World at War - M. B. Synge




The Capture of Bagdad

"No easy hope or lies

Shall bring us to our goal,

But iron sacrifice

Of body, will, and soul."

—R. KIPLING (FOR ALL WE HAVE AND ARE).

Kut fell at the end of April 1916. Its surrender had taught the military authorities, that long and careful preparation would be needed if Bagdad —the Turkish Headquarters—was to be captured. The man now chosen to carry out the work was Sir Stanley Maude. He had already fought on the Western Front, he had distinguished himself in the ill-fated expedition to the Dardanelles, and he had accompanied one of the hopeless expeditions to the relief of Kut. In August 1916 he arrived at Basra as the new Army Commander of the Anglo-Indian forces in Mesopotamia.

"It is a great responsibility," he wrote. "There are peculiar difficulties in connection with this campaign: there is the long line of communications, the shortage of river transport, the absence of roads and railways, the intense heat, floods, and difficulty of supplies." To get at the work, heart and soul, to overcome all obstacles, was Maude's great self-appointed task. He soon made his vigorous personality felt among the troops—despondent over the recent failure, weak and ill with the intense heat, tormented with flies and other discomforts.

For three and a half months he worked at lines of communication, the organisation of hospitals and ambulance, the production of wholesome food for the troops. Guns, ammunition, clothing, all had his attention. A light railway was laid, and little more than seven months after the fall of Kut, over 1000 steamships of sorts were plying up and down the Tigris. This river fleet was made up of boats from India, from the Nile, from Africa, and, among others, the Thames Penny Steamers were doing their bit too. It was not till December that the long period of preparation was over, and the time for action drew near. A steady stream of reinforcements had been moving up the Tigris for weeks past. Now the genius and foresight of the new commander were to be put to the test. Truly great events were at hand, though to the outside world it might seem that the situation on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates called for no special attention.

The troops were in good health, partly owing to the cooler weather, and in good spirits. Aeroplanes reported the position of the Turks to be strongly entrenched round about Kut. No light task lay before Maude and his troops.

On 13th December the great offensive began. Fighting was long and strenuous, and heavy rains, causing a sudden rise in the Tigris with considerable floods, caused some delay. Early in the new year, further attack was possible. For ten days the Turks' resistance was stubborn, but steadily, foot by foot, they were pushed across the river Tigris. It was no time to pause. Day after day fighting went on, with terrible casualties on both sides. After two months of severe fighting, the army commander thanked the troops: "To all ranks of the fighting troops, my warmest thanks for their splendid work, and my congratulations on their brilliant success. The end is not yet, but with such co-operation and vigour animating all, our success is assured."

This was on 15th February. The most brilliant event in the whole campaign was now to take place before the final recovery of Kut. The river Tigris had to be crossed—crossed at its highest in face of an enemy with a formidable array of guns and in strongly defended positions on the very scene of the siege of Kut. The enemy thought the crossing of the river wholly impossible—a feat that only madmen would attempt.

Just before daybreak on 23rd February, a detachment of English and Gurkhas ferried across the flooded river under machine-gun fire, which swept the shallow boats and inflicted heavy losses on the British.

"With unconquerable valour and determination" they worked on, till by afternoon the amazing bridge was ready for traffic. Soldiers poured across, and the Turkish army was in full retreat toward Bagdad, but fighting every foot of the way. It was a crossing to rank with the passage of the Aisne—the swollen Tigris being even a greater difficulty than the sluggish French stream. "Nothing could have been finer. It will take a very high place in the records of the British Army." Soon aeroplanes reported that every road was thronged with retreating Turkish troops. Kut was entered without opposition on 25th February. The disaster of ten months before was wiped out. With the crossing of the Tigris the whole situation was changed. The recovery of Kut, though of no importance in itself, appealed to people all over the world, and all eyes were turned to the next stage in the war.

The next fortnight was to settle the question of Bagdad. Although the Turkish army was in full retreat, they disputed every foot of the way with stubborn resistance, and the advance from Kut to Bagdad was a matter of unending hand-to-hand fighting amid a network of defences. By land and water the pursuing force pressed forward, "pushing on merrily," as their leader called it. Shortage of supplies demanded a momentary pause in the pursuit, but 5th March found the fleet and mounted troops pushing on, the army commander himself steaming up-river in a big paddle-wheel boat. On the 9th they were within seven miles of the city, and a blinding dust-storm made some delay. But two days later the defeated Turks, realising the game was up, deserted Bagdad absolutely demoralised.

The great day had come, and on 11th March, Sir Stanley Maude, the conqueror of Bagdad, stepped quietly ashore with his staff close to the British Residency to take possession. "The banks were lined on both sides with crowds of inhabitants, who applauded loudly, and seemed delighted that we had arrived," remarked Maude, the army commander. Soon, through the old North Gate, marched the victorious troops as they took possession of the famous old city of the Kaliphs. Tidings of the capture of Bagdad aroused enthusiasm throughout the Allied countries. It was the first great triumph since the battle of the Marne, and it had a far-reaching effect on the East. Congratulations from the King, from the Viceroy of India, from Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, from Admiral Beatty, now in charge of the British Fleet, and others poured in to the army commander, to whose triumphant organisation the victory was due. Truly it was said of him that "each difficulty encountered served but to steel the determination to overcome it."

It was not till the surrounding country had been conquered and the Turks finally beaten at Mosul, that General Maude could settle down to consolidate his work. Specially did he attend to the medical service and hospitals. As the summer passed, the heat was intense, cholera broke out in Arab quarters, and the army commander insisted on the troops being inoculated. All that was possible was done for their comfort and well-being. But their chief worked hard, taking no thought for himself. The summer passed, and November came. Suddenly one evening toward the middle of the month the conqueror of Bagdad was stricken with cholera, of which in a few days he died. Simply he had lived and simply died. But never was grief more intense than that displayed by the whole Mesopotamian Force for a beloved commander. He was a great leader, and his men could ill spare one whose "confident smile had been an assurance that no sacrifice he demanded of them would be in vain."

A young officer serving in his army voiced their feelings when he wrote—

"Thou art a living purpose, being dead,

Fruitful of nobleness in lesser lives,

A guardian and a guide: Hail and farewell!"

His men would carry on.