Mesopotamia 1916 – 1918
AN EPIC DEFENCE AT THE DIYALAH RIVER
6th Battalions, East, South and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments in Mesopotamia 1916-1918
by Roger Goodwin
The six-month tour of duty of the 1st Battalion, The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, in Basra, Iraq, in 2003 echoed the service of their great-grandfathers 85 years before.
Thousands of Lancastrians fought their way to Baghdad in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I. From the three predecessor regiments of The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment alone, no less than 1,239 of them lie there still.
The 6th (Service) Battalions of the East Lancashire, South Lancashire and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments landed at Basra in March 1916. They formed part of the 38th (Lancashire) Infantry Brigade of the 13th (Western) Division of Kitchener’s New Army.
Less than two years before they had been civilians in the cotton towns of Lancashire, but were now seasoned veterans, having recently emerged from Gallipoli. Initially, Mesopotamia was to prove to be no improvement on that ill-conducted campaign.
Thrown into the muddled failure to relieve a besieged British garrison at Kut, they contributed over 700 casualties in five days of fighting to the relief force’s 22,000 – man butcher’s bill.
With this disaster coming so soon after the Gallipoli debacle, incompetent Indian Army generals were sacked and General Maude, their own much respected Divisional GOC, was made Commander in Chief.
Maude brought sense to the shambles, and insisted on devoting the next seven and a half months to training, improving the lines of communication and acclimatising to the extreme weather conditions. Even so, with temperatures regularly exceeding 50 deg.C, death and illness from heat-stroke were common and dysentery, malaria and other tropical diseases endemic.
Nevertheless, when Maude took the field again in December the Turkish armies crumbled before his vastly-improved force. Kut was retaken by mid-February and on 6 March, in a blinding sandstorm, the Lancashire Brigade entered ancient Ctesiphon, just 20 miles south of Baghdad, after a punishing march of 115 miles in 12 days.
Over the following days the Lancashire Lads of the 38th Brigade faced their greatest test. Selected to force a crossing of the Diyalah River, the Turks last main line of defence just eight miles from Baghdad, men from all three battalions, together with fellow Lancastrians from the 6th Kings Own, were shot down in waves as they tried to ferry pontoons across the stream.
Eventually around 100 men and four officers from the 6th Loyal North Lancashires established a tiny bridgehead. But fierce Turkish opposition prevented reinforcement and there began an epic of endurance under fire which bears favourable comparison even with the much more well-known Rorke’s Drift battle.
Instead of Zulu warriors with spears and cow-hide shields, the Lancastrians had to withstand a modern army with 20th Century fire-power. For over 30 hours the little band, at least well positioned for defence in a deep bund in the river bank, fought off attack after attack, often at the point of the bayonet. Their few bombs were expended during the first night, but with great skill and courage they hurled back the ones thrown into their redoubt by the Turks. Each man started the action with 220 rounds of ammunition, but it quickly became clear that unless great caution was used they would be left only with their bayonets.
Finally, on the third night of the siege, the East Lancashire’s at last succeeded in getting across the Diyala River behind them.
When relieved the little force was down to four officers and 35 men, many of them wounded, out of bombs and down to the last of the ammunition. Their senior officer, Captain Oswald Austin Reid, King’s Regiment attached 6th Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The following day, the British Army entered Baghdad.
Until river subsidence caused it to be moved, a Loyal North Lancashire Regimental Memorial stood on the spot where the little band fought.
Today it stands, damaged but too massive even for Saddam Hussein to destroy completely, in the British Military Cemetery at Baghdad (North Gate).