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Betrayal of an Army: Mesopotamia 1914 – 1916

N.S. Nash
I knew next to nothing about this campaign when I started the book, since it was overshadowed by events of WWI in Flanders, etc and, later, by the disastrous escapades in the Dardanelles. There are many helpful illustrations of the various battle scenarios and, although some of the maps reproduced in black and white are clearly original and have legends referring to “enemy trenches in red” etc, the accompanying narrative is so descriptive that it’s very easy to follow what happened. The book is very well-researched and offers a detailed view of a disastrous campaign that was dogged from the outset by personal ambition, colossal arrogance, studied indifference and a good deal of hubris.

The decision to gain a foothold in Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) and ensure a supply of oil was triggered by the decision in London to convert the Royal Navy (at the time the largest in the world) to oil instead of coal. It was not only the enhanced operational efficiency involved, but also the high additional costs of transporting coal to coaling stations around the world using RN and civilian tenders for the job. As it happens, Aden, of later 1960s “Aden Emergency” fame initially started life as a British Protectorate coaling station for vessels plying between India, the Far East, Australia and the UK.

Although the campaign was approved by the British government, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, added his own ambition, which was to annex the whole of Mesopotamia, at that time a part of the Ottoman Empire and defended by the Turks. Lord Hardinge was backed by the commander of the newly formed Tigris Corps, General Nixon.

After a successful landing and securing the area around Basra, the expedition force advanced up the Tigris taking various towns on the way, with the objective of eventually reaching Baghdad. The British and Indian Army forces had no choice but to be dependent for supplies on river transport provided by the RN, but the organisation was so shambolic that much of what they needed never reached them, added to which the port of Basra was never enlarged and some supply ships lay at anchor for three weeks or more before they could be unloaded via harbour tenders.

The badly equipped expedition force was led by General Charles Townshend (Chitral Charlie), an ambitious, headstrong and arrogant officer who had little time for his British soldiers and viewed the Indian Army forces with open contempt. He also seriously underestimated the fighting ability of the Turkish Army. Townshend, after some initial successes, was forced to retreat to the town of Kut, which was soon completely surrounded by Turkish forces. The siege of Kut began.

Several attempts to relieve Kut were undertaken, but all to no avail and in the end Townshend had no choice but to surrender in April 1916 to prevent even more of his troops dying from starvation. His attempts at negotiation were summarily dismissed by the Turks, for they knew the exact state of things since Townshend had monopolised the telegraph system from the beginning, sending regular battle reports to his friends and relatives in the UK.

General Townshend never joined his troops on the long march into captivity. Instead, he was accommodated in a comfortable villa in Anatolia, along with his personal batman, his ADC and a further ADC supplied by the Turkish Army, while his forces were subjected to cruel mistreatment by their captors. When the news of the humiliating defeat and the shameful shambles that caused it was carried back to London by survivors, the British Government ordered an inquiry into the circumstances – the so-called Mesopotamia Commission.

The disdainful findings of an earlier report on the campaign, the Vincent-Bingley Report, were also incorporated into the MC report as was a Minority Report by Commander Josiah Wedgewood, which was even more scathing. It all hit the Army Council like a bombshell! Various pieces of information from the report were leaked to the press and so the government had no choice but to reluctantly publish it. Not only were supplies totally inadequate, but the whole expedition depended solely on river transport, which in turn was also hampered by the regular spring floods on the Tigris river. In addition, the medical treatment facilities were virtually non-existent so that many thousands of wounded, who could have been saved, died of infections and exposure because there was no way to transport them to safety. What made it even worse was that during the whole campaign, the word was going out that the wounded were being well taken care of – which was a blatant lie!

The stark criticism went right to the very top of the chain of command and many, including Commander Josiah Wedgewood, demanded that action be taken against many of those involved with a view to prosecuting or court-martialling them for severe dereliction of their duty to the solders under their command. In the event, not a single person was every indicted. Indeed, many of them simply took up other military or senior government positions. With hindsight, the whole disgraceful farce seemed to have been a rehearsal for the Chilcot Report a hundred years later.

I’d definitely give this book the full five stars and recommend it unreservedly.

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