To the British army in Mesopotamia, the ending of the five-month siege of Kut, which started in December 1915, was a dismal and humiliating failure. To the Ottoman Turks, however, it was a glorious victory.
As 1915 drew to a close, the commander of the British forces, Gen Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, had made a push up the Tigris hoping to take the great city of Baghdad, but was repulsed before reaching it by a Turkish contingent which had been waiting on either side of the Tigris for the advancing invaders. Instead, the dispirited British army withdrew back down the river until it came to the small town of Kut, which it entered, planning to rest up and wait there for reinforcements to arrive.
The town of Kut, 50 miles south of Baghdad, lies cradled in a curve of the Tigris, but to the British that curve was not a cradle but a stranglehold, for it allowed the Ottomans to virtually surround the town and thus imprison the British army in the very place where it had sought refuge.
The siege dragged on from December to January and beyond, with the promise of support troops and provisions never materialising. Casualties were high, with 23,000 British army men killed or wounded during the siege.
The attacks on Kut and the counter-attacks were relentless, making the supply of food critical. As well as his troops, Townshend had a further 6,000 citizens of Kut to feed. Relations between the army and the townsfolk were strained. Their houses ( hovels, as one report describes them) were commandeered and holes knocked in walls to facilitate movement. The marketplace was covered and used as a shelter by the army.
Relations deteriorated further when troops were ordered to enter dwellings and take everything the citizens had stored away for their own survival. This unpopular action produced enough grain, potatoes and domestic animals to extend from 22 to 84 the number of days Townshend’s troops might survive. But the siege continued to take its toll. By the end of January rations were cut by half and troops found themselves eating horses, mules, pigs and dogs.
By March, there were further cuts and with these came another problem: some 6000 of the British army troops were Indian whose religion – Hindu or Muslim – meant the former were vegetarian while the latter would not eat pork. Religious leaders were finally persuaded to allow dietary restrictions to be lifted but by then it was too late. Food drops made by aircraft either landed in enemy trenches or fell into the river. Heavy rain, exhaustion and malnutrition did the rest.
Word was sent to Townshend that he should offer a very large sum of money as ransom in return for safe passage for the troops but the Turks, emboldened by their success at Gallipoli, turned it down.
More attempts were made to break the siege, including dropping leaflets behind enemy lines aimed at driving a wedge between Arab and Turkish soldiers.
A steel-reinforced steamer laden with food came up the river but got stuck in the mud when the Ottomans threw a rope across the river to impede its progress.
Back in London, Herbert Asquith, though distracted by events in Dublin, wrote to his ladylove, Sylvia Henley: “I fear that the fate of Kut is sealed.” And indeed it was.
On April 27th, the British finally entered into talks with the Ottomans, the terms of which included arrangements for prisoners of war to travel to Baghdad. There was also a plea for the fair treatment of the Arab citizens of Kut, for theirs was a no-win war. Suspected by the Ottomans of collaborating, they were further suspected by the British of spying and passing information to Baghdad.
It was the biggest defeat ever endured by the British army, with losses in Mesopotamia alone totalling 51,830, a figure which included 3,500 non-combatant Indians.
So it was, with the talking over, that at dawn on April 29th, 1916, two lower-rank intelligence officers left the town of Kut and walked across the muddied battle field to the Ottoman trenches, the white flag of surrender carried by one of them – TE Lawrence.
And such is the terrible synchronicity of war – and of history – that on that same day though a few hours later and some 5,000 miles to the west, Patrick Pearse left Moore Street accompanied by Elizabeth O’Farrell bearing the white flag of surrender.