[Transcriber's note: Obvious printer's errors have been corrected, all other inconsistencies are as in the original. Author's spelling has been maintained.]
WITH A HIGHLAND
REGIMENT IN MESOPOTAMIA
WITH A HIGHLAND REGIMENT IN MESOPOTAMIA
BY ONE OF ITS OFFICERS
BOMBAY THE TIMES PRESS 1918
TO THE CHILDREN OF THE OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE —— REGIMENT
BRIEFLY DESCRIBING THE DOINGS OF THE 2ND BATTALION IN MESOPOTAMIA WRITTEN SO THAT THEY MAY NOT FORGET THE HARDSHIPS ENDURED AND THE SACRIFICES WHICH HAVE BEEN MADE ON THEIR BEHALF 1916-1917.
In writing this short account of the 2nd Battalion in Mesopotamia, my aim has not been to write a military history of all that was achieved; that will be the task of some one more competent to judge of merits and demerits than myself. My object has been to give an account in simple language of the two years spent by the Battalion in the Iraq, so that the children of the men of the regiment may know of the brave deeds and the hardships cheerfully borne on their behalf.
Two articles describing our last two battles are here reprinted with the permission of Brigadier-General A. G. Wauchope, from whom I have also received many details of our earlier fights, and I am also indebted for information to Captains J. Macqueen, W. E. Blair, W. A. Young, Sergeant-Major W. S. Clark, and other officers of the Battalion.
MESOPOTAMIA, October, 1917.
HIS MAJESTY THE KING.
Received by Colonel A. G. WAUCHOPE, D.S.O., Commanding, 2nd Battalion—January 1917.
I thank you, Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and men, for the card of New Year's greetings.
I have followed the work of the Battalion with great interest. I know how well all ranks have done, what they have suffered, and that they will ever maintain the glorious tradition of the Regiment.
GEORGE, R.I., Colonel-in-Chief.
Order by G. O. C., —— Division.
I cannot speak too highly of the splendid gallantry of the ——Highlanders, aided by a party of the —— Jats, in storming the Turkish Trenches.
Their noble achievement is one of the highest.
They showed qualities of endurance and courage under circumstances so adverse, as to be almost phenomenal.
SIR GEORGE YOUNGHUSBAND, Commanding —— Division.
After the action fought on the 21st January 1916 on the Tigris the above was published.
* * * * *
Letter to O. C. 2nd Battalion ——.
Tell the men of your battalion that they have given, in the advance to the relief of Kut, brilliant examples of cool courage, and hard and determined fighting which could not be surpassed.
SIR PERCY LAKE, Commanding the Army in Mesopotamia. July, 1916.
* * * * *
General Munro, C.-in-C, Indian Army, addressing the —— Regiment, Tigris Front—October 1916.
Your reputation is well known, I need say nothing more.
* * * * *
To the —— Regiment.
From Sir Stanley Maude, Army Commander—March 1917.
You led the way into Baghdad, and to lead and be first is the proper place for your Regiment.
WITH A HIGHLAND REGIMENT IN MESOPOTAMIA.
At the outbreak of war, the 2nd Battalion —— was stationed at Bareilly, having been in India since the end of the South African War. Of the fighting in that campaign, the 2nd Battalion had had its full share. At first it formed part of General Wauchope's Highland Brigade and fought with traditional stubbornness at Magersfontein and Paadeburg, and later on identified its name with many of the captures and some of the hardest marches of that campaign.
On the mobilisation of the Indian Corps, the 2nd Battalion formed part of a Brigade of the ——th Division and landed in France early in October 1914, and were in the trenches holding part of the line near Festubert before the end of the month. At no time, except in the early months of 1916 in Mesopotamia, was the Battalion so severely tried as in these first two months in France. The conditions certainly were comfortable neither to mind or body. The trenches were knee deep in mud and water, and were without dug-outs or shelters; the enemy were in great numbers and combined their aggressive tactics with the use of trench mortars and grenades, weapons of which we had neither knowledge nor training; of rest for man or officer there was little, yet no yard of trench entrusted to the Battalion was ever lost either in France or Mesopotamia. With the spring came better times, and at Neuve Chappelle a fine victory was won at small cost, but on the 9th of May the Battalion suffered heavily in making an attack from the Orchard in front of the Rue-de-Bois. Often and with pleasure have we in the Iraq looked back on that summer spent in Picardy. Scouts and snipers, machine gunners and bombers, we all have different memories of those stirring days as the battalion moved from month to month along the trenches from Givenchy Hill to Northward of Laventie; and of the days of rest in billets behind Bethune, Richebourg and the Rue de Paradis; memories of close comradeship, of well-loved friends, of most noble deeds and of lives freely given for King and Country. But the day we recall now and shall ever recall as the red letter day of the year is the 21st of September. Five battalions of the Regiment joined that day in the battle of Loos, and though separated in the line, at one in spirit, all five battalions swept forward regardless of loss, driving the enemy from their trenches, captured line after line of the position and penetrated deep into the German defences.
The 2nd and 4th Battalions had attacked together from Fauguissart and, in reaching the Moulin de Pictre, an advance of two miles made with little support on either left flank or right, the losses had been so severe that the two battalions were afterwards amalgamated into one under the command of Colonel Wauchope. These two battalions, in conjunction with another Highland Regiment under Colonel Thompson, despite several attacks and four mines being blown up within our first line, held Givenchy Hill throughout October. Then, when the Germans quieted down in this neighbourhood, we returned to our old line near the Rue de Bois. There rumour had it that the Indian Corps was soon to be sent to Mesopotamia. Some welcomed the idea of change, no one looked forward to another four months of the mud of Flanders. Almost everyone who did not know imagined that they would be giving up every discomfort which the winter brought for a pic-nic in the East, and a quick, successful and enjoyable march to Baghdad, and so when the rumours were confirmed, the whole battalion was in great spirits. Some obtained short leave to say 'Good-Bye' to their friends across the channel before leaving for the East, where there would be no short visits home, no getting letters and parcels daily, but the Regiment had gained great honour beneath foreign skies, so probably it was going to add to them even if it was only establishing marching records along the Tigris to their goal at Baghdad. Besides, was not Townshend and his gallant force in danger in Kut? And the idea of forming part of the relieving column appealed to every man.
So at the end of November the Regiment entrained behind that long Western Front where they had fought for so many months against such terrific odds, and where so many gallant comrades lay buried, and everyone was happy, and no one thought that within a few short weeks the battalion would practically cease to exist. Before they arrived in France, many had never left the shores of Great Britain, and now they were embarking on an Expedition that would reveal to them some of the wonders of the East. Is it any wonder, under those circumstances, that no one was downhearted?
The train journey through the heart of France from the mud of the trenches, leaving the cold and cheerless days behind for the sunny south was full of interest, and of looking forward to what was in store. Marseilles, that busy Mediterranean Port which has seen such wonderful scenes of troops arriving from all parts of the world, and of all colours, naturally turned out to see the Regiment it had welcomed to defend its Frontiers a year before, and which was now en-route to defend and fight for the honour of the Allied cause three thousand miles away. And so on December the 6th, it was 'Good-Bye' to the pleasant land of France, and the Regiment embarked on the Transport nine hundred and fifty strong. Having suffered heavy casualties on the Western Front, few of the original number left France, bound for Basrah via the Suez Canal.
Before leaving, in appreciation of the stubborn fighting in the battle of Loos by the 2nd Battalion, the Cross of the Legion of Honour was conferred on the Commanding Officer, Colonel A. G. Wauchope, D.S.O. Never was an honour more richly deserved, never was the conferring of one more popular. No one who has not served in the Regiment can possibly be aware of what the Colonel has done to make his Battalion one of the most efficient in Mesopotamia. I was very interested in listening to a story told me by a brother officer who was standing alone in a traverse of a trench. Two Staff Officers were talking in the next traverse and he heard one remark: "Of course, out here at the present the Regiment is Wauchope, and Wauchope is the Regiment." It is a name most closely connected with the fortunes of the —— Regiment.
The journey was a pleasant one; the wonderful change from the damp depressing dug-out to a comfortable cabin was appreciated by the officers, and a dry and comfortable place to sleep in, instead of trying to sleep in the mud of a fire trench was welcomed by the men.
The usual stay at Port Said after successfully evading the submarines, where the wily Arab fleeces the unsuspecting Tommy, was not without interest. The Padre tells an interesting story about how, when he was returning from home leave to the Regiment in India in 1913, he had his fortune told by one of the many fantastic liars that fatten on the stories they weave in this Eastern cesspool. The Fortune-teller told him that within a year he would be returning to Europe by the same canal. In those piping days of peace he never suspected that it would be with the regiment on Active Service but when almost to the day and within the year, he passed through Port Said on his way to France, this one saying at least of the Fortune-teller was forcibly brought home to his mind.
Egypt in December is delightful, and more than one expressed the wish that for a time at all events they could be stationed in this most wonderful country. The Canal displayed enormous activity, there had been no such activity since the days when it was made. Thousands of Arabs and others toiled and died in making this great work. To-day the Canal is guarded by thousands of troops. Enormous camps have been established at different places, and Posts are in existence all along the waterway. It being so narrow, 3-worded conversations take place between the troops on the banks and the men on the Trooper. 'Who are you?' asked the men on the bank. When the reply is returned, shouts of 'Good Old Scotland' are raised ashore. Some asked, 'Where are you going!' 'Mesop' they say. 'Poor Devils', is the encouraging reply. Then some lonely soul asks if any of his Regiment are on board, and so it goes on all day. Some swim out from the shore and shout and talk, but one is chiefly impressed by the great number of men guarding this important waterway.
At Suez a short stay is made. The water is a wonderful opal colour; the great Desert on our left, the barren rocks, sunburnt and bare on our right, help to make a fascinating picture. One remembers the first time one had passed through the Canal, years before in time of peace, and how one had been filled with admiration for the Medical Officer who came out to the Mail Boat to give it a clean bill of health to pass through the Canal, because she was a woman, and standing month after month of Suez summer weather, which proves too much for many men, leave alone women. But the stay is short and so as the Sun sets, making wonderful colouring over the Desert and sea, the journey down the Red Sea is commenced. The Red Sea in December is shorn of its terrors and can be quite enjoyable. Aden is passed, two or three days steaming along the inhospitable coast of Southern Arabia and the entrance of the Persian Gulf is reached. The Straits of Ormuz have the reputation of being one of the hottest places on earth. The rocky, and wild Arabian coast looks very beautiful in the sunshine with its innumerable islands, and the sea is a dead calm. For some hours the shores on our left are visible, then we steam, up along the Persian shore and get a good view of the barren, rocky mountain range running parallel with the coast. Those who have good glasses make out villages on the shore. The Captain is pestered with questions about the date and time of arrival at Basrah. Excitement is being felt again; one wonders what the news will be, and what has happened to General Townshend; and so at last anchor is dropped at the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf. The two rivers Tigris and Euphrates join at a place called Kurnah, and from there to the sea the river is called 'Shatt-el-Arab.' Everyone is disappointed that there are no signs of land anywhere, and one wonders in which direction land lies. But what a relief it will be to get off the ship, how delightful to stretch one's legs ashore, as in spite of the good food, the sports and the usual joys of a trooper, it is impossible not to feel cramped and so once again everyone was rejoicing that the sea voyage was at an end. The shore is so low-lying that nothing could be seen of it as the transport had to anchor some miles off the mouth of the river. We had to transship to smaller boats to proceed to Basrah, about eighty miles inland. Transshipping is a long and tedious business but at last it is completed and we say farewell with a cheer to our transport, and the smaller boat steams towards the shore. In about half an hour we make out some palm trees and everyone is on the lookout for their first view of Mesopotamia. Slowly we approach the wide mouth of the river, successfully pass over the bar, and the new campaign for us has begun, and it is the last day of the year—31st December 1915.
It takes about seven hours from the mouth of the river to Basrah. The journey up is of interest as none have been here before, and everything is new. Both sides of the river the banks are covered with palm trees, stretching inland for distances varying from 500 yards to three miles, and after that all is desert. We pass Abadan on our right where the pipes of the oil fields belonging to the Anglo-Persian Oil Coy. reach the river from Ahwaz. It has been said that the Mesopotamian Campaign was started in the first place to protect these oil-fields. One wonders now if it would have been advisable to protect them and hold Basrah only, and not push forward further inland. But it is easy to be wise after the event, and high politics, tactics and strategy do not form part of an account of the doings of the 2nd Battalion—so I must not be led astray. The river is very broad and is navigable for hundreds of miles. Mohammerah, the Persian town at the junction of the Shatt-el-Arab and Karun rivers, looked an interesting place. It is; as many months later I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time there. The Sheikh of Mohammerah has proved a good friend to the British, and almost opposite his palace one can see the remains of the three steamers in the river which the Turks sunk in a vain endeavour to block the passage as they retreated; as good fortune or Providence would have it, one boat in sinking swung round and left the passage open. At Mohammerah is a big Convalescent Hospital for white as well as Indian troops. We noticed some large barrack looking houses on our left, one in particular, 'Beit Naama', attracting attention; but more about that later on as this establishment has now been turned into an hospital for officers. And so at last anchor is dropped off Basrah, as 'Ashar' is usually referred to as 'Basrah' by everyone out of the actual place. Was this the romantic spot from which Sinbad the Sailor started on his wonderful voyages?—was this the spot that so many have imagined must be one of the wonderful places of the East?—when they are thousands of miles away from it. A famous traveller has said, "that its European inhabitants only remain alive during the day through a perception of the humour of their situation, and by night through the agency of the prayers of their despairing relatives." For Basrah has the most malarial air, the most choleraic water, and the most infernal climate of any spot in the world outside 'Tophet.'
One Company of the Regiment had travelled out on a different transport—with another Highland unit and arrived a day or so in advance and were awaiting the arrival of the main body at Basrah. They were very interested in the place and were full of their adventures and of rumours. One thing was evident, one thing alone mattered, troops were needed, urgently needed, at the front; and we were at once ordered to proceed up river. The Regiment transshipped in midstream, not even having time to land, and were taken up by two river boats, with barges attached on either side.
Not a man who made that journey and is still alive will ever forget the "P-7" or the "Salimi." The time since leaving France had not been wasted; everything that could possibly be done to keep the men fit and their minds active was done. Physical drill every morning, sports were got up, concerts,—the Colonel himself taking a big interest and share in everything that tended to the comfort of his men. At the best of times, life on a Troopship is a cramped existence, but in comparison to the up river voyages, it is a life of luxury. The world has been scoured for river boats for this campaign; steamers from the Nile, the Irrawady and the Thames are doing excellent work in carrying troops and supplies to the fighting line. Part of the river is so narrow that it is dangerous for paddle boats to attempt the journey without lighters attached as bumping into the sides of the bank the paddle boxes would be smashed. The trip up the river in January is by no means a pleasure one. It is not now! and it was much less so in January 1916. The nights are cold and in the early morning the river is lost in mist. At nights it is usually necessary to tie up at the side of the bank or to anchor in midstream. Only on bright moonlight nights, and not always then, can progress be made. The flood season on the Tigris is at its height about May and continues so till about the end of June. The river gradually falls in July and August and is at its lowest level during the months of September, October and November. It rises during the rains in December and January, sometimes as much as four or five feet, and this keeps the river fairly high during the following two months. In April the river rises still higher owing to the melting of the snow on the mountains in the north. These are the normal changes that come as regularly as winter follows autumn. There may be slight variations such as more rain one winter season than another, for instance, January 1916 was far wetter than January 1917. There are occasional high floods owing to the rain, and in January 1896 the river rose eight feet in one night at Baghdad.
The men crowded on to the barges attached to the side of the paddle boats and of course everything was of interest, everything was new in this, the oldest country in the world. Because Kurnah at the junction of the Tigris and the Euphrates has the reputation of being the site of the Garden of Eden, many and various are the jokes which have been made against this most unfortunate of places by members of the Expeditionary Force, but all amount to the one thing—that Adam and Eve had very little to lose in being driven out, if it is unchanged since those days.
The belt of Palm trees which so attracted our attention along the banks from the mouth of the Gulf to Basrah still continues, but they are thinning down very considerably and by the time Kurnah is reached the belt has no depth at all. There is no question of a halt, no question of a rest, "Push On" is the order of the day. It may seem somewhat absurd now, but it brings home to one the eagerness of all to share in the relief of Kut, that the first thing the Colonel did on landing at Basra was to wire to the Corps Commander at the front asking him to arrange for the Battalion to follow up the Relieving Column if it had passed Ali Garbi before the Regiment arrived. Regardless of risk, regardless of orders, urged on by the Colonel, the two steamers bearing the battalion pushed forward by night as by day for fear of not overtaking the Relieving Column. The winding of the river seemed interminable to those eager to be at the front, and there is little to relieve the monotony of the flat plain, save the colouring at dawn and dusk, and the appearance of a few mahelas floating down stream with their broad sails outspread to catch the north-west wind.
At Kurnah the Palm belt ceases and only at odd places and around villages are trees again to be seen. One cannot fail to be struck with the enormous possibilities the country offers for cultivation if only properly irrigated. Thousands and thousands of acres of the best of soil, and everywhere as flat as Salisbury Plain.
We now begin to see small Arab villages along the banks of the river; they look dirty and dilapidated. The Arabs look filthy, but some have very pleasant faces, and both men and women impress one with their strength. This campaign is of course not only an eye-opener to them but also a God-send. They beg and steal on every possible occasion and on going through the narrows a lot of amusement is obtained in bargaining with them. The troops crowd on to the barges, as they bump along the sides of the river banks which are only two or three feet higher than the barge, and buy from the Arab women and children running along the banks selling eggs and fowls; as the demand has risen the prices have also advanced, and whereas at the opening of the campaign one could buy a dozen eggs for fourpence, by January 1917, I have seen officers pay twopence each or more. It is scarcely safe to jump ashore, as any moment the boat may launch out again into the middle of the stream, but when tied up by the bank waiting for another boat to pass brisk business can be carried on. The boats going up usually give way to those coming down, as the ones coming down may have wounded and sick, and all must be done to get them down to hospital as soon as possible, and so the time passes. At one end of the Narrows is Ezra's Tomb, a building surmounted by a blue tiled dome, which is evidently of no very ancient origin. We were informed that the edifice had been erected in memory of Ezra by a wealthy Jew, and that the place had become a sort of place of pilgrimage. Clustering round it is a small Arab hamlet with the usual sprinkling of Palm trees, and an abundance of dirt and filth, without which surely the Arab could not exist.
At the northern end of the Narrows is the village of Qalat Sahib with its minarets and lovely reflections. Then, Amara is sighted. We are now one hundred and twenty miles from our base and this place makes a kind of a half-way house between Basrah and Baghdad, and for the first time the battalion lands in Mesopotamia. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon that the order to disembark was received. Wonder was expressed at the command as everyone knew that this was still a long way behind the firing line, and was it the intention to march the rest of the distance, and if so, why? as we were so much needed. All these queries and doubts however were soon put an end to when it became known that the Colonel had decided to land and practice an attack. He knew that at any moment his Regiment might be thrown into action, and as the long journey was found to have a stiffening effect on one's limbs he decided on some small practice manoeuvres before the actual and real thing took place.
What a pleasure to get on shore again! At such a moment a regiment is almost like a boy's school let out after hours; everyone was in high fettle and pleased, our long journey was nearing its end, and very soon we would be relieving General Townshend who had been locked up in Kut since December 5th.
By three o'clock all were ashore and an attack on an imaginary enemy was practised, and of course victory achieved; but on returning to the river, it was found that the boats had moved up a mile or so, and tired and weary the Regiment had to go in search of them, and to add to the discomfort the rain started to come down, so that by the time everyone was on board again at seven-thirty it was dark and the men were wet, and a very subdued regiment ate their evening meal in comparison to the high spirits of earlier in the afternoon. However, very soon it would be good-bye to the boats for good, as it was expected that the following day we should land at Ali-el-Gharbi.
The 2nd Battalion disembarked at Ali-el-Gharbi, one hundred and eighty miles from Basrah. The ground was little better than a bog from the rain of the previous day; with very little rain the whole countryside seems to become a quagmire. The mud is about the most slippery kind to be found anywhere, so that walking is made most difficult. The first work was to unload the barges. All the kit, supplies, and tents had to be taken ashore as we were leaving the boats for good and were now in a hostile country. The unloading is a tedious business and one of the most tiring of fatigues, but when the whole of a regiment is put on to it the work is soon finished. That night No. 1 Company was on Out-Post duty and the rest slumbered.
The following morning broke fine and sunny, as so often happens in this country after wet and miserable evenings. The clouds roll up during the night and the morning is such that one feels it is good to be alive. There was a sharpness in the air that made it almost impossible to think that in a few months' time this country would be proving itself to be the hottest in the world. The orders were to be up at dawn and start immediately after breakfast. Part of the Brigade transport was of camels, but the camels getting out of hand disappeared into the desert and the start had to be made without them. It is a fascinating picture to see a long line of camels in single file starting off on a voyage across the desert. But this misadventure had delayed matters and the heat after midday was very trying for marching although in the distance one could see the snow on the higher summits of the Pusht-i-kuh Mountains which form the dividing line between Persia and Turkey. From an aeroplane the picture of the Tigris flowing through this flat country with all its numerous twists and turns must resemble a huge snake. A short halt was made in the middle of the day for lunch, and a final halt was not called till within five miles of Sheikh-Saad, and a distance of twenty-two miles had been covered, not bad work, considering the Regiment had just landed after being cooped up for a month on transports and river boats. But everyone was dead tired and exhausted and No. 1 Company was pleased that they had provided the Out-Posts the previous night, and that it was the turn of No. 2 to do duty. General Younghusband with part of his division had moved out and engaged the enemy, and that night we could see the flashes of the guns and hear the constant rattle of musketry. At break of day General Aylmer, the Corps Commander, rode out past us to the advanced force, but it was not till after nine o'clock that our Brigade advanced some five miles and lay down to await orders. The orders were clear and promised success. One Brigade was to deal with the Turks on the right bank of the Tigris, one Brigade was to hold his forces near the left bank, while a third, with ours in immediate support, was to make the decisive attack on the enemy's left flank. This Brigade and ours therefore manoeuvred to the right for position. Before we had taken sufficient ground to our right, fresh orders arrived directing both Brigades to counter-march back and attack the centre of the enemy's line, against which the Brigade on our left was already moving. Instant action was demanded and instantly the 2nd Battalion and a battalion of Jats moved forward to the attack. No time was given for the issue of orders, no frontage or direction was given, no signal communication was arranged. To all enquiries the one answer was given "Advance where the bullets are thickest" and right there did the 2nd Battalion advance. Magazines were charged and bayonets fixed on the move; the companies moved with great rapidity and wonderful exactness considering the exhausting march of the day before and the little practice they had had in open warfare. But without covering fire, and there was little artillery fire available to cover our attack such an attack over bare open plain cannot succeed unless the enemy be few in numbers or of poor heart. The Turk was neither weak nor faint-hearted, and poured in so deadly a fire that before the leading lines were within 200 yards of the enemy, five hundred of the battalion had been killed or wounded. Other units suffered with almost equal severity, the attack came to an inevitable halt, there were no reserves to drive it home, consequently orders were sent up from the Brigade that the infantry should dig themselves in where they were. Nineteen officers and two-thirds of the men had been hit: Colonel Wauchope was severely wounded by a shell and Major Hamilton Johnstone took over command.
But if our losses were heavy and the sufferings great, the Turk had also suffered so heavily at our hands, that he was forced to evacuate his position on the following day, and we occupied it on the 9th. The situation was one of extreme difficulty for the new Commanding officer. If there were few men left there were still fewer officers or sergeants remaining with much experience. Yet the Turks were close to our trenches and re-organisation of the depleted platoons imperative. But his indomitable spirit and the determination within the regiment, so often shown at times of crisis, made the hardest tasks possible. The wounded were brought back, the dead buried; rations were got forward and the trenches securely held. New leaders were appointed, and on January 10th when the Brigade moved forward from Sheikh-Saad the Battalion had been reformed under its well-loved commander, ready as always to do whatever duty lay before.
Progress was made up the river bank slowly, but always in the direction of Kut, the aim and object of our every march and fight at this period. The enemy had retreated some miles and, on January 13th, they were attacked and driven out of their position on the Wadi, the 2nd Battalion playing a small but successful part in this action and losing 34 men. The Turks then fell back on to a more strongly entrenched position at Hannah.
The rainy season was now in full swing. It rained day after day and the whole country became sodden, making it very difficult to move troops and almost impossible to move artillery. The discomfort the men suffered is almost indescribable, with no tents and everyone chronically wet to the skin and unable to have properly cooked food, made a seemingly hopeless position; but it is wonderful how hardship and discomforts are forgotten at the thought of beleaguered comrades in need of help and, as the country dried up and the sun shone forth, the men's spirits rose. On the eighteenth the 2nd Battalion had orders again to move forward. They did so and occupied a line of trenches about two thousand yards off the enemy, who were strongly entrenched in what is now known as the Hannah position. The whole country here, it must be understood, is absolutely flat, only in the distance twenty or thirty miles away one could see the snow-clad Pusht-i-kuh Mountains. Each night short advances were made and fresh trenches dug, till the night of the 20th. In this manner an advance was made up to within two hundred and fifty yards of the enemy's position. There, under cover of darkness the last line of trenches were dug and the companies deployed into two lines, and there they faced the enemy and awaited dawn. The Battalion and our old friends, the Jats, had been lent to another Brigade detailed to make the decisive assault on the morning of the 21st. Major Hamilton Johnston had made every possible arrangement for a successful assault and the leading lines were well within striking distance of the enemy. But however brilliantly carried out an assault may be, however gallant and determined the men, to ensure a lasting success against a determined foe there must be weight as well as depth in the attack. Now on the night of the 20th, owing to the movement among the troops, lack of reconnaissance and the mud, the troops in rear of the two leading battalions were deployed so far back, that though they moved forward in the morning simultaneously with the Jats and Highlanders, they suffered such losses on their way that none were able to reach the enemy trenches. And dire was our need there for support.
At a given signal our artillery opened a light bombardment of seven minutes, then the long awaited and thrilling order to assault was given. The companies made a magnificent response and all rushed forward, crossed the muddy water-logged No Man's Land with their left 200 or 300 yards from the river, and gained the objective, though not without losses. No pause had been made for firing for the bayonet was the weapon our men trusted. More and more it is proved that the bayonet is the weapon that wins the trench, the rifle the defensive weapon that holds it. Yet though no pause had been made our losses in that charge were severe. Major Hamilton Johnston was struck first by bullet and then, almost at once, killed by shell; only four officers reached the objective and of these three were wounded. The Turks fought desperately and it was only after a severe struggle that we captured some 300 yards of the first line trench. The Jats had suffered fully as severely as ourselves, but a certain number joined up with our men and fought right well, but no further assistance was forthcoming. The Colonel was once asked by the Higher Command if such and such a trench could be captured. "My Regiment," he replies, "will capture any trench, but it is a different matter whether it is possible to hold it." Then for one and a quarter hours, the length of time which the trench was held, the Regiment added a very glorious page to its history. Great gallantry was displayed and Lieut. M. M. Thorburn who was severely wounded by a bayonet thrust received the Military Cross as an immediate award. The enemy counter-attacked from two sides and our few bombs, though replenished from some captured from the enemy, were soon expended; but many charges up the trenches were made to bomb them out, two machine guns were captured and put out of action. Slowly however the Turks drove the remnants of our platoons towards the river and the killed and wounded greatly outnumbered the survivors, 2nd Lieutenant Souther was wounded but refused to retire, and every moment the situation was getting more desperate. 2nd Lieutenant Henderson assumed command and was gallantly supported by C.S.M. Proudfoot and Sergeant McDonald. Seeing that the position was untenable, C.S.M. Proudfoot asked 2nd Lieutenant Henderson if he did not think it would be wise to fall back as no assistance was being sent, and men were being uselessly sacrificed. "How can I order the Regiment to retire?" he replied. C.S.M. Proudfoot and Sergt. MacDonald were both killed. Two of the finest men in the regiment they were, and both had been recommended for commissions. Proudfoot would have made a splendid officer; he had perhaps the finest physique of any man in the Battalion and for long had been the best reel dancer. No one who ever knew Sergt. MacDonald will forget him. His soft voice and gentle manner, his readiness to help whoever had need endeared him to all, and many a brave deed had he done as scout leader of the Battalion both in France and Mesopotamia. It now became impossible to remain unsupported in the enemy's position. Slowly and in good order some eighty men, one quarter of those who had started the attack two hours before, retired across No Man's Land and regained our trenches.
When muster roll was called ninety-nine men remained of this gallant Regiment, out of the nine hundred and fifty who had landed in Mesopotamia less than three weeks before. As many wounded as possible were brought in. The Padre, Major the Revd. Macfarlane did splendid service. Darkness was closing in as the Regiment fell back on to the second line, and the very skies wept at the tragedy being enacted below them. No tents, no warmth, all soaked to the skin, intense cold, and defeated. It is possible to be happy even if wet, cold and hungry if you are victorious, but to be wet, cold and defeated, and yet undaunted is worthy of the highest traditions of heroes.
The following day what remained of the Battalion was moved across the river, and 2nd Lieutenant Stewart Smith assumed command, to be followed shortly by Captain Crake.
The stay on the right bank of the river was short, and the remnants of the Battalion were again soon on the left bank, but the losses of the Highland units engaged had been so heavy that it was decided to form one Battalion of what remained, under Colonel Thompson. This brilliant officer was shortly afterwards given a Brigade, and during the Campaign of the winter 1916-17 did such excellent work that he was rewarded with the command of a Division again proving that age should not be regarded as a deterrent for promotion if ability is conspicuous. He was only forty when commanding a Brigade. During February and March the Battalion suffered great discomfort, not to speak of hardships. The rainfall was unusually heavy and the country all mud. Difficulty was experienced in getting up supplies. And every day and every hour the Turks were tightening their hold on Kut, so gallantly defended by General Townshend and his brave division. For in reading the history of the battles of this spring, we must always remember that the relief of Kut was the object in view, and for that object our Generals were right in giving battle and in accepting any odds while one chance remained of final success.
The Regiment was now encamped near the Hannah position, fresh drafts arrived, re-organisation completed and training continued in bombing, trench digging and minor manoeuvres. The great effort on the right bank of March 8th had failed, but within a month another supreme effort was made on the left bank. Another Division had arrived from Gallipoli and, on April 5th, under General Maude, their trusted commander, this Division captured the Hannah position. On the evening of the same day, they gained the Falahiyah trenches and on the same night our column, with the Highland Battalion leading, marched through Falahiyah and advanced up the edge of the Suwakie Marsh with the intention of attacking the Turkish left. As so often happens, however, on a night march, some delay occurred, and at dawn the troops had not reached their objective and were not fully deployed. The Turks opened a very heavy fire practically destroying our leading platoons and, as we were still some six hundred yards from their trenches, the order was given to dig in where we were. This was done, but the weather this year was beyond all precedent, the marsh kept on rising and before evening it had flooded our men out of the new trenches. We were consequently ordered to retire three hundred yards and dig in afresh.
On the 7th a demonstration in force was carried out by fresh troops; little was effected by this demonstration as it was checked mainly by shell and machine gun fire before advancing very far. Like many another effort of these heart breaking days, it was fore-doomed to fail; and the spirits of the troops and their fighting value was only maintained by the stern resolve that every man would continue fighting, no matter against what odds, so long as the flag was still flying over Kut.
On the night of the 8th, another Division took over our trenches, and on the following evening made a night advance and attacked the San-i-yat position. Heavy casualties were incurred, but they failed to reach the enemy's position. We therefore again took over and held the trenches until April 22nd. A final attack was planned for that day to be made by two Brigades, but at the last moment the Brigade on our right found the ground in their front impassable owing to the rising of the marsh. Consequently in the assault we were exposed to a heavy fire from our right flank as well as from the front. Nevertheless the gallant Highlanders swept across the muddy ground, drove the enemy from his first line and assaulted the second. Lieutenant Forester led his platoon against the third line, but from that gallant assault none returned. Major Inglis, the senior officer with the Battalion, and many another were killed. The enemy trenches were in most places filled with water, to consolidate our position was impossible and, fired on from three sides, the survivors of the Brigade were forced slowly back to their original position. With new drafts the Highland Battalion had attacked at full strength, but suffered during the day over 600 casualties.
The position now in Kut was almost hopeless, and General Townshend began to destroy his stores and guns. One last but very gallant attempt was to be made to get supplies in, and the General Officer Commanding the Expeditionary Force reported as follows:—
"At 8 p.m., on April 24th, 1916, with a crew from the Royal Navy under Lieutenant Firman, R.N., assisted by Lieut.-Commander Cowley, R.N.V.R., the 'Julnar,' carrying 270 tons of supplies left Falahiyah in an attempt to reach Kut. Her departure was covered by all Artillery and Machine gun fire that could be brought to bear, in the hope of attracting the enemy's attention. She was, however, discovered and shelled on her passage up the river. At 1 a.m., on the 25th, General Townshend reported that she had not yet arrived, and that at midnight a burst of heavy firing had been heard at Magasis, some 8-1/2 miles from Kut by river, which had suddenly ceased. There could be little doubt that the enterprise had failed, and the next day the Air Service reported the 'Julnar' in the hands of the Turks at Magasis. The leaders of this brave attempt, Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and his assistant Lieut.-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R., the latter of whom throughout the campaign in Mesopotamia performed magnificent service in command of the 'Mejidieh,' have been reported by the Turks to have been killed, the remainder of the gallant crew, including five wounded, are prisoners of war. Knowing well the chances against them all the gallant officers and men who manned the 'Julnar' for the occasion were volunteers. I trust the services in this connection of Lieut. H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and Lieut-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R., his assistant, both of whom were unfortunately killed, may be recognized by the posthumous grant of some suitable honour."
"The King has been graciously pleased to approve of the posthumous grant of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officers in recognition of their conspicuous gallantry in an attempt to reprovision the Force besieged in Kut-el-Amarah:—
Lieut. Humphry Osbaldeston Brooke Firman, R.N. Lieut.-Comdr. Charles Henry Cowley, R.N.V.R."
* * * * *
After a stubborn defence for one hundred and forty-three days, General Townshend's supplies were exhausted, and he was compelled to surrender on April 29th, with 9,000 men.
The strategical importance of Kut-el-Amarah lies in the fact that it is at the junction of the Shatt-el-Hai with the Tigris. The force which controls Kut has the choice of movement down the Hai or the Tigris at will, and this advantage was with the Turk.
The summer was rapidly advancing with its awful heat and the enemy, unable to press his advantage any further, was quite willing to remain in his trenches and await events. And so for seven months both sides resorted to trench warfare, and sat down facing each other through the most trying period of the year.
The Secretary of State made the following announcement: "General Lake reports on May 20th that the right (South) bank of the Tigris is clear of the enemy as far as the Shatt-el-Hai, except for small rear-guards covering the bridge over the Hai some 500 yards below its junction with the Tigris. Our main force on this bank has reached the line Magasis-Dujailah. On the left (North) bank the enemy are reported to be still occupying the San-i-yat position. Weather is intensely hot and trying, and temperature during the last few days has been over 100 degrees in the shade."
Owing to the melting of the snows in Asia Minor the Tigris is at its highest in the spring and early summer and the left of our lines stretched to the water edge. The Suwakie marsh is also very full at this season and forms a natural protection to the right flank of the San-i-yat position. Consequently as the front held was under two miles the lines could be safely held by one Brigade at a time, with the other two in reserve. The procedure adopted during the summer months was for one Brigade to hold the trenches, one Brigade in the forward area rest camp, and the other the rearward area rest camp, situated at the Bridgehead opposite Arab Village, some six miles behind the firing line.
Fresh troops were arriving in the country daily, drafts to different regiments to make up for those killed, wounded and sick. A great number coming direct from England and Scotland and quite unaccustomed to the great heat went sick immediately on arrival in the country.
In addition, however, many wounded were now returning, the numbers at the front increased, and in May, Colonel Thompson was appointed to the command of a brigade on the right bank, and Colonel Wauchope took over the Highland Battalion. Throughout the summer our Division held the San-i-yat position. In spite of numerous drafts the Highland Battalion remained considerably under strength both in men and officers until August. By that time the Battalion was about twelve hundred strong, and it was split up into its two original units, our comrades being posted to another Brigade.
These two battalions had served together as the Highland Battalion during a period of their history that will never be forgotten. Close friends in India, the two battalions had now fought shoulder to shoulder in many a hard-fought action, they had captured and defended trenches together under conditions sometimes so desperate that only their faith and confidence in each other enabled the two regiments not only to maintain their glorious traditions but also to enhance their reputation. No jealousy marred the good feeling between officers and men; there was nothing but goodwill. We all had absolute trust in Colonel Thompson, and Colonel Wauchope has often said he always found the same spirit, the same wholehearted readiness to perform every duty equally amongst both units. In some ways the Platoon, in some ways the Division is the tactical unit of the British Army, but by tradition, custom and wholesome practise the living organism is the Battalion, and the Commander who ignores that fact loses a source of strength that no other factor fills. It was only the strength of fellowship and their confidence in their two commanders that enabled these two famous regiments to work and fight under every adverse circumstance so wholeheartedly and with the single-minded devotion which they always showed during these trying times.
The bond of sentiment holds when other bonds fail. To all to whom regimental feeling appeals there is no sight like the swing of the kilt, no sound like the sound of the pipes. Men of both regiments might often recall how they had charged forward in France, the pipers leading the way, and no body of men had themselves shewn greater gallantry or inspired others with their spirit more than the regimental pipers. Yet even in war the days of battle are few and the days of trial many, and many a time at reveille and retreat, on the march and in camp has the sound of the massed pipers stirred our memories and stoutened our hearts to face whatever danger or hardship lay before. The old Crimean reveille was still heard, but a new reveille, "The Highland Regiment in Mesopotamia," arranged by Pipe-Major Keith, was played more often. During a long march "Scotland's my Ain Hame," and "Neil Gow's Farewell to Whiskey" were often call for, and, on reaching camp, before striking up with "The Blue Bonnets," the pipers always played the Colonel's favourite air, "After the Battle."
In these days lack of tents, and the excessive heat were minor troubles compared to the prevalence of sickness and constant flow of casualties. Whatever the strength of the Battalion, the duties had to be performed. Again and again men left their turn of sentry duty only to take part in one of the innumerable but essential working parties. Over and over again men had to work throughout the cooler hours of the twenty-four, and pick up what rest they might in the heat and glare, amid the dust and flies, of midday. But if there was much sickness there was no grumbling, and the energy and thoroughness with which all duties were performed will remain for all time a lasting credit to the men of the Regiment. The average age of the Company Commanders was one and twenty, yet the C. O. told me that never was a Colonel better served in this and every respect. The Adjutant was under twenty, but no more capable or devoted officer was ever Adjutant to the Regiment. The Sergeant Major was absent sick, and during part of the time there were but four sergeants remaining with the Battalion; but the young men specially selected to fill the vacancies, responded to the call, accepted all their responsibilities, and never was the standard of discipline or smartness higher in the Battalion. Of the many awards given to the Battalion I doubt if any were better deserved than the D.S.O. gained by the Adjutant, and the two Military Crosses awarded in succession to our two Regimental Sergeant-Majors. To these might well be added the four D.C.Ms. gained by the four Sergeant-Bombers, two of whom added a bar to their medals, and unsurpassed by any, the D.C.M., with the bar, gained by the Stretcher-Bearer Sergeant.
On August 28th, General Maude took over command and his wonderful capacity for administration was soon manifested. Also more boats were arriving for river transport, more supplies, both Medical and Military, were being sent out. Control of the campaign was taken over by the War Office. Canteens were established at different points, enabling both officers and men to buy small luxuries, and the Y.M.C.A. had branches established at many places. The country will never be able to thank the Y.M.C.A. enough for what they did for its soldiers in Mesopotamia.
The Hospitals were being rapidly well established, and excellent work was being done to provide all necessary accommodation and comfort for sick men and wounded. Casualty Clearing Stations were in full swing, and hundreds of men were sent down the line from hospital to hospital, in many cases to eventually be sent to India in an endeavour to be restored to health after having endured all sorts of privations and hardships in Mesopotamia. An excellent Officers' Hospital was established at Amara, and went under the name of the "Rawal-Pindi Hospital." It was well run and had a large and capable staff. There were other hospitals at Amara for officers and men and improvements were being added daily.
There was a large number of hospitals in Basrah and a very fine one called the Beit Naama Hospital about six miles below Basrah, beautifully situated on the banks of the river and surrounded by palm trees, was opened in June 1916 to try and relieve the pressure of officers coming down river, which No. 3 British General Hospital could not easily cope with. This place was fitted up with electric light and electric fans, hot and cold water baths, lift, ice and soda water factories, up-to-date "X" Ray installation and an Operating Theatre for surgical cases.
They took in on an average about 135 officers a month and sent on an average 28 to India. It had accommodation for 100 officers and had a staff of three Medical Officers, a Matron and seven Sisters. The work done by the Nursing Sisters in this country, the untiring devotion to duty displayed under most trying climatic conditions when the temperature rose to nearly 130 degrees in the shade, is beyond all praise, and only those who have seen and suffered in this campaign should be competent to judge.
All these improvements, all these reinforcements, all these extra supplies could have but one meaning and but one end in view, and that was as soon as the summer heat was over in the words of Nelson's famous signal to "engage the enemy more closely."
The time spent out of the trenches was no holiday, one talked of going back to the Rest Camp. But Rest Camp was only a kindly term; it did not mean, as one might be led to believe, a delightful camp where comfortable chairs and well-served meals were supplied to tired and war-worn officers and men. No such thing; in fact so much the opposite was the case that one often heard it remarked that one got far more rest in the trenches than in any Rest Camp at the immediate front. The Colonel of the Regiment was a thruster. He never wasted a moment himself and would have his regiment the same. On the great Bronze Gong of one of our Battalions is engraved "I mark the hours, Do you?" Certainly the Colonel of the 2nd Battalion did. It was too hot for any drill or outside parades between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., so everyone gasped for air inside their tents during those awful hours when the temperature rose to 124 deg. in the shade, and the one thing one prayed for was the hastening of sunset; but if the officers or men slept or tried to sleep during those trying hours it was not so with the Colonel, at almost any time one visited his tent it was to find him busy; he did not seem to know what it was to suffer from fatigue, and during all those trying summer months, when with one solitary exception every officer was off duty ill for some period of time, however short, the Commanding Officer was only confined to his tent for half a day. Duties commenced soon after sunrise and very often before, every opportunity being taken to make as much use of the coolest and light hours of the 24. A very strict course of intensive training was gone through and the results were to make themselves manifest early the next year. Bombing was practiced morning and night. Bayonet fighting was excelled in, and attacks by bombers and bayonetmen were practiced with frequency in trenches especially prepared for the purpose. Officers were trained to march by compass and stars and some were even given a course of riding lessons, nothing being left to chance. The long hot trying summer was not wasted; it was a preparation for what was to come. Long marches were out of the question, but short night marches were often practiced, sometimes by the Battalion alone, sometimes by the whole Brigade with an attack at dawn. These manoeuvres were very popular with everyone; it was possible to enjoy moving about in the cool of the night and the quietness and silence with which it was possible for a whole Regiment to advance on to a supposed enemy position often impressed one. Having marched to a certain point from which an attack was to be delivered, the pre-arranged signal having been given, the bagpipes would burst forth into music and with a wild cheer the whole Regiment would charge forward in wave after wave and the supposed enemy driven from their stronghold. A few moments' rest would be given and the C. O. would call his officers around him and explain, praise or condemn various things which had struck him and, as the sun rose over the Pusht-i-Kuh hills, we would march back to camp. A keen rivalry and competition was established among the various platoons as to which would mount the best guard, and a very searching examination was conducted each evening by the Adjutant and Sergeant-Major. This led to great interest being taken by the whole Battalion in the mounting of the guard, and the smartness of the guard increased by leaps and bounds. The heat, of course, found its victims and in spite of all precautions there was a fair amount of sickness during the summer; it was impossible to avoid it. Great care was taken to see that all drinking water was properly chlorinated, and special waterproof tanks were erected on the river banks. If anyone went sick they were almost immediately sent to the Field Hospital where they got every possible attention. All through the summer the Battalion was very much below strength and the work fell heavily on those remaining.
It was decided to hold "Highland Sports" on Wednesday, August 30th, and a number of other units, both British and Indian, were asked to take part. A suitable piece of ground was chosen some five miles behind the firing line, and on the day a great concourse of people assembled. The Corps Commander honoured the Regiment and several Generals from other Brigades were also present, our own Brigadier being an interested spectator. The events were keenly contested and the honours were fairly evenly divided. We won the Highland Dancing with a very fine exhibition. Another Highland unit carried off the board jump with a record leap. The officers "Donkey Fight", a scrap "Five aside" between our officers and those of another Highland unit caused huge delight and amusement and before many moments blood was flowing freely. The mile race by the Indian Regiments drew a big crowd and a large number of entries and a great race was won by the Punjabis. The inter-company cross country run was a keen contest. 13 men were chosen from each company, with one officer in charge and an N. C. O. They had to run in full kit and packs also carrying rifles and a severe course of training was gone through. P. P. B. Miller Stirling commanded one company, the brothers Smythe (South Africans and both keen sportsmen) each commanded other companies. I forget who commanded the fourth company. The average time was under ten minutes over a two-mile course, and the remarkable thing showing the uniformity of training was that there was scarcely two minutes' difference in time between any company. But the event of the day was the 'tug-of-war' between the two Highland Regiments. It was the best tug-of-war that many of us had ever witnessed. The sides had been carefully picked and well trained. Officers and men cheered on their respective regiments, the crowd of onlookers swelled till the whole Brigade was looking on in feverish suspense, and so even were the sides that for nearly five minutes not an inch of ground was lost or gained. The cheering ceased and the silence became intense; one could see the veins standing out on the competitors' foreheads and perspiration pouring off their faces, each man pulling to the last ounce, then our coach shouted "come away" and as if by magic they gave a convulsive pull and gained a foot, the spell was broken, and the men of our Regiment looking on gave a wild cheer. In a second everyone was shouting for their side, but slowly, very slowly, inch by inch they were winning, they would lose a foot and then gain two, till after one of the sternest pulls in the history of the Regiment, our opponents crossed the line and we were victors. Both sides sank exhausted to the ground as their Regiments cheered them to the echo. Perhaps some daring Turkish flying man heard that brave cheer from his observation car far above and thought the mad English were practising some new game to worry his existence. That evening at a concert given by the Regiment the General made a speech and congratulated the two teams on the best tug-of war he had ever seen, congratulating them on their splendid staying powers and for the tenacity and determination they had displayed, which he remarked augured ill for the Turk in the coming months. History records how true was his prophesy. Our Brigadier was General Charles Norie whose gallantry in the field was well-known, as in some strange way gallantry ever is known, to every man who served under him. And well loved was Charles Norie. He had lost an arm fighting on the Indian frontier. There have been many depressing optimists since August 1914 who every Autumn swear the war will end next spring, and every spring know it cannot last beyond next autumn. An answer given by one of our Sergeants was consonant to the serene spirit and resolution that filled the regiment and bid defiance to the future. Glancing at the General waving his one arm in the air, he answered some faint-hearted hopeful, "I'm thinking the war will not be over till Norie claps his hands." It is in that spirit that the armies of England win their way through at whatever cost.
That evening the Colonel gave a dinner party and the powers of the Mess President were taxed to the utmost limit. Nearly 40 sat down, the Mess staff rose to the occasion, and the cook turned out things we had never seen before. The next day the Commanding Officer remarked at dinner "Really, P.M.C., I don't at all know why when we have 2 or 3 Generals to dinner you can give us nice white table cloths but at other times it is only bare boards", "Well Sir," he hesitatingly replied, "they were two of Stewart's sheets." Sundays were usually fairly slack days. I sometimes thought that they could have been even slacker, it being so absolutely necessary to have one day's rest a week. Church Parade would be held in the early morning, and another service at 6 in the evening after the sun had set. These evening services were very impressive; we would form round in a half circle sitting on the grass, or what formed a substitute for grass, with the Padre in the middle. The Commanding Officer would sit at one end of the half circle either amongst his officers or at the other end amongst the men, and the Padre knowing well the limits of human endurance and the severe test that the great heat was putting us to, never preached too long a sermon. We all loved him, and as he had been with the Regiment for a dozen years he knew everyone and about everyone, and when he went sick after the great advance on Baghdad, all felt that they had temporarily lost a friend. We were miles away from any village and still further from any town, so there was no one to visit on Sundays and no social life; unlike our comrades in France we were unable to enjoy the hospitality of a friendly population or look forward to going home on leave. We were out here and we knew it meant for months or may be years. Leave in a restricted form was granted to India during the 1916 summer, but that is going from one hot country to another and, though appreciated, could not be compared to going home. We knew two or three days in advance, the day that we would go up to the trenches for our spell, and we usually went in at the commencement of the month, so had the advantage, or disadvantage as it sometimes proved, of having a full moon. The distance to march was about three miles before we reached the end of the communication trench and we never started till late in the afternoon. All that day we were busy preparing our trench kits and packing up the necessary kit which had to be as little as possible. We always marched up in kilts and marched out in kilts, but during our stay there our clothes were the irreducible minimum, shorts and shirts. I well remember my first spell in the trenches of the famous Sanniyat position. We usually held the centre of the line with an Indian Regiment on either side and one in reserve. We left camp soon after seven, the night was one of those wonderful clear still moonlight nights for which this country is justly famous. It was difficult to imagine before one came within sound of rifle fire that a grim struggle was being enacted a mile or so in front, everything was still quiet and peaceful, there were no villages to pass through on our way up, it was simply open flat country with a river on one side and a marsh on the other, a long dusty road leading from the Rest Camps to the rear of the trenches. A light was burning in Brigade Headquarters and a sentry on duty and we silently filed up the long communication trench which was deep in dust as rain had not fallen for months. We passed fatigue parties coming down for rations and the dust was most distressing. The relief of trenches is usually a long and tedious process—handing over stores, getting receipts, pointing out anything of exceptional interest and generally getting settled down for ten or fourteen days. The Regimental Headquarters were about 200 yards behind the front line and connected up by telephone and various companies and platoons took it in turn to do their round of duty in the front line. I think in the trenches you come to know men as you can get to know them in no other place, the reserve of civilization is often thrown off and you know a man for what he is, not for what he would have you think he is. I remember sitting one night on the fire step of the front line trench and having a long and interesting talk with a Sergeant about Nigeria. He was telling me all about his life out there before the war, and the part he took in the Cameroon Campaign. Back in a Rest Camp he would never have got so communicative, but when one knows that one's lives are dependant on each other a close comradeship often results between both officers and men. This gallant fellow some months later was killed as his company was advancing to attack a Turkish position after the capture of Baghdad. I always feel glad I had that talk with him.
The nights in the trenches were the busiest time not only on account of darkness but also on account of coolness. At 9 o'clock in the morning an inspection of rifles and kit would be held by the Company Officers, after which the whole Company would retire to dug-outs in the reserve front line trenches, 10 yards behind the fire trench and then endeavour to get through the day as well as possible. The dug-outs had not the comforts of present day dug-outs on the Western Front. The only roof we had was sail cloth, so if a shell happened to strike it the results were fatal. This sail cloth kept the sun off, but the heat was terrific. Sentries only, and one officer per Company were kept on duty during the day in the front line, where there was not a yard of shade, the sun beat down with relentless vigour and gradually as the day wore on the temperature would rise to 120 degrees in the shade and 160 degrees in the sun and there was no shade. And this was not for a day or two days but week after week. After 9 o'clock in the morning a death-like stillness would creep over everything, both sides suffering too much to be able to add any more suffering to each other. The stillness would be broken now and again by the crack of a sniper's rifle and one dare not look over the parapet. In the early mornings aeroplanes would fly over the lines but without any great show of activity on either side; the heat kept everything quiet. The very flies are scarce in the hottest months, only the sandflies torment one at night, and so the day gradually passes, and as one goes the round to see everything is in order and one sees the men stretched out in their dug-outs, reading, trying to sleep, very few talking and all suffering, one remembers with what irritation one had read in a famous London daily paper, a query—why the Mesopotamian Campaign had come to an end during the summer, why no advance was heard of. One longed to put the writer of that article over the parapet in the sun where within five minutes or less, he would have his question answered. At times, on a hot parching day lying in one's dug-out, one would hear a great flutter of wings as a flight of cranes or wild geese flew over our lines, immediately followed by a loud fusillade of rifle fire as the sentries endeavoured to bring one down; several times a goose was brought down, and I well remember the annoyance of an officer when a goose he had winged managed to flutter across into the Turkish lines. The heat was at the maximum between 2 and 3 when we could almost boil oil in the sun. At 4 o'clock things livened up somewhat and at 5-30 everyone stood ready in the front line awaiting any possible attack but neither side showed any intention of attacking. Night duties were arranged, parapets had to be mended, new trenches dug, barbed wire put out and all the necessary work in connection with trench warfare continued. Officers patrols were regularly sent out into "No Man's Land" to examine the enemy's wire and find out if he were sapping forward. As the summer advanced the marsh receded on the left of the enemy's line, and this gave our scouts an opportunity to patrol and harass the Turks by penetrating in rear of their left flank. Much gallant work was done in this direction and much credit gained by the Regiment, for the Colonel considered that a good test of the fighting energy of a Company was the vigour of its patrol duties, and a good number of the Turkish sentries, I feel sure, agreed with him. The usual night "Hate" started about six when both sides opened fire, rifle and machine gun, on the opposite trenches, this was kept up all night, some nights would be more lively than others, some nights would be comparatively quiet, but now and again an artillery bombardment would take place, when we always seemed to give more than we got. Both we and the Turk were very free with rifle grenades, but what troubled us most was a special pattern of trench mortar that threw a heavy bomb over quarter of a mile. One night I remember one landed in and blew up the whole of the regimental cookhouse; luckily the cooks were sleeping elsewhere and it was only the dixies that suffered.
I have always considered myself a very light sleeper, but one evening I had cause to come to another conclusion. I had just come off duty from the front line and was speaking to a brother officer outside my dug-out about 9 o'clock when suddenly we opened artillery fire on the Turkish position with considerable vigour, and they replied but in a milder form. I retired and lay down in my dug-out listening to the shells whistling above and praying to Providence that none would land on my sail cloth roof. In about half an hour the bombardment ceased and one wondered what damage had been done and how many lives lost. I then slept. At breakfast the next morning remarking on the bombardment I was asked "which"? "Which?" I replied, "why last night's of course," "Yes, but the first or second?" "Well, I only heard one," I said. "Oh! another took place at midnight," I was informed. I had slept through it and had not heard a sound. So trench life must tire one out somewhat to enable one to sleep so soundly as to be unaware of a bombardment. On still nights when possible the very perfection of the night made men less inclined to fire rifles at each other's trenches. I used to hear a Turk singing. He had a deep rich voice and I often stood in the front line or in a communication trench listening to him as his voice carried across "No Man's Land" from the Turkish line 120 yards away. It used to fascinate me quite a lot and one felt that under the eastern sky, in the land of Sinbad the Sailor and Omar Khayyam that war had not quite killed romance. I wonder what happened to that singer. I wonder if in the great push to Baghdad and beyond he was killed or if he is now singing to his fellow-prisoners in captivity in India, or if he is still cheering on his comrades in the front line further up the Tigris. I don't suppose one will ever know, but if he should ever read these lines I would like him to know he not only cheered his own side but gave pleasure to at least one of his enemies.
We used to have three Officers' Messes when in the trenches. The Headquarters Mess presided over by the Colonel and two Company Messes, presided over by their respective Company Commanders. The Headquarters Mess was a very comfortable affair, a big dug-out, and made in such a way that ground formed the table in the middle and seats all around, the sides were well banked up with sand bags and outside a small ante room where one could sit and smoke in the evening, and the roof was the sky and a very wonderful sky during those long rainless cloudless months. Round about the Headquarters, the Colonel, the Adjutant, the Doctor, the Sergeant-Major, had their dug-outs, and the Mess did for Orderly Room also. The Company Messes were not so elaborate, and were situated nearer the front line and close to our own dug-outs. We endeavoured however to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, but for some reason or other the flies took a great liking to our Mess (No. 1 Company), and at any time day or night they were assembled in their hundreds on our canvas roof. We had a large war map fixed up on to the mud wall to enable us to follow events and we had occasional visits from the Padre and the Doctor, but it was not a healthy place, no part of the second line was; the second line was about a 100 yards behind the first, and for some reason it seemed to give the Turks much more pleasure to put their shells nearer to the second line than the first. I have picked small flowers growing on the front line parapet, but I have never seen any on the second. During my first spell in the trenches after being in the front line, I was put in charge of the reserves in the reserve trenches and spent three awful days and four awful nights in this position. The heat seemed to be worse here than anywhere. I had to spend my days in a small 40 lbs. tent lying on the ground gasping for air as the sun poured down with relentless fury. It was burning hot from the moment it rose till it set 14 hours after over the Arabian Desert. The men were slightly more fortunate in that they had a bigger tent, but they suffered also and it was at these times that one could not but admire the spirit of the 'British Soldier.' One seldom heard a complaint, of course they were "fed up" with the heat, everyone was the Archangel Gabriel would have been, but there was never any thought given to anything else but to "stick it at whatever cost." The officer in reserve was attached to the Headquarters Mess and so one was likely to get any news going. Lying in my tent reading, I now forget the name of the book, but I came across the passage which I will always remember "The writing which Nebuchadnezar saw on the wall." As I read that I felt convinced that Nebuchadnezar never saw any writing on the wall and when I reached the Mess that evening, the first one to come in was the Doctor and being a good Presbyterian I felt sure he would have this knowledge at his fingers' ends, so I asked him who saw the writing on the wall and he immediately replied "Nebuchadnezar". "Not at all," I said, and I told him I had just read the same thing in a book but felt convinced it was wrong, he felt certain the book was right. "Very well," I said, "I'll bet you, you are wrong," he accepted the bet. The Adjutant came in soon after and supported the Doctor. I now saw a veritable gold mine before me and he too was willing to back his knowledge against mine. We decided to refer the matter to the Colonel, so when he came in we asked his opinion. The Colonel was not only a gallant soldier but he was a cautious Scotchman. "Well," he said, "I think it was Nebuchadnezar, but I would not be willing to back too much on it." It is only necessary to turn to the 5th Chapter of Daniel to see who won the bets. That night sanction came for several N.C.O.'s and men to go on leave to India for a month. Sanction had been hanging fire for some time and the lucky ones were beginning to despair. My sergeant was among the lucky ones and I knew how pleased he would be when I got back and told him to report to Headquarters at 5 the next morning for leave to India. It was late when I got back, but little did he mind being disturbed to receive such news. I vouch for it that he slept well that night and did not oversleep himself in the morning. To those in France who get leave every three or four months it is impossible to understand what leave even to India once in one or two years means, but when the news comes that we can get leave for England, it will indeed be a red letter day for us all. I was so exhausted the next day with the heat that I was unable to appear at Mess. The Colonel sent up to find out what was wrong and wanted me to return to the rest camp at once, but I was not sufficiently done up for that, and I only relate this incident to show the thoughtfulness of the Commanding Officer for those under him.
The next evening after the Regiment was relieved the reserves being the last to come out of the trenches, I found a horse waiting for me, on the Commanding Officer's instructions, so that I would not have the exertion of the march back to camp; that and similar incidents made our affection for our Commanding Officer a very real thing. But being in reserve had one compensation, in the early morning before the sun rose and just at dawn to lie and watch the wonderful colourings on the Pusht-i-Kuh Hills, colours changing every moment, was always pleasurable, and suddenly a shell would burst near the artillery position and one would know the daily Hate and Strafe had started, and shortly after the sun would rise. We spent some uncomfortable evenings being shelled in these trenches, and watching and waiting for them to burst was not an enjoyable occupation. There were no safe dug-outs to seek safety in, one had to stick it out wherever one was situated and hope for the best. The damage done was seldom great beyond knocking the trenches about a bit and these were soon repaired. Having been put in charge of a digging party one morning in the rearward area whose duty it was to widen and deepen a communication trench, I saw a good opportunity while the work was going on of looking for souvenirs in the shape of Turkish shell caps. So getting out of the trench I commenced a search and continued for some time but without success, when I was driven to seek shelter in the trench by a shell bursting in close proximity, they had evidently spotted someone walking about and opened fire, but it did not last for long. During our period in the trenches if there was very little doing, as was usually the case during the hot weeks, we were in turn sent down to the Depot three miles behind for two days' rest, and it was an absolute and complete rest. One had nothing whatever to do, get up at any time, go to bed at any time, complete relaxation, those two days were a great boon to us. To have absolutely nothing to do was a great luxury and anything out of the ordinary routine was enjoyable. During my spell of leave at the Depot one evening sitting round the Mess table which we had outside on account of the great heat, we were discussing the movements of the Regiment during the past 20 years and when I remarked that I had watched the Regiment embarking at Durban for India 15 years before, the Quartermaster said, "I was there and out of the whole Battalion that embarked that day, there are only two of us left with the Regiment, the Sergeant-Major and myself". I little thought as I watched the 2nd Battalion saying farewell to South Africa that 15 years later I would share in some of its trials on the banks of the Tigris. Sitting in the Headquarters Mess in the evening, as I previously stated, one got all the news, about 8 o'clock the Quartermaster would appear having come up from the Depot in charge of the rations party and to make his report. The mails would be brought up by them too and if the English mail was due and had arrived with letters and papers great was the excitement. Our letters took about six weeks from England to the firing line, but we were allowed to send week-end cables at a very reduced rate, something like 6d. a word, and could send them off actually from the trenches on their long journey half across the world. The food, taking everything into consideration, was good, although of necessity it had to greatly consist of tinned and dried varieties and we suffered somewhat from lack of fresh vegetables. Later an improvement in this respect was effected.
A flag of truce was always an interesting event. A white flag would be prominently displayed by one side above the trench and kept there till the other side responded and also hoisted a flag, and two or three officers would go out from either side meeting in the middle of "No Man's Land" where the business was discussed. Sometimes it would be simply handing over a letter or letters; other times the business would take longer. A truce of some hours' duration would sometimes be arranged. The longest I remember was for 24 hours when we exchanged sick prisoners; but there was no fraternizing; we might sit on the parapet of our trench and the Turk would do the same; but there was no attempt made to be friendly; the Turk knew and so did we that within a few short months we would be at death grips with each other and that one side or the other would be driven out of the present strong positions we had taken up; but whichever side won, the losses of both would be great and so we sat and looked at each other during those short respites, and both sides adhered strictly to the truce. When it expired it was not safe to show even a helmet over the parapet. The Colonel told me that several times the same Turkish officer brought the flag of truce. He spoke French easily and said he had been fighting more or less continuously the last eight years—in the Iraq against Arabs, in Tripoli against the Italians, in Gallipoli, and now on the Tigris against the British. He had been wounded four times, and was again wounded and taken prisoner by us during the advance, 1917. In 1916 we were fighting a foe, elated by his success at Kut, and it was only after our victories in the spring of 1917, that he showed any signs of war weariness.
One hot and sunny morning I was speaking to one of our sentries who had been watching a Turk appear above their parapet and had already had one shot at him and was waiting to get another and I had scarcely moved a 100 yards down the trench when the unfortunate sentry having looked over too far received a bullet clean through his head. Once or twice during the hot weather bombing parties went over for short raids but without very much success and very little advantage.
I witnessed no instance of gas being used but precautions were taken and gas helmets issued with orders that they must always be carried whilst in the fire zone. Gongs were placed at intervals all along the front line and had to be sounded at the first alarm, but fortunately that alarm never came.
One of my duties was to buy stores for the Officers' Mess and the men's canteen and before Field Force Canteens were opened immediately behind the firing line it meant a trip down to Sheikh Saad about once a month, after the arrival of the canteen boat, of which we were duly notified. Buying was usually brisk but we generally got our fair share of anything going and the Regimental Canteen retailed to the men at just above cost price, everything was disposed of in a very short space of time as the things for sale were looked upon as luxuries and in great demand. On the morning of the anniversary of Loos the Commanding Officer addressed the Regiment and proclaimed the day a holiday stating that night a ration of whisky would be issued to commemorate the event. I heard afterwards that it was all the Sergeant-Major could do to keep the men from cheering, weeks and months had passed since the men had had anything stronger than tea to drink and this ration was much appreciated. Another very welcome event was the arrival of parcels from Lady Carmichael's Gift Fund in Calcutta. A great deal of gratitude is due to Lady Carmichael and her staff and the ladies of India for the way the fund was organised. They sent us shirts and shorts and towels and soap, razors, chocolates, mufflers, cigarettes, tobacco, tinned fruit and chutney. Certainly the best chutney I ever tasted came in a gift, I remember it was home made and came from Assam and the maker's name written on the jar. I told the Mess Sergeant to write a special letter thanking the maker, thinking that by doing so some more might appear. But I am sorry to have to say, none did. As the summer began to draw to an end preparations had to be made for the winter. The terrific heat of the summer had gone and now the biting cold of winter had to be prepared for. If the coming winter was going to be anything like the previous one, then we were going to suffer; but preparations for it were in full swing. The Doctor gave an order for a supply of rubber water bottles for his aid post, whereupon a very liberal and kind-hearted officer cabled home for one for each officer. I don't know if anyone else used them for heat purposes. I know I used mine. Fifteen years in tropical climates has made the 'cold' one of my worst enemies, but if they were not used as hot water bottles they certainly were as air cushions; this same officer never neglected an opportunity of doing acts of kindness to his brother officers and men immediately under his command, and when he was eventually invalided to India he still remembered his friends and sent them delightful and much appreciated parcels.