LETTERS FROM MESOPOTAMIA
IN 1915 AND JANUARY, 1916, FROM ROBERT PALMER, WHO WAS KILLED IN THE BATTLE OF UM EL HANNAH, JUNE 21, 1916 AGED 27 YEARS
PRINTED FOR PRIVATE CIRCULATION ONLY
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He went with a draft from the 6th Hants to reinforce the 4th Hants. The 6th Hants had been in India since November, 1914.
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War deemed he hateful, for therein he saw Passions unloosed in licence, which in man Are the most evil, a false witness to The faith of Christ. For when by settled plan, To gratify the lustings of the few, The peoples march to battle, then, the law
Of love forgotten, men come out to kill Their brothers in a hateless strife, nor know The cause wherefor they fight, except that they Whom they as rulers own, do bid them so. And thus his heart was heavy on the day That war burst forth. He felt that men could ill
Afford to travel back along the years That they had mounted, toiling, stage by stage— —A year he was to India's plains assigned Nor heard the spite of rifles, nor the rage Of guns; yet pondered oft on what the mind Experiences in war; what are the fears,
And what those joys unknown that men do feel In stress of fight. He saw how great a test Of manhood is a stubborn war, which draws Out all that's worst in men or all that's best: Their fiercest brutal passions from all laws Set free, men burn and plunder, rape and steal;
Or all their human strength of love cries out Against such suffering. And so he came In time to wish that he might thus be tried, Partly to know himself, partly from shame That others with less faith had gladly died, While he in peace and ease had cast a doubt,
Not on his faith, but on his strength to bear So great a trial. Soon it was his fate To test himself; and with the facts of war So clear before him he could feel no hate, No passion was aroused by what he saw, But only pity. And he put all fear
Away from him, terming it the offspring Of an unruly mind. Like some strong man Whom pygmies in his sleep have bound with threads Of twisted cobweb, and he to their plan Is captive while he sleeps, but quickly shreds His bonds when he awakes and sees the thing
That they have bound him with. His faith and will Purged all evil passions from his mind, And left there one great overmastering love For all his fellows. War taught him to find That peace, for which at other times he strove In vain, and new-found friendship did fulfil
His thoughts with happiness. Such was the soul That he perfected, ready for the call Of his dear Master (should it to him come), Scornful of death's terrors, yet withal Loath to leave this life, while still was some Part of the work he dreamed undone, his goal
As yet unreached. There was for such an one A different work among those given, Who've crossed the border of eternity In youthful heedlessness,—as unshriven Naked souls joined the great fraternity O' the dead, while yet their life was just begun ...
And so he went from us unto his task, For all our life is as it were a mask That lifteth at our death, and death is birth To higher things than are upon this earth.
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FLASHMAN'S HOTEL, RAWAL PINDI. April 25th, 1915.
TO HIS MOTHER.
They are calling for volunteers from Territorial battalions to fill gaps in the Persian Gulf—one subaltern, one sergeant, and thirty men from each battalion. So far they have asked the Devons, Cornwalls, Dorsets, Somersets and East Surreys, but not the Hampshires. So I suppose they are going to reserve us for feeding the 4th Hants in case they want casualties replaced later on. Even if they come to us, I don't think they are likely to take me or Luly, because in every case they are taking the senior subaltern: and that is a position which I am skipping by being promoted along with the three others: and Luly is a long way down the list. But of course I shall volunteer, as there is no adequate reason not to; so I thought you would like to know, only you mustn't worry, as the chance of my going is exceedingly remote: but I like to tell you everything that happens.
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Four months after he wrote this, in August, 1915, Robert was on leave at Naini Tal, with Purefoy Causton, a brother officer.
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METROPOLE HOTEL, NAINI TAL.
August 3rd, 1915.
TO HIS MOTHER.
It has been extremely wet since I last wrote. On Saturday we could do nothing except laze indoors and play billiards and Friday was the same, with a dull dinner-party at the end of it. It was very nice and cool though, and I enjoyed those two days as much as any.
On Sunday we left Government House in order to be with Guy Coles during his three days' leave.
It rained all the morning: we went to Church at a spikey little chapel just outside Government House gate. It cleared about noon and we walked down to the Brewery, about three miles to meet Guy. When he arrived we had lunch there and then got ponies.
We had arranged to take Guy straight to a picnic with a nice Mrs. Willmott of Agra, who comes here for the hot weather. So we rode up past the lake and to the very top of Agarpatta, one of the humps on the rim of hills. It took us over two hours, and the mist settled in just as we arrived, about 5, so we picnicked chillily on a misty mountain-top; but Mrs. Willmott and her sister are exceptionally nice people, so we all enjoyed it. They have two small children and a lady nurse for them. I never met one before, but it is quite a sensible plan out here.
We only got back to this Hotel just before dinner, and there I found a wire from Major Wyatt asking me if I would command a draft and take it to the 4th Hants in the Persian Gulf. This is the exact fulfilment of the calculation I wrote to you in April, but it came as a surprise at the moment. I was more excited than either pleased or depressed. I don't hanker after fighting, and I would, of course, have preferred to go with the regiment and not as a draft. But now that I'm in for it, the interest of doing something after all these months of hanging about, and in particular the responsibility of looking after the draft on the way, seems likely to absorb all other feelings. What appeals to me most is the purely unmilitary prospect of being able to protect the men, to some extent, from the, I'm sure, largely preventible sickness there has been in the P.G. The only remark that ever made me feel a sudden desire to go to any front was when O'Connor at Lahore told me (quite untruly as it turned out) that "the Hampshires are dying like flies at Basra." As a matter of fact, they only had ten deaths, but a great deal of sickness, and I do enjoy the prospect of trying to be efficient about that. As for fighting, it doesn't look as if there would be much, whereon Purefoy greatly commiserates me; but if that is the only privation I shan't complain!
I'm afraid your lively imagination will conjure up every kind of horror, and that is the only thing that distresses me about going: but clearly a tropical climate suits me better than most people, and I will be very careful to avoid all unnecessary risks! both for your peace of mind and also to keep the men up to the mark, to say nothing of less exalted motives.
I know no details at all yet. I am to return to Agra on Saturday, so I shall only lose forty-eight hours of my most heavenly fortnight here.
I got this wire Sunday evening and Purefoy sat up talking on my bed till quite late as we had a lot to say to each other.
August 4th. On Monday morning it was pouring harder than ever, quite an inch to the hour. I walked across to the Telegraph Office and answered the Major's wire, and got wet through. After breakfast I chartered a dandy and waded through the deluge to the station hospital, where the M.O. passed me as sound, without a spark of interest in any of my minor ailments. I then proceeded to the local chemist and had my medicine-case filled up, and secured an extra supply of perchloride. There is no Poisons Act here and you can buy perchloride as freely as pepper. My next visit was to the dentist. He found two more decayed teeth and stopped them with incredible rapidity. The climate is so mild that though I was pretty wet through I never felt like catching a cold from being operated on. He was an American with a lady assistant to hold one's mouth open! I never feel sure that these dentists don't just drill a hole and then stop it: but no doubt teeth decay extremely quickly out here.
Then I went back to the Telegraph Office and cabled to Papa and got back in time for lunch after the moistest morning I ever remember being out in.
This hotel is about the worst in the world, I should say, though there are two in Naini reputed to be worse still. It takes in no newspaper, has no writing-paper, only one apology for a sitting-room, and can't supply one with fuel even for a fire. However, Moni Lal is resourceful and we have survived three days of it. Luckily there is an excellent custom here by which visitors belonging to another club, e.g., the Agra Club can join the Naini Club temporarily for 1s. per day. So we spent the afternoon and evening at the Club and I spiflicated both Purefoy (giving him forty and two turns to my one) and Guy at Billiards.
On Tuesday (yesterday) we got up at 7.0 and went for a sail on the lake. Guy is an expert at this difficult art and we circumnavigated the place twice before breakfast with complete success and I learned enough semi-nautical terms to justify the purchase of a yachting cap should occasion arise.
After breakfast we were even more strenuous and climbed up to Government House to play golf. It came on to rain violently just as we arrived, so we waited in the guard-room till it cleared, and then played a particularly long but very agreeable 3-ball, in which I lost to Guy on the last green but beat Purefoy three and one. We got back to lunch at about 3.15.
As if this wasn't enough I sallied out again at 4.0 to play tennis at the Willmotts, quite successfully, with a borrowed racquet, my own having burst on introduction to the climate of this place. Mrs. W. told me that there was a Chaplain, one Kirwan, here just back from the Persian Gulf, so I resolved to pursue him.
I finished up the day by dining P. and G. at the Club, and after dinner Purefoy, by a succession of the most hirsute flukes, succeeded in beating me by ten to his great delight.
I went to bed quite tired, but this morning it was so lovely that I revived and mounted a horse at 7.0 leaving the other two snoring. I rode up the mountain. I was rewarded by a most glorious view of the snows, one of the finest I have ever seen. Between me and them were four or five ranges of lower hills, the deepest richest blue conceivable, and many of their valleys were filled with shining seas of rolling sunlit cloud. Against this foreground rose a quarter-circle sweep of the snows, wreathed and garlanded with cloud wracks here and there, but for the most part silhouetted sharply in the morning sun. The grandest mass was in the centre: Nanda Devi, 25,600, which is the highest mountain in the Empire, and Trisoul, over 22,000. There were six or eight other peaks of over 20,000 ft.
I got back to the Hotel for breakfast, and from 9.30 to 10.45 we played tennis, and then changed hastily and went to Church for the War Anniversary Service. The station turned out for this in unprecedented numbers—churchgoing is not an Anglo-Indian habit—and there was no seat to be had, so I sat on the floor. The Bishop of Lucknow, Foss's uncle, preached.
After the service I waylaid the Revd. Kirwan and found he was staying with the Bishop, who immediately asked us to lunch. So Purefoy and I went to lunch—Guy preferring to sail—and I extracted quite a lot of useful information from K. Incidentally the Bishop showed me a letter from Foss, who wrote from the apex of the Ypres salient. He isn't enjoying it much, I'm afraid, but was quite well.
When we left the Bishop, it was coming out so fine that we decided to ride up and try again to see the snows. So up we rode, and the cloud effects were lovely, both over the plains and among the mountains; but they hid more than half the snows.
We rode down again to Valino's, the nutty tea-shop here, where we had reserved a table on the balcony. Guy was there before us and we sat there till nearly seven listening to the band. We got back to dinner where Purefoy had secured one of his innumerable lightning friends to dine with us, and adjourned to the Club for billiards afterwards: quite a full day.
Thursday: Government House.—Another busy day. It was fine again this morning, so we all three rode up to Snow View and got an absolutely perfect view: the really big snows were clear and cloudless, while the lower slopes and hills and valleys were flooded with broken seas of dazzling cloud. I put it second only to the Darjeeling view.
After breakfast Purefoy and I came up and played golf. Guy took fright at the chance of being asked in to lunch here and went sailing again. A shower made us late in starting, and we only got through twelve holes, after many misfortunes. I ended dormy five.
Lady M. had been in bed ever since we left, but is up to-day, looking rather ill still.
To-night there is a dinner party.
Friday.—The dinner party was uneventful. I sat next a Mrs. ——, one of the silliest females I ever struck. Her only noteworthy remark was that of course the Germans were well equipped for the War as they had been preparing for it for arcades and arcades.
It is wet again to-day. No mail has arrived. I start for Agra after lunch. I have had a delicious holiday. My address now will be:
"Attached 1/4 Hants Regt., I.E.F. 'D,' c/o India Office, S.W."
and post a day early.
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NAINI TAL CLUB.
August 4th, 1915.
I got a telegram on Sunday asking me to take out a draft to the 4th Hants, in the Persian Gulf, so my address till further notice will be "I.E.F. 'D,' c/o India Office, S.W." I thought I should hate the idea of going to the P.G., but now that it's come along I'm getting rather keen on going. We have been kicking our heels so long while everyone else has been slaving away at the front, that one longs to be doing something tangible and active. The P.G. is not exactly the spot one would select for a pleasure trip: but on the other hand there is likely to be more to do there that is more in my line than the purely military side of the business. The main trouble there is sickness and I'm sure a lot of it is preventible: and though in a battle I should be sure to take the wrong turn and land my detachment in some impossible place, I don't feel it so beyond me to remind them to boil their water and wear their helmets.
I don't know when I'm off, having heard nothing but the bare telegram. They don't want me back in Agra till Saturday, so I shall almost finish my full fortnight's leave. It has been heavenly here and the memory of it will be a joy for months to come. The forests are lovelier than ever: the ferns which clothe the trees are now full grown, and pale purple orchids spangle the undergrowth. Wild dahlias run riot in every open bank, and the gardens are brilliant with lilies and cannas.
It rained with drenching persistence for three days, but the last two have been lovely. I got up early this morning, rode up a mountain and saw the most superb view of the snows. The brown hills between me and the snows had their valleys full of rolling white clouds, and the result was a study in deepest blue and purest white, more wonderful I think than anything I've seen.
The whole station turned out to the Anniversary Service to-day. It is dreadful to think that we've all been denying our Christianity for a whole year and are likely to go on doing so for another. How our Lord's heart must bleed for us! It appals me to think of it.
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August 5th, 1915.
TO HIS FATHER.
I have written all the news to Mamma this week. The chief item from my point of view is that, as I cabled to you, I am to take a draft from our two Agra Double Coys. to reinforce the 4th Hants, who are now at Nasiriya on the Euphrates. I got the wire asking me to do this on Sunday, but have heard no details since (this is Thursday night), so I presume they know nothing more at Agra or the Major or Luly would surely have written.
On the other hand the Major wants me back in Agra by Saturday, so I suppose I shall be starting some time next week, but unless I hear before posting this I can tell you nothing of the strength or composition of the draft or the date of sailing.
Everyone insists on ([Greek: alpha]) congratulating me for going to a front and ([Greek: beta]) condoling that it is the P.G. I don't really agree with either sentiment. I'm afraid I regard all war jobs as nasty, and the more warlike the nastier, but I do think one ought to taste the same cup as all one's friends are drinking, and if I am to go to any front I would as soon go to the P.G. as anywhere. It will be a new part of the world to me and very interesting. The only bore is being separated from the regiment.
Friday.—I had a talk on Wednesday with a Chaplain just returned from Basra, and he told me we're likely to stand fast now holding the line Nasiriya-Awaz (or some such place on the Tigris). An advance on Baghdad is impossible without two more divisions, because of the length of communications. There is nothing to be gained by advancing to any intermediate point. The only reason we went as far as Nasiriya was that it was the base of the army we beat at Shaiba, and they had reformed there in sufficient strength to be worth attacking. This is not thought likely to happen again, as the Dardanelles will increasingly absorb all Turkey's resources.
It seems to me that what is wanted here pre-eminently is thinking ahead. The moment the war stops unprecedented clamours will begin, and only a Government which knows its aim and has thought out its method can deal with them. It seems to me, though my judgment is fearfully hampered by my inability to get at any comprehensive statement of most of the relevant facts, that the aim may be fairly simply defined, as the training of India to self-government within the Empire, combined with its good administration in trust meanwhile. That gives you a clear criterion—India's welfare, not British interests, and fixes the limit of the employment of Indians as the maximum consistent with good government.
The method is of course far more difficult and requires far more knowledge of the facts than I possess. But I should set to work at it on these lines:—
1. Certain qualities need to be developed, responsibility, public spirit, self-respect and so on. This should be aimed at (i) by our own example and teaching, (ii) by a drastic reform of higher education.
2. The barbarisms of the masses must be attacked. This can only be done by a scheme of universal education.
3. The material level of civilisation should be raised. This means agricultural and industrial development, in which technical education would play a large part.
Therefore, your method may be summed up in two words, sympathy and education. The first is mainly, of course, a personal question. Therefore, preserve at all costs a high standard of personnel for I.C.S. Try to get imaginative men at the top. Let all ranks understand from the outset the aim they have to work for, and let Indians know it. Above all let every official act prove it, confidence is a plant of slow and tender growth here. Beware of phrases and western formulae; probably the benevolent autocrat, whether English or Indian, will always govern better than a committee or an assembly.
The second—education—is a question of L s. d. The aim should be a far-sighted and comprehensive scheme. A great effort to get the adequate funds should be made and a scheme capable of ready expansion started. Reform of higher education will be very unpopular, but should be firmly and thoroughly carried out; it ought not to cost much. The bulk of the money at first should go to technical education and the encouragement of agriculture and industry. This will be remunerative, by increasing the country's wealth. Elementary education would have to begin by supplying schools where asked for, at a certain rate. From this they would aim at making it gradually universal, then free, then compulsory. But that will be many years hence inevitably.
I should work at a policy on these lines: announce it, invite Indian co-operation, and meanwhile deal very firmly with all forms of disorder.
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August 12th, 1915.
This last list is almost more than I can bear. It is hardly possible to think of poor dear Gilbert as killed. Do let me know how Foss is and how he gets on. Your letters are such a joy, and they give me news I get from nobody else.
I'm afraid my share in the correspondence may become even less than before, as I shall henceforth be on more than nominally active service and under the eye of the censor.
Luly is clamouring for lunch, which we eat at 11, and I shall have no peace afterwards till the ship reaches a landlocked bit of Gulf: so goodbye for the present.
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August 16th, 1915.
TO HIS MOTHER.
I shall just have time to write you a line about our journey so far, and may be able to write to Papa later.
They gave me a very nice farewell dinner on Friday at Agra. Raju came and sat next me and it all went off very well. Almost the whole station turned up. After dinner we sat outside, playing the gramophone, etc. Swift, seconded by Luly and Purefoy, made a determined effort to make me tight by standing me drinks and secretly instructing the Khitmagar to make them extra strong; but I was not quite green enough for that and always managed to exchange drinks at the last moment with the result that Swift got pretty tight and I didn't.
I sat in the bungalow talking to Purefoy till 2, and was up again at 6. From 6 till 11 I was busy with seeing to things and hardly had a moment's peace. We paraded at 10.45 and marched to the station, with the Punjabis band leading us. It was excessively warm for marching orders—96 deg. in the shade—and the mile to the station was quite enough. There was a great crowd on the platform and everyone was very nice and gave us a splendid send-off. I was too busy all the time to feel at all depressed at leaving Luly and Purefoy, which I had rather feared I should. Partings are, I think, much more trying in the prospect than at the actual moment, because beforehand the parting fills one's imagination, whereas at the moment one's hopes of meeting again come into active play. Anyway, I hadn't time to think much about it then, and I was already very sleepy. We started at 12.5.
At 1.30 Sergt. Pragnell came running along to say that L/C. Burgess was taken very bad; so I went along, with the Eurasian Assistant-Surgeon, who was travelling with us to Bombay. (These Eurasian A.-S.'s are far more competent than the British R.A.M.C. officers, in my experience.) We found Burgess with all the symptoms of heat-stroke, delirium and red face and hot dry skin. A thermometer under his armpit, after half a minute, showed a temperature of 106 deg.. So the A.S. had all his clothes removed and laid him on a bench in the draught and dabbled him gently with water all over from the water-bottles. Apparently in these cases there are two dangers, either of which proves fatal if not counteracted: (1) the excessive temperature of the body. This rises very rapidly. In another half an hour it would have been 109 deg., and 110 deg. is generally fatal. This he reduced, by the sponging and evaporation, to about 100 deg. in the course of an hour. But the delirium continued, because (2) the original irritation sends a rush of blood to the head, causing acute congestion, which if it continues produces apoplexy. To prevent this we wanted ice, and I had wired on to Gwalior for some, but that was three hours ahead. Luckily at about 3 we halted to let the mail pass, and a railway official suggested stopping it. This we did, I got some ice which soon relieved the situation. But of course we couldn't take poor Burgess with us, so we wired for an ambulance to meet us at Jhansi, and put him ashore.
Meanwhile at Gwalior a pleasant surprise was in store. We had "train rations" on the usual measly Indian scale, but for tea on Saturday we were to rely on tea provided by Scindia at Gwalior. Happily a Maharajah's ideas of tea are superior to a Quartermaster's, and this is what we had for fifty men! Unlimited tea, with sugar, twenty-five tinned cheeses, fifty tins of sausages and twenty-five 2lb. tins of Marie biscuits! This feed tinted the rest of the journey rose-colour.
The only other incident was the loss by one of the men of his haversack, which he dropped out of window.
Yesterday, Sunday, was much cooler. When I woke at Bhopal it was only 76 deg. and it only got even as high as 89 deg. for about half-an-hour. We ran into rain in the afternoon.
We reached Bhusawal at 7 p.m. and had to wait four hours to be picked up by the Nagpur mail. In the refreshment room I met a Terrier gunner officer who was P.M.C. of the Mess at Barrackpore when we messed there in December. He was just back from a course at Mhow and had been positively told by the Staff Officers there that his and most other T. batteries were to be sent back to Europe in a month's time: and moreover that a whole division of Ts. was going to the Persian Gulf and another to E. Africa.
The air is full of such rumours. Here the Embarkation N.C.O. says 78,000 K's have already sailed to relieve us. But the mere number of the rumours rather discredits them. And the fact of their using us for drafts to P.G. seems to show they don't intend moving the units.
We left Bhusawal at midnight and arrived here at 9.15 without incident. Bombay is its usual mild and steamy self, an unchanging 86 deg., which seemed hot in November, but quite decently cool now.
This boat is, from the officers' point of view, far more attractive than the "Ultonia." Being a B.I. boat it is properly equipped for the tropics and has good 1st class accommodation. She is about 6,000 tons. The men are, I'm afraid, rather crowded. There will be 1,000 on board when complete. We pick up some at Karachi. We sail to-morrow morning. If not too sea-sick I will write to Papa and post it at Karachi.
I am going out now to do a little shopping and get my hair cut, and I shall post this in the town.
P.S.—The whole country is deliciously green now, not a brown patch except the freshest ploughed pieces, and the rivers no longer beggarly trickles in a waste of rubble, but pretty pastoral streams with luxuriant banks.
* * * * *
I don't know when I shall next get one of your letters. It will have to follow me painfully round via Agra. And if I post this at Basra, it will have to go back to Bombay before starting for England; though people here are already talking of the time when we shall have finished the Baghdad Railway and letters come by rail from England to Basra in about 5 days.
Meanwhile as I have no letters of your's to answer and no news to discuss, I will try and give you an account of myself and my fifty veterans since I last wrote.
The fifty just form a platoon. You see, my retromotion goes on apace. A Company Commander from August to April, a Company Second in Command from May to August, and now a platoon Commander. I shall find the stage of Sergeant harder still to live up to if it comes to that.
Twenty-five are from 'D' Double Company; but only seven of these are from my own original lambs of 'F': because they wouldn't take anyone under twenty-three, and as I have mentioned before, I think, very few of 'F' have qualified for pensions. As it is, two of the seven gave false ages. The other twenty-five are from a Portsmouth Company—townees mostly, and to me less attractive than the village genius: but I daresay we shall get on all right.
Our start wasn't altogether auspicious—in fact taking a draft across the middle East is nearly as difficult to accomplish without loss as taking luggage across Scotland. We had a very good send-off, and all that—concert, dinner, band, crowd on the platform and all the moral alcohol appropriate to such occasions. It was a week ago, to-day, when we left Agra, and Agra climate was in its top form, 96 deg. in the shade and stuffy at that. So you can imagine that it was not only our spirits that were ardent after a mile's march to the station in marching order at noon. An hour after the train had started one of my lance-corporals collapsed with heat-stroke. The first-aid treatment by the Eurasian M.O. travelling with us was a most instructive object lesson. The great thing is to be in time. We were summoned within ten minutes of the man's being taken ill. His temperature was already 106 deg.: the M.O. said that in another half-hour it would have been 109 deg. and in an hour he would probably have been dead. We stripped him stark, laid him in the full draught, and sponged him so as to produce constant evaporation: held up the Punjab mail and got 22lbs. of ice to put under his head: and so pulled him round in less than two hours. We had to leave him at Jhansi though, and proceeded to Bombay forty-nine strong.
The ten-little-nigger-boy process continued at Bombay. We arrived on board on Monday morning: and though orders were formally issued that nobody was to leave the docks without a pass, no attempt was made to prevent the men spending the day in the town, which they all did.
On the Tuesday morning the crew told the men we should not be sailing till Wednesday: and accordingly a lot of them went shopping again. But for once in a way the ship actually sailed at the appointed time, 11 a.m. on Tuesday, and five of my gallant band were left behind. However they were collected by the Embarkation Authorities, and together with their fellow-victims of nautical inaccuracy from the other drafts were sent up by special train to Karachi, where they rejoined us: the C.O. according them a most unsympathetic reception, and sentencing them all (rather superfluously) to Confinement to Barracks for the remainder of the voyage.
There are no fewer than forty-one units on board this ship. They include drafts from almost every Territorial Battalion in India, convalescents rejoining the regular battalions already in Mesopotamia, and various engineers and gunners. The ship is grossly overcrowded—1,200 on board an ordinary 6,000 ton liner. The officers are very well off, though. She is a bran-new boat, built for this very run (in anticipation of the Baghdad Railway), with big airy cabins and all the latest improvements in lights, fans and punkahs. There is nobody I know on board and though they are quite a pleasant lot they don't call for special comment. The C.O. is a genial major of the Norfolks. He did some star turns the first two days. There was a heavy monsoon swell on, and the boat rolled so, you could hardly stand up. However the Major, undaunted, paraded about a score of men who had squeaked on to the ship after the roll-call at Bombay. These were solemnly drawn up in a line as defaulters and magisterially called to attention to receive judgment. On coming to attention they over-balanced with the regularity of ninepins in a row: and after three attempts the major had to harangue them standing (nominally) at ease. Even so, his admonition was rather impaired by his suddenly sitting down on the deck, and having to leave rather hurriedly for his cabin before the peroration was complete.
We are just going through the Straits of Ormuz now: we saw the coast of Persia on and off all to-day. We spent Thursday, by the bye, at Karachi, an awful hole it looks—treeless and waterless and very much the modern port. It reminds one strongly of Port Said, though not quite so repulsive: and there is a touch of Suez thrown in.
So far it has been quite cool, 84 to 86 deg.: but we shall be beyond the cloud-zone to-morrow and right inside the Gulf, so I expect it will get hot now.
We expect to reach Basra on Tuesday evening. After that our movements are wholly unknown to us.
The casualty lists just before we left were so dreadful that I am rather dreading the moment when we see the next batch.
* * * * *
"H.M.S. VARSOVA," OFF FARS IS.
August 22, 1915.
It is too warm to be facetious, and I have no letter of yours to answer: so you will have to put up with a bald narrative of our doings since I last wrote.
They gave us various binges at Agra before we left. A concerted effort to make me tight failed completely: in fact of the plotters it could be said that in the same bet that they made privily were their feet taken.
We left on Saturday, 15th: fifty rank and file and myself. One had a heat-stroke almost as soon as the train had started (result of marching to the station at noon in marching order and a temperature of 96 deg.) and we had an exciting hour in keeping his temperature below 109 deg. till we met the mail and could get some ice. We succeeded all right and sent him safely to hospital at Jhansi. The rest of the journey was cooler and uneventful.
We reached Bombay at 9.15 a.m. on Monday, and went straight on board. The ship did not sail till next day and when it did they contrived to leave thirty-two men behind, including five of mine.
This is a new and pleasant boat, almost 6,000 tons and fitted up with every contrivance for mitigating heat. But there are far too many persons on board: nearly 1,200: and as they simply can't breathe between decks, the decks are as crowded as a pilgrim ship's. There are over forty units represented: including drafts from about twenty-eight T.F. battalions.
We had the devil of a swell the first two days, though luckily we hit off a break in the monsoon. Anyway, Mothersibb preserved me from sea-sickness: but in every other respect I felt extremely unwell. We reached Karachi on the Thursday morning and stayed there all day. It is a vile spot, combining the architectural features of a dock with the natural amenities of a desert. The only decent spot was a Zoo and even that had a generally super-heated air.
The thirty-two lost sheep turned up at Karachi, having been forwarded by special train from Bombay. No fatted calf was killed for them: in fact they all got fourteen days C.B. and three days pay forfeited; though, as Dr. Johnson observed, the sea renders the C.B. part rather otiose.
All Friday we coasted along Baluchistan and Persia. It is surprising how big a country Persia is: it began on Friday and goes right up into Europe. On Saturday we reached the Straits of Ormuz and to-day (Sunday) we are well inside the Gulf, as the mention of Fars doubtless conveyed to you.
It is getting pronouncedly hotter every hour. It was a quarter to one when I began this letter and is now half-past twelve, which is the kind of thing that is continually happening. Anyway the bugle for lunch has just gone, and it is 96 deg. in my cabin. I have spent the morning in alternate bouts of bridge and Illingworth on Divine Immanence: I won Rs three at the former: but I feel my brain is hardly capable of further coherent composition until nourishment has been taken. So goodbye for the present. It will take ages for this to reach you.
* * * * *
"P.S.S. KARADENIZ," BASRA.
Friday, August 27th, 1915.
TO HIS MOTHER.
I wrote to Papa from just outside the bar, which is a mud-bank across the head of the Gulf, about seventeen miles outside Fao. We anchored there to await high tide, and crossed on Tuesday morning.
Fao is about as unimpressive a place as I've seen. The river is over a mile wide there, but the place is absolutely featureless. In fact all the way up it is the same. The surrounding country is as flush with the river as if it had been planed down to it. On either side runs a belt of date palms about half a mile wide, but these are seldom worth looking at, being mostly low and shrubby, like an overgrown market garden.
Beyond that was howling desert, not even picturesquely sandy, but a dried up marsh overblown with dust, like the foreshore of a third-rate port. The only relief to the landscape was when we passed tributaries and creeks, each palm-fringed like the river. Otherwise the only notable sights were the Anglo Persian Oil Works, which cover over a hundred acres and raised an interesting question of comparative ugliness with man and nature in competition, and a large steamer sunk by the Turks to block the channel and, needless to add, not blocking it.
There was a stiff, warm wind off the desert, hazing the air with dust and my cabin temperature was 100 deg.. Altogether it was rather a depressing entree, since amply atoned for so far as Nature is concerned.
We reached Basra about 2 p.m. and anchored in midstream, the river being eight hundred yards or so wide here. The city of Basra is about three miles away, up a creek, but on the river there is a port and native town called Ashar.
The scene on the river is most attractive, especially at sunrise and sunset. The banks rise about ten feet from the water: the date palms are large and columnar; and since there is a whole series of creeks, parallel and intersecting—they are the highways and byeways of the place—the whole area is afforested and the wharves and bazaars are embowered in date groves. The river front and the main creeks are crowded with picturesque craft, the two main types being a large high prowed barge, just what I picture to have taken King Arthur at his Passing, but here put to the prosaic uses of heavy transport and called a mahila; and a long darting craft which can be paddled or punted and combines the speed of a canoe with the grace of a gondola and is called, though why I can't conceive, a bhellum. Some of the barges are masted and carry a huge and lovely sail, but the ones in use for I.E.F.D. are propelled by little tugs attached to their sides and quite invisible from beyond, so that the speeding barges seem magically self-moving.
Ashore one wanders along raised dykes through a seemingly endless forest of pillared date palms, among which pools and creeks add greatly to the beauty, though an eyesore to the hygienist. The date crop is just ripe and ripening, and the golden clusters are immense and must yield a great many hundred dates to the tree. When one reaches the native city the streets are unmistakably un-Indian, and strongly reminiscent of the bazaar scene in Kismet. This is especially true of the main bazaar, which is a winding arcade half a mile long, roofed and lined with shops, thronged with men. One sees far fewer women than in India, and those mostly veiled and in black, while the men wear long robes and cloakes and scarves on their heads bound with coils of wool worn garland-wise, as one sees in Biblical pictures. They seem friendly, or rather wholly indifferent to one, and I felt at times I might be invisible and watching an Arabian Nights' story for all the notice they took of me. By the way, I want you to send me a portable edition of the Arabian Nights as my next book, please.
But the most fascinating sight of all is Ashar Creek, the main thoroughfare, as crowded with boats as Henley at a regatta. The creek runs between brick embankments, on which stand a series of Arabian cafes, thronged with conversational slow moving men who sit there smoking and drinking coffee by the thousand.
It is a wonderful picture from the wooden bridge with the minaret of a mosque and the tops of the tallest date palms for a background.
So much for Ashar: I've not seen Basra city yet. We're here till Sunday probably, awaiting our river boats. There were not enough available to take us all up on Wednesday, so those who are for the front line went first. They have gone to a spot beyond Amara, two-thirds of the way to Kut-al-Amara, which is where the Shatt-al-Hai joins the Tigris. The Shatt-al-Hai is a stream running from the Tigris at K-al-A to the Euphrates at Nasria, and that line is our objective. There is likely to be a stiff fight for the K-al-A, they say, rather to my surprise. But the 4th Hants has been moved to Amara and put on line of communication for the present; so our thirst for bloodshed is not likely to be gratified.
We have moved across to this ship while awaiting our river boat. They use ships here as barracks and hotels, very sensibly seeing that there are none fit for habitation on land; while being about 400 yards from either bank we are practically free from mosquitoes. But this particular ship is decidedly less desirable for residential purposes than the Varsova. It was originally a German boat and was sold to the Turks to be used for a pilgrim ship to Mecca; and I can only conclude either that the Turkish ideas of comfort are very different to ours or that the pilgrimage has a marked element of asceticism.
But I am quite ready to put up with the amenities of a Turkish pilgrim ship. What does try me is the murderous folly of military authorities. They wouldn't let us take our spine-pads from Agra, because we should be issued with them here. They have none here and have no idea when they will get any. Incidentally, no one was expecting our arrival here, least of all the 4th Hants. Everyone says a spine-pad is a necessary precaution here, so I am having fifty made and shall try and make the Colonel pay for them. Every sensible Colonel made his draft stick to theirs; but our's wouldn't let us take them, because Noah never wore one.
To continue the chapter of incredible muddles; the 780 who went off on Wednesday were embarked on their river-boat—packed like herrings—at 9 a.m. and never got started till 4 p.m. A bright performance, but nothing to our little move. This boat is 600 yards from the Varsova, and they had every hour in the twenty-four to choose from for the move. First they selected 2 p.m. Wednesday as an appropriate hour! It was 100 deg. in the shade by 1 p.m., so the prospect was not alluring. At 1.30 the order was washed out and for the rest of the day no further orders could be got for love or money.
We were still in suspense yesterday morning, till at 8.30—just about the latest time for completing a morning movement—two huge barges appeared with orders to embark on them at 10! Not only that, but although there are scores of straw-roofed barges about, these two were as open as row boats, and in fact exactly like giant row boats. To complete the first situation, the S. and S. had not been apprised of the postponement, and so there was no food for the men on board. Consequently they had to load kits, etc., and embark on empty stomachs.
Well, hungry but punctual, we embarked at 10 a.m. It was 102 deg. in my cabin, so you can imagine what the heat and glare of 150 men in an open barge was. Having got us into this enviable receptacle, they proceeded to think of all the delaying little trifles which might have been thought of any time that morning. One way and another they managed to waste three-quarters of an hour before we started. The journey took six minutes or so. Getting alongside this ship took another half hour, the delay mainly due to Arab incompetence this time. Then came disembarking, unloading kits and all the odd jobs of moving units—which all had to be done in a furnace-like heat by men who had had no food for twenty hours. To crown it all, the people on board here had assumed we should breakfast before starting and not a scrap of food was ready. The poor men finally got some food at 2 p.m. after a twenty-two hours fast and three hours herded or working in a temperature of about 140 deg.. Nobody could complain of such an ordeal if we'd been defending Lucknow or attacking Shaiba, but to put such a strain on the men's health—newly arrived and with no pads or glasses or shades—gratuitously and merely by dint of sheer hard muddling—is infuriating to me and criminal in the authorities—a series of scatter-brained nincompoops about fit to look after a cocker-spaniel between them.
Considering what they went through, I think our draft came off lightly with three cases of heat-stroke. Luckily the object lesson in the train and my sermons thereon have borne fruit, and the men acted promptly and sensibly as soon as the patients got bad. Two began to feel ill on the barge and the third became delirious quite suddenly a few minutes after we got on board here. When I arrived on the scene they had already got him stripped and soused, though in the stuffy 'tween decks. I got him up on deck (it was stuffy enough there) and we got ice, and thanks to their promptness, he was only violent for about a quarter of an hour and by the time my kit was reachable and I could get my thermometer, an hour or so later, he was normal. There was no M.O. on board, except a grotesque fat old Turk physician to the Turkish prisoners, whose diagnosis was in Arabic and whose sole idea of treatment was to continue feeling the patient's pulse (which he did by holding his left foot) till we made him stop.
The other two were gradual cases and being watered and iced in time never became delirious; so we may get off without any permanent casualties; but they have taken a most useful corporal and one private to hospital, which almost certainly means leaving them behind on Sunday.
The other men were all pretty tired out and I think it does credit to their constitutions they stood it so well.
I, having my private spine-pad and glasses, was comparatively comfortable, also I had had breakfast and didn't have to shift kits or even my own luggage. I don't dislike even extreme heat nearly as much as quite moderate cold.
I gather it doesn't get so cold here as I thought. 37 deg. is the lowest temperature I've heard vouched for.
I haven't time nowadays to write many letters, so I'm afraid you must ask kind aunts, etc., to be content with parts of this; I hope they'll go on writing to me though.
* * * * *
"P.S.S. KARA DEUIZ," BASRA,
To N.B. August 29, 1915.
I hope you will be indulgent if I write less regularly now: and by indulgent I mean that you will go on writing to me, as I do enjoy your letters so much. I expect I shall have slack times when there will be plenty of leisure to write: but at others we are likely to be busy, and you never can be sure of having the necessary facilities. And personally I find my epistolary faculties collapse at about 100 deg. in the shade. I wrote quite happily this morning till it got hot; and only now (4.45) have I found it possible to resume. We get it 102 to 104 deg. every day from about noon to four, and it oppresses one much more than at Agra as there is no escaping from it and flies are plentiful: but about now a nice breeze springs up, and the evenings are fairly pleasant. I thought we were leaving for Amarah to-day, so I told Mama my letter to her would have to do all-round duty, which is mean, I admit, but I had no day off till to-day.
Not that I've been really busy, but I've been out a lot, partly getting things and partly seeing the place.
I've just heard I must go ashore with another sick man immediately after evening service (the Bishop of Lahore is coming on board), so I shall have to cut this measly screed very short. We load kits on our river-boat at 7 a.m. to-morrow and start sometime afterwards for Amarah. My letter to Mama will give you such news as there is. Since writing it I've seen Basra city, which is disappointing, less picturesque than Ashar: also the Base Hospital, which strikes me very favourably, the first military hospital that has: Dum Dum wasn't bad.
We have a lot of Turkish prisoners on board here, and the Government is trying the experiment of letting them out on parole and paying them Rs 10/- a week so long as they report themselves. It is a question whether the result will be to cause the whole Turkish army to surrender, or whether their desire to prolong the war will make the released ones keep their parole a secret. I daresay it will end in a compromise, half the army to surrender and the other half to receive Rs 5/- a week from the surrendered ones to fight on to the bitter end.
I must go and dress for Church parade.
* * * * *
To P.C., September, 1915.
"I believe that if I could choose a day of heavy fighting of any kind I liked for my draft, I should choose to spend a day in trenches, under heavy fire without being able to return it. The fine things of war spring from your chance of being killed: the ugly things from your chance of killing."
* * * * *
TO THE SAME.
"I wonder how long H—— 's 'delirious joy' at going to the front will last. Those who have seen a campaign here are all thoroughly converted to my view of fronts. I can't imagine a keener soldier than F——, and even he says he doesn't care if he never sees another Turk, and as to France, you might as well say, 'Hurrah, I'm off to Hell.' Pat M—— goes as far as to say that no sane fellow ever has been bucked at going to the front, as distinguished from being anxious to do his duty by going there. But I don't agree with him. Did you see about the case of a Captain in the Sikhs, who deserted from Peshawar, went to England, enlisted as a private under an assumed name, and was killed in Flanders? The psychology of that man would be very interesting to analyse. It can't have been sense of duty, because he knew he was flagrantly violating his duty. Nor can you explain it by some higher call of duty than his duty as a Sikh Officer, like the duty which makes martyrs disobey emperors. It must have been just the primitive passion for a fight. But if it was that, to indulge it was a bad, weak and vicious thing to do. Yet it clearly wasn't a selfish thing to do: on the contrary, it was heroic. He deliberately sacrificed his rank, pay, and prospects and exposed himself to great danger. Still, as far as I can see, he only did it because his passion for fighting was stronger than every other consideration, and therefore he seems to me to be morally in the same class as the man who runs away with his neighbour's wife, or any other victim of strong (and largely noble) passions. And I believe that the people who say they are longing to be at the front can be divided into three classes (1) those who merely say so because it is the right thing to say, and have never thought or wished about it on their own. (2) Those who deliberately desire to drink the bitterest cup that they can find in these times of trouble. These men are heroes, and are the men who in peace choose a mission to lepers. (3) The savages, who want to indulge their primitive passions. Perhaps one ought to add as the largest class (4) those who don't imagine what it is like, who think it will be exciting, seeing life, an experience, and so on, and don't think of its reality or meaning at all."
* * * * *
AMARA. Thursday, September 2nd, 1915.
TO HIS MOTHER.
I only had time to scrawl a short note last night before the mail went. But I wrote to Papa the day before we left Basra.
Our embarkation was much more sensibly managed this time, a Captain Forrest of the Oxfords being O.C. troops, and having some sense, though the brass hats again fixed 10 a.m. as the hour. However he got all our kits on the barge at 7 and then let the men rest on the big ship till the time came. Moreover the barge was covered. We embarked on it at 9.30 and were towed along to the river steamer "Malamir," to which we transferred our stuff without difficulty as its lower deck was nearly level with the barge. The only floater was that my new bearer (who is, I fear, an idiot) succeeded in dropping my heavy kit bag into the river, where it vanished like a stone. Fortunately that kind of thing doesn't worry me much; but while I was looking for an Arab diver to fish for it it suddenly re-appeared the other side of the boat, and was retrieved.
These river boats are flat-bottomed and only draw six feet. They have two decks and an awning, and there was just room for our 200 men to lie about. Altogether there were on board—in the order of the amount of room they took up—two brass hats, 220 men (four Hants drafts and some odds and ends), a dozen officers, four horses and a dozen native servants and a crew.
Altogether I had to leave four sick men at Basra, all due more or less to that barge episode, and I have still two sickish on my hands, while two have recovered.
There was a strong head-wind and current so we only made about four or five knots an hour. The river is full of mud banks, and the channel winds to and fro in an unexpected manner, so that one can only move by daylight and then often only by constant sounding. Consequently, starting at noon on Monday, it took us till 5 p.m. Wednesday to do the 130 miles. It is much less for a crow, but the river winds so, that one can quite believe Herodotus's yarn of the place where you pass the same village on three consecutive days. Up to Kurna, which we reached at 7 a.m. Tuesday, the river is about 500 yards to 300 yards broad, and the country mainly poor, bare, flat pasture; the date fringe diminishing and in places altogether disappearing for miles together. At the water's edge, as it recedes, patches of millet had been and were being planted. The river is falling rapidly and navigation becomes more difficult every week.
Kurna is aesthetically disappointing. The junction of the rivers is unimpressive, and the place itself a mere quayside and row of mud houses among thin and measly palms. It is of course the traditional site of Eden.
Above Kurna the river is not only halved in width, as one would expect, but narrows rapidly. Most of the day it was only a hundred yards wide and by evening only 60; and of the sixty only a narrow channel is navigable and that has a deep strong current which makes the handling of the boat very difficult.
In the afternoon we passed Ezra's Tomb, which has a beautiful dome of blue tiles, which in India one would date Seventeenth Century. Otherwise it looked rather "kachcha" and out of repair, but it makes an extremely picturesque group, having two clumps of palms on either side of an otherwise open stretch of river.
Soon afterwards we came to a large Bedouin Village, or rather camp, running up a little creek and covering quite fifteen acres. They can't have been there long, as the whole area was under water two months ago. Their dwellings are made of reeds, a framework of stiff and pliant reeds and a covering of reed-matting; the whole being like the cover of a van stuck into the ground and one end closed; but smaller, about 5ft. x 4ft. x 7ft. There were about 100 of these and I should put the population at 700.
A whole crowd of boys and some men came out and ran along with us, and dived in for anything we threw overboard. They swam like ducks of course. All the boys and most of the men were quite naked, which is a thing you never see in India. Any boy over twelve there has a loin-cloth. There seemed to be very few men about: a lot of women came to the doors of their huts. They made no attempt to veil their faces, which even the beggar women in Basra did. Only one girl and one woman ran with the boat; the girl dived with the best; the woman was dressed and her function was to carry the spoils. Incidentally our men discovered a better use for their ration biscuits than attempting to eat them. They made excellent ducks and drakes on the water and the swimmers were quite keen on them. I must say they tasted rather musty besides being very hard, but I think the men chiefly objected to a very small brown beetle which was abundant in them.
When the sun got low we tied up to the bank for twenty minutes and a good many of the men had a bathe; but owing to the current we had to make them keep within a yard or two of the bank.
Next morning, Wednesday, a half-gale was blowing against us and progress was slower than ever. The river got wider again, nearly 200 yards in places, and the wind lashed it into waves. It was a great bore, because you couldn't put anything down for a second. Also three days confined to a minute deck-space made me rather bilious.
In the afternoon the wind blew us ashore when we were in sight of Amara, and it took nearly half an hour to get us off again. Finally, we arrived here about 5 p.m.
This is a town of about 10,000 inhabitants, on the left bank of the Tigris. On the river front is a quay about a mile long, and an equally long row of continental-looking houses. It almost reminds one of Dieppe at moments. The river is about 150 yards wide, and on the other side there are hardly any houses, just a narrow fringe of dates and some fields. All the inhabitants of the river-front have been turned out and it is occupied with offices, stores, hospitals and billets. We occupy a block of four houses, which have a common courtyard behind them, a great cloistered yard, which makes an admirable billet for the men.
We officers live in two of the houses, the third is Orderly Room, etc., and the fourth is used by some Native Regiment Officers. There is no furniture whatever, so it is like camping with a house for a tent. We sleep on the roof and live on the verandahs of the little inner courts. It is decidedly cooler than Basra, and last night I wanted a blanket before dawn for the first time since April (excluding the Hills, of course). In my room now (2.45 p.m.) it is 96 deg. but there is plenty of breeze about.
It seems to be just a chance when the mail goes out: I hope to write to Papa later on in the week and give him the news of this place and the regiment. If I spell names of places without a capital letter it will be for an obvious reason. Also note that the place which is marked on the map Kut-al-Amara is always referred to here as Kut.
P.S.—In regard to what you say about the ducks, I'm told that teal are common in Turkey and snipe in Arabia, but not so common as mallard in England or pintail in India. The bitterns here boom just like guns.
* * * * *
ATT. 1/4 HANTS, I.E.F. "D," C/o INDIA OFFICE, S.W.
AMARAH, September 4th,1915.
Yours from Albemarle Street reached me just before we left Basra. It gave me the first news of Charles Lister's second wound. We get almost no news here. Potted Reuter is circulated most days, but each unit may only keep it half an hour, so its two to one against one's seeing it. My only resource is the Times which laboriously dogs my steps from England: but it has already been pinched en route four times, so I can't rely on seeing even that: therefore in the matter of casualties, please be as informative as you can, regardless of originality.
As I told you in my last letter that I was going to Nasiriyah, it won't surprise you to find I've got here instead. We reached Basra (it would be much nicer to spell it Bassorah, but I can't be bothered to) on the feast of St. Bartholomew, which the Military call 24/8/15. Considering what places are like out here, B. is wonderfully attractive and picturesque. At least Ashar is, which is the port; Beroea: Corinth:: Ashar: Basra. To begin with it stands between six and eight feet above the river level, an almost unique eminence. Then lots of major and minor creeks branch out from the river and from the main streets. All round and in every unbuilt on space are endless groves of date palms, with masses of yellow dates. The creeks are embanked with brick and lined with popular cafe's where incredible numbers of Arabs squat and eat or drink huggas and hacshish and the like. The creeks and river swarm with bhellums and mahilas. A bhellum is a cross between a gondola and a Canada canoe: and a mahila is a barge like the ones used by King Arthur, Elaine or the Lady of Shallott: and its course and destination are generally equally vague.
We stayed six days at B. mainly on a captured Turkish pilgrim ship. I suggest a Turkish pilgrimage as a suitable outlet for the ascetic tendencies of your more earnest spikelets. It was hot, but nothing fabulous. My faithful thermometer never got beyond 104 in my cabin. The disadvantage of any temperature over 100 indoors is that the fan makes you hotter instead of cooler. There are only two ways of dealing with this difficulty. One is to drink assiduously and keep an evaporation bath automatically going: but on this ship the drinks used to give out about 4 p.m. and when it comes to neat Tigris-cum-Euphrates, I prefer it applied externally. So I used to undress at intervals and sponge all over and then stand in front of the fan. While you're wet it's deliciously cool: as soon as you feel the draught getting warm, you dress again and carry on. This plan can't be done here as there are no fans. I suppose you realised that Austen Chamberlain was only indulging his irrepressible sense of humour when he announced in the H. of C. that in Mesopotamia "The health of troops has on the whole been good. Ice and fans are installed wherever possible," i.e. nowhere beyond Basra. The hot weather sickness casualties have been just over 30% of the total force: but as they were nearly all heat-stroke and malaria, it ought to be much better now. Already the nights are cool enough for a blanket to be needed just before dawn. Of course they run up the sick list by insane folly. When we moved to our Turkish ship there was every hour of the day or night to choose from to do it in, and plenty of covered barges to do it in. So they selected 10 a.m., put 150 men into an open barge, gave them no breakfast, and left them in the barge two hours to move them 600 yards, and an hour unloading baggage afterwards! Result, out of my forty-nine, three heat-strokes on the spot, and four more sick the next day.
We left Basra on the 30th. It took us two-and-a-half days to do the 130 miles up here, against a strong wind and current. The Regiment has moved here from Nasiriyah. This place is 130 miles North of Basra and 120 South of Kut-el-Amarah (always known as Kut). As to our movements, the only kind of information I can give you would be something like this. There are fifteen thousand blanks, according to trustworthy reports, at blank. We have blank brigades and our troops are blanking at blank which is two-thirds of the way from here to blank; and I think our intention is to blank with all our three blanks as soon as possible, but this blank is remaining on lines of communications here for the present. Not very interesting is it? So I won't reel off any more.
From the little scraps of news that have come through, it looks as if the Balkans were going to be the centre of excitement. If Bulgaria has agreed to let the Germans through as I suspect she has, I'd bet on both Greece and Roumania joining the Allies.
* * * * *
September 4th, 1915.
TO HIS FATHER.
We get hardly any news up here, so please kindly continue your function of war correspondent whenever you have time, and especially mention any casualties which affect me.
One of the few bits of news which have reached us is a report of a speech of yours in which you mention that Milner's Committee recommended the Government to guarantee 45s. a year for four years, but the Government wouldn't. Reuter deduces from this that we have found a way of keeping the whip hand of submarines: but it looks to me much more like Free Trade shibboleths + the fact that there has already been a 30% increase in the area under wheat. I hope you will have written me something about this.
Now for the military news. This battalion, when we arrived here, was nominally nearly 300 strong, but actually it could hardly have paraded 100. This reduction is nearly all due to sickness. The deaths from all causes only total between forty and fifty, out of the original 800: and of these about twenty-five, I think, were killed in action. But there has been an enormous amount of sickness during the hot weather, four-fifths of which has been heat-stroke and malaria. There have been a few cases of enteric and a certain number of dysentery; but next to heat and malaria more men have been knocked out by sores and boils than by any disease. It takes ages for the smallest sore to heal.
Of the original thirty officers, eight are left here, Major Stillwell, who is C.O., one Captain, Page-Roberts, a particularly nice fellow, and five subalterns, named Harris, Forbes, Burrell, Bucknill and Chitty: (Chitty is in hospital): and Jones, the M.O., also a very nice man and a pretty good M.O. too. The new Adjutant is a Captain from 2nd Norfolks named Floyd: he is also nice and seems good: was on Willingdon's staff and knows Jimmy.
In honour of our arrival, they have adopted Double Company system. I am posted to "A" Double Company, of which the Company Commander and only other officer is Harris, aet. 19. So I am second in command and four platoon commanders at once, besides having charge of the machine-guns (not that I am ever to parade with them) while Chitty is sick. It sounds a lot, but with next to no men about, the work is lessened. On paper, "A" D.C was seventy-two strong, which, with my fifty, makes 122: but in fact, of these 122, twenty-five are sick and sixteen detached permanently for duties at headquarters and so on, leaving eighty-one. And these eighty-one are being daily more and more absorbed into fatigues of various kinds and less and less available for parade. In a day or two we shall be the only English battalion remaining here, so that all the duties which can't be entrusted to Indian troops will fall on us.
I haven't had time to observe the birds here very much yet, but they seem interesting, especially the water-birds. With regard to what I wrote to Mamma about the teal, people who have been up the river say they saw a very big flock of them at Kut. There were a lot of snipe with them and about twenty bitterns, which surprises me. And about eighty miles north of here there is a mud flat where great numbers of mallards are assembling for migration northwards: and there are more bitterns there than there are higher up even. These flocks about the equinoxes are very curious. I expect the mallards will migrate northwards, and the teal soon afterwards will become very scarce, but I hope the bitterns will stay where they are. The snipe are less interesting: they move about all over the place, wherever they can pick up most food. These people put the size of the flock of teal at a hundred and fifty and the mallards at five hundred, but you should, I think, multiply the first by a hundred and the second only by ten.
I got Mamma's letter via the India Office just after we got here. I quite agree with her view of war, though I must admit the officers of 1/4 Hants seem to me improved by it. While sitting on that court martial at Agra I expressed my view in a sonnet which I append, for you to show to Mamma:
How long, O Lord, how long, before the flood Of crimson-welling carnage shall abate? From sodden plains in West and East the blood Of kindly men streams up in mists of hate Polluting Thy clear air: and nations great In reputation of the arts that bind The world with hopes of Heaven, sink to the state Of brute barbarians, whose ferocious mind Gloats o'er the bloody havoc of their kind, Not knowing love or mercy. Lord, how long Shall Satan in high places lead the blind To battle for the passions of the strong? Oh, touch thy children's hearts, that they may know Hate their most hateful, pride their deadliest foe.
I must stop now, as a mail is going out and one never knows when the next will be.
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NORFOLK HOUSE. AMARAH, September 13th, 1915.
TO HIS FATHER.
As I have written the news to Mamma this week I will tell you what I gather of the campaign and country generally.
There's no doubt that old Townshend, the G.O.C., means to push on to Baghdad "ekdum"; and if the Foreign Office stops him there will be huge indigna. It seems to me that the F.O. should have made itself quite explicit on the point, one way or the other months ago: to pull up your general in full career is exasperating to him and very wasteful, as he has accumulated six months' supplies for an army of 16,000 up here, which will have to be mostly shipped back if he is pulled up at Kut. The soldiers all say the F.O. played the same trick on Barratt in the cold weather. They let him get to Qurnah, and he wanted and prepared to push on here and to Nasiryah, which were then the Turkish bases. But the F.O. stopped him and consequently the Turks could resume the offensive, and nearly beat us at Shaibah. The political people say that the soldiers had only themselves to thank they were nearly beaten at Shaibah. They were warned in December that the whole area between Sh. and Basrah would be flooded later on, and were urged either to dig a canal or build a causeway; but they pooh-poohed it: and consequently all supplies and ammunition at Shaibah had to be carried across 8 miles of marsh, 4ft. to 1in. deep.
As for the country, it is said to be very fertile wherever properly irrigated. At present the water is distributed about as badly as it could be. The annual rise of the river makes vast feverish swamps, and the rest of the country is waterless. Any stray Bedouin tribe that feels like growing a crop can go and cut a hole in the bank and irrigate a patch for one season and then leave it; and these cuts form new channels which as often as not lose themselves in a swamp. Meanwhile this haphazard draining off of the water is seriously impairing the main streams, especially that of the Euphrates, which is now almost unnavigable in the low water season. To develop the country therefore means (1) a comprehensive irrigation and drainage scheme. Willcock's scheme I believe is only for irrigation. I don't know how much the extreme flatness of the country would hamper such a scheme. Here we are 200 miles by river from the sea and only 28ft. above sea-level. It follows (2) that we must control the country and the nomad tribes from the highest barrage continuously down to the sea. (3) We must have security that the Turks don't interfere with the rivers above our barrage, or even neglect the river banks.
All this seems to me to point to a repetition of our Egyptian experience. We shall be drawn, whether we like it or not, into a virtual protectorate at least as far up as the line Kut-Nasiryah, along the Shatt-al-Hai, and that will have to extend laterally on the east to the Persian frontier and on the west to the Arabian tableland. I don't see how we can hope to get off with less: and that being so, I believe it would be better to take on the whole at once. North of the Shatt-al-Hai line (i.e. Kut-Nasiryah) it would be very exhausting to go, and very awkward politically, as you soon get among the holy places of the Shiahs, especially Karbala, which is their Mecca. But it's no use blinking the fact that a river is a continuous whole, and experience shows that the power which controls the mouth is sooner or later forced to climb to its source, especially when its up-stream neighbours are hostile and not civilised. And what power of Government will be left to Turkey after the war? It looks as if she will be as bankrupt, both financially and politically, as Persia; and I see no real hope of avoiding a partition a la Persia into British and Russian spheres of interest. In that case it seems to me the British sphere should go to the Shatt-al-Hai, and the Russian begin where the plain ends, or at any rate north of Mosul. Are you at liberty to tell me whether there is already an understanding with Russia about this country, and if so how far it goes?
As for the climate, I don't think it is any worse than the plains of India. When it is properly drained the fever will be much less: and under peace conditions the water can be properly purified and the heat dealt with. The obvious port is Basra; it is said that the bar outside Fao could easily be dredged to 26ft. The only other really good harbour is Koweit, I gather: but our game is to support the independence of K.: make it the railway terminus, but by using Basra you make your rail-freight as low as possible and have your commercial port where you can directly control matters.
I wish they would get a move on in the Dardanelles. It seems to me Germany is running a fearful risk by committing herself so deeply into the interior of Russia at this time of year. The only explanation I can find is that at each rush she has been much nearer to cutting off a Russian army than has transpired and so is tempted on: nearer perhaps than the Russians ever intended, which may be the reason of the Grand Duke's removal to the Caucasus.
* * * * *
TO HIS MOTHER.
For the men, newspapers would be as welcome as anything. I think Papa might divert those weekly papers from Agra here, as they get a large supply in the Regimental Reading Room at Agra.
What strikes me about the 1/4th is that they are played out. They've no vitality left in them. Out of about 300 men there are seventy sick, mostly with trifling stomach or feverish attacks or sores, which a robust man would get over in two days; but it takes them a fortnight, and then a week or two afterwards they crock up again. One notices the same in their manner. They are listless and when off duty just lie about. When I see men bathing or larking it is generally some of our drafts. I hope the cold weather will brace them up a bit. I do wish I had more gifts in the entertaining line, though of course there are very few men left to entertain when you've allowed for all our guards and the men just off guard.
* * * * *
The house is two-storeyed, with thick brick walls, built round an open well-like court. There is a broad verandah all round the court, on to which every room opens. There is also a balcony on the W. side overlooking the river. We sleep on the roof a.p.u. The sun sets right opposite this balcony, behind a palm-grove, and the orange afterglows are reflected all up the westward bend of the river, which is very lovely: though personally I like the more thrilling cloud sunsets better than these still rich glowings of the desert.
* * * * *
The men sleep in huts just behind. These are sensibly built of brick. Only the S. side is walled up, and even there a space is left between the wall and the ceiling. The rest is just fenced with reed trellis work. The roofs are of reed matting, the floors brick with floor-boards for sleeping on. Boards and bedding are put out in the sun by day. The men are very contented in them. If I ask my men how they like it compared to India, they all say they like it better. "Why, you gets a decent dinner here, Sir." My experience quite confirms that of Sir Redvers Buller and other great authorities. If you feed T.A. well you can put him in slimy trenches and he'll be perfectly happy: but he'd never be contented in Buckingham Palace on Indian rations. Here we are of course on war rations, cheese, bacon and jam, bully beef and quite decent mutton, and condensed milk. Vegetables are scarce, so lime juice is an issue: and they are said just to have made beer one, which would be the crown of bliss. Every man gets (if he's there) five grains of quinine a day. There are, however, far fewer mosquitoes than I expected. I've only seen one myself. The only great pest is flies: but even of those there are far fewer here than in Basra.
When I hear what the 1/4th have been through, I think we are in luxury. They had a very rough trek to Ahway and Illah in Persia in May, and coming back much exhausted were stationed a month in Ashar Barracks (Basra). Here for a fortnight it never went below 100 deg. by night and was 115 deg. by day—damp heat: and the barracks (Turkish) were in a state which precluded rest: the record bag for one man in one morning was sixty fleas from his puttees alone. And of course what Austen told the H. of C. about fans, ice and fruit was all eyewash.
* * * * *
A man in our Coy. died last night. I'd never seen him or knew he was ill. I was rather shocked at the way nobody seemed to care a bit. The Adjt. just looked in and said "who owns Pte. Taylor A." Harris said "I do: is he dead?" Adjt. "Yes: you must bury him to-morrow." Harris: "Right o." Exit Adjt. To do Harris justice, he doesn't know the man and thought he was still at Nasiriyah. None of the man's old Coy. officers are here.
* * * * *
AMARAH. September 21, 1915.
TO HIS MOTHER.
The provision for the sick and wounded is on the whole fairly good now. Six months ago it was very inadequate, too few doctors and not enough hospital accommodation. My men who were in the Base Hospital at Basra spoke very well of it: it had 500 men in it then, and is capable of indefinite expansion. The serious cases are invalided to India by the hospital ship Madras. It is said that 10,000 have gone back to India in this way. It is a curious fact that the Indian troops suffered from heat-stroke every bit as much as the British.
There are now four hospitals here (1) a big one for native troops, (2) one for British troops which has expanded till it occupies three large houses, (3) one for British officers, which will be used for all ranks if the casualties next Saturday are heavy, (4) one for civilians. There seems to be no lack of drugs or dressings or invalid foods.
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AMARAH. September 24, 1915.
Two letters from you rolled up together this mail, for both of which many thanks.
Like everyone else you write under the cloud of Warsaw and in the expectation of the enemy forthwith dashing back on us in the West. But the last two months have made it much harder for him to do that soon, if at all: and I hope the month which will pass before you get this will have made it harder still. I found it difficult weeks ago to explain what induced the Germans to commit themselves so deeply into the interior of Russia so late in the season, and I came to the conclusion that with each forward movement they had been much nearer to enveloping and smashing the Russians than the Reuters would have led one to suppose: and so had been lured on.
It now looks to me as if they are playing for one of two alternatives. If Von Below can get round their right flank he will try a last envelopment: if that flank falls back far enough to uncover Petrograd, he will make a dash for P. But all that will mean locking up even bigger forces in the East. Indeed it seems so reckless that I can only account for it by supposing either that they are confident of rushing Petrograd and paralysing Russia within a few weeks: or that they are in a desperate plight and know it.
As for the future, I think it would be a mistake to expect this war to produce a revolution in human nature and equally wrong to think nothing has been achieved if it doesn't. What I do hope is that it will mark a distinct stage towards a more Christian conception of international relations. I'm afraid that for a long time to come there will be those who will want to wage war and will have to be crushed with their own weapons. But I think this insane and devilish cult of war will be a thing of the past. War will only remain as an unpleasant means to an end. The next stage will be, one hopes, the gradual realisation that the ends for which one wages war are generally selfish: and anyway that law is preferable to force as a method of settling disputes. As to whether National ideals can be Christian ideals, in the strict sense they can't very well: because so large a part of the Christian ideal lies in self-suppression and self-denial which of course can only find its worth in individual conduct and its meaning in the belief that this life is but a preparation for a future life: whereas National life is a thing of this world and therefore the law of its being must be self-development and self-interest. The Prussians interpret this crudely as mere self-assertion and the will to power. The Christianising of international relations will be brought about by insisting on the contrary interpretation—that our highest self-development and interest is to be attained by respecting the interests and encouraging the development of others. The root fallacy to be eradicated of course, is that one Power's gain is another's loss; a fallacy which has dominated diplomacy and is the negation of law. I think we are perceptibly breaking away from it: the great obstacle to better thinking now is the existence of so many backward peoples incapable (as we think) of seeking their own salvation. Personally I don't see how we can expect the Christianising process to make decisive headway until the incapables are partitioned out among the capables. Meanwhile let us hope that each new war will be more unpopular and less respectable than the last.
I'm afraid I haven't even the excuse of a day's fishing without any fish.
Now for your letter of August 11th. I'm sorry you are discouraged because the programme you propounded to Auntie's work-party in February has not been followed. But comfort yourself with the reflection that the programme which Kaiser Bill propounded to his work-party has not been followed either.
Your Balkan programme, or rather Bob's, does not at present show much more sign of fulfilment than the one you propounded to Auntie's work-party, I'm afraid.
As usual nothing whatever has happened here. Elaborate arrangements have been made to have a battle to-morrow 120 miles up the river at Kut. It ought to be quite a big show: the biggest yet out here. As the floods are gone now it may be possible to walk right round them and capture the lot. If we pull off a big success the G.O.C. is very keen to push on to Baghdad, but it is a question whether the Cabinet will allow it. It means another 200 miles added to the L. of c.: and could only be risked if we were confident of the desert Arabs remaining quiet. Personally I see no solid argument for our going to Baghdad, and several against it (1) the advance would take us right through the sacred Shiah country, quite close to Karbala itself (Karbala is to the Shiah Mohammedans—and the vast majority of Indian Mahommedans are Shiahs—what Mecca is to the Sunnis; and Baghdad itself is a holy city). It would produce tremendous excitement in India and probably open mutiny among the Moslem troops here if they were ordered up. (2) Surely Russia wouldn't like it. (3) We can't expect to hold it permanently. Everything, so far as I can see, points to portioning this country into a British sphere and a Russian, with a neutral belt in between, on the Persian model, except that the "spheres" may be avowed protectorates. The British one must come up far enough to let us control the irrigation and drainage of Lower Mesopotamia properly: and stop short of the holy cities: say to the line Kut-el-Amarah (commonly called Kut)—Nasiriyah, along the Shatt-al-Hai. The Russians would, I suppose, come down to about Mosul.
This campaign is being conducted on gentlemanly lines. When we took a lot of prisoners at Nasiriyah we allowed the officers to send back for their kits. In return, last week, when one of our aeroplanes came down in the enemy's lines and the two airmen were captured, they sent a flag of truce across to us to let us know that the prisoners were unhurt and to fetch their kits.
I just missed Sir Mark Sykes who cruised through here two days ago. I have written to him in the hope of catching him on his way back.
* * * * *
AMARAH. September 27, 1915.
After censoring about 100 of my Company's letters I feel this will be a very incorrect performance. What strikes one too is the great gain in piquancy of style achieved by the omission of all punctuation. How could I equal this for instance "The Bible says this is a land of milk and honey there is plenty of water and dust about if thats what they mean?" or "The sentry shot an Arab one night soon after we got here I saw him soon afterwards caught him in the chest a treat it did."
I'm so glad to hear that Foss is getting on well: let me know the extent and nature of the damage. We hardly ever get a casualty list here: and I can't take that to mean there have been none lately: so my news of fractured friends hangs on the slender thread of the safe arrival of my Times every week—and on you and others who are not given to explaining that Bloggs will have given me all the news, no doubt.
The War Office, fond as ever of its little joke, having written my C.O. a solemn letter to say they couldn't entertain the idea of my promotion seeing that under the Double Coy. system the establishment of Captains is reduced to seven and so on, and having thereby induced him to offer me the unique felicity of bringing a draft to this merry land, has promptly gazetted my promotion, and antedated it to April 2nd, so that I find myself a Double Coy. Commander and no end of a blood. My importance looks more substantial on paper than on parade: for of the 258 men in "A" Double Coy. I can never muster more than about thirty in the flesh. You see so many have overeaten themselves on the ice and fresh vegetables which Austen dwelt upon in the H. of C. or have caught chills from the supply of punkahs and fans (ib.) that 137 have been invalided to India and twenty-five more are sick here. Then over fifty are on jobs which take them away from the Coy. and from ten to twenty go on guards every day. However my dignity is recognised by the grant of a horse and horse allowance.
Unless it is postponed again, the great battle up-river should be coming off to-day. I hope it is, as it is the coolest day we've had since April. In fact it is a red-letter day, being the first on which the temperature has failed to reach 100 deg. in this room. You wouldn't believe me how refreshing a degree 96 deg. can be.
We have also heard fairy-tale like rumours of an advance of Four Thousand Yards in France, but I have not seen it in black and white yet.
Having so few men available there are not many parades, in fact from 7 to 8 a.m. about four times a week is all that I've been putting in. And as a tactful Turk sank the barge containing all my Company's documents sometime in July there is an agreeable shortage of office business. So I am left to pass a day of cultured leisure and to meditate on the felicity of the Tennysonian "infinite torment of flies." I read Gibbon and Tennyson and George Eliot and the Times by turns, with intervals of an entertaining work, the opening sentence of which is "Birds are warm-blooded vertebrate animals oviparous and covered with feathers, the anterior limbs modified into wings, the skull articulating with the vertebral column by a single occipital condyle" and so on. I also work spasmodically at Hindustani. I rather fancy my handwriting in the Perso-Arabic script. Arabic proper I am discouraged from by the perverse economy of its grammar and syntax. It needs must have two plurals, one for under ten and one for over, twenty-three conjugations, and yet be without the distinction of past and future. Which is worse even than the Hindustani alphabet with no vowels and four z's—so unnecessary, isn't it, as my Aunts would say.
* * * * *
September 29, 1915.
TO HIS FATHER.
One's system has got so acclimatised to high temperatures that I find it chilly and want my greatcoat to sit in at any temperature under 80 deg., under 100 deg. is noticeably warm.
The men are getting livelier already and the sick list will soon, I hope, shrink. The chief troubles are dust and flies. About four days per week a strong and often violent wind blows from the N.W., full of dust from the desert, and this pervades everything. The moment the wind stops the flies pester one. They all say that this place is flyless compared to Nasiriyah, where they used to kill a pint and a half a day by putting saucers of formalin and milk on the mess table and still have to use one hand with a fan all the time while eating with the other, to prevent getting them into their mouths. Here it is only a matter of half a dozen round one's plate—we feed on the first floor, which is a gain. In the men's bungalows I try to keep them down by insisting on every scrap of food being either swept away or covered up: and the presence or absence of flies is incidentally a good test as to whether the tables and mugs, etc., have been properly cleaned. They are worse in the early morning. When I ride through the town before breakfast they settle all up the sunny side of me from boot to topi, about two to the square inch, and nothing but hitting them will make them budge. They are disgusting creatures. Of course the filthy habits of the natives encourage them. The streets are littered with every kind of food-scraps and dirt: and the Arab has only two W.C.'s—the street and the river. Our chief tyranny in his eyes is that we have posted sanitary police about who fine him 2s. if he uses either: but like all reforms it is evaded on a large scale. The theory that the sun sweetens everything is not quite true. Even after several days' sun manure is very offensive and prolific: and many parts of the streets are not reached by the sun at all: and in any case the flies get to work much sooner than the sun.
We have just had news from the front that a successful action has been fought, the enemy's left flank turned and several hundred prisoners taken—our own casualties under 500. So the show seems to have come off up to time. We were afraid it might have to be postponed, as a raiding party got round and cut our L. of C., but this does not appear to have worried them. I hope they will be able to follow this success up and capture all their guns and stores, if not a large proportion of their forces.
Two days ago we got the best news that we have had for a very long time from both European fronts, an advance of from one to three miles over nearly half the Western front, with about 14,000 prisoners: and Russian reports of 8,000 dead in front of one position and captures totalling something like 20,000. Since then no news has come through, which is very tantalising, as one longs to know whether the forward move has been continued. I am afraid even if it has there will be more enormous casualty lists than ever.
The most boring thing about this place is that there are no amusing ways of taking exercise, which is necessary to keep one fit. As a double Coy. Commander I have a horse, a quiet old mare which does nothing worse than shy and give an occasional little buck on starting to canter. But the rides are very dull. There are only three which one may call A, B and C, thus:
A is the flooded area, and when it is dry it is caked as hard as brick, and not a vegetable to vary the landscape.