The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 194th installment in the series.
July 24, 1915: British Defeat Turks at Nasiriya
The first half of 1915 gave Britain an unbroken string of successes in Mesopotamia as General Charles Townshend’s small force advanced up the Tigris River, including easy victories at Shaiba and Qurna, followed by the bloodless conquest of Amara – seeming to confirm the Brits’ complacent belief that the campaign against the Turks would be another colonial walkover culminating, after modest effort, in the fall of Baghdad. This belief would prove disastrously mistaken, but the continued success of “Townshend’s Regatta,” as the small amphibious fleet of riverboats was known, in July 1915 only fed British ambitions.
Late July brought another triumph at Nasiriya on the Euphrates River, which the British commander-in-chief in Mesopotamia, Sir John Nixon, wanted to consolidate control of what is now southern Iraq. After mounting an amphibious attack amidst seasonal floods and incredible heat on June 27, over the following week the Anglo-Indian 30th Brigade under George Gorringe succeeded in slowly clearing enemy defensive positions along the riverbanks south of Nasiriya. However Gorringe’s progress in subsequent weeks was slowed by attacks from hostile native tribes, while illness and heat stroke depleted his already-small force.
After almost a month of gradual advances, on July 24, 1915, Gorringe’s force of about 5,000 British and Indian troops mounted a final attack on the Turkish positions just outside Nasiriya, combining infantry attacks with bombardment by artillery on land and gunboats on the river. The multi-pronged attack quickly penetrated the enemy defenses and the Turks retreated upstream to Kut – fated to be the scene of one of the worst British defeats of the war.
But for now the fall of Nasiriya, at a cost of 500 British casualties versus 2,500 Turks (not counting losses from illness and heat; top, Turkish prisoners after Nasiriya), seemed to bring the British another step closer to Baghdad. Colonel W.C. Spackman recalled the hypnotic effect exerted by the famous city among officers and rank-and-file soldiers alike after Nasiriya (above, Baghdad in 1913):
Baghdad! At about this time the name of this romantic city began to be mentioned in the camps with particular anticipation. After all we had advanced with very little difficulty more than halfway up the Tigris to this almost legendary city… We had the greatest confidence in ourselves and in our leader, General Townshend, and we anticipated making a triumphal entry into Baghdad, marching through the famous bazaars to general acclamation and hearing the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer from the four corners of the towering slender minarets. We could have hardly foreseen that the gamble would end in total failure and that our only entry would be as defiant prisoners of war six months later.
German Diplomats Protest Armenian Genocide
To the north the Armenian Genocide that began in April 1915 continued to gain momentum, with mass deportations – which were often euphemisms for massacres – spreading across Anatolia and northern Syria and Iraq, even as the Russian offensive in the Caucasus region (the alleged security reason for the expulsions) ran out of steam. While officials at the highest levels of the German government had encouraged the Committee of Union and Progress or “Young Turks” who ruled the Ottoman Empire to carry out the genocide, lower level German diplomats and officials who weren’t privy to this policy kept sending a steady stream of reports protesting the Turks’ barbarous treatment of fellow Christians, and asking why Berlin did nothing to rein in its ally.
On July 7, 1915, the German ambassador to Constantinople, Baron von Wangenheim (who was aware that Germany supported the Turkish extermination campaign; below, left) noted that expulsions and relocations were spreading to areas not directly threatened by the Russian advance, adding: “This situation, and the way in which the relocation is being carried out shows that the government is indeed pursuing its purpose of eradicating the Armenian race from the Turkish empire.” In a letter written two days later, Wangenheim passed along a report from the German consul in Aleppo, Walter Rössler, who in turn conveyed the eyewitness testimony of a German officer on returning from Mosul:
About a week ago, Kurds massacred Armenians in Tell Ermen and a neighbouring Armenian village. The large churches have been destroyed. Mr. von Mikusch personally saw 200 bodies. The militia and gendarmes have at least tolerated the massacre and have probably taken part in it. Replacements (released prisoners) including their officer have spoken happily of massacres between Nisibin and Tell Ermen and have completely plundered an Armenian village, the inhabitants of which were massacred. In Djarabulus, corpses, often bound together, drifted down the Euphrates River.
On July 27, 1915, Rössler wrote directly to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg in Berlin, protesting that:
… the Turkish government has gone much further than the scope of justified defence measures in an effort to counteract actual and possible subversive Armenian activities, but instead, by extending their decrees… to include women and children, are consciously aiming to achieve the downfall of the largest possible proportions of the Armenian people by using methods borrowed from antiquity, but which are unworthy of a government that wishes to remain in alliance with Germany.
Rössler also enclosed an account dated July 24 by a German citizen who quoted a Turkish official as saying, “This time we have done our job on the Armenians in a way we have desired for a long time; out of every ten, we have not left nine alive.”
In a letter to Wangenheim dated July 28, 1915, another German diplomat stationed in Erzurum, vice-consul Max Erwin Scheubner-Richter (who later died participating in the 1923 Nazi beer hall putsch; above, right), noted that the genocide was clearly the result of a deliberate, coordinated campaign by central government officials, who’d sidelined the moderate civilian governor of Erzurum because he objected to their extreme measures:
It appears to me that the Vali, Tahsim Bey, who has a more humane attitude regarding the handling of the Armenian question than the others appear to have, is powerless against this sharp course. The supporters of the latter will, by the way, openly admit that the final goal of their actions against the Armenians is their total annihilation in Turkey. After the war we will not have “any more Armenians in Turkey,” are the exact words of an eminent person.
However he added: “The Turkish people themselves are by no means in agreement with this solution to the Armenian question…” Indeed, in another letter written August 4, 1915, Scheubner-Richter recounted a conversation with a Turkish landowner who criticized the CUP's genocidal policy and asked him about Germany’s role in allegedly instigating it:
One of those persons who questioned me, a very respected and influential Bey, added that although Armenian massacres had taken place formerly, they were generally restricted to battles amongst the men, but that now, against the instructions in the Koran, thousands of innocent women and children were being murdered. This was not being done by enraged mobs, but systematically and by the order of the government, “the Committee,” as he added with emphasis.
Of course, awareness of the genocide was hardly confined to German diplomats. Lewis Einstein, an American diplomat in Constantinople, confided in his diary on August 4, 1915:
The persecution of Armenians is assuming unprecedented proportions, and it is carried out with nauseating thoroughness. The Armenian Patriarch told the Austrian Ambassador that at one village, after children under ten had been distributed among the Moslem population, all above that age were thrown in the river. As some knew how to swim, the soldiers were ordered to fire upon them till they were exterminated.
Serbian Government Relocates to Niš (Again)
The “secret treaty” (really just an informal pact at this point) by which Bulgaria agreed to join German and Austria-Hungary in an attack on Serbia wasn’t really much of a secret, as everyone knew there was a bidding war for Bulgaria’s loyalty between the Central Powers and the Allies in the first half of 1915 – and it soon became clear that the Central Powers had won. Among other hints, the Bulgarian government ordered pre-mobilization measures, scraping together weapons, ammunition and other supplies, while newspapers whipped up anti-Serbian sentiment, and guerrilla activity by Bulgarian irregulars, or comitadjes, picked up along the Serbian border.
For its part Serbia was still exhausted from the Balkan Wars, and by mid-1915 was weaker than ever, thanks to a horrifying typhus epidemic that ended up killing 200,000 people, or around 4% of the Serbian prewar population of 4.5 million, by the end of the war. Geographically isolated in the Balkan Peninsula, it could only receive supplies from France and Britain along a single railroad running north from the Greek port of Salonika – a tenuous lifeline, at best, following Greece’s repeated refusals to help Serbia in January and February 1915.
Well aware that the small nation faced an invasion with overwhelming force in the next few months, on July 25, 1915 the Serbian parliament relocated from Belgrade to the southern Serbian city of Niš – a routine exercise by now, as the government had already evacuated to Niš once before, in July 1914. While Belgrade was in a vulnerable spot right across the border from Austria-Hungary, moving the capital to Niš would give the government some breathing room and time to react once the invasion began; Niš was also closer to the vital rail link with Salonika, the only possible route for reinforcements to arrive from the Western Allies. For their part the French and British were already planning to occupy Salonika – in violation of Greek neutrality, and with or without Greek consent – in order to open direct communications with their beleaguered Balkan ally.