The Hampshires in Mesopotamia 1915-18 and the Siege of Kut-al-Amara
Most people have heard of the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele and perhaps even the Gallipoli campaign. Few, however, are aware that thousands of British troops fought in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) during the Great War and that the Army suffered one of its most humiliating defeats there. Moreover, for many of those men who joined the Hampshire Regiment in 1914 in a spirit of excitement and adventure, Mesopotamia would be their graveyard.
The British were in Mesopotamia for one primary reason: oil. With the Royal Navy increasingly reliant on oil-powered ships, it was vital that the newly-founded Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) be protected from the Ottoman Turks who were fighting alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary in the Great War.
Mesopotamia was also of major geo-strategic importance – as Iraq is today. In 1914 the British Empire had to protect the Persian Gulf because of its proximity to India. There were worrying signs, too, of increasing German military and economic influence in the area with many Turkish regiments advised or even commanded by German officers.
In 1915 the focus of the War Office in London was on the Western Front and Gallipoli and responsibility for the Mesopotamia campaign was initially left largely to the British Indian Army. The subsequent ‘mission creep’ – pushing on beyond the original military goal – and confusion between the authorities in London and India when the campaign began to unravel lay at the heart of the disaster that overtook the Army at Kut-al-Amara in 1916.
The 4th Hampshires in Mesopotamia
Several Hampshire Regiment units fought in Mesopotamia during the Great War, but it is the 4th Battalion who are most closely associated with the campaign – primarily because of the losses they sustained there.
The 4th Hampshires were on Salisbury Plain for their annual summer camp when Britain declared war on 5 August 1914. Men immediately flocked to enlist and the battalion was soon ‘oversubscribed’. The Army’s solution was to authorise the formation of 2nd Line units which were distinguished by a ‘2/’ prefix from the original unit (prefixed ‘1/’.) Thus the 4th Hampshires were split into the 1/4th Battalion and 2/4th Battalion.
The backbone of the 1/4th Battalion were the pre-war Territorial soldiers. The War Office quickly decided that units such as these were sufficiently experienced for them to replace Regular Army units overseas, particularly in India. On 9 October the 1/4th Hampshires sailed for Bombay, arriving a month later. From there they travelled to the British Army base at Poona (Pune in the modern state of Maharashtra in western India), where they were assigned to the 2nd Indian Division of the Indian Army. In January 1915 the battalion moved again, to Rawalpindi (in modern Pakistan).
The 2/4th Hampshires, by contrast, had little military experience despite a smattering of pre-war soldiers in their ranks. They were also desperately short of equipment and supplies. However, in December 1914 they, too, were ordered to India, arriving in January 1915. They were posted to Quetta (in Baluchistan in modern Pakistan) on the North West Frontier.
Both battalions had to acclimatise and get to grips with the very unfamiliar conditions of Indian service. They also had to begin training – the 2/4th did theirs in the mountains around Quetta. The 2/4th remained in India until April 1917. In that time, the unit supplied hundreds of men as drafts for other battalions fighting in different theatres of war, but primarily Mesopotamia.
The Allied Army – initially 6th (Poona) Division under Major-General Charles Townshend – had arrived in Mesopotamia soon after war broke out. By the end of November, the port of Basra had been secured and the town of Qurna was captured the following month.
On 18 March 1915 the 1/4th Hampshires arrived at Basra from India as part of build-up of British and Indian forces in Mesopotamia. However, other elements necessary for a deeper advance up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, particularly medical and logistical support, were not increased.
The Hampshires were initially employed north of Basra on steamers on the River Euphrates, operating against Turkish lines of communications. They took no part in a hard-fought engagement at Shaiba (12-15 April 1915) in which the British successfully defeated a Turkish attempt to retake Basra. With the port city secure once more, the battalion was ordered to Ahwaz in Arabistan (in modern Iran) to confront Turkish forces threatening the APOC pipeline there. The Hampshires spent a month operating in difficult terrain – often swampy – and increasing heat, but the Turks refused to give battle and the battalion returned to Basra.
The Allies, by this time strengthened by the arrival of the 12th Division under Major General George Gorringe and the 6th Cavalry Brigade commanded by Major-General Sir Charles Melliss VC, returned to the offensive and on 4 June captured the town of Amara. Conditions were far from ideal – the flooding of the Tigris resulted in waterlogged ground while the extremes of heat and swarms of flies must have seemed utterly alien to the British soldiers. The operations around Amara saw the British use a variety of vessels – particularly flat-bottomed bellums – to cross the flooded ground and attack Turkish positions. This became known as ‘Townshend’s Regatta’.
The advance northwards continued, with the commanders justifying each new objective as necessary to protect the one previously captured. In truth, Basra could have been defended comparatively easily once Qurna and Amara had been taken.
The next attack, on the town of Nasiriyah, 28 miles up the Euphrates from Amara, followed a month later. The first assault on 14 July using boats failed. A second attempt was made on 24 July, with the 1/4th Hampshires in the thick of the fighting in temperatures that reached 110 Fahrenheit. In one 24-hour period alone, 15 men collapsed with heatstroke, one dying. The Turks eventually withdrew and Nasiriyah was occupied on 25 July. The Hampshires, having suffered 30 per cent casualties, were then taken out of the line and returned to Amara. Just eight officers and 167 men remained fit for duty.
General Sir John Nixon, senior commander of the British Indian Army, ordered a further advance, despite misgivings from Townshend. Kut-al-Amara was taken on 27 September 1915, but crucially the Turkish forces there escaped and regrouped. More troops were sent to reinforce 6th Division which advanced again to Ctesiphon, just 18 miles from Baghdad. Here the Allies and Turks fought an inconclusive battle on 22 November. After the battle, with his supply lines stretched beyond their limits, Townshend decided to withdraw to Kut pursued by the Turks.
The exhausted troops of 6th Division reached Kut on 3 December 1915, having marched 44 miles in just 36 hours. The garrison had stockpiles of supplies and, with reinforcements expected to arrive within a month, Townshend took the fateful decision to stand at Kut and defend the town.
The Siege of Kut: 7 December 1915-29 April 1916
Kut stands on a peninsula two miles long by one mile wide within a horseshoe bend of the River Tigris. The population was around 6,200, mainly Arabs, most of whom chose to stay during the siege. The arrival of Townshend’s 6th Division pushed that figure up to nearly 21,000. Of these, 197 were men of the 1/4th Hampshires, comprised mainly of the battalion’s Headquarters and A Company, plus drafts from other battalions such as the 2/4th. The Hampshires within Kut were led by Major Foster Footner, from Romsey, who commanded nine other officers and 187 other ranks. The battalion came under orders of Major-General Melliss’s 30th Brigade.
The siege began on 7 December 1915. Relief was expected to arrive quickly, and this was the major factor in the decision to allow the native population to stay in Kut. However, it had a huge impact on the availability of food for the troops.
The town was subjected to shelling, sniper fire and attacks by aircraft as well as frontal assaults by Turkish infantry, particularly in the early stages when British losses numbered between 150 and 200 each day. However, Turkish casualties were also very heavy and so they settled in for a long siege aimed at starving the defenders into submission.
The food situation within Kut quickly became serious. Fresh meat ran out at the end of December and three-quarter rations were introduced in mid-January. Mules and horses were slaughtered to supplement supplies, but many Indian troops refused to eat horseflesh because it was against their religion. Rations were cut again in February by which time the hospital was filled with men suffering from dysentery, scurvy, malaria, gastroenteritis and pneumonia. By the end of the siege, up to 80 soldiers a day were dying in Kut, many from starvation.
The winter weather added to the misery of the Kut garrison. Heavy rain left soaked men to the skin, filled trenches with water, and leaked through the hospital roof. The nights were also bitterly cold.
On 29 April 1916, with food supplies exhausted and all hope of relief gone, Major-General Townshend surrendered the Kut garrison and its 13,309 personnel to the Turks. Of these, 2,689 were British, including 277 officers, and 10,440 (204 officers) were Indian, including 3,248 camp followers.
During the five-month siege 1,025 men had died from enemy action, 721 from disease and 72 were missing. A further 2,500 men had been wounded and 1,450 were in hospital.
Efforts to Relieve Kut: January-April 1916
The British did not stand idly by and abandon Kut to its fate and made several attempts to break through to the besieged garrison. On 4 January 1916 a relief force under Lieutenant-General Sir Fenton Aylmer advanced up the Tigris to Sheik Saad (see map above) which was captured five days later after fierce fighting. The next objective, known as The Wadi, was taken on 14 January at which point the Turks withdrew to strong defensive positions at the Hanna Defile (Um-El-Hanna).
On 21 January the Relief Force attacked at El-Hanna in atrocious conditions. Thick mud made the movement of troops and equipment difficult and the Turks had had time to improve their defences which were a mile in depth. Among the attacking British force were 345 men of the 1/4th Hampshires who were particularly eager for success given that many of their comrades were trapped inside Kut.
The attack was a disaster. After shelling the Turkish positions, the British and Indian troops advanced in heavy rain over flat ground which afforded neither cover nor surprise. The 9th Brigade, which four 1/4th Hampshires had managed to infiltrate, attempted reinforce a group of around 60 men who had got within 50 yards of the Turkish trenches. However, they were quickly driven back.
On a day of heavy casualties, the Hampshires suffered particularly badly. They went into battle with 16 officers and 339 other ranks and came out with three and 64 respectively. Among those killed was the 1/4th Battalion’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Bowker (right), a pre-war soldier who lived in the village of Longparish, near Andover. Company Sergeant Major Eric Rule, of St Paul’s Terrace, Winchester, and Private Sidney Coles, of Western Road, Winchester, also lost their lives.
One account describes how a group of Hampshires were cut down:
A small batch of the Hants were seen to advance at walking pace some 1,800 yards without taking cover. At 400 yards from the enemy one officer and two men were left. They walked coolly on and were within 300 yards of the Turkish trenches when the officer, the last of that forlornest of forlorn hopes, fell.
The attack was abandoned and the British soldiers, cold and wet, withdrew. Those unfortunate enough to be wounded on the battlefield had to crawl back as best they could through the mud and slime. Many were never seen again. For several months, the shattered remnants of the 1/4th Hampshires were fit for nothing more than camp and guard duties.
The British refused to give up on Kut. Another major relief effort was launched on 8 March 1916 with an attack on Duijaila Redoubt. This, too, failed and casualties were again high. Several more attempts to break the siege were made throughout April, including a bid to buy the garrison’s freedom (Captain T.E. Lawrence was part of the negotiating team) and a daring attempt to run the Tigris blockade by steamer. All ended in failure. The Relief Force suffered 23,000 casualties in the fighting, including 10,000 in just three weeks in April during the final desperate attempts to relieve Kut.
The March into Captivity: Summer 1916
Nine men of the 1/4th Hampshires died in Kut during the siege which left ten officers and 178 other ranks to march out of the garrison when it surrendered on 29 April 1916. The captured men marched together as far as Shumran where the officers and rank and file were separated.
British officers fared far better in Turkish captivity than their men. From Shumran most officers continued their journeys up river by barge. They were then split into four groups and marched nearly 400 miles to various PoW camps. Many had shared donkeys to ride or at least to carry their belongings. They also received better food.
Most officers ended up at the Turkish prisoner-of-war camps at Afion Kara Hissar, Kastamuni, Changri, Kedos and Yozgad. Their treatment there depended largely on the character of the camp commandant, but each received a small amount of regular pay which invariably went back to the Turks to pay for food and accommodation.
Major-General Townshend fared best of all. He was imprisoned on an island overlooking Constantinople where he spent the remainder of the war in relative luxury.
For the British and Indian NCOs and men, life as a prisoner of the Turks was to be brutal and often short. Most of the men were already weakened by the privations they had endured during the siege, but worse was to come. At Shumran they were issued with coarse black biscuits which they ate dry without soaking them in water first. The unfamiliar food, weeks old, wreaked havoc with the men’s digestive systems and the following morning 91 had died. In total, nearly 300 men died at Shumran in the first week of captivity, including Private Charles Hammond of Clifton Road, Winchester.
In a letter, Regimental Sergeant Major William Leach of the 1/4th Hampshires described the men’s physical condition:
After five months of siege these men were as weak as rats from starvation, none of them fit to march five miles; they were full of dysentery, beri-beri, malaria and enteritis; they had no doctors; no medical stores, and no transport; the hot weather, just beginning, would have meant in those deserts much sickness and many deaths, even among troops who were fit, well cared for and well supplied.
The prisoners were marched 100 miles to Baghdad in just eight days, herded and beaten along the way by the Arab conscripts who formed part of the escort. By time they reached Baghdad many men had bartered all their possessions, including their shoes. Others had had them stolen while they slept. Some of the sickest prisoners were returned to the British, but deaths continued at the rate of around 19 each day.
From Baghdad the march northwards continued, to Tikrit, Samarra and then Mosul which the first group of other ranks reached on 3 June. Around 100 soldiers remained at Mosul to receive treatment, but most died there. From Mosul the trek continued to the railhead at Ras-Al-Hain, some 200 miles to the north-west, travelling via Dolabia, Rumailan, Kabir, Nisibin and Kochhisar. Many men remained in these places to work on the Baghdad Railway, among them Fred Richards, who bravely endured the long march to Nisibin despite the wounds he had received in the fighting at Kut. He died at Nisibin (now Nusaybin on the modern Turkey-Syrian border) sometime before the end of January 1917.
Some soldiers owed their lives to the Germans they encountered on the march. Appalled at the treatment being meted out to fellow Europeans, these Germans remonstrated forcefully with the Turks and arranged for medical help and better work conditions in the camps.
Conditions on the journey to Ras-Al-Hain were perhaps the worst of the entire march. Almost certain death at the hands of the Arab guards awaited those unable to keep up, as one British officer recounted:
The tail of the column was an awful place … For the most part British soldiers stayed with their friends until they were dead … I shall never forget one soldier who could go no farther. He fell resignedly on the floor, the stump of a cigarette in his mouth, and with a tiredness born of long suffering, buried his head in his arms to shut out the disappearing column and smoked on … I saw another man crawling on all fours over the desert in the dark quite alone.
Those prisoners taken to hospital en route did not always fare better. An Army chaplain wrote about his visit to one ‘hospital’ in Nisibin on 29 June:
I thought I had witnessed horror enough in these frightful hospital conditions, but another more terrible sight had got to be seen. There was a small, dark, dank room, with no windows to it, only a few feet square. Something told me to go inside this room, and there to my horror I saw two British soldiers, absolutely naked, lying in their own faeces, which had not been cleaned up for several days. They were both dying and, thank God, one was unconscious. The other said to me ‘Oh, sir, please kneel down and ask God may let me die quickly. I can no longer stand these horrors’.
They were horrors repeated a thousand times over on the road to Ras-Al-Hain.
After reaching the railhead, most of the British prisoners continued over the Taurus Mountains on foot to Asia Minor where they were dispersed among the smaller work camps. The soldiers worked mainly on railway construction projects at Ras-Al-Hain, Afion Kara Hissar, Mamourie, Bagtsche and Yarbaschi. Other prisoners ended up at Entilli, Kedos, Adana, Airan, Angora, Tarsus, Changri, Daridja, Mosul and Baghdad.
Conditions in the camps were poor. Bagtsche was known as ‘The Cemetery’ and was eventually closed down in 1917 when details of conditions there were leaked to the outside world. Yarbaschi closed the same year for the same reason.
Survival rates among the Kut prisoners differed markedly. Of the ten 1/4th Battalion officers captured all survived while only 50 of the original 178 rank and file made it home again. Of the 13,309 soldiers who surrendered at Kut, 13,078 went into captivity. Of these at least 4,718 died, more than 3,000 on the march into captivity. This figure, however, does not include the men who died from other causes such as Spanish Flu. After the war survivors erected a plaque in the crypt at St Paul’s Cathedral dedicated to those who died in the siege and afterwards in captivity. The total given is 5,746.
Mrs Bowker’s Comforts Fund
Mrs Esme Bowker was the widow of Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Bowker, Commanding Officer of the 1/4th Battalion the Hampshire Regiment, who was killed at the Battle of El Hanna on 21 January 1916. After his death Mrs Bowker resolved to do all she could to help those men of the battalion who had become prisoners of the Turks.
Her ‘Comforts Fund’, started in July 1916, raised money for parcels to send out to the prisoners. Mrs Bowker did this by having each prisoner ‘adopted’ by someone in Britain.
The Comforts Fund ledger, held by the Royal Hampshire Regimental Museum in Winchester, is a treasure trove of information and includes the prisoners’ names, addresses and next of kin, which camp they were being held in, the name of their adopters, details of all the parcels sent out to them and what became of the soldiers. It even lists the men’s height and boot and cap sizes, presumably to ensure the correct size clothing was sent out.
Senior NCOs played a critical role in helping the soldiers to endure the long months of captivity. Regimental Sergeant Major William ‘Billy’ Leach (right) of the 1/4th Hampshires became revered among his men for the selfless work he did on their behalf.
William had been born in Salisbury and before the war he trained to be a teacher at the Diocesan Training College in Winchester. In 1914 he was a teacher at St Thomas Elementary School in the city.
During the long march into captivity, William would have been among the most senior ranked officers because the Turks had separated the commissioned officers from the rank and file. His notebooks, held by the Royal Hampshire Regimental Museum, record details of the march such as distances travelled, rations issued to individual soldiers and his battalion’s dwindling numbers. William spent time at Nisibin, but in Mrs Bowker’s Comforts Fund Ledger (see above) he is also recorded at Afion Kara Hissar, Yarbaschi and Adano. He was ‘adopted’ by Mrs Bowker herself and she records him as being 5ft 10ins tall with size 8 shoes.
William’s notebooks describe in detail something of the prisoners’ daily routine as well as hospital admissions and deaths. He was also responsible for the distribution of parcels, letters and clothing. William was not only popular among his own men, but also with Turks and Germans who allowed him to travel around the country and visit the PoW camps.
William died of typhus on 2 May 1918. One NCO who assisted with his funeral at Nisibin wrote:
The funeral was the best conducted one that I have witnessed as a prisoner of war, and several Germans attended. Sergeant Major Leach won respect and popularity by his unfailing courtesy, willingness to help others, and hard work on behalf of the prisoners at Nisibin, from captives and captors alike. His going was a sad loss to the British community at Nisibin and to all the little groups of Englishmen in isolated camps for miles around.
Captain Puri, a Sikh officer imprisoned at Nisibin with William, later wrote to the Commanding Officer of the 1/4th Hampshires:
He was of very great help to me in looking after the interests of British and Indian prisoners of war in Rasal-Ain [sic] and Nisibin districts in Turkey. He was very untiring in his efforts to look after the men. He had to do a lot of travelling. He was very tasteful, straightforward and universally respected both by British and Indian Prisoners of War. His loss was a great loss to our prisoners in their captivity. I can say that he contracted the disease while looking after and trying to improve the conditions of certain men and his death was directly attributable to the performance of his duties, which he had most willingly and ungrudgingly undertaken.
Captain Floyd of the 4th Hampshires expressed his admiration for William in a letter to Mrs Bowker:
I tried to get Leach along as a servant, but he would not leave the men. He is the best man I have ever struck. Some new orderlies who joined us at Kastamouni told me that the work he did with the men on the trek [from Kut] was wonderful. All those poor men who had to trek as prisoners owe Leach a heavy debt of gratitude.
William was buried at Nisibin but after the war his body was removed and reinterred at Baghdad North Gate Cemetery. Today it lies in an unmarked grave because it proved impossible to identify the remains of the soldiers when they were moved from Nisibin. William is commemorated on the memorials at King Alfred College, Winchester, and St Thomas’s School, the latter held today by King’s School, Winchester.
A Winchester Welcome Home: February 1919
Ten officers and 178 other ranks marched out of Kut and into captivity on 29April 1916. Whilst all the officers survived the war only about 40 of the rank and file saw England again.
The official welcome home took place on 19 February 1919 and was organised by Mrs Bowker, widow of the deceased Commanding Officer, Mr Reginald Harris, whose son escaped from captivity, and the Mayor and Mayoress. The surviving officers and men first formed up on Castle Hill, where photographs were taken, and then marched to the Guildhall, preceded by the Hampshire Depot Band. The men sat down to a meal in the Banqueting Hall with a menu (right) that was supposed to be amusing. Given their suffering over the previous two and a half years, one wonders just how funny the veterans found it.
A programme of musical entertainment followed and Mr Harris then gave a speech in which he spoke of the ‘tense anxiety’ and the roller-coaster of emotions that the soldiers’ families and friends at home had experienced during their long confinement. He continued:
I will not dwell on what you suffered during your two and a half years of captivity. I am sure we do not know, and probably it will never be known, what sufferings you went through … But we cannot forget the gallant fellows who have not come home. They have died like British heroes, their memory will never be forgotten, and we tender to those whom they have left behind to mourn, our sympathy.
In his response, Major Footner went out of his way to praise Regimental Sergeant Major Leach for all his efforts for the men on the march and in the prison camps.
For many of the soldiers present it was the first reunion they had enjoyed with their comrades since the march into captivity. It would not be the last – an annual Kut Garrison Dinner for the 1/4th survivors was held for many years to come.
The 1/4th Hampshires gradually rebuilt their strength after the disaster at El-Hanna and continued to serve in Mesopotomia until being moved to Persia and the southern Caucasus Mountains towards the end of the war. The 2/4th Battalion remained in India until the spring of 1917 when they moved to Egypt. The battalion fought in Palestine before being transferred to the Western Front in 1918 where they fought with distinction in the great battles leading up to the Armistice. The battalion served as part of the Army of Occupation in Germany after the war and was disbanded on 31 October 1919.