With Iraq very much in the news, it is surprising to realise that place names like Abadan, Basra and the Shat-el-Arab were familiar to Dorset people a century ago as they are to us today – and for the same grim reason. As part of the First World War offensive, local men found themselves fighting in this distant region so far from home. At the time the region was known as Mesopotamia and was part of the Ottoman Empire which was allied to Germany.
One aim of the campaign was to protect oil supplies to the Royal Navy. Another purpose was to maintain Britain’s power and influence in the Middle East by a show of strength. Among the first troops to arrive in November 1914 was the 16th Brigade of the Indian Army under Major-General Sir Charles Townshend. The brigade included three divisions of Indian troops, two battery divisions, a division of engineers and around 900 men of the 2nd Battalion of the Dorset Regiment. More local troops were to follow as reinforcements.
During November the Brigade established a camp near the oil refineries at Abadan and then fought its way up the Shat-el-Arab in hot muddy conditions against heavy opposition from the Turks. Only two weeks after disembarking, the Dorsets had already been involved in fierce battles at Saihan and Sahil near Basra and had lost 25% of their numbers either killed or injured. One of those killed was Private Charles Eaton aged 27, who had served for several years previously in India, son of Mrs. William Eaton of Bell Lane, Poole. On 21st November, the British occupied Basra which had been evacuated by the Turks. While the main force pressed on to Qurna, the role of the Dorsets was now to hold Basra against local ‘unrest’. With unsanitary conditions and the lack of clean water, many men fell ill, four died and several had to be invalided out.
Drummer R. Peaty described events around this time in a letter to his brother and sister in Branksome: ‘We drove the Turks miles away, and captured their supply of food and ammunition. We also took twelve camels. We then advanced on Basra and took that. It is a big place. About nine days afterwards the Turks surrendered to us about forty miles away from Basra, and my chum got killed when we were advancing on the Turks. A shell burst by the side of me, and I looked round to speak to my chum, and found that the shell had caught him and two more chaps and had killed the three of them. Just afterwards my drum-major came alongside of me and said, ‘It isn’t half raining is it?’ He meant the bullets. He never spoke any more, a bullet had gone straight in the centre of his head. I was sorry for him, because he was married and had two children, and he was a good man at his work. We have had a lot of men die of their wounds since.’
In January 1915, Turkish forces were massing to attack Basra and the British oil pumping station at Ahwaz. The Dorsets were involved in a successful engagement at Shaiba, nine miles south west of Basra when the Turkish cavalry were decisively beaten. With more attacks expected, the British troops were kept in a high state of alert. Conditions were tough and the Poole and Dorset Herald reported one soldier writing home to complain ‘of being kept very short of food, and of being unable for weeks at a time, to get a change of underclothing.’ The newspaper was reassuring: ‘These are hardships, but the general testimony of those ‘at the Front’ was that the troops were never better cared for than in the present war.’
On 11th April, the Turks began their offensive by bombarding Shaiba and Qurna and heavy fighting followed in the fierce heat. Eventually on 15th, the Turks were forced to retreat. The British, exhausted, thirsty and nearly out of ammunition were unable to pursue. Seven Distinguished Service Medals were awarded as a result of this action. Back at Basra, the soldiers were engaged in training in the use of river barges but the heat took its toll. By the end of May, 170 of the Dorsets were in hospital suffering from disease or sunstroke. Over 150 men were invalided to India or sent on short leave. The brigade was slowly fighting their way north and on 3rd June, Sergeant Charles Fendley of Newtown, Poole was awarded the DSM for gallantry in action. According to the local newspaper ‘with only 30 men he held off a large number of Turks and succeeded in rallying some Indian troops who were wavering. Victory was for the British and about 2,000 of the enemy were captured.’
By mid September the brigade reached Kut-el-Amara with some men falling out on the way through heat and exhaustion. On 28th September, the battalion attacked the Turkish defences at Kut. Fighting continued into the night but the Turks eventually retreated and the British were able to occupy the town. The Dorsets alone lost 17 killed or missing and 152 wounded.
One of the wounded that day was was Private L. S. Knapton, in civilian life a keen footballer who had worked for Gifford’s the grocers in Poole High Street. He died of his wounds on 10th October. Another casualty from the action on 28th, Lance-Corporal Walter Randle, was more fortunate. He wrote home to his father, Mr Levi Randle of Market Street, Poole from the base hospital at Basra. ‘My regiment [the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment] was in the thick of it and we lost rather heavily, but we made the Turks pay dearly for it. I got hit just after we had captured the third line of trenches. It was a fine charge and we took three lines of trenches in one. We went at them like a lot of bulldogs let loose, and the Turks found that we bite very hard. Their losses were very heavy indeed. Our guns played hell with them, and we took 2,000 or 3,000 prisoners, and ten or eleven guns and occupied another town. . . . I was really a very lucky chap the way I got hit, for I had a bullet go straight through my helmet and another through my coat sleeve without doing any damage, but the third one turned me over.’
Feeling that the Turks could be beaten, the British leadership now decided to press on towards Baghdad in spite of the lack of proper transport and the difficulty of maintaining supplies. On the 20th November, they reached Ctesiphon, 25 miles south of Baghdad where Turkish forces perhaps 18,000 strong were well established behind formidable defences. The Battle of Ctesiphon took place over two days with intense fighting and considerable losses on both sides. More than half the 8,500 British and Indian troops that fought in the battle were killed or wounded. Both sides retired from the battlefield and the British realised that with the losses they had suffered and lack of supplies there was no alternative other than to retreat to Kut.
The trek back was a nightmare with inadequate transport and poor medical provision for the wounded. The Turks were in pursuit and Townshend ordered the Indian divisions and the 2nd Dorsets to fight a rear guard action to allow the main body to reach Kut. The British arrived at the town on 3rd December and the Turks on 7th. There seemed to be good reasons to hold Kut to maintain control of the river and British presence in the area, but in the event the town became a trap. After several unsuccessful attempts to overcome the British defences, the Turks decided to besiege the town and prevent any attempts to relieve it. For families at home, news from their soldier sons and husbands, always slow to arrive, now dried up completely.
The siege lasted for 147 days of increasing deprivation and hardship for the troops in Kut. Three relief expeditions were mounted between January and April but all failed to break through the Turkish lines. The supplies in the besieged town dwindled. Men were living on horsemeat and bread, even starlings, and became weak and emaciated. The Indian troops were in an even worse case because of their refusal to eat horse flesh. Cases of scurvy, dysentery and frost-bite were common and the number of deaths increased. On 27th April, General Townshend asked for terms, hoping to buy a parole which would allow the Brigade to retreat. However the Turkish leadership refused and on 29th, the British surrendered. Over 13,000 men became prisoners of war including 272 British and 204 Indian officers and 40 artillery pieces, three airplanes, two river steamers and 40 automobiles were handed over. It was one of the worst humiliations ever suffered by the British army.
News slowly reached England. On June 29th, a list of local men who were prisoners of war was published in the newspaper, including 22 from Poole and 19 from Bournemouth. The same edition contained a letter received by the family of Lieutenant F.J. Patmore of Lymington: ‘Kut, as you know, has fallen at last, and I am a prisoner of war with the Turks. I cannot now tell you all my experiences during the long siege. We had a good deal to put up with – continuous bombardment and sniping, cold, wet, floods, sandstorms and then heat and hunger. I think hunger was the worst of our sufferings. But thank God I came through it all quite safely. Do not worry about me. The Turks are a kind and chivalrous enemy, and I feel sure we shall be treated kindly.’
Unfortunately, Lieut. Patmore’s estimation of his Turkish captors did not prove accurate. The luckiest were the sick and injured who were released in exchange for Turkish prisoners of war. The officers were sent to Asia Minor and interned for the rest of the war but the ordinary soldiers suffered a much worse fate. They were marched to Anatolia in the intense heat on rations even less than they had been receiving during the siege. Those that could not keep up were beaten or shot. Men with raging thirst were even prevented by their captors from drinking at streams they passed. No medical care was provided and around 1,000 men are believed to have died on the march. Of 350 members of the 2nd Dorsets taken prisoner, only about 140 were alive by the end of June when Lieut. Patmore’s letter was published. Once in Turkey, the prisoners were put in various camps and made to work. Insanitary conditions, inadequate rations and brutal treatment took their toll and it is estimated that 3,000 of those who surrendered died before the end of the war. Those who survived were walking skeletons.
Back home the Dorset Guild of Workers prepared to send mosquito nets and other comforts to the prisoners of war in Mesopotamia. The Guild reported that ‘great difficulty is being experienced in ascertaining the addresses of Dorset men who were prisoners of war in Kut but the Guild are in communication with two.’ Money was raised in Dorchester and other local towns to send parcels to the POWs but because of lack of co-operation from the Turks it was not until May 1917 (over a year after the fall of Kut) that the authorities managed to discover the whereabouts of 134 men. Meanwhile British forces were conducting a better prepared and more successful campaign against the Turks in Mesopotamia which contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
At the end of the war, the survivors returned home, marked by their ordeal. A dinner and reception for 51 of them was held in Dorchester on 25th February 1919. ‘There was a deeply impressive moment when, at the call of the Chairman, the company rose and drank in silence to ‘Our fallen heroes – officers, N.C.O.s and men of the 2nd Battalion, Dorset Regiment’. The Last Post was sounded with solemn effect’. As for the graves of those who died in Kut, Basra and elsewhere in the region, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission regrets that ‘while the current climate of instability exists it is not possible for the Commission to manage or maintain its cemeteries and memorials located in Iraq’.
Sources: Much of the information was taken from the Poole and Dorset Herald (extracted by Bryan Gambier) and from the excellent website of the Keep Military Museum (see Dorsets in Mesopotamia ). For a more detailed account of the Mesopotamian campaign and the siege of Kut see Kut 1916 Courage and Failure in Iraq by Patrick Crowley 2009 and History of the Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919, both available in the Poole History Centre.