Courage and Captivity: The Gurkhas at the Siege of Kut

Welcome to The Gurkha Museum’s latest Online Exhibition.

In popular memory, the First World War is often characterised more by its tragedies than its triumphs. Although many are familiar with the first day of the Somme, the laboured offensives around Passchendaele and the abortive campaign at Gallipoli, one of the British Armies worst defeats, in any conflict, is relatively unknown. This is the Siege of Kut, a bitter 5-month encirclement which ended with a British force of 13,000 men being forced marched into the desert as prisoners of war, many of them never to be seen again.

This exhibition will tell the story of the Siege of Kut, emphasising particularly the contribution of the 2/7th Gurkha Rifles, who fought with distinction across the campaign and bravely endured a harrowing ordeal in Ottoman Turkish captivity.

Setting the stage

Setting the stage

When Europe fell into war in July 1914 the Turkish Ottoman Empire, a nation then referred to as the ‘sick man of Europe’, did not declare for any side. Relations between the British and the Ottomans had been strained for decades and continued to decline during the first months of the war. In October, concerns that the Ottomans might side with Germany against the Entente powers (Britain, France and Russia) led to the confiscation of two Turkish warships that were being built in British harbours. In the face of this and other perceived insults, the Ottomans finally declared war on 29 October 1914, with an attack on Russian ports in Crimea. A declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire by France and Britain followed soon after.

Though not a threat to mainland Britain, the Ottomans were in a very good position to cut off Britain’s critical oil reserves in the Middle East, as well as access to the Suez Canal. To prevent this, the 6th (Poona) Division of the British Indian Army, commanded by Major-General Charles Townshend, was dispatched to Mesopotamia, a region that encompassed much of modern-day Iraq. Their initial objective was to protect the oil refineries on Abadan Island, at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab river. Part of this force was made up of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, who had embarked from Karachi (modern-day Pakistan) in November.

Over the next year, the Division made a series of successful advances, gaining victories at Basra and Shaiba. After another victory at Nasiriyah the Division moved on to occupy Kut al Amara, which was strategically valuable due to its location in a bend of the Tigris river, on 28 September 1915. From here, the British could make a garrison only a hundred miles from Baghdad.

Once installed in Kut, Townshend voiced doubts about pushing further because of the Division’s depleted state. General Sir John Nixon, commander of the British Indian Army, disagreed and ordered the Division onward to Baghdad. In October the Division concentrated at Aziziyah, just 40 miles from the city of Ctesiphon.

Photograph –Major General Sir Charles Townshend, Source; In Kut & Captivity With The Sixth Indian Division, Major E. W. C. Sandes, MC, RE

The Clash at Ctesiphon

The city of Ctesiphon was founded in 120 BCE and for centuries served as the capital of the Sasanian Empire. The city was no stranger to conflict, being conquered by the Roman Empire in 336 CE. Later on, the city would fall into decay as nearby Baghdad grew as the new regional centre of power. By 1915 only the Arch of Ctesiphon, once part of the city’s palace, was left to distinguish it from the surrounding desert.

But on 22 November 1915, this ancient place would once again become centre stage for history when the 6th Division attacked an entrenched force of 18,000 Ottomans.

Photograph – The Arch of Ctesiphon, Source; Other Ranks of Kut by P. W. Long



Militarily, Kut was a highly defensible town. Flanked on three sides by water, the only way an attacking force could feasibly approach the town was from the northwest. Consequently, after the withdrawal from Ctesiphon the British garrison had hurriedly built a complex system of trenches and redoubts in front of the town.

After the Division settled into Kut, Townshend made the controversial decision to stay and withstand a likely encirclement. A major factor in the decision was that a siege of Kut would tie down Ottoman forces in the area, as well as deny Ottomans use of the river. But besides any military advantage, Nixon had made assurances to Townshend that the garrison would be relieved within two months.

The Ottoman forces arrived at Kut on 5 December and took positions around the town. At this time, Townshend decided to evacuate the Division’s cavalry component. To achieve this, the Royal Engineers built a pontoon bridge across the river, allowing the 6th Indian Cavalry Brigade flee the encirclement.

Siege conditions

By February, the garrison had already resorted to slaughtering horses for meat. Though this filled out the rations for British soldiers, many Indian soldiers refused to eat horse meat and suffered greatly as a result. However, the Gurkhas took a typically pragmatic view of the matter, agreeing to eat the meat in order to stay strong.

Conditions around Kut had also deteriorated throughout January as the river flooded the plains around the town, necessitating the evacuation of much of the first line trenches. Rain, mud, swarms of flies and general unsanitary conditions took their toll on the men’s health; diseases like dysentery, scurvy, beri-beri and enteritis became endemic.

Photograph – An operating theatre in Kut showing the rudimentary nature of the medical facilities during the siege. Source; In Kut & Captivity With the Sixth Indian Division by E. W. C. Sandes, MC RE


As for the promised attempts to relieve Kut, the British found little success. The Tigris Corps, led by Major General Sir John Aylmer, fought several difficult battles to break the siege. At Sheikh Sa’ad, Gurkhas from the 1/1st and 1/9th GR fought hard to rescue their comrades in Kut but took heavy losses in the process. In mid-March Aylmer’s forces withdrew in defeat, and Kut’s fate was effectively sealed.

Despite this, Townshend resolved to hold on through April, which meant that the men’s dwindling rations were cut even further. A last-ditch attempt to resupply the garrison came on 25 April, when the steamer Julnar attempted to ferry food and water into the town. But before the Julnar could get close to the town it was shot to pieces by Ottoman artillery, with much of its crew killed or wounded. This spelled the end of British resistance in Kut, and on 29 April, amid a flurry of activity as the garrison destroyed its guns and equipment, Townshend surrendered unconditionally.

Over the following days, Ottoman forces began to enter Kut, and the surviving garrison was disarmed and led out of the town as prisoners of war. Per Sandes over 13,300 men were marched into captivity, consisting of 2,869 British, 7,192 Indians, and 3,248 Indian camp followers. Though already sick, starved and exhausted, their worst ordeals still lay ahead.


Aside from the men who were too sick to walk, the majority of the column was marched to Shumran, 8 miles upriver from Kut. It was here that the officers and men were separated. Though the captured officers would experience privation and hardship over the coming years, it was the rank and file that would suffer the most.

From Shumran, the POWs began forced marches west toward Baghdad, Syria and Anatolia. The marches were long, the weather was searingly hot, and the rations given to the already emaciated men were meagre. To add to the dire situation, the responsibility of the prisoners was given not to Ottoman soldiers, but to various groups of local tribesmen inclined to cruelty toward their Indian and Gurkha prisoners. Consequently, hundreds of men died during the desert marches. Many survivors described how men that were too weak to continue would collapse by the side of the road, where they would either die of exposure or be killed by their guards.

The Gurkhas fared comparatively well on the march and maintained strict discipline. Whilst many British and Indian troops sold their clothing for extra food, the Gurkhas obeyed orders not to do so. Thus, the Gurkhas were some of the only soldiers on the march who had their complete uniforms. The Gurkhas also took it upon themselves to safeguard other POWs. Sergeant Macnamara of the Supply & Transport Corps reported on how the Gurkhas aided British soldiers in difficulty by collecting stragglers, cooking grain rations and foraging for firewood.

Following the marches, a majority of the Gurkha and Indian troops were sent to Ras-al-Ayn in modern-day Syria, where they were used as forced labour in constructing railway tunnels under the supervision of German advisors. Although the marches were behind them, the Indian and Gurkha troops continued to suffer from awful treatment. P. W. Long, a British POW, described the state the Indian prisoners were kept in:

Despite appalling conditions, the survivors of the 2/7th GR continued to preserve discipline. In the absence of their officers, three senior NCOs (Colour Havildar Fatehbahadur Limbu, Colour Havildar Bhotri Khattri and Havildar Hari Singh Khattri) took charge of the men. Singh Khattri, an attached Sikh soldier, was so dedicated to the battalion that when he learned that Sikh and Gurkha soldiers were to be separated he shaved off his hair and beard in order to remain with them. Their leadership saw the battalion through almost three years of captivity. Additionally, the Regimental History credits comradeship as a major factor in their survival:

‘From first to last they were magnificent – a class apart. […] In the 2nd Battalion there was no straggling; each man took his strength from his comrades: cohesion and membership were never lost’.

There are also accounts of Gurkha soldiers mounting escapes. Lt. Sweet, who had taken part in the bridge demolition, made several escape attempts. Each time he was recaptured and suffered harsh punishment, eventually dying in captivity in 1918. Other attempts met with more success; one group led by Padamdhoj Limbu managed to get across the Taurus Mountains. After journeying through vast expanses of enemy territory the party was able to link up with the Australian Light Horse in Syria.


Additionally, the reformed 2/7th GR, which was raised in June 1916 with drafts from the 1st battalion, would win some retribution for the men in captivity during the Second Battle of Kut in February 1917. The new 2/7th, alongside battalions of the 2nd, 4th and 9th GR, played an instrumental part in crossing the Tigris and securing the reoccupation of Kut.

Between 1916 and 1918, over 4000 British and Indian POWs from the Kut garrison died in captivity. Those who lived were finally liberated on 30 October 1918 following the Armistice of Mudros, which signalled the capitulation of the Ottoman Empire to the Allies. Following the Armistice, the survivors of the original 2/7th GR rejoined British forces in Egypt, where the battalion reported ‘as smartly as it had done in 1914 when it first set foot in Suez’.

Photograph – British soldiers inspecting the Turkish memorial in Kut. Source; History of the 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Gurkha Rifles.

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