After a five-month siege by Ottoman forces in the Mesopotamian town of Kut-el-Amara, Major-General Charles Townshend’s garrison of some 3,000 British and 11,000 Indian troops was forced to surrender in April 1916. Before Townshend was sent off to comfortable captivity on an island in the Sea of Marmara, Enver Pasha, the Ottoman minister of war, had promised Townshend that his men would be the ‘honoured and precious guests of the Ottoman Empire’. Despite these assurances, for the British and Indian troops the nightmare began which would become a most powerful parallel to the 1915 Armenian deportations. On 6 May 1916, the Kut prisoners set off on 100 mile journey to Baghdad, the first leg of their 1200 mile journey to the interior of Anatolia. Overall, around 70 per cent of the British and 50 per cent of the Indian soldiers who surrendered at Kut died in captivity. The post-war colonial administrator for Mesopotamia, Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Wilson concluded: ‘The statistical record [of the shocking death rates among Kut prisoners] … constitutes a record of callous brutality without parallel in civilised warfare and unequalled in the records of savage warfare.’
Kut prisoners also provided first hand testimony of the Armenian Genocide. Along the line of the march, some of the prisoners passed by straggling camps of ‘wretched Armenian men, women and children’. They also passed through deserted villages that had been populated by Armenians. Near one of the villages two British officer prisoners, General Delamain and Colonel Dunn, went in search of water. They were horrified to find that the well at the back of the house was filled up with what they described were ‘the mutilated remains of the murdered Armenian women and children’.
Harry Bishop was part of a convoy of Kut prisoners sent to the Amanus Mountains in June 1916. On his way he saw ‘a crowd of men, women, and children moving off along the road and looking very wretched’. The guards informed him ‘that these were Armenians who had been working on the line’, but were being taken away to make room for the Kut prisoners, ‘who would be set to work in their place’. As Bishop and his party continued on their trek and neared a summit, they spotted ‘three or four bodies’ lying in a ‘ditch beside the road’. As they descended the summit they saw more bodies. Evidently, as Bishop recalled, they were the ‘Armenians’ he had seen ‘starting off that morning’.
Sadly, the story of the suffering of the Kut prisoners and their links to the Armenian Genocide has been largely excluded from Britain’s First World War historiography. It’s a story we tell, among many others, in ‘Armenia, Australia and the Great War’. While more research is needed to explore more fully the strong links between the two tragedies, it’s time the Kut tragedy took its rightful place in Britain’s collective memory of World War One.
Vicken Babkenian is the co-author (with Prof. Peter Stanley) of ‘Armenia, Australia and the Great War’ (NewSouth Publishing 2016) available on Amazon.