Battle of the Wadi | 13 Jan 1916

The Wadi

At midday, everything in Mesopotamia seems to be going quite well for the British Empire. They’ve taken Chittab Fort with very little fuss, and now they’re going to push on and take the Ottoman blocking force in the side…

Yes, of course there’s a catch. The Wadi has to be crossed; the Engineers and some bridging equipment are allegedly around somewhere, but for the moment they can’t be found. This isn’t too much of a problem for the blokes; the water at the bottom is just about shallow enough to be forded, although the banks of the small valley are annoyingly steep. The problem is with the guns. Yer standard 18-pounder weighs just under 3,000 pounds, and of course it has shells to go with it. I’ve spent the last month or so looking for personal accounts of how exactly they were got across, but so far, no luck. Apparently it was done. I’ll take their word for it.

The delay from that isn’t too bad, but when the men try to advance again, they hit a serious problem. Not having been born yesterday, the defenders have used a conveniently-placed drainage ditch to guard their flank, with a trench just behind it, in case the enemy should try exactly this stratagem. Not a problem, thinks General Younghusband, leading the attack. If only he can keep going, the ditch is going to tip into the Tigris eventually. If his men can find that point, they’ll have the entire Ottoman blocking force trapped and pocketed, to be summarily dealt with at leisure.

So off goes a reserve brigade. They can’t find the river. Time passes. Another brigade goes off, and still can’t find that pesky river. Afternoon turns to evening; Younghusband sends his cavalry off even further. Younghusband’s optimism doesn’t die even as the sun sets, and it takes several more hours for the cavalry to report that they’ve gone as far as they can and they still can’t find the river. It is, in fact, miles away from them; even with double the men available they would have struggled to find it. A little aerial observation of the Wadi can’t compensate for Younghusband’s inadequate maps. It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, mind you; right idea, wrong battle.

Meannwhile, someone’s dropped a bollock. As Younghusband’s men headed off, looking for the mystery river, the Ottomans naturally pulled men away from the positions along the Wadi to man the drainage ditch instead. A couple of brigades have been left along the Wadi; perhaps they might now be able to achieve something? General Aylmer orders them forward. They get an artillery barrage, of sorts; but the defenders, knowing their jobs, have created a 700-yard belt of clear ground in front of their positions. The edge of the scrubland acts both as range marker and sight screen for the artillery and machine-guns.

It doesn’t take too long for General Kemball to give that one up as a bad job, but it goes on long enough for three of the four battalion commanders in the attack to become casualties, along with 648 of their men. Another 1,000 were killed or wounded in front of the drainage ditch. In comparison to the casualty figures in Europe, this might not seem like much. For a force with about 9,000 effective rifles remaining, operating hundreds of miles from its base and with little hope of reinforcement, it’s unsustainable. The relief effort is slowly bleeding itself out.

Robert Palmer

It’s another dispiriting day at the rear of things for Robert Palmer.

We marched at 7 carrying food and water for two days. We were in support of the frontal containing force. The enemy were on the [Wadi], eight miles off. We marched about four miles and then halted, and waited most of the day for orders. A strong wind prevented us hearing anything of the battle, but we could see a certain amount of shelling.

About 3pm we got orders to go up in support of the frontal force, which (we were told) had advanced, the enemy having abandoned the [Wadi]. We marched another three miles to a fort, which stood about one and a quarter miles from the [Wadi], and from which we had driven the enemy in the morning.

This may or may not be Chittab Fort. Interesting to see how a general’s appreciation that “the enemy is moving to defend that ditch” changes into “the enemy has abandoned their positions!” by the time it percolates down to Company level.

Here we waited till after dark, when we heard that the frontal force had blundered into a Turkish rearguard holding the Canal, and had lost heavily and been obliged to retire. It is these disconcerting surprises which try one’s spirit more than anything else. We ate a cold and cheerless supper just beyond the fort, and then dug ourselves in, with other units of our brigade on either side of us.

It was windy and very cold. There was a small and filthy hut with every mark of recent Turkish use, just behind the trench, but sooner or later every officer (I among the first) came to the conclusion that dirt was preferable to cold, and we all packed in round a fire which our signallers had lit there.

Any port in a storm, laddie.

Erzurum Offensive

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus, General Yudenich’s meant-to-fail attack continues in front of Koprukoy. In truth it’s failed even worse than he was hoping. One regiment on the extreme right had been tasked with swerving up onto the Cakir Baba and taking a second important spur, the Cilligul-dag, to join the Kozincan shoulder. However, its artillery support failed to support. If the Ottomans don’t take the bait, this could get very nasty very quickly.

Over then to the other side of the hill. It’s worth pointing out at this stage that not only was Mahmut Kamil, the commander of the Ottoman Third Army, caught on his holi-bobs in Constantinople when the attack started; but he’s not deigned to come back yet. (Whether or not this actually mattered would be a Matter of Some Debate, were enough people interested in the subject to debate it.) Regardless of Kamil’s ability, or otherwise, the army is also missing its German chief of staff, Lt-Col Guse, who’s in Berlin (his excuse is better; he’s still recovering from typhus), and that’s a definite blow.

So we find one of the corps commanders, Abdul Karim, trying to fill in. He has made one good decision, to move his headquarters forward from Erzurum to Hasankale, to speed up communications. But now he reads the situation just as his enemy hopes, and commits his reserves into the Aras Valley. (It may be of interest that Karim’s corps is the one up on the Cakir Baba; he’s sent the reinforcements away from his own men.)

But the story of today doesn’t quite end there. The weather has done nothing but get worse for the last week. The snow in the mountains is now chest deep, almost impossible to pass through. Russian success now depends entirely on the timely arrival of another force at the Cakir Baba positions. The plan had accounted for bad weather, but not this bad. The temptation to make nerdy references to Mount Caradhras in the Lord of the Rings, refusing to let the Fellowship go past, is now quite irresistible. Can they make it in time?

I do like a nice bit of tension. It makes a real change from “More people went over the top in a hopeless cause and got slaughtered.” Can we not just agree to let the winner of this theatre, where things might actually happen, decide the overall winner of the war?

Bernard Adams

Bernard Adams is trying to settle back into the rhythm of battalion life. The 4th Royal Welch Fusiliers are still resting and training, but after his recent schooling, something feels off.

Everyone was so dull! They groused, they maligned the Staff, they were pessimistic, they were ignorant, oh ! profoundly ignorant; they were in fact in a state of not having seen a vision. I could not believe then that the time would come when I too should forget the vision, and fix my eyes on the mud.

Still, for the moment, I was immensely surprised, though I was not such a fool as to start at once on a general reform of everyone, starting with the Brigadier. For under the Commandant’s influence one felt ready to tell off the Brigadier, if he didn’t “get motor-buses to take your men to a divisional concert” instead of saying the men must march three miles to it.

But, as I say, I restrained myself.

Nothing of importance has occurred.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

Support the blog! Buy the book! The book of 1915 is now in production and should, touch wood, be available to order very soon.

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things. If you prefer Tumblr, I’m also on Tumblr.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. (If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

Leave a Reply