Yesterday saw the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Ctespihon. Following an extended run of good fortune at Basra, Qurna,Shaiba, Amara, Nasiriyeh and Kut within the space of a year, British forces finally ran out of luck in spectacular fashion. With the occupation of Kut in November 1915 regional British Commander-in-Chief Sir John Nixon ordered Sir Charles Townshend – commander of 6th Indian (Poona) Division – to further advance upon Baghdad.
Townshend argued against further extending the tenuous British supply line – already some 600km from the sea – without first consolidating supply lines from Basra, with specific requests for supplies of extra transport and trench warfare equipment. Nixon disagreed and instructed Townshend to proceed. In this Nixon was backed with the eager support of the Indian government – who had appointed him in the first place – and, more reluctantly, by the British government in London, whose initial opposition was overcome when the extent of India’s eagerness and confidence became apparent.
The Turks meanwhile, following further defeat at Kut, had retired to carefully prepared defence positions among the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon. This formed the Turks’ forward defence of Baghdad, Nixon’s real aim.By the time Nixon gave the order to advance to Townshend the Turks – under Nur-Ud-Din – had constructed two lines of deep trenches either side of the River Tigris, defended by some 18,000 largely experienced troops.
Facing them Townshend brought approximately 11,000 Anglo-Indian troops, a force unlikely to be further boosted save for two Indian divisions promised from the Western Front for the purpose of occupying Baghdad. The reality was that the British government were willing to be convinced of the possibility of a major victory on the Mesopotamian Front. While the capture of Baghdad had no great strategic value in its own right, it would nevertheless undoubtedly prove of great propaganda value, being one of the four great cities of Islam: a matter of some importance in the light of continuing failure at Gallipoli.
Thus Townshend’s force initiated operations against Nur-Ud-Din on 22 November 1915. Aware of the impracticality of launching a dual attack on both sides of the river at once – not only due to shortage of men but also on account of poor ground conditions on one side – he decided to concentrate his attack on the east bank. Specifically he chose to repeat his earlier success at Kut-al-Amara and issued orders for night-marching, his aim being to surprise the Turk defenders in a flank attack. Unfortunately many of his force got lost in the dark, thus losing all element of surprise, and the British attack foundered while negotiating the Turkish second-line defences.
Townshend, unlike earlier encounters, was unable to call upon naval support given the Turks’ extensive deployment of mines and artillery. The following day, 23 November, Turkish forces launched a mild counter-attack intended at reclaiming their front-line positions and although it failed Townshend’s casualty rate was increasing at an alarming rate. With no reserves to call upon he ordered a retreat
The Ottoman forces encircled Townshend at Kut and laid siege to Townshend’s forces. The end result was the surrender of Townshend and his ten thousand remaining soldiers, who were all marched into captivity. Four thousand soldiers would die while in captivity. The result was embarrassing for the British and refocused attention on the Middle East.