British Mount a Second Front Against the Ottomans

During World War I, the British wanted to open a second front against Turkey to safeguard both oil supplies and the route to the East. The campaign in Mesopotamia went well at first, but the British were stymied by a humiliating defeat, and they were unable to capture vital oil fields in northern Iraq until the end of the war.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of World War I, the Ottoman Empire joined forces with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to form the Axis Powers. At the time, the Ottoman Empire consisted of what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan (present-day Jordan), Israel, Palestine, and parts of Saudi Arabia. The Allied and Axis forces met in several places: The French and British Commonwealth forces battled Axis troops in the Dardanelles (in northwest Turkey), the British fought Axis soldiers in Egypt, and the Russians took on Axis forces in northeast Turkey. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Ottoman campaign
[kw]British Mount a Second Front Against the Ottomans (Nov. 5, 1914)
[kw]Ottomans, British Mount a Second Front Against the (Nov. 5, 1914)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Ottoman campaign
[g]Ottoman Empire;Nov. 5, 1914: British Mount a Second Front Against the Ottomans[03650]
[g]Turkey;Nov. 5, 1914: British Mount a Second Front Against the Ottomans[03650]
[c]World War I;Nov. 5, 1914: British Mount a Second Front Against the Ottomans[03650]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 5, 1914: British Mount a Second Front Against the Ottomans[03650]
[c]Military history;Nov. 5, 1914: British Mount a Second Front Against the Ottomans[03650]
Townshend, Charles Vere Ferrers
Nixon, Sir John Eccles
Maude, Sir Frederick Stanley
Marshall, Sir William Raine
Goltz, Colmar von der

Great Britain was especially concerned about its oil supplies—the British navy was converting its energy systems from coal to oil—and about the protection of its Indian empire in the east. Ottoman domination of the Persian Gulf would place British interests in serious danger, and so the British decided to open a defensive front in southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), where they would have better access to the Persian oil fields around Abadan, Persia (modern-day Iran). This region was nominally independent, although the British had a sphere of influence in the south, and the Russians had one in the north.

Most of the British troops were either regiments of the Indian army or units of the British army that had been stationed in India and moved to bases in Bahrain (a British protectorate after 1861) or Kuwait (a British protectorate after 1899). Turkish troops had been very thinly deployed in Basra (modern-day Iraq’s principal port), and the city was taken almost at once, on November 22, 1914. On April 9, 1915, British forces were placed under the command of General Sir John Eccles Nixon. Nixon had been commander of the northern army in India, and he had also seen service in the Boer War (1899-1902) and in Afghanistan. His instructions were to secure the Persian pipelines, to control the Basra district of southern Iraq, and to develop a plan to advance on the city of Baghdad. Sir William Robertson, commander of the Imperial General Staff in the War Office in London, wanted all plans to be executed as carefully as possible.

General Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, an ambitious soldier who had held a number of administrative duties in Britain and India, served under Nixon. He had been given command of the Sixth Division of the Indian army in Mesopotamia in April, 1915, and Nixon charged him with advancing north along the Tigris with this division and a handful of other soldiers. This move was technically beyond Nixon’s War Office remit, but lines of responsibility were confused because the Indian government also had a stake in the policy. Townshend set out in May from Qurna, at the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. All went well at first: Townshend described the ascent as a “regatta up the Tigris,” and he steadily advanced for some two hundred miles. Kut-al-Amara, a town on a bend of the Tigris at the confluence of the Shatt-al-Hai, had been secured by the end of September.

By this time, the War Office had approved Nixon’s actions, especially since the main front at the Dardanelles was going badly for the Allied forces, who feared that they were on the verge of losing prestige in the Muslim world. The British appeared to have numerical superiority, however, and they hoped to strengthen their numbers if Russian troops came south. Nixon wanted to push on to Baghdad, a move that Townshend may have opposed. Both the health of the troops and logistical supplies were dwindling, the flood season had made the Tigris difficult to navigate, and Basra lacked good rail and docking facilities. The Turks, on the other hand, had part of a rail system reaching to Baghdad from the north, and they were beginning to release troops from the Dardanelles. The War Office promised to send reinforcements but ultimately sent troops to Egypt instead.

On October 23, 1915, Nixon allowed Townshend to push on from Al-Kut, in eastern Iraq. He took Ctesiphon, an ancient city in east-central Iraq twenty miles from Baghdad, on November 22, 1915. After several successful Turkish defensive actions, Townshend decided to retire to Al-Kut; half his British officers were sick or wounded. Once at Al-Kut, however, he was rapidly besieged (on December 8, 1915) by a reinforced Turkish army under Colmar von der Goltz, an extremely experienced German field marshal who had helped modernize the Turkish army, and General Nur-ed-Din. Three British brigades finally arrived in Basra in January, 1916, but the lack of experienced officers meant that no divisional staff could be formed.

Townshend waited, hoping for relief. Three attempts at rescue were defeated with great loss of life, and some twenty-four thousand soldiers were killed. The floods returned, cutting off the town, and the original supply of two months’ food was completely exhausted. After the Turks refused an offer of two million pounds to release the army, Townshend was forced to surrender on April 29, 1916. Townshend’s troops were humiliated: They were marched through Baghdad and beaten before being shipped off to prisoner-of-war camps, from which one-third never returned. Townshend himself was interned in the Bosporous until the war’s end, when the Turks used him to negotiate the terms of their surrender.

On July 20, 1916, British prime minister H. H. Asquith promised an inquiry into the defeat. Nixon resigned, ostensibly on the grounds of ill health, but his military career was in ruins. The ensuing report criticized him severely, and Sir Frederick Stanley Maude was given full command in August, 1916. Maude and his division had come from the Dardanelles through Egypt in February, and he spent three months attempting to unify the disheartened troops that remained in Mesopotamia.

By this time, Russian successes around Erzurum (in modern-day Turkey) were pulling Turkish troops away from the area, and on December 12, 1916, Maude began a series of cautious advances along the Tigris. By now he had eight new gunboats and armored steamboats to accompany his land forces, and Al-Kut was recaptured on February 24, 1917. The addition of British reinforcements and the loss of Turkish troops to fights in the north meant that the Sixth Division of the Turkish army under Halil Paşa was outnumbered four to one. Maude was unopposed as he captured Baghdad on March 11, 1917, but future progress was slowed as troops were sent to fight the Turks in Palestine.

Maude died of cholera in November, and his immediate subordinate, General William Raine Marshall, took command. Marshall divided his force of three hundred thousand into three sections: one column directed toward Baquba, Iraq, and then east into northern Persia and north toward Kirkuk, Iraq; one column along the Euphrates toward Falluja, Iraq; and the third and main thrust northward through the Iraqi cities of Samara and Tikrit to Mosul. Although the Turks were weakening, the Russian Revolution had caused a collapse on the Anatolian front, and Turkish forces had been able to move south. Kirkuk, an important oil center, was captured on May 7, 1918, but the advance on Mosul occurred with painful slowness. Samara fell in April and was followed by Ramadi and Tikrit in the autumn, but Mosul itself was not captured until November 3, 1918, shortly after the Anglo-Turkish Armistice of October 20, 1918.


The Ottoman campaign was successful in its attempt to secure Britain’s oil supplies: By the war’s end, all Iraqi oil fields were in British hands, and Britain had been awarded protectorate rights over Mesopotamia (which was renamed Iraq) as well as the southern fields in Persia. The British defeat at Al-Kut had reinforced the greater Gallipoli defeat, which could have sparked an Arab reaction against the Allies. Fortunately, this did not happen. Thus, by the end of the war, the British Empire had secured its access to the east, created a semicircle of control around the Indian Ocean, and conquered the threat of Russian dominance to the north through Afghanistan and northern Persia. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Ottoman campaign

Further Reading

  • Barker, A. J. The Neglected War: Mesopotamia,1914-1918. London: Faber, 1967. This is the definitive historical account of the campaign.
  • _______. Townshend of Kut: A Biography of Major-General Sir Charles Townshend. London: Cassell, 1967. A good summary of the surrender at Al-Kut. This version is somewhat more sympathetic toward Townshend than other accounts.
  • Carver, Michael. The National Army Museum Book of the Turkish Front, 1914-1918: The Campaigns of Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 2003. Account draws on the letters, diaries, and other papers of those involved. Carver demonstrates both the incompetence of the commanders and the endurance of the common soldiers.
  • Moberly, Frederick James. The Campaign in Mesopotamia. 4 vols. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1923-1927. These volumes comprise the full collection of official historical documents relating to the campaign.
  • Stevenson, David. The History of the First World War, 1914-1918. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Comprehensive volume on the war puts the Mesopotamian campaign in context.

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