Friday, 6 December 2013

'Every day the garrison became weaker'

Kut-al-Amarah in ruins at the end of the siege
Mesopotamia might not rank as one of the best-known campaigns of the First World War, but the stories and letters to emerge from it are every bit as gripping as those from the Western Front or Gallipoli.

I've been lucky enough to discover for use in my book a vivid account of the siege of Kut-al-Amarah, on the River Tigirs, which began on December 7th 1915 when the Turkish Army besieged soldiers of the 6th Indian Division.
It lasted five months, during which those inside held out in freezing temperatures and heavy rain against infantry assault, sniper fire, shelling and bombing. Hundreds died of wounds and disease and food quickly began to run short - especially as 6,000 Arabs who lived in the town also needed to be fed. The division's livestock was gradually slaughtered, but hunger was still rife among Indian soldiers whose beliefs stopped them eating horsemeat.

Three attempts were made to relieve Kut but they all failed and at the end of April 1916, on the brink of starvation, the men surrendered and were taken prisoner.

Besieged: Capt Sandes
Among those trapped in Kut was Captain Edward Sandes, a Royal Engineer who wrote a long, journal-style letter which he hoped to send to his mother but was never able to. Extracts from this letter will be used in my book. After the war, Sandes wrote a personal memoir which included a description of his time in Kut, and below is an extract which shows how food came to dominate the men's waking hours.

'Every day, as rations were gradually reduced, the garrison became weaker and less able to take the field. We were now getting only twelve ounces of bread instead of a pound, no vegetables or sugar, two ounces of jam or one ounce of butter, and half an ounce of tea. On the other hand, we received one and a quarter pounds of horseflesh instead of a pound of beef or mutton. Now that the weather was gettiing warmer I found horseflesh more repulsive than before and could never eat the whole of my ration.

'Three camels, the only ones in Kut, were slaughtered one day, and as my 23 men [Indians] still refused to eat horseflesh I indented for camel meat and received 29 pounds as their ration. They roasted it in the couryard below my room and had a great feast; but the smell nearly made me sick and I had to refuse some tit-bits they generously offered me.

'Only the coarsest type of tobcco could now be bought from the Supply and Transport Corps. European cigarettes had vanished, so cigarette smokers bought the Arab variety from a few small shops still open in the bazaar. This consisted of a narrow paper bag filled with tobacco dust and was provided with a tube as a mouthpiece. It was a dangerous contraption and unpleasant to smoke. Burning tobacco dust fell onto one's tunic, and the acrid taste made one's throat sore. Even before the price became prohibitive, I smoked very few.'

Captain Sandes went on to become a well-respected writer of military history and his excellent book 'In Kut and Captivity' can still be found in secondhand bookshops.

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