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.

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.

“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.

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?”