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The 2nd Dorsets in Mesopotamia

by Mark Follis

Overview

Mesopotamia at Outbreak of War 1914 - click for enlargementThe Mesopotamian Campaign was fought in what we now know as Iraq (although the name al-Iraq dates back to the 6th Century and means 'lowlands' in Persian). Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning 'between the rivers') had been part of the Ottoman Empire for most of the period after they were first conquered in 1535 by Sulieman the Magnificent. In 1883, Sultan Hamid, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, had asked for German aid in reorganizing the Ottoman Army. For the Germans, such an alliance was seen as an important part of the Drang nach Osten. This translates as 'Thrust towards the East', and was motivated by Germany's desire for new lands and markets, as well as being part of it's desire for 'a place in the sun' (a share of empire to rival that of Britain and France). While the Persians remained generally favourable towards the British and the Arab Sheiks of Kuwait and Muhammerah also supported Britain, the Arab tribes of coastal Mesopotamia often changed sides.

When British forces finally came to fight those of the Ottoman Empire (over three months after the beginning of hostilities in Europe), an over-confident and under-resourced British campaign, buoyed by early and misleadingly easy victories, was forced back after the battle of Ctesiphon to Kut-al-Amara where they were besieged by Turkish forces. Unsuccessful attempts to relieve them led to the worst military defeat a British army had yet suffered. The subsequent treatment of the POWs by Turkish troops on their long march to Turkey and later employment in heavy work duties was nothing short of barbaric and was controversial even to their German allies. The British campaign after the disaster of Kut benefited from considerably greater supplies of men and equipment, allowing them to outnumber the Ottoman forces while enjoying the advantage of superior armaments. Two years later the Ottoman Empire lay in ruins.

Outbreak of War : The 2nd Dorsetshire Regiment

At the outbreak of war the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Dorsetshire Regiment was half-way through a tour of India. Quartered in Poona, it was part of the 16th (Poona) Brigade of the 6th Indian (Poona) Division, commanded by Major-General Charles Townshend. After hostilities started in Europe on July 28th 1914, it was perhaps only a matter of time before orders came from London to mobilize and this duly occurred on August 14th. The destination for the 16th Brigade was initially going to be East Africa, but it was later switched to Europe. Then, with tension between Great Britain and Turkey growing, they were diverted instead to the Persian Gulf under the command of Brigadier-General WS Delamain. Under him, in addition to the 2nd Dorsetshires, were three divisions of Indian troops, two battery divisions and one of sappers and miners (engineers). The reason behind the deployment was partly to protect the oil refineries at Abadan (Britain was heavily reliant on oil to keep it's navy at sea), and partly strategic. Control of Mesopotamia and the wider Middle East afforded easier access not only to Afghanistan and Persia, but also to Egypt and the Suez Canal. Although not yet in the war, Turkey's alliance with Germany made any pre-emptive deployment by British forces to the area highly desirable. The instructions given to General Barrett (the regional British Commander-in-Chief) by the Indian government included a provision, unknown to London, that allowed him to attack the Turk-controlled port of Basra should formal hostilities break out between Britain and Turkey. While the London War Office was in favour of a cautious strategy of simply defending British oil supplies in Mesopotamia, whereas the Indian government advocated the policy of so-called 'forward defence'.

Embarkation

After two months training and preparation, embarkation finally took place on October 18th from Bombay on HT Varela, a British-India Liner, in a convoy that totalled 54 ships. The 2nd Battalion numbered 22 officers, 5 warrant officers and 869 other ranks, while those medically unfit or considered unnecessary for the campaign stayed behind. Arriving in Bahrain on October 23rd, the British forces were then told to delay disembarkation, waiting in extremely hot conditions on board their ships until such time as the Turks entered the war. With Turkish assistance to the Germans in a naval bombardment against Russia on 29th October, Russia declared war on Turkey on November 2nd and Britain and France on November 5th.

Indian Troops Embarking Horses at Bombay - click for enlargementHT Varela in Wartime Livery - click for enlargement

Fao, Saihan & Sahil

The Early Campaign in Mesopotamia - click for enlargementOn November 3rd, the Varela sailed to Kharag island. The first action of the Mesopotamian campaign was the taking of the fort at Fao Landing (Nov 6th), where the Turks had a small force and some guns (situated on the mouth of the Tigris). Led by Brigadier-General Delamain, the 600 British troops, including a contingent of 2nd Dorsets, managed to capture the fort and 300 Ottoman prisoners. Reaching Abadan on 7th November, Delamain's force defeated some light Turkish resistance before establishing a fortified camp some 3 miles further up the river. Delamain repelled a dawn attack launched by 400 Turkish troops on 11 November and within the space of three days a further 7,000 Indian troops had been added to Expeditionary Force D, along with light artillery.

Indian Cavalry Advancing under Difficulties near Basra - click for enlargementOn November 15th, British troops including the 2nd Battalion advanced further up the Tigris and confronted a 3000 strong Turkish force at Saihan near Basra. With heavy rainfall and muddy conditions, progress was slow until the use of 18-pounder artillery succeeded in forcing the enemy to retreat. Of the 60 British casualties suffered, two-thirds were from the 2nd Dorsets, giving a fair indication of their importance in the battle. On the 17th November, the British attacked a Turkish army of about 5000 troops at nearby Sahil where fierce fighting resulted in several casualties and ended with the capture of the Turkish fort. The enemy troops fled, often using heat mirages as cover, and with the conditions being so muddy the British troops were unable to give chase. High winds caused several barges to break their moorings, with some sinking while others ran aground. The resulting loss of rations forced the troops to kill and eat the wounded Arab ponies that the Turkish forces had left behind. In this latest battle, the 2nd Dorsets again contributed disproportionately to the 500 or so British casualties, with 22 killed and 149 wounded. It had only been two weeks since their arrival and they'd already had 25% of their force put out of action.

View of the Shat-el-Arab near Basra - click for enlargementBritish Gun Protected by Sandbags and Earthwork near Qurna  - click for enlargementQurna following its Capture by British Forces - click for enlargement

As a result of their early defeats, the Turks decided to evacuate Basra and retreat upstream to Amara. This allowed the British forces to hurry north and occupy the city, entering it on the evening of 21st November. Once it was secured, the 18th Brigade was sent north to Qurna, deemed to be more strategically important than Basra because it was at the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris. Although British forces were involved in some quite heavy fighting, the 2nd Dorsets weren't needed on this occasion and remained in Basra. They were kept busy instead by local Arab unrest, necessitating a certain amount of 'police action' as well as searches for arms. Another recurrent problem was that of serious illness, with four men dying in December, with a further 30 men being sent back to India in January 1915 with various ailments.

Shaiba

Dorsets Advancing near Basra Through Mostly Flooded Roads - click for enlargementIn January, with some of the Ottoman forces being held back prior to a planned Turkish offensive in April, a second Ottoman force crossed the Tigris into pro-British but neutral Persia. Their target was the British oil pumping station at Ahwaz, necessitating the despatch of a British force, of which the 2nd Dorsets provided a first instalment of thirty men. To their west, at Nasiriyeh on the River Euphrates, a third Turkish force numbering some 12,000 men, along with 10,000-15,000 Arabs, prepared to attack the British HQ at Basra. The British forces there were reinforced from India, but despite enjoying the advantage of greater numbers, the British lacked, as they did throughout the Mesopotamian campaign, both sufficient equipment and supplies (in particular clean water).

Indian Cavalry on the March on the Flooded Shaiba Road - click for enlargementTo help defend the port, the British had set up defences at Shaiba, nine miles south west of Basra. With the Ottoman forces massing for a likely attack, Sir Arthur Barrett, regional Commander-in-Chief, ordered that Shaiba be reinforced. The 2nd Dorsets, travelling across the now flooded landscape between Basra and Shaiba, became part of a total contingent of around 7000 professional soldiers. With the Turks lacking transport for their planned attack in April, General Barrett decided to attack their shipping near Kurmat Ali. To divert the Turks from this raid, the British forces under General Delamain sent out a cavalry force, which in turn drew a contingent of Arab cavalry who chased them back to where the 2nd Dorsets lay in waiting. The resulting skirmish resulted in numerous Arab casualties and was so devastating that Ottoman cavalry forces never again allowed themselves within close proximity to British infantry.

With the ongoing enemy threat during March, large numbers of British troops, including the 2nd Dorsets, were required to sleep in a state of battle readiness, with many suffering from extreme cold at night when their tents packed away in readiness for possible attack. On April 9th, and before the Turkish offensive had started, a new regional British Commander-in-Chief arrived at Basra to take command of extended operations. His name was Sir John Nixon and he superseded General Barrett, who was suffering from ill-health. On April 11th the Turks initiated their offensive with simultaneous preliminary bombardments of Shaiba and Qurna. With heavy fighting, often in very hot weather, many of the British soldiers became very tired. A stalemated battle at Shaiba was eventually turned on April 15th by an attack led by the 2nd Dorsets, the ferocity of which led to a full Turkish retreat. By the battle's end, the British troops were exhausted and very nearly out of ammunition. As one officer said:

"I don't think I ever remember being so unutterably weary, or having such a raging unquenchable thirst. It was appalling the amount of liquid we consumed, none of us could face our meal, our throats and mouths were too parched."

Arrival of Anglo-Indian Convoy at Shaiba - click for enlargementTurkish Prisoners Escorted by Gurkhas Following Battle at Shaiba - click for enlargementTurkish Prisoners at Shaiba Fort - click for enlargement

The 2nd Dorsets had borne a prominent part in the fighting and their casualties were proportionate: nearly 25% of it's strength lost, with 15 officers wounded and 4 killed. Of the men, 37 were killed and 115 wounded. Only two other battalions lost more in proportion. No less than seven DCMs were awarded for gallantry. Shaiba has been selected as one of the ten 'honours' to be borne on the King's Colour of the Regiment.

From Shaiba to Kut

The Campaign Prior to the First Battle of Kut - click for enlargementAfter the victory at Shaiba, the 2nd Battalion returned to Basra, the flood water coming over their knees nearly the whole way. Time was now occupied by a combination of training in river barges and performing repairs on the numerous dykes in the area. However the rising temperatures, which in turn led to an increased sick rate, meant that all daytime duties had to be suspended. Towards the end of May, about 170 men of the 2nd Dorsets were in hospital with either fever or sun-stroke. With only 400 troops available for action, the arrival on May 25th of a new draft of 8 officers and 232 men was very welcome.

The First Battle of Kut - click for enlargementOn May 28th, a British force, including the 2nd Battalion, were sent to Qurna to head off a Turkish attack. In the event the 2nd Dorsets weren't required, instead spending much of the day (May 31st) transferring from the steamer to barges and back again in conditions of great heat, with one soldier commenting that 'it was nearly as bad as a battle'. On the following day the 17th Battalion set off for Amara where they eventually managed to take the town, capturing about 1000 Turkish troops. While General Gorringe was successfully conducting operations around the Euphrates and dispersing the Turks from around Nasiriyeh, the 2nd Dorsets had to make do with remaining in Basra, where the intense heat of summer and the generally filthy conditions made fever and dysentery very common. In addition, medical supplies and such items as tea, sugar and tobacco remained in short supply. Over 150 men had to be invalided to India and several more sent there on short leave. To help matters somewhat, another draft of 29 men arrived on June 28th.

With the successful capture of Nasiriyeh by General Gorringe's forces, orders came for the 2nd Battalion to advance to Ali al Gharbi, eighty miles upstream, where they arrived on August 1st, before settling into another routine of building defences and doing fatigues. Encouraged by a lack of Turkish opposition, General Nixon decided to advance in mid-September to Kut al Amara on the junction of the Tigris and Shatt al Hai. This was considered a better position strategically for the protection of the Basra area, but as the Turks were believed to have around 6000 men stationed nearby, it was also going to require some heavy fighting to take it. The march to Kut, with many of the Battalion unfit for serious exertion, led to dozens falling out en route, many of whom had to be hospitalised. Two men from the Battalion died from heat stroke.

View of Kut-el-Amara from the River Tigris - click for enlargementGuarding the Approach to Kut: Turkish Trenches at Es Sinn - click for enlargementView of Kut-el-Amara from the River Tigris - click for enlargement

The Battalion finally attacked on September 28th. The Turkish defences were 12 miles wide across the Tigris and skilfully constructed. Some of the fighting was hand to hand, and again ammunition became scarce, but fighting continued until night fall. Before dawn, the Turks had retreated, so the following day orders were received to advance and occupy the town of Kut. The battle of Kut al Amara cost the 2nd Dorsets a quarter of their strength. Nine officers and 143 men were wounded and 17 were killed or missing. Despite this, the battle wasn't as costly as Shaiba in terms of fatalities, nor was it considered by the men to be as tiring, despite the fact that they were facing a superior force. General Townshend later wrote that 'the 2nd Dorsets as usual covered themselves with glory' while General Delamain ascribed the battle's success mainly to the 2nd Battalion's contributions. However, it was also left severely weakened. Taking into account sickness, there was little more than 300 soldiers left fit for active duty. Nor were the men able to enjoy much respite, as they were soon sent 60 miles upstream to Aziziya, arriving on October 9th.

Ctesiphon

First Advance on Baghdad and the Battle of Ctesiphon - click for enlargementThe decision to push to Baghdad without additional troops and with those still standing fatigued by recent exertions has been questioned by many, doubtless with the advantage of hindsight. Townshend suggested halting but Nixon was convinced the Turks were weak and could be beaten. Townshend was therefore ordered to continue to Baghdad. In the meantime, a draft of 500 men sailing from Devonport as reinforcements were unfortunately diverted to compensate for losses at Gallipoli and two Indian divisions that were to be transferred to Mesopotamia from France failed to arrive in time to take part in the advance.

On November 1st, the 6th Indian, along with three Indian battalions of the 30th Brigade left Kut and marched up the Tigris river, reaching Ctesiphon, some 25 miles south of Baghdad, on November 20th. There they faced an Ottoman force under the command of Baron von der Goltz, a German field marshal who had previously spent several years re-organizing the Ottoman army in the 1880s.

The Great Arch at Ctesiphon - click for enlargementThe Battle of Ctesiphon was fought between November 22nd and 24th. The 2nd Dorsets formed the only British contingent under General Delamain and were charged with the important task of giving a lead to the Indian troops. Initially the British forces met with success, taking a Turkish redoubt known as VP, but fighting was very intense and losses were high. The 2nd Dorsets lost 9 officers, 25 men killed and missing and 207 wounded, amounting to 44% of their total strength, while other battalions had lost over half their numbers. More than half of the 8,500 British and Indian troops who fought at Ctesiphon were killed or wounded.

Although it could be argued that the result of the battle was a draw, given that both sides had retreated from the field, the reality was that the British forces had over-stretched themselves. With casualties on this scale, and still outnumbered by the enemy, General Townshend decided he had little choice but to withdraw his poorly equipped force and resolved to retreat back to Kut. The survivors then endured a dangerous and exhausting march without decent medical or transport facilities. Baron von der Goltz, learning of the British retreat, decided to pursue, turning his army around to give chase. In order to stop the Ottoman forces from harrying them, Townshend decided to stage a counter-attack on December 1st, with the 2nd Dorsets playing a vital role in helping the Indian divisions fight the enemy. The attack succeeded in pushing the Ottoman forces back and allowed the British to continue their retreat, eventually arriving at Kut on December 3. The Ottoman forces arrived four days later on December 7th.

The Sick & Wounded After Ctesiphon

"Dec. I was standing on the bridge in the evening when the Medjidieh arrived. She had two steel barges, without any protection against the rain, as far as I remember. As this ship, with two barges, came up to us I saw that she was absolutely packed, and the barges too, with men. The barges were slipped, and the Medjidieh was brought alongside the Varela. When she was about 300 or 400 yards off it looked as if she was festooned with ropes. The stench when she was close was quite definite, and I found that what I mistook for ropes were dried stalactites of human faeces The patients were so huddled and crowded together on the ship that they could not perform the offices of nature clear of the edge of the ship, and the whole of the ship's side was covered with stalactites of human faeces. This is what I then saw. A certain number of men were standing and kneeling on the immediate perimeter of the ship. Then we found a mass of men huddled up anyhow?some with blankets and some without. They were lying in a pool of dysentery about 30 feet square. They were covered with dysentery and dejecta generally from head to foot. With regard to the first man I examined, I put my hand into his trousers, and I thought that he had a haemorrhage. His trousers were full almost to his waist with something warm and slimy. I took my hand out, and thought it was blood clot. It was dysentery. The man had a fractured thigh, and his thigh was perforated in five or six places. He had apparently been writhing about the deck of the ship.

Many cases were almost as bad. There were a certain number of cases of terribly bad bedsores. In my report I describe mercilessly to the Government of India how I found men with their limbs splinted with wood strips from 'Johnny Walker' whisky boxes, 'Bhoosa' wire, and that sort of thing"

Major R Markham Carter, in Mesopotamia Report

The Siege of Kut-al-Amara

Indian Army Soldier after the Siege of Kut-al-Amara - click for enlargementAfter the unexpected failure of the Anglo-Indian attack at Ctesiphon and aware that his force was exhausted and unable to retreat further, Townshend resolved to stay and hold Kut, a town of key importance to the British presence in the region. In this he was supported by regional Commander-in-Chief Sir John Nixon. The logic was quite simple: by maintaining a strategic presence at Kut, the British could deny the Turks effective use of the Tigris while allowing their forces in Basra time to re-group and mount an offensive. There were also valuable supplies in Kut that couldn't be removed or destroyed, thus inviting the enemy to acquire them. Finally, the effect of further retreat would likely encourage anti-British action by the Arabs and worsen the morale of the British forces. However, the geography around Kut effectively meant that Townshend and his men were bottled up, surrounded on three sides by the Tigris and with no bridge to cross it. Unbeknown to Townshend, the War Office in London favoured a retreat still further south, but by the time this news reached him he was already under siege and it was too late.

General Townshend - click for enlargementWith the 2nd Dorsets reduced to an effective strength of 12 officers and 315 other men (4 officers and 130 men were in hospital), they were already severely weakened. The Turkish attacks started on December 9th, and in all they attempted to break through Kut's defences on three separate occasions in December, all of which failed. In January 1916 they changed tactics, deciding instead to starve the British out. Thus the Turks set about blockading the town while despatching forces to prevent British relief operations from reaching Kut. On January 6th a British relief force arrived, but their efforts were repeatedly beaten back with heavy losses (see 'The Norsets'). April saw a second relief operation, this time led by Sir George Gorringe, but despite engaging the Turkish Sixth Army some 19 miles south of Kut, the expedition ran out of steam and was abandoned on 22nd April.

The story of the 2nd Dorsets was one of gradual starvation and little or no activity. In the last stages, the men were so emaciated and exhausted that many became incapable of fighting and when laden with their kit they could hardly move. At times they became very cold, as they only had clothes appropriate for fighting in India. All this was made worse by having to stand in wet trenches and the gradual diminution of supplies of such items as tobacco and sugar. More and more soldiers became sick and morale continued to decline as all attempts to relieve them failed. Through February and March diet and ration amounts declined to the point where, come April, they were forced to eat grass and weeds. Unfortunately this led to poisoning and had to be stopped. Soldiers now existed on horse meat and bread alone, excepting a period when a certain Lieutenant Highett used a shotgun to kill starlings in their thousands as they came to roost. 'Starlings on Toast' or 'Starling Pie' proved to be a popular, if rather unusual addition to the menu.

Generalfeldmarschall Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz - click for enlargementThe ultimate surrender was due to starvation. The garrison had consumed all it's supplies, including every available animal. Sickness, in the form of scurvy, rheumatism, frost bite, diarrhoea and other digestive complaints were rife. The death rate amongst the British was very high, running at 30 per 1200 men (amongst the Indian troops it was even at higher, at 300 per 4000; this was mostly due to the Sepoy's refusal to eat horse flesh).

On April 27th, it was announced that General Townshend had asked for terms. His offer of £1 million plus a guarantee that none of his men would be used again in fighting against the Ottoman Empire, in effect buying parole, gave initial hope to the garrison that it would be allowed to return to India. Unfortunately that hope was dashed the following day when the order came to destroy all weapons and ammunition. On the 29th the British surrendered, bringing an end to 147 days of siege. The Turks agreed to send 10 days worth of food into the garrison while a six-day armistice took place, a period of time in which the British took the opportunity of destroying anything of value in the town, aware of its imminent surrender. Casualties amongst the 2nd Dorsets during this period totalled 3 officers and 32 men killed and a further 2 officers and 40 men wounded.

The siege of Kut was considered by many to be the greatest humiliation to have befallen the British army in its history. For the Turks - and for Germany - it proved a significant morale booster, and undoubtedly weakened British influence in the Middle East (subsequently the surrender of 80,000 troops at Singapore in 1942 became the largest ever British defeat, described by Churchill as both the 'worst disaster' and the 'largest capitulation' in British history).

All the officers captured at Kut survived the war and were repatriated after the armistice with Turkey. They were interned in Asia Minor, with Townshend himself going into a comfortable if isolated captivity, living in comfort near Constantinople for the remainder of the war on a small island. Their journey from Kut totalled 2000 miles, but although they suffered neglect at the hands of their captors, leading to a great deal of suffering, the treatment meted out to the rank and file was far worse. Some were more fortunate; approximately 1200 of the worst cases in hospital were released in exchange for Turkish prisoners of war. However, only 36 of these were 2nd Dorsets. The remainder were forced on a long march under a burning sun on less rations than they'd been on during the siege. If a man wasn't able to keep pace with the march, he was unmercifully beaten, if not killed outright in acts of wanton cruelty. They were often robbed of their clothing, with many having to march with rags around their feet in lieu of boots. The Turks provided no medicines, virtually no bedding and gave no medical attention to the sick.

It had been estimated that over 1000 men died on the march to Anatolia. Of the 350 2nd Dorsets who started from Kut, only about 140 survived the journey by the end of June. Once they arrived, the survivors were put to work on the railway or some similar task. All on inadequate rations, in insanitary conditions and herded together in filthy quarters. They were also frequently treated with the utmost brutality. By the time of the armistice, the vast majority of those captured at Kut had perished. Of the 2nd Dorsets, only 70 are recorded to have survived.

In total, more than 3,000 of those who surrendered at Kut were murdered by the Turks while in captivity and those who survived were little more than skeletons when they were released or exchanged two years later. Overall, the British Army lost 227 British and 204 Indian officers and 12,828 other ranks, of which 2,592 were British. The Turks killed more than 1,700 of the British and possibly as many as 3,000 of the Indian troops while in captivity. Losses during the fighting during the siege were approximately 2,000 and the relieving force lost 23,000 in the attempt. Turkish losses for the siege totalled approximately 10,000 men.

The March to Turkey

Extracts taken from 'The Sufferings of the Kut Garrison during their March into Turkey as Prisoners of War, 1916-1917', the narrative and diary written by Lieutenant (and Quartermaster) FA Harvey, 2nd Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment. Lieutenant Harvey subsequently died October 1st 1921 from wound received during the Moplah Rebellion in India.

May 6th March begins. No transport of any description was allowed, so blanket, change of underclothing, rations, and all that we thought would be required had to be carried as best we could.

Before we had been very long on the march we found our loads of kit and food a great burden, many men fell out through fatigue and were beaten along by the escort. Mahomed Russi rode up and down the column slashing with his whip at men every few yards.

May 7th Many of our men were without water bottles...yet if we came near the river, or came across a stream flowing from the river, our escort stood guard over it with their rifles and any one attempting to get a drink was beaten away.

No rations were issued to us that day, either before starting or at the finish of the march.

May 10th Rations were issued in the evening, when we received four of the usual black biscuits per man. By this time we had found that the best way to eat them was to pound them as small as possible with the heel of the boot, soak them for a couple of hours, and then boil for a time.

May 11th This was a very hot and tiring march and numerous cases of flogging occurred through men being exhausted and falling out; no effort was made to provide any conveyance for those who were sick, several of whom fell out and were never seen again.

The troops reached Baghdad on May 17th. On the 29th they were split into three groups: one British, one Mahomedan and one Hindu.

June 4th ...we had been allowed to go to the river bank for water...and the place we had to get it from was just below the hospital where all the filth and droppings were emptied. [When one] looked at the spot where it [the water] was taken from [one] saw excreta floating along on the top.

June 5th We had dropped a sprinkling of men along the road all the way along the march; these men had fallen out overcome by exhaustion and were never seen again. If they did not die by the roadside the Arabs would very soon be along and cut their throats for the sake of their boots.

The Dorsets eventually reached their destination (Bagtsche in Turkey) on Sunday June 25th 1916 where they were detailed to work on railway construction.

Monday June 26th We had left Kut over 300 strong. The balance had been left mostly on the road either dead or dying, and among the 140 who remained was not one fit man; all were practically skeletons, while many were almost fit to die with dysentery and various other complaints.

During the railway work many more continued to die of exhaustion.

Thursday August 17th...the majority of men are very sick and weak, and deaths are almost daily.

On September 7th they left Bagtsche and were moved to a number of different locations. While conditions improved, men continued to die. The diary ends on Monday February 5th 1917.

The Norsets

The British Relief Forces at Kut - click for enlargementWhile the bulk of the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment remained stuck in Kut, others were able to join the relief forces sent to end the siege. These included men who had been on other duties at the time, some new recruits, but mostly those who had recovered from illness and returned from India. On the 4th January, a large draft of the 3rd Battalion arrived in Kuwait prior to being transported by barges to Basra. From there they marched to Amara and by the end of the month they reached El Orah where the bulk of the 'Tigris Corps' (the first relieving force for Kut under Sir Fenton Aylmer) were encamped. The Tigris Corps, essentially a scratch force, had been rushed to the area in the belief that the British forces at Kut only had enough supplies for a month. It was partly for this reason that the relief operation failed, as it's hurried preparation meant that it lacked sufficient resources. Actions were taken both prematurely and without the advantage of the two Indian Divisions which had been sent from France but were yet to arrive. In the event, the supplies at Kut lasted from early December through to April.

'The War of the Nations'  - click for enlargementDespite it's deficiencies, the relief force fought two successful battles at Sheikh Saad and Wadi, although there were considerable losses at the former, possibly the greatest the British had sustained in Asia so far. However, their third battle at El Hanna had been a complete disaster, with the infantry advancing over heavy open ground without adequate artillery preparation, and in one instance with no artillery protection at all, allowing the Turks to mow down the British troops with relative ease. The British lost 470 killed and 2,877 wounded and missing. With such high losses, it was decided to combine the Scottish brigades into 'The Highland Division' and amalgamate the drafts for the 2nd Norfolks and 2nd Dorsets into the 'Composite English Battalion', which soon became known as the 'Norsets'.

Equipped with only one machine gun and manned by inexperienced officers and new recruits, the Norsets were nonetheless put straight into the front line trenches. Two weeks of trench warfare ensued during which time the 2nd Dorsets lost three men killed. In February, further reinforcements for the 2nd Dorsets arrived in the form of 13 officers and 200 men, while another 50 men arrived in March. Returning to the trenches at the end of March, one officer and six men from the Norsets were killed by Turkish snipers.

On April 5th, General Gorringe, now in overall control of the relief effort, initiated an attack on the Hanna position. This had been largely vacated by the Turks and was taken with relative ease. As was the next Turkish position at Fallahiya four miles upstream. However, the attack on Sannaiyat, four miles further on met heavy resistance and proved impossible to take, not helped by rising waters flooding the trenches. The Norsets suffered 200 casualties of whom 18 were killed. Other divisions lost many more men. This last failure at Sannaiyat meant that the relieving force had run out of time to achieve it's objective and, given the prevailing conditions, General Townshend decided to surrender.

Indian Anti-aircraft Machine Gunners in Action during the siege - click for enlargementBritish Reinforcements for the Tigris Relief Force at Kut - click for enlargement

From now until General Maude's recovery of Kut eight months later, there existed a stalemate. While the Turks proved they were good at holding defensive positions against superior forces, they weren't strong enough to seriously threaten the Basra region. The British needed to regroup and were not yet ready to resume the offensive. Nearly all the British commanders involved in the failure to rescue Townshend were removed from command, with General Maude taking over from Gorringe in July. General Maude was considered to be a cautious and consistent commander, rather than spectacular, and was known as 'Systematic Joe'. This was also the month when the Norsets were disbanded. They were only meant to be a temporary Battalion, and they now reverted to their former status, remaining at the front at Fallahiya as the 2nd Battalion, albeit in provisional form.

1916-1918

From July 1916 through to September, the main duties of the new 2nd (Provisional) Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment was the training of it's young soldiers (although there were a few of the original men left from October 1914). Through all this, with the weather remaining extremely hot, half a dozen men died from various illnesses in July and August and around 150 were hospitalised.

In mid-September the Battalion was moved downstream to Sheikh Saad. Various duties during the coming months coincided with a general increase in the Battalion's strength, including the return on November 15th of Lt.-Col. Clarkson who had been injured at Shaiba. Clarkson now resumed command, while Major Case stepped down to take second in command.

General Maude - click for enlargementIn December, General Maude began the operation to retake Kut, but the 2nd Dorsets weren't needed until mid-January 1917. With the Third Indian (Lahore) division encountering stubborn resistance, the 2nd Dorsets were ordered to replace the hard-hit 1st Highland Light Infantry in the 9th Brigade. After taking part in a series of engagements that saw British forces advance 12 miles to Bessouia Ford on the Shatt al Hai, the 9th Brigade were now employed to guard the rear of the troops currently employed in the re-taking of Kut. On February 24th, the 2nd Dorsets moved once more, this time to Shumran Bend. With the whole of the 9th Brigade temporarily detailed for duty on the Lines of Communication, it missed General Maude's advance to Baghdad which started on March 5th before entering the city on the 11th where they were greeted as liberators. Baghdad was later was garrisoned by the 4th Dorset's who later played an important role in the Battles of Ramadi and Khan Baghdadi.

The 2nd Dorsets found themselves moving through a succession of small towns and villages, with various companies staying behind, before 'F' Company finally arrived at Ctesiphon, scene of their pivotal battle of 1915. With the Turks now regrouping north of Baghdad, the British decided to advance up the Diyala valley in the hope of engaging the Turkish 13th Army Corps. The 2nd Dorsets now found themselves marching north as part of General Keary's Lahore Division of which the 9th Brigade formed a part, arriving at Abu Jisra on March 22nd. The following day they started for Shahraban, which was soon occupied. On the 24th March the 9th Brigade (including the 2nd Dorsets) started their advance across difficult terrain towards their objective of securing a position behind the enemy's left. Unfortunately they were spotted and came under sustained fire, which slowed down their progress considerably. The following day it became apparent that the Turkish position was far too strong to be taken without far greater forces, especially artillery, and so a retreat was ordered.

The withdrawal was beset by heavy fighting and difficult terrain, so by the time the 2nd Dorsets had managed a full retreat, they had sustained around 220 casualties out of a total of 500 in action. Of these, 22 were killed and over 100 were missing. Although the attack had failed to achieve it's immediate objective, the British forces had at least been successful in preventing the Turks from joining their other forces between the Diala and the Shatt al Adhaim (two tributaries to the Tigris that lay north of Baghdad). This was of great benefit to the British 13th Division who were successfully engaging the enemy at Duqma. While the ultimate aim of destroying the Turkish 13th Corps proved elusive, Baghdad was now much more secure from enemy attack.

British Guns in Position in Mesopotamia - click for enlargementBritish Troopers Marching on the Sands of Mesopotamia - click for enlargementVillage under Turkish control on the Tigris Set on Fire by British Troops - click for enlargement

There now followed a period of relative inactivity during which the 2nd Dorsets were glad for further reinforcements. These totalled 153 men and arrived in two drafts in late March and early April. By now supplies of food and 'comforts' were much improved on previous years and medical and hospital care was more than adequate. Leave also became much easier to obtain, especially if it was to be spent in India, although some were able to spend it in Britain. Between May and the end of July three more drafts totalling around 500 men helped bring the 2nd Dorsets up to strength further.

Turkish Army Field Artillery Armed with Krupp Guns - click for enlargementAt the end of August the 2nd Dorsets moved up-river to Beled in order to relieve the 8th Brigade so it could push further upstream. As it was still hot, many soldiers found the going tough with an average daily march of 12 miles. With rumours of a Turkish counter-offensive in the pipeline, General Maude decided to take the initiative. Firstly they attacked a Turkish force at Ramadi on the Euphrates, successfully taking most of the town. They then proceeded to push the Turks out of the area east of the Diala and north-east of Shahraban. At the end of October, the 9th Brigade, including the 2nd Dorsets, were ordered north to Samarra in pursuit of the Turkish army. They finally caught up with them on November 5th at Auja Nullah and the following morning some heavy fighting took place which resulted in the British forces sustaining about 1800 casualties. Although the Turks were forced to retire, they managed to evade interception and capture and the 2nd Dorsets returned to their camp at Samarra.

There then followed a prolonged period of inactivity. With General Allenby's successful campaign in Palestine, all the Turkish reserves left Mesopotamia and effectively ended any likelihood of a Turkish offensive. The sudden death of General Maude due to cholera on November 18th came as a great shock as the British had achieved so much under his command. His replacement was General William Marshall whose orders were to maintain security in the Baghdad area. There was even talk of reducing troop numbers in Mesopotamia and in early December the Meerut Division left for Palestine. During the winter months there was further anti-Turkish action at Jebel Hamrin, aimed at stopping the Ottomans from entering Persia.

By now the Dorset's numbers were around the same as those they had when the first arrived in 1914. The policy of defence in Mesopotamia continued in the early part of 1918 with the despatch of the Lahore Division to Palestine. On March 12th the 2nd Dorsets were relieved by the 6th Hampshires of 17th division and they started their long journey via Kuwait to join in Allenby's campaign.

Although they had only fought one battle of importance since the siege of Kut, they were destined for greater things once more in Palestine.

End of the War

Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery - click for enlargementThe British resumed their offensive in late February 1918 capturing Kifri and Hit. General Marshall's forces supported General Lionel Dunsterville's operations in Persia during the summer of 1918 and in October the British went on the offensive for the last time and fought a battle at Sharqat, routing the Turkish army. General Marshall accepted the surrender of Khalil Pasha and the Turkish 6th Army on October 30th, 1918. British troops marched unopposed into Mosul on the 14th November 1918.

The British lost 92,000 soldiers in the Mesopotamian campaign. Turkish losses are unknown but the British captured a total of 45,000 prisoners of war. By the end of 1918 the British had deployed 410,000 men into the area though only 112,000 of them were combat troops. The vast majority of the British empire forces in this campaign were recruited from India.

'Comforts' for the Kut-al-Amara Prisoners of War

When, in 1916, it had been reported that about 370 officers and men of the 2nd Battalion had been taken prisoners at Kut and were in captivity somewhere in Asia Minor, people in Dorchester and surrounding towns decided to raise money in order to supply them with items such as tea, sugar, clothing and tobacco (otherwise known as 'comforts'). On July 26th 1916, Dorchester took the lead by organising a 'Kut Day'. Weymouth and Bridport followed suit and a total of £1,602 19s 2d was raised during the remainder of that year.

Steps were taken to find the location of the troops, which proved difficult as the Turks were keeping it secret. Finally a postcard sent by a British officer (Regimental Sergeant-Major De Lara), combined with other sources, including the American Embassy in Constantinople, led to knowledge of the whereabouts of about 80 men in 11 different concentration camps. By May 1917 this figure had increased to 134.

Because of lack of co-operation from the Turkish Government, the first consignment of parcels weren't sent from Dorchester until March 1917. This continued until the end of the war, with further Flag Days and requests in local churches raising the necessary funds.

After the war, money that had been sent to prisoners who had died in captivity was held back in case any of the survivors needed relief and assistance. Eventually a balance of £1,558 11s 3d was distributed to the three hospitals of Dorchester, Weymouth and Bridport.

On February 25th 1919 the Committee of the Dorset Kut Relief Fund held a Dinner and Reception for the 70 survivors of the Kut-al-Amara siege. Guests included General Delamain and Colonel Herbert, who had commanded the 2nd Dorsets at Kut.

Sources

The Long, Long Trail: Battle Histories - Mesopotamia
FirstWorldWar.com
Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia
Merchant Navy Officers
APNA - Academy of the Punjab in North America
The Great War in a Different Light
The World War I Document Archive

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