Memories of another war

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

KUT-AL-AMARA is unlikely to repeat itself; Indian troops will after all face only small groups of insurgents, not the massed ranks of the Turkish army. But history does point to the awful costs of the wars of `regime change' - and to ways in which great powers subcontract the sacrifices they entail.

A hundred years ago, Iraq was at the centre of great-power intrigue, fuelled then as now by oil. The Germans, with the aid of their Ottoman allies, were busy putting through a railway line from Berlin to Baghdad. Imperial Russia looked to Iraq, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, as a potential route to gain access to a southern all-weather port. Great Britain busied itself countering its rivals, seeking to control the Persian Gulf, which overlooked the sea routes to its most prized possession, India.

Iraq was invaded by Great Britain at the outset of the First World War. The operation had limited objectives, notably securing the valuable oilfields around Basra. The idea was to keep Turkish forces away from the key port of Abadan, the terminus of the Anglo-Persian pipeline from which the Royal Navy drew its supplies. Basra was secured by the end of 1914 by a small expeditionary force, with minimal losses. Britain's war objectives in Iraq, then Mesopotamia, had been met.

Other considerations, however, soon began to shape military strategy. The British military campaign in Gallipoli, which was intended to lead to the capture of Constantinople, was heading towards a spectacular defeat. British troops had to be pulled out after they suffered murderous casualties; the ill-conceived campaign was to claim the head of, among others, Lord Winston Churchill. A propaganda coup was needed to stave off resentment at home - and the taking of Baghdad seemed to be just what was needed.

In November 1915, General Charles Townshend led 9,000 men of the 6 Indian Division by boat along the Tigris - for no roads existed then. Townshend's force was met by a well dug-in and numerically superior Turkish force 35 km short of Baghdad. The Turkish soldiers, who had months to prepare for the British advance, were eventually defeated in a brilliant military action. Townshend's victory, however, proved to be pyrrhic. He suffered 40 per cent casualties, and no longer had the men to continue his advance. The 6 Division was forced to fall back to Kut-al-Amara, a small town of 7,000 people that it had taken a month ago.

The retreat was hellish. The 6 Division was short of almost everything - boats, medical supplies and rations. The India Office and Townshend's superior, Sir John Nixon, had committed minimal resources, claiming that the soldiers would find what they needed when they took Baghdad. War in the west received priority; Indian lives were expendable. Moreover, the 6 Division had with it some 1,600 Turkish prisoners; the wounded from both sides accounted for 4,500 persons; and there were some 3,000-odd Indian personnel who were brought in for non-combatant roles. The town's 7,000 residents had to be fed, a task that was possible - though for a short while - only because many of the Indian soldiers did not eat meat. It was here that Townshend's remaining 2,000-strong troops made their last stand.

For a while, the besieged force lived on hope. Three attempts were made to relieve the defenders of Kut-al-Amara. They failed to succeed, and the relief forces suffered 23,000 casualties. Efforts were made to supply the remnants of the 6 Division by air, the first effort of its kind. But the Turkish forces had access to larger numbers of superior German aircraft, and were able to reduce the flow to a trickle. Efforts to resupply the division by boat were also choked. Townshend finally offered a ransom of 2 million for the safe passage of the survivors, along with a promise that the fighting men would play no further role in the war. Keen on inflicting a humiliating defeat on the British, the Turks refused.

Finally, in April 1916, with rations nearly exhausted, Townshend received permission from his superiors to surrender. He served out the rest of the war in relative comfort. For his men, the torture continued. Although the Turks had promised that the survivors would receive humane treatment, they were tortured, starved, and even raped on the forced march to Turkey. During the siege 1,750 men had died; another 2,600 British and 9,300 Indian men were taken prisoner, many of whom never saw their homes again.

At the end of the First World War, Great Britain took control of Iraq. And what of the Indian troops who died there? For a while, the Indian rupee was the official currency. If Indian troops enter Iraq again, the country might not even have that much to console itself with.

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