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Iraq WWI – Mesopotamia Campaign Siege of Kut Al-Amara Ottoman Military Field Cartography “Captured” Enemy Map: [Iraq WWI – Mesopotamia Campaign. Siege of Kut Al-Amara]



A fascinating artefact of World War I’s Mesopotamian Campaign – an Ottoman map of the vicinity of the Siege of Kut al-Amara, one of the conflict’s most dramatic events and one of the greatest defeats in British Imperial History; crudely lithographed in theatre by Ottoman engineers, based upon a “captured” British map that was itself based on fresh, detailed field reconnaissance – seemingly unrecorded and likely unique.



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Lithograph with details in original hand colour in blue crayon, with contemporary manuscript annotations in Ottoman Turkish, in blue pen, recto upper right corner, and pencil on verso (Very Good, some light wear and toning along old folds with a subtle old tape repair to vertical centre fold from verso), 41 x 57.5 cm (16 x 22.5 inches).


Kut al-Amara is a town in Iraq, located upon a bend in the Tigris Rvier, about 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Baghdad. During the Mesopotamian Campaign, Britain’s invasion of Ottoman Iraq during World War I, Kut was considered to be the most strategically crucial location in the country between Basra and Baghdad, a position that the British forces simply had to secure and maintain. The British first took Kut with relative ease in September 1915, on their way to making a disastrous run on Baghdad, whereupon they were driven back south. The main British force, under Major-General Charles Townshend, settled upon Kut as their forward base. However, the town was soon encircled by Ottomans forces, commencing the Siege of Kut (December 7, 1915 to April 29, 1916).  After five months and

several British attempts to break the siege and rescue Townshend’s men, the starving British garrison surrendered to the Ottomans.  The historian Jan Morris rightly termed the siege “the most abject capitulation in Britain’s military history.” While the British eventually recaptured Kut and went on to take Baghdad and win the war, the sting of the surrender burned in the British imperial memory for decades.

The present map was clearly hastily drafted and lithographed upon a hand powered press by Ottoman engineers, likely in Baghdad. An annotation written on the verso, in pencil, in Ottoman Turkish, reads: “بغداد جوارى انكليزلردن آلنان خريطه صورتى” “This is a copy of the map taken from the British around Baghdad…1332 [1916]”. A similar script repeats in printed version in the lower left corner. This note also gives the date 10. 2. 133 (what would be the beginning of December 1916), revealing that the present map was based upon a “captured” British map, acquired by the Ottomans when the British were attempting to take Baghdad, before or at the beginning of the Siege of Kut.

While the precise antecedent map is not known, the present map clearly follows a known template for British military maps of the Kut area, and faithfully duplicates this cartography, save that the text is translated into Ottoman Turkish. To assist in understanding the present map, it is helpful to compare it to a plate from a very rare retrospective series of maps depicting the various phases of the WWI fighting around Kut El Amara made issued in 1925 by the Survey of India (the imprint reads: Heliozincographed at the Survey of India Offices, Dehra Dun. Simla Drawing Office, No. 3933, March 1925. S.D.O. 3936), from the collections of the British Library (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/72/2, f. 17), provided courtesy of the Qatar National Library:


This map clearly has the same, or very similar, base map as the present map; it has the same scope, and while some aspects are different, the extreme majority of details on the maps correspond.

Kut itself is not named on the present map, as its location would have been obvious to the original (British) mapmaker, who was likely based there, although the town stands out at the tip of the most pronounced bend along the Tigris, in the centre-left, across from where the Shatt al-Hayy river joins from the south to meet. In the far north, is the great expanse of the Suwaikiya Lake, while a wealth of information throughout the surrounding countryside is showcased, including innumerable feeder creeks, wadis, lakes and swamps, while villages, rural mosques and forts are labelled. Also depicted are roads, trails, mounds, ridges and disused ancient canals. In addition to Kut itself, key locations of military action include Es Sinn, always down the Tigris from Kut, where the British forces first defeated the Ottomans guarding Kut in September 1915, en route towards unsuccessfully attacking Baghdad. The map also show the locations of the various showdowns that occurred during the Siege of Kut, when British forces tried in vain to relieve Townshend, including the battles of Sheikh Sa’ad (January 6-9,1916); the Wadi (January 13, 1916); Hanna (January 21, 1916); Dujaila (March 8); as well as the final British attempts to break the Ottoman lines at Fallahiya and Sannaiyat (April 5-22, 1916).

Importantly, during World War I both sides placed an incredibly high priority on obtaining geographic intelligence, especially in the Turkish-Middle Eastern theatres, where the topography was not as well-known as it was in Europe.  The creation and acquisition of maps sufficiently accurate and detailed to aid military movement was often a decisive factor upon tactical operations in theatres such as Gallipoli, the Sinai and Mesopotamia. Both sides went to great lengths to ensure that the enemy did not capture their best maps, while making great extraordinary efforts to acquire the other side’s maps, either from POWs or through espionage. However, despite the best efforts to maintain cartographic secrecy, most printed maps sooner or later found their way into enemy hands.

On the eve of the war, both the British and the Ottoman-German sides possessed a realtibely sophisticated knowledge of the topography of Iraq, including the Kut al-Amara area, as the region had been mapped to high scientific standards for both military and civilian purposes in recent years.  However, as the present map indicates, the lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates Basin were an ever-changing landscape, as the annual floods altered the courses of rivers, creating new lakes and swamps, while leaving other, once verdant places suddenly dry. Moreover, manmade features were often washed way, while the constant military activity altered infrastructure. As such, Iraq, perhaps more than only other battle theatre in World War I needed to be re-mapped often, if not almost continuously, in order to gain a correct ‘snapshot’ of the landscape immediately in advance of an army. Indeed, even a very accurate survey of the Kut area used two years after it was made would feature many serious inaccuracies due to the changing landscape, potentially hinder military operations.

In the wake Kut first falling to British forces in September 1915, IEF military surveyors, many with vast experience mapping India, had the opportunity to chart the area to an unprecedented degree of detail and precision. The British map upon which the present map is predicated seems to have been a master map based upon these peerless surveys, as so would have been of tremendous value to the Ottomans.

All maps printed by the Ottoman military during World War I in the field (outside of Istanbul) are extremely rare, especially those run off of hand-powered lithographic presses, such as those used by the Ottomans in Baghdad. These maps were issued in only very small print runs and their survival rate is incredibly low. We cannot trace another example of the present map; it is quite likely unique.


Prologue to the Siege of Kut: Espionage, Oil, War and the Contest for Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, today known as Iraq, was the cradle of civilization in the Middle East and Europe, having over the millennia formed a key part of many empires.  In 1534, the region fell to Suleiman the Magnificent’s armies, becoming part of the Ottoman Empire.  It was eventually divided into the three vilayets (provinces) of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul.  Mesopotamia was perhaps the most ethnically and religiously diverse part of the Middle East and Ottoman rule over the country was generally weak, with practical power invested in local leaders.

In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain aimed to expand its empire in India and to gain total dominance over the Indian Ocean.  The Persian Gulf was viewed by Whitehall as vital to its strategic interests and, beginning in 1820, Britain began signing protectorate treaties with the Arab Gulf States, hitherto known as the ‘Trucial States’, which progressively allowed the Royal Navy to make the Gulf into a ‘British lake’.

Beyond its proximity the Gulf, Mesopotamia held a special place in the British mind.  Those intellectually inclined were enthralled by the possibility of uncovering the archaeological wonders of the region, while figures of a more business-like disposition saw Mesopotamia as providing the key part of an overland route from Europe to India.

To assert its control of the head of the Persian Gulf, in 1899 Britain recognized Kuwait as separate state from the Ottoman Empire.  In 1914, Kuwait became a British protectorate, like the Trucial States.

Meanwhile, geologists were reporting that the Persian Gulf region was likely home to vast petroleum reserves.  Oil was not only the key fuel for the next stage in the West’s industrial development, but if supplies adequate to support the Royal Navy’s transition from coal to petroleum could be found, it promised to give Britain an indomitable military edge.  With the signing of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, whereupon Britain and Russia ended ‘The Great Game’, their decades-long cold war, Britain gained suzerainty over southern Persia.

In 1908, oil was discovered at Masjed Suleyman, in the Khuzestan region of southwestern Persia, and the British founded the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), the precursor of today’s British Petroleum, to exploit these discoveries.

The British then turned their sights to Mesopotamia, which geologists believed to be home to massive petroleum deposits.  This sparked a surge in British interest in the region, including the sponsorship of a diverse array of megaprojects from irrigation schemes, to shipping lines, to mercantile enterprises and military reconnaissance tours.  In a familiar refrain, all these endeavours were also espionage missions, with detailed intelligence being reported in a steady stream to Whitehall.

Enter Germany, which likewise possessed extensive interests in Mesopotamia.  Since the late 1880s, it had worked to gradually displace Britain and France as the major foreign financial and military players at the Sublime Porte.  Deutsche Bank, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s preferred financial vehicle, assumed control of the Orient Express (the famed rail route that connected Constantinople to the heart to Europe) and the Anatolian Railway, the uncompleted line that was to run across Turkey.  In 1903, the Germans agreed to expand the Anatolian route through to Baghdad (and perhaps even Basra), creating the Baghdad Railway (German: Bagdadbahn), the envisaged Berlin-Baghdad Express.  This line, if ever completed, would pose a terrifying threat to British interests in the Persian Gulf, especially the petroleum industry.

In 1912, Britain backed the formation of the Turkish Oil Company to search for petroleum in Mesopotamia.  This international affair curiously not only included British investors, but in an example of ‘keeping your enemies closer’, had Deutsche Bank as a major stakeholder. Ironically, despite its name, the company did not involve the Sublime Porte.  While the venture showed enormous promise, the advent of the World War I ensured that any of its projects could not be realized for some years.

In the summer of 1914, Britain, fearing for its interests in the Persian Gulf, formed the Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF), a special unit of the Indian Army, and deployed it to the region.

The IEF arrived off of the Shatt al-Arab on October 29, the same day that the Ottomans effectively entered the war, upon attacking Russian positions in the Black Sea. Britain declared war on the Sublime Porte on November 5, commencing the Mesopotamian Campaign. Her forces promptly took out the Ottoman positions on Iraq’s Al Faw Peninsula, before securing the APOC oil refinery at Abadan. On November 21, the Ottomans abandoned Basra, leaving the British to take the key port city unopposed.

In 1915, the British gradually advanced up the Tigris and Euphrates, scoring victory after victory against the Ottomans.  Meanwhile, the Ottomans received major reinforcements from Turkey (carried by the partially completed Bagdadbahn, which could transport troops from Istanbul to Baghdad in only 21 days), while the Germans provided massive assistance in the form of sophisticated artillery and airplanes.  Moreover, they dispatched Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, known locally as ‘Goltz Pasha’, the famed Prussian strategist and long-time military advisor to the Sublime Porte, to oversee the Central Powers’ efforts.

Taking Kut al-Amara was vital to securing the road to Baghdad. The IEF seized Kut the day after a British force led by General Charles Townshend, defeated an Ottoman force led by Nureddin Pasha, at the Battle of Es Sinn (September 28, 1915). In the period that followed British military engineers had their first opportunity to map the area around Kut, gaining valuable information that led to the production of the antecedent to the present map.

That autumn, Townshend’s forces rashly attempted to take Baghdad but were defeated by the reinvigorated Ottoman-German forces at the Battle of Ctesiphon, or Salman Pak (November 22-25, 1915), only 35 miles south of the city.


The Siege of Kut al-Amara: The Shocking Surrender of Townshend’s Army

In the wake of the disaster at Ctesiphon, Townshend had his army to fall back on Kut al-Amara, seeing it as a good base to wait for re-enforcements, arriving there on December 3, 1915. However, an Ottoman army descended upon the scene with surprising speed, surroundering the British positions by December 7. The Ottomans forces numbered 11,000, against Townshend’s 8,000 men.

Goltz Pasha arrived on the scene and assumed command of the Ottoman forces. Kut, located on a fortified bend on the Tigris, was quite defensible, and three Ottoman attempts to storm the British lines failed. After a month, Townshend thought it would be best to try and break through the Ottoman lines, to escape southwards. However, he was overruled by his superiors, who foolishly thought that the siege would be helpful, as it tied down and distracted the Ottomans from the larger picture.

Townshend, communicating with the British command in Basra by wireless, desperately asked for a relief expedition to relieve his force, claiming that his men had only a month left of rations (when they actually had four months!). The British command, by then desperately overstretched, reluctantly agreed to send a relief force under Major-General Henry Younghusband, who had recently gained laurels for saving Aden, Yemen from being taken by an Ottoman-allied army.

At the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad (January 6-9,1916), the British forces managed, with great difficulty, to dislodge the Ottomans from their trenches along this key position down the river from Kut. However, heavy rains ensured that they were not able to effectively follow up on their victory.

The Ottomans retreated 16 km (10 miles) further up the river towards Kut, to a place simply known as the ‘Wadi’ (meaning the ‘riverbed’). The relief British forces, now under General Fenton Aylmer, advanced, attacking the Ottomans at the Battle of Wadi (January 13, 1916) and, once again, drove the Ottomans out of their trenches, whereupon they retreated another 8 km (5 miles) westwards.

At the Battle of Hanna (January 21, 1916), further upstream from the Wadi, the British forces charged the Ottoman lines, but were badly defeated, suffering 2,700 casualties.

It was at this point that the Ottomans, now commanded by Khalil Pasha, sent in major re-enforcements, with another 30,00 troops arriving on the scene. The British also sent in more troops, but their attack upon the Ottoman lines at Dujaila (March 8), to the east of Kut, was a disaster, costing 4,000 British men.

The British force, now under General George Gorringe, had brought their strength up to 30,000, roughly equal to that of the Ottomans, and so moved to make one last try to relieve Kut. From April 5-22 the British force attacked the Ottomans just above Hanna along the Tigris, at Fallahiya and Sannaiyat, but were checked at every turn. After losing thousands of troops, Gorringe threw in the towel. The British would never be able to relieve Kut.

The British dispatched a last-minute mission, led by Aubrey Herbert and T.E. Lawrence (the future ‘Lawrence of Arabia’), in an attempt to literally bribe the Ottoman high command with gold in order to allow Townshend’s army safe passage to Basra. However, this overture was rejected.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Townshend surrendered to the Ottomans on April 29, 1916, after a siege of 147 days. Only 13,164 of the original 45,000 British imperial troops survived the siege and the relief attempts. Many would be taken as POWs and subsequently died during the ‘death march’ to Anatolia that the Ottomans subjected them to.  This nightmare was not only a devastating blow to British pride and morale, but for a while it threatened to cause the hundreds of millions of Muslims living in the British Empire to question their loyalty to the seemingly flagging Allied case.

The surrender of Kut al-Amara was one of the most shocking defeats in the history of the British Empire and was only matched in modern times by the Surrender of Singapore in 1942. While the British ended up victorious in Mesopotamia, it in many ways the trauma of Kut overshadowed any feelings of accomplishment.


Epilogue: The British Recover and Conquer Iraq

Later in 1916, the British were determined to recover and avenge their defeat, sending massive reinforcements to Mesopotamia commanded by a vigorous new leader, Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude.  Meanwhile, the death of Goltz Pasha, due to cholera, on April 19, 1916, was a great blow to the Ottoman-German effort.

Beginning in December 1916, Maude’s force methodically made its way up the Tigris and Euphrates.  At the Second Battle of Kut (February 23, 1917), a 50,000-man British force seized the town – this time for good.

Over the coming months, advancing ever further to the northwest, the British eventually spooked the Ottomans into retreating, abandoning Baghdad on December 11, 1917.  Henceforth, the British continued their conquest northward, albeit slowly.  While World War I in the Middle East ended upon the Armistice of Mudros (October 30, 1918), in contravention of that agreement, British forces took Mosul on November 14, 1918 (so giving Britain control of the most promising potential petroleum region!).

The Treaty of Versailles (1919) led to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and made Iraq into British-controlled mandate (essentially a protectorate).  The Turkish Petroleum Company ramped up its exploration ventures, discovering the massive Kirkuk fields in 1927.  Renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1929, the firm went on to discover many new oil fields, including in the Basra region.  While Iraq technically became independent in 1932, Britain continued to dominate its politics and oil production until the July 14 Revolution of 1958, which brought in a nationalist republican regime opposed to Western hegemony.


References: N / A – Present Map seemingly not recorded. Cf. Eugene ROGAN, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 217-74.

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