World War One: Greece and Mesopotamia

By the summer 1918 an Allied army had been sitting in northern Greece for three years, sucking in ever greater resources in manpower, material and shipping; the legacy of the soaring vision in spring 1915 of outflanking the Western Front by marching on Vienna via the Balkans. At the beginning of 1916, after the final failure at Gallipoli and the collapse of Serbia, the Allied Commander-in-Chief at Salonika, the French General Maurice Sarrail, proceeded to construct an elaborate 70-mile long defensive perimeter round the port, in order to hold it against an expected Bulgarian offensive coming out of the mountains to the north. The attack never came; the Allied bridgehead in technically neutral Greece became, in a derisive German phrase, ‘the greatest internment camp in the world’, already containing 90,000 British and 60,000 French troops. Italians came to join the throng; two Russian brigades as well. Here the remnants of the Serbian army rallied and prepared for their revenge.

In September 1916 the Allied forces at long last launched an offensive of their own, striking into the forbiddingly wild mountains between Greece and Serbia where the Bulgarians, with a stiffening of Germans, had dug themselves in with skill. Painfully the Allies drove the enemy from crest to crest as the mud of autumn gave way to the first blizzards of winter. Finally in November, the French captured the town of Monastir, whereupon the Balkan campaign reverted to trenches for the winter. Not in till April and May 1917 did the allies try again, attacking a series of steep and naked mountain ridges that extended along Greece’s borders with Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria. The Standard Great War tactical pattern repeated itself: breakdown communications and control in the attacking forces; slaughter of troops in the open by emplaced guns and machine guns; small gains of ground. The allied ‘ Army of the Orient’, now at its peak strength of 600,000 men, reverted to the defensive again. In June 1917 the ever-deeper Allied involvement in Greece’s internal affairs reached a climax with the enforced deposition of King Constantine in favour of his son, and the entry of Greece into the war under the pro-allied Venizelos. Militarily little further was to happen on the Greek front for another fourteen months. Malaria caused the bulk of the allied casualties. Men passed through the hospitals more than once, so that while a total of 409,000 British served at Salonika, the total sick rose to 481,000, a ratio of 1,103 hospital admissions for sickness alone per 1,000 men; a staggering figure which underlines the campaign’s waste and futility.

The Turks

In the Middle East, too, a major campaign had grown from small beginnings, eventually to swallow nearly 1,200,000 British Empire troops. In 1914 the Turkish Empire extended over the modern territories of Syria, the Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and down the red sea coast of Saudi Arabia. Turkish forces therefore menaced the Suez Canal, Britain’s imperial lifeline between the Mother Country and India, Australia and New Zealand, and Indian and Anzac units were dispatched to Egypt, a British Protectorate, in order to defend the Canal. Early in 1915 the expected Turkish offensive materialized. Twenty thousand men marched through the heart of the Sinai Desert, when Egyptians and Israelis were to clash a half century later, and sought to cross the Canal. The defenders repulsed the Turks easily in what were hardly more than skirmishes.

Nonetheless, the British remained anxious lest the Turks should return in greater strength. They therefore dug a powerful defense system behind the Canal and built up the imperial garrison in Egypt to 100,000 by the end of 1915. Conscious of their new strength, the British cautiously pushed forward across the Sinai. On 21 December 1916 El Arish, on the border of Palestine, fell. Lloyd George, who had just become War Premier,, now saw a wonderful opportunity of winning a prize that would make better headlines in 1917 than another slog on the Western Front: the capture of Jerusalem, the Holy City of three religions. In January British imperial forces Under General Sir Archibald Murray advanced into Palestine. On 24 March he attacked Gaza, garrisoned by 4,000 Turks. The plan was bold: a frontal infantry assault from the south, coupled with a cavalry sweep round the Turkish rear. The execution was muddled. By the time the infantry, after much confusion and loss, had fought its way into the city, the cavalry commander, believing the infantry had failed, had withdrawn his cordon from the Turkish rear. The Turkish reinforcements poured in, and the next day, amid more confusion, the British fell back.

Three weeks later Murray tried again, this time with a single simple frontal attack by three infantry divisions against a ridge protecting Gaza from the south. This was a complete failure that cost Murray his command.

His successor, General Sir Edmund Allenby, lately commanding the Third Army on the Western Front, fully lived up to his nickname of the “Bull” both in physique and character. A cavalry man, he now proceeded to make maximum use of his splendid Australian horsemen and of the opportunities for mobile warfare offered by the sweeping plains of southern Palestine. ON 32 October he launched the Third Battle of Gaza. Carefully planted false information together with a feint attack convinced the enemy command that main British effort would fall yet again on the coastal sector round Gaza. Instead Allenby seized Beersheba, the eastern hinge of the Turkish line, in a surprise attack, and sent his cavalry riding on for the sea across the Turkish rear. On 6 November a final Blow at the Turkish centre, between Gaza and Beersheba, brought about the collapse of the enemy defense. Allenby’s forces pushed on north through the cypress sheltered orange groves to capture the ancient port of Jaffa; then swung east to clime the twisting road through the Judaean hills to Jerusalem on their crest. After briefly fighting on the rocky hillsides round the city, the Turks fell back northwards to Nablus. On 11 December 1917 Allenby entered Jerusalem, walking on foot, and Lloyd George had his desired Christmas present to cheer up the British people after a grim year. Nevertheless Allenby’s successes had by no means knocked Turkey out of the war., let alone inflicted damage on Germany. The Campaign in Palestine had almost another year to run before it reached its final dead-end.

Turkish Mesopotamia (Iraq)

British sea-power dependent of oil from the Persian oilfields at the head of Persian Gulf at the port of Abadan and vital pipeline running inland around Azwaz demanded securing.

On 6 November 1914 the day after the Turkish declaration of war and infantry brigade group from India began to land near Basra; its mission to protect Persian oilfields and pipelines. On 21 November Basra fell, and the British pushed up stream to Al Qirnah on the Tigris. Another British force marched to the Persian town of Ahwaz and, after various skirmishes, eliminated the menace of raiding Turks and Arabs. In April 1915 a Turkish attempt to recapture Basra was beaten off.

The British had thus fully accomplished their original purpose. The Government of India ( which was responsible for the expedition) looked further, to Baghdad, the fabulous medieval city of the Caliphs, some500 miles up the Euphrates from Basra. Purely military considerations too enticed the British command to deepen their bridgehead round Basra; not least the apparent feebleness of the Turkish Army. At the end of August the British began the long march to Baghdad, with shade temperatures exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Such an adventure along a river winding through a desert demanded copious river transport and a well-organized base and supply port at Basra. The Government of India and the Indian Army, used to punitive expeditions against the Pathan, had provided neither. To all the usual drawbacks of hasty improvisation the Indian authorities added their own brand of incompetence and muddle. Despite a supple bottleneck at Basra and a desperate shortage of river craft, the field force commander, Charles Townshend, a bold general who modelled himself on the young Bonaparte, pushed rapidly on, gambling on reaching Baghdad before his precarious lines of communication starved him to a halt. On 22 November 1915 he attack the Turks entrenched in a position at Ctesiphon, some 20 miles from Baghdad. Townshend’s plan was to hold the Turks with a frontal assault while he hooked around their left flank. Unfortunately his available force was not large enough to carry out such a plan. Turkish artillery and machine guns took fearful toll of British and Indian troops advancing across ground as flat and devoid of cover as a table; Townshend’s attacking infantry lost more than half its effectives killed and wounded. Under the shadow of the great ruined Arch of Ctesiphon, all that remained of that ancient city. Townshend’s hope of reaching Baghdad finally died. He fell back into the mud built Arab town of Kut-al-Amarah, where his superiors instructed him to stand fast pending the arrival of fresh forces. Soon he and his army were cut off and under siege.

Now began the real time of horror for the British and Indian soldiers in Mesopotamia. The continued supply bottleneck at the port of Basra and the lack of river craft(Thames pleasure steamers were sent all the way to the Persian Gulf under their own steam, as part of desperate efforts at remedy) placed tight limits on the size of the relief force. Its commander, Lieutenant General Sir Fenton Aylmer, strove again and again to break through the Turkish defense and recue Townshend in Kut. The Turkish losses were equal in proportion to the number of troops engaged to the losses in any battle on the Western Front. In Mesopotamia there existed no well-organized and thoroughly equipped medical service as in France, but a Crimean style shambles, thanks to the incompetence of the Government of India and the Indian Army medical administration. Men lay with untreated, gangrenous wounds amid their own excreta on the decks of vessels making their slow way down the primitive base hospital at Basra. One eye witness describes the arrival of one of these craft: “When the Mejidieh was about three hundred yards off, it looked as if she were festooned with ropes. The stench when she was close was quite definite, and I found that what I mistook for ropes were dried stalactites of human feces. The patients were so crowed and huddled together on the ship that they could not preform the offices of nature clear of the ship….”

On 29 April 1916 the 13,000 strong garrison of Kut al-Amarah, out of food and out of hope, surrendered; a disaster to British arms that made the same kind of impact on British and world opinion as to the fall of Tobruk in the Second World War.

Now at last the muddle and hasty improvisation gave way to thorough, business like organization. Responsibility for Mesopotamia was transferred from the Government of India to the British War Office. A first class fighting soldier and military organizer, General Sir Stanley Maude, became Army Command. Civilian experts and abundant resources turned Basra into an efficient supply port. The transport system and medical services were reorganized and vastly expanded. The army in Mesopotamia grew to a ration strength of 150,000; the field force itself to 72,000.

In December 1916 Maude, outnumbering the Turks three to one in troops and with ample artillery, began a systemic advance on Baghdad. Winter rains, transforming the Mesopotamian plain into a clinging morass, did not help his march. The paradox was seen of ferocious trench warfare in the middle of an empty desert, because the need for drinking water and dependence on the Euphrates for transportation normally prevented wide turning movements. However Maude did succeed in out flanking the powerful Turkish position that had defied British attempts to relieve Kut, by marching up the other bank of the river to threaten the enemy communications. Violently attacked in front at the same time, the Turks gave way and by 24 February 1917 were in full retreat towards Baghdad. Kut al-Amarah fell once more to British hands. On the 11 March, after vain Turkish resistance, Baghdad its self was captured; another close packed and malodorous Mesopotamian slum.


SOURCE: The Great War
BY: Correlli Barnett
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan


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