Turks Defeat Brits at Hanna

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 221st installment in the series. 

January 21, 1916: Turks Defeat Brits at Hanna 

While trench warfare ground on in Europe with little to show for either side, in other theatres, where the “war of movement” still prevailed, the tide of battle could turn very quickly indeed. Nowhere was this truer than Mesopotamia, as the British advance up the Tigris River came to a sudden halt just short of Baghdad in December 1915, and the would-be conquerors soon found themselves under siege. 

After a string of easy victories in the spring and summer of 1915, at the urging of theatre commander General Sir John Nixon, Charles Townshend’s force of 10,000 Anglo-Indian troops made one final leap towards Baghdad in November—only to finally find itself overextended. Confronted with stiff resistance by the reinforced Ottoman Sixth Army at the Battle of Ctesiphon, Townshend led the Indian Expeditionary Force’s 6th (Poona) Division back downriver to the town of Kut-al-Amara, hoping to regroup and resupply here. 

This proved to be a fatal mistake: the Ottoman Sixth Army, commanded by the venerable German officer Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, pounced on Townshend’s exhausted force and encircled the 6th Division at Kut – a task made easier by Kut-al-Amara’s relatively isolated location in an oxbow-shaped loop in the Tigris River.  In fact, with the neck of the peninsula subject to seasonal flooding, at times Kut-al-Amara was almost an island.

With the British cut off at Kut, after a few failed attempts to retake the town by force the Turks dug in on the opposing river banks and beyond the flood plains – and waited. Townshend’s supplies were running low, so it was only a matter of time before the threat of starvation would compel his force to surrender. 

The news that thousands of Anglo-Indian troops were under siege in Mesopotamia, coming on top of the humiliating defeat at Gallipoli, sparked panic and calls for an immediate rescue operation in Britain and India. On January 4, 1916 Nixon ordered Lieutenant General Sir Fenton Aylmer to lead a new relief force drawn from the IEF in southern Mesopotamia, numbering 19,000 men including the 7th (Meerut) Division, north to raise the siege at once. 

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But this proved easier said than done: for one thing the Turks, realizing a major victory was within their grasp, also brought up reinforcements as quickly as they could to ensure there was no breakout and fend off any attempt to raise the siege from outside. They had also established a barrage of strong defensive positions down the Tigris River, held by detachments from the Sixth Army, which the British had to overcome one by one. 

After heavy fighting, Aylmer scored a tactical victory and ejected the Turks from their first fortified position at the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad from January 6-8, but the majority of the enemy forces simply withdrew upriver to another new defensive position at a place called Wadi. Aylmer ordered his tired, bloodied force to pursue them, but once again failed to encircle the Turks at the Battle of Wadi on January 13, losing even more men in the process. Here the poet Robert Palmer, who would shortly be killed in battle, described his first burial duty in a letter home:

I had never seen a dead man and rather dreaded the effect on my queasy stomach; but when it came to finding, searching and burying them one by one, all sense of horror--though they were not pleasant to look upon--was forgotten in an overmastering feeling of pity, such as one feels at the tragic ending of a moving story, only so oppressive as to make the whole scene like a sad and impersonal dream… 

The next position was at Hanna, where the Turks had created a series of entrenched lines stretching north from the river to a nearby swamp, as well as south from the river towards Wadi. Even worse, they outnumbered the British by three-to-one, with 30,000 Ottoman troops facing Aylmer’s Anglo-Indian force, now dwindled to about 10,000. 

But the situation was desperate, and Aylmer was under intense pressure from his superiors to raise the siege. Just two days after Nixon was relieved and replaced by General Sir Percy Lake on January 19, reflecting the British high command’s growing alarm about the unfolding debacle at Kut, on January 21 Aylmer attacked the heavily fortified Turkish defenders at Hanna – and unsurprisingly suffered a severe defeat. 

Following a brief bombardment that failed to do serious damage to the enemy lines, the 7th (Meerut) Division embarked on a suicidal dash across almost half a mile of flat, muddy terrain, where they presented easy targets for the defending Turks. Aylmer’s small force received 2,700 casualties with no immediate access to medical care, whose sufferings were made worse by a downpour and freezing temperatures on the night of January 21-22. One British officer with an Indian unit, the 4th Hants, later recalled: 

The fighting on the 21st was a pure slaughter. It was too awful.... The troops from France say that in all their experience there they never suffered so much from weather conditions. We were wet to the skin and there was a bitter wind coming off the snow hills. Many poor fellows died from exposure that night, I am afraid; and many of the wounded were lying out for more than twenty-four hours until the armistice was arranged the following day. 

Edmund Candler, a British war correspondent accompanying Aylmer’s relief force, painted a similar picture: “At noon the rain came down. All day and all night it poured, putting the crown upon dejection. One thought of the wounded shivering in the cold and mud between the lines, waiting for the night and the slow miserable train of gridiron-bottomed carts.” During the truce to collect wounded and dead, Candler met a Turkish officer who confirmed that the British artillery bombardments were coming up short:

The bombardment, it will be seen, had little effect on the Turk save to indicate our point of attack… [The Turkish officer] smiled at the idea of being frightened out by “that dust and smoke.” He had seen bombardments in the Dardanelles. “Oh, no, we do not mind your bombardments,” he said; “when you shell our front line trenches we lie low and fire from the second line; and when you shell our second line, we get up again and fire from the first.” 

The results were grim to say the least. According to Candler one British unit, the Black Watch, lost over half its strength (top, soldiers of the Black Watch marching in Mesopotamia): “The Black Watch had gone in 120 strong and came out fifty – twenty-five wounded, twenty-five sound… This for the time being was the end of one of the finest battalions in the British Army…” 

The wounded who managed to survive the night were eventually, painfully loaded on to a “hospital ship” (above, a British hospital ship on the Tigris) – actually just a converted river steamer where they were laid out on the decks in freezing temperatures to endure a voyage of several days back downstream to British-held territory, where there were at least primitive hospitals housed in tents. Candler remembered: 

We had carried many straight from the carts on to the ship, where they lay covering every inch of the deck. Then we began clearing the tents of such as we could move. Some were left out in the rain on the transport carts all night; it was better than the mud… I heard a subaltern say, by way of comfort, searching vainly for some adequate greeting in this grimly impressive scene: “I suppose this is as near hell as we are likely to see, Sergeant O’Malley.” Sergeant O’Malley drew himself up stiffly and answered in his disciplined, matter-of-fact way, as if he had been asked whether the quarter-guard had turned out, “I should say it was, sir.”

Serbs Land in Corfu 

1,500 miles to the west, the first Serbian evacuees from Albania were arriving aboard French ships at the Greek island of Corfu, which had been occupied by the Allies (without the permission of the neutral Greek government) to create a temporary haven for the Serbian soldiers and civilians who survived the Great Retreat (below, Serbian soldiers in Corfu).After a period of rest, recuperation, and resupply, approximately 118,000 Serbian soldiers would form a new army that would eventually be deployed on the new Balkan front created by the Allies at Salonika in northern Greece (again, without Greek permission). In early January Serbia’s King Peter visited Salonika, while the Serbian government in exile was temporarily established in Brindisi in neighboring Italy. 

Conditions on Corfu were hardly ideal, however, as the French and British were slow in delivering food and other supplies (below, Serbs resting in Corfu). And once again, the worst off were the thousands of Habsburg prisoners of war who were lucky or hardy enough to have survived the trek over the Albanian mountains in mid-winter, only to be interned on the barren Italian island of Asinara (literally, “the island of donkeys”) near Sardinia. 

Ironically, after waiting weeks for evacuation many of the exhausted prisoners died on the ships carrying them to their new island home, according to Josef Šrámek, a Czech prisoner. On January 2, 1916 Šrámek wrote in his diary while aboard ship: “Many people die of exhaustion and being seasick. They are just thrown into the sea and that’s it. Nobody cares about their names.” The situation did not improve once they arrived at Asinara, as scores of prisoners were felled by rampant disease and dehydration. On January 7 Šrámek noted: 

Disease is spreading among us. The water is to blame… the stomach starts to ache, diarrhea comes, and as people are weak, sometimes they are dead on the second day. These are the consequences of Albania – all that strain, suffering, etc. People get as far as here and then die. We sleep under tents without blankets, and it’s cold at night… About 140 people died in our camp last night. It is terrible to look at those slim figures. 

January 9 brought another grim entry: 

The disease is identified – it’s Asian cholera brought from Albania. People who lie down healthy are stiff in the morning. We are crammed into tents by five, and the infection spread very quickly. You can see a poor creature in spasms behind every shrub. They are all very thirsty, so they crawl to the sea to drink, and soon they’re dead. Drink water is extremely rare. A few feeble springs in the rocks are besieged by the thirsty all day. 

On January 18, 1916, Šrámek recorded an astonishing death toll:  “Cholera is raging horribly. The number of dead is peaking. Today we counted about 1800 of them. We gather them in piles and then bury them in the same grave. Nobody tries to find out the names of the dead.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

The 15 Best TV Series Finales of All Time

Ursula Coyote, AMC
Ursula Coyote, AMC

What makes a great TV series finale? It depends on the show, of course. But no matter what series you may be watching, you want a finale that ties up loose ends without being annoyingly completist, gives you heart without seeming overly sentimental, and of course makes you feel just as happy, sad, thrilled, or compelled as you did with each previous episode. It’s a very tricky needle to thread, and some series have undoubtedly done it better than others.

In celebration of what it takes to deliver a great final episode, here are (some of) the greatest series finales of all time.

1. The Sopranos // “Made In America”

“Made In America” is, infamously, the episode of television that made millions of viewers briefly think that their cable had just gone out at some crucial moment, when in reality what happened was creator David Chase simply decided one seemingly random moment was the exact second where Tony Soprano’s journey would end. The series finale of The Sopranos spent the better part of its runtime wrapping up a mob war that crippled the family, and then devoted its final minutes to a family dinner set to Journey. Fans still debate the meaning and merits of the final scene, but the sense of palpable unease Chase built up in those last moments—signifying Tony’s perpetual state of watching his back—were a brilliant way to end a show that began as a meditation on existential dread in the first place.

2. Six Feet Under // “Everyone’s Waiting”

The final minutes of “Everyone’s Waiting” are among the most famous in the history of television, and even if the rest of the episode had been a disappointment, they would still rank among the greatest farewells in the medium. As it is, Six Feet Under's final episode with the Fisher family is a gripping, heartfelt, and bitterly funny gem, all building to that last montage. As Sia’s "Breathe Me" plays, we see the deaths of every member of the main cast, which reminds us that death takes many forms beyond mere tragedy, all culminating in the last breaths of Claire. Just thinking about it is enough to make fans of the show burst into tears.

3. Breaking Bad // “Felina”

Few series finales have ever faced such high expectations and managed to rise to meet them so powerfully as Breaking Bad did with its final episode in 2013. “Felina” has everything you could ever want from a Breaking Bad send-off: Walt’s final conversation with Skyler, that incredible revenge shoot-out featuring the rigged machine gun, Jesse’s defiant cry of freedom as he drives away, Walt’s collapse, and that little smile of victory on his face. Some series finales deliver what you want; others deliver what you need. “Felina” somehow manages to do both.

4. M*A*S*H // “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”

M*A*S*H was on longer than the Korean War was actually fought, and was more than 250 episodes into its run by the time “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired and became one of the most-watched television events in the history of the medium. You’d think the staff of the 4077th might have run out of things to say after such a run, but the series finale manages to be absolutely jam-packed, featuring everything from Hawkeye’s dark repressed memories to Klinger’s wedding. It all builds to that final shot of “GOODBYE” written in stones, which still ranks as one of the most iconic moments in TV history.

5. The Americans // “START”

The Americans quietly became one of the best shows on TV before finally winning a bunch of awards for its final season, and with good reason. The final adventures of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings as they contemplated a return to Russia and an end to their double lives in America were among the best the series ever delivered, all building to a final episode that stuck the landing in every possible way, from the thrills of their final escape to the emotional payoff of their daughter Paige’s big decision.

6. The Wire // "-30-"

The Wire was never going to end anything in a clean, cut-and-dried way, but its series finale did mange to wield the various talents at play in the series to end everything on an ambitious and fairly comprehensive note. The finale reckoned with many of the same questions the entire series did—from the nature of justice to the fragility of power systems and how far people will go to keep them in place—as it worked to resolve the homeless serial killer hoax, illegal wiretapping, and the all-important future of Tommy Carcetti. One last montage reminds us that life goes on in Baltimore, whether the show’s characters have reshaped it for the better or not.

7. Seinfeld // “The Finale”

The series finale of Seinfeld is also among the most divisive in the history of television, and it all begins with an amusing swerve. The show leads off by making us think Jerry and George are about to embark on a typical sitcom sendoff, bidding New York City farewell as they head to California to make a television series, but then the real plot kicks in as the show’s quartet of main characters is arrested for literally doing nothing as a man is carjacked.

The brilliance of the show’s protagonists getting in trouble for the very same thing they’d been doing for nine seasons in a “show about nothing” then pivots to a trial that does play by the sitcom rule of allowing old fan-favorite characters to come back as witnesses, then launches into a wrap-up that mocks the characters, the show’s fans, and the show’s own place of seeming importance in the pop culture landscape. Sitcom finales are usually more like curtain calls; "The Finale" was a provocative final joke.

8. Battlestar Galactica // “Daybreak Parts 1-3”

The finale of Battlestar Galactica might be a little too metaphysical in nature for some viewers, but there’s something about the sense of totality running through it that makes it a perfect sendoff for a series that always placed everything on the line with every single story it told. As the surviving humans of the fleet finally defeat their Cylon enemies, Starbuck sends them to a new home, and they agree to abandon all of their old technology and live among the primitive humans already present on what turns out to be our Earth. It’s a beautiful blending of victory, bittersweet goodbyes, seismic changes to everyone’s lives, angels, the future, and—believe it or not—“All Along the Watchtower.”

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation // “All Good Things…”

“Encounter at Farpoint,” the series premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a famously slow, bloated affair that was a sign of things to come for the relatively weak first season. “All Good Things…” brilliantly repurposes that story as a time travel saga in which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) learns that Q, the alien being who put humanity on trial back in the premiere, is continuing his test of the human race by placing Picard in three different eras of his life. It’s a brilliant conceit that makes an elegant circle out of the series while also allowing Picard to give viewers a grand tour of the series’ entire history, including his own future.

10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer // “Chosen”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer spent weeks setting up its series finale, laying out a last stand that would either end Buffy and her gang of allies forever or wipe Sunnydale off the face of the Earth—or both. The final battle itself has since been dwarfed by more epic series like Game of Thrones, but what makes “Chosen” so magical isn’t its fight scenes, but its heart. With her own army of potential Slayers at her back, Buffy asks Willow to perform a spell that will give them all the powers of a Slayer, leading to one of the most empowering montages in the history of television. Then, even while mourning absent friends, Buffy is able to look toward tomorrow.

11. Newhart // “The Last Newhart”

So many sitcom series finales are all about final goodbyes. Very often characters leave their longtime TV homes for somewhere new, leading to tearful farewells or at least a final moment for everyone to spend one last day together. Newhart absolutely blew that premise up with a twisty, joke-filled finale that includes the entire town being turned into a resort, a five-year time jump, and that brilliant final scene which reveals all of Newhart to have been the dream of Dr. Bob Hartley, Newhart’s character from The Bob Newhart Show. The level of ambition is admirable. That the ambition translated to genuine laughs is wonderful.

12. Twin Peaks: The Return // “Part 17 and Part 18”

Twin Peaks famously ended its early ’90s run with a cliffhanger, which then led to the joyous reception that accompanied The Return, an 18-hour monument to creative freedom which everyone hoped would finally provide some answers. In true David Lynch fashion, though, the answers we got were often difficult to parse. And by the time it was all over, we were left with even more questions. The final two hours of The Return are among the most mind-meltingly intense episodes of television ever devised, all building to a daring and stunning final scene that still has fans talking.

13. The West Wing // “Tomorrow”

The West Wing played the long game with its series finale thanks to a year-long election storyline, which meant that its final episode was always going to be the combination of both an end and a beginning. The intense election story—which included a live debate episode—culminated in the inauguration of a new president, and a farewell to Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet, but the sense of transition inherent in the plot managed to imbue the series with a new sense of potential energy as it made the turn toward home. Watching “Tomorrow,” you can’t help but fantasize about what it will be like for Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn to be together in the White House again, changing the world in all new ways. That emotional weight meant that, after seven years, we actually all felt like we could use a little more of The West Wing.

14. Halt and Catch Fire // “Ten of Swords”

Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire
Bob Mahoney, AMC

Halt and Catch Fire never got the audience it deserved when it was airing, which means many people likely don’t know just how brilliant and daring the show got in its final seasons, which included a time jump, a shocking death, and the dawn of the internet age. “Ten of Swords” is all about closing old chapters and starting new ones, and sends the show’s trinity of remaining major characters in promising new directions, even as they all come to terms with the fact that they can never again recapture what they once had.

15. 30 Rock // “Last Lunch”

30 Rock was one of the most acclaimed comedies of its era in part because of its outright refusal to ever be straightforward about anything. Every plot was jokes on top of jokes and references on top of references, creating a show that rewards viewers who can’t get enough of rapid fire wit (and deserves rewatching). “Last Lunch” continued that tradition while also managing to inject some genuine emotion into the affair, as Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) reconcile their friendship in a half hour packed with so many gags and callbacks you could watch it half a dozen times and still not catch everything.

10 Surprising Facts About J.R.R. Tolkien

Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don't know about The Lord of the Rings author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In honor of Tolkien Reading Day (March 25th), here are 10 of them.

1. Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic.

As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn't the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall."

2. Tolkien felt many of his fans were "lunatics."

Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien's attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing, and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn't believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose. He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he believed were incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.

3. Tolkien loved his day job.

To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.

4. He was quite romantic.

At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien's instructions, their shared gravestone has the names "Beren" and "Luthien" engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.

5. Tolkien's relationship with C.S. Lewis was complicated.

Tolkien's fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien's wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis's anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American divorcee at the time). Although they would never be as close as they were before, Tolkien regretted the separation. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to his daughter that, “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

6. Tolkien enjoyed clubbing.

Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings, a literary discussion group.

7. He wasn't blowing smoke about those war scenes.

Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien's time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him and was forced to return home. He would later say that all but one of his close friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writing.

8. Tolkien invented languages for fun.

A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem "BagmÄ“ BlomÄ" ("Flower of the Trees") might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.

9. Tolkien been published almost as prolifically posthumously as he was when he was alive.

Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien's most famous posthumous publication is The Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

10. Tolkien called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus."

Tolkien's academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language, and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an "Aryan." Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: "I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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