History, Ottomans in British defeat in Kut

104 years of the Ottoman victory against the British in the siege of Kut

On April 29, 1916, 13,000 Anglo-British soldiers surrendered to the Ottomans after 5 months of siege in present-day Iraq. It was the largest capitulation in British history in a century and a half.

April 29 marked the 104th anniversary of the historic Ottoman military victory over the British in 1916, in the siege of Kut, which occurred during World War I in present-day Iraq and is regarded by historians as the “worst defeat of the Allies during the war”. In fact it was the largest capitulation in the history of the United Kingdom between 1783 and 1942.

The siege of Kut (Kut al-Amara), also called the “first battle of Kut” took place in the town of the same name, located about 160 kilometres south of Baghdad. It took place within the framework of the Mesopotamia campaign carried out by the British Empire in the homonymous territories of the Ottoman Empire; the objective of the British was to protect their oil interests in Persia and Kuwait, and to try to open a new eastern front to seize Baghdad and instigate uprisings among the Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire

In the framework of the campaign, the Ottoman general Nureddin Pasha had managed to defeat the British in the Battle of Ctesiphon, forcing them to retreat to Kut, where they arrived on December 3, 1915. The British general in command, Charles Townshend, had suffered significant losses in battle so that only 11,000 Anglo-British soldiers (besides cavalry) from the British 6th Division were able to take refuge in Kut.

Townshend decided to entrench himself in the village instead of continuing to march down the Tigris River down towards the city of Basra, held by the British since 2014, considering that Kut offered a good defensive position thanks to the river, which served both as a natural barrier and as a communication channel to receive supplies. The Ottoman forces under the command of Halil Pasha (then Halil Bey) arrived in Kut on December 7, 1915, and seeing that they were sufficient to besiege the town, Townshend ordered his cavalry to leave the city and flee to Basra.

British attempt to lift the siege

Initially, the Ottoman forces consisted of only 11,000 soldiers, but they grew steadily as they received continual reinforcements from other parts of the empire. The British then decided to request reinforcements to try to lift the siege; however, Townshend reported that he only had supplies for one month even though he had supplies for more than four months.

Today historians are still arguing why the British general offered this incorrect information, but this caused the relief force to be recruited in a hurry and without sufficient troops. Meanwhile, Ottoman reinforcements continued to increase and Khalil Pasha, the region’s Ottoman commander, arrived in Kut with about 30,000 more men.

A relief expedition of some 19,000 men under British Lieutenant General Fenton Aylmer was assembled in January 1916 and embarked on the Tigris in the town of Ali Gharbi -about 100 km south- to reach the river up to Kut. To disrupt it, the Ottomans divided their forces into two: two divisions maintained the siege, while two others cut off the path to the relief column some 30 kilometres downstream from Kut, camping in Hanna Pass, a narrow strip of dry land between the river and the marshes of Suwaikiya.

The Battle of Hanna took place on January 21, 1916, and the result was a serious defeat for the British expeditionary force, which suffered some 2,700 casualties including dead and wounded, which was disastrous for the objective of helping the Kut garrison; the latter had at the same time attempted to launch attacks against the Ottomans to try to break the siege, but the besiegers were well entrenched so that the successive assaults failed to open a permanent gap in the positions of the Ottomans, who had decided to surrender the place by hunger.

History: Ottoman siege of Kut

The capitulation of Kut

In the month of February the situation of the British began to become unsustainable: the Ottomans were reinforced with a new division and the bombardments of Kut increased, while the besieged had to start rationing the increasingly scarce food. Their increasingly weak position allowed the Ottomans to withdraw some units to use them to thwart Aylmer’s attempts to continue advancing towards Kut to lift the siege, which continued thanks to the dispatch of new reinforcements.

On March 8, a new attempt cost Aylmer 4,000 soldiers, so he was relieved days after command, being replaced by General George Gorringe; he, in command of some 30,000 troops -practically the same forces that the Ottomans had arranged to block their way- began an assault on April 5, making some progress, but with serious losses and without achieving his goal of reaching Kut, which this month it received the first air-borne supply in history to provide food and ammunition to the besieged… although many ended up falling on the Tigris or on the Ottoman side.

The situation of Townshend and his besieged troops in Kut became unsustainable. There was an attempt to request help from the Russians, who attempted to send 20,000 Cossacks from Persia; even an attempt to negotiate a secret ransom in which T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) took part. But by the end of April, it seemed clear that no one could rescue the Kut garrison.

After achieving a ceasefire, Townshend entered into negotiations on April 27, but Halil only accepted the unconditional surrender, which the British general finally accepted on April 29 after a 147-day siege. 13,309 soldiers -two-thirds Indians and the rest British- survived and were taken as prisoners. Ottoman Commander Halil received the title of Pasha for his achievement; the Turkish historian İlber Ortaylı points out that he “acted like a gentleman with the British officers who surrendered” and that he offered all possible help to transport the prisoners.

The largest British capitulation in a century and a half

The British capitulation at Kut was the largest in the history of the United Kingdom from 1783 to 1942. The British historian Jan Morris described it as the “vilest capitulation in the military history of Great Britain”, and another historian, Christopher Catherwood, called it as “the worst defeat of the Allies in World War I“.

The Ottoman victory over the British in the siege of Kut caused the loss of 30,000 soldiers among the British and about 10,000 on the Ottoman side, and caused the exhaustion of both sides, who had to stop fighting on this front until December 1916: it was then that the British launched a new offensive from Basra by ascending the Tigris. A force consisting almost entirely of troops recruited in West India, managed to seize Kut, Baghdad and other regions in March 1917, consolidating the British presence in Mesopotamia.