At the outset of the War, British policy in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf had been mainly concerned with protecting trade routes to India and preventing piracy in the Gulf. After the disaster at Gallipoli, they sought to find another way of attacking the Ottoman Empire. However, their policy lacked coherence and political direction – control of policy being disputed between London and India. In this policy vacuum, the military sought the initiative and began to move up the Tigris towards Baghdad. The conditions were appalling (hardened soldiers who had come from France were horrified at the conditions) but nevertheless the British had some success, progressing as far as Baghdad. However, they were underequipped, under-manned and their supply lines were too long and they withdrew, but were eventually besieged at Kut-al-Amara.
Reinforcements, including 6Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, were sent. They proceeded via Egypt, arriving at Basra on 5 March, then up the River Tigris to Sheikh Saad where they joined the attempt to relieve the British and Indian troops besieged by the Turks in the city of Kut-al-Amara (Al Kut on the map). The attempt to relieve Kut was a failure and the British commander surrendered his forces on 28 April, after more than 24,000 men had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
General Maude assumed command of the Tigris Corps and during the summer, British forces were strengthened and reinforced but the torrid heat and appalling conditions took a heavy toll. By December, the British were ready to renew their offensive. The advance began in earnest on 15 February and by 24 February the Tigris Corps was forcing the enemy to retreat in disorder. Baghdad eventually fell to British and Indian forces on 11 March 1917.
The forces who fought in Mesopotamia were mainly from India – only one Division was British. This was 13th Division. One of its infantry brigades was 38th Brigade, consisting of 6 Battalion Loyal North Lancashire Regiment along with 6 Bn East Lancs and 6 Bn King’s Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiments. The remaining 8 Divisions were all Indian troops (including Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Ghurkas). By the end of the War the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force had lost:
3985 died of wounds
12678 died of sickness
13492 missing and prisoners (9000 at Kut)
Why does Mesopotamia matter today?
In May 1916, two diplomats – Briton Mark Sykes and Frenchman François Georges-Picot – secretly agreed to the division of the Middle East into two areas of influence, believing the region would be better off under the French and British Empires.
The agreement was secret, with no Arab knowledge, and before the War the Arabs had been promised independence if they opposed the Ottomans.
The diplomats’ intention was sectarian (Lebanon for Christians, Palestine for Jews, Bekaa valley for Shia Muslims, Syria for Sunnis) but the borders did not conform to actual sectarian, tribal or ethnic divisions on the ground.
It exacerbated the identity crisis within the Arab world and the struggle between secularism/Islamism and nationalism.