Tag Archives: Kut

Charles Cowley and Humphrey Firman VC

Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, comprised of British and Indian troops, captured Kut-al-Amara on 28 September 1915. Townshend was then ordered to press on to Baghdad. He argued that he needed two divisions to do so but obeyed his orders when his protests were overruled.[1]

The British command structure was confused because of the way in which the British ruled India. Townshend’s immediate superior, General Sir John Nixon, answered to the Indian government, comprised of British officials, in Delhi rather than to the War Office in London. Austen Chamberlain, the London based Secretary of State for India, was concerned about the lengthening lines of communication and lack of river transport in a region with poor roads and no  railways. Townshend wrote in his diary that Nixon ‘does not seem to realise the weakness and danger of his lines of communication…the consequences of a retreat are not to be imagined.’[2]

Nixon, however, claimed that marching the troops with land transport and lightening the river boats would avoid any ‘navigation difficulties.’[3] His view was accepted and the advance continued.

On 22 November Townshend’s troops encountered the Ottomans at the ruined ancient city of Ctesiphon, 22 miles from Baghdad. He believed that the enemy had 11,000 men and 40 guns but they actually had 18,000 men and 52 guns.[4] He had 13,756 men, 30 guns and 46 machine guns, not counting those on the gunboats Firefly and Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana or the four 4.7 inch guns on horse boats towed by the armed stern wheelers Sushan and Messoudieh.[5]

Townshend was forced to break off the action on 24 November. The next day his force started to retreat towards Kut, which was reached on 3 December. The lack of transport meant that the wounded, who continued to Basra suffered greatly, first travelling on unsprung 2 wheeled ox carts and then on over-crowded boats with inadequate medical facilities.[6] A. J. Barker argues in his authoritative history of the Mesopotamian Campaign that Nixon was not ‘entirely blameless’ but the [British] Indian government must be regarded as primarily responsible’ for the dreadful medical facilities.[7]

British casualties at Ctesiphon, the retreat and a further action at Umm-at-Tubal totalled 4,970: 711 killed, 3,890 wounded and 369 missing. A Turkish account says that the Ottomans lost over 9,500 men including deserters at Ctesiphon, with another giving their casualties excluding deserters as being 6,188. Their casualties at Umm-at-Tubal were 748.[8]

The British also lost the new gunboat Firefly, which was disabled when a shell hit her boiler and the old gunboat Comet, which ran aground when trying to help her. Sumana managed to rescue their crews with Ottoman soldiers already boarding the two stranded gunboats.[9]

Townshend reported initially that his division could hold out in Kut for two months, which was ‘a somewhat conservative estimate.’[10] By seizing local food supplies, putting his men on short rations and killing his animals for meat Townshend was ultimately able to hold out for nearly five months. His initial estimate forced the relief force to move before it was ready. It is strange that an officer who had made his name in a siege, that of Chitral on the North West Frontier of India in 1895, should make such a mistake.

By 24 April the situation in Kut was so desperate that a highly risky resupply mission had to be mounted. The river steamer Julnar was stripped of all unnecessary woodwork and armoured with protective plating. Manned by an all volunteer crew of Lieutenant Humphrey Firman RN, Lieutenant-Commander Charles Cowley RNVR, Engineer Sub-Lieutenant W. L. Reed RNR and 12 ratings she was to carry 270 tons of supplies to Kut.[11]

Cowley had a great knowledge of the River Tigris, having been employed by the Euphrates and Tigris Navigation Company. He had been born in Baghdad, was regarded by the Ottomans as being an Ottoman subject, so was likely to be executed if captured.[12] He had been born in Baghdad. He acted as pilot, with Firman captaining the Julnar.

She set off at 8 pm on 24 April, a dark, overcast and moonless night. Heavy artillery and machine gun fire tried to drown out the sound of her engines, but the Ottomans knew that she was coming. She soon came under rifle fire and could make no more than six knots because of a strong current. Ten miles from Kut she came under artillery fire. Two miles later a shell hit her, killing Firman and wounding Cowley, who took command. A few minutes later she struck a cable and drifted onto the right bank of the river. She was stuck, giving Cowley no choice but to surrender.[13]

Cowley was quickly separated from the rest of the crew. The Ottomans claimed first that he was found dead when the Julnar surrendered, then that he was shot whilst trying to escape. It is most likely that he was executed. He was a British subject, but he was aware that the Ottomans would execute him if he was captured.[14]

Cowley and Firman were both awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The citation, from naval-history.net, states that:

Admiralty, 31st January, 1917.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous grant of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officers in recognition of their conspicuous gallantry in an attempt to re-provision the force besieged in Kut-el-Amara.:

Lieutenant Humphry Osbaldeston Brooke Firman, R.N.

Lieutenant-Commander Charles Henry Cowley, R.N.V.R.

The General Officer Commanding, Indian Expeditionary Force “D,” reported on this attempt in the following words:

“At 8 p.m. on April 24th, 1916, with a crew from the Royal Navy under Lieutenant Firman, R.N., assisted by Lieutenant-Commander Cowley, R.N.V.R., the ‘Julnar,’ carrying 270 tons of supplies, left Falahiyah in an attempt to reach Kut.

Her departure was covered by all Artillery and machine gun fire that could be brought to bear, in the hope of distracting the enemy’s attention. She was, however, discovered and shelled on her passage up the river. At 1 a.m. on the 25th General Townshend reported that she had not arrived, and that at midnight a burst of heavy firing had been heard at Magasis, some 8 1/2 miles from Kut by river, which had suddenly ceased. There could be but little doubt that the enterprise had failed, and the next day the Air Service reported the ‘ Julnar ‘ in the hands of the Turks at Magasis.

“The leaders of this brave attempt, Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and his assistant – Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R. – the latter of whom throughout the campaign in Mesopotamia performed magnificent service in command of the ‘Mejidieh’ – have been reported by the Turks to have been killed; the remainder of the gallant crew, including five wounded, are prisoners of war.

“Knowing well the chances against them, all the gallant officers and men who manned the ‘ Julnar’ for the occasion were volunteers. I trust that.the services in this connection of Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R., his assistant, both of whom were unfortunately killed, may be recognised by the posthumous grant of some suitable honour.”

The British Official History of Naval Operations states that all ‘the crew were decorated.[15] The awards of the Distinguished Service Order and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to other members of the crew  were announced on 11 November 1919.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order.

Eng. Sub-Lieut. William. Louis Reed, R.N.R. For gallant and distinguished services as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

E.R.A., 2nd Cl., Alexander Murphy, R.N.V.R., O.N. (Mersey) Z3/182. For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

P.O., 1st Cl., William Rowbottom, O.N. J2953 (Ch.). For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

The award of the Distinguished Service Medal to a group of ten ratings, listed on Naval-History.net, was announced the same day. It is likely that they were the other members of the crew, but the citations for the award of the DSM are not available.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To receive the Distinguished Service Medal.

A.B. Herbert Blanchard, O.N. J13427 (Po.).

A.B. William Bond, O.N. J8490 (Dev.).

Ldg. Sto. Herbert Cooke, O.N. K6470 (Ch.).

Sea. John Featherbe, R.N.R., O.N. 6973A.

Sto., Ist.Cl., George William Forshaw, O.N. K18513 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Samuel Fox, O.N. S.S.110714 (Po.).

A.B. Harry Ledger, O.N. J9539 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Charles Thirkill, O.N. S.S. 115464 (Dev.).

A.B. Alfred Loveridge Veale, O.N. 215734 (R.F.R. Dev./B5936).

A.B. Montagu Williams, O.N. J44546 (Ch.).

The failure of Julnar’s mission meant that the only supplies available to the garrison of Kut were the tiny amounts that could be dropped by the small number of low performance aircraft available. Attempts were made to negotiate an end to the siege, but the Ottomans were not interested in British offers of gold or guns or prisoner exchanges in return for allowing the garrison of Kut to return to India or the fact that they would have to care for a large number of sick prisoners if the garrison surrendered. Townshend therefore surrendered Kut on 29 April.[16]

The Ottomans treated Townshend very well, his officers reasonably and his men very badly in captivity. During the siege 1,025 men were killed, 721 died of disease, 2,446 were wounded and 72 went missing. 247 civilians were killed and 663 wounded. Nearly 12,000 men went into captivity, of whom over 4,000 died. Their treatment eventually improved after representations from the US and Dutch Ambassadors.[17] Townshend’s reputation never recovered from his failure to inquire into the fate of his men whilst he lived in luxury in Istanbul. His performance in the campaign until Ctesiphon had actually been good: see this post.



[1] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), pp. 91-92.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 89.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 227; F. J. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918, 4 vols. (London: HMSO, 1923). vol. ii, p. 71.

[6] See D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, Dsm, Rn in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). for the experiences of a Royal Navy seaman in Mesopotamia. Chapter 48 describes the battle and Chapters 49-60 his evacuation after being wounded.

[7] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 106.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 229.

[9] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 228-29.

[10] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 228.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 90.

[12] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 212.

[13] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 90-91.

[14] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, p. 435, footnote.

[15] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 91, footnote 1.

[16] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, pp. 452-57.

[17] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 459-466.


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The British Capture Kut-Al-Amara 28 September 1915

In June and July 1915 the British captured Amara and Nasiriyah in Mesopotamia. The force that did so was nicknamed Townshend’s Regatta because most of the troops of Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division of the Indian Army travelled along the Euphrates and Tigris in a flotilla of various types of ship and boat.

The British had landed troops at Basra in November 1914 in order to protect their interests in the region, notably but not only the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan and the pipeline to its Persian oilfields. The capture of Amara and Nasiriyah meant that the oil facilities and the vilayet (province) of Basra were securely held and the British should then have halted.

Townshend and his division were, however, ordered to advance on Kut-al-Amara, with the intention of taking Baghdad. He argued in his memoirs that this operation should not have taken place. Basra vilayet and the oilfields should have been defended by a force based at Basra, with outposts at Qurna, Nasiriyah and Ahwaz.[1]  He was right, but the campaign continued for a number of reasons: the need for a victory somewhere after defeats elsewhere; over confidence by local commanders; and momentum created by a series of easy victories early in the campaign.

The need for re-fits and the fact that the larger ships could not move any further up the Tigris meant that the naval force was reduced to the armed tug Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana and four horse boats carrying 4.7 inch guns towed by the motor launches RN 1 and RN 2. Captain Wilfrid Nunn, the Senior Naval Officer, and his successor, Captain Colin Mackenzie, were both ill, so Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Cookson of the Comet took over.[2]

The horse boats were so called because they had no engines and were normally towed by horses walking along the river or canal bank. The 4.7 inch guns were elderly, but the launches and horse boats had very shallow draughts, so could provide fire support for the troops in waters too shallow for the sloops that had provided this earlier in the campaign. RN 1 was commanded by Leading Seaman Thompson, a veteran, and RN 2 by Able Seaman Phil Gunn, a young sailor who would later be commissioned and rise to the rank of Captain: the rest of their crews were Indians. RN 1 and RN 2 were protected against sniper fire by steel plates around their cabins and engine rooms.[3] Phil Gunn’s RN 2 would lead the advance of the whole expedition.[4]

The advance began on 12 September, with the troops moving to Ali-al-Gharbi by ship. From then on, the shallow water meant that the troops had to march along the river bank, with the shallow draught tug, launches and horse boats providing fire support. The Ottomans withdrew without offering any resistance and the British force halted at Sanniaiyat from 15-25 September, during when it received reinforcements. The temperature was 110-16° F in the shade, of which there was little.[5]

The engines of the aircraft that had operated in Mesopotamia so far had proved to be unsuitable for the hot, dusty atmosphere: 70 hp Renault ones in the Maurice Farmans and 80 hp Gnomes in the Caudrons and Martinsydes. In early September three Royal Naval Air Service Short seaplanes with 150 hp Sunbeam engines under the command of Squadron-Commander R. Gordon arrived from Africa, where they had been involved in the operation that resulted in the destruction of the light cruiser SMS Königsberg. Their climbing ability was poor and it was difficult to get a long enough take off run on the Tigris. Two had their floats replaced to allow them to operate from land, thereafter giving good service despite engine problems.[6]

"Kut1915" by This map was created by the Department of Military Art and Engineering, at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). - http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/great%20war/great%20war%20%20pages/great%20war%20map%2047.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kut1915.jpg#/media/File:Kut1915.jpg

“Kut1915” by This map was created by the Department of Military Art and Engineering, at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). – http://www.dean.usma.edu/history/web03/atlases/great%20war/great%20war%20%20pages/great%20war%20map%2047.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kut1915.jpg#/media/File:Kut1915.jpg


Aerial and naval reconnaissance discovered that Nureddin Pasha’s Ottoman troops were dug in astride the river in a strong defensive position 8 miles from Sannaiyat and 7 miles from Kut. There were two Ottoman divisions with 38 guns plus two cavalry regiments and 400 camelry. Most of the mounted troops were away on a raid and missed the battle of 28 September.[7] The Ottoman divisions had only six battalions each, meaning that they were outnumbered by the 14 British battalions. Some of the Ottoman guns were obsolete, giving the British an small artillery advantage.[8]

Townshend decided to divide his force into two columns. Column A would demonstrate against the Ottoman troops on the south bank of the Tigris. Column B, its flank protected by the naval flotilla, would attack on the right bank in order to pin the enemy’s centre. Column A would then cross the river and attack the enemy’s left flank.[9]

A boat bridge was laid across the river on 27 September. Column B advanced to within 2,000 yards of the enemy, whilst Column A demonstrated during the day before crossing the river under the cover of darkness. It was ready to attack by 5:00 am, with Column B advancing at the same time. The Ottomans advanced on the south bank at 11:00 am in order to enfilade Column B, but were thrown back by fire from the naval 4.7 inch guns and army 4 and 5 inch guns. The gunboats had moved forward at 11:00 am to engage Suffra Mound, which was taken by Column B by 2:00 pm. The boats came under shell and rifle fire, but the Ottoman artillery was largely silenced by the afternoon. Contact between the two columns was maintained by the aeroplanes and seaplanes, as the strong wind created clouds of dust that made visual signalling between the columns impossible.[10]

At 4:50 pm Column A began to advance on the rear of the enemy facing Column B. Enemy reinforcements appeared 40 minutes later, but Brigadier-General W. S. Delamain re-deployed his troops to face them. A bayonet charge routed the Ottomans, who escaped under the cover of darkness, suffering heavy casualties and leaving four guns behind.[11]

At 6:00 pm the naval flotilla heard of Delamain’s success from a seaplane. Townshend asked Cookson to advance to an obstruction that blocked the river in the hope of destroying it and allowing a pursuit by water and land. The flotilla set off after dark at 6:30 pm, coming under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, as they approached the obstruction, which consisted of a dhow in the centre, attached by wire hawsers to two iron lighters. An attempt to ram the dhow failed, so Cookson jumped on it in an attempt to cut the hawsers with an axe. He quickly suffered several bullet wounds and died 10 minutes later. The flotilla then withdrew.[12]

The flotilla, now commanded by Lieutenant Mark Singleton of the Shaitan, resumed its advance the next morning, 29 September. The Ottomans had retreated from the obstruction and the British vessels reached Kut at 10:00 am. The low level of the river made navigation difficult, but they continued past Kut. On 30 September they encountered two armed Ottoman vessels, the Poineer and Basra. Sumana and Shaitan had both run aground, the former breaking both rudders, so the Comet engaged the two enemy steamers herself before being joined by the Shaitan. The Basra was damaged and withdrew. The British pursued, but then came under fire from shore based guns astern of them. The Shaitan ran aground again and there was a risk that she and the Comet would be cut off, but the Shaitan managed to re-float herself and the British retired to Kut. The difficulty of conducting a pursuit when the only means of transporting heavy equipment was along a low river meant that the Ottomans were able to withdraw to a prepared position at Ctesiphon.[13]

The British suffered 1,233 casualties of whom 94 were killed. They captured 1,700 men and 14 guns: total Ottoman casualties were 4,000.[14] Twelve men on the Comet, four of them soldiers, were wounded.[15] Cookson is the only sailor listed on naval-history.net as being killed in Mesopotamia from 27-30 September. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The same website gives the citation:

29446 – 21 JANUARY 1916

Admiralty, 21st January, 1916.

 The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Christopher Cookson, D.S.O., R.N., in recognition of the following act of most conspicuous gallantry during the advance on Kut-el-Amara:

On the 28th September, 1915, the river gunboat “Comet” had been ordered with other gunboats to examine and, if possible, destroy an obstruction placed across the river by the Turks. When the gunboats were approaching the obstruction a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire was opened on them from both banks. An attempt to sink the centre dhow of the obstruction by gunfire having failed, Lieutenant-Commander Cookson ordered the “Comet” to be placed alongside, and himself jumped on to the dhow with an axe and tried to cut the wire hawsers connecting it with the two other craft forming the obstruction. He was immediately shot in several places and died within a very few minutes.


[1] C. V. F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (London: T. Butterworth Ltd, 1920), pp. 35-36.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. iv, Naval Operations in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. pp. 75-76.

[3] D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). Kindle edition, locations 812-22, Chapter 22. This well researched book, by Phil’s son David, gives an excellent description of the Mesopotamian Campaign from the viewpoint of one of the RN’s lower deck.

[4] Ibid. Kindle locations 1067-79, Chapter 28.

[5] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76.

[6] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. v pp. 253-58. Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76 says that there were four RNAS seaplanes

[7] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 76.

[8] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 192.

[9] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 77.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., pp. 77-78.

[12] Ibid., p. 78.

[13] Ibid., pp. 78-79.

[14] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 195 and footnote 2.

[15] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 78. Footnote 1.


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