9th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - 1916
In Mesopotamia the 9th Battalion of the Regiment had seen no fighting of any importance during the Summer and Autumn of 1916. The disastrous campaign for the relief of Kut had left both the opposing armies exhausted; and the heat of the ensuing months had been too severe to permit much movement of troops. So both armies, British and Turkish, lay quiet and waited for the cooler weather of Winter.
We have already told how, in anticipation of the Winter and of the fighting it would bring, the 13th Division, including the 9th Worcestershire, had been drawn back from the front to training camp at Amara. There training was carried on keenly throughout October and November; and by the end of the latter month the 13th Division was once more in good fighting trim.
Then the move forward to the front began. The troops marched in small columns of all arms. The 9th Worcestershire and 7th North Staffordshire, together with a Brigade of Field Artillery and a long train of transport, formed the second column of the Division and marched north-westward along the river banks by easy stages, covering the miles from Amara to the front in ten days (Stages of the march were as follows [distances are approximate)]:— Nov. 29th. 4 miles to Bustan Taific - 30th. 8 miles to Abad Ali - Dec. 1st. 11 miles to Kumait. – Dec. 2nd. 14 miles to Ibniya - Dec. 3rd. 11 miles to Killab Hussain - Dec. 4th. 11 miles to Ali Gharbi – Dec. 5th. 9 miles to Beit Fahad – Dec. 6th. 9 miles to Musadag – Dec. 7th. 12 miles to Sheikh Sa'ad – Dec. 8th. 10 miles to Twin Canals).
The march was begun on November 29th in hot sun and sand; on December 8th the last stage was completed in rain and mud; and the march ended at "Twin Canals," a post on a desolate plain covered for the most part with six inches of muddy slush, in which the camp was pitched. Despite the dreary surroundings all were in good fettle and high spirits. "If my men fight as they have marched," recorded an officer of the Battalion, " they are sure to do well." The 9th Worcestershire now mustered 29 officers and 824 other ranks—a strong battalion once more.
The position of the Turkish Army holding Kut-al-Amara was somewhat unusual. As during the previous campaign, the Turkish forces were disposed on both banks of the River Tigris. On the left, or northern, bank the enemy were still holding the strong position of Sannaiyat which had defied so many attacks. On the right, or southern bank, the enemy forces had been withdrawn several miles to an entrenched position close to Kut itself. The enemy's right wing was thus considerably further back than was their left wing; but the natural strength of the left wing position was very great, and its communications were ensured by an elaborate system of entrenchments along the northern bank of the river from Sannaiyat to Kut.
The Turkish Army consisted nominally of five Divisions (Estimated to total about 20,800 with 70 guns), but those Divisions were not up to strength, and the Turkish Army was not nearly so well equipped or supplied as was the opposing British force of four strong Divisions (The 3rd Indian and 7th Indian Divisions, forming the 1st Indian Corps ; and the 13th Division and the newly formed 14th Indian Division forming the 2nd Indian Corps). On the whole the British were superior, both in numbers and in armament, but that superiority was not so great as to ensure success in attack unless skillfully directed. Fortunately in Sir Stanley Maude (General Maude had received the K.C.B. for his services in command of the 13th Division in the preceding campaign) the British Army had a leader capable of making the most of the superiority of the force under his command.
Operations around Kut (1916/1917)
General Maude decided to strike at the Turkish right flank, to envelop and crush the enemy forces south of the Tigris and then to cross the river and cut off the rest of the enemy's forces from their base. In adopting this plan he ran the risk that his own line of communications might be cut by a sally from Sannaiyat; but to avert that danger he trusted to the strength of the British defences opposite that position and to the protection afforded to his northern flank, as well as to the northern flank of the enemy, by the great Suwaikiya Marsh. However it was essential for success that the full scope of the new plan should not be divined by the enemy. So a series of bombardments and feint attacks at Sannaiyat were to be carried on while the main attack went forward on the southern side.
Such was the outline of the plan. The first stage was the envelopment of the enemy's right flank, and that operation was commenced in the middle of December.
Southwards from Kut-al-Amara runs a deep water-course, the Shatt-al-Hai or River Hai. That river, in reality a branch of the Tigris, runs across the low-lying plain of Mesopotamia to join the Euphrates at Nasiriya. In summer the watercourse of the Hai is dry, but in January there is some water in the river bed, enough for drinking although not enough to impede a crossing. As a first move, General Maude decided to extend the left flank of his army to the banks of the Hai.
To deceive the enemy as to his intentions the British Commander ordered a heavy bombardment of the Sannaiyat position. The enemy hastily reinforced the threatened flank. Once that movement was well under way, the force detailed to seize the position on the Hai was set in motion.
To meet the possibility of such a turning movement, the Turkish right flank had been strongly entrenched at the junction of the River Hai with the Tigris. The Turkish entrenchments formed a salient, about half a mile in depth, the apex of the salient being on the watercourse of the Hai. About a mile west of that position a Turkish floating bridge spanned the Tigris.
The 13th Division was entrusted with the initial advance. The Division was to advance under cover of darkness from Dujaila to Atab, and thence to work forward up the line of the Hai to the enemy's entrenched position. Behind them the 14th Division would occupy the old Turkish position, now abandoned, between the River Hai and Dujaila. At the same time the British Cavalry would move further southward, would cross the Hai at Basrugiya, and would then wheel round the enemy's position and attack the floating bridge. The subsequent sequence of events could not exactly be foreseen, but the intention was at once to begin systematic operations for the reduction of the Turkish defences on the southern bank of the Tigris.
The 9th Worcestershire, after three days rest in the camp at Twin Canals, received orders for their part in the forthcoming operations. At nightfall of December 12th, 1916 the 39th Brigade assembled and marched forward to Sinn Abtar. There the Brigade bivouacked in the low ground of the Dujaila Depression. In such cover as that depression afforded the troops lay all through the next day, whilst away to the right the continuous boom of guns told of the feint against Sannaiyat. Next evening (December 13th) the real advance began.
As soon as it was dark the troops of the 13th Division began to move. At about 6.0 p.m. the 39th Brigade advanced from their cover to the appointed assembly position at Imam-al-Mansur. There the force formed up.
The plan for the advance of the 13th Division demanded careful adjustment. The 39th Brigade were to form the Divisional Reserve. In front of them the 38th Brigade would act as advanced guard and would occupy a position (R.8. to Q.7. on the map) to cover the march of the 40th Brigade away to the left, which would seize Atab and would then bridge the Hai.
At 3.0 a.m. the advance began. The 39th Brigade marched forward across country on a compass bearing. The battalions marched in line of companies in fours, with as much silence as was possible. The ground was rough and two deep nullahs had to be crossed, but the direction was well maintained and eventually the Brigade came to a halt in its allotted position (Q.3.).
Dawn was now lighting the sky behind them. News came from both front and flank that the other Brigades had successfully done their work. Presently (7.0 a.m.) came orders for the 39th Brigade to advance.
The Brigade moved forward a short distance (to R. 6.): then further orders were issued. The 9th Worcestershire and 7th Gloucestershire would push on through the outpost line of the 38th Brigade and would advance along the River Hai to Bassouia Ford, the Worcestershire on the eastern and the Gloucestershire on the western bank.
The two battalions moved off. The 9th Worcestershire passed through the outposts of the 38th Brigade, deployed into fighting formation and advanced across country by slow stages, pausing at intervals to gain touch with the Gloucestershire, who, having further to go, fell somewhat behind. British cavalry could be seen in the morning light moving across country away to the west, for the turning movement of the cavalry force through Basrugiya had been successfully accomplished.
That advance of the cavalry scared away any Turkish outposts along the Hai; the 9th Worcestershire met no opposition; by midday the Bassouia Ford had been reached and a position there had been established.
Meanwhile the cavalry on the western bank had been nearing the enemy's entrenchments. Orders came for the 39th Brigade to continue the advance. The 7th Gloucestershire were brought across to the eastern bank, and the Worcestershire and Gloucestershire battalions together pushed on to the ford of Umm es Sa'ad. There the troops again dug in. They had as yet met no opposition, although firing could be heard away to their left front. Clearly the cavalry were in action. To assist the cavalry, the 7th North Staffordshire, hitherto in reserve, were sent forward. Eventually the cavalry fell back, and the attempt to advance further was given up. The troops were very tired and slept on the ground they had entrenched (Line night 14/15th was Umm es Sa'ad—R.8. - "Here we waited till the day broke, watching the flashes of the guns at Sannaiyat and listening to their distant rumble " [N.J.A.] )
Operations around Kut (1916/1917)
Next morning (December 15th) came orders for the 38th and 39th Brigades to advance up the eastern bank of the Hai towards the enemy's entrenchments. After a sharp skirmish with some Arab snipers, the advance began about 10.0 a.m. The 9th Worcestershire were detailed as support to the Brigade. The troops in front of them came into action and there was heavy firing; but the 9th Worcestershire were kept back in rear till almost midday. Then orders came for two companies to be sent forward to fill a gap which had opened between the inner flanks of the two Brigades (near the "Low Ground.") Accordingly "C" and "D" Companies under Major Gibbon moved up to the right flank of the 39th Brigade and were put under the command of the 7th Gloucestershire.
As Major Gibbon's two companies advanced, they were met by a sharp fire of shrapnel and of heavier shells (No other troops were moving at the time and consequently the Turkish artillery concentrated upon them); but the Worcestershire platoons continued their advance across the open until they were in line with the 7th Gloucestershire, who were lying deployed within 500 yards of the enemy's position. The Turkish trenches were strongly held and well protected by wire. The two Worcestershire companies came into action, fire being kept up by the Lewis guns while the remainder of the two companies dug cover with their entrenching tools.
As they lay working for dear life, the Turkish high explosive burst among the labouring soldiers and shrapnel was rained upon them. Men were hit right and left. Private J. Merritt had almost dug himself into shelter when he saw that the man next him was badly wounded and helpless. Private Merritt dragged the wounded man into the cover he himself had made, took the other's place in the open and commenced to dig in afresh (Pte. J. Merritt was awarded the D.C.M. He had joined the battalion has a recruit four days previously).
Gradually the survivors made cover for themselves, but before they were reasonably secure the losses had been very heavy. Of the two companies over a hundred had been killed or wounded (Killed, Capt. P. L. C. Lucas [1st R. Sussex attached] and 24 men. Wounded, 4 officers [Lt. C. W. John, 2/Lts. F. D. Drewitt, H. C. K. Bidlake, E. P. Coles] and 82 other ranks. Missing, 8. 2/Lts. Drewitt and Bidlake though wounded refused to go back and remained at duty for two days longer) before darkness fell; but the rest held firm and remained in good fighting trim.
While Major Gibbon's two companies had thus been under fire, the remainder of the 9th Worcestershire had moved forward, and by nightfall had established a support position some 500 yards behind the front line of their Brigade (R. 17 to Q. 8 on the map). By dawn next day the position of the British forces on the eastern bank of the Hai was fairly secure.
The next step was to establish a proper position on the western bank, where the cavalry had been operating. It was necessary that the cavalry should be relieved before the enemy had time to organise a counter-thrust. So next day (December 16th) the 39th Brigade were ordered to send their supporting battalion to establish a position on the western bank. Accordingly, during that afternoon, the 9th Worcestershire (Major Gibbon's two companies had not yet rejoined) made their way across the river bed on the Hai and took up an outpost line on the further side (Q. 10. to R. 19 on the map). The Battalion came under distant rifle fire, while crossing the river and one or two men were hit.
That night there was a general shift of position. The 38th Brigade took over all ground east of the Hai. The 39th Brigade and the 40th Brigade moved west of the Hai and took up an outpost line running south-westward from a shattered heap of masonry, known as the 'Pointed Ruin,' in preparation for a wheeling movement up against the Turkish positions. The 9th Worcestershire were to be on the extreme right of this line, holding the bank of the Hai by the Pointed Ruin itself.
That night "C" and "D" Companies rejoined the Battalion. All night (Before joining the remainder of the Battalion at this work, "C" and "D" Companies were allowed two hours rest—their first rest since dawn of the 16th) the troops laboured at entrenching defensive posts along the new outpost line (The line was thinly held. The 9th Worcestershire alone held a front of 1,600 yards).
Next day (17th) came orders to advance. The enemy's defences straight in front were strongly held, but further to the west the enemy did not appear to be in any great force in the further loop of the river which was known as 'The Dahra Bend.' So orders were issued for the 13th Division to wheel forward its left flank to envelop the Turkish position. The wheel was to pivot on the Pointed Ruin, and all troops were to gain as much ground as possible, as a preliminary to a deliberate attack.
Just north of the Pointed Ruin was a deep little nullah, which ran parallel to the Turkish front line and offered a good position. As soon as it was dark, the 9th Worcestershire pushed forward and seized that nullah. It proved to be about thirteen feet deep and was entrenched under a sharp sniping fire. The work was difficult, for the troops were now exhausted from lack of rest. Eventually the position held by the Battalion extended along the nullah for some 800 yards. Then the 9th Royal Warwickshire continued the line. Still further to the left were the other battalions of the 39th Brigade, the 7th North Staffordshire and 7th Gloucestershire (Left flank of Brigade was on P.27).
During the next week the energies of the Brigade were concentrated on the work of entrenching the new position and strengthening it for defence. The position along the nullah maskedthe apex of the enemy's entrenched position, which was now becoming known as 'The Hai Salient,’ and enabled small bodies of our troops to carry out reconnaissance and minor operations against the line of the river further west; but until the Hai Salient had been reduced and the enemy-had been driven across to the other bank it would not be possible to move larger forces further west without grave risk.
Even as it stood the situation was somewhat precarious, and in order to give greater depth to the defence one half of the 9th Worcestershire — "C" and "D" Companies under Major Gibbon were drawn back from the line on December 20th into Brigade Reserve. Those two companies were employed on the construction of rear lines of defence, including a group of large dugouts which became known as "Worcester City." There those two companies spent their Christmas; and there they were joined next day by the remainder of the Battalion, who had made such cheer as was possible in the front line the second Christmas spent by the Battalion under the fire of the enemy.
The withdrawal of the Battalion to "Worcester City" proved to be preliminary to a readjustment of the position, and the establishment of a defensive flank to the left (From P.27 to Q.17.) in.order to afford greater security against a possible attack from the west; for the enemy were now bringing troops into the broken ground on the western flank of the Hai Salient, and were establishing strong positions in the Dahra Bend.
During that period of hard work on the entrenchments there were many minor incidents. Between the British position in the nullah and the Turkish trenches at the apex of the Hai Salient the ground was rough and broken, with much brushwood, which afforded good cover for snipers and an opportunity for stalking by opposing patrols. For example, on the night of December 21/22nd a patrol of the 9th Worcestershire left the right flank of the line near the river. Five minutes of cautious advance brought them so close to the enemy's trenches that the whole Turkish line broke into a blaze of musketry, three machine-guns joining in the riot. Fortunately the patrol, lying flat, escaped loss, though the firing roused all troops for miles around. When it died down, the patrol began to make their way back. They were stalked by a hostile patrol who cut off their retreat. The Worcestershire corporal (Unfortunately the name of this brave N.C.O. is not recorded in the Battalion Diary) ordered his men to fix bayonets, and charged the enemy; who scattered. The plucky little patrol regained our lines with no greater loss than two wounded.
That incident was typical of many such encounters, for both sides were active; the British to win their way forward and the Turks to hold their ground. Gradually the British forces gathered strength for the decisive attack. On December 28th the losses of the Battalion were made good by a large draft (3 officers [2/Lts. C. H. West, J. M. Jones, and P. W. Harrington] and 105 other ranks). On that same day "C" and "D" Companies under Major Gibbon were again detached and were moved to the left to aid in the entrenchment of the new defensive flank. On the last day of the year the remainder of the Battalion joined Major Gibbon's two companies in their new position.