At the New Year of 1916 the urgency of the need to relieve Townshend’s besieged force in Kut dominated British strategy in Mesopotamia, but the practical difficulties of launching the campaign were daunting. Lieutenant-General Aylmer was now in charge of relief operations, but the Tigris Corps he commanded was in poor shape. Battalions which had already served for months in Mesopotamia needed to absorb and train the drafts which replaced the many sick and wounded. Newly arrived battalions were required to adjust at once to the hazards of local conditions. Brigades were composed of units unused to working together. Behind the front line the number of river craft above Basra fell sadly below requirements and the port facilities on the Shatt-al-Arab were inadequate for the efficient landing of reinforcements and supplies.
Ali Gharbi, on the Tigris half way between Amara and Kut, was the base from which the relief force set out on January 4th, marching up the left bank (that is, the northern bank, the trend of this stretch of the river being from West to East). A tough battle led to the capture on January 9th of the village of Shaikh Saad, more than twenty miles on, but at the cost of 4,000 casualties including 400 dead. On January 13th and 14th Aylmer’s army crossed the Wadi, a small tributary of the Tigris, only to come up against the Hanna defile, a strip of nominally dry land 12 miles long and less than a mile wide lying between the Tigris left bank and extensive marshes. The Turkish position at Hanna was vulnerable to enfilading fire from the right bank but the frustration of all attempts to span the broad river with a pontoon bridge ruled out such an attack for the moment. Four miserable days of high wind and heavy rain were followed by a drier spell and the launch on January 21st of the frontal attack on Hanna, where the Turks were now well dug in behind barbed wire. Heavy rain returned in the late morning and lasted all day and the following night. The Turks held their ground against successive waves of British assault; once more casualty figures rose and the inadequate medical services were overwhelmed, hundreds of wounded being left in the mud to suffer or die of exposure to the rain and the cold. One eye-witness observed: – ‘for collective misery the night of the 21st is probably unparalleled since the Crimea in the history of sufferings endured by the British Army.’1 Aylmer’s effective force was terribly depleted; for example of the six battalions of the 35th Brigade, already under strength on the morning of the 21st, four suffered more than 50% casualties, the worst 92%.
Blocked on the left bank, aware of Townshend’s dwindling supplies and anxious about the predicted flooding season, Aylmer next built up his force on the Tigris’ right bank. A long night march took the bulk of his army by dawn on March 8th to what seemed to be striking distance of the prominent mound known as the Dujaila Redoubt, three miles south of the river and about nine miles east of Kut. Confusions in crossing a waterless and featureless desert in the dark meant that the attack was delayed and the crucial advantage of surprise was lost. Though parts of the Turkish defences were reached the Dujaila Redoubt was not captured and Aylmer, having suffered 3,500 casualties was compelled to withdraw, to be swiftly replaced in command of the Tigris Corps by Lieutenant-General Gorringe. Reinforced by the 13th Division, commanded by Major-General Maude, composed of Kitchener’s New Army soldiers who had already fought at Gallipoli, Gorringe concentrated once more on the left bank of the Tigris and when he attacked Hanna on April 5th he found that the Turks had abandoned their lines, only to fall back on two equally well prepared positions from which the fighting on the next day did not dislodge them. The Tigris was now running high to overflowing and the British right flank was threatened with inundation from the rising waters of the marshes.
Townshend had at first overestimated the speed at which his rations would run out and by doing so had prompted the Tigris Corps to expend its strength before it was sufficiently strong and organised. By mid-April he and his men, though surviving on very short rations, were near the end of their tether. Gorringe made two more attempts to reach Kut, one on the right, the other on the left banks of the Tigris but without success and the attempt of the gunboat Julnar to break through the Turks’ river defences failed on the night of April 24th/25th. Two days later Townshend met the Turkish commander to discuss surrender terms; on the 29th the Turks entered Kut and 10,000 British soldiers passed into captivity. Their tragic adventures and sufferings cannot be recounted here.
The inability to rescue Kut and the dawning realisation in the United Kingdom of deficiencies in the organisation of the campaign – especially in the provision of medical services – had wide repercussions. The British were unable to resume the offensive in Mesopotamia until December 1916. By then the War Office in London had taken away the directing of the campaign from the Government of India. In August the Home Government appointed a Royal Commission to examine and report on the reasons for British failure. General Nixon’s term as Commander-in-Chief in Mesopotamia had ended in January; his successor, Lieutenant-General Lake, lasted till August when he was replaced by Major-General Maude who built on and expanded the logistical improvements Lake had originated. At last the port and ship repair installations near Basra were properly developed, the number of river craft greatly increased, medical services were adequately supplied and staffed and narrow gauge railways were built, including a line from Qurna to Amara. Lines of communication were better protected by barbed wire and patrols. Modern equipment was issued; each battalion was supplied with eight Lewis guns and each brigade was supported by a Machine Gun Company with sixteen Vickers guns. The Royal Flying Corps, so essential for reconnaissance operations, was given modern machines and soon established mastery of the air. Showing that he meant business, Maude escaped from the pressure of administrative problems by moving his headquarters from Basra to a point about twenty miles below Kut.2
The campaign to recover Kut began in December 1916 and was concluded victoriously in February 1917, after Maude’s army contrived to cross the Tigris from the right to the left bank a few miles upstream of the town. This time there was no denying the British in their advance on Baghdad, which was entered on March 11th. Thereafter the campaign continued for the remaining eighteen months of the war, ending with the British at the gates of Mosul. The operation which began in November 1914 with the arrival of one brigade of the Indian Army ended four years later, after the loss of nearly 100,000 casualties, with British and Imperial forces at a ration strength of half a million. The value of their contribution to the eventual outcome of the First World War can be left to military and political pundits to debate.
Stanley Goodland in 1916: Mesopotamia and India
In the second or third weeks of December 1915 Stanley Goodland reached Ali Gharbi, the headquarters of the newly formed Tigris Corps. After a period of staff work he was attached on January 3rd 1916 to the 1/5 Buffs (East Kent Regiment). This was a Territorial battalion, part of the Kentish Brigade of the Home Counties Division, which after a year in India had sailed for the Gulf early in December.3 It had to acclimatise itself rapidly to Mesopotamian conditions, for it was fully involved in every attempt of the Tigris Corps to relieve Kut, from the march on Shaikh Saad on January 4th to the last desperate attacks at the end of April. Particularly in the first 18 days the Buffs were in the thick of the fighting, as the casualty figures show. Appointed Adjutant of a battalion he had only just joined, whose organisation was shaken by its appalling losses Stanley Goodland, recovering from his flesh wound, must have had an uphill task but it was at this time that he struck up a life-long friendship with Captain (later Lt-Col) John Body4 who led the 1/5 Buffs after its colonel had been wounded and the second-in-command killed.
For the second time fever, now accompanied by jaundice, forced Stanley to report sick and in late May he left his friends in the Buffs and briefly returned to the same Bombay hospital to which he had been sent in 1915. A partial recovery soon enabled him to join the ‘jolly old Somersets’ at Chakrata, where his colleagues must have been interested to greet the only member of the battalion to have experienced active service. Lt-Col Cooke-Hurle turned to Stanley for help in preparing the departure of the draft of two officers and 150 NCOs and private soldiers which on October 20th left for service with the 1/4 Somersets in Mesopotamia. Stanley’s temporary spell as Adjutant foreshadowed the permanent appointment made in October 1917. He had shared his secret – about being recommended for a Military Cross in recognition of his bravery in rescuing the wounded colonel of the 37th Dogras on January 21st 1916 – only with Elsie; neither his family nor his 1/5 Somerset friends had been told. The decoration was gazetted on December 22nd and the news reached Meerut at Christmas.
The 1/5 Buffs remained in Mesopotamia to the end of the war, still commanded by John Body. The Battalion was the first to enter Baghdad and one of its officers hauled down the Turkish flag at the Citadel and hoisted the Union flag.5 Though it suffered casualties before and after the fall of Baghdad it was never again subjected to the grievous losses and extreme weather experienced from January to April 1916, the months of Stanley Goodland’s attachment.
1 Edmund Candler, The Long Road to Baghdad, Cassell, 1919, vol. I, p.96.
2 Brig-Gen FJ Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918. HMSO, 1925 vol. III, pp.30-36, p68.
3 Colonel RSH Moody, Historical Records of the Buffs, 1914-1919. Medici Society, 1922, pp.66, 123.
4 1875-1945, JP, DL, DSO & bar, OBE Tonbridge School Register ed. HD Furley, Rivington 1951, p.185.
5 Moody op. cit., p.197.