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Sunday, May 06, 2007

An Indian Misadventure in Iraq

The Great War (World War I) is often a forgotten war in the consciousness of Americans and Western Europeans. It's events were overshadowed by the much deadlier and more spectacular World War II. However, in my humble opinion World War I was the most significant war in human history.

Even more forgotten than the war itself if the heroic battles on the Middle Eastern front. The British were fighting the Turkish Ottoman Empire, one of the two last surviving medieval Eurasian states (Tsarist Russia was the other-both states collapsed in the subsequent years.) The Ottoman Sultan had hoped to stay neutral in the war, as the empire had a long history of economic and political ties to the United Kingdom. However the Sultan was powerless to stop the Young Turks who had essentially seized power in 1908 from making an alliance with Germany, who for years had worked to modernize the Ottoman Army. Also critical was the investment that Germany had made in the Berlin to Baghdad railway which ran mostly through Ottoman territory.

Against this backdrop, British forces made up largely of Indians reached the undefended Ottoman city of Kut (now part of Iraq) on December 3, 1915. The city's geographic position on the Tigres River made it a critical backdrop. From Kut the British forces could make a full siege on the well defended Ottoman city of Basra. However the British forces miscalculated the value of Kut and within days a Turkish force led by the German Commander Baron Von Der Goltz laid siege to the city.

This siege was highly effective. The Turks cut the British forces off from reinforcements until relief came about a month later. Even when reinforcements arrives, again made up largely of Indian troops, the siege continues and eventually the British capitulated. From Wikipedia comes the following entry: "British leaders attempted to buy their troops out. T. E. Lawrence was sent to negotiate a secret deal with the Turks. The British offered £2 million and promised they would not fight the Turks again, in exchange for Townshend's troops. Enver Pasha ordered that this offer be rejected. [1]
The British also asked for help from the Russians. General Baratov, with his largely Cossack force of 20,000 was in Persia at the time. Following the request he advanced towards Baghdad in April 1916 but turned back when news reached him of the surrender.[2]
General Townshend arranged a ceasefire on the 26th and, after failed negotiations, he simply surrendered on April 29, 1916 after a siege of 147 days. Around 13,000 Allied soldiers survived to be made prisoners. 70% of the British and 50% of the Indian troops died during captivity of disease or at the hands of the Turkish guards. Townshend himself was taken the island of Malki on the Sea of Marmara, to sit out the war in luxury."

This was just one of many bloody battles fought on the Middle Eastern front during the war that included either Indian or ANZAC (Australian and New Zealander) troops fighting under the Union Jack. The use of colonial forces by the British Government against the Turks (but under British commanders) allowed the British based forces to focus on the Western Front. But it also contributed to giving the Turks some great victories most notably at Gallipoli. When World War II rolled around, Indian opposition to British Colonial rule was highly developed and no such bloody repeats of Kut were to occur with Indian troops.

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.