British capture Baghdad – 11 March 1917

The forgotten War in the Middle East

The Fall of Baghdad occurred during the Mesopotamia Campaign, fought between the forces of the British Empire and the Ottoman Turkish Empire. This was a major turning point in the War in the Middle East, a usually forgotten theatre.

Baghdad’s capture had sprung up out of a major defeat for British and Indian forces when an over-8,000 strong British-Indian garrison in the town of Kut was besieged the previous year. The relief efforts failed, costing the British-Indian forces well over 31,000 dead, wounded and captured, and the surrender of the Kut garrison. It was later remarked as “the worst defeat of the Allies in World War I”.

Due to this the British Army in Mesopotamia underwent a major overhaul. A new commander, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude was given the job of restoring Britain’s military reputation.

General Maude spent the rest of 1916 rebuilding his army. Most of his troops were recruited in India and then sent by sea to Basra, and while these troops were being trained, British military engineers built a field railway from the coast up to Basra and beyond. General Maude also obtained a small force of armed river boats and river supply ships as the Royal Engineers were involved in maintaining lines of communications over the vast open areas. The boats were used to lay telephone lines along the Tigris River.

Their new campaign began on 13 December 1916. The British had some 50,000 well-trained and well-equipped troops, mostly British Indian troops of the Indian Expeditionary Force, together with the 13th (Western) Division which included the 72nd and 88th Companies RE.

There were no setbacks for the British this time. General Maude proceeded cautiously, advancing on both sides of the Tigris River, earning the nickname ‘Systematic Joe’. The Ottoman forces held a fortified place called the Khadairi Bend which the British captured after two weeks of siege work, from 6 January to 19 January 1917.

The British then had to force the Ottoman troops out of a strong defensive line along the Hai River, taking them from 25 January till 4 February 1917. Another Ottoman position, called Dahra Bend, was taken on 16 February. Finally, the British re-captured Kut on 24 February 1917.

The march on Baghdad resumed on 5 March 1917. Three days later, Maude’s Corps reached the Diyala River on the outskirts of the city. Though the Ottoman forces were not going to give up Baghdad in a hurry, a number of out-flanking moves were conducted by the British which forced the Ottoman forces to retreat as their supplies were getting low.

The Ottoman authorities then ordered the evacuation of Baghdad on 10 March. The British followed close on the heels of the Ottoman troops and captured Baghdad without a fight on 11 March 1917, and were greeted with enthusiasm by the residents. A week later, General Maude spoke to the people of Baghdad saying, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.”

By P. Cosgrove