***Sepoys at the Siege of Kut-al-Amara, December 1915-April 1916

Sepoys at the Siege of Kut-al-Amara, December 1915-April 1916, War in History, 11:3, 2004 e-library. Nikolas Gardner

The conduct of the Indians attached to Townshend’s force contributed significantly to its defeat.

Kut-al-Amara. Siege from 3 December 1915 to 29 April 1916.


  • enemy attacks
  • disease
  • famine

Indians formed the majority of the force defending Kut

Sepoys having to fight Turks in Mesopotamia

Specific dietary requirements led to inadequate sustenance.

Dearth of documentation – low literacy rates/no letters home.

Personal diaries and letters, and official unit diaries destroyed prior to surrender.

Sources therefore:

  • British soldiers who survived the war and wrote memoirs.
  • Letters from Sepoys on the Western front.


  • Limited the endurance of the garrison and its ability to conduct offensive operations.


  • 6 Indian Division, captured Basra December 1914.
  • 1915 went on to seize Amara 2 June and Nasiriya 25 July 1915.

Sir John Nixon, backed by London, keen to press on and take Baghdad.

29 September 1915 6 Indian Division under Charles Townshend captured Kut-al-Amara 120miles up the Tigris from Amara. Despite his wish for significant reinforcements he was encouraged to press on to Baghdad.

12 November 1915 within 30 miles of Baghdad.

22 November encountered strong Turkish opposition at Ctesiphon.

3 December retired to Kut, with Townshend taking the decision to rest the troops.

300 British officers, 2850 British other ranks. 8250 sepoys, including Indian officers, and 3500 Indian camp followers. And 6000 Arab civilians.

Far too few British officers with the language skills to command Indian troops.

Of 317 British officers in 6 Indian Division prior to the battle, 130 were killed or wounded. Of 235 Indian officers, 124 became casualties.

  • 110th Mahrattas – 1 officer.
  • 104th Rifles – 2 officers.
  • 66th Punjabis – 4 officers
  • 117th Mahrattas – 4 officers.
  • 2/5th Gurkhas – 4 officers.


Sepoys at the Siege of Kut-al-Amara, December 1915-April 1916, War in History, 11:3, 2004 e-library. Nikolas Gardner

Too few officers.

Lacking experience (as were replacement India troops).

Complexities of religious beliefs.

Expected to be relieved by Mid-January 1915.

Deteriorating weather, below freezing at night. Then heavy rain.

Sepoys refused to eat pack animals which led to grain meant for animals being given to them.


Research on Indian units on the Western Front in the First World War has shown that their discipline and cohesion eroded considerably once their original British officers became casualties. (12) Omissi, Sepoy and the Raj, p.106; J.Greenhut, ‘The “Imperial Reserve:: The Indian Corps on the Western Front, 1914-1915’, Journal of Commonwealth and Imperial History XII (1983), pp.54-73.

Sikhs and Hindus had no religious objections to fighting Muslims, Indian Muslims did.

Indian Muslims had reservations about going to war against Turks, who served the Ottoman Sultan, recognised by Sunnis as the Khalifia, the spiritual and temporal head of Islam.

Shi’a Muslim sepoys had expressed opposition to fighting near holy sites in Mesopotamia. (15), such as the tomb of Salman Pak, near Ctesiphon. Omissi, Sepoy and the Raj, p.129

This was especially the case amongst Pathans from trans-border areas, a double company of whom formed part of Townshend’s garrison at Kut.

Disciplinary problems before the battle of Ctesiphon.

  • Inexperience
  • Disaffection
  • Growing shortage of effective leadership
  • Sporadic desertions
  • Compelled to insert British soldiers into the ranks.

Defence of Kut, entrenching and wiring, had to be done, at night and lasted two weeks.

10-20 casualties a day.

12 December enemy pressure intensified.

The Decline of Indian Morale, January-February 1916

Expected to be relieved by Mid-January 1915.

Deteriorating weather, below freezing at night. Then heavy rain.

Had only thin summer uniforms.

  • Illness followed.
  • Trenches uninhabitable.
  • Relief made difficult.
  • Turkish propaganda to encourage sepoys to rise up and murder their British officers.
  • Different rations. With shortages troops were being deprived of essential nutrients.
  • By February eating the pack animals.
  • Sepoys refused to eat pack animals which led to grain meant for animals being given to them.
  • Impossible to persuade them regardless of a religious decree as they felt it would get back to the home communities.
  • Scurvy, pneumonia, jaundice and dysentery.
  • British soldiers scurvy, beriberi and other deficiency diseases.

Townshend issued numerous communiqués to his troops emphasizing the imminent arrival of Aylmer’s relieving force.

March, 24th Punjabis removed from the front line and the double company of Afridi Pathans disarmed.

The Crisis of Indian Moral and the End of the Siege, March-April 1916

8 March – Aylmer’s attempt at relief repulsed.

14 March – flooding of the Tigris.

Indians on tiny rations, while British able to eat horsemeat.

Cases of self-mutilation diminished as the siege progressed.

Desertion became more prevalent and increased in March.

Disaffection, desperation and suicide.

Threatened to replace sepoy officers and NCOs who were not fit with rankers who would.

By 14 April, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus abandoned their earlier objections, and nearly 10,000 Indians were eating meat. (54).’Diary of the Siege of Kut-el-Amarah’, Bell-Syer papers, Liddle Collection, MES 008.

‘Anyone, with the experience of the power and influence which caste, religion and tradition exercise in India will understand the difficulties and dangers in issuing such an order, especially if there was any chance of it not being universally obeyed.’ (56) Moberly, Campaign in Mesopotamia p.443.

Respect for Indian religious grievances was consistent with post-1857 British policy.

Dysentery, fever, anaemia and tuberculosis taking 20 men a day.

Weakened by starvation, malaria, scurvy, and beri-beri.

15 April attempted RFC air drop

22 April failure of another relief attempt

24 Royal Navy riverboat stopped on the Tigris.

26 Surrender terms

29 Surrender


The relationship between the British command structure and sepoys serving was contractual.

Rather than serving with unswerving devotion, sepoys performed a defined set of tasks, in return for which they expected a certain standard of treatment, including in respect for their traditional beliefs and practices.














































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