British attempt to bargain with Turks over Kut

On this day in 1916, three British officers, including the famous Captain T.E. Lawrence (known as Lawrence of Arabia), attempt to engineer the escape of thousands of British troops under siege at the city of Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia through a secret negotiation with the Turkish command.

Since December 1915, British forces under the command of Sir Charles Townshend had been under siege from Turkish and German forces in Kut, on the Tigris River in the Basra province of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Four attempts to push the enemy troops back had resulted only in some 23,000 casualties—nearly twice the strength of the remaining regiment. Exhausted, undersupplied and plagued with illness, Townshend’s men were on the brink of surrender when the British regional command decided to try one last diplomatic maneuver.

Then working in military intelligence in Cairo, Egypt, the recently promoted Captain Thomas Edward Lawrence found office work dull, and thus was excited to be sent, along with two other officers, on a secret mission to negotiate the escape of Townshend and his troops with their Turkish counterparts. On April 27, they made their offer: if the Turks allowed the men in Kut to leave the city and rejoin Allied regional forces located to the south of Kut, they would be rewarded with £1 million in gold.

Turkish officers, confident of their imminent victory at Kut, refused the offer, and all Lawrence and his comrades were able to secure was the release of some of the wounded. Kut fell on April 29, as Townshend and his remaining 13,000 men were taken prisoner, in the largest single surrender of troops in British history to that point.

Lawrence’s well-written reports to British military command, both about Kut and Arab nationalism, won him high favor among his superiors. He was soon sent on another important mission, to help engineer an Arab revolt against the Turks led by Feisal Hussein.

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