History revisited

A hundred years ago, Indian soldiers in a WWI siege chose death over horsemeat

The British Indian Army suffered many miseries in Kut in Iraq. Starvation was one.

Kut Al-Amara was an unremarkable town nestled in a bend in the Tigris river, in what is today Iraq. Its history was thin, virtually non-existent, until it became the place of a great military defeat.

On April 29, 1916, approximately 13,000 starving Indians and Britons trapped inside the town gave themselves up to the Ottoman army. They had been under siege for nearly five months, during which they had braved enemy fire, loss of comrades and gnawing hunger. For their ambitious commander, Major General Charles Townshend, it was a career-ending humiliation, but for many of the ordinary Indian soldiers the surrender meant much worse: they would never see their homes again.

The path to Kut

The first Indian soldiers landed in Mesopotamia to take part in World War I in November 1914, a day after Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire. By the next year, the Indian Army’s 6th Division headed by Charles Townshend was fighting its way up the Tigris River towards Baghdad, notching a string of easy victories.

In late November, the 6th Division reached Ctesiphon, where the Ottomans had anchored their formidable defences around the ancient ruins of an arched gateway. Three days of savage fighting followed but Townshend’s outnumbered army failed to evict the Ottomans.

With the Ottomans in pursuit, the 6th Division conducted a fighting retreat, reaching Kut on December 3. It was here that Townshend fatefully decided to make a stand with his 15,000 soldiers and civilian staff.

Major General Charles Townshend. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Major General Charles Townshend. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kut was, in the words of one historian, “an unbeguiling place to be stuck in”. A warren of mud houses and narrow streets, it had just 6,000 inhabitants. The Tigris enveloped the town on three sides like a moat, so the men of the 6th Division quickly began digging trenches on the exposed northern end.

The Ottomans surrounded Kut on December 7 and launched a series of attacks, all of which the 6th Division beat off, leaving the ground outside the town littered with Turkish dead and wounded.

The Ottomans then changed tactics. Instead of trying to storm Kut, they would strangle it.

The looping Tigris turned into Kut’s noose as Ottoman soldiers moved downriver and fought off repeated attempts by the British forces to relieve the town. In the meantime, they continued to shell Kut and sweep it with machine gun fire, later graduating to air bombardment.

Sisir Sarbadhikari, a civilian with the Bengal Ambulance Corps, described the horrors in his extraordinary memoir, excerpts from which have been translated by the author Amitav Ghosh:

“One shell, instead of bursting above, hit a sepoy who was lying in bed, in one of the tents; it took off half his face before burying itself. The man rose to his feet as he was dying and then fell to the ground.”

Starvation deaths

Enemy fire was not the only killer. Food supplies were running out and, with no relief force in sight, Townshend cut rations by half in late January 1916. Their food would last three months, but only if his men took to eating the horses and mules that served as the 6th Division’s pack animals.

The first ration of horsemeat was issued on January 28, but the Indian soldiers refused to touch it. They were given an extra ration of atta in its stead, but this was meagre allowance, “just enough to keep the garrison alive,” as one British officer put it.

Townshend tried to allay what he presumed were his sepoys’ religious scruples by obtaining approval for eating horsemeat from the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid and a “leading Pandit”.

It was not religious dogma, however, that had united Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers against horseflesh – it was fear of social ostracism. As a lieutenant with the 66th Punjabis observed, the men “declared that every village pundit would be against them on their return to India and that… no one would give them their daughters to marry”.

Malnutrition began to reduce soldiers to sickly skeletal figures. Beds at Kut’s makeshift hospital began to fill up with sepoys afflicted by scurvy, jaundice and pneumonia.

The Siege of Kut Al Amara. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Siege of Kut Al Amara. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“There were instances of Indians returning from trench duty in the evening seemingly with nothing the matter who lay down and were found dead in the morning,” a British medical officer recalled.

Some soldiers sought to escape their misery by attempting suicide. One Briton saw “a young sepoy who had put the muzzle of his loaded rifle against his stomach and discharged it with his toe”. Another saw Indian soldiers who would “walk to the river bank, stand with folded arms, and wait for an enemy sniper to shoot them”.

As desperation mounted, Townshend finally acted. On April 12, he gave his Indian officers and non-commissioned officers an ultimatum: eat horsemeat or be replaced by someone who would.

Faced with the threat of losing their hard won ranks, the Indian officers and non-commissioned officers took horsemeat, setting an example for their men, who lost their fear of becoming social outcasts. Within the next two days, most sepoys were consuming what little horsemeat was left.

Rescue attempts

While Kut starved, its would-be rescuers bled. British forces had been fighting the Ottomans continuously since the beginning of 1916. By the end of March they had suffered 23,000 wounded and killed but had still failed to relieve Kut.

In early April, a British intelligence officer, Captain TE Lawrence (who would go on to be immortalised as Lawrence of Arabia) tried to encourage a rebellion among the Arabs of the Euphrates that might divert Ottoman troops away from Kut. He failed.

TE Lawrence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
TE Lawrence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The British then carried out what was likely the first air supply operation in history, using planes to drop sacks of provisions for the 6th Division. However, many sacks fell into Ottoman lines or splashed into the Tigris. In any case, they were too meagre to matter.

On April 24, the steamer Julnar, loaded with supplies, sailed towards Kut, running the gauntlet of enemy fire until it was stopped by a cable the Ottomans had laid across the river. By now Kut was out of options and food. Townshend began negotiations with the Ottomans. The surrender came on the morning of April 29.

By midday, Ottoman troops began streaming into the town. British and Indian officers were loaded onto steamers to Baghdad from where they were transported into the Turkish heartland for the rest of the war.

Ordinary sepoys were not so lucky. Though starving and weak, they would be marched across the desert where any unfortunate stragglers would be pounced upon by the Bedouin. Most were taken to Ras al-Ayn in modern Syria, where they were put to work on a railroad. Few survived.

Sarbadhikari found himself a prisoner of war in Turkey, where he would get into conversations with locals who wondered why they were fighting each other. “You live in Hindustan, we live in Turkey, neither of us have ever met, we have no quarrel with each other, but at the behest of a couple of men we’ve become enemies overnight.” He wondered: “Is this what’s in the heart of every soldier, in every country, at all times?”

Charles Townshend with Khalil Pasha after the fall of Kut. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Charles Townshend with Khalil Pasha after the fall of Kut. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Children's Day is not for children alone

It’s also a time for adults to revisit their childhood.

Most adults look at childhood wistfully, as a time when the biggest worry was a scraped knee, every adult was a source of chocolate and every fight lasted only till the next playtime. Since time immemorial, children seem to have nailed the art of being joyful, and adults can learn a thing or two about stress-free living from them. Now it’s that time of the year again when children are celebrated for...simply being children, and let it serve as a timely reminder for adults to board that imaginary time machine and revisit their childhood. If you’re unable to unbuckle yourself from your adult seat, here is some inspiration.

Start small, by doodling at the back page of your to-do diary as a throwback to that ancient school tradition. If you’re more confident, you could even start your own comic strip featuring people in your lives. You can caricaturise them or attribute them animal personalities for the sake of humour. Stuck in a boring meeting? Draw your boss with mouse ears or your coffee with radioactive powers. Just make sure you give your colleagues aliases.

Pull a prank, those not resulting in revenue losses of course. Prank calls, creeping up behind someone…pull them out from your memory and watch as everyone has a good laugh. Dress up a little quirky for work. It’s time you tried those colourful ties, or tastefully mismatched socks. Dress as your favourite cartoon characters someday – it’s as easy as choosing a ponytail-style, drawing a scar on your forehead or converting a bath towel into a cape. Even dinner can be full of childish fun. No, you don’t have to eat spinach if you don’t like it. Use the available cutlery and bust out your favourite tunes. Spoons and forks are good enough for any beat and for the rest, count on your voice to belt out any pitch. Better yet, stream the classic cartoons of your childhood instead of binge watching drama or news; they seem even funnier as an adult. If you prefer reading before bedtime, do a reread of your favourite childhood book(s). You’ll be surprised by their timeless wisdom.

A regular day has scope for childhood indulgences in every nook and cranny. While walking down a lane, challenge your friend to a non-stop game of hopscotch till the end of the tiled footpath. If you’re of a petite frame, insist on a ride in the trolley as you about picking items in the supermarket. Challenge your fellow gym goers and trainers to a hula hoop routine, and beat ‘em to it!

Children have an incredible ability to be completely immersed in the moment during play, and acting like one benefits adults too. Just count the moments of precious laughter you will have added to your day in the process. So, take time to indulge yourself and celebrate life with child-like abandon, as the video below shows.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of SBI Life and not by the Scroll editorial team.