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The British Death March in Mesopotamia I THE GREAT WAR Week 94

The British Death March in Mesopotamia I THE GREAT WAR Week 94


You fought and you lost. You’re a prisoner,
but that’s maybe better than active fighting, right? Well, you have to get to the prison
camp first, and this week a death march begins. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week the big news was the surrender of
the British and Indian armies that had been under siege at Kut for five months. There
was new action on the Italian front and poison gas attacks in the west. The Eastern Front had been quiet, because
of the spring floods, but I’ll mention it now, in a quote from “The Story of the Great
War”. “Again in May the story of events on the
Eastern Front is lacking in sensational movements, accompanied by equally unsensational success
or failure. But nevertheless, it is on both sides a story of unceasing activity, of unending
labor, or unremitting toil, of endless suffering, of unlimited heroism, and of unsurpassed courage,
the more so because much of all that was accomplished was counted only as part of the regular daily
routine, and lacked both the incentive and the reward of widespread publicity which more
frequently attaches to military operations of extensive character. Not for years to come
will it be possible to write a detailed history of this phase of the Great War as far as the
eastern front is concerned… (nor) will it be practicable to recount all the uncounted
deeds of valor accomplished by heroes whose names and deeds now must remain unknown to
the world at large, even though both… have been for months and months on the lips of
equally brave comrades in arms.” They weren’t the only ones who’d been
bravely toiling for months and months, but for those other men, the men from the siege
of Kut, the ordeal was only beginning. On May 6th, the death march from Kut began.
Nearly 12,000 British and Indian troops, most half starved and many seriously ill, were
marched northward with no care or concern being made for their well-being. On the second
day the men, many of whom had had their boots stolen, marched 24 kilometers with neither
water nor shade. Any who fell or even stumbled were beaten with whips and sticks. As they
reached Ctesiphon horror stories emerged like that from Captain E,O, Mousley, who saw marchers
“dying with a green ooze issuing from their lips, their mouths fixed open, in and out
of which flies walked.” After two weeks the men would reach Baghdad
where the American consul there paid local authorities to have 500 men sent to hospital
before eventually heading back to Basra. 160 would die on that journey. As for the others,
they were kept for three days in a compound with neither shade nor sanitation and then
forced to again march north. At Tikrit they were stoned as they marched through the town,
and even when they paused men were afraid to go any distance to relieve themselves for
fear they would be murdered for their clothes. One prisoner, finding among seven naked corpses
in a yard one man who was still alive, asked a guard to give him some water. The guard
walked over to the guy, took his water bottle, and shoved the neck into the man’s mouth
until he choked to death. The men’s leader, General Charles Townshend,
was taken to Constantinople where he was given residence on an island in the Sea of Marmara.
He would remain there in comfort for the remainder of the war. If you were wondering, of the
2,500 British soldiers captured at Kut, 1,750 of them died on the March north or in Anatolian
prison camps. That’s 70%. The Indian troops fared better, “just” 2,500 of them died,
just over a quarter, but this was partly because they received better treatment as the Ottomans
tried to attract fellow Muslims to their cause. This was a very nasty war, and that march
was certainly one of its nastier chapters. Once again, the results of British hubris
were on worldwide display. Peter Hart says, the whole Tigris campaign “was fought with
insufficient troops and inadequate logistical arrangements; a campaign which ignored the
unique terrain characteristics of the region and was underpinned by the presumption that
the Turks were not capable of serious opposition.” Guess they really didn’t learn anything
from Gallipoli, but now having suffered a second humiliation at Ottoman hands Britain
had to strike back. But, you know, Britain had a lot on its plate at the moment; Verdun
was in full swing, plans for the Somme were kicking into high gear, Salonika was… whatever
Salonika was, but the future of the British Empire in the region, the Middle East and
India really revolved around fixing the situation in Mesopotamia ASAP. So they finally did what they should have
done last year if they were serious about taking Baghdad; they began to totally reorganize
their transport system, a huge and costly, but necessary operation, and the War Office
took direct control of things from the Indian administration in Delhi. Major General George
MacMunn was the new Inspector General of Communications and here’s what he found when he arrived
in Basra, “(Hart p. 289) As we entered the anchorage a melancholy sight appeared, 20
ocean steamers loaded with supplies and military stores lay awaiting unloading and had been
so for weeks, so devoid was Basra of wharfage, port labor, of port craft to handle all that
was now pouring into the river. The staff in India in modern times had not studied modern
movement and logistics… the organization of longshore and river service was only partially
understood.” He had his work cut out for him. And some people were having their work thrust
upon them. On May 12th in German occupied France, 25,000
men and women were deported to Germany to be farm laborers. They were given 90 minutes
to pack. Three days later in Belgium all unemployed people were ordered to take work in Germany.
Foreign labor quite simply allowed more Germans to leave their farms, factories, and homes
and join the fight. And they’d certainly be needed if the fighting
at Verdun were to continue. Here’s a little note from John Keegan about
one difference between the French and German forces at Verdun. The French rotated divisions
through Verdun, the Germans didn’t, they’d just top up depleted forces with replacements,
so by the end of April, 42 French divisions had gone through the region compared to only
30 German so you got depressing numbers like this: between March and May the German 25th
division suffered casualties in its infantry of over 100% And here’s what happened there this week:
on May 8th, 350 German soldiers were killed in Fort Douaumont when a munitions magazine
exploded. General Charles Mangin, General Robert Nivelle’s right hand man at Verdun,
saw the smoke and also saw a huge opportunity. Now, back on April 22nd he had made one attempt
to re-take Fort Douaumont, and his men had gotten quite far before being driven away
by German machine guns, and he thought now was the time to attack while the defenders
were in disarray. He wanted to attack with two regiments on a one-kilometer front. Nivelle
said “go for it.” The attack was scheduled for May 22nd, but the Germans soon knew all
about it- security being one of Nivelle’s biggest weakness, so all the German immediate
plans were scrapped and they began to quickly patch up Douaumont’s defenses. And something that could not be patched up
was the White Star Liner the S.S. Cymric. The Cymric was torpedoed on the 8th, a year
and a day after the Lusitania was torpedoed, and actually was torpedoed by the same U-Boat.
This time there was no international outcry as the dead were all British citizens and
the Cymric had been shuttling ammunition between The U.S. and Britain. And that was the week, a death march begins,
French and Belgians are sent to Germany to work, and an explosion changes the situation
at Verdun. Speaking of Verdun, Louis Barthas, the French
soldier who kept meticulous diaries of the war, was about to be sent there. He wrote
this: “The next day… we rested because they
day after that we had to begin our approach to Verdun…. At the corner of a little square…
I saw a crowd gathering… they had formed a circle around a brownish, greasy mass, containing
what were clearly pieces of bone… Someone explained to me that in August 1914, the Germans,
masters of the battlefield, gathered up all the dead- their own, and ours- and made an
immense funeral pyre which they doused with gasoline and lit. For several days the wind
carried the hideous odor of grilled flesh for miles around. No one knew how, but this
shape which I had before my eyes was a piece of what remained when the sinister bonfire
burned out.” Just a peaceful day far from the action. Barthas
would indeed head to the hell of Verdun, and we’ll soon see some of his impressions from
there. They won’t be pretty. If you want to know more about Louis Barthas
and his life, check out our bio episode about him right here. You can also support our show
by purchasing his book in our Amazon store. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Dr. Gun.
Please consider helping us out on Patreon, so that we can continue to make this show
even better. Don’t forget to subscribe. See you next
time.


Reader Comments

  1. First off, every now and then, the Chair of Madness needs to show itself… You know, just for some balance.

    Just so it's said.

    Second ( Perhaps for an Out of the Trenches episode), was there any precedent for prisoner exchanges, and if so, given the fact that the forces at Kut were screwed, why were there no negotiations underway to retrieve the men under Townsend's command?

    Love what you guys are doing and keep that good flow going Flo!

  2. How did the surrender at Kut  motivate the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement? How did the Europeans determine that the Ottoman Empire was destined to fail despite this military victory?

  3. Awesome Documentary of WW1 . I hope at some point you can put this on TV as a series . You have all done a wonderful job of telling the history of WW1 , a war that has taken a back seat to WW2 . Many years ago I read a book about WW1 and the battle of Jutland . It had a few pages about the German  battlecruiser Moltke and all of the damage it took and still made it back to port . There were drawing of the flooding  in the ship and damage . It was very interesting and if I remember right it was the most damaged warship to make it back to home port in history ? That is until the USS Franklin in WW2 . If my memory still serves me . Looking forward to 31 May and 1 June 1916 . The Brave men on both sides who fought sea battle may you Rest in Peace .

  4. I was told, at school during the 60's that Verdun was fought to stop the Machine tool industry of the French Jura Mountains felling into Germany hands, this was where screws for micro measuring devices were made and the controls for precision lathes and milling machines were made. After WW One the US Government took steps that it would not be reliant on the French.

  5. The Turks were not ignorant of what would happen to the British soldiers on the death march. They used the same indirect form of murder to commit genocide against the Armenians only a few years earlier.
    And people wonder why so many ethnic groups hate the Turks– Greeks, Armenians, Arabs, any ethnicity who lived under Turkish oppression for centuries.

  6. That's a long quote in the beginning. I don't like reading can't Indy make a audiobooks from some great War books. He been quoting it so much you must have a few chapters by now 🙂

  7. HOLY CRAP I FINALLY CAUGHT UP! Since discovering this channel I have been watching the chronological order of the series and after a couple of months I finally caught up! I knew very little about WWI other than a rudimentary awareness of the trenches. This series is giving me quite an education about the war and about European history of that time period…very eye opening indeed. All that I can say is…WWI was a giant cluster fuck (forgive my vulgarity). This was a war fought by brave men who were lead by fools. The complete incompetence and arrogance of the commanding generals and monarchs is astounding. The title of the episode "Cadorna Was an Idiot" sums it up and applies to the generals and aristocracy of every army from every country at that time. The continued use of outdated tactics against modern weaponry was nothing less than criminal. It makes me disgusted and angry.

  8. Found an error:
    8:02 That's the wrong ship, the SS Cymric of 1897 looked very different to that ship. Which looks to be from the 30's-50's in its design.

  9. I have a question. what's next for this channel after you guys do all of the stories for WW1 are you gonna do WW2?

  10. He, will you guys be doing a special on Ernst Junger and his story The Storm of Steel? I found it to be very interesting read with his description of the day to day horrors that were just normality for them.

  11. If you're not going to feed, shelter, or care for prisoners in anyway, why even bother taking them to begin with? If they were that indifferent to them, why not just kill them all when they surrendered? That would at least seem more fitting with their attitude towards them anyway. :/

  12. I'm not calling your series biased but it seems that you cite only "evil generals" from the German/Hungarian side, but many simple soldiers and observers from the Allies – people with whom we would rather identify ourselves today. Thus, inevitably the Allies cause is risen to higher moral standards even though e.g. the British activities in the East were a mere colonial war to capture land and resources.

  13. I've always found it incomprehensible that the combatants in WWl were all neighbors sharing the same neighborhood with some of them actually next door to each other! How could there be so much hate when you have some much in common?

  14. Hallo. I know that my grandmother's father's family lived during WW1 in the part of Poland which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and during the war they run away from the fruntier erea to Vienna, where they faced famine during 1918, and that caused the death of my grandmother's grandmother. Ofcourse, we are still in 1916 now, and things were different, but I think it would be interesting to hear a bit about how the war effectedthe economy and daily life conditions in the cities so far, at this point of time. Thank you! Nirit.

  15. Wonderful series! You identify the quote beginning at 0:37 as coming from "The Story of the Great War," but that work is not on your list of sources. I am intrigued. What IS that source? Is it an official government record? The wording makes it sound as though it was written very soon after the conflict. Thanks!

  16. This is Rusty from New Orleans, LA in the U.S. Great show! My grandfather fought in the 79th Division of the American Expeditionary Force in WWI in France, and participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He captured a German prisoner at some point, and took his weapon, a 98 Mauser rifle. He (my grandfather) brought the rifle home and I still have it. I've always wondered how/why this happened. Were soldiers routinely allowed to keep and return home with captured materiel? Or did he somehow beat the system and smuggle the rifle out of France and into the U.S.? Thanks for you and your staff's work on this project. I eagerly await each new installment.

  17. I actually think WW1 was a great example of men standing up for what they felt was right.  People truly had pride in their countries.

  18. Just received the book,it takes you back in time,to anyone who wants to know more about the life of a soldier,buy it,it is one of the best reading experience I ever had.

  19. finally caught up!! I started watching this series a week ago! now 94 episodes later, I eagerly await the next telling of the sombre horrors of the Great War!

  20. I liked the zoom-in transition at the end. Before, when you just cut to the ending reference showing a previous video, it seemed like you just copied and pasted the film. This looked much cleaner! No biggie though, I will love this show no matter what you guys do. Thanks!

  21. Just a suggestion but will you be doing something like this for WW 2? Anyway, extremely informative and interesting video as always.

  22. Just a little random fact: On the 9th of May the Ausbildungstruppe Lockstedt (which had been there since 25.2.1915) consisting of Finnish "Pfadfinder" volunteers got the order to mobilize. They became the Königlich Preussisches Jägerbataillon Nr 27 and were given marching orders to the Eastern front at the Gulf of Riga which they reached 12th of June. There they would get some but very important combat experience before being shipped back to Finland.
    Later on the jägers would become the government's forces in the Civil War of Finland and the backbone of the Finnish Defence Forces during WW2.

  23. I think you mispronounced Cymric. It's a Welsh word (and actually means "welsh") so it should be pronounced "CUM-rick" or similar.

  24. The pain these folks endured in the death march in Turkey and the battle field of Verdun is beyond my imagination.

  25. I have the opposite view of Funny Farmer, doing some research on the British military during WW1, looking at your sources, and nearly every video you have done on the UK has been some British defeat or let down. The British were not angels during the war, but with the amount of video's you have done, extolling some famous figure or military tactic of every side, wouldn't help to do the some British victories or famous figures.

  26. I agree with Funny Farmer, Peter Hart is one of the most bias references that you can cite. And you do it over and over in different episodes, besides "evil" generals, and old adolf, there is much to be spoken about the Germans

  27. "Selonica was…well, whatever Selonica was."

    That line made me laugh. WW1 sometimes got just plain silly–in a horrifying, extremely serious, and really sad kind of way.

  28. Indy, something confuses me about Verdun: the original German plan/objectives for the battle were to bleed the French dry while minimizing German casualties. But the Germans were the ones who did not rotate divisions out of the fight and continued to send fresh troops into the meat-grinder. Why the discrepancy? Did the German commanders simply lose sight of the strategic goals of the battle entirely, or did they feel that they could actually capture Verdun with just a bit more time and another push?

  29. The Turks really don't come off well during WWI, the Kut death march, the Armenian genocide, the incompetence of the Turkish leadership, the false-flag bombing in Sofia. Not that they were the only country comitting atrocities. That being said, as an Australian, I admire the Turkish resolve at Gallipoli.

  30. Well, the Lusitania was carrying ammo too, just nobody knew about it. The UK actually admitted the Lusitania in 1982 was carrying ammo by warning divers who wanted to dive into the ship. They even considered not warning the divers as it might still cause a diplomatic incident with the USA which still didn't know. Of course germany claimed there was ammo on that ship all along, but I doubt they ever really knew.

  31. I'm not sure if you've seen it or not, /r/colorizedhistory has some really good colorized photos, maybe you could find some from there for the show, or convince someone there to colorize some WWI photos for you.

  32. thats what happend in Greece during World War 1 for the country to enter the Great War
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noemvriana

  33. That's Turks [governments and their followers[ for you. They were also committing genocide against the Armenians at this time as well. They're doing the same to their own people now after this supposed "coup" and have been doing to the Kurds for decades.

  34. Turkish barbarism has no boundaries…Allies should have made peace with Germany and Austra Hungary only and then destroy the Ottoman empire and devide it

  35. I'm noticing something unusual as I binge-watch-catch-up on the series…. I find myself having to pause and scan back… not because my attention is wavering or the material is uninteresting… it just takes a minute to truly absorb what those situations and numbers really mean in every segment of an episode – the unbelievable, unimaginable, even in hindsight, number of dead, land destroyed, people displaced, nations wiped out, whole generations lost … truly one of the greatest tragedies and follies of human history

  36. SS Cymric*
    White Star Line tended to have all their ship names end in "ic" as Cunard opted for "ia"
    Just a strange thing they did in the mid 19th to early 20th centuries.

  37. even 100 years in the past, i could only weep of joy when i see the British defeats in the Middle East !

    cursed be their souls ! for some time they taste some of their doings !

  38. Still think all sides were "equally bad" Indy? Muslims were horrific back then, just like they are today (Syria anyone??)

  39. Yeeeeees I know I just bugged you guys about the editing like two days ago and the zoom in was a perfect alternative it felt so much cleaner

  40. I don't know if you're doing this intentionally but you're making a lot of people disgusted of war. You're making people into pacifists. Good job. Thank you!

  41. The Turks weren't capable of serious opposition? Weren't they responsible for the fall of the Byzantine Empire? Seems like those people were always very capable fighters

  42. I think one of the main reasons for my fascination with the Great War is the quality of the photographs e.g. 7:40. Perhaps it was the static nature of the fighting which allowed the photographers of the day to capture scenes such as these. Photos from WWII often seem of lesser or at least different quality, perhaps more were censored. Or it may be my bias.

  43. Will there be a special on Germany's use of civilian forced labour from occupied countries? It's mentioned in passing here, but it established a strategy that was used ruthlessly in WW II. I read somewhere that Jews were used disproportionately more in forced labour battalions.

  44. As mentioned in the video SS cymrik was sunk by the Germans. But they try to draw a comparison between the Lusitania sinking Last year. Problem is they forgot to mention in The video that the Germans sunk the Lusitania because they reported seeing ammunition and small arms aboard!!

  45. I'm not sure why, but hearing about those soldiers hit me harder than hearing about the rest of conflict i'm not sure why

  46. any ideology which treats its opponents like subhumans is horrific for the PoWs, Turks were sadly enraptured in Islamism

  47. One of the strongest part of this vlog is that its telling lots of what was happening in Eastern Front, Italian Front, Balkans, Middle East etc instead of focusing only Western Front. After all 65% of military casualties, 75% of military losses and 80% of all human losses happened outside Western Front which is often ignored by western mainstream media and even many historians.

  48. In 1916 Britain started to borrow huge sums of money from New York bankers which actually was the end of British Empire. After the war Churchill, real arch conservative denied these fact and didn't devalue pound. Instead he foolishly was thinking that it's all O.K in Empire. In 1945 he and his henchmen knew better – The British Empire was brain death. This is what warfare is all about. Whether winning and loosing you will anyway in long run make a bankruptcy.

  49. What?! You expected British prisoners to be carried in Limousines? Its 94th episode and you still have no idea about war… Oh and yes, I do not know if Indy will prefer to mention it (since he is always biased when it comes to Turks), the British took Ottoman prisoners in Palestine (1917) to Egypt and blinded all of them deliberately in chlorine baths. Shall we talk about this too?

  50. As you talked about Mesopotamia and the shortcomings of the campaign, I thought of the British going up the Nile with an army to deal with the Mahdi in the Sudan. I wonder if some of the planners back in Britain thought the Mesopotamian campaign would be similar and failed to take into account that the Turks had modern weapons. You've mentioned the problems with logistics. One thing I've read little about in modern war histories is the effect of logistical support (or lack thereof) on battles. It was challenging enough with infantry. It would become even more challenging with the advent of mechanized formations and deep operations.

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