EXTRACTED FROM THE REGIMENTAL CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY
NARRATIVE OF THE SIEGE OF KUT-EL-AMARA. by Colonel E. A. E. Lethbridge, C.M.G., D.S.O. Commanding 1st Battalion Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
(See Sketch Map No. 4.)
These notes are written from a purely personal standpoint. They have not been gleaned from jottings made at the time, but were written down from memory very soon after reaching our first place of internment at Yozgad, in Asia Minor. It was next to impossible to smuggle out of Kut any written matter; some individuals did so, but I was not one of those fortunate ones. All official papers were destroyed, so I can give no statistics, and all I am able to supply are just notes of such matters and events as impressed me at the time, and which remained clear-cut amongst a mass of vague memories.
After the battle of Ctesiphon, the officers doing duty with the 43rd were : Lieut.-Colonel Lethbridge, Lieut. Mason, Lieut. Naylor, 2nd Lieut. Brown, 2nd Lieut. Mellor (5th Somersets), 2nd Lieut. Heawood (4th Wilts), and Captain Startin (R.A.M.C.). The strength of the rank and file was about 200. This was increased to about 300 when the Regiment reached Kut, by the rejoining of convalescents from wounds and disease.
(Lieuts. Mason and Naylor were not immediately engaged in the fight at Ctesiphon, the former being in charge of the Brigade Reserve Ammunition Column, and the latter of the Salvage Section.)
Of the other 43rd officers in Kut Captain Morland was on the Staff of the 6th Division, and Lieut. Mundey attached to the Flying Corps, while Major Henley rejoined the Regiment on the 3rd December.
On the morning of the 4th December 1915 the 6th Division marched into Kut-el-Amara, and the 43rd bivouacked south-west of the Fort and about a quarter-of a mile from it.
For a proper appreciation of the Siege of Kut-el-Amara, it should be noted that the artillery employed by the Turks consisted for the most part of 40-pr. Krupp guns and 18-pr. Kruppe. Neither threw H.E. shells. The 40-pr. shell was filled with a black powder bursting charge ; the shell burst on impact, but its effect was not materially very harmful. It made a great noise, caused a good deal of smoke, and its greatest effect was moral. The 18-pr. threw shrapnel of fair quality and some segmental shell which burst on impact. As the siege progressed, the Turks brought into use a more modern field gun, of high velocity, and firing H.E. shell of small calibre. Later the enemy brought up some howitzers, but these again were of small calibre, and did little material damage. Some trench mortars were also used by the Turks, as well as a big old-fashioned bronze mortar, which threw a round shell of large diameter. I never heard that this did any damage. Their guns were accurate enough, but I did not hear much praise of their gunnery from our R.A. officers.
As a digger of trenches, the Turkish soldier is very hard to beat. He is very hard-working and very quick in getting shelter, while particularly skilful in siting his trenches. The way in which he sapped up to our trenches during the siege was worthy of praise. Great importance was attached by the enemy to the use of snipers. They were numerous and very expert, both in making cover for themselves and in choosing advantageous places from which to shoot. I heard it said many times, though I cannot corroborate it from personal observation, that many of their snipers were using telescopic sights. They were good, bold bombers, too, and in this respect were as good as our men.
Now, as to our side of the picture : Our artillery was varied. Four 4.7-inch guns, mounted on small barges ; four 5-inch guns, mounted on carriages ; and four 4-inch guns—all the twelve being old naval guns of a bygone pattern, and taking some twenty minutes to change their target. In addition, we had eighteen 18-pr. field guns and four 4.5-inch howitzers. The foregoing composed the main armament; there were, besides, a few small pieces, not of much account.
Bombs for our soldiers were manufactured, for the most part, on the spot. The same applies to the trench mortar. It speaks much for the ingenuity of the makers that these mortars were of some effect.
Now for a description of the defences of the town of Kut-el-Amara. On our arrival we found practically none, with the exception of the Fort, of which a description will be given later. It seems that there had been a difference of opinion as to the advisability of holding the place and as to the feasibility of doing so. It had been rumoured that a report had been handed in by a specialist on fortification to the effect that it would take 20,000 men to properly hold Kut. As such a force was at no time available for such an enterprise, the matter seems to have been allowed to drop, and defences against an attack only by Arabs taken in hand. In this way the Fort and its three block-houses came into existence. The particular site was decided on because the banks of the Tigris just there were very suitable for the disembarkation of men, animals, and supplies, and the Fort was designed to hold these men, animals, and supplies until they could be forwarded to the expeditionary force up the river. This Fort, then, was a mud-walled enclosure, the walls bullet-proof and of such a height as to give" two tiers of fire. As the Arabs had no artillery, the question of defences against guns was not considered. Overhead cover and back traverses were in course of construction, but very little work on these had been carried out when the 6th Division reached Kut-el-Amara on the 4th December. In the same way the three block-houses were bulletproof enclosures for 6 to 8 men.
The siege may be divided into two phases The first phase extended from the commencement up to the 19th January 1916, and was the active one. During this period the Turks were enterprising and made diverse attacks of varying intensity. They pushed their trenches close up to ours; their rifle fire was heavy day and night; they bombarded frequently; and there was always in the minds of us all that they would assault at any time. From the 19th January to the day of the capitulation the Turks pursued a passive policy. The idea of an attack passed from our minds, as it became evident that the enemy's policy was to keep us within our lines and starve us into surrender.
Our chief enemies then became starvation and water, to be followed at a later period by disease. As the snows in the Caucasus begin to melt, the Tigris becomes over-full and floods its banks. The whole of the ground held by us during the siege would have been covered with water, had not constant " bunding" been carried out. This was done mostly by night; by day the enemy's snipers were very active, especially from the right bank of the river, and the places to be " bunded " were much exposed to this fire. This "bund " building was a hazardous and very important duty, but it was successfully accomplished. And in spite of the river rising to very dangerous flood levels and giving cause for grave anxiety, the water was kept out of our lines. At the height of the floods a sea separated the combatants on the north of Kut.
In the matter of aeroplanes, those possessed by the British in Mesopotamia outnumbered considerably those of the enemy, but the 6th Division in Kut had no serviceable 'planes, and depended entirely on those with the relieving force. Until the 18th February the enemy made no appearance in the air, but on that date his first aeroplane came over, soon to be followed by another. These were both Fokker machines, and much faster than anything possessed by our people, with the result that, though in the minority, the two Turkish 'planes were enabled to go where they pleased and to do as they liked. At first we had no anti-aircraft contrivances, but carriages for guns and machine-guns were soon improvised out of barrels, and a table of sights was worked out by Major Harvey, R.F.A., both of which improvisations were of great use.
Towards the latter end of the siege, the relieving force 'planes were employed in bringing provisions to us in Kut, but the quantities so brought were too small to be of any use.
I will now give particulars of such events of the siege as I remember :--
On the 4th December a bridge was thrown across the Tigris at a point just east of the Fort, and on the 5th the whole of the Cavalry Brigade, together with nearly the whole of the 6th Divisional Transport, crossed by it to the right bank, and made their way down river to Ali-al-Gharbi. The crossing was effected only just in time. The Turks began shelling the bridge in the afternoon, and towards evening the Turkish infantry commenced to close in from the north-east, making things rather unpleasant for the last carts as they crossed. The bridge was then dismantled, and on the 6th December the siege began.
On the 7th December entrenching started in earnest. I may remark here that it struck us all at the time that there did not seem to be any set plan for the defence of the place. Much time was wasted in digging trenches that were subsequently abandoned for others on a different site. This sort of thing leads to endless grumbling amongst the rank and file. However, after a time the main scheme of defence evolved itself. In the particular sector with which the 43rd were concerned, it was decided to hold the Fort as the right of the line, which thence extended eastwards through the three block-houses.
A fire trench was excavated; the 17th Brigade was told off to the right sector of this line, and the 16th Brigade the left—up to the Tigris River. Two regiments of the 17th Brigade (103rd Mahratta Light Infantry and 119th Bombay Infantry) were ordered to garrison the Fort; while the 22nd Punjabis and ourselves were to hold the sector of the entrenchment to the east of the Fort, i.e., the part of the line allotted to the 17th Brigade. We and the Punjabis held it in turn—48 hours on duty and 48 hours off, the regiment off duty being the Brigade General Reserve for the time being, in bivouac close to 17th Brigade Headquarters.
On the 8th December the pontoon bridge was again thrown across the Tigris at a spot due east of the town of Kut. I remember that this was a cause of discussion amongst us, for it seemed to point to the fact that the town was to be abandoned, and that the retirement down the river was to be renewed. At this time the Turkish forces' were in touch with our defences on the north, but had not yet closed round to the south of the town. The 43rd received orders to cross by it, and to take up a position on the right bank, for the purpose of covering the bridge. This order was subsequently altered, and only one company was sent. Major Henley, with R Company, carried out this duty in the afternoon, and later the same afternoon he was relieved by a double company of the 67th Punjabis.
At daybreak on the 9th December the bridge-head was heavily attacked by the Turks and driven in. To cover the retirement the 30th Brigade was called out, and subsequently the 43rd turned out from its post as General Reserve of the 17th Brigade. The double company of the 67th Punjabis suffered several casualties during its retirement, amongst them being the Company Commander. The dismantlement of the bridge was immediately commenced, and was completed during the night of the 9th/10th December. Whether it was ever intended to use this bridge for the further retirement of the 6th Division I have never heard. If that was the intention, then why send only a company to hold it where a brigade would not have been too much? Again, if it was not intended to use the bridge, why build it?
On the morning of the 10th December, Lieut. Brown was killed in the first-line trenches, and Major Henley and Q.-M.-S. Burbridge were wounded.
During the evening of the 12th December the Turks made an attack on the north-west defences, which lasted about an hour and then subsided.
On the 16th December Lieut. Mellor, with R Company, reinforced the two Indian battalions in the Fort.
On the 22nd December the Turk began a heavy artillery bombardment on the Fort and first-line trenches. We had two men killed and two wounded in the Regiment.
On the 23rd the 43rd were relieved by the 22nd Punjabis, and went into General Reserve. Heavy shelling continued throughout the day.
On the 24th December the bombardment increased in intensity, and during the morning an attack was made by the Turks on the Fort. About 1 p.m. the 43rd moved out of bivouac, and was stationed at the junction of the main communication trench and Gurkha communication trench, in order to be handy for reinforcing the Fort if need be. Artillery and rifle fire was very heavy at this time.
Shortly after reaching this point, Brigadier-General Hoghton received word from the officer commanding the Fort that one of the Indian regiments there could not be relied on, and asking for a fresh battalion. The 43rd was then sent forward.
The Turkish attack had by this time spent itself. The northeast bastion had become a ruin, and the northern walls on each side of it were much knocked about. Many dead and wounded Turks were lying close up to the walls, and there were also a few dead Turks inside them. On reaching the Fort we were told off to hold the wall of the N.E. bastion as far as East Corner, taking up this line, company by company, as the Indian battalion was withdrawn. By about 4 p.m. this was successfully accomplished. During this period there was heavy artillery fire and intense infantry fire, but no actual attack. The rifle fire of the Turks was very high, most of it clearing the Fort, the bullets falling well south of it.
When we had finally taken over, the disposition of companies was as follows :
R company, under Lieut. Mellor, held the barricade across the gorge of the north-east bastion; then came S Company (Lieut. Naylor), then Q Company (Lieut. Heawood); and, lastly, P Company, under Captain Gilchrist (52nd Sikhs), who had been lent to us by the 6th Division.
About 8 p.m. the Turks resumed the attack on the N.E. bastion, and succeeded in driving out of it the 103rd Mahratta Light Infantry. As was previously remarked, the walls of this bastion were a heap of ruins and very difficult to hold, and the Turks attacked it in force. But they never penetrated any farther, for R Company, together with some men of the Bombay Volunteer Artillery Battery, the whole under the command of Major Anderson (Bombay Volunteer Artillery), successfully put a stop to the enemy's progress.
The Turkish attack on the wall east of the bastion, held by S, P, and Q Companies, never came to much. It was delivered in driblets at different times, and the Turks lost heavily from the rifle and machine-gun fire of our three companies. The credit for this success was principally due to Captain Gilchrist, who very skilfully posted machine-guns and riflemen so as to sweep the points of egress from the Turkish trenches. The maintenance of the barricade was at one time a touch-and-go affair; Major Anderson and Lieut. Mellor were both wounded, and several men were killed and wounded. The situation looked so serious that it was thought that it would be necessary to evacuate the barricade and occupy the second-line fire trench, which would then be used as the north face of the Fort. But a timely reinforcement of a double company of the 48th Pioneers, sent from the town of Kut, pulled the balance in our favour, and it was decided to hold on to the barricade. The Turks still kept pressing the attack till about midnight, when they had had enough of it, and desisted from their effort.
It was about this time that the Norfolk Regiment sent up a company, under Lieut. Reed, and this company took over the barricade for the remainder of the night (24th/25th December).
The casualties suffered by the 43rd in this affair amounted to about thirty, besides Lieut. Mellor above mentioned and Lieut. Naylor, late in the afternoon. These losses fell mainly on R Company. They do not appear heavy, but it must be remembered that the strength of companies did not average more than about sixty apiece, and S, P, and Q Companies suffered very slightly.
The morning of Christmas Day broke clear and fine, and the Turks were very quiet for the whole day. From now until the 2nd January nothing of moment occurred There was some heavy shell and rifle fire from the Turks, but otherwise they showed little activity. The defences of the Fort were taken in hand and improved. In place of manning its mud walls, which were useless against artillery fire, trenches were dug close up to the walls, which were loopholed at the ground line. The inner trenches were improved and deepened, and short communication trenches made to connect them with the fire trench.
On the 31st December some Turkish wounded, who had been lying outside our walls since the Christmas fight, were successfully collected and brought into the Fort by a party of our men under Captain Gilchrist. Their wounds were in a fearful state, as can easily be imagined; but, wonderful to relate, every one of them recovered, and they were all handed over to their own people on our capitulation.
On the 3rd January the report was rife amongst all ranks that General Aylmer had left Amara with the relieving force on the 1st January; that he was at Ali-al-Gharbi on this day; and that it was confidently expected that we should be relieved on the 10th of the month.
On the 5th January the Turks made an attack on Woolpress Village, and were repulsed.
On the 12th January Major Henley rejoined from hospital.
On the 14th January the Sheikh Saad action was successfully fought by General Aylmer. This caused great elation, and then followed the success at Wadi on the 16th.
It was about this time that a movement amongst the Turkish troops had become apparent. Marshal Von der Goltz had arrived. It was rumoured that he had been sent from Germany to take over the command of the whole of the Turkish Eastern Front; and on the 18th January the Turkish forces in front of the northern defences of Kut withdrew from immediate contact with our troops and fell back for about 2,000 yards to some redoubts which they had thrown up all round our northern defences. The motive for this rearrangement then became evident, viz: to hold and pen in the garrison of Kut-el-Amara with as few troops as possible, and thus release the bulk, of the Turkish forces for opposing the advance of the relieving force. This was the policy of the German Marshal; and then commenced the second phase of the siege.
On the 21st January the advance of General Aylmer's forces was checked at El Hannah.
For the next ten days the weather was atrocious. There was much rain, and the cold was intense; the trenches were knee-deep in water and mud; the river began to rise; and about the 23rd January the first line trenches to a great extent became flooded and untenable. The Turks were in a similar plight. After the noise of the heavy rifle and artillery fire, which had been going on since the commencement of the siege, the quiet that prevailed just about now was very marked.
On the 28th January our rations were 1 Ib. of horseflesh and 12 oz. of bread (made of atta). There was no shortage of rations at this period, though there was, of course, a dislike to the horseflesh. Wood for cooking purposes was impossible to get, as the palm-tree is useless for fuel, so oil was taken into use. Fortunately a barge filled with crude oil from the Persian oilfields was amongst the things that had been left in Kut, and after some experiments this was found to be an efficient substitute for wood. It was very dirty, and the cooks became as black as sweeps, but it did its work.
On the 10th February the rations were, meat as before, bread ½ lb., and jam 1 oz.
On the 18th February the first enemy aeroplane appeared—a German Fokker—which dropped a few bombs, but without doing damage.
On the 22nd February the 43rd, together with the remainder of the 17th Brigade, stood by, for the purpose of co-operating with the relieving force to the northwards. Nothing, however, matured in that respect.
During the remainder of February nothing of note happened. There was constant digging, both by day and by night—principally by night—for the upkeep and repair of the defences, and more particularly for the making of " bunds " against the floods. Enemy sniping was constant, and there was some gun-fire.
The health of the 43rd remained good. At this period we had ten men unfit for duty in hospital, and fifteen convalescents, also unfit for duty, but discharged from hospital. Hospital accommodation in Kut was limited, and only the very bad cases were kept there. On the 2nd March an unusually heavy artillery and aerial bombardment was directed by the Turks on the town of Kut.
On the 8th March General Aylmer made his long looked for attack against the Dujailah Redoubt. Whether he wanted to attack or not, it was imperatively necessary that something should be done at once, as the floods were increasing rapidly. The 43rd, 22nd Punjabis, and Sirmoor Sappers and Miners were withdrawn from the Fort and concentrated in the town of Kut, the idea being that, if Aylmer's attack was successful, we were to cross the river south of Kut and fall on the right flank of the retreating Turks. However, by the evening it became apparent that something had gone wrong, and that the Turks had not been shifted. We remained at our place of concentration for the night and for the whole of the next day, and then returned to our old stations—bitterly disappointed.
By the 20th March our bread ration was down to 5 oz.; horseflesh still 1 Ib.
On the 26th March Turkish aeroplanes bombed the hospital, killing eleven men and wounding twenty one.
On the 29th March the rations were 4 oz. bread and 1 ¼ Ib. horseflesh. In addition some dried ginger was served out to British troops, and used (boiled) as a substitute for tea. Tobacco was now unobtainable; dried leaves of the apricot tree was the favourite substitute.
On the 22nd April I remember General Gorringe's force attacking the Sannaiyat position. The attack failed; and on the 29th April we capitulated.
The general health of the 43rd varied with the two phases of the siege. It was very good during the first phase, when plenty of work, ample rations, and the hope of a speedy relief kept the men cheerful and well. It was during the second phase of the siege that the health deteriorated. No active fighting, the monotony of the work, and the meagreness of the ration reacted on the minds of all, and towards the end of the siege enteritis made its appearance and carried off many a good and gallant fellow. And those who escaped this disease were mere skeletons of their normal selves.