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Mesopotamia, 27-29 September 1917

Introduction

The campaign in Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq, lasted from 1914 to 1918.  The enemy was the Turkish army which was strongly supported by irregular Arab troops.  Most of the British troops were sent from the Indian Army.  The composition of British infantry brigades tended to be one battalion from the British Army with two or three battalions from the Indian Army.  The initial reason for British involvement in Mesopotamia was to secure oil supplies from neighbouring Persia, as the Royal Navy needed those supplies to fuel the fleet.  

However the British forces allowed themselves to be drawn further and further forward into Mesopotamia because of the initial victories that they won.  This was a mistake as the logistic system supporting the British forces was totally insufficient and relied upon vessels steaming up and down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  There were not enough vessels for the task.  In particular casualty evacuation and medical facilities were disgracefully inadequate, despite heroic efforts by some medical staff.  The climate was difficult to endure as the summer sun was fiercely hot, and the rainy seasons brought cold temperatures, especially at night, and turned the ground into thick mud.  Fever caused by insect bites was prevalent and sickness rates were high.  

The British seized Basra and after an initial reverse secured the oilfield at Ahwaz in Persia and the pipeline that ran down to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company refinery on Abadan Island near the Persian Gulf coast.  Another British force moved west up the Euphrates to seize Nasiriyah, and the largest force, tempted by the thought of capturing Baghdad, pushed up the Tigris River.  However at the Battle of Ctesiphon on 22 November 1915 the British Army under General C.V.F. Townsend could not defeat the Turkish Army led by its Commandant  Yusef Nur-Ud-Din.  Although Baghdad was now only 25 miles to the north Townsend did not have the strength to fight his way forward as he had lost 4,500 men killed or wounded, and so he withdrew down-river to Kut.  The Turks, who enjoyed the support of German advisors and aviators, besieged Kut and beat back all attempts by British forces to lift the siege of the town.  On 29 April 1916 Townsend humiliatingly surrendered Kut and his 2,869 British and 7,192 Indian troops, plus 3,248 Indian non-combatants, to the enemy.

Above: Hauling out a bogged armoured car.

Kut was the largest reverse experienced yet by the British Army, and it shocked the British public and military establishment, especially as the British force at Gallipoli had been withdrawn in failure four months earlier.  The British and Indian prisoners of war were brutally marched hundreds of miles to camps in Turkish Anatolia, many of them dying on the roads or in the camps.   Meanwhile the War Office in London had taken over responsibility for the campaign from the Indian government, and new brooms began to sweep clean.  More efficient generals and administrators were posted to Mesopotamia and they were given better resources to work with.  Basra was developed as a port, more river steamers and aircraft arrived, roads and lengths of railway tracks were laid, Stokes trench mortars, motor vehicles and armoured cars appeared and the British and Indian soldiers began to receive adequate supplies of rations, clothing and equipment.

The first British attack on Ramadi

In mid-1917 the experienced and competent Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude was the British commander in the theatre.  His troops captured Baghdad on 11 March 1917 and Maude then methodically and soundly pushed the Turks up the Tigris towards Mosul and up the Euphrates towards Aleppo.  He also sent a force up the Diyala River that successfully liaised with allied Russian Cossack cavalry advancing from Persia, but the Russian strength was crumbling away because of the effects of the recent Russian revolution.  One of Maude’s concerns was that despite him having sufficient cavalry to outflank and block the enemy’s retreat, the Turks nearly always managed to successfully withdraw from British offensive operations.  

Right: Lt Gen Sir Frederick Stanley Maude KCB CMG DSO

British and Turkish movements in Mesopotamia had traditionally followed the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.   The rivers were used by both sides as waterways for military supply vessels and gunships, but more vitally as sources of drinking water for both men and mounts.  In July 1917 General Maude decided to break from tradition and to move his men by motor transport through the desert away from the Euphrates in an attempt to encircle the Turks defending Ramadi, and thus destroy their force.  This was the first serious attempt to use motorised infantry in the theatre.  Previous attempts to encircle enemy posts using armoured cars alone had not been successful, and it was realised that lorry-borne infantry was needed to deliver the troops to suitable attack start lines that were well away from river banks.  Then surprise could hopefully be achieved.  

On 8th July the British moved against Ramadi, using 127 Ford vans to ferry infantry forward.  The presumption of senior British officers was that the Turkish garrison would withdraw from the town rather than fight.  But this was not the case.  The British cavalry got to the west of Ramadi but the infantry, now on foot, were held up by a canal and enemy artillery fire.  A dust storm blew in interfering with British communications and artillery observation.  Casualties mounted and heat exhaustion added to the evacuations needed, the temperature taken that day in Baghdad being 160 degrees in the sun.  Having lost 566 men, 321 of them to heat exhaustion, the British withdrew that night under cover of darkness to the river bank, totally incapable of further efforts.  Some men had died of thirst or heat-stroke, and others went mad.  The next day the British withdrew down the river, being harried by Arab horsemen who sniped and killed stragglers.  A big lesson had been learned about taking offensive action during the summer months.

Above: Map of Mesopotamia

The second British attack on Ramadi


During the Great War two battalions of the Border Regiment, the 1/4th and 2/4th Battalions, were stationed in India and Burma.  As the war progressed drafts of reinforcements from these two Border units were sent to serve with other Regiments in Mesopotamia.  One draft was sent to the 1/4th Dorsetshire Regiment and one of the men drafted was an officer from 1/4th Border Regiment named Lawrence Lamonby.  By September 1917 Lawrence had been promoted to major and he was the Commanding Officer of the 1/4th Dorsets.  


Two months later when the heat had lessened General Maude ordered another attack on Ramadi.  The Turks expected an attack to come up the river bank and they had sited their defences accordingly.  As a deception plan the British constructed a pontoon bridge across the Euphrates below Ramadi, and this led the enemy to believe that the next British advance would be along the north bank of the river. As yet the Turks had not appreciated how useful the British Ford vans could be, and it was the use of these vans to supply water to troops away from the river bank that gave the British a decided advantage.  


The Turks in Ramadi had 3,500 infantrymen, 500 cavalrymen and 500 artillerymen with 10 guns.  The British attacked with Major General Sir H.T. Brooking’s 15th Division.  The divisional strength was over 15,000 men and for the attack the 6th Cavalry Brigade and the 12th and 42nd Infantry Brigades were used.  Over 40 guns and howitzers were available.  Support was provided by ‘B’ Flight 30th Squadron Royal Flying Corps, four armoured cars of the 13th Light Armoured Motor Battery, engineers, pioneers, three portable wireless stations and the Ford light vans.  Lawrence Lamonby’s 1/4th Dorsets were in 42nd Brigade alongside the 1/5th, 2/5th and 2/6th Gurkhas, the 130th Machine Gun Company and the 448th Field Company Royal Engineers.

On the night of 27th September 12th and 42nd Brigades moved forward from their assembly areas.   The cavalry and armoured cars, using a dam that crossed the Euphrates Valley Canal, moved through the desert to cut the road to Aleppo west of Ramadi, digging in there to resist an enemy withdrawal.  The infantry battalions also used the dam and seized unoccupied features as they advanced, coming under Turkish artillery fire once they had been observed.  As soon as the British field batteries had also crossed the dam they came into action with artillery support.  The howitzers fired from the area of First Knoll east of the canal.  The 42nd Brigade reached a start line south of its objective Ramadi Ridge whilst the 12th Brigade advanced further west to a start line south of Azizya Ridge which it had been ordered to capture. 


Above: Captured Turkish Artillery Piece 

At 1300 hours the 1/5th and 2/5th Gurkhas were ordered to advance together on Ramadi Ridge with the 1/4th Dorsets in support.  2/6th Gurkhas remained behind as the Brigade reserve.  1/5th Gurkhas moved off at 1310 hours but 2/5th Gurkhas was heavily involved in fighting off hostile Arab irregular troops and did not move until 1400 hours.  1/4th Dorsets sent two companies to assist 2/5th Gurkhas and then advanced behind 1/5th Gurkhas.  

The taking of Ramadi Ridge was described by an observer:

“This low, pebbly rise is perfectly smooth, a long and gentle gradient, a bare seventeen feet above plain level.  It offered no cover of any kind, and our infantry became visible to the Turks a full two hundred yards before they reached the top of the rise.  As soon as they came into view the enemy opened a concentrated rifle and machine gun fire on our front and from our right flank, while their guns, which were perfectly registered, opened intense enfilade fire from the batteries on our left.  The Gurkhas and Dorsets hung on to the position.”
 

1/5th Gurkhas were on top of the ridge by 1335 hours but quickly took over 100 casualties.  By 1415 hours Lawrence Lamonby had led two of his companies forward to fill in gaps on the ridge and the unit war diary states that this is when the heaviest casualties were taken.  Shortly afterwards 2/5th Gurkhas arrived and extended the British line, followed by a third Dorset company.  At 1600 hours the 2/6th Gurkhas came up and extended the line to the right from the ridge to the canal.  

Above: Ramadi Battle map, to see the area to the West and East please click HERE

The seizing and holding of Ramadi Ridge by 42nd Brigade pinned the Turkish troops in place and led to the recall of 1,000 enemy soldiers from the Aziziya Bridge area, where they were concentrating before attacking the cavalry brigade.  Also 12th Brigade’s attack on the southern part of Aziziya Ridge at 1445 hours succeeded with little interference from the Turks, who were bringing all their firepower down onto Ramadi Ridge.  After last light the weary 42nd Brigade was withdrawn southwards to Middle Hill where it spent a quiet night.  The Dorsets had lost two officers and 19 men killed in action and ten officers and 145 men wounded.  The low ratio of killed to wounded was attributed to the high bursting of many of the Turkish shrapnel shells.  The 1/5th Gurkhas had taken 189 casualties.  

The capture of the Turkish garrison at Ramadi

The British cavalry commander, General Holland-Pryor, believed that the Turks would have to withdraw from Ramadi along the river-bank road to ensure water supplies.  He concentrated his defence across and around that road and also covered the western approach to the town in case enemy reinforcements were sent from Hit, the next enemy town upriver.  At 0300 hours next morning, 29 September, the Turks made a strong attempt to break through the cavalry positions under cover of gunfire support from vessels on the river.  The cavalry used twelve Vickers and 48 Hotchkiss guns, plus all available rifles, to successfully beat back enemy attacks that lasted until first light.  Meanwhile the cavalry brigade’s field battery engaged and neutralised the enemy gun boats.  

The Turks now had only one escape route and that was across the Aziziya Bridge and get into the hills to the west.  At 0635 hours the 2/39th Garhwhalis and the 90th Punjabis from 12th Brigade advanced from Aziziya Ridge to take the bridge.  They met resistance and 1/5th Queens came up to join them.  This was the Garhwalis first action in Mesopotamia and they made a magnificent charge, joined by some Punjabis and Queens, to take Aziziya Bridge in the face of three enemy guns firing shrapnel directly at them.  The charge succeeded, the bridge and three guns were captured, and white flags of surrender soon appeared from the remaining Turkish defensive positions in and around Ramadi.  The Garhwalis had taken 166 casualties but the battle was now decisively won.  

Some Turkish cavalry escaped by swimming across the Euphrates, and a few infantrymen infiltrated through the British cavalry positions only to be captured by cavalry and armoured car patrols later.  But 3,456 enemy prisoners, 13 guns, 12 machine guns, 2 armoured launches, 2 barges and large quantities of arms, ammunition and stores were captured.

Distinguished Service Order
For his gallant leadership during the battle for Ramadi Major Lawrence Lamonby, 1/4th Border Regiment attached to the 1/4th Dorsetshire Regiment, was awarded a Distinguished Service Order.  His citation in the London Gazette dated 11 January 1919 read:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He commanded his battalion with great coolness and ability under heavy fire.  His initiative and dash enabled the attack to be carried through to a successful conclusion.  

Mentions in Despatches
The following four officers from the 4th Border Regiment who were attached to 1/4th Dorsetshire Regiment in Mesopotamia received Mentions in Despatches:

Major L. Lamonby DSO (London Gazette supplement dated 5 June 1919)
Captain A.F.W. Dixon 
Lieutenant S. Alexander
Lieutenant G.H. Heelis

(The last three names appeared in the London Gazette supplement dated 12 January 1920).  

(This article was written for The Lion & Dragon Newsletter of the Friends of Cumbria’s Military Museum.)
   

SOURCES:
a.  Official History. The Campaign in Mesopotamia.  Volume IV. Compiled by Brigadier F.J. Moberley CB, CSI, DSO, psc.
b.  War Diary of 1/4th Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment February 1916 – February 1919. ( Public Records Office reference: WO 95/5196).
c.  The Neglected War: Mesopotamia 1914-1918 by A.J. Barker (Faber & Faber 1967).
d.  The Long Road to Baghdad Volume II by Edmund Candler (Cassell & Co Ltd 1919).
e.  British Campaigns in the Nearer East Volume II by Edmund Dane (Hodder &
Stoughton 1919). f.  The London Gazette.
g.  Medal Index Cards.


   

Above: British Officers examine a waterwheel on the Euphrates

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