were landed, and over the following four days, as the weather permitted, forty-eight still-serviceable guns in the outer forts were destroyed.

As February turned to March the weather deteriorated still further, and operations often had to be suspended. The trawlers deployed as sweepers got a foretaste of what was to come in trying to clear the mine barriers on the night of 1 March, when they were driven back by gunfire.

The weather eased on 4 March and though the next four days were fine, and the ships used every opportunity to continue their bombardment, very little progress was made in suppressing the intermediate defences (and there was no sign that any would be, any time soon, largely due to the absence of effective radio-equipped spotter aircraft, a situation which would not be rectified until the end of March). Meanwhile, attempts to sweep for mines continued, and were routinely abandoned, the civilian crews of the trawlers being extremely reluctant to work under fire. On 10 March18 Carden’s chief of staff, Cmdr Roger Keyes,19 personally led the minesweeping flotilla. It was greeted by searchlights (which HMS Canopus vainly tried to extinguish) and artillery fire; two pairs of trawlers passed over the first barrier without lowering their ‘kites’ (as the simple board-like paravanes were known), and one of the remaining couple hit a mine herself and blew up. Keyes tried again the following night, dispensing with the battleship. The trawlers turned away and fled, and this time it was the commodore’s turn to blow up, at least metaphorically. Disgusted at what he thought abject cowardice,20 he called for naval volunteers to crew the trawlers. On the night of 13 March he led them out again, with the elderly light cruiser HMS Amethyst in attendance, and once again they were illuminated by batteries of searchlights and showered with shells; they stuck to the task until four of the boats had been put out of action and the cruiser damaged, and for the first time the operation met with a measure of success, many mines cut free from their moorings drifting down the Straits and being destroyed by small-arms fire.

By now there was agitation to land troops as an alternative (in Jackson’s words) to ‘advancing with a rush over unswept minefields and in waters commanded at short range by heavy guns, howitzers and torpedo-tubes’, which, as Churchill pointed out, no one had ever suggested. Kitchener counselled caution. No land operations on a large scale should be attempted until the 29th Division could participate, he wrote, on 13 March (the first elements would leave British ports on 16 March, the remainder following over the next week21). Astoundingly, with significant (if largely obsolete) naval assets and five infantry divisions22 now committed to the theatre, there was still no plan of action in existence beyond Carden’s, and that was rapidly proving itself unworkable.

Its author was close to breaking point. Unable to eat or sleep and suffering from recurring stomach ulcers, anxiety at his failure to obtain significant results was rapidly sapping his will, and on 15 March he met with Rear-Adm. John de Roebeck,23 his second-in-command, and Roger Keyes and told them he could not continue. The following morning a senior medical officer pronounced him unfit. Churchill learnt of this while visiting Sir John French’s headquarters in France and touring the Flanders battlefield (‘two days’ holiday’ he called it), and appointed his deputy de Roebeck to succeed him, even though he was junior in the Navy List to Rear-Adm. Rosslyn Wemyss24 who commanded at Mudros (who volunteered to stand aside, recognising the logic of maintaining continuity in the fighting force).

De Roebeck stuck to Carden’s plan, which was to send ten battleships into the Strait, holding six back in reserve.25 First, the four most modern ships (Queen Elizabeth, Agamemnon, Lord Nelson26 and Inflexible, in that order from the left) were to steam in line abreast and engage the forts at the Narrows at 14,000 yards (12,800m) while Triumph and Prince George on their flanks and some way astern engaged the intermediate defences. When the forts showed signs of weakening, the French squadron (Gaulois and Charlemagne,27 Bouvet28 and Suffren,29 in that order from the left) was to pass through the first line and engage the forts at 8,000 yards (7,300m); they would later retire, to be replaced by Vengeance, Irresistible, Albion and Ocean, in that order from the left. When the forts had been reduced, the minesweepers would come up and clear a channel 900 yards (825m) wide through the first five belts of mines, the last of which ran north-west from Kephez Point. Under the protection of the two remaining reserved ships, Cornwallis and Canopus, the sweeping operation was to continue through the night, and the next morning the fleet would advance into the Narrows and demolish the forts at close range. The remaining five lines of mines would then be swept, and the fleet would advance up the Strait and enter the Sea of Marmara.

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16. Gallipoli - The Dardanelles Naval Defences

The ships in the first line entered the Strait at about 1030 on the morning of 18 March, when the haze had cleared sufficiently to reveal their targets. They steamed steadily up the channel, coming under fire from the massed howitzers and guns on both banks, reaching their station at around 1130. They then steamed back and forth along fixed lines. Queen Elizabeth engaged two forts adjacent to Chanak Kale, on the Asian side, while the others engaged three forts near Kilid Bahr, on the European side. Their guns replied, failed to reach the ships, and fell silent; other guns continued to fire, hitting the ships but doing no significant damage. At 1150 the magazine at the more northerly of the forts at Chanak exploded. Ten minutes later de Roebeck, aboard Queen Elizabeth, called up the French squadron, and Rear-Adm. Guépratte led his ships forward to a line about 3,500 yards ahead of the British line. Within minutes, all eight were firing every gun they had, the lighter pieces engaging individual targets of opportunity and the main batteries continuing to target the Narrows forts, while all serviceable Turkish guns replied. The duel continued for over an hour, first Fort No. 13, south of Kilid Bahr, and then No. 8, south of Kephez, falling silent. By 1330 the rate of fire from the defences had dropped markedly, and by 1445 it had almost ceased. De Roebeck now ordered the minesweepers forward, and asked Adm. Guépratte to retire, intending to bring up the reserve squadron in place of his vessels. Each ship turned ninety degrees to starboard and moved off towards the Asian shore, and made a second ninety-degree turn to starboard as she crossed the six-fathom line. At 1354, just as she came abreast of HMS Inflexible, Bouvet, the second ship in line, suffered a massive explosion below the starboard 10.8in gun turret; it was assumed she had been hit by a large-calibre shell. The explosion set off another in a magazine, and within two minutes, still travelling at a fair speed, she had capsized and sunk, with the loss of all but sixty-six men of her crew of over seven hundred.

In fact the Bouvet had hit a mine, one of a string of more than twenty laid (at right-angles to the other lines) on the night of 8 March across the mouth of the shallow Eren Keui Bay by the Turkish steamer Nousret after Allied ships had been observed passing through that location on 6 and 7 March during bombardment operations. By chance, three of those mines had been swept on the night of 16 March, but were assumed to have drifted down from the Narrows.

Queen Elizabeth and Lord Nelson were still firing on forts in the Narrows, while the four ships from the reserve squadron passed through the line to close with them and engage. When they did, firing from the forts and field positions resumed, and the Turks kept it up for another hour, their guns falling silent again at around 1600. At 1611 HMS Inflexible30 reported that she had struck a mine. She was ordered to leave the line of battle and retire and did; like Gauloii31—hit by artillery below the waterline earlier in the afternoon by gunfire, and shipping large quantities of water—she made for the island of Tenedos (Bozcaada), and reached safety, anchoring in shallow water. Just minutes later Irresistible was seen to be listing. It was some time before it was confirmed that she, too, had suffered an underwater explosion, and at that point, convinced that the Turks had released free mines which had floated down with the current to his position, de Roebeck decided to break off the action and give orders for a general retirement, and for Ocean to assist Irresistible. Keyes, who went in to supervise the operation aboard a destroyer, ordered Ocean’s captain to take the crippled ship in tow; he refused, saying there was insufficient depth of water. Minutes later Ocean, too, struck a mine, and almost immediately her steering gear was hit by gunfire and put out of action. Her crewmen were taken off by destroyer; both ships sank during the night.

In London, Churchill reported the losses to the War Council the following morning,32 adding that five additional ships33 had received orders for the Dardanelles and de Roebeck had been instructed to renew the attack if he thought fit. He did, reporting to Churchill on 20 March that he was fitting out eight Beagle-class destroyers as minesweepers, and six of the older River class and four torpedo-boats as minehunters (to search for drifting mines); in all, he said, he would soon have fifty minesweepers available, all of them manned by naval volunteers, and planned to recommence operations within three to four days. His optimism was not shared by Sir Ian Hamilton, who had told Kitchener in a cable sent late on 19 March that, having seen for himself the latter part of the action on the previous day, he no longer believed the Strait could be forced by a naval operation, but that it would require a deliberate advance by his whole force, to open the passage to the fleet.

On 22 March de Roebeck and Wemyss met with Birdwood and Hamilton aboard Queen Elizabeth; Hamilton repeated the opinion he had given Kitchener and it is clear that his disquiet affected de Roebeck and converted him to the same view. A full-scale amphibious operation would be required to secure passage through the Strait, he reported to Churchill in a cable that night, adding that that would not be possible before 14 April. The First Lord was aghast at the thought of the Turks having three weeks in which to further strengthen their defences, and for their German and Austro-Hungarian allies to send submarines to the region, and incredulous that the naval plan ‘on which hitherto all our reasoning and conclusions had been based’ was now to be abandoned. Losses in naval personnel had been small, and only one ship of importance (Inflexible, which would be out of action for only six weeks; the others, we should recall, were scheduled for scrapping anyway) had been damaged; so ‘why turn and change at this fateful hour and impose upon the Army an ordeal of incalculable severity?’ He put before the Admiralty War Group a cable he proposed to send to de Roebeck, ordering him to continue the naval operation, and was met with solid resistance from Fisher, Wilson and Jackson—the First Sea Lord, delighted that his own preferred course of action was at last to prevail, flatly refusing to go against ‘the man on the spot’. Churchill took the matter to Asquith and Balfour, who agreed with him in principle but refused to overrule the professionals, and he was reduced to sending a long, cajoling cable to de Roebeck, telling him the forts, desperately short of ammunition,34 were vulnerable now more than ever, and restating the case for continuing the naval operation, to no avail whatsoever. De Roebeck, very grateful for the opportunity to bow out and pass the responsibility to the army, would not budge.

There were to be several critical points in the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign; this was surely the most significant of them, and with hindsight it is clear that the Royal Navy should have been compelled to continue with the attempt to force the Strait, no matter what the fall-out from its senior commanders. Churchill, analysing this aspect of the affair later, claimed it characterised a rift (he called it ‘two schools of thought’) within the highest echelons of the Royal Navy at that time. Was its function ‘to carry the army to where they wanted to go, to keep open the sea communications, and to be ready in overwhelming strength to fight the enemy’s main Fleet should it ever accord them an opportunity’, or was it ‘a gigantic instrument of offensive war, capable of intervening with decisive effect in general strategy, and that it must bear its share of the risks and sufferings of the struggle’? There was no doubt where his own views lay. ‘Such [latter] is the true spirit of the Navy, which only gradually liberated itself from the shortsighted prudent housewifery of the peace-time mind,’ he wrote.

Be that as it may have been, the navy’s senior commanders’ abject, pusillanimous abdication of responsibility in mid-March marked the turning point in the Dardanelles operation. What had been conceived as a maritime affair would now become terrestrial, whether the army liked it or not. (There was a third way, of course; it would still have been perfectly possible to stop the whole thing in its tracks, and send the ships and men away, but the loss of face that would entail was just too great to contemplate.) That the British and French were sublimely ignorant of the dangers they faced in invading Gallipoli—even the numbers they faced—was entirely irrelevant; there was an imperative to go ahead now, and no other course of action would do.

Rabegh 314, 315

Radatz, Gen. 79, 80, 86, 191

Rafah 318, 319, 320, 333

Rafah Redoubt 343-344

Rafat Ridge 378

railway system, Turkish 5, 155, 163

railways, Middle East 300, 315, 320, 326-327, 333, 334, 336, 338, 346, 352, 374-375, 384, 389

Hejaz Railway 314, 365, 366, 367-368, 370-371, 379

Suez Canal 304

Ramadi 95, 96, 103

Ramadi Ridge 96

Ramallah 354, 359, 360-361

Ramle 352

Rantye 356

Ras al Ain 63

Ras et Tawil 359

Ras Ghannam 339

Rashid Ali al-Gaylani 414

Rashidis 311, 312, 417, 418

Rawlinson, Lt.-Gen. Sir Henry 248

Red Guards 188, 194

Reed, Brig.-Gen. HL 250