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CWGC marks the Centenary of the Siege of Kut

27 April 2016

The CWGC will remember the centenary of the end of the four-month siege of Kut on 29 April, one of the most infamous defeats suffered by British Empire forces in the First World War.

British and Indian troops in the town of Kut Al Amara in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) were forced to surrender by the Ottoman Army, the Turkish 13th Corps, resulting in the deaths of thousands while in captivity.

THE SIEGE OF KUT

The Siege of Kut was a key event in the Mesopotamia Campaign - a British-led attempt to secure oil supplies in Persia (now Iran) and Kuwait, thought vital to Britain's dominant Royal Navy.

Encouraged by early successes, British and Indian forces advanced deep into Mesopotamia -stretching their supply lines. In November 1915 both British and Ottoman forces suffered heavily in an engagement just south of Baghdad, the Battle of Ctesiphon. The Allied units retreated to Kut where they were surrounded and besieged. 

General Townshend, in command of the 6th (Poona) Division, was ordered to hold Kut while Indian Army forces attempted to advance north up the Tigris to relieve the beleaguered garrison. Despite a series of hard-fought battles, they were unable to defeat the Ottoman Army and break the siege. Over 20,000 servicemen of the Indian Army were killed or wounded in these battles.

 

Around 11,500 soldiers held Kut at the start of the siege, including some 3,000 British and 8,500 Indian troops, supported by 3,500 Indian non-combatant followers: labourers, cooks and orderlies. Conditions became increasingly desperate for the soldiers and the 6,000 civilians, who faced freezing cold and torrential rain, with poor drainage and sanitation, and limited medical supplies. The garrison had enough rations to last two months, but very soon stocks of fresh food and medicine began to run low. There were many attempts to send provisions to the town, including supply drops from aircraft and efforts to reach Kut by riverboat, but they had little success.

The garrison finally surrendered on 29 April 1916 after holding out for 147 days. Some 1,750 Indian and British troops had died during this time from wounds or disease.

In the aftermath, some 12,000 British and Indian servicemen were taken prisoner. Exhausted, and with many suffering from malnutrition and illness, they were forced to march from Kut to Baghdad, then some 500 miles onwards to prisoner of war camps in Anatolia, Turkey. Of those taken prisoner, around 4,000 are reported to have died whilst in captivity.

The first attempt to capture Baghdad, the Siege of Kut, and the battles fought to relieve the garrison, resulted in casualties of some 40,000 killed, missing, wounded or captured. News of the surrender shocked the British public, and resulted in a parliamentary enquiry into the campaign, with changes in leadership and organisation.

Kut was eventually recaptured in February 1917, by a larger and better-supplied British and Indian force under the command of General Maude. Baghdad was occupied in March, and the advance continued into northern Mesopotamia until October 1918, when the war with the Ottoman Empire came to an end.

Subsequently, Kut was retaken by the Indian Army and Baghdad was taken finally in March 1917.

CWGC SITES IN IRAQ

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries and memorials in Iraq commemorate those who fought and died at Kut and throughout the Mesopotamian Campaign. The CWGC is responsible for more than 64,600 commemorations at 19 locations across Iraq.

Some 420 servicemen are commemorated at Kut War Cemetery, more than 260 of whom are known to have died between 7 December and 29 April. In 2015 the cemetery was completely restored - with raised levels, new shelter buildings and headstones.

Elsewhere in Iraq the security situation makes it impossible to achieve lasting reconstruction and care for the cemeteries, and to attempt to do so would risk public funds and the lives of our staff. We have over 23,000 sites worldwide, and whilst it is the clear aim of the CWGC to bring all to the same standard, in places where our staff would be endangered by trying to do so, we necessarily have to take a longer view.

In the interim, a two volume Roll of Honour listing all casualties buried and commemorated in Iraq has been produced. These volumes are on display at the Commission's Head Office in Maidenhead and are available for the public to view.

To hear extracts of what it was like during the battle from the diary of Reverend Harold Spooner and Major Charles Barber, who were besieged in Kut and an excerpt from the London Gazette, February 2, 1917 - listen below: