November 23

This Day in History

World War I

Nov 23, 1915:

Battle of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia

On this day in 1915, fighting between Allied and Turkish forces continues into a second day during the Battle of Ctesiphon (or Selman Pak), on the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq.

Under the command of Sir John Nixon, British troops in World War I enjoyed a string of early successes in their invasion of Mesopotamia. By late September 1915, forces led by Nixon's forward divisional commander, Sir Charles Townshend, had occupied the Mesopotamian province of Basra, including the town of Kut-al-Amara. That November, Nixon ordered Townshend to continue the offensive up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers towards Baghdad, the regional commander's real objective. Anxious about the fragile nature of British supply lines in the region and doubtful of the capabilities of his mostly Indian troops--who had already lost one-third of their number to battle or sickness--Townshend argued for delaying the attacks in order to wait for reinforcements. The ambitious Nixon instructed him to proceed as ordered.

Meanwhile, following their defeat at Kut, Turkish forces had withdrawn to carefully prepared and fortified defensive positions among the ruins of the ancient city of Ctesiphon. When Townshend's troops began their attacks on the night of November 22, they were confronted by companies of largely inexperienced Turkish soldiers entrenched firmly in two lines on either side of the Tigris. While the Anglo-Indian troops were able to capture the first-line of Turkish positions that first night, the Turks mounted a spirited defense and casualties on both sides began to mount.

On November 23, the Turks launched a counter-attack aimed at recapturing the ground lost the day before. Though their effort was unsuccessful, Townshend's casualty rate had reached 40 percent, or some 4,500 men. Knowing he could not expect reinforcements, Townshend authorized a British retreat to Kut in order to regroup and treat his wounded men. Twelve days later, the Turks began a siege against Kut that would last for the next five months and exhaust Townshend's depleted forces. After attempting four times without success to confront their opponents, suffering heavy casualties in the process, Townshend was forced to give up the fight, along with his remaining 10,000 men, on April 29, 1916. It was the largest single surrender of troops in British history up until that time.

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