By Ronan Thomas
As the British Army repositions in southern Iraq and considers troop pull-outs, an uncomfortable anniversary passes largely unnoticed.
British military commanders hoped the handover of a key base to Iraqi authorities would be a smooth one. But optimism has not been matched by reality. With 1,200 British troops just withdrawn from Camp Abu Naji, al-Amarah, jubilant Shi'ite militiamen from Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army are claiming victory.
Insurgent rocket and mortar rounds had been crumping into this base in southern Iraq for months and providing what British military commanders call a "static target". The abandoned base - in eastern Maysan province - was comprehensively ransacked by insurgents on August 23. Military spokesmen say this is not a British retreat, merely a "repositioning" to fight insurgents more effectively in the areas bordering Iran.
Even as the handover was failing, London was claiming last week that half of Britain's 8,500 troops may be withdrawn from their Iraqi sectors as early as next year. Under a "transition plan" just published, Britain's Ministry of Defense (MOD) envisages a phased reduction from the four provinces under UK control by mid-2007. A partial handover to Iraqi government forces is hoped for. Under this plan, a core of 4,000 soldiers will remain indefinitely, based in Basra "to protect the [Iraq] investment".
As the government ponders greater troop reductions, the efficacy of British strategy in Iraq is again coming under scrutiny. And British soldiers are not the only rumored departure. The British media continue to conflate difficulties experienced in Iraq with the domestic unpopularity of Prime Minister Tony Blair, just back from vacation in Barbados. Blair's exit from Downing Street during 2007 has been widely anticipated. He himself says he will not serve a full third term in office.
Meanwhile, a baleful 90th anniversary has passed largely unnoticed. Further north from al-Amarah is a town which resonates in British history. One hundred miles southeast of Baghdad lies Kut-al Amarah.
Kut continues to haunt modern British planners as the ultimate case study of how to fail militarily in the Middle East.
Kut to the chase
Almost a century ago, as the Great War raged, Kut caused shudders across Britain. This summer British historians commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme of 1916 with exhaustive and high profile analysis. But with British forces still engaged in Iraq, the anniversary of Kut received little comment.
This is hardly surprising. Sitting on a bend of the Tigris River, Kut was the nadir of Britain's 1914-18 Mesopotamian campaign. The Battle of Kut in 1916 presaged the end of empire and rivaled earlier humiliations at Gallipoli, the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the Suez episode of 1956.
If 50% troop withdrawals take place in 2007, the UK will be presented with a balance sheet of strategic achievement versus lives lost. The story may yet prove to be a good one. It may not. That document has yet to be written. The British will balance their badly-needed reconstruction efforts for ordinary Iraqis versus 115 of their soldiers killed in Iraq since 2003, the latest just on August 1.
Ninety years ago at Kut the balance sheet was clearer. It was a butchers' bill of suffering soldiery, an object lesson in military failure and a showcase of over-weaning personal ambition.
The Battle of Kut will forever be associated with the ill-fated leadership of a single British Army commander - Major General Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend. Like General Percival at the fall of Singapore 36 years later, his actions have prompted controversy ever since.
Hyper-ambitious and obsessed with promotion, Townshend was the darling of the North West Frontier of India, feted for his defense of Chitral in 1895. He spotted new opportunities for victory following the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. After Allied forces' failure at Gallipoli in 1915, other Middle Eastern assets were ripe for the taking. Among these were the oilfields of Persia and Iraq - the latter in 1914 a province of the Ottoman Empire garrisoned by the Turkish Army.
Above all, the glittering prize of Baghdad beckoned would-be conquerors. In 1915 Townshend sailed up the Shatt al-Arab from Basra, leading a force from the British Army's 6th Division, largely composed of Indian troops. At first all went swimmingly. For the first six months British forces routed the Turks as far forward as Ahwaz.
Sailing northward up the Tigris, to take Amarah and the Turkish positions at al-Qurna, Townshend went on to mount a successful river-borne assault backed by artillery. So supremely confident was this assault it was nicknamed the Tigris Regatta. Townshend watched the attack from his own personal steamer. Over 1,000 Turkish prisoners were taken. The regatta made further stately progress up the river.
But Townshend's laurel wreath was about to be snatched and flung into the Tigris. As at Gallipoli, Germany's wartime policy of providing military advisors for her Turkish allies again paid off. German Field Marshall Colmar von der Goltz promptly set about reorganizing Turkish forces even as the allure of taking Baghdad grew in Townshend's imagination. The British mounted a new attack on Turkish positions at Kut itself, succeeding more by accident than design. Townshend's subordinate, General Houghton, successfully carried the day despite becoming lost in the featureless landscape at the critical moment. But the British and Indian forces suffered heavy losses.
Next came Ctesiphon. Arriving in November 1915 at the site of this ancient battlefield, 30 miles southeast of Baghdad, once capital of the Persian Empire and dominated by a monumental arch, Townshend attacked the opposing Turks, inflicting over 9,000 casualties. But the price was high - 4,600 British and Indian troops lost across the exposed terrain. Townshend was unable to press home his advantage. He now made the critical error of falling back on Kut with the apparent aim of resisting an enemy siege.
Nemesis, in the form of three Turkish divisions led by von der Goltz, duly arrived. Townshend and 12,000 British and Indian troops found themselves besieged in Kut. Their forces were well dug in but starvation loomed unless a relief force could arrive in time.
A force was eventually sent under Lieutenant General Sir Fenton John Aylmer to resupply Kut by river steamer and repeated British frontal attacks were made. They all failed. The British lost a further 20,000 soldiers and the supply port of Basra became a choked bottleneck. Offers were made - by T E Lawrence - to bribe the Turkish besiegers with the sum of 1 million pounds. The Turks, rightly sensing victory, rebuffed all overtures. Inside Kut the defenders were now eating their horses. Emaciated from disease and hunger, 1,750 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians died. On April 29, 1916, after a siege of 146 days, Britain's most senior army commander, Lord Kitchener, authorized surrender.
The Empire's shame was acute. Over 10,000 soldiers went into captivity. Worse was to follow. Townshend did not stay with his men. He agreed to be taken to Constantinople, his "prison" consisting of a yacht anchored in the Bosphorous, complete with servants. This action and his inflexibility remain a cautionary tale taught in military staff colleges to this day.
What was left of his army now faced brutal treatment. Marched across the desert to prison camps, hundreds died of thirst, disease and the attentions of Arab irregulars nipping at the heels of the column. Over 4,000 died on this death march and later under harsh conditions in Turkish prison camps. Like the remnants of the Crusader army marched into captivity after the Battle of Hattin in 1187, the defeat at Kut echoed around the Middle East.
The British Army reeled from the aftershocks. But, as so often in the alchemy of British military history, shambles was turned into victory. By December 1916, with popular attention in Britain centered on the Western Front, a new British commander, General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, determined to avenge the defeat. Like von der Goltz, Maude would die in Mesopotamia of typhus, but by the turn of 1917 he had deployed a reorganized force of 150,000 men and made the supply port of Basra finally efficient. After launching his forces from desert trench positions, Maude advanced toward Baghdad, outflanking the Turks as he went. By February 24, 1917, the Turks were in headlong retreat and the scene of Townshend's failure was retaken. The so-called Second Battle of Kut was over. Baghdad was taken on March 11.
Even so, a British strategic victory in Mesopotamia proved elusive. At war's end in November 1918 a force of 50,000 Turks was still tying down a British Army three times its size. Up to 40,000 British soldiers had died during the campaign. Kut's horrors lingered on in British memory long after Iraq's tribal revolt of 1920 and beyond the end of Iraq's monarchy in 1958.
The events at Kut are now almost a century old. The British war cemetery at Kut, restored by US forces in 2003, has now been vandalized beyond repair by insurgents. Today, the warning of Kut does not figure highly in stated British strategy. Yet Kut has not been forgotten, acknowledged by senior British officers as a specter sitting at the map table.
For the past three years modern al-Kut, and its 300,000 inhabitants, has been run by US, Polish and Ukrainian coalition troops. Taken in 2003 by US forces and designated part of Multi-National Division Central-South, Kut is currently run jointly by the Poles and the US.
Further south, the British sector - Multi-National Division South East - remains a key link in the chain of coalition strategy for Iraq. Covering Shi'ite-majority areas and the key Iraqi cities of Basra, Amarah and Nasiriyah - it currently hosts around 7,200 British troops. Supported by Australian soldiers, this force continues to maintain the UK's security commitment to reconstruction in southern Iraq (Operation TELIC). A further 1,300 British soldiers operate elsewhere in Iraq.
British commanders are sanguine as to the military challenges. In the wake of the Camp Abu Naji withdrawal in Maysan they say they will be conducting new guerrilla-style operations in the borderlands of eastern Maysan province. Deploying a highly mobile force of around 600 men - modeled on British Special Forces fighting in North Africa during World War II - commanders say its role will be to chase and finish off insurgents.
If the security and material situation in southeastern Iraq improves as planned in the next nine months - permitting a 50% drawing down of British forces in 2007 - Blair will claim vindication for his commitment of British forces since 2003.
If Abu Naji is the model, the auguries are not good. Whether Blair will still be in office next year, to see the planned withdrawals, is also entirely another matter.
Ronan Thomas is a British correspondent.
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