EXTRACTED FROM THE REGIMENTAL CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY
There were mentioned, a few pages back, the principal reasons for dispatching an Expeditionary Force to Mesopotamia. The scope of the expedition was then thought to be limited to the protection of the oilfields in south-western Persia, and the occupation of the country perhaps as far north as the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates. That these objects would be effected without much difficulty was evidently the opinion of the Indian Government; otherwise they would not have been content with the dispatch of so small a force as one division. By the beginning of 1915, however, the situation in Mesopotamia had developed considerably. Those on the spot soon realized that the Turkish forces were stronger than had been supposed, that the Arab population was not to be easily controlled, and that the British invasion was not going to be a "walk over." As time went on, it was found that the peculiar climatic conditions of the country would be most difficult to cope with; that floods, excessive heat, and bad water must result in much sickness, and hamper military operations; and that a river whose channel shifted almost hourly would prove itself a source of constant trouble, if not even danger, when used as the sole line of communication.
It was discovered, moreover, that the Turkish forces were not only numerically strong, but that they were also well trained, well armed, and possessed of German guns and munitions; that, with the assistance of German officers, they were experts at field defences; that they possessed an armed flotilla on the Tigris, and were well acquainted with the uses of mines, booms, and other methods of barring the passage of the river; and that, although recruited to a certain extent from town Arabs, they could fight with the valour of true Turks.
With regard to the Arab tribes of Mesopotamia, the Turks were not slow to understand the value of proclaiming the war to be a religious one—Islam versus Christendom—and preached a Jehad. But the Arab tribesmen are not influenced to any great extent by their religion; love of fighting is inherent in them, and the prospect of loot ever uppermost; consequently, since anything like loyalty is absent from the Arab mind, these wild horsemen throw in their lot, for the time being, with the one side or with the other as it suits them. Generally operating with the Turks, yet often betraying them, they have been, and always will be, an absolutely unreliable ally either for their coreligionists or for ourselves; and if opportunity offers they will rob the dead, and murder the wounded of friend or foe. Such a factor in warfare is as peculiar as it is disagreeable and difficult to deal with.
When the year opened Sir Arthur Barrett's force was holding three points, the end of the Oil Pipe Line on the east, Basra and Kurna on the north, with Headquarters at Basra. A small Turkish force was known to be occupying a position astride the Tigris a few miles' north of Kurna, while other Turkish forces, with Arab allies, were moving about the Euphrates and country to the west of Basra, as well as across the Persian border towards Ahwaz. For the first three months of the year little of interest happened. The British camps at Kurna and at Mazera (on the opposite bank of the Tigris) were subjected to constant "sniping" at the hands of Arabs, employed by the Turks, and shelling by the Turkish guns. To these attentions our troops replied with a certain amount of artillery activity, and the dispatch of small punitive expeditions against neighbouring Arab villages. But, except for a reconnaissance to the north on the 21st January, no forward movement of our troops was made, and there is nothing to lead one to suppose that at this time any advance up the Tigris was intended. In February the Viceroy visited the country in order to acquaint himself with the situation, and returned to India with sufficient knowledge of the general condition of things to be aware that the force at the disposal of Sir A. Barrett was wholly inadequate for an advance for any great distance from the sea.
During the next few weeks the enemy became more active, and planned simultaneous attacks on the three British centres. Early in March heavy fighting took place at Ahwaz (now occupied by British troops), when a Turkish force, estimated at 12,000 strong, was defeated. At the same time a cavalry reconnaissance discovered a strong enemy force in the neighbourhood of Nakhaila (about 20 miles west of Basra) moving towards Shaiba Fort (some five or six miles south-west of Basra), which was held by a British garrison. Here again the enemy was defeated and driven away.
The Kurna position was not seriously attacked, as the country between it and the Turks on the north was in such a flooded condition as to make any movement practically impossible. The Turks, therefore, contented themselves with making their presence known by artillery fire, by sending floating mines down the river, and by keeping the sniping Arabs busy.
Matters continued thus until the beginning of April, but in the meanwhile the enemy was still active. He had not abandoned his idea of attacking Ahwaz, and he was massing troops on the Euphrates for an attack on Basra from the west. By this time certain alterations had taken place in the composition of the Expeditionary Force. Lieut.-General Sir A. Barrett was succeeded in command of the Force by General Sir John Nixon, while Major-General Townshend was appointed to the command of the 6th Division vice Barrett. The strength of the Expeditionary Force had been increased by two incomplete infantry brigades (12th and 30th) belonging to the 12th Division, commanded by Major-General Gorringe.
On April 11th Major-General Fry, in command of two brigades (16th and 18th) at Shaiba, discovered that the enemy, in considerable strength, was working round to the south, with a view to attacking Shaiba Fort and threatening Basra. Next day 12,000 Turks and 10,000 Arabs attacked the British position, but were repulsed, though not driven away. On the 13th Major-General Melliss, V.C., arrived at Shaiba, with a reinforcement of one Indian battalion, and being senior to Major-General Fry, assumed command of the garrison. He immediately set to work to drive back the Turks, who withdrew, and during the night entrenched themselves in a strong position at Barjisiyah (20 miles south-west of Basra). This was attacked on the following morning, and, after a day of heavy fighting, the enemy was driven out and put to flight with losses estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000, while the British casualties amounted to about 1,100. Seeing their friends thoroughly beaten, the Arabs turned on the fleeing Turks, and harassed them all the way back to Nakhaila, on the Euphrates, whence the enemy continued his retreat to Nasiriyeh.
Flank March from Ahwaz.
Sir John Nixon was now able to turn his attention to his other flank. The small British force at Ahwaz had been able to hold its own against the enemy in that neighbourhood, and as soon as the latter learned of the defeat at Barjisiyah, he deemed it advisable to beat a retreat to Amara, whence he had come. General Gorringe, with the 12th Division, was immediately dispatched up the Karun Elver, to take up the pursuit, and he pushed forward a column under Colonel Dunlop, who, by the 7th May, reached the Kharkeh river, which the Turks, in their retreat, had passed some time before. The weather was intensely hot, natural obstacles barred their way, and hostile Arabs constantly annoyed the pursuing column; but, in spite of everything, the force dealt with the Arabs, and kept on the heels of the Turks, thus delaying them until Amara was in British occupation. In this way General Gorringe's successful operations not only assured the future safety of the Persian oil-fields, but prevented the Turks from reinforcing their troops on the Tigris, up which river General Townshend began to advance with the 6th Division on the 31st May.
Capture of Amara by the 6th division.
In the meanwhile, in order to hold in check the Turkish force at Nasiriyeh, on his western flank, Sir J. Nixon established a blockade of the Euphrates with all available river craft; and then, having secured both of his flanks, he gave the order for the central advance to commence. The story of this advance up the Tigris is so well told in the diaries which follow that it is needless to describe it here. Suffice it to say that after two days' sharp fighting a few miles beyond Kurna, when the 17th Brigade had the novel experience of delivering the attack across the marshes in boats, General Townshend captured the important town of Amara on the 3rd June. Here it was decided that the 6th Division should halt while the Turks at Nasiriyeh were being disposed of.
From Kut-el-Amara, the Turkish advanced headquarters on the Tigris, to Nasiriyeh, on the Euphrates, there is a direct waterway navigable for six months of the year. This is the Shatt-el-Hai, and its importance at this time lay in the fact that it afforded the sole means of communication between Nur-ed-Din's headquarters and his southern outpost. The task of clearing the enemy out of Nasiriyeh, in the hope of forcing him back to his headquarters at Kut, was entrusted to General Gorringe; Dunlop's column, after its successful march from Ahwaz to Amara, being sent down by the Tigris to Kurna, and there refitted for the new enterprise.
Operations commenced on the 27th June, when the force, preceded by gunboats, went up the old channel of the Euphrates and crossed the Hamar Lake, whence to the Euphrates again, by way of the Hokeika (Haqiqah) canal, the Navy had great difficulty in transporting their craft, while the 30th Brigade had some brisk fighting on the 5th July. On the following morning, Suk-esh-Sheyukh, near the junction of the Hokeika and Euphrates, was captured by two gunboats, when the flotilla and troops moved up the river towards Nasiriyeh. It was soon found that the enemy was in force, and had taken up strong positions astride the Euphrates, about five miles below Nasiriyeh. General Gorringe disembarked his troops on both banks, and, entrenching some two miles from the enemy, halted to reconnoitre. Making frequent reconnaissances, and gradually advancing his trenches, he made an attempt on July 13th—14th, with a small force, to capture a position on the enemy's right flank. This attempt, however, although carried out with great dash by the 24th Punjabis and some mountain guns, failed, and the troops suffered considerably from friendly (?) Arab tribesmen, who fired on them from the rear.
The next ten days were spent in pushing forward and improving gun positions and infantry trenches, and at 5 a.m. on July 24th the attack was launched on both banks of the river, with the co-operation of the Royal Naval flotilla. Resisting stubbornly, the Turks were driven from their successive positions during the day, and by 6.30 p.m. were in full retreat across the marshes, having lost a great number of killed and wounded, 1,000 prisoners, many guns, machine guns, and rifles, and quantities of ammunition and stores; while our casualties in the final assault amounted to about 600. On the 25th July Nasiriyeh was occupied, and as there was no intention of following the enemy up the now unnavigable Shatt-el-Hai, a garrison was left, and the bulk of General Gorringe's force was withdrawn to the Tigris, for the purpose of safeguarding the line of communication to Amara.