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Rivers of Life, Rivers of Death: The World War I Mesopotamian Campaign

Geographic factors such as mountains, rivers, and climate can help or hinder military operations. A good example of this is the World War I conflict between the British and the Ottoman Turks in what is now Iraq, where rivers in the desert limited offensive flexibility but provided channels for support.

The importance of rivers and waterways in world history cannot be ignored. They have provided water for drinking and agriculture, acted as highways, and formed natural boundaries. In esopotamia (modern-day Iraq), the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Shatt al-Arab (which flows from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates to the Persian Gulf) are the primary rivers. During the Mesopotamian Campaign in World War I, these rivers provided drinking water, facilitated logistics and fire support activities, and directly affected troop movements.

During the campaign from 1914 to 1918, British and Ottoman Turkish forces used new technology to augment traditional ways of operating within the region. River steamers, railroads, and motorized vehicles operated side by side with traditional watercraft and land conveyances, forming a link between the past and the present.


The ancient port of Basra, home of the legendary Sinbad, has long been an important access point into Mesopotamia. Sitting astride the Shatt al-Arab, it provides easy access to the Persian Gulf from the interior and to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the Persian Gulf. During World War I, for Ottomans in Iraq and for locals, Basra acted as a point of entry, where supplies from the outside world were unloaded from oceangoing ships and sent upriver on local watercraft.

For the British, the city controlled oil exports from the Gulf region. In 1914, the oilfields of southern Mesopotamia provided the bulk of the oil for the Royal Navy. To protect this resource, a small British force, consisting mostly of units from the British Indian Army, captured the fort at Al Fao on 6 November 1914. Two weeks later, the British captured Basra. After that, there was a hiatus in major actions.

Sinbad would have found Basra in 1914 little changed from the days of the medieval Abbasid Empire. The city consisted mostly of small patches of high, dry ground surrounded by low-lying muddy areas and the Shatt itself. In the rainy season, though, even the raised areas flooded. Even in ideal conditions, movement within the city was difficult.

The dearth of motorized river craft complicated movement. Oceangoing ships were forced to anchor in the middle of the river and await unloading by a couple of Arab lighters that regularly serviced only two ships every 3 weeks. Wharfs, warehouses, and all the other necessary infrastructure of a modern port were completely lacking.

In short, given its condition in 1914, Basra could not have been a worse place for the British to base an army. However, with the British Army’s initial limited objectives of protecting the oil fields, the small force was sufficient. No preparation or even thought was given to supporting a larger force. As a result, when the British Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force began major operations later in the war, it suffered many logistics handicaps.

Drinking Water

Needless to say, the desert conditions of Iraq make military operations more difficult because of the need to stay near freshwater sources. Today, the presence of motorized vehicles and airplanes enables forces to be supplied virtually anywhere. That was not the case in 1914. Although cars and trucks were used extensively in every theater during World War I, they never formed more than half of the total supply train in even the best supplied areas.

In Mesopotamia, where everything was always in short supply (for both sides), motor vehicles were not even a remote option. Historian A.J. Barker, in his 1967 book The Bastard War: The Mesopotamian Campaign of 1914−1918, notes that British planners in India gave little consideration to the need for water carts to Mesopotamia. Ottoman forces also lacked sufficient means to transport water over large distances.

As a result, both the British and Ottoman land forces were forced to follow the madly winding Tigris and Euphrates, except where a loop in the river could be avoided by a short march. The need to stay near the rivers is one explanation for why most of the battles were fought near the rivers. Barker’s book is peppered with examples of thirst becoming an issue when soldiers strayed from the river.

During engagements, the concern for staying close to water sources was particularly serious. At the battle of Es Sinn on 28 September 1915, which led to the capture of Kut, British Major General Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend sent some of his men 5 to 10 miles away from the Tigris to flank the Turkish positions. (Kut al Amara was a town located 100 miles southeast of Baghdad in a bend of the Tigris.)

After a night march and a day of fighting, the troops were exhausted, having gone without water except for the contents of their water bottles since the night before. Barker notes, “Like the men, the animals were nearly mad with thirst,” and consequentially “a number of mules made a dash for the closest marsh, became bogged down in the mud, and were quickly sniped by the Turks.”

Because of the inability to transport sufficient water far from the rivers, most operations were not able to take full advantage of tactical situations for diversionary and flanking maneuvers.


Rivers have traditionally been the easiest and most efficient means of transporting bulky shipments. Martin Van Creveld, in Supplying War: Logistics from Wallerstein to Patton, makes the point that in 17th century Europe strategic mobility was severely limited by rivers—not because of difficulties in crossing them but because they were the principal highways for heavy goods. The obvious fact that rivers do not go everywhere a commander might wish meant freedom of action was severely curtailed.

The Tigris and the Euphrates were no exception to this fact, and the presence of muddy, marshy terrain outside the rivers’ immediate vicinities only increased the challenge of moving armies (as well as the challenge of obtaining sufficient drinking water). Except during the worst periods of the rainy and flood seasons, these marshes could be negotiated by men and horses, but hauling heavy equipment was out of the question throughout the year. In this respect, the British and Ottoman armies merely adopted long established means of moving heavy equipment in the region.

In using the rivers, both sides adapted modern technology to the natural conditions. Native craft, whose designs had remained virtually unchanged for centuries, were supplemented with oil- and steam-powered craft whenever possible for moving men and equipment.

Powered gunboats also formed an integral part of the campaign. Gunboats not only protected supplies but went on the offensive: Since operations were confined to the river banks, they frequently provided fire support for infantry operations. British gunboats such as the HMS Espiegle and HMS Firefly participated in many offensive actions, but they were often delayed by hidden sandbars and Ottoman-laid river obstructions.

The major restricting element for both sides was a chronic shortage of modern boats of every kind. This shortage became painfully evident as the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force attempted to mount a relief of General Townshend’s forces besieged at Kut in early 1916. The lack of river craft meant that the British relief was unable to rapidly pit an overwhelming force of men and equipment against the Ottoman besiegers.

Despite several valiant attempts to break through Ottoman lines, Townshend, with his men starving, surrendered nearly 10,000 British and Indian soldiers on 29 April 1916 after a 5-month siege. The majority of these captives died of starvation, exhaustion, disease, or cruelty by their Turkish captors.

The fall of Kut finally spurred the British to address their transportation problems in the Mesopotamian theater. Additional motorized gunboats and supply boats were added to the fleet, and alternatives were sought—primarily a railroad from Basra to the front. The Ottomans were unable to supply new boats and their only available railroad ended in Baghdad, so they could not replace their losses. The most modern transportation technologies of the time—automobiles and airplanes—were mostly used for reconnaissance and played little to no role in logistics. So river transportation remained the primary means of conveyance.

Once the British resolved their transportation problems, they were able to bring superior numbers against their Ottoman adversaries, whom they pushed back into northern Iraq by November 1918.

Rivers as Tactical Barriers

The Tigris and the Euphrates also were tactical barriers to movement. The shortage of river craft and bridges meant commanders had to pay careful attention to how they deployed their forces because, in the heat of battle, shifting forces across the rivers was difficult and time consuming. As a result, commanders faced challenges in capitalizing on tactical opportunities and repositioning forces to meet unexpected contingencies. Although only separated by a river—and a shallow one at that—forces on opposite sides of the Tigris during combat might as well have been separated by an ocean.

During the battle of Es Sinn, General Townshend successfully deceived the Turks into thinking he would attack on the right side of the river while he actually planned to attack on the left. After the Turks had taken the bait and transferred the bulk of their reserves to the right and were unable to speedily cross them back over, Townshend launched his main attack on the left. This forced the main Turkish force to retreat to prevent being surrounded. These games of deception characterized much of the fighting in Mesopotamia during World War I.

The Tigris, Euphrates, and Shatt al-Arab waterways defined the battlespace for the British and Ottoman forces during the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I. The need for water and transportation meant that battles were also fought near these rivers. They were, quite literally, both rivers of life and rivers of death for the British, Indian, and Ottoman soldiers involved.

Michael Yarborough is a historian at the Army Center of Military History. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and philosophy from James Madison University and a master’s degree in history from George Mason University.

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