Today in Middle Eastern history: the Fall of Baghdad (1917)

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The First Battle of Kut was a virtually total Ottoman victory, and it stands as one of the lowest points for the British military not just in that war, but ever. Following the disaster, the British army replaced its commander in Mesopotamia, Lt. General Percy Lake, with the newly arrived Lt. General Frederick Stanley Maude. It was Maude’s task to right the ship and restore both the British war effort in Iraq and, to some degree, Britain’s martial reputation in general. His successful capture of Baghdad less than a year later accomplished both of those aims.

The defeat at Kut was so thorough that Maude had little choice but to spend the rest of 1916 repairing the damage it caused. He also used this opportunity to make logistical preparations to support a renewed northern advance, to avoid the problems of overextended supply lines that allowed Charles Townshend’s army to become surrounded and isolated. Maude recruited and trained new troops from India, and by the end of the year had a well-prepared combat force of around 50,000 men ready to move. This vastly outnumbered the Ottoman force waiting for them to the north. Maude also had his engineers build a rail network, initially to ferry new soldiers from the Iraqi coast to their base at Basra, but from there he built the rail network out to transport soldiers and supplies north toward where the fighting would be. He also outfitted a number of river-capable ships as gunboats and supply vessels.

Maude decided that his target was Baghdad. At this particular point in history there was no great military significance to Baghdad aside from its strategic position along the Tigris River and close to the Euphrates. But Baghdad was a high profile target whose capture would be a morale booster for the deflated British war effort. And it was a more or less defensible position from which the British army would then be able to threaten really important Ottoman positions like Mosul and even further north into Anatolia. Satisfied that his army was ready and his logistical preparations were sound, Maude ordered the offensive to begin in mid-December 2016.

The actual capture of Baghdad is relatively anticlimactic. It was both preceded and foreshadowed by the Second Battle of Kut on February 23, 1917, which was a “battle” only in the loosest sense of the term. Having seen what happened to Townshend the previous year and having received word that three other Ottoman garrisons along the Tigris had already fallen to Maude’s army, the Ottomans’ Kut garrison commander, Kâzım Karabekir, had no interest in allowing his force to be bottled up. So he organized a retreat. Britain took the town basically uncontested and continued north. After reaching the town of Aziziyah, about 100 kilometers further up the Tigris from Kut, Maude halted his advance. Perhaps he had learned from Townshend’s mistakes, or maybe he was just a better general than Townshend. Either way, Maude opted for a slow approach toward Baghdad that ensured his army remained well-supplied, and so he waited several days at Aziziyah for that purpose. Khalil Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman military in Mesopotamia and future participant in the Armenian Genocide (but that’s beyond the scope of today’s story), set his defensive line at the Diyala River, just south of Baghdad.

Maude resumed his northern advance on March 5, and encountered the Ottoman line on March 8. After the Ottomans fended off an initial assault, Maude made a move to outflank their line and head straight for Baghdad. When Khalil Pasha moved to counter this, leaving only a portion of his army to hold the original line at the Diyala River, Maude ordered the remnants of his original line to attack. They overwhelmed the remaining Ottoman defenders and Khalil Pasha seems to have panicked a bit. He ordered the rest of his army to fall back to Baghdad and, once there, ordered an evacuation of the city on March 10. Maude moved quickly into the abandoned city and took it, along with several thousand Ottoman prisoners, on March 11.

Khalil Pasha made for the city of Mosul, which was of much greater importance to the Ottomans anyway. There he set up a defense and prepared for a British attack that never came. Maude, still acting cautiously to avoid Townsend’s biggest mistake—overextending his supply lines—decided to stop his advance at Baghdad and take the necessary logistical steps to properly support the next phase of his advance. Then he died of cholera in November, and British officials—perhaps partly because of Maude’s untimely demise—opted to shut down their Mesopotamian operations for the winter.

As I noted above, there wasn’t a lot of strategic significance to holding Baghdad in 1917, especially since the British army didn’t use it as a springboard for an attack on Mosul. The British victory here did quash Ottoman ambitions of carrying out military operations in British-dominated Iran, but otherwise the main impact of this victory was intangible. The capture of a historically important city was a morale booster for Britain. The victory also meant that Britain now controlled a full Ottoman imperial province, which was still more a symbolic victory than anything else but it was a major symbol. Moving forward, though, as far as the Middle East theater was concerned the Levant was where the action was, and British officials dispatched part of their Mesopotamian army west to help on that front. Then, of course, the war ended. Although the Mesopotamian army eventually did enter Mosul in November 1918, that was after the Ottomans had surrendered in the Armistace of Mudros. The post-war status of the city had to be ironed out later on.