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BW Soldiers Marching

The Battle of Shaikh Sa’ad, 7th January 1916

If you look back at the previous post, you will see that 67 men of The Black Watch lost their lives on 7 January 1916. So what happened on that day?

After the first month of the siege of Kut (southeast of Baghdad), which began in December 1915, 11,000 men of the 7th Indian Division were trapped by the armies of the Ottoman Empire. With the siege entering its second month in January 1916 it was vital for a relieving force of British Empire troops to reach the town as quickly as possible. With this in mind, a hastily assembled Division comprised of regiments (some of which had come over from France) which had never manoeuvred, let alone fought together, began a march to Kut on 4th January.

Facing this new Division were roughly 30,000 Ottoman troops, positioned just to the south of Kut. Though outnumbered, the British forces of the 7th Division, which included the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch, were confident in their ability to defeat their foes. This was based on two factors: firstly the positioning of the Turkish troops aside the River Tigris with no bridge linking the two forces, and secondly the fact that traditionally Turkish troops in the Mesopotamia sector had performed badly against British and Indian troops. This second assumption did not take into account that Turkish veterans of the Gallipoli Campaign had been sent to reinforce the Mesopotamian armies, their morale very high.

Black Watch soldiers marching through the desert in Mesopotamia.
Black Watch soldiers marching through the desert in Mesopotamia.

The march of the 7th Division began on the 4th of January, and it was tough going. With freezing nights and bakingly hot days, poor roads, and limited water available, the troops suffered under these new conditions. The 2nd Black Watch performed marvellously well, especially considering they had just spent the last 6 weeks at sea, and so fitness was not at peak level. By the 6th of January the foot sore infantry could hear the shrapnel bursts of a battle ahead of them, and so hurried their pace. The night of the 6/7th January was miserable, freezing cold and heavy rain, mixed with a morning mist that did not finally break until 10 am.

When the mist finally did lift what the men of the 2nd Battalion saw in front of them was a large level plain, with the Tigris running through the middle of it, and the Turkish army split in two. It seemed a perfect opportunity for the British and Indian forces to isolate and defeat in turn the forces to their front, and thus clear the route all the way to Kut. Indeed this was originally the battle plan, but at the last minute it was changed and instead of taking on the two Turkish armies individually it was decided to take on both of them at the same time.

Realising the weakness of their position the Turks had done their best to dig in. Their forces on the left bank of the Tigris had some two miles of trenches to defend themselves, whilst on the right bank the line was slightly shorter. This bank proved to be the weaker of the two, and in a stunning assault the British forces of the 28th Brigade stormed the Turkish lines and took them. On the left bank though it was a different proposition. With limited artillery, and no forward trenches, the attacking forces were required to throw themselves against the Turkish lines across the bullet swept plain, with little support. This attack failed.

BW Soldiers Marching
Black Watch soldiers Marching through the desert in Mesopotamia.

The 2nd Battalion, operating in a support role, advanced slowly across the plain along with what remained of the 21st Brigade. At around 1 o’clock in the afternoon the Battalion received orders to halt and permission to start fires to cook their lunch was given. However no sooner had the fires been prepared than the Battalion was ordered into action. After some 300 yards of rapid advance the men of The Black Watch started to suffer casualties from long range fire, and the soldiers rapidly formed up in loose order.

It was at this point that nature seems to have intervened in order to affect this attack. A mirage descended over the Turkish lines, and the British artillery, confused as to where the enemy were, could not support their attacking infantry, who were now suffering heavy casualties on that flat, featureless plain.

The losses of the 2nd Battalion were now reaching critical point. Without reserves, without artillery, and without any chance of success, the order to halt that attack was given. Captain Hamilton-Johnson, the most senior unwounded officer present, gave the order to the 2nd Black Watch, who by now numbered only about 120 men, to dig in. At dusk the men were able to retire back to their starting lines unmolested and with that the Battle of Shaikh Sa’ad came to an end.

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5 thoughts on “The Battle of Shaikh Sa’ad, 7th January 1916”

  1. It appears to be a number of different spelling for this town. Most spell it Sheikh Sa’ad, though I note the 2nd Black Watch war diary does spell in “Shaikh Sa’ad” Is there a definite contemporary spelling, or, are Shaikh Sa’ad and Sheikh Sa’ad acceptable? (For those who might want to write further on this particular battle)

  2. My great grandfather Lance Corporal Colin MacRae S/7097 2bn Black Watch RH was killed in action at the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad in Iraq on 7th January 1916, during the Mesapotamian campaign. He arrived in France on 08/04/15 and was moved to Mesapotamia in December 1915. Colin worked as a porter or hoistman for the Caledonian Railway in the Grand Central Hotel in Central Station, Glasgow, before WW1. He is commemorated on the bronze plaque in Central Station. When he was killed in action the hotel gave his widow a job in the hotel kiosk selling confectionary, and provided her with hot meals.


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