This blog post was completed by Isaac Boothroyd, volunteer with Archives+.
Mesopotamia: the baking deserts and windswept plains that lies between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in modern day Iraq and Syria.
Once the birthplace of the very first cities, this ancient land has since borne witness to countless generations of history and conflict. The First World War in popular imagination is a world of poppies, trenches, and mud: the Flanders fields depicted by poets like McCrae. But largely forgotten, or at least unknown, are the conflicts that took place away from Europe, such as the battle for Baghdad, in what was then Turkish controlled Mesopotamia.
The role played by the Manchester Regiment, (and others), in this theatre is a fascinating story of the war beyond the trenches, and some of the records of this conflict are held by the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre, as well as the Manchester Central Library.
In particular, the fight to secure Baghdad in early 1916, (dubbed “The Baghdad Trail” by war correspondent Edmund Candler and others), proved of particular contemporary interest. The ins and outs of the campaign were summed up in a newspaper column by journalist, Lovat Fraser, and papers of some of the soldiers in the field, such as Colonel Hardcastle of the Manchester Regiment, offer a further insight into what went on.
One incident in particular seems to have defined the campaign: the Battle of Dujailah redoubt, on the 8th of March, 1916.
Describing the events leading up to this engagement, Fraser was damning of British military leadership: “it is a narrative of one reckless frontal assault after another, delivered with insufficient flanking. Battle after battle was fought…nearly always with the same broad consequences.”
Dujailah, however, was singled out as a particularly bad episode, with Fraser describing it as “perhaps one of the worse examples of failure through bad generalship.”
The night of March 7th had seen British troops marching unseen up to Dujailah in preparation for a surprise attack on the Turks the following day. Unfortunately, although some of the troops arrived to find the fort “practically empty”, others of their number had been delayed, causing the Corps commanders to postpone the attack until the late afternoon at the earliest.
This, Fraser says, went against the wishes of some of their junior officers, but the effect was crucial: the element of surprise had been lost.
“Everything had to be done according to the copybook plans. There was first to be a bombardment of an empty position, and then Keary [one of the commanders] must wait, it was said, until Kemball’s column, which was delayed, got into position”.
The Turks, of course, used this time to reinforce the position, meaning that when the attack finally began, they were ready and waiting for the oncoming British.
“Manchester”, wrote Fraser, “can look upon that sunset attack with anger, but with mournful pride…The Manchesters led the way over 3,200 yards of open ground, and in spite of terrific rifle fire actually stormed their way into the redoubt, together with the 59th Rifles, an Indian Regiment. They were bombed out, and the attempt to relieve Kut [part of the wider objective before Baghdad] had failed.”
Fraser said the attack cost the British 3,500 lives in total, for which the fort was only briefly taken before being lost again.
The papers of Colonel Hardcastle, an officer of 1st Battalion, Manchester Regiment, provide another glimpse into the aftermath of the battle.
Two letters survive from the senior commanders of the campaign, which show how they attempted to maintain the morale of the men. The first was a typed letter from Lieutenant General Aylmer to the men of the 8th Brigade, on March 13th, 1916. In it he and Staff Captain Scott acknowledged “with what spirit you stormed the Dujailah Redoubt and how much you suffered”, as well as “the magnificent way in which they complied with the orders issued…”. They added that the officers and men had “added glory to the already glorious records of the 8th Brigade”, and overall tried to raise everyone’s spirits in order to keep them fit to fight.
So far, so bureaucratic – we might well expect the commanders to try and rally their troops after a bruising defeat such as this.
What is interesting, however, is that a second, this time hand-written letter was sent to Colonel Hardcastle on the 23rd of March, 1916.
This was from another of his superiors, Major General Keary, and attempted to offer Hardcastle some comfort and reassurance over the course of the battle and the wider campaign:
“The withdrawal from it [Dujailah] was a military necessity which the 8th Brigade could not have averted. The steady manner in which that withdrawal was carried out is a further proof of the quality of the officers and men engaged…your achievement is formidable, not only to yourselves, but to the divisions which I have the honour to command.”
It’s not definitive proof, of course, but Keary’s praise of the Manchesters whilst defending, (or shifting the blame) from the decisions of senior officers suggests the battle may have caused misgivings, even amongst relatively high ranks like Hardcastle, about the progress of the campaign as a whole.
Poor leadership was most certainly part of Fraser’s appraisal of the Manchesters’ campaign in Mesopotamia, as seen in this newspaper cutting:
“…without exception, everyone, high and low, responsible for the blunders of earlier years has now been thickly covered with whitewash either by the government or the army council.”
“…while the plains of Mesopotamia are strewn with the bones of our dead, it is once more placed on record that our statesmen and generals can do no wrong!”
Though Britain was eventually successful in taking Baghdad, the cost overall was enormous. During the campaign, some 30,000 soldiers lost their lives, with a further 1,340 of their officers killed too. Countless more were injured, (Fraser put the number at 100,000 in total), all of which made him question the value of the venture, and the motives of those who ordered it:
“Was it worth it? I have some personal knowledge of the countries and peoples around the Persian Gulf. I hold that neither Mesopotamia nor Baghdad was worth it.
…We should never have gone inland, but should have contented ourselves with holding the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates.
…The true and ultimate culprits were the Asquith cabinet, who were eager for some success as a set-off to the failure of Gallipoli.”
Whether or not we agree with his assessment, (which in some ways even echoes modern debates about recent conflicts), perhaps the most important element now is to remember the battle of Dujailah redoubt, as well as the campaign more generally. The personal sacrifice and bravery of the men involved was no less important than the men in the trenches, but their battles, and their war, took place much further away in the popular imagination than the latter.
References & Acknowledgements
I would like to thank the staff of the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre for their help with accessing the resources used in this post, as well as draw attention to the following sources used within it:
- Newspaper cutting, “The Baghdad Trail: The Manchesters in Mesopotamia”, 1916 – MR/5/C/9 (held at Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre)
- Papers of Colonel Hardcastle, 1st Batallion the Manchester Regiment (1916-17) – MR1/2/1/6 (held at Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre)