Mesopotamia Campaign 1915 to 1918
The British Empire and the Ottoman Empire fought in Mesopotamia from 1914 to 1918. The Allied force included British and Indian troops and some Australians and New Zealanders. Many men died from disease and the harsh climate. Two Australian units served in the campaign: the 1st Australian Wireless Signal Squadron and the Mesopotamia Half Flight (Australian Flying Corps).
British-led forces seize Basra
Britain tried to secure Persian oilfields controlled by the Ottoman Empire after the Turks allied with Germany.
The British Army deployed troops in Basra, about 110km upstream from the Persian Gulf. Then Allied forces led by General Charles Townshend advanced further into Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). British leaders hoped that a successful campaign would inspire the Arab population to rise against their Ottoman rulers.
Their advance was very successful at first, for example:
Mesopotamian Half Flight
A group of Australian airmen, mechanics, drivers and other ground crew from the Australian Flying Corps were attached to the British-led forces in the Mesopotamia Campaign. This unit became known as the 'Mesopotamian Half Flight'.
The Half Flight retained its Australian identity but reported to the Indian Army. The unit had limited resources and unsuitable planes. But they had an aerial advantage over the Ottomans, who had no aircraft in Mesopotamia at that time.
An Anzac crew flew the Half Flight's first operational mission on 31 May 1915. The airmen completed a reconnaissance trip over Ottoman lines. On the return flight, they dropped bombs on the enemy troops.
As the British-led ground forces advanced along the river Tigris, the airmen were kept busy:
- carrying dispatches between the front and Basra
- making daily reconnaissance flights over Turkish positions
Death in the desert
On 30 July 1915, engine faults caused two aircraft to land on their way back to Basra. One plane managed to regain the air and return. The other plane did not return with its crew:
- highly regarded Australian pilot, Lieutenant George Merz
- observer Lieutenant William Burn, New Zealand's first military aviator
Merz and Burns were killed in a running gunfight after being attacked while trying to repair their plane. The attackers were possibly members of 'Beni Malik', a local Bedouin tribe. The badly damaged plane was located 25 miles (40km) west of Basra. Their bodies were never recovered. As a qualified medical doctor, Merz had often tended sick soldiers in Basra when he was not flying. His death was a terrible blow to the men he had served.
Advance to Kut
General Townshend was ordered to advance his Anglo-Indian force and the Half Flight to the town of Kut, and then to Baghdad. The Allied troops inflicted heavy losses on the Turks and entered Kut on 28 September 1915. By mid-November 1915, they were only 40km from their goal: Baghdad.
In August 1915, the Mesopotamian Half Flight had been incorporated into the Royal Flying Corps' No 30 Squadron. From September 1915, the squadron flew reconnaissance trips from Kut to prepare a strike on Baghdad. On 13 November 1915, Captain Thomas White of the Half Flight and British Captain Francis Yeats-Brown flew a mission to destroy telegraph lines into Baghdad. Their plane crashed, and both men were taken as prisoners of war. White made a daring 5 month-long escape from Constantinople to London via Ukraine and Bulgaria in 1918.
Despite their success up to this point, the British-led forces in Kut were not strong enough to seize Baghdad. The troops were weakened by sickness and a lack of artillery and other critical supplies. Even if they had captured Baghdad, they did not have enough reserve troops and support to secure the city.
Battle of Ctesiphon
General Townshend's position in Kut became critical. Between 21 and 23 November 1915, Ottoman forces at the Battle of Ctesiphon blocked the Allies' move towards Baghdad. The British-led troops were forced to retreat into Kut.
Ottoman victory at Kut
By 7 December 1915, the Allied force of 10,000 troops and 3500 supporting personnel in Kut were surrounded by the Ottoman Army. The Turks subjected them to near unceasing bombardment and attack. Townshend's forces only had enough provisions for 2.5 months. The defenders slowly started to starve. Many of the British killed and ate their horses and transport mules to survive.
The British High Command, aware of the problem, tried without success to relieve Townshend's garrison. British forces suffered heavy losses of 23,000 casualties during the siege.
Towards the end of April 1916, the Kut garrison was still under attack by the Ottomans. Starvation and sickness were endemic, and the troops were becoming less and less able to beat off the Ottoman attacks. With no prospect of rescue after the Ottomans defeated the relieving British force, Townshend was ordered to begin surrender negotiations.
Townshend surrendered on 29 April 1916. The Ottomans took 13,000 survivors as prisoners. The prisoners suffered brutal treatment, as well as disease and malnutrition from meagre food rations. Only two of the nine Australian mechanics from the Half Flight survived their captivity.
The Ottomans celebrated the recapture of Kut. A commemorative Turkish bank note was issued in 1916.
Later, special prints depicted the Turks' victory over the British Army.
The British decided to fix the command and planning failures that had contributed to their defeat. They appointed Lieutenant General Stanley Maude, a veteran of the Dardanelles and Western Front campaigns. Maude built a new force with improved military, logistic and medical support to withstand the harsh environment.
In December 1916, Maude initiated an advance with a British-Indian force of 150,000 men. The force was close to Kut by February 1917. Their goal was to cut off Ottoman communications with Baghdad. The Allied force crossed upriver from Kut at Shumran Bend and initiated a plan to capture or eject the Ottoman defenders from Kut. Maude's tactics were successful. The Ottomans fled Kut, pursued by Maude's force and Royal Navy gunboats on the Tigris River.
Capture of Baghdad and the death of Maude
Lieutenant General Maude reached the Ottoman defences just south of Baghdad on 4 March 1917, and the Turks abandoned their lines. British forces marched into the city on 11 March. Tragically, Maude died in November 1917 from cholera, a bacterial infection. He was replaced by General William Marshall.
In a twist of fate, Maude died in the same Baghdad house where the German military academic General Colmar Von der Goltz died in 1916 from typhus, a bacterial infection. Maude was laid to rest in a mausoleum at the Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery, where Australians are also buried.
Final British victories and armistice
The Ottomans re-established their headquarters at Mosul, 400km north of Baghdad. The British-led forces resumed the offensive. They pursued and defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Sharqat in October 1918.
A week later at the Greek island of Lemnos, the Armistice of Mudros was signed on board the HMS Agamemnon. This ended the war in the Middle East between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire.