The foregoing descriptions of the Siege of Kut contain frequent references to the efforts of the relieving force to come to the succour of the garrison, and it is evident that the beleaguered troops, receiving little information of what was going on outside, could not understand why such a large force was unable to cut its way through. Yet that force struggled manfully to effect its purpose, and failed not so much on account of the Turkish resistance as by reason of the climatic conditions of a country subject to sudden floods, which, by producing an impassable barrier of water and of mud, shattered all British plans and hopes. There is little doubt that had these unfortunate conditions not supervened, the relief force, which was of considerable strength, would have won its way through.
Before giving the personal experience of officers who fought with the detachment of the Regiment which formed a part of this force, we will summarize the sequence of events, as related in the several official dispatches.
It will be remembered that, when General Townshend established himself in Kut, the Cavalry Brigade and a convoy of transport animals were dispatched south to Ali-al-Gharbi, where, with some infantry and guns sent up from Basra, they formed an advanced post for the relieving force. Major-General Aylmer, V.C., was placed in command of the troops, now being collected about Amara, with instructions to push forward as soon as the concentration of his force was completed. In the meanwhile, Turkish mounted troops had occupied the position at Sheikh Saad, and during the last days of December 1915 were reinforced by the enemy in great strength, who thither by passing to the north of Kut, in view of the British garrison, though out of range of the guns.
On the 4th January 1916, General Aylmer ordered an advance of his leading troops, under Major-General Younghusband, from Ali-al-Gharbi, on Sheikh Saad. Younghusband moved forward on both banks of the river, and on the 6th January got in touch with the enemy, whom he found entrenched astride the Tigris three and a half miles east of Sheikh Saad. That day he attempted to turn the Turkish right flank; but the enemy's cavalry, assisted by hostile Arabs, held him off.
Next morning General Aylmer brought up the remainder of his force, and forthwith ordered a general attack on the enemy's position, Major-General Young-husband commanding on the left bank and Major-General Kemball on the right bank. Very heavy fighting lasted all day, and resulted in Kemball capturing the trenches on the right bank, with 600 prisoners and two guns; but on the left bank Younghusband's force was unable to turn the Turks out of their trenches, so dug in opposite to them.
On the 8th little happened, as the troops required rest after their hard day's fighting; but on the 9th the Turks gave way, and, pressed by Aylmer, fell back about ten miles upstream, with a loss in the Sheikh Saad fight estimated at 4,500. Two days' heavy rain made the roads impassable, and prevented a rapid pursuit; but by the 13th Aylmer had pushed forward, and was again up with the enemy, who was discovered in position behind the Wadi (a stream flowing into the Tigris on the left bank) and across the river in trenches on the right bank. Aylmer attacked the Wadi position on the following day, and after some resistance drove out the Turks, who retired to a position five miles to the west, with Aylmer on their heels. The weather during the next few days continued most unfavourable for active operations, but General Aylmer reorganized his force, with headquarters above the Wadi, and his advanced troops in touch with the enemy, now entrenched across the Umm-el-Hannah defile.
This was the situation of the relief force on the 19th January 1916, when Lieut.-General Sir P. H. N. Lake, K.C.B., K.C.M.G., took over command of the Indian Expeditionary Force "D" from Sir John Nixon, whose health had given way. On the 20th the enemy's position was subjected to a systematic bombardment, and during the night the infantry advanced to within 200 yards.
On the morning of the 21st the attack was delivered, but with little success; the right column was held by the Turks when within 100 yards of the trenches, and the left column, although it rushed the enemy's defences and held them for nearly two hours, was counter-attacked out of them, chiefly owing to the failure of the reinforcements to come up. At 1 p.m. a second effort was made to clear out the enemy, but heavy rain and its attendant mud hampered the advance across the open ground, which was swept by an intense enemy fire, and the assault collapsed. Holding on as best they could until dark, our troops then withdrew to their original position, some three-quarters of a mile from the enemy's line. Our losses had been severe, and any further immediate attack was out of the question; so a six-hour armistice was arranged, when the Turks and the British buried the dead and collected the wounded.
It was now found necessary to reorganize the relief force and await reinforcements from Basra. February, therefore, passed in comparative inaction, and, although everything was ready for a further advance at the beginning of March, bad weather intervened to prevent operations reopening. Unfortunately, this delay was of immense benefit to the enemy, who was enabled to get up strong reinforcements, to greatly strengthen his El Hannah position, and to prepare in rear other successive positions at Felahieh, Sannaiyat, and Nakhailat, as well as to improve the southern portion of his old Es Sinn position, which he now made his main line of defence. From the Dujailah Redoubt, which had originally been on the enemy's extreme right flank, he had constructed six redoubts on a line thrown back south-westward to the bank of the Shatt-el-Hai.
General Aylmer decided to demonstrate against the Hannah position in order to induce the Turks to believe that he intended to repeat his attack there, and at the same time to move the bulk of his force, by the right bank of the Tigris, 14 miles across country, and. attack the Dujailah Redoubt with the greatest vigour. The essence of this plan was surprise, and it was hoped that the capture of the redoubt would be followed by the immediate withdrawal of the Turks from the east and south of Kut, and the consequent relief of the garrison.
On the 7th March Aylmer gave his final instructions to his subordinate commanders. To Younghusband, assisted by the gunboats on the river, was entrusted the task of containing the enemy in his positions on the left bank of the Tigris. The remainder of the troops were formed into two columns, commanded respectively by Kemball and Keary, with a reserve of infantry and a Cavalry Brigade held at the disposal of the Corps Commander. Kemball's column, covered on the outer (southern) flank by the Cavalry Brigade, was to turn the enemy's right flank and assault Dujailah from, the south, while Keary supported by operating from the east of the redoubt.
That night the difficult march across country was successfully carried out, and. the presence of the attacking troops was apparently unsuspected by the enemy, since he was found to be holding the redoubt but lightly. Soon, however, it became evident that a hitch had occurred. Keary was in his appointed place at daybreak waiting for Kemball's attack to commence, but the latter's column was more than an hour behind time in reaching its place of deployment. Even then a further three hours were thrown away while reconnaissances were being sent forward and guns registering, and this unfortunate delay once and for all put an end to the element of surprise, and enabled the Turks to fully man their defences.
When at length Kemball delivered his attack, his troops met with strong resistance, and, in spite of the support of Keary's attack from the east, wrere held up. Reinforcements were sent to the southern column, and at 1 p.m. Kemball pushed forward to within 500 yards of the Duiailah Redoubt, but only to be held again by counter-attacks by the reinforced Turks.The troops now began to suffer from want of water, but none was procurable, and it became evident to General Aylmer that unless the redoubt could be carried before nightfall, it would be necessary to withdraw his force to the river.A final assault was, therefore, determined on, and at 5.30 p.m., after a heavy bombardment, was launched from the south and east. A desperate struggle ensued, a footing in the redoubt was actually gained by some of the troops; but the Turks rained shrapnel upon them, and then, counter-attacking heavily, drove them out.
The British attack failed, the exhausted force withdrew to its positions facing the redoubt, and next day (9th March) retired unmolested to the Wadi.
On the 12th March Major-General Gorringe took over the command of the Corps from General Aylmer, but no further operations on a large scale were, for the time being, feasible. Rain fell, the Tigris came down in flood, and the whole force had to be employed in building "bunds," in the endeavour to prevent the entire country from being inundated. Every possible plan for an advance was, meanwhile, being considered, and it was finally decided that, on account of the floods elsewhere, the El Hannah position offered the best chance for a successful attack.
The 7th Division started sapping forward towards the enemy's front trenches, and by the 28th March their sapheads were within 150 yards of the Turkish front line. The Division was then relieved by the 13th Division, who, on the 1st April, came up from Sheikh Saad to make the assault, which, however, had to be postponed on account of more rain and further floods. By the 4th April the weather had improved, and at daybreak of the 5th the 13th Division, commanded by General Maude, dashed forward, and, without a check, cleared the Turks out of their first and second lines. Our artillery and machine-guns then opened on the enemy's third and other lines, and by 7 a.m. the whole position had been captured.
The Turks now fell back to their Felahieh and Sannaiyat positions, distant three and six miles respectively from Hannah, and an immediate pursuit and attack became imperative, because the Tigris had again begun to rise, and if it were to rise rapidly the Turks, by breaking the " bunds " in front of their positions, would be able to flood the whole country over which the attack would have to be delivered. Between 7.15 and 7.30 p.m. that night, therefore, the Felahieh position was bombarded, "and then assaulted by the 13th Division, who, within two hours, had succeeded in capturing and consolidating the position.
So far all had gone well, and the 7th Division, moving forward, passed through the 13th Division, and advanced, under cover of darkness, towards Sannaiyat, against the northern portion of which position they were to deliver the assault at dawn (April 6th). A series of misfortunes now commenced. The country over which the Division advanced was found to be so cut up by deep trenches running in all directions that progress was most difficult, and at dawn the assaulting troops were still 2,300 yards from the enemy's position. Nevertheless, in spite of the knowledge that the Turks were prepared to meet the attack, they pressed on, across a perfectly flat and open country, exposed to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire, with the greatest gallantry, until within 700 yards. of the position. Here they were checked, and finally, after suffering severe losses, were forced to retire for some distance, when they dug themselves in at 1,000 yards from the enemy.
The position of the 7th Division was between the Tigris on their left and the Suwachi(Also spelt Suwaicha and Sawaikieh) Marsh on their right. The river continued to rise rapidly, and the floods began to sweep inland. The wind changed to the north, and blowing across the Suwachi Marsh, blew its swollen waters southwards over the country. "Bunds " had to be thrown up quickly on either flank to prevent the inrush of water from flooding the troops out of their trenches, and this work had to be carried out under the enemy's fire. The guns were soon surrounded by water, and the situation on the left bank of the Tigris became critical. On the right bank also the 3rd Division was in danger of being isolated by the inundations.
On the night of the 8th/9th April the 13th Division relieved the 7th Division in the trenches, and at 4 a.m. (9th April) issued out to assault Sannaiyat. On reaching a line 300 yards from the enemy, their presence was discovered by the Turks, who immediately sent up flares and poured in a heavy fire. Nothing daunted, however, Maude's first line pushed on and gained a footing in a portion of the enemy's front trenches, and, had supports been at hand, would undoubtedly have cleared the whole position. But misfortune again dogged the steps of the relief force; the supports, confused by the blinding flares in their eyes, lost direction and failed to join hands with the first line troops, who, soon overpowered by strong Turkish counter-attacks, were obliged to give way. The line thus driven back withdrew some 400 to 500 yards and dug in.
The attempt to capture the Sannaiyat position was now postponed, and General Gorringe made preparations for striking again at the Es Sinn position, intending first, however, to drive the enemy from his advanced position at Beit Aiessa, a few miles upstream from Sannaiyat, and on the right bank of the Tigris. It must be remembered that the inundations continued to impede all movement across country; but Keary, with the 3rd Division, succeeded in capturing the Beit Aiessa position on the morning of the 17th April, after killing some 300 Turks and taking 180 prisoners.
At 5 p.m. the enemy's artillery bombarded Beit Aiessa and put up a barrage in rear of the 3rd Division, thus preventing the 13th Division from reinforcing. This was followed by a counter-attack from the southwest, which resulted in the Turks regaining* the most important portion of the Beit Aiessa position. At night they counter-attacked fiercely and time after time, but the 13th Division having now reinforced the 3rd, our line held firm, and inflicted on the enemy losses estimated at some 5,000.
After this it was absolutely necessary to give the worn-out troops a rest, and during the next few days operations on the right bank were restricted to minor enterprises and pushing forward trenches towards the Es Sinn position. On the left bank, in the meanwhile, the 7th Division had been sapping up towards Sannaiyat, and the enemy having apparently withdrawn some of his troops, it was decided to assault that position on the 20th April. But the Suwachi Marsh gave trouble again, as the wind, shifting to the north on the 19th, blew the marsh waters into the trenches and across the front of the 7th Division, and it was not until the 22nd that an advance became possible. That morning the 19th Brigade of the 7th Division moved forward to the attack, covered by artillery fire from both banks of the river. Forging ahead, through water and mud. they penetrated the enemy's first two lines, and were then counter-attacked twice. The first counter-attack they beat off, but had to give way before the second, as the men's rifles had become so choked with mud that they could not be fired. By 8.40 a.m. the Turks were re-established in their trenches, and our men were back in their former positions. That the enemy lost heavily in this en-encounter is certain, but our own casualties amounted to almost 1,300.
This was the last attempt to cut a way through the investing Turks; General Gorringe's troops were completely worn out, and, having lost one-third of their original numbers, were incapable of further effort. But there remained the chance of being able to send provisions to the beleaguered garrison, and so prolong -the siege until the relief force could recuperate. With this object the fast steamer " Julnar" was loaded with 270 tons of provisions, and, under the command of Lieut. Firman, R.N., and Lieut.-Commander Cowley, R.N.V.R.,(Both were subsequently awarded the V.C.) started at 8 p.m. on the 24th April from Felahieh, on the desperate attempt to run the blockade. She reached Magasis (about 9 miles short of Kut) a few hours later, but was there attacked and captured by the Turks, her two officers being killed and her crew being either killed or taken prisoners.
1st BATTALION DETAILS WITH THE RELIEF FORCE.
When the 6th Division was finally hemmed in in Kut there were on the way up river about 100 men of the Regiment, who were rejoining on recovery from wounds or illness, together with some six or seven officers who had been sent from various regiments in India as reinforcements. These were for the time being attached to the Connaught Rangers, but early in 1916 Major L. J. Carter, who had now returned to Mesopotamia from India, was ordered to form a Provisional Battalion out of them and a large draft expected from England.
The draft, commanded by Major Hon. W. R. S. Barrington (3rd Battalion), consisted of 11 officers and 298 men, and arrived at Wadi Camp about the middle of January, when the new Provisional Battalion was formed :-- Major L. J. Carter, Commanding. Major Hon. W. B. S. Barrington, second in command. Captain S. F. HAMMICK, Acting Adjutant. (Had already served in France with 2nd Battalion, and had been wounded.) 2nd Lieut. W. W. Wooding, Acting Quartermaster. (Promoted from ranks of 2nd Battalion for service in France.) Sergeant-Major Dancey, Acting R.-S.-M. Total strength of R. and F. just under 400.
Extracts from Major Carter's Diary. February 14th.—Started to draw equipment from a battalion which had been joined up with another battalion, on account of losses at Sheikh Saad and other actions. Inspected the draft. Wrote to Foljambe, who has recovered from the wound received at Ctesiphon, and asked him to join us as soon as possible as Adjutant.
February 15th.—Formed the Battalion into two companies : A Company, Captain Hammick; B Company, Captain R. G. H. Tatton. Took over our machine-guns, packalls, etc., and found some stores of the 43rd Regimental Institute, which were taken over, and Barrington appointed President R.I.
Turks did some shelling; we digging cover.
February 16th. — Completed drawing equipment, with the exception of signalling stores. Quiet day. Heard there are a lot of officers of the Regiment attached to other units out here, so applied for them.
February 17th. — Received orders to go into the trenches tomorrow and to send machine-guns in tonight. There are only some six men who know anything about them.
February 18th. — Battalion Parade at 10 a.m. At 6 p.m. the Battalion moved off and got into Pioneer Trench by dusk. This is a reserve trench, and not much going on. Private Russell wounded.
February 19th.— A certain amount of shelling and rifle fire throughout the day. At 8.30 p.m. heavy firing all along the line; guns on both sides opened. Heard that the 51st Sikhs suffered considerably.
February 20th. — Practically no shooting on either side. Had some aiming drill in the trenches, as I found that a lot of men had fired no more than a recruit's course, and some not even that.
February 21st. — In the morning there was little firing, but it increased later in the day. Private Ford was killed, and Private Lambourne wounded.
Sent a digging party up to first-line trenches.
Received Operation Orders. Our Brigade (28th) is to contain the Turks, while a flanking movement round their left is carried out.
Turks opened a very heavy gun and rifle fire from 9 p.m. to 9 45. C.-S.-M. Smith wounded.
Digging party sent out under Lieut. Elliot, who was wounded.
February 22nd. — Guns opened at 6.30 a.m., to attract attention from Gorringe's Column, which was moving round the left of the Hannah position. The 28th Brigade was held ready to assault the eastern face of the position, but after a brisk exchange of shells the affair seemed to fizzle out at about 11 a.m., though we could see the flanking column, which seemed to us to be in the Turkish trenches.
More digging, but the rest of the day was quiet.
February 23rd.—At 5.30 a.m. our machine guns opened indirect fire, but the Turks did not reply.
Reports say that yesterday's operations succeeded in their object. Hear that Gorringe was hit. The Turks appear to be retiring into the Es Sinn position, only standing by in front of us. Firing more lively this evening. Regiment digging trenches from Rajput Street to Oldham Street.
February 24th.—Quiet up to 2.15 p.m. We bombarded enemy position, but nothing much doing. Reports point to the enemy's retirement on Es Sinn.
February 25th.—Moved into front-line trench; move completed by 9 p.m.
February 26th.—Big digging programme by day and night. It would seem that an attack may be expected tonight.
February 27th.-Digging all day.
February 28th.—Heavy sniping. Anderson joined as Medical Officer. Queen's Trench completed. Ordered to be ready to go back to camp
February 29th.—Handed over to Composite Battalion of Norfolks and Dorsets. Heavy rain ; trenches hardly fit to walk in. Started out at 3 p.m. and reached Pioneer Trench at 5 p.m. Waited until 8.30 p.m.; and as no transport turned up, marched to camp, leaving baggage under a guard. Arrived in camp an hour after midnight; distance about four miles. Very wet, and men dead beat.
March lst.—At Orah Camp Foljambe joined us and took up the duties of Adjutant; also joined 9 officers (Captain B. H. G. Tatton, Lt. J. W. Meade, 2nd Lts. J. Widcorabe, A. H. Truman, C. H. Riley, C. T. Davenport, E. B. Parkinson, G. F. Coulthard, H. E. F. Smyth (all Oxford and Bucks officers)). who had been attached to the Royal West Kents. A draft of 100 men arrived. General cleaning up, as it was a fine day.
March 2nd.—Received orders to move at 4 p.m., but this was cancelled owing to threatening weather. Had Battalion Parade at 3 p.m.
March 3rd.—My horse was stolen. Move again postponed. Company officers' parade. Church Service.
March 4th.—Orders again received to move across the Tigris, but again cancelled on account of weather.
March 5th.—The same thing again.
March 6th.—Weather threatening, but we moved at 8 p.m., with our transport. Night very dark, and there were no guides. Arrived at Sanna—or Senna—(7 miles) about 3 a.m. (March 7th); very heavy firing from all our guns, and the Turks replied with all theirs.
March 7th.—Rested all day, and at 6.45 p.m. marched to the position of deployment, which was reached at 6.15 a.m. (March 8th).
March 8th.—The 37th Brigade on the left of the line, 28th Brigade prolonging to the right, and linking up with the 9th Brigade (T.F.). The object of attack for the 28th Brigade was the Dujailah Redoubt, on the right flank of the Es Sinn position. The Battalion was in Brigade Reserve. The attack started at 7.30 a.m. A very strong position and a great number of machine-guns.
The Brigade got within 300 yards of the enemy's position. Later in the day some small parties succeeded in getting on to the parapet of the redoubt. The Battalion had just received orders to advance, when a message came from G.H.Q to the effect that we were to retire, as the attack had failed.
March 9th.—Retired to the Wadi; the Battalion on rearguard slightly engaged. Reached camp about midnight.
Very few casualties in the Battalion, but Lieut. Staley (M.G. Officer) was killed.
March 10th.—Rested in camp. Report says that we have given up Sanna camp, arid that the Turks have occupied it. Some shelling.
March 11th.—Nothing doing.
March 12th.—Heavy rain. General Gorringe took over command from General Aylmer.
March 13th — Received orders that we are to go into the trenches tomorrow.
March 14th.—Marched the Regiment into the trenches by platoons, starting at 8.45 a.m. All in by 1 p.m. Heavy sniping.
2nd Leicesters on our left, 31st Sikhs on our right.
March 15th.—Quiet day. Bombardment of enemy's front line to cover movement of 3rd Division on the right bank.
March 16th.—Selincourt and two men severely wounded trying to bury a dead Turk.
March 17th.—B Company went up into King's Trench. Quite hot, and flies are getting bad. Forward sapping commenced.
March 18th.—Heavy rain.
March 19th.—Guns on both sides busy. One man wounded. Rain at night.
March 20th.—Heavy sniping. Digging all day. One man killed.
March 2lst.—Relieved by Composite Battalions (21st Brigade). Left the trenches about 1 p.m.
Wet morning; going very bad.
March 22nd.—Men cleaning up in the morning; Adjutant's parade in afternoon.
March 23rd.—Running drill under Adjutant at 7.30 a.m.; Sergeant-Major's drill at 9.15 a.m. Our guns shelling.
March 24th.—River in flood; all available men put on to building a "bund " on the river bank.
March 25th.—Battalion parade at 10 a.m. and at 6.45 p.m.
March 26th.—Brigade parade at 8.30 a.m. to practise deploying. Bombardment in the evening.
March 27th.— One hundred men for digging in the trenches. Hostile aeroplane cleared off.
March 28th.—Fatigues all day.
March 29th.—Our aeroplanes very active. It is getting hotter.
March 30th.—Mills bombs handed over to the Battalion.
We found the outposts to the north of the camp (100 men, under Barrington).
March 31st.—Received orders to load all our kits on to our mahelas; but this was afterwards postponed.
April 1st.—Rained all day. One man died of wounds.
April 2nd.—Fine. Received orders at 10.30 p.m. to go into the trenches tomorrow.
April 3rd.—Furnished fatigue parties to clean up H.L.I. Trench. Did not go into the trenches.
April 4th.—Orders for the assault of the El Hannah position tomorrow. Moved into H.L.I. Trench by 8.30 p.m. Only 1 officer per 40 men allowed to go into action (exclusive of Regimental Staff). The 28th Brigade in Reserve.
April 5th.—At 4.55 a.m. the assault was delivered on the enemy's first-line trenches. No preliminary bombardment.
The 13th Division took the first three lines in one rush. The 7th Division (ours) was in support.
By 11 a.m. the Hannah position and machine-gun redoubt were taken. The troops then rested, and preparations were made for the assault on the Felahieh position, ordered for 7.45 p.m. This was successfully carried out with comparatively few casualties. Troops halted till 12 midnight.
April 6th.—The 7th Division, parading at 1.30 a.m., made a night march on to the Sannaiyat position, to be assaulted at 4.55 a.m.
The Provisional Battalion was on the right of the 28th Brigade — the right of the firing line.
The force arrived late at the position of deployment, and, owing to lack of reconnaissance, had to advance over the open in daylight.
About 5 a.m. heavy fire (artillery, machine-gun, and rifle) opened from the Turkish trenches.
The Battalion advanced and did splendidly, but was wiped out. Practically every officer was killed or wounded, and only 17 men were left at the end of the day. I was knocked out comparatively early. Poor Foljambe was shot through the head almost at once; Hammick was hit twice, through the chest and arm; and Tatton through both hands and one leg. Altogether it was a very hot corner, and we got most of the enemy's attention, until the Composite Battalion of Black Watch and Seaforths came up on our left.
The following is a copy of a note, written on a sheet of a field message-book, and received by me on the field after I was wounded:--
" To the O.C. Provisional Battalion, Oxford and Bucks L.I. " On the Field, Sannaiyat, " 6th April 1916. " I regret that, owing to a wound in the ankle, I am unable to visit the firing line, and thank you all for the gallantry and tenacity you displayed this morning. I am afraid it has been at very heavy cost, but I should like to place on record that you have done credit to the fine Regiment which many of you have not yet joined. I saw the attack of the 1st Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry at Ctesiphon, and I should like that Battalion to know that you are worthy to join them. With best wishes to you all for the speedy relief of Kut, I must bid you farewell. " G. V. Kemball, " Major-General."