The Siege of Kut-Al-Amara

The 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment

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Men from the 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment with a captured Turkish gun.

Of all the tragedies that would be learnt after the cessation of hostilities in 1918, it is the experiences of the 2/Norfolks at Kut that comes to mind immediately. Today, 29th April 2016, marks the 100th Anniversary of the end of the Siege of Kut-Al-Amara.

After the failed attack on Ctesiphon in November 1915, Sir Charles Townshend, the commander of the 6th (Poona) Division, led his beleaguered force to Kut-al-Amara to form a line of defence. They occupied the town on 3 December 1915 and by 7 December, Turkish forces arrived and laid siege.

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The Kut area as seen on a map. The Norfolk Regiment can be seen to the north west of Kut itself.

The 2/Norfolks headquarters occupied a building called the Serai and they dug in to await relief. The daily routine would see the men manning trenches, coming under fire from artillery and working on fatigue parties. estimated he had supplies for a month; however, this eventually had to be stretched to five months.

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Sir Charles Townshend, the commander of the 6th (Poona) Division.

Christmas Eve saw the Turks attack and occupy parts of the town, January 1916 saw floods and terrible conditions and in February the daily rations per man were reduced to three-quarters while the Turks continued to heavily shell the town and attack from the air.

Captain Alfred Joseph Shakeshaft who was serving with C Company in the 2/Norfolks during the siege kept a diary and noted in January 1916,

‘Heavy rain all day. Streets of Kut and trenches ankle deep in mud and water. By night the trenches were almost waist deep in water. No fresh meat, tinned meat issued. Fuel now running very short, doors and window frames issued for wood ration and crude oil used as much as possible for cooking purposes.’

As conditions worsened he noted,

‘Men are frequently seen sitting down resting in the street Sentries have to lean against walls’

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Captain Alfred Joseph Shakeshaft 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment who witnessed the siege.

By March it was learnt that all relief efforts were suspended and scurvy broke out. Horses were being used for food and many supplies had run out. By April, malnutrition had begun to set in and on 26 April – 146 days after the siege had started – Townshend surrendered the garrison. The Norfolks went into captivity, where many were treated terribly. It was a testament to the battalion that General Hamilton noted of them,

‘In spite of all the trying conditions of the prolonged siege, the discipline, good order, and soldierly bearing of the battalion were maintained to the end.’

Lieutenant Colonel Francis Cecil Lodge, C.O. of the 2/Norfolk’s, was present at the surrender and on 29th April 1916 he wrote;

‘All guns and howitzers were destroyed this morning, also a large percentage of rifles and bayonets. Ammtnrevolvers, field glasses, thrown into the Tigris… Turkish Infantry entered Kut about 12 noon.’

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Lieutenant Colonel F C Lodge, far left, seen with other officers.

During the siege the 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment lost seventy-three men and it is estimated that 310 men went into captivity. In total the surrender of the whole fighting force, numbered over 10,000 men.

The remnants of the 2nd Battlion Norfolk Regiment did survive the siege. The transport section had not been at Kut and joined up with similar detachments from the 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment. They formed a composite battalion, named the Norsets. This was broken up on 21 July 1916, when the battalion was reconstituted by the arrival of new drafts.

 

 

 

 

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Invasion 1916

The Report of the German Invasion of Weybourne?

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The Sheringham lifeboat the J.C. Madge which unknowingly sparked an invasion scare in February 1916.

Believe it or not but at least one invasion alert is reported to have occurred in Norfolk in WW1. This is mentioned in the diary of the Upcher family, who lived at Sheringham Hall, and who helped with looking after wounded soldiers at Sheringham VAD Hospital. It came at a time when invasion was actually taken very seriously and the War Office believed that the Germans could land up to 160,000 troops on the East Coast. Defences were set up all over East Anglia and inland and Norfolk was considered a prime target for an invasion.

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The Upcher family of Sheringham Hall with Henry and Maria Upcher seen on the right.

On 24th February 1916 the Sheringham lifeboat the J.C. Madge went to the assistance of the SS Uller of Bergen. The lifeboat did not return and we will come back to that later on. But this disappearance sparked rumours amongst the patients at the hospital where in the diary it is noted,

‘Good deal of agitation about. Many soldiers on bikes and round hospital. Found out from our patients that a landing was expected. All the soldiers had been out all night and not come in for morning rations. The lifeboat had gone out to ship in distress off Wells and had not been heard of since.’

Rumours were rife amongst the soldiers in the hospital and the diary notes that the patients were expecting a bombardment and an invasion at any minute. The diary continued,

“Le Good came with wide open eyes to announce that Germans had landed at Weybourne! How many? ‘Ah that’s the worst of it, no one knows.’ And they are in khaki and it will be a very difficult thing to find them among the other soldiers.”

The diary tried to be objective in that they tell the patients that the lifeboat was often out for hours if it had to take a boat to Lowestoft or Yarmouth. But the patients were of the opinion that the lifeboat had been lured out by the Germans. The next report from the patients was,

‘…that the Germans in khaki having landed were going about shaking hands with soldiers and with the other hand knifing them! One after the other the man came in with the same tale, always ending in awestruck voices. But the lifeboat has not been heard of yet.’

And so these reports came in all day and the diary notes that soldiers and their officers were everywhere and that there were more ships than usual off the coast. One soldier was allowed to put up the Union Jack with the Red Cross flag at the hospital to calm everyone’s nerves, but as the diary stated,

‘… it had the contrary effect on most of them as they again came to pour out their fears that when we are bombarded, “I’m sorry for Sheringham when that happens they will at once fire on the Red Cross flag as they always do.”’

Then at 11 o’clock a sergeant came in and reported that it was now ‘Normal Conditions’, although the lifeboat still had not returned. However later on the diary noted,

‘The lifeboat returned safely the following Sunday evening at 6 p.m. but the German spy idea was so firmly rooted in the military brain that when she returned the trenches were manned.’

When the lifeboat landed a local was on hand to identify each of the crew and as that happened loaded rifles were at the ready just in case there were any unknown faces in the crew. The diary finishes by noting,

‘Later we heard that on the Friday night of the scare the boat being called out the same night that orders were given to fire on any boat which attempted to land on any part of the beach. When those in authority were asked about the lifeboat. ‘oh they had forgotten about that. So other orders had to be issued to except the lifeboat. When the fishermen went to the boat to launch her they were allowed across the cliffs with a military escort.’

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Part of the Upcher diary entry for 24th February 1916.

So what had actually happened to the lifeboat? The history of the Sheringham lifeboat website tells the story.

‘The Uller, bound from Sunderland to La Pallice with a cargo of coal, struck a sandbank early in the morning of the 24th February. Seriously damaged she floated off, and drifted for some eighteen hours, until she again struck the bottom on the Blakeney Overfalls bank. In great difficulty she drifted clear into deeper water and made signals for assistance. The day had been wild and stormy and the snow was falling thickly as the maroons called out the Sheringham Lifeboat.

Messages were received that both Cromer and Wells lifeboats were unable to launch due to the severity of the storm. The Sheringham crew had a long run, in the dark, from the town to the lifeboat house over the cliffs which had been trenched and barb-wired.

Eventually the J.C. Madge was launched by means of the haul-off warp, the first wave she met buried the boat and soaked the crew to the skin. The Uller was discovered just inside the Blakeney Overfalls at around 10pm that evening and the second coxwain and a crewmember went on board to discuss the situation with her captain. The Uller still had steam and could achieve half power so, for the rest of the night, through swirling snow, the Sheringham men stood by in their open boat.

In the morning the Uller began the voyage towards Grimsby, the lifeboat being towed behind on a 90ft tow line, her crew having to make constant effort not to be flung onto the Uller’s propeller, now half out of the sea due to the water in her damaged bow.

It took two days for the vessels to reach the Humber, the lifeboatmen spent the night in Grimsby where many had family and friends. The crew’s family and friends however had received no news of the lifeboat which had disappeared into the darkness 24 hours before. A passing French steamer took the lifeboat in tow for some of the long journey home and the J.C. Madge finally returned to station at 6pm on the 28th February.’

It is amazing that the disappearance of the Sheringham lifeboat sparked this alert but it is quite indicative of the time that spies were supposed to be all over the Norfolk coast and that the threat of invasion was considered quite real. It came at a time when Norfolk had been and was being attacked from the air and from the sea.

So plans had been made to evacuate the population should an invasion occur and plans to thwart this were in place in all districts put forward by the Local Emergency Committies under the command of Norfolk Country Constabulary, the Special Constabulary and the local Army brigades.

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An example of a Defence of the Realm poster instructing the inhabitants of Hunstanton what to do in the event of an invasion.

And the diary entry for this incident ended with this question.

‘Report only reached home of agitation along the coast at 1 o clock. The military alertness spread all along the East Coast. Shall we ever hear if there was any foundation in the reports?’

Whether the Upchers ever found out that this had all been a false alarm with no foundation is not mentioned in the diary. But it is an amazing insight into a time when this was taken very seriously.