Alternative History

The Mesopotamian campaign was a campaign in the Middle Eastern theatre of the Great War fought between the Allies represented by the British Empire, mostly troops from the Indian Empire, and the Central Powers, mostly of the Ottoman Empire.


The Ottoman Empire had conquered the region in the early 16th century. The empire had a loose control over the region. The Ottomans never tried to build an efficient system of administration given the fact that it took four months for a caravan to arrive at the capital. With the turn of the 19th century came reforms, and thus the empire tried to solve this issue. Work began on a Berlin to Baghdad Railroad as early as 1888. Mostly complete by 1915 with only four gaps in the tracks, the travel dropped down to only 21 days from Istanbul to Baghdad.

The Anglo-Persian Oil Company had the exclusive rights to work petroleum deposits throughout the Persian Empire except in the provinces of Azerbaijan, Ghilan, Mazendaran, Asdrabad, and Khorasan. In 1914, before the war, the British government had contracted with the company for oil for the navy. Kuwait was another strategic factor for the British.

The Ottoman Empire did not expect any major action in this region.

The operational area of the Mesopotamian campaign was limited to the lands watered by the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. The main challenge was moving the supplies and troops through the swamps and deserts which surrounded the area of conflict.

Shortly after the European war started, the British sent a military force to protect Abadan. In Abadan was one of the world's earliest oil refineries. British operational planning included land troops in the Shatt-al-Arab. A reinforced Indian 6th (Poona) Infantry Division from the British Indian Army was assigned, designated as Indian Expeditionary Force D (IEFD).

The Ottoman Fourth Army was located in the region. The army was composed of two corps, the XII Corps with 35th and 36th Divisions at Mosul and XIII Corps with the 37th and 38th Divisions at Baghdad.

On October 29th, after the Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau, Breslau bombarded the Black Sea port of Theodosia. On October 30 1914 the High Command in Istanbul changed the force distribution. On November 2nd Grand Vizier Said Halim Pasha expressed regret to the Allies for the operations of the navy. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Sazonov said it was too late and Russia considered this raid as an act of war. The Cabinet tried to explain that hostilities were begun without its sanction by German officers serving in the navy. The Allies insisted on reparations to Russia, the dismissal of German officers from the Goeben and Breslau, and the internment of the German ships until the end of the war. But before the Ottoman government responded Great Britain and France declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 5th. CUP's official Declaration of War came on November 14.

When the Caucasus Campaign became a reality with the Bergmann Offensive, Enver Pasha sent the 37th Division and the XIII Corps Headquarters to the Caucasus in support of the Third Army. The entire XII Corps was deployed to the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. The Fourth Army Headquarters was sent to Syria, to replace the Second Army Headquarters which went to Istanbul. In place of the Fourth Army was "Iraq Area Command" with only the 38th Division under its command.

Mesopotamia was a low priority area for the Ottomans. Regiments of the XII and XIII Corps were maintained at low levels in peacetime. Lieutenant Colonel Süleyman Askeri Bey became the commander. He redeployed portions of the 38th Division at the mouth of Shatt-al-Arab. The rest of the defensive force was stationed in Basra. The Ottoman General Staff did not even possess a proper map of Mesopotamia. They tried to draw a map with the help of some people who used to work in Iraq before the war, although this attempt failed. Enver Pasha bought two German maps scaled 1/1,500,000.



On November 6 1914, the British offensive began with the naval force bombarding the old fort at Fao, which was located at the point where Shatt-al-Arab meets the Persian Gulf. The Fao Landing of British Indian Expeditionary Force D (IEF D) comprising the 6th (Poona) Division led by Lieutenant General Arthur Barrett, with Sir Percy Cox as Political Officer was opposed by 350 Ottoman troops and four cannons. By mid-November, the rest of the Poona Division was ashore. The Division moved towards the town of Basra.

On November 22, the British occupied the city of Basra against a force of 2900 Arab conscripts of the Iraq Area Command commanded by Suphi Pasha. Suphi Pasha and 1200 prisoners were captured by the British shortly after. The main Ottoman army, under the overall command of Khalil Pasha was located 275 miles north-west around Baghdad. They made only weak efforts to dislodge the British.


On January 2nd, Süleyman Askeri Bey assumed the Iraq Area Command. The Ottoman Army did not have any other resources at the time to move to this region because other areas such as Gallipoli, the Caucasus, and Palestine had higher priority. Süleyman Askeri Bey sent letters to Arab sheiks in an attempt to organize them to fight against the British. He wanted to retake the Shatt-al-Arab region at any cost.

On April 12th, Süleyman Askeri attacked the British camp at Shaiba with 3800 troops early in the morning. These forces provided by Arab sheiks did not produce results. However, the Turkish infantry launched a series of relentless attacks on the fortified British camp for two days. When the British cavalry counter attacked, he called the attacks off. Ottoman losses numbered 1000 men killed or wounded and another 400 taken prisoner as well as two artillery field pieces lost. The retreat ended 75 miles up the river at Hamisiye. Süleyman Askeri was wounded at Shaiba. The disappointed and depressed Süleyman Askeri shot himself at the hospital in Baghdad. In his place Colonel Nurettin was appointed commander of the Iraq Area Command on April 20th, 1915. Nurettin was one of the few officers to reach high command without the benefit of a staff college education. He did, however, have extensive combat experience.

Due to the unexpected success British command reconsidered their plan and General Sir John Nixon was sent in April 1915 to take command. He ordered Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend to advance to Kut or even to Baghdad if possible. Townshend and his small army advanced up the Tigris river. They defeated several Ottoman forces sent to halt him. The rapid advance of the British up the river changed some of the Arab tribes perception of the conflict. There was already an initial Arab Revolt in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. Realizing that the British had the upper-hand, Arabs in the region joined the British efforts. They raided the military hospitals and massacred the soldiers in Amara.

Enver Pasha worried about the possible fall of Baghdad. He realized the mistake of underestimating the importance of the Mesopotamian campaign. He ordered the 35th Division and Mehmet Fazıl Pasha to return to their old location, which was Mosul. The 38th Division was reconstituted. The Sixth Army was created on October 5th 1915, and its commander was a 76 year old German General Colmar von der Goltz. Von der Goltz was a famous military historian who had written several classic books on military operations. He had also spent many years working as a military adviser in the Ottoman Empire. However, he was in Thrace commanding the Ottoman First Army and would not reach the theater for some time. Colonel Nurettin the former commander of the Iraq Area Command was still in charge on the ground.

On 22 November, Townshend and Nurettin fought a battle at Ctesiphon, a town 25 miles south of Baghdad. The conflict lasted five days. The battle was a stalemate as both the Ottomans and the British ended up retreating from the battlefield. Townshend concluded that a full scale retreat was necessary. However, Nurettin realized the British were retreating and cancelled his retreat, then followed the British. Townshend withdrew his division in good order back to Kut-al-Amara. He halted and fortified the position. Nurettin pursued with his forces. He tried to encircle the British with his XVIII Corps composed of the 45th Division, 51st Division and 2nd Tribal Cavalry Brigade. The exhausted and depleted British force was urged back to the defenses of Kut-al-Amara. The retreat finalized on 3 December. Nurettin encircled the British at Kut-al-Amara, and sent other forces down river to prevent the British from marching to the relief of the garrison.

On December 7, the siege of Kut began. From the Ottoman perspective; Siege of Kut prevented Sixth Army to perform other operations. From the British perspective, defending Kut as opposed to retreating back to Basra was a mistake since Kut was isolated. It could be defended, but it could not be resupplied. Von der Goltz helped the Ottoman forces build defensive positions around Kut. The Sixth Army was reorganized into 2 corps, the XIII and the XVIII. Nurettin Paşa gave command to Von der Goltz. With the reorganization the Sixth Army laid siege to the British. New fortified positions established down river fended off any attempt to rescue Townshend. Townshend suggested an attempt to break out but this was initially rejected by Sir John Nixon, however he relented. Nixon under the command of General Aylmer established a relief force. General Aylmer made three major attempts to break the siege, but each effort was unsuccessful.


On 20 January, Enver Pasha replaced Nurettin Pasha with Colonel Halil Kut. Nurettin Pasha did not want to work with a German General. He send a telegram to War ministry "The Iraq Army has already proven that it does not need the military knowledge of Goltz Paşa…" After the first failure, General Nixon was replaced by General Lake. British forces received small quantities of supplies from the air. These drops were not enough to feed the garrison, though. Halil Kut forced the British to choose between starving or surrendering, though in the mean time they would try to lift the siege.

Between January-March 1916, both Townshend and Aylmer launched several attacks in an attempt to lift the siege. In sequence, the attacks took place at the Battle of Sheikh Sa'ad, the Battle of the Wadi, the Battle of Hanna, and the Battle of Dujaila Redoubt. These series of British attempts to break through the encirclement did not succeed and their costs were heavy. Both sides suffered high casualties. In February, XIII Corps received 2nd Infantry Division as a reinforcement. Food and hopes were running out for Townshend in Kut-al-Amara. Disease were spreading rapidly and could not be cured.

On 19 April Field Marshal Von der Goltz died of cholera. On 24 April, an attempt by the paddle steamer “Julnar” to reach the town by river failed. Townshend surrendered on April 29 1916. 8,000 soldiers became captives of the Ottomans.

The British viewed the loss of Kut as a humiliating defeat. It had been many years since such a large body of British Army soldiers had surrendered to an enemy. Also this loss followed only four months after the British defeat at the Battle of Gallipoli. Nearly all the British commanders involved in the failure to rescue Townshend were removed from command. The Ottomans proved they were good at holding defensive positions against superior forces.


The British refused to let this defeat stand and so the new commander, General Maude was given additional reinforcements and equipment. For the next six months he trained and organized his army. At the same time, the Turkish Sixth Army was growing weaker. Halil Pasha received very few replacements, and ended up disbanding the weak 38th Division and used its soldiers as replacements for his other divisions, the 46th, 51st, 35th, and 52nd.

Maude launched offensive was launched on December 13, 1916. The British advanced up both sides of the Tigris river, forcing the Ottoman army out of a number of fortified positions along the way. General Maude's offensive was methodical, organized, and successful. Halil Pasha was able to concentrate most of his forces against Maude near Kut. However, Maude switch his advance to the other bank of the Tigris, bypassing most of the Turkish forces. The Turkish XVIII Corps escaped destruction only by fighting some desperate rear guard actions. It did lose quite a bit of equipment and supplies. The British occupied Kut and continued to advance up the Tigris.

By early March, the British were at the outskirts of Baghdad, and the Baghdad garrison, under the direct command of the Governor of Baghdad province Khalil Pasha, tried to stop them on the Diyala river. General Maude outmaneuvered the Ottoman forces, destroyed an Ottoman regiment and captured the Ottoman defensive positions. Khalil Pasha retreated in disarray out of the city. On March 11, 1917 the British entered Baghdad where they were greeted as liberators. The British Indian Army played a significant role in the liberation of Baghdad. Amidst the confusion of the retreat a large part of the Ottoman army (some 15,000 soldiers) were captured. A week after the city fell, General Maude issued the oft-quoted Proclamation of Baghdad, which contained the famous line "our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators".

Halil Pasha withdrew his battered Sixth Army up river and established his headquarters in Mosul. He had about 30,000 total troops with which to oppose Maude. In April, he received the 2nd Infantry Division, but overall the Ottoman strategic position was bad in the spring of 1917. After the capture of Baghdad, Maude stopped his advance. He felt his supply lines were were too long, conditions in the summer made campaigning difficult and he had been denied reinforcements he felt he needed.

General Maude died of cholera on 18 November. He was replaced by General William Marshall who halted operations for the winter.


The British resumed their offensive in late February 1918 capturing Hīt and Khan al Baghdadi in March, and Kifri in April. For the rest of the 1918, the British had to move troops to the Sinai and Palestine Campaign in support of the Battle of Megiddo. General Marshall moved some of the forces east in support of General Lionel Dunsterville's operations in Persia during the summer of 1918. His very powerful army was "astonishingly inactive, not only in the hot season but through most of the cold". The fight in Mesopotamia was not wanted anymore.

With Germany's success in the European theatre prompted the British to turn their attention towards winning anywhere else if possible, this would sparkle a series of offensives across all the remaining fronts of the war.

General Alexander Cobbe commanded a British force from Baghdad on 23 October 1918. Within two days it covered 120 km, reaching the Little Zab River, where it expected to meet and engage the Turkish Sixth Army operating under Ismail Hakki Bey. He fought a battle at the Battle of Sharqat, capturing nearly the entire Turkish force.


With German forces relieved from the strain the battles in Europe had caused them they sought to confront the British forces elsewhere in the world in spite of the naval blockade forced by the Royal Navy over Europe.

German re-inforcements brought to the Sinai increased the need to move troops towards that front which in turn decreased the amount forces on Mesopotamia.

Nevertheless in 18 November the British were successful in the Battle for Mosul which allowed them control over the region until the end of the war.


In 3 March of 1920 the Treaty of Cairo forced the British forces to gave back occupied territories and remove its forces from Mesopotamia.

Categories: Middle Eastern Theatre (Royale)