As the transports taking the 43rd (Wessex) Division to India steamed through the Eastern Mediterranean diplomatic relations between the Allies and Turkey steadily worsened, which was not surprising given Germany’s sedulous cultivation of friendship with the Muslim world. Hostilities began in the first days of November 1914 and war was declared formally on November 5th. In anticipation of such a development the British Admiralty had long been voicing concern for the security of the oil-fields of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Persia was a neutral but weakly governed country in which British, Russian, Turkish and German diplomats and agents competed for influence. The 140 mile-long pipeline to the refinery at Abadan, near the head of the Persian Gulf, ran dangerously close to the border with the Basra province of Turkish Mesopotamia. Even before the end of September the India Office in London had telegraphed the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, warning him to prepare an expeditionary force for operations in the Gulf and on October 18th the 16th Brigade of the 6th Indian Division set sail from Bombay, with orders to occupy Abadan and, should war with Turkey break out, Basra as well.
Basra was then a town of 60,000 inhabitants and the centre of the Turkish administration of the southern half of Lower Mesopotamia. The 16th Brigade landed at the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab on the day after the declaration of war and was soon joined by the other Brigades of the 6th Indian Division. After some sharp fighting the British occupied Basra on November 21st and Quma, forty miles further on, where the Euphrates joins the Tigris, early in December. For the next four months there was little military activity but while the Turks were preparing a counter-attack in the hope of recovering Basra, the British began to experience the problems of campaigning in a country which was extremely cold at night and exceptionally hot by day,* which away from the river banks was flat dusty desert or, after a rainstorm, a glutinous morass, a country which in spring was swamped by the flood waters of the two great rivers, whose twists and turns and mudbanks made navigation difficult at other times of year. Some of the Arab sheikhs had loathed the Turks and welcomed the British, but in a lawless society the local people exploited every chance of looting; camps and river traffic were continually sniped and the dead and wounded of both sides were stripped of their possessions if stretcher or burial parties failed to reach them quickly.
The Indian Government in Delhi and Commander-in-Chief in Simla were accustomed to suppressing internal disorder and fighting frontier wars, but had no experience of sending expeditions overseas. One of their worst mistakes was the lamentable under-estimate of the necessary provision of medical services to cope with the thousands of men who fell victim to heat and sun stroke, dysentery and fevers as well as those wounded in battle with a stubborn enemy. Administrative under-funding and incompetence was compounded by disagreements between Delhi and London as to the consequences of the capture of Basra. Would the pipeline and the refinery be safe only if the Turks were driven out of the entire province they had ruled from Basra and, perhaps, from Baghdad, 500 miles away? How important was the Mesopotamia campaign to the defeat of Turkey, which would greatly benefit the Serbs and the Russians? The attack on the Dardanelles, launched in April 1915 in the hope of a quick breakthrough and the capture of Constantinople was, from London’s perspective, the best means of achieving a victory that would make a Mesopotamian campaign irrelevant. The Government of India’s appreciation of Mesopotamia’s importance was radically different. Success there would enhance British prestige and the establishment of a protectorate would strengthen the security of India’s western frontier by increasing British influence in the Gulf. In May 1915, at an anxious time of major military operations in France and the Aegean and the political crisis from which emerged a coalition Government in London, Delhi’s views prevailed – with the dire consequences which unfolded in the next twelve months.
The Turkish counter-stroke against Basra had been delivered in April but was repulsed at the hard fought battle of Shaiba, giving the newly arrived Commander-in-Chief, General Sir John Nixon, the opportunity to put Delhi’s forward policy into effect. On May 31st the 6th Division under Major-General Townshend’s command brushed aside the Turkish defences on the Tigris north of Quma and after a four day pursuit occupied Amara. It was a brilliant achievement but it extended by about 85 miles the precarious line of communication up which came military stores, food and mail and down which at the height of the hot weather came the increasing numbers of the sick, either to the makeshift hospitals in Basra or, in severe cases, to ships sailing for India.
By the end of August the worst of the hot weather had passed. Once more Sir John Nixon could not stand still; the Turks were re-grouping at Kut, the next town up-river from Amara, and the dream of a victory parade in Baghdad was enticing. Having prised the Turks out of a well-entrenched position Townshend entered Kut on September 28th; he was now 380 miles from the Gulf and 120 miles short of Baghdad. General Nixon’s persistent demands for reinforcement had been met by the promised arrival, at an unspecified date, of two Indian divisions withdrawn from France for future garrison duty in Baghdad, so despite Townshend’s misgivings about his weakness in numbers – – he had no more than 12,000 men – and the unreliability of river transport with the flow of the Tigris at its annual lowest, Nixon ordered him to march on Baghdad whose capture would compensate for the stalemate on the Gallipoli peninsula. The Turks were waiting for Townshend at the ancient Arch of Ctesiphon, 23 miles short of his prize. After a three day battle in which some of the Turkish position was taken, at heavy cost, Townshend had too few fit survivors to press home any advantage, and on November 23rd his depleted and exhausted division was compelled to turn back and head for Kut, fighting rearguard actions, enduring forced marches and losing some valuable river craft. Nixon told Townshend to remain in Kut as his presence there would deter a Turkish advance on Amara or Basra. Townshend had enough food and ammunition to hold out for some weeks and a relief force would soon arrive to break up the siege. A determined assault on Christmas Eve was repulsed and the Kut garrison remained confident that the British forces gathering at Au Gharbi, halfway to Amara, would reach them early in the New Year of 1916.
*The difference between day & night temperatures could be 50 Fahrenheit; see H Birch Reynardson, Mesopotamia, 1914-15, Melrose, 1919, p.215.
Stanley Goodland in 1915: India & Mesopotamia.
Stanley’s experience of life as a subaltern officer in India on and off duty, in barracks, on exercises and his musketry course, was interrupted by his plunge into active service.
The 2nd Battalion, the Dorsetshire Regiment, was a regular unit previously stationed at Poona (now Pune) and was the British component of the 16th Brigade, thus claiming to be the original and longest serving battalion in Mesopotamia. Its record of service, written by CT Atkinson, can be found in the composite History of the Dorsetshire Regiment, 1914-1919.* The 2nd Dorsets were heavily involved in all the early fighting of the campaign. In November 1914 three officers and 21 other ranks had been killed in action and 149 men wounded. A steady trickle of sick men was sent back to India. At the battle of Shaiba, outside Basra, in April 1915 the colonel and three more officers were killed, 15 more being wounded, while 37 other ranks were killed and 115 wounded. By mid-May a further 133 men were in hospital with heat-stroke or fever.
It was this sorely depleted battalion which on May 25th welcomed a draft of eight officers and 232 men, composed of detachments from the Wessex Division, each of one officer, one sergeant, one corporal, two lance-corporals and 25 private soldiers. The Book of Remembrance lists the names of Stanley Goodland’s detachment from the 1/5 Somersets which, with a similar detachment from the 1/4 Somersets led by Lt GWR Bishop, was posted to A Company. The newly-arrived Territorials were thrown into action almost at once, though the 2nd Dorsets and all the 16th Brigade did not lead the advance up the Tigris, reaching Amara on June 5th, 48 hours behind the vanguard. Here ‘there was much sickness, both fever and dysentery being prevalent. Lieut Goodland and over 150 men were invalided to India. $
Stanley’s letters record his slow recovery from the severe attack of enteric fever which had forced him to give up after ‘about a fortnight’ in Amara. After four months of hospital treatment and convalescence he was back in uniform again, at Poona. It was by strange twists of fate that a Somerset Territorial commissioned only in July 1914 now found himself 15 months later the officer in command of the Indian depot of the Dorsets, a pukka regular regiment. The army postal service kept him in touch with the men he had left behind in Mesopotamia, now Commanded by Sergeant Eno, who were reinforced by a further draft of two NCOs and 13 privates in September. The detachment was fully involved in Townshend’s arduous campaign; the Book of Remembrance% traces its part in the distinguished record of the 2nd Dorsets. Some were killed, many more were wounded, and others probably fell sick; when the siege of Kut began only three out of the six NCOs and 15 of the 38 private soldiers remained on duty. Sergeant Eno was killed on December 10th; he was posthumously awarded the DCM for bravery in the field. When Kut surrendered the surviving two NCOs and seven privates became prisoners and of these only Lance-Corporal AV Nichols and Private EM Taylor emerged from Turkish captivity in 1918. Of the Dorsets all 12 of the captured officers, including Lt Bishop of the 1/4 Somersets, survived imprisonment in Turkey, but only 70 of the 350 other ranks who were marched out of Kut were alive to be repatriated at the end of the war.
Stanley’s prediction in his letter of November 6th that he would be re-united with his men on about December 15th was unrealisable. He left Poona on the day Townshend turned back from Ctesiphon and the siege of Kut was formed soon after his arrival at Basra. He was under no illusion as to his chances of survival; enteric fever had failed to kill him but an ounce of ‘Turkish Delight’ might do the trick. His sombre mood was intensified by his anxiety for his mother dying of rectal cancer. The issues of the Somerset County Gazette of December 25th and January 1st 1916 record her death on December 22nd and funeral on Christmas Eve, but it was many weeks before her younger son heard the dreaded but expected news.
* published by Henry Ling Ltd., Dorchester, 1932.
$ Atkinson, op. cit. p.185.
% pp. 25-32