By coincidence, I am cataloging some older gift books about military history today, which is Veterans Day. I just added Ronald Millar’s Death of an army: the Siege of Kut, 1915-1916 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970) to the collection. Even though I spent some time studying World War I as an undergraduate, I don’t remember hearing about the Siege of Kut. Here’s what it says on the dust jacket:
“In an enthralling story of heroism as well as horror, pathos as well as stupidity, Ronald Millar unfolds the events of a little-known but highly dramatic episode in the Middle East Campaign of World War I: the Turkish siege of an Anglo-Indian Army holed up in the small Mesopotamian (now Iraqi) village of Kut. The siege, which lasted from early December, 1915, to late April, 1916, caused the loss of some 30,000 British and Indian soldiers and led to a government investigation even before the war was over.
The British, anxious to protect their oil-lines in the area, had dispatched a force led by General Sir Charles Townshend to capture Baghdad. Notwithstanding river craft totally unsuitable for the fickle Tigris, the force quickly pushed upstream as far as Ctesiphon, the ancient capital of the Parthians. There it was fought to a standstill by the Turks and retreated to Kut, where Townshend, assured of prompt relief, dug in. The Turks launched a series of major attacks beginning on December 2, but lost so many men that they decided to concentrate on preventing the relief forces from reaching the British. Meanwhile the men in the garrison were starving despite the airdrop of food supplies (the first recorded instance of aircraft being used in that way) and the gallant attempt by the steamer Julnar to run the blockade. Townshend finally surrendered on April 27, 1916.
The author draws colorful portraits of the civilian Arabs trapped in the besieged town, of the ordinary soldiers on both sides, and of the primary antagonists in the death of an army: the Turks Nur-ud-Din and Halil Pasha and the Englishmen Townshend, Aylmer and Nixon – and even T.E. Lawrence who, still early in his career, was brought to the final negotiations to try to bribe the enemy with an offer of two million pounds.
In his first book Ronald Millar has combined a vivid writing style and impeccable research to produce an authentic piece of military history and a fascinating human story.”
Veterans Day is a day to honor those who came home. We should honor them not only for what they have done, but for what they bring back — the memories of places like Kut and all their brothers-in-arms who died there.
“…Your name and your deeds were forgotten
Before your bones were dry,
And the lie that slew you is buried
Under a deeper lie;
But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit.”
-From George Orwell, “Looking back on the Spanish War”, 1939.