Mesopotamia was that part of the Middle East
at the head of the Persian Gulf we now know as Iraq. Most of the
Middle East at that time was under the control of the Turkish Ottoman
Empire. The importance of Mesopotamia was its close proximity to
the Persian Oil fields upon which Britain depended for fuel oil
for our navy.
Although Turkey did not immediately come
into the war it was expected that they would do so sooner or later
thus posing an additional threat to our supply of oil. We finally
declared war on Turkey on 2nd. November 1914. Part of Force D was
already at sea, positioned at the head of the Gulf, awaiting orders
It was hoped that warring factions of Arab
tribes would rebel against their Turkish masters thus assisting
the British troops. The Arabs were found to be very fickle and usually
sided with who ever was winning at the time. After battles they
rapidly began plundering the dead and murdering the wounded with
no distinction as to which side they were supposed to be supporting
at that time.
The early Mesopotamia campaign was to be
fought mainly on the flat marshy plains either side of the River
Tigris from the Shat-al-Arab to Basra, Qurna and Kut. Subsidiary
expeditions were made to take Ahwaz in Persia to guard the oil pipeline
and along the Euphrates to Nasiriya to protect the Basra flank.
The main method of transport was by boat along the rivers and, where
the rivers became too strong or dried up, by marching. Transportation
was to be but one of the problems of the campaign; others being
the scorching daytime weather which turned into freezing during
the nights, the flood rains during winter, disease and of course
the enemy themselves. The Middle Eastern campaigns offered a much
wider variety of misery and danger than those on the Western Front.
On the 6th November 1914 Whit Dighton’s brigade
sailed from Bombay. On the same day the 16th Brigade, whose British
battalion was the 2nd Dorsets, landed at Fao in the Shat-al-Arab.
Whit's brigade landed at Sunniya on the 15th November on the western
bank of the river just below Basra. These initial landings went
largely unopposed but the Turks made several attacks in the following
days accompanied by much harassment from Arab tribesmen. As the
campaign progressed the enemy became reinforced by Turkish home
troops and stiffened by German artillery but the earlier battles
mainly involved Arab levy armies. Lack of reinforcements for Force
D was to hinder them until well into 1916 by which time the original
force had ceased to exist, as we shall see.
To establish a safe enclave around Basra
the Force pushed northward. Our troops entered Basra on the 23rd
November after its abandonment by the Turks and a 28-mile forced
march by the Norfolks and the 110th Mahrattas to secure the open
town. The next target was to be Qurna at the junction of the Tigris
and the Euphrates. This was reputed to be the location of the Garden
of Eden but our troops would have described it in somewhat different
terms. On the 1st December a company of the Norfolks with the 104th
Rifles and 110th Mahrattas attacked Qurna without success. They
then waited for reinforcements before recommencing the attack. On
7th December the Norfolks, at bayonet point, took the forward defences
with the town falling on the 9th Force D held here until after the
Massive Turkish reinforcements came pouring
in whilst only a trickle of reinforcements came from India and Egypt
for Force D. January brought continuous skirmishing around Qurna
and in other occupied areas. Floods prevented any northerly movement
from Qurna or even strengthening of defences. Eventually Qurna was
left with a small garrison whilst the remainder of the Force retired
towards Shaiba and Basra to await more favourable conditions.
On April 12th 1915 after some days of probing
assaults a force of some 12,000 Turks and 10,000 Arabs attacked
Shaiba where the Norfolks were located. They did not take the town
but retired to dig in about 1500 yards from our lines to continue
their assaults. Reinforcements were sent for from Basra but the
floods hindered them. The following is from the Hunts Post dated
28th May 1915 and it tells a little of the action at Shaiba during
those few days in April.
"Sgt and Mrs Dighton of Spaldwick have
received several interesting letters from their eldest son Pte Whit
Dighton of the 2nd Norfolks who has been on active service in the
Persian Gulf since last November and is possibly the only representative
from the Huntingdon district out there, .......... Pte Dighton says
the country in which he is now located is a desert, miles away from
any town, with blinding sandstorms which are far worse than rain.
After four days terrific fighting against a superior body of Turks,
"suddenly we received the order to charge. We fixed bayonets
and put all the strength into it we could. The Turks were completely
taken by surprise, and we were upon them in a flash. Their confusion
was indescribable. They ran for their lives, thousands of them,
and we quickly occupied their trenches, and simply potted them over
like ninepins. As they ran some threw away their arms and surrendered.
Our artillery completed their rout. Their losses totalled some thousands
....... I cannot speak too highly of our officers; they are bricks
- every one of them. One gave me his last drop of water from his
bottle, or I don't think I should have been left to tell the tale."
On the 13th April the Norfolks had broken
out to rush the Turkish front line trenches and took them at bayonet
point. They did not immediately pursue the enemy to the second line
but rested up. They had been under harassment for some days and
directly under arms for 36 hours continuously. On the 14th April
an attack on the Turkish second line entrenchments began at noon
with White 18th Brigade on the right of the line and the 16th Brigade
on the left. This developed into a stationary firefight, in the
heat of the midday sun. At 4 pm a last British effort was made and
the Turkish rear lines fell. This would be the charge mentioned
in Whit's letter.
The Turks retreated for 90 miles to Khamsamiya,
not pursued by the British who only followed for a short distance
but by their erstwhile Arab allies who saw the weakened Turks as
ripe pickings. For the three days fighting our losses totalled 1200
men. The Turks lost 6,000 killed and wounded and 1,000 as prisoners.
The Turkish counterattack on Shaiba had been defeated and the British
path would now lay northward past Qurna towards Baghdad.
The next action the Norfolks were to see
was in June when they supported the 17th Indian Brigade after the
taking of Amara on the 3rd of that month. Force D's attention was
then turned toward Nasiriya on the Euphrates. The idea was to consolidate
that area into a defensive zone to prevent further enemy action
against Basra and Shaiba; as had taken place in April.
The Norfolks took an active part in the Battle
of Nasiriya against superior numbers and the town fell on the 25th
July 1915. At times weather and. disease took a greater toll than
the enemy. The Nasiriya battle had cost the Force 800 battle casualties
but also a further 2,000 were sick from disease and. heat stroke,
The British troops then rested from their exertions until August
when the advance north began in earnest.
Using Amara as a forward base Force D advanced
to Kut. By the 16th September they were positioned at Sannaiyat,
about 8 miles from Kut, having travelled by flotilla up the Tigris.
The 25th September saw them concentrated. in front of the Es Sirm
position. 11,000 British and Indian troops faced on in depth and
well constructed defence system straddling the Tigris manned by
over 18,000 Turkish troops. The British plan had 18th Brigade, with
the Norfolks assaulting the front of the Es Sinn position and 16th
Brigades each looping a flank of the position
in an attempt to encircle it. These latter two brigades found themselves
under attack from their own rear and bad to face about for their
own defence before being able to complete the encirclement. This
manoeuvre prevented them bringing force to bear on the Es Sinn defences.
In consequence the Turkish position was not breached and. nightfall
found our troops lodged, around it as described. Attempts were made
to bring in the wounded but marauding Arabs killed many and others
died of exposure as the temperature rapidly dropped.
By the morning Force D was once again prepared
for the attack but during the night the Turks had evacuated their
positions and were retiring northward. They bad also evacuated Kut
and on the 28th September our troops entered the town. There was
to be no rest for the Norfolks for on the 30th September they were
embarked on a flotilla with the remainder of their brigade to begin
the pursuit to Aziziya where they arrived on 5th October.
In a letter to his family, dated 8th October
1915, Whit has this to say:
"The big battle is over, thank God,
and our gallant troops were successful. We lost rather heavily,
but gained what we wanted viz the enemy's position and another important
town. Their losses were exceedingly heavy, we captured 1,400 prisoners,
nine big guns, and they lost over 1,700 killed. The agonies we endured
were awful, thirst again was what hampered us mostly. All the drink
we had for two days, when the battle was at its height, was 11/2
pints each man. We could not go to and fro to fetch it, the fire
from the enemy's big guns and small arms was too heavy. We are only
about 60 miles from Baghdad, but we cannot hope to reach there yet.
I again came through safely, God knows how I did it though, on one
or two occasions we were nearly shelled out of our trenches. The
Turks were assisted by German gunners, and they were not to be laughed
at. My company officer was killed by a shell, he was sitting in
the trenches laughing and joking when a shell burst right in the
trench and he got hit in the stomach. Poor man he only lived a few
minutes, and died in awful agony. My platoon officer was also injured
by the same shell, but not seriously. We have been fighting now
almost 12 months and ought to get a relief. I do wish they would
send one and give us a rest, which no one can deny we deserve. Troops
are still fairly cheerful. Oh! just to sit down to a good square
English dinner, I would. not grudge giving any price for one."
Aziziya where Whit wrote this letter was
over 100 miles from Kut and over 250 miles from Amara where they
had started from in early September. The Turks had once again dug
in, this time at Ctesiphon, but Force D remained at Aziziya to wait
permission to advance and also to allow supplies and reinforcements
to arrive. An Indian Division released from the Western Front joined
them but many more Turkish troops also arrived at Ctesiphon released
from Gallipoli. The Turkish strength grew more rapidly than that
of Force D.
A letter from Whit to his family, dated 22nd
October 1915 describes his time of waiting at Aziziya:
"We are all very busy building fortifications
up for an attack which we are expecting from the Turks any moment
(let 'em come). We are not advancing any further up country until
we get good news from the Dardanelles, and also are awaiting orders
from England. We are all sorry as we have to remain in this out
of the way place for weeks, and we are all looking forward to entering
the big city of Baghdad, where our expedition would have ended.
What do you think of the big advance: 258 miles in less than three
weeks? That is what you call an advance, is it not? Baghdad’s only
49 miles from here. You have heard of our sweeping over the Turks
on Sept 24, 25 and. 26, have you not? They retreated over 200 miles,
and of course we followed them up. They have again sent us a note
kindly asking us "to clear out of our present position".
Do you think we take any notice of their threats? No. They have
given us three days in which to pack our tricks. Saucy bounders,
if they want another rough time of it they can have it. Our expedition
is known as "Never Retires", and. up to the last man,
rather than give in to their wants we would rather die than spoil
our grand record. I'm proud to belong to such an expeditionary force
as "Force D". So never fear all will continue to go well
with us as every man is in such excellent spirits, and. although
we have some very trying times we continue to smile through it all."
This is the last letter that I can trace
from Whit. Another 21/2 weeks passed before Force D got its permission
to advance. As Whit had said they had been fighting not only the
Turks and Arabs but also the weather and disease and lack of reinforcements
for a year. Their last fateful advance began on 11th November when
Whit’s brigade took Kutaniya. Zor fell on the 19th and the Force
found itself before Ctesiphon; this was as far as it was to get.
On the 22nd November the Battle of' Ctesiphon
took place. Force D comprised 10,000 infantry and 4,000 artillery,
cavalry and support troops. They were ranged against a strong defensive
position held by 18,000 Turkish infantry, a strong cavalry brigade
and numerous Arab auxiliaries. The battle began at 6 am and the
Turkish forward trenches were soon overrun. At 9 am the main British
attack took place with 6 battalions (6,000 infantrymen) in extended
formation advanced under a protective cover of artillery and machine
gun fire. They had 5,000 yards to cover before reaching their first
objective. They didn't flinch or waiver or fire a shot until they
reached the Turkish wire 40 yards from the Turkish front line. That
line was taken by 10 am, at bayonet point, but with many casualties.
Three hours later the Turks were completely evicted from their first
line trenches and the British had advanced to within 800 yards of
their second line. All must have looked well for Force D. However
in the heat of the midday sun the superior force of Turks counterattacked.
Our troops slowly gave way. Unlike the Turks Force D had no fresh
troops to call in. The stragglers were brought together to make
another advanco bat it waa in vain.
At 5 pm when darkness came the Turks withdrew
to their own second line and quietness came to the battlefield.
Over 50 percent of Force D had become casualties. The four field
ambulances only had facilities for 400 wounded and that day they
had ten times that number. The wounded in the field had to be largely
left to fend for themselves despite heroic efforts by the medical
staff, and by their comrades in arms. By this time Whit Dighton
would also have been lost. Re had survived six battles without a
scratch but the seventh, at Ctesiphon, was one too many for him
and. also for many of his comrades. Ctesiphon had cost the Expeditionary
Force 682 killed, 3674 wounded and. 237 missing.
Force D's sufferings were not yet at an end.
They worked feverishly through the night to prepare for the next
days battle. They were now on the defensive; they were the attacked
not the attackers. The Force held for a few days before commencing
an orderly retirement toward Kut. This was relatively unhindered
until 30th November when the Turks overtook them just south of Aziziya.
Here the British and Indian Cavalry came into their own and protected
the infantry and the main force by a brilliant rearguard action
driving off the pursuing Turks. The retirement continued in earnest,
at one stage covering 28 miles non stop in an attempt to put distance
between themselves and the enemy. They reached Kut on the 3rd December
and settled in for a siege.
The Force had two months of supplies at Kut
and hoped that this would give them enough time for reinforcements
and relief to arrive. However, floods, transport problems and marauding
Arab and Turk units hindered the rapidly assembled relief force
drastically. It could make but little progress. The garrison at
Kut held out until 29th April 1916 when the surviving troops numbering
10,000 and 3,000 camp followers surrendered. Force D bad more suffering
to come as 'they were sent north in a forced march which cost them
casualties by the hundred. From the first to last the siege of Kut
cost the Empire 40,000 casualties including those suffered by the
It was to be late in 1916 before any real
advance was made and a much superior eventually took Baghdad in
March 1917, better prepared and better supported force than Force
D had been. After Kut Force D ceased to exist and its original constituents,
the 6th (Poona) Division, remained, disbanded until after the War
although the British battalions were themselves reconstituted from
fresh drafts to take part in the relief force.
By the end of hostilities in 1918 Mesopotamia
had cost the British Empire 15,814 killed or died of wounds, 12,807
died of disease, 51,385 wounded and 13,494 prisoners or missing.
It had been a very different campaign in a very different environment
to the main theatre, the Western Front, but the combatants could
justly be proud of their achievements under such adversity.
Whit Dighton was typical of the "young,
clean, delightful fellows" mentioned by Lawrence of Arabia
in the quote at 'the head of this story. Lawrence led the revolts
in Palestine, Jordan and. Syria and believed wholeheartedly in encouraging
and supporting the Ar8b peoples to do the fighting against their
oppressors 'the Turks in their own way. He didn't believe in using
European troops or tactics. He prided himself in not having any
Europeans killed in actions he directed, and these were many and
successful. Lawrence visited Mesopotamia during the siege of Kut
to advise the relief force which preferred to fight the British
style of campaign rather than use Lawrence's methods. The result
was a long drawn out operation with thousands of British casualties.
One cannot however take away the devotion to duty and bravery so
aptly displayed by Force D and Lawrence would not have wished to
do that. His admiration was very clearly for the common soldier,
Whit Dighton has no known grave but is commemorated
by name on the Basra Memorial, panel number 10. This memorial is
located 5 miles north of Basra on the right hand bank of the river.
It is a memorial to the officers and men of the British Empire who
fell in the Mesopotamia campaign or died as prisoners of war in
Syria and Asia Minor between 1914 and the end of August 1921. The
names of 7,618 British soldiers, 33,431 Indians, 11 Australians,
6 Nigerians, 4 Mauritians, 3 British West Indians, 1 Cingalese and
1 Canadian, all of whom have no known grave, are recorded.