Brits Fail To Lift Kut Siege

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 231st installment in the series. 

April 5, 1916: Brits Fail to Lift Kut Siege 

By early April 1916, the situation of the roughly 10,000 British and Indian troops trapped by the Turks at Kut Al Amara on the Tigris River was reaching the crisis stage, as the outnumbered defenders under Major-General Charles Townshend slowly succumbed to the age-old enemy of the besieged – hunger. With dwindling food supplies set to give out in late April, there were only a few weeks left for the main body of the Indian Expeditionary Force to lift the siege and relieve the starving defenders (above, Indian troops inside Kut man an antiaircraft machine gun). 

Following the failure of the relief force to lift the siege at Hanna, the British high command went into full panic mode, shuffling commanders frantically in a misconceived attempt to accelerate the process. Overall theatre commander General John Nixon, whose bold ambition had led to the debacle, was replaced by Percy Lake, and Feynton Aylmer, commanding the relief force outside Kut, was replaced by Sir George Gorringe after a failed attack against another Turkish stronghold southeast of Kut, the Dujaila redoubt. 

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Gorringe received reinforcements in the form of the newly-arrived 13th Division, bringing his total force to 30,000, on par with the reinforced Turkish Sixth Army under Khalil Pasha (not great numerical odds by the standards of the First World; below, Turkish reinforcement arrive by raft). Gorringe, already thoroughly disliked by his troops and officers for his difficult personality, had little choice but to immediately attack the Turkish besieging army, now under the direct command of Khalil Pasha, on April 5, 1916. 

The final Battle of Kut, from April 5-22, would begin with greater preparation and coordination during the initial assault, which found the Turkish frontline trenches mostly deserted, but soon dissolved into chaotic combat slogging across the muddy plains of the middle Tigris River. Following a heavy artillery bombardment in the early morning of April 5, the Anglo-Indian infantry managed to advance and capture a large stretch of Turkish trenches at Hanna, just as the attack began to go off the rails thanks to over-eager British officers. Edward Roe, a junior officer, recalled: 

At 4.30 am the whistles sounded and over we go. Only a few stray and ill-aimed shots greet us instead of the hail of lead, which we expected, and the first two lines are taken with trifling loss. We are deafened by the detonations of hundreds of shells of all calibres, which are bursting on and over the second Turkish position. The air seems to be full of express trains… On meeting with no opposition our officers lost their heads and, instead of obeying orders by remaining for the stipulated twenty minutes in the captured Turkish trenches, flourished their revolvers and yelled, ‘Come on boys, we’ve got them on the run. We won’t stop until we get to Kut.’…We made a dive for the first line in the enemy’s second position and of course came under the fire of our own artillery. Men were sent to Kingdom Come in bundles of eight by our howitzers and river monitors. 

As Roe’s account suggests, the attack on the second Turkish defensive line at Fallahiyeh, late on the night of April 5, swiftly ran into a fierce wall of fire as they advanced across the muddy morass on both the north and south banks of the Tigris River. Unfortunately for the Anglo-Indian rank and file, their officers were now in unfamiliar territory: 

This attack was not rehearsed; we simply walked into the void so to speak. I don’t believe that one of the many officers, senior and junior, who led the attack had the faintest idea of the plan or construction of the Turkish defences, as no aerial photographs were available. We simple walked ‘into it’… Another dearly bought lesson on the futility of night attacks unless everything is worked out in the minutest detail before embarking on such hazardous enterprises. 

The Fallahiyeh defenses finally fell after steep British losses, but the Turks had built one more defensive line consisting of multiple trenches, protecting the rear of the besieging force, further upriver at Sannayiat, where the Turks repulsed a series of British attacks from April 6-9, 1916. British losses on the night of April 9 were particularly grave, as the Turks lay in wait for the Anglo-Indian infantry advancing across no-man’s-land before sending up dozens of flares to spring the trap. The casualties included Roe himself: 

… ‘twas like one man pressing a switch. By their ghastly flares their position was revealed to us and we to them. Turks were shoulder to shoulder in the trench. Machine guns were embedded on the parados, as also were Turks in the kneeling and standing positions. Before the flares expired their shrapnel was on us good and hard. A cyclone of bullets from machine guns and rifles battered and tore great gaps in the closely packed lines. Men fell by the dozen. You could hear the continual thud of the bullets as they came into contact with human bodies… Dawn was breaking. All was confusion… I got a bullet through the left arm – stars! – and I dropped. 

With his advance stymied on the southern bank of the river, Gorringe decided to try the northern bank and met with some success here, overrunning Turkish defenses at Bait Aisa on April 17, then holding it against a determined Turkish counterattack. But progress on the north bank soon petered out as well, prompting Gorringe to return to Sannayiat with one final attack on April 22.

As these desperate final gambits unfolded, the small Anglo-Indian force trapped inside Kut was approaching final collapse, as the last remaining sources of food (including their own horses) began to run out. Colonel W.C. Spackman, a British medical officer with an Indian infantry battalion inside Kut, noted in his diary entry on April 13:

Things are getting rather desperate. We only get five oz of bread each day which it would be quite easy to finish off at breakfast though the only thing left to eat with it is anchovy sauce!... The tommies ration is bread, chiefly barley, with about one and a half lbs of horse or mule, with a pinch of salt… Our bread will be finished on 21 April unless they cut it down once more, but we could hold on a bit after that I suppose if need by on a diet of mule and grass. 

Meanwhile the British contended with natural conditions as challenging as any on the Western Front, if not more so. As the final Battle of Kut dragged on inconclusively, a few days later a medical officer, Edmund Candler, noted that both sides also faced a threat from extreme weather conditions and Tigris flooding: 

On the afternoon of the 12th we had a waterspout, a hailstorm and a hurricane. The spray was leaping 4 ft. high in the Tigris on our left; and on our right the Suwacha marsh threatened to come in and join the river and flood our camp... At sunset it broke into our forward trenches and the Turkish position facing them, a wave of water coming over the bund like a wall, swamping kit, rations, and entrenching tools. Some of the brigade on our right had to swim. 

Both sides also suffered from a plague of flies, according to Aubrey Herbert, a British intelligence officer, who wrote in his diary in late April: 

The flies are awful; one black web of them this morning; in one’s hair and eyes and mouth, in one’s bath and shaving-water, in one’s tea and in one’s towel… Nothing that I have ever seen or dreamed of came up to the flies. They hatched out until they were almost the air. They were in myriads. The horses were half mad. The flies were mostly tiny. They rolled up in little balls when one passed one’s hand across one’s sweating face. They were on your eyelids and lashes and in your lips and nostrils. We could not speak for them, and could hardly see… They were like a visible fever, shimmering in the burning light all round.

Germans Advance At Verdun

As April 1916 began the world’s attention remained fixated on the bloody drama of Verdun, where the German Fifth Army was pressing forward around the fortress city in the face of a tooth and nail defense, mounted by French divisions drawn from across the Western Front and rotated through the Verdun abattoir by theatre commander Philippe Petain. 

Apparently an all-out German push to capture the symbolic and strategically important city, the attack on Verdun was actually the centerpiece of German chief of the general staff’s secret strategy for a battle of attrition. By threatening a key objective that the French would never give up, then assuming strong defensive positions which the French would be forced to counterattack endlessly, Falkenhayn hoped to bleed the French Army to death. 

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The plan nearly succeeded, but for a few key details. Obsessed with secrecy, Falkenhayn apparently never communicated his true intent to the commander of the German Fifth Army tasked with carrying out the attack on Verdun, the German crown prince Friedrich Wilhelm. Embracing the straightforward goal of capturing Verdun, after the success of the initial advance the crown prince and his subordinates abandoned caution and raced ahead of Falkenhayn’s plan, advancing as far as they could in each new offensive until reorganized French defenses finally forced them to stop. 

In practice this meant that instead of advancing from ridge to ridge, they sometimes ended up conquering and holding (or trying to hold) low-lying ground where it was they, not the French, who were exposed to artillery fire. This in turn meant the Germans were suffering almost as heavy losses as the French – hardly a successful long-term approach to a battle of attrition. 

Nonetheless the German Fifth Army ground ahead in March and early April, with scores of relatively small attacks and counterattacks across the battlefield as both sides grappled for key strategic positions. In March the Germans advanced near the village of Forges, Regneville, Haucourt, and Malancourt, while also gaining ground near the saddleback hill appropriately known as Le Morte Homme (“The Dead Man”) on the western bank of the Meuse and around Fort Vaux on the eastern bank. 

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Beginning March 20 the fighting grew in intensity on the west bank of the Meuse, as the newly-arrived 11th Bavarian Division sent the French 29th Division reeling back near the Bois d’Avocourt (forest of Avocourt) and Bois d’Malancourt (forest of Malancourt), west of the strategic Hill 304, where it advanced despite heavy loses. Then on March 31 the Germans captured the village of Malancourt itself, followed by the village of Haucourt on April 5, and Bethincourt on April 9. 

Meanwhile it took around a month for the Germans to subdue the village of Vaux beneath Fort Vaux, with this tiny patch of land the site of over a dozen attacks and counterattacks in March and April; the real prize, Fort Vaux, remained out of reach.

As on the west bank of the Meuse, the main battlefields here were by now carpeted with dead, around whose bodies their comrades had to navigate as they fought for their own lives. One French staff officer described the German supply system, using chains of men to bring up entrenching materials like a fire brigade passing buckets of water east of Douaumont on April 2, 1916: 

Cover was disdained. The workers stood at full height, and the chain stretched openly across the hollows and hillocks, a fair target for the French gunners. The latter missed no chance… Gradually another line doubled the chain of the workers, as the upheaved corpses formed a continuous embankment, each additional dead man giving greater protection to his comrades, until the barrier began to form shape along the diameter of the wood. There others were digging and burying logs into the earth, installing shelters and mitrailleuses [machine guns], or feverishly building fortifications. 

Later, a French sapper crew heroically tunneled forward to plant explosives under the new fortifications built by the Germans at such heavy cost, and was almost wiped out itself – but only after helping win back this scrap of territory: 

Suddenly there comes a roar that dwarfs the cannonade, and along the barrier fountains of fire rise skyward, hurling a rain of fragments upon what was left of the blasting party. The barricade was breached, but 75 per cent. of the devoted corps had given their lives to do it. As the survivors lay exhausted, the attackers charged over them, cheering… Over 6,000 Germans were counted in a section a quarter of a mile square… The enemy had piled a second barrier of corpses close behind the first, so that the soft human flesh would act as a buffer to neutralize the force of the shells. 

Later, the French novelist Henry Bordeaux transcribed an undelivered letter found on a wounded German at Verdun, written to his sister and brother-in-law and also dated April 2, 1916:

This is to let you know I am in good health, although half dead from fatigue and fright. I cannot describe to you all I have lived through here, it goes far beyond anything we had had to put up with before. In about three days the company has lost more than a hundred men. Several times I didn’t know whether I was alive or already dead… I have already given up all hope of ever seeing you again. 

Another French officer recalled the sights in trenches that had traded hands several times: “You found the dead embedded in the walls of the trenches, heads, legs and half-bodies, just as they had been shoveled out of the way by the picks and shovels of the working party.”

By this time roughly the Germans had suffered roughly 82,000 casualties, compared to 89,000 French – and the battle was just beginning. As one French colonel told his men: “You have a mission of sacrifice; here is a post of honour where they want to attack. Every day you will have casualties, because they will disturb your work. On the day they want to, they will massacre you to the last man, and it is your duty to fall.” The next big German push was scheduled for April 9, as the Fifth Army prepared a general assault to pave the way for a breakthrough at Le Mort Homme. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as simply The Oscars, after the famed statuette that winners receive. "We're rebranding it," Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron told The Wrap at the time. "We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'" But how did the statuette get that nickname in the first place?

The popular theory is that the nickname for the Academy Award of Merit (as the statuette is officially known) was coined by Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick. The story goes that when Herrick first saw the statue in 1931, she said that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. According to Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, columnist Sidney Skolsky was there when Herrick said this and would later write that, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

While the first documented use of “Oscar” as the nickname for the statuette was made by Skolsky—in a 1934 New York Daily News article—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Skolsky was actually responsible for the above quote. Skolsky, in his 1975 memoir Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood, claimed he first used the nickname referencing a classic vaudeville joke line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” in an attempt to mock the Academy Awards:

"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human. ... It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven thirty ... There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling.

You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys ...

“THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension … The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening … Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote … So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed … It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level” … Which caused every one to comment about the other years … Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change…”

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word 'Oscar.' In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name."

"Mouse's Return," a September 11, 1939 article in TIME magazine, seems to back up Skolsky’s above claim, stating:

"This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular …"

Though Skolsky has actual evidence to back his claim, his assertion that he coined the nickname is still slightly in doubt. Many claim that during Walt Disney’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Three Little Pigs in 1934—the same year Skolsky first covered the Awards—Disney referred to the statuette his little "Oscar," which was supposedly an already well-established nickname for it within the industry. The term Oscar was commonly used as a mocking nickname for the Academy Award (as Skolsky claims he used it), but in this theory, Walt Disney was supposedly the first in the industry to publicly use the name in a positive light.

Perhaps Herrick really did think the statuette resembled her uncle. Or maybe Skolsky really did come up with the moniker (whether he did or not, he certainly helped popularize it). In the end, nobody really knows why the Academy Award statuette is called an Oscar.

The idea for the design of the Academy Award statuette was thought up by MGM director Cedric Gibbons. His idea was to have a knight gripping a sword while standing on a film reel. Sculptor George Stanley was then hired to create the actual statuette based on this design idea. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The nickname Oscar wasn’t officially adopted for the statuette by the Academy until 1939.

Incidentally, the Academy states that the five spokes on the film reel the knight is standing on signify the original five branches of the Academy: writers, directors, actors, producers, and technicians.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2013.

11 Dothraki Words and Phrases Every Game of Thrones Fan Should Know

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

You know the words khal and khaleesi, but consider working these other words and phrases from the Dothraki language—which was created by linguist David J. Peterson, and featured in Living Language Dothraki—into your vocabulary before the final season of Game of Thrones premieres on April 14, 2019.

1. M’athchomaroon!

The Dothraki way of saying hi, this word—which can also be shortened to M’ach! or M’ath!—translates to “With respect.” To say hello to a group of non-Dothrakis, you would use the phrase Athchomar chomakea, which literally translates to “Respect to those that are respectful.” Fonas chek, which translates to "hunt well," is one way to say goodbye.

2. San athchomari yeraan!

Peterson writes that the Dothraki have no word for “thank you.” Instead, use this phrase, which literally translates to “a lot of honor to you!” but basically means “much respect!”

3. Fichas jahakes moon!

These are Dothraki fighting words, meant to encourage the warriors in their khalasar (or Dothraki group). This phrase means “get him!” but literally translates to “Take his braid”—which makes sense, since Dothrakis cut off their braids after a defeat. A Dothraki who wins a lot of battles is a lajak haj, or “strong warrior.”

4. And 5. Yer shekh ma shieraki anni and Yer jalan atthirari anni

Jason Momoa and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Both of these phrases—the first said by a male, the second by a female—mean “you are my loved one,” but they literally translate to phrases well-known to Game of Thrones fans: “You are my sun and stars” and “You are the moon of my life.” As Peterson notes, “these expressions come from Dothraki mythology, in which the sun is the husband of the moon.”

6. Anha dothrak adakhataan

Peterson writes that “as a result of the importance of horses to Dothraki culture, there are many idiomatic expressions related to horses and riding.” This phrase is best used before a meal: It means “I’m about to eat,” and literally translates to “I ride to eating.” If you were Dothraki, you’d likely be eating fresh horsemeat (gavat) and drinking mare’s milk (lamekh ohazho, which is often just shortened to lamekh).

7. Hrazef

This is Dothraki for horse, and there are many other words relating to horses in the language. A good one to know is the word for the great stallion, a.k.a., “the deity worshipped by the Dothraki”: vezhof.

8. Addrivat

Joseph Naufahu, Tamer Hassan, Emilia Clarke, Elie Haddad, Darius Dar Khan, and Diogo Sales in Game of Thrones
HBO

If there’s one thing the Dothraki are very good at, it’s killing, and they have multiple words for the deed. This is a verb meaning “to kill,” and literally translates to “to make something dead.” Both Ds are pronounced. It’s used, according to Peterson, “when the killer is a sentient being.” (Drozhat is used when a person is killed by an animal or an inanimate object, "like a fallen rock," Peterson writes.)

9. Asshekhqoyi vezhvena!

The next time your friend or loved one is celebrating another year around the sun, use this Dothraki phrase, which means “happy birthday” but literally translates to “[Have] a great blood-day!”

10. Zhavorsa or Zhavvorsa

Dothraki for dragon. Finne zhavvorsa anni? means “Where are my dragons?” This word might not be super applicable in everyday life, so jano—the Dothraki word for dog or dogs—is probably more appropriate.

11. Vorsa

Dracarys—a.k.a., what Dany says to Drogon to get him to let loose—is the High Valyrian word for dragonfire. It's unclear if the Dothraki have a word for dragonfire, but the word for fire is vorsa. Sondra, meanwhile, is their word for obsedian—or, as it's called on Game of Thrones, dragonglass.

For more information on the Dothraki language and culture, pick up Living Language Dothraki: A Conversational Language Course Created by David J. Peterson Based on the Hit Original HBO Series Game of Thrones at Amazon.

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