May 3rd 1916
My dear Father
I am keeping Mela informed as to details of my progress. So I will not do more than state, in case she is not at Badsey when you get this, that my arm seems to be making excellent progress in every way.
As hospital assistance lacks incident, and I do not at present get out much except for a short walk or drive in the evenings, I thought of giving you a little more account of the proceedings in Mesopotamia than was possible at the time.
Now that the fate of Kut is settled, things out there will start on a very different footing. The fall of Kut marks a definite end to the phase of operations that we took part in. I don’t know whether matters were ever made clear in the English papers, but I knew there has been a lot of mystery concerning operations on the Tigris at different times.
As regards the early part of my knowledge is all recent hand, picked up from such officers as I have met who took part in it. In this matter I had some luck in being some time in contact with several senior officers, all wounded, who discussed the operations a good deal.
There is no doubt that the real origin of our difficulties arose from the advance from Kut to Ctesiphon. Whether Sir John Nixon judged rightly or wrongly in recommending it or not is a matter for authorities concerned to decide upon. The easy journalistic habit of judging afterwards entirely by results is not necessarily sound. I know for certain that he acted on information as to the whereabouts of Turkish forces which turned out to be incorrect after the battle of Ctesiphon. It was the sudden discovery of large forces believed to be hundreds of miles away that necessitated the withdrawal down river, as Townsend’s force, weakened by heavy casualties in winning the battle of Ctesiphon was unequal to tackling these large reserves. The chief trouble in carrying out the relieving of Kut was Townsend’s inability to give a true idea of how long he could hold out. He kept on giving a date and then extending the time by several weeks, so that the relieving forces kept on making great efforts without waiting for reinforcements that might have allowed a much greater success to have been secured. Townsend presumably did his best to give a round estimate, but he evidently tapped a leakage of stores somewhere, presumably through Arabs, from which he secured supplies. Anyhow, aeroplanes used to drop him large supplies of rupees, though nobody knew exactly what he wanted them for. Also I believe he discovered a large depot of abandoned Turkish supplies, which helped him greatly. It was a pity aeroplanes could not descend, but there was not room for them to rise to a safe height to cross the Turks lines on the way out.
The early advances up river were made during the rainy season where the place was a hopeless mess of mud, and marshes and swamps at their worst. It was the Indian divisions from France that bore the brunt of this fighting. They had some hard tuzzles, and I fancy the capture of Sheikh Saad was one of their hardest fights. This was subsequently developed into an advanced depot, and it was there that we encamped during the latter part of March. The advance was pushed further up river to Orah, and on the left , or north bank of the river (ie our right) the Turks held a position at El Hannah, some two or three miles above Orah. This was a very strong entrenched line, only a mile or less in length, and flanked by the river on our side, and the marsh on the other. So it had to be taken by direct frontal assault. Several attempts to get it failed, and we dug in there and by the time my division got to Sheikh Saad there was a very large and elaborate trench system pushed right up to within about 100 yards of the Turks. I suppose it was a matter of two months that this Hannah position held us up.
On the other bank the Turks had nothing quite like this position. I never saw it for myself, but I gather that early in the year the south bank of the river was very watery, and not at all inviting for attack. We pushed back the Turks further along the south bank of the river than Hannah, which was therefore enfiladed by the guns we placed there. Operations at a distance from the river on the south side presented great difficulties in the matter of supply. The only continuous line of defence that the Turks had on this south side was the Es Sinn line which is a big line only about 6 miles from Kut and extending both sides of the river. This was open on the Turks extreme right, they relying upon the difficulties which the country presented to an attack by us at this point. However, just about the time my regiment was arriving at Basra, General Aylmer, being led to think the Kut could not wait much longer, decided to make an attack with the troops available on this open flank of the Es Sinn line which afforded an easy sort of back door entrance into Kut. The preparations were excellent and the Turks were absolutely surprised, but some hitch took place which delayed the attack which should have been made at dawn. The Turks were able to bring up reinforcements enough to hold us up, and the transport troubles prevented our stopping there, and we had no reserves to smash in. The water difficulty referred to in official despatches was probably one of the chief ones (as the marsh water is mostly salt and useless), but a greater measure of success in the attack would have overcome it. As it turned out, this effort at that time was a misfortune , because of course the Turks were not to be caught there again. Had the effort been postponed till we were there to back it up it would have took a much better chance of success. As it was we were committed to a direct frontal attack on a dead flat ground completely devoid of any resemblance of cover against a series of entrenched line.
You must recollect that the river was our one and only highway of communication. We had only pack mule transport besides, and it takes a lot of miles to carry a little stuff. So it was never possible to push much further on one bank than on the other, because the limit of river transport naturally came where the Turks were most advanced. As long as the Turks held us at El Hannah river transport stopped at Orah, where we had built a bridge of boats.
The first job that our division had was the capture of the Hannah position. The Turks (who always get to know all our plans anyway through Arabs) had no difficulty in seeing that we were preparing for a heavy assault. Our excellent trench system gave us such a fine starting point that they decided to offer no opposition. They evidently realized that their chances of driving us back were very small, and to have resisted without success would probably have cost them several thousand men and much material. We had tremendous preponderance of artillery, and gave their back trenches a very heavy bombardment during the attack which was made at dawn on April 5th. We advanced however into trenches that were “swept and garnished” almost; the few Turks who had held the front line with a few machine guns 202 cleared off as fast as possible, leaving scarcely any casualties and prisoners. In fact as the result of having no opposition many lines went on too fast and walked into our own artillery fire which caused us a fair number of casualties.
Further advance was made during the morning until the brigade got under fire from the Felahick position some two miles further on. By river it would be more owing to the winding. We scratched in a sort of position about 700 or 800 yards off, incurring considerable loss in doing so. Immediately after dark, two brigades formed up for attack and took the position in face of considerable opposition, whereupon the Turks cleared straight back to their next line at Sannaiyat. It seems to me that a big mistake was made in not following them up more closely, though it is difficult in the dark. We only had to hold the position, and the troops detailed to push on did not get to Sannaiyat till it was light. A vigorous attack at dawn might have well been successful. As it was they attached in daylight, suffered heavily and could not get very close. Meanwhile the Turks started to strengthen the position and held up a further attack made next day. The Felahick and Sannaigat lines both resembled the Hannah position in being flanked by the river and the marsh; but both lines were rather longer than the Hannah line.
We had been resting a little behind Felahick, and were brought up on the night of the 8th and put in position about midnight to attack the centre of the line. There were only a very few half dug trenches to act as a taking off point, and nearly all of us lay out in the open. The front line had 500 or 600 yards to go, which is a very long way in the dark for a long line with nothing clear to define the direction of advance. The flank seems to have swung forward and so got seen early and a flare was sent up while most of our men were still a long way off. In that country, where there is no cover, the only thing to do under fire is to push on as fast as possible; to halt and lie down is almost suicide. I don’t think this had been sufficiently impressed on the men. Anyhow only isolated bodies reached the Turkish trench, so that of course we got a very heavy fire on us which was kept up several hours after it was light. The men dug what cover they could, but the attack had failed. It is my feeling that the fate of Kut was sealed by that failure, at which I was exceedingly disappointed. It certainly was a bold and difficult scheme, but I thought we were good enough to carry it through. The trouble to be faced subsequently was death of officers, and in a lesser degree of NCOs. The casualties in the ranks were severe but still there were lots of men left. A division very short of officers is of little use for purposes of attack. During a conversation with a staff general who came and talked to me while I was at the field ambulance at Felahick I learnt what fresh troops were on the way up and could not feel that they were sufficient to tackle the two big defensive lines of Sannaiyat and Es Sinn that remained to be broken. So the news of the day before yesterday was not surprising. I judge from newspaper reports that the river floods became an increasing trouble after I left. They were a constant nuisance and anxiety all the time I was there. I shall be most interested to see what plans are adopted out there now. I must say I am not consumed with desire to revisit the place, especially in the heat of the summer.
R R Davies of my regiment is to go to England. He lives in Worcester and I told him if he should be in Evesham to look you up any time. He is not a very polished sort of man, but I always get on very well with him and he is a very useful fellow at his job.
It is most annoying to have to waste a long period of convalescence out here, when it would be so much pleasanter at home.
Best love to all from
Your affectionate son
Cyril E Sladden