Military history is filled with glorious exploits as well as infamous defeats. Men become heroes, and generals become legends.
Human history is strewn with names, dates, and places where battles were fought and refought and refought. It seems that future generations must repeat the grievous errors of the past on the global board game.
One such place is Ctesiphon. For centuries this thriving city on the Tigris River served as the capital for the Parthian and Sasanian Empires.
After the fall of Rome, it became the largest city in the known world. As history has shown time after time, eventually all things must come to an end.
It fell to the Muslim forces in 637 AD. Now, all that remains of this place are ruins.
As history has recorded, the city saw its share of great battles. The last great battle happened in November 1915 between the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
Sir John Eccles Nixon was commanding officer for the Anglo-Indian forces. After a series of victories, he decided to go for the big prize—Baghdad.
Assigning the invasion force to Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, he met resistance from the war veteran. Townshend did not like the plan because it would be a forced march to the city. The supply train and medical assistance would be too far from his men as would be reinforcements.
Nixon, like a number of Westerners, did not view the Turks as much of a threat. He believed in the superiority of the troops under his command.
He and his superiors discounted the fact that their enemies had been trained by two skilled German officers–Freiherr Wilhelm Leopold Colmar von der Goltz and Otto Liman von Sanders. It was Nixon’s belief in the invincibility of superiority or the invincibility of a righteous cause which would result in one of the great tragedies of World War I.
History has shown time after time that such a belief in the invincibility of superiority and a righteous cause has proven to be disastrous. In 1915 this would play out in tragic overtones.
Nixon reassured Townshend and the men that all they could want or need would be found in Baghdad. It would be theirs for the taking.
Unknown to Nixon and Townshend, Freiherr Wilhelm Leopold Colmar von der Goltz was in command of the Turkish forces in Baghdad. He had planned very carefully for an assault with the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon as his first line of defense, and had an overwhelming force entrenched and ready for the invaders.
Reluctantly, Townshend proceeded with his men toward Baghdad. In one of the bloodiest battles of the war, he lost thousands of men and had to retreat to Kut to take care of the wounded and wait for Nixon to send reinforcements.
What happened at Kut is still discussed in military strategy classes. No reinforcements came, and food became scarce.
Townshend surrendered on April 29, 1916, ten days after the death of his opponent, Freiherr Wilhelm Leopold Colmar von der Goltz. The mystery surrounding the death of this German officer is still clouded in the bog mists of the past.
What happened to Townshend’s men is a tragic window on the cruelty of war and the mistreatment of prisoners. Thousands of Townshend’s advance force would die before the war was over.
One has to wonder what insights and wisdom have been gained in the last 100 years. From looking at the global map in 2015, there does not seem to be much change over a century of progress.
Technology has only made war more impersonal and cruel. Young men still die in foreign locales. Young men and women return home with physical and mental wounds which plague them until the day of their death, which, in many cases, is premature because their pain is too much to bear. They find the final solace by a desperate act to relieve the horrors of war by ending their lives.
100 years ago in an ancient city in a foreign land young men died. Their blood mixed with the blood of countless thousands who preceded them over the millennia in the birth place of civilization.
Today young men and women and children die daily in the name of a righteous cause. What happened in Paris on Friday night is a stinging reminder that the innocents tend to suffer at the hands of a determined few on this planet traversing the cosmos.
G. D. Williams © 2015
Sir John Eccles Nixon (August 16, 1857–December 15, 1921)
Like many another British officer Nixon held a distinctly poor opinion of the fighting capabilities of the Turkish army. It was perhaps this that led him to be derelict in assuring adequate provision of basic necessities for his troops, including equipment, transport and other supplies.
Following early cheap successes Nixon became convinced – despite protests from his subordinate field commander General Sir Charles Townshend who favoured consolidation – that his small force could advance all the way to Baghdad in short order.
Accordingly in October 1915 he ordered Townshend to advance (a decision subsequently verified by the government in London). Nixon himself remained in Basra increasingly beset by illness.
He fell ill towards the end of 1915 and quitted the theatre of war. In 1919 he was given the G.C.M.G. in recognition of his services four years earlier, and he retired in that year. He died at St. Raphael, France, Dec. 15 1921.
Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend (February 21, 1861 –May 18, 1924)
The Turks abandoned Kut in February 1917, and Baghdad fell in March. That June a royal commission reported on who was to blame for ordering Townshend to advance so far forward. The answer was everybody but Townshend. His commanding officer, Sir John Nixon, was censured. So too was the viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, the commander-in-chief in India, Sir Beauchamp Duff, the secretary of state for India, Austen Chamberlain, and the war cabinet in London, which had disregarded the advice of its own secretary of state for war, Earl Kitchener.
As the horrors of the death marches and prison camps became known after the war, so the sufferings of the men were contrasted with more favourable treatment given to their officers – Townshend, in comfortable captivity near Constantinople, was knighted in 1917. From being the hero of his country’s longest siege, “Townshend of Kut” became its villain.
After the war, he resigned from the army in 1920 and wrote a book My Campaign in Mesopotamia (1920). He stood as an Independent Conservative candidate in a by-election in Shropshire and was elected to a term in Parliament as Member of Parliament (MP) for The Wrekin (1920-1922). However, as reports surfaced about how badly his troops had suffered at the hands of the Turks (more than half of the soldiers who surrendered died in Turkish captivity), his reputation lost all its lustre. Military experts attacked him for not beating the Ottomans at Ctesiphon, for his passivity during the siege of Kut, and for his inaccurate reports which lead to the hasty first relief expedition. He died in disgrace 18th May 1924 in Paris ( When his will was published in 1924 – Townshend’s worldly wealth at the time of his death was found to have amounted to a mere £119
Freiherr Wilhelm Leopold Colmar von der Goltz (August 12, 1843 – April 19, 1916)
In August 1914, the first month of World War I, Goltz was appointed governor-general of German-occupied Belgium. In November of that year he became aide-de-camp to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed V. Placed in command of the Turkish First Army in Mesopotamia, he halted Townshend’s Anglo-Indian army at Ctesiphon on Nov. 22, 1915, and then, on December 8, trapped Townshend inside Kut. After Goltz’s troops had repulsed a large British relief force, Townshend surrendered on April 29, 1916. According to the official report, Goltz had died of typhus, but it has been said that he was poisoned by the revolutionary Young Turks.
Otto Liman von Sanders (February 17, 1855 – August 22, 1929)
A German officer, was responsible for transforming the efficiency of the Ottoman army in the months prior to World War One.
He died on 22 August 1929 in Munich at the age of 74.