Fog of war | Ctesiphon | 24 Nov 1915

Fog of war at the Battle of Ctesiphon

Today at the Battle of Ctesiphon provides an excellent example of how critical it is to remember that no commander in any war has perfect information about what the enemy is doing. Decisions are usually taken on glimpses, interpretations, and educated guesses. What appear to be the most staggering blunders to an observer enjoying a detached, all-sides historical view often turn out to be entirely reasonable decisions when we consider the information that was available to the man on the spot as he attempts to peer through the fog of war.

So, in mid-afternoon, we find the British force, having decided to retire just a little further from Ctesiphon to a more defensible location, sending a detachment forward towards the Vital Point of the Ottoman defences to cover the first page of that retreat. This is dutifully observed by the Ottomans, who are trying to work out whether it’s a good idea to follow up yesterday’s near success with another offensive, and Colonel Nureddin is informed that his enemy is planning another attack.

Unaware that in fact he enjoys a considerable numerical superiority (surely nobody would be so stupid to send such a small force up from Basra…), Nureddin orders his men to conduct their own withdrawal to a fallback position, leaving his original defences manned only by a tripwire. Darkness falls, and after a few hours for luck, the British retirement begins.

Meanwhile, the Brains Trust is considering whether to quit the expedition entirely and return to Kut-al-Amara. General Nixon, his dreams of entering Baghdad in triumph now firmly dashed, makes his own decision to advance quickly to the rear, leaving General Townshend to riddle out the knotty problem of whether to take the men away. In strict military terms it’s obviously the sensible thing to do; but then, in strict military terms, advancing on Baghdad at all was never that good an idea.

The concept of “British prestige” is very important at this point to the people involved, and not without reason. The Empire’s dealings in the Middle East revolve around portraying themselves as strong warriors, able to enforce their will (if necessary) wherever they see fit. This will then convince as many of the local Arab chieftains (of whom more soon) as possible to either ally with the Empire, or at least to not get ideas about attacking the Empire’s oil arrangements. If “British prestige” were to fall too low and lead to wide-scale uprisings, the worst-case scenario would see the Empire deprived both of its oil and also access to the Suez Canal, the vital short cut to India and East Africa.

Fourth Isonzo

I’ve shuffled Fourth Isonzo quietly onto the back burner for the past couple of days, but that shouldn’t be taken as an indication that there was no fighting. Far from it; the Italians have made several small but bloody gains around Mount San Michele, particularly in enlarging their earlier successes just to the south and by capturing an important strong-point on the northern slope. They’re now in position to have a good hard crack at the summit from both directions, which don’t get anywhere. The battle, of course, continues.

Sir John French

Bribe or no bribe, Sir John French is not interested in leaving his post as commander of the BEF without a fight. He’s been trying to save himself with a long and involved report on the Battle of Loos, with particular attention drawn to the alleged failings of one D. Haig. It’s just about ready for distribution, and he also demands a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister to argue his corner. Unfortunately, he’s already been thrown overboard, but doesn’t yet realise that his lifejacket has a hole in it and won’t be inflating.

Flora Sandes

In Serbia, Flora Sandes learns a valuable lesson about life in the field.

The Kid went to sleep in the wagon and I did the same outside on the grass. The doctor sent me a piece of bread and cheese, which I casually ate on the spot, not liking to wake the Kid up, but afterwards I was filled with remorse for my thoughtlessness, when I was convicted by her later on for not being a good comrade at all. It appeared it was the only eatable thing in camp; but, as I was new and green at “retreating,” at that time it never dawned on me. I learnt better ways later on.

As they wait for orders, a man of the Second Regiment has been sentenced to flogging for some misdemeanour or other. She takes a moment to discuss the practice and then moves on to describe a certain attitude amongst the men.

The Serbian soldier, more than anyone else I have ever come across, can excel as a “passive resister ” when he is under an unpopular officer; while all the time keeping himself just within the bounds of discipline, he will contrive to avoid doing anything he does not wish to do. He is extraordinarily “clannish” and loyal to one whom he likes. In the critical moments in a battle it is not the question whether an officer is “active” or “reserve ” that counts, or whether he has passed through his military academy or risen from the ranks, but whether the men will follow him or not.

I’ve seen similar descriptions given to Scotsmen, Irishmen, Frenchmen, Sikhs, Jats, and Gurkhas. This is not unique: there are a lot of soldiers who as a group are more than capable of making life difficult for idiot officers. Recall Louis Barthas’s experience during the Battles of Artois some months ago: “If Captain Cros-Mayrevielle had led the way, we would all have followed him.” This is a sentiment that soldiers throughout history would recognise.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Third Invasion of Serbia
Battle of Krivolak
Kosovo Offensive
Battle of the Isonzo (Fourth Isonzo)
Battle of Ctesiphon

Further Reading

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