Major General Charles Townshend was one of the more controversial British generals of the First World War. In 1915 he led a successful advance up the Tigris towards Baghdad, winning a series of impressive victories over larger Turkish armies. His progress finally came to an end at Ctesiphon, and he was then forced to retreat back down the river, making his stand at Kut. After a siege that lasted from November 1915 until April 1916 he was forced to surrender, and he and his men spent the rest of the war in Turkish captivity.
At a first glance at the facts Townshend shouldn't be so controversial - much of the blame for the failure of the campaign and the eventual surrender at Kut has to go to General Sir John Nixon, the overall British commander in Mesopotamia. The advance to Ctesiphon was well handled, the battles showed a great deal of skill, the retreat to Kut was skilfully done and the defence of Kut lasted for several months. Townshend remained popular with the men under his command, even after they had spent two years in fairly horrific circumstances in captivity.
The essential problem is that Townshend was 'pushy'. He was always agitating for promotions, moving between regiments and branches of the army and pulling strings with his many contacts. The chain of command was clearly not a concept he was happy with, but despite this he still managed to attract a number of influential supporters, amongst them Kitchener. Even when besieged in Kut he was still angling for a promotion! His reputation also suffers from his treatment as an honoured guest of the Turks, while his men were suffering, and his post-war support of the Turks.
Nash has produced an impressive biography of the man, tracing his military career as he moved between Britain, India, Egypt and the Sudan, including the siege of Chitrál that first made his name. I don't agree with all of Nash's conclusions and criticisms of Townshend, some of which perhaps tell us as much about the modern British army as about our subject (one example would be Townshend's attempts to pull strings to gain the promotions he wanted - this wouldn't be acceptable now, but was far more common in the late Victorian and Edwardian army, and was something that Churchill was equally adept at). Nash provides us with enough material to allow us to draw our own conclusions about Townshend, and has produced a well balanced biography of an able but irritating and eventually unlucky commander.
1 - 1861 and 1919. The Beginning and Almost the End
2 - 1861-1885: Egypt and the Sudan
3 - 1886-1893: India and the Hunza-Nagar Expedition
4 - 1893-1895: The Chitrál Campaign
5 - 3 March-20 April 1895: Besieged in Chitrál
6 - 1895-1898: Celebrity and Return to the Sudan
7 - 1899-1900: India and South Africa
8 - 1900-1903: Service in the United Kingdom and the Canadian Expedition
9 - 1903-1908: India
10 - 1908-1911: South Africa
11 - 1911-1914: Major General's Command, the Territorial Army and India
12 - 1915-1916: The Campaign in Mesopotamia
13 - October-November 1915: The Advance to Ctesiphon and the Retreat to Kut
14 - November 1915-April 1916: Besieged
15 - April 1916-October 1918: Prisoner of War
16 - 1918-1924: Soldier to Civilian
17 - 1924-2010: Epilogue
Author: N.S. Nash
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military