Sophie’s been delving into the archives at the Imperial War Museum to explore the story of South Asian soldiers at Kut Al Amara:
November 1915: In Mesopotamia, the 6 Indian Division is advancing on Baghdad by boat along the Tigris river. At Ctesiphon, 18 miles short of Baghdad, a three-day battle ends in neither victory nor defeat, but heavy losses on both sides. One third of soldiers of 6 Indian Division are killed and in order to recover and await reinforcements, a retreat to Kut Al Amara is ordered.
December 1915: In this town of only 6000 inhabitants, 12,000 British and Indian soldiers (300 British & 300 Indian Officers, 2,850 British & 8,230 Indian Other Ranks) and 3,500 followers come to rest.
The Turkish Army besieged the town, nested in a loop of the Tigris River. In January 1916, the Tigris overflowed its banks and the trenches around Kut; outside forces were blocked by waters and cold winter, and efforts to refuel Kut by river and air faced enemy gun shell and aircraft.
Soldiers went hungry. Food was rationed and then unusual food sources found: horse meat, for example. For some South Asian soldiers, the situation was worsened by their dietary habits.
“Many castes never ate meat, obtaining their necessary protein from milk [now] being strictly reserved for the hospitals”: Colonel W C Spackmann in Waters of Babylon (Documents.7665, IWM).
“All Hindus so far had refused to eat [horse meat] and G.O.C. instead of ordering them to eat it issued various high flown appeals & got all sorts of Rajahs & Brahmins in India to send wireless messages imploring Hindus to eat it, and promising religious absolution. In spite of this Hindus refused until April when, atta ration being reduced to 6 oz, they gave in”: Major General Sir Ernest Walker (Documents.7328, IWM).
“Our Indian soldiers refuse to eat horse meat; they claim that the permission from the High Priest from India, is not valid as his signature is not authentic; the permission was wireless sent!”: Captain E. O. Mousley (9602, IWM).
29 April 1916: After 147 days, Kut surrendered.
Some 1,750 men had died from wounds or disease. Prisoners were then marched to Turkey. One century later, we must remember the extraordinary courage of the 6th Indian division, 12,000 men, besieged for five months in Kut, Mesopotamia.
I-for the jolly old Indian Corps,
That went to France to fight in the War
Now they make roads and don’t fight anymore
Way out in Mesopotamia.
S-and T is the wonderful corps
That’s been all and all to us, right through the war
They are marvels on wheels, and you cannot ignore
They slave hard in Mesopotamia.
(Extracts from MESSY-POTAMIA … A DELIRIUM IN MANY VERSES)
Image courtesy of Bibliotheque Nationale de France: En Mésopotamie, évacuation de Kut-el-Amara