The 100th Anniversary of Britain's Worst Defeat

The rapid rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS) is rooted to the 100-year anniversary of the British invasion of Iraq and Syria in November 1914. After easily capturing the oil port of Basra, arrogant British mission creep (sound familiar?) led to an effort to take Baghdad. The result was massive casualties and a humiliating surrender in one of the British Empire’s worst defeats. ISIS over the next six months will celebrate this Muslim victory as a recruiting tool to build their Caliphate.   

With the Ottoman Empire's declaration of war on the United Kingdom on November 5, 1914, Expeditionary Force D, mostly made up of Indian colonial units under General Sir John Nixon, invaded Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq and Syria. The goal was to secure the oil refineries, storage tanks, and pipelines at Abadan Island and capture the Iraqi refinery and oil wells around the Persian Gulf port of Basra.

Almost 97% of shipping relied on coal production in 1914, compared to 3.4% for oil. But Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in the decade before WW I designed and built all the new “Dreadnaught” class battleships to burn petroleum.

Diesel motors had no tell-tale smoke plume versus a coal ship's emissions that were visible up to 6 miles away. It only required diesel ship engines 30 minutes to reach peak power, versus 4 to 9 hours for a coal-fired ship's motor to reach full power. To fuel a battleship with oil required the 12 men working for 12 hours. The same equivalent of energy for a coal-fired ship required the 500 men working for 5 days. For equal propulsion, the oil-fired ship required 1/3 the engine weight, and almost 1/4 of the daily fuel weight. The patrol area of an oil-powered fleet was four times greater than coal.

With no domestic oil supplies, securing Persian Gulf oil was a British WW I imperative. But the invasion of Mesopotamia was also meant as a clear warning to Muslims across the globe to not oppose British interests, according to Stratfor Global Intelligence.

The United Kingdom’s forces landed at Al-Faw. After several skirmishes with 4,500 local Ottoman conscripts, who quickly broke ranks and ran away, the British forces easily captured Basra and all Southern Iraqi oil fields on November 21st. Anglo-Indian losses were 500 casualties to the Turkish losses of 1,300, plus 1,000 surrendering.

The Basra victories were so overwhelming the British scoffed at Turkish capabilities, not knowing that the Ottoman Empire, expecting war, had signed a secret alliance with Germany on Aug. 1, 1914 that included training and arms. Russia declared war on the Ottomans on November 1st, followed by Montenegro two days later, and France and Britain on November 5th.

Despite temperatures of up to 126 degrees, British Commander-in-Chief Sir John Nixon ordered an Anglo-Indian army under recently knighted General Sir Charles Townshend to march on Baghdad. Townshend argued against further extending the British supply line that was already 370 miles from the Arabian Sea. Without requested supplies for transport and trench warfare equipment, Nixon instructed Townshend to proceed up the Tigris River in 1915.

Townsend encountered limited opposition and captured Kut-al-Amaram on September 28, 1915, just 120 miles south of Baghdad. But at the Battle of Ctesiphon, near the Muslim Holy City of Karbala from November 22nd to the 26th, Over 18,000 experienced Turkish army troops advised by Germans military officers and armed with 19 machine guns and 52 artillery guns had entrenched in two lines along the river. The Turks withstood heavy casualties to defeat Townshend's attacking forces. Over half of the 8,500 Anglo-Indian troops were killed or wounded before retreating back to Kut.

Bolstered by 30,000 more reinforcements, Turkish troops besieged Townshend's forces in Kut-al-Amara before the British War Cabinet could advise withdrawal down the Tigris. The siege of Kut-al-Amara lasted 147 days, before the 11,800 British forces inside the garrison surrendered on April 29, 2016. Another 4,250 would die in captivity.

The defeat and surrender of Townshend's army came as a complete shock to the British people, who had been fed propaganda that the Mesopotamia campaign was mostly successful. The Mesopotamia scandal followed the withdrawal of British and French forces from Gallipoli and led to the creation of a Parliamentary Committee of Enquiry.

The British amassed a 410,000 man army to capture Mesopotamia. Townsend’s surrender was somewhat avenged after 166,000 troops captured Baghdad on March 10, 1917. But total British Empire casualties in Mesopotamia were 92,000.

The Islamic State claims to have re-established the Abbasid Caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method that expanded their empire into Spain and India. Over the next six months, ISIS will celebrate the 100th anniversary of perhaps the greatest military defeat of the British Empire as a rallying cry for Muslims to join their cause.