Recollections of the Siege of Kut & After: Two Accounts by Indian Army Officers During the First World War in Mesopotamia—Besieged in Kut and After by Charles H. Barber & A Kut Prisoner by H. C. W. Bishop
Two eyewitness accounts of the disaster of Kut and after
The First World War as it was fought in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) against the Ottoman Turkish Empire has received considerably less attention from British historians than other aspects of that conflict. While this was indisputably a ‘side show theatre’ of the greater struggle, it was nevertheless a difficult campaign, fought in an unforgiving landscape, often in punishing heat where disease took a greater toll of life than bullets. Most notably for the Allies it brought about a crushing defeat in the siege and fall of Kut which has become a stain on British military history in consequence of the treatment of prisoners of war by the Turks after the surrender. This book contains two first-hand accounts by Indian Army officers. These accounts are quite different but together they give an excellent insight into the experiences of those who defended Kut. The first account takes the reader through the actions (including the Battle of Ctesiphon) which led to the occupation of Kut in 1915, and graphically through the traumatic days when the besieged garrison fought to hold on until the relief column arrived. The second account continues the story as troops were marched into captivity. The author in company with a small party of companions decided to escape and his account of their bid for freedom makes for fascinating and thrilling reading.
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On the 17th we heard a great battle going on. Machine-gun and rifle fire was distinctly audible and we were mightily cheered. It was the fighting at Beit Aiessa, only six or seven miles away! In the middle of it all our men in the trenches started cheering, with the result that there was a wild stampede of Arabs “down our street.” They thought the Turks were coming, but there was nothing to be seen, and goodness only knows what it was all about, unless our men thought they saw a body of Turks retreating. Our hopes that such was the case were soon dissipated, for they started shelling us again, so they were evidently not upset very much.
That same night there was more furious fighting over against Beit Aiessa, where the Turks were counter attacking and losing so heavily. We heard afterwards that our people counted 1500 dead next morning.
In the morning of the 19th there was more heavy cannonading, but we didn’t learn the result. The 20th came, and the army commander sent in a message, saying:
Stick to it, Gorringe will relieve you in a few days.
We stuck to it. The next day we heard that the Turks had lost very heavily and that the R.F. were consolidating their position! But our rations were almost at an end; the emergency ration had to be used on the morrow. We began to grow despondent. We were hungry and thin, and getting weaker. The steps up to the roof seemed to get larger, and one was often “blown” on reaching the top. Sapper Tomlin came in and said they were bored to tears. “There’s nothing to do,” he grumbled; “the men are too weak to work, so we’re out of a job.”
We ourselves had plenty to do, but the work was heart-breaking. The small stock of rice that had been set apart for the hospitals, with which we had been feeding those who couldn’t eat solid food, was used up, and the milk was reduced to a bottle or two. Some of the patients were woefully thin; and when an Indian gets thin he is an appalling object. Many died, chiefly from intestinal troubles; but we were helpless; it is useless to oil or stimulate a machine if you can’t give it coal for its engines!
It made us long for the end-—any end almost, for the sake of the miserable sick. In any event another week would settle it.
We talked of “menus” often, in the manner peculiar to starving people, and of what we would first have to eat when we were free again; where we would go for leave, and how luxuriously lazy we would be for the first few days. Our bread came to us in 8-oz. loaves for two people. So fearful were we of not getting our full half that it became an invariable rule that one cut the loaf and the other chose his half. This method ensures the maximum amount of care and accuracy on the part of the cutter.
On the night of the 21st a party of Arabs deserted the town and got away across the river. The rats were beginning to leave the sinking ship! The Turks let us know that they would not receive any more but would shoot them if they tried it. But, although the Arabs were told that if they left the town they wouldn’t be allowed in again, they persisted in their attempts. The next day a large group of them was very busy for hours in the open street making a large raft out of wooden settees and inflated skins wherewith to cross the stream. But they didn’t succeed, for the Turks were as good as their word, with the result that there were several in hospital next morning.
On the 22nd there was a heavy cannonade in the morning, and we could see the bursts of H.E. over a long line of a mile or more; but the result was another disappointment, for the next day we got a communiqué to say that the R.F. had not taken Sanaaiyat but had advanced a little on the right bank. As a set-off the aeroplanes made fourteen or fifteen trips and dropped food.
It was Easter Sunday, and Trixie and I went to church in the morning. The two little rooms, still intact, were crowded with officers. Why had so many come that day? Was it to share in the joyous festival of Easter, of the resurrection of the God-man, or was it the growing fear in our hearts that the service would be the last of its kind in Kut, and that the future was so full of uncertainty?
Be that as it may, there was a very good attendance, and after the morning service the Communion was held. One by one, in a silence that could be felt, the gaunt and war-worn defenders, with the thoughtful eyes of those who had seen much, went up each in his turn and knelt before the padre. A deep hush fell over us all, and in those few moments men got near to their God. . . .
On the 24th a quiver of excitement went through us when we got wind of the impending attempt of the R.F. to run the blockade that night by a boat full of food. We could hardly sleep for thinking about it and were up on the H.Q. roof as the sun rose. There she was, the gallant Julnar, over against Megasis Fort, stuck in the mud just within range of our longest guns, with her splendid captain on her bridge lying dead in a pool of his own blood. So pleased were the Turks—so one of their officers who was there told me afterwards—with the gallant bravery of poor Cowley and the other man with him on the Julnar, that they, then and there, gave them a special military funeral in recognition of their magnificent effort, which so nearly succeeded. But the enemy had her, and her capture sealed our fate.
Deep down within us we knew we were now done for, that our people couldn’t get through, and that for us it meant Baghdad, or Mosul, or God only knew where! We did not acknowledge it yet, however, and that day another auction was held, at which prices ruled higher than ever: a box of cheroots fetched 206 rupees, and a tin of fifty Wills’ cigarettes were sold for over £3—surely the biggest money ever paid for “Three Castles”!