BAGHDAD fell on March 11, 1917. The soldier’s joy was deepened by the belief that here his warfare was accomplished, his marching finished. Even when we went by the city, and fought battles on either bank, the 7th Indian Division at Mushaidiyeh (March 14) and the 3rd Indian, most disastrously, in the foothills of the Jebel Hamrin (March 25), this comfort was not destroyed. These two hard actions were but the sweeping away of ants’ nests from before a house ; our position now secured, we should fall back, and rest in Baghdad. The Turk might try to turn us out ; but that was a very different affair, and it would be months before he could even dream of an offensive.
So in April the 7th Division had withdrawn to Baghdad, -all except the 28th Brigade, who were at Babi, a dozen miles up-stream. At Babi it was not yet desert–there was grass and wheat ; but the garden-belt and trees had finished.
On the 3rd came official news that Tennant, of the R.F.C., had landed among the Cossacks, and been tumultuously welcomed ; presently we heard that the Russians and ourselves had joined hands. This was towards the Persian border, on the left bank of the Tigris, where the 13th and 14th Divisions were operating. That force and ours, the 7th, were now to advance together on Samarra ; a new campaign was beginning, in which we took the right bank.
A Mobile Column was formed, under Brigadier-General Davies, as the spearhead of the 7th Division’s thrust. It consisted of the 28th Infantry Brigade (2nd Leicestershires, 51st and 53rd Sikhs, 56th Rifles, and 136th Machine-Gun Company), the 9th Brigade, R.F.A. (less one battery), one section of the 524th Battery, R.F.A., a Light-Armoured Motor-Battery, the 32nd Lancers (less two squadrons), and a half-company of Sappers and Miners ; an ammunition column and ambulances.
Fritzthe enemy’s airmaninspected us before we started. Then the Leicestershires, by twelve and eight miles, marched in two days to a point opposite Sindiyeh, on the Tigris. The Indian battalions cut across country to Sumaikchah, which lies inland.
That day and night by Sindiyeh ! Infandum jubes ‘enovare dolorem.’ The day was one of burning discomfort, spent in cracks and nullas, under blanket bivouacs. We had tramped, from dawn, through eight miles of ‘ chivvy-dusters,’ and our camp was now among them. These are a grass which crams the clothes and feet with maddening needles ; once in they seemed there for duration.’ The soldier out East knows them for his worst foe on a march. Lest we should be obsessed with these, we were infested with sandflies and mosquitoes. But large black ants were the principal line in vermin. At dinner they swarmed over us. Man after man dropped his plate and leapt into a dervish-dance, frenziedly slapping his nose and ears. We tried to eat standing ; even so, we were festooned. Little Westlake, the Cherub, abandoned all hope of nourishment, and crept wretchedly into a clothes-pile. There was no sleep that night.
The river ran beneath lofty bluffs ; on the left bank was a far-stretching view of low, rich country, with palms and canals. Fritz visited us, and a monitor favoured us with some comically bad shooting. And after sundown came a moon, benignant, calm, in a cloudless heaven, looking down on men miserable with small vexations, which haply saved them from facing too much the deeper griefs which accompanied them.
Next morning, Good Friday, we joined the rest of the column at Sumaikchah. The Cherub with his scouts went ahead to find a road. All the field was jumping with grasshoppers, on which storks were feeding. Scattered bushes looked in the mirage like enemy patrols. We were escorted by Fritz, whose kindly interest in our movements never flagged. We started late, at 6.5o a.m., and without breakfast, the distance being underestimated. A zigzagging course made the journey into over ten miles, in dreadful heat ; we were marching till past noon. When Sumaikchah came in sight, men fell out, exhausted, in bunches and groups.
Though we were unmolested, the countryside was full of eyes. Shortly afterwards an artillery officer, bringing up remounts, sent a Scots sergeant ahead to Sumaikchali, with a strong escort, to bring back rations. The party was fired on by Buddus. The sergeant’s report attained some fame ; deservedly, so I give it here :
‘We were fired on, sirrr.’
Did you fire back ? ‘
No, sirrr. I thought it would have enrrraged them. But I’d have ye know, sirrr, that it’s hairrrdly safe to be aboot.’
We came, says Xenophon, to a large and thickly populated city named Sittake.’ His troops encamped near a large and beautiful park, which was thick with all sorts of trees, at a distance of fifteen stades from the river.’ This description still holds true of Sumaikchah. The ancient irrigation channels are dry, and the town has shrunken ; but it remains a large garden-village. Here were melons and oranges, fowls and turkeys, exorbitantly priced, of course ; possibly Xenophon’s troops got their goods more cheaply in the year 399 B.C.
Sumaikchah is an oasis with eighty wells. The water was full of salts. It was bad as water ; it was execrable as tea. Many of the wells on the Baghdad-Samarra Railway have these natural salts. Every one who left Sumaikchah next morning was suffering from diarrhoea. Here again one remembers the A nabasis and the troublesome experience which the notes I read at school ascribed to poisonous honey gathered from the flowers of rhododendron ponticum.
Our brief stay here was unlike anything we had known, except in our racing glimpse of the flowery approaches to Kut. The village had palms and rose bushes. A coarse hyacinth, found already at Mushaidiyeh, now seeding, grew along the railway and in the wheat. We camped amid green corn ; round us were storksbills, very many, and a white orchis, slight and easily hidden, the same orchis that I found afterwards in Palestine and in the Hollow Vale of Syria. A small poppy and a bright thistle set their flares of crimson and gold in the green ; sowthistle and myosote freaked it with blue ; a tall gladiolus, also to be found later by the Aujeh and on Carmel, made pink clusters. Thus did flowers overlay the fretting spikes of our road, and adorn and hide ‘ the coming bulk of Death.’
Through Saturday we rested. Fritz came, of course ; and there was a little harmless sniping.
The knowledge filtered in that fighting was again at hand. It was accepted without comment, with the soldier’s well-known fatalism, the child of faith and despair. ‘ Every man thinks,’ said one to me, I don’t care who he is. But we believe it’s all right till our number’s up. Take for instance. When he was left out at Sannaiyat we all envied him ; we thought we were for it. But we went through Sannaiyat ; and M was the first of us to be killed at Mushaidiyeh, his very first action, where we had hardly any casualties.’
In the evening the rest of the division came up to take our place. Sunday, by old prescription, was the 7th Division’s battle-day ; next Sunday being Easter, it was not to be supposed that so fair an occasion would be passed over. Accordingly, when I put in my services, I was told that the brigade would march before dawn, and that some scrapping was anticipated. The Turks were holding Beled Station, half a dozen miles away in a straight line. Their main force was at Harbe, four miles farther. The maps were no use, and distances had to be guessed. ‘ The force against us,’ observed the Brigade-Major, ‘ is somewhere between a hundred Turks and two guns, and four thousand Turks and thirty-two guns.’ And if it’s the four thousand and thirty-two guns ? ‘ Then we shall sit tight, and scream for help,’ he answered delightedly.
2. THE ACTION FOR BELED
Davies’s Column were away before breakfast. In the dim light we moved through wet fields of some kind of globe-seeded plant, abundantly variegated with gladiolus and hyacinth. Every one was suffering from our course of Sumaikchah waters, and progress was slow. Splashing through the marshes, we came to undulating upland, long, steady slopes, pebble-strewn and with pockets of grass and poppies. The morning winds made these uplands exceedingly beautiful. Colonel Knatchbull said, the week he died, that what lie most remembered from Beled were the flowers through which we marched to battle. As we approached them, the ruffling wind laid its hand on the grasses, and they became emerald waves, a green spray of blades tossing and flashing in the full sunlight. As we passed, the same wind bowed them before it, and they were a shining, silken cloth. The poppies were a larger sort than those in the wheatfields, and of a very glorious crimson. In among the grasses was yellow coltsfoot ; among the pebbles were sowthistle, mignonette, pink bindweed, and great patches of storksbill. Many noted the beauty of these flowers, a scene so unMesopotamian in its brightness. We were tasting of the joy and life of springtide in happier latitudes, a wine long praetermitted to our lips ; and among us were those who would not drink of this wine again till they drank it new in their Father’s Kingdom. After Beled we saw no more flowers.
As we pushed forward he looked up, as his custom was, for a ‘ message.’ Perchance, with so many fears and hopes stirring, there was some buzzing along the heavenly wires ; but the only word he could get was this one, ‘ Because.’ He puzzled upon it, till the whole flashed on his brain` Because Thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee.’ Thenceforward he went his ways content ; neither can any man have gathered greater pleasure from the beauty of the morning and those unwonted flowers than this Plymouth Brother, a gardener by profession, and, as I found in later days, amid the rich deep meadows of the Holy Land, a passionate lover of all wild plants.
The left flank was guarded by one section of machine-gunners and one section of the 32nd Lancers. Next to them moved the Leicestershires. Some time after 8 a.m. rifle-fire on our left told us that the Cherub’s scouts were in touch with enemy patrols. About 9.3o the first shell came, our advanced guard being some five thousand yards from Beled Station.
There were frequent halts, while our few cavalry reconnoitred. Then we passed into a deep broad nulla between two ancient earth-walls. All this terrain had been a network of canals and cultivation. Shrapnel was bursting in our front. We filed out, at the left, on to a plain. Half a mile ahead was the nearer curve of a hilly ground. The main range ran in a Carpathian-like sweep across our front, from west to east ; turned, and went across our front again. Beyond this was Beled Station, lying at the point of a wide fork of hills, the left prong a good mile away, but the right bending almost up to it. From the forking to the station was a broken plain of two thousand yards. This plain had to be overcome, with such assistance as the hills gave. The hills were pretty uniform in height, and nowhere above thirty feet. The railway cut directly through the main range, giving the enemy a field of fire for his machine-guns. The range, with its double fold across our front, gave the artillery cover, and enabled us to conceal the smallness of our force ; and on both sides of the station it broke into a wilderness of little knobs and hollows, by which we might creep up.
The shrapnel was uncomfortably close as we crossed to the first sweep of hilly ground. But it was bursting high, and no casualties occurred. We halted behind the hills, and the artillery left their wagons, taking their guns into position where the range curved north-westerly. Here two four-gun batteries put up a slow and not heavy bombardment on the station. We waited and watched the shrapnel bursting five hundred yards to our right. About noon the Leicestershires were ordered to support the 53rd and 51st Sikhs in an attack on the station. (The 56th Rifles were in reserve throughout the action.) D Company was to move on the left of the railway as a flank-guard, and went forward under Captain Creagh.
I must now speak of Second-Lieutenant Fowke, our tallest subaltern. In place of the orthodox shade of khaki he wore a reddish-brown shooting-jacket, which shimmered like bright silk if there was any sun. Nevertheless he was the only Leicestershire subaltern who went through all our battles unwounded. Of his cheerfulness and courage, his wit, and the love with which his colleagues and his men regarded him, the reader will learn. Fowke was detached with his platoon to act on our extreme left in co-operation with our handful of Indian cavalry. The operation was an undesirable one, to advance into a maze of tiny hills, held by an enemy of unknown strength ; and as Fowke moved off I remembered the Sieur de Join-vine’s Memoirs and a passage mentioned between us the previous day. So, as I wished him good luck, I said, ‘ Be of good cheer, seneschal, for we shall yet talk over this day in the ladies’ bowers.’
Once upon a time Fowke had read for Holy Orders, a fact which contributed not a little to the astonishment and delight with which he was regarded. He smiled gravely in answer to me, and moved on. But after the scrap he told me that he wished just then that he had continued in his first vocation and become a padre.
Behind D Company moved Charles Copeman, O.C. bombers, and a section of machine-gunners under Lieutenant Service. The rest of the machine-gunners followed up along the railway.
We who remained crossed the ridge and advanced in artillery formation up the right side of the railway. The Sikhs slipped away into the hills to our right.
Readers of Quentin Durward will remember the two hangmen of Louis XI, the one tall, lean, and solemn ; the other short, fat, and jolly. Wilson, the Leicestershires’ doctor, had two most excellent assistants who occupied much the same positions. But Sergeant Whitehead, who was short, went his sombre way with a gravity that never weakened into a smile ; while Dobson, an ex-miner, aged forty-seven, who had deceived the recruiting people most shamelessly and enlisted as under thirty, took life jovially and generally humorously. He was never without his pipe. He enjoyed a large medical practice in the regiment, unofficial and unpaid, and he held strong opinions, observing frequently that he didn’t hold with ‘ a thing. I remember well the annoyance of Wilson’s successor on hearing that Dobson didn’t hold with ‘ inoculation, which just then was occupying most of the medical officer’s time. Another thing that Dobson ‘ didn’t hold with ‘ was the modern notion that some diseases were infectious. Because of his years and medical knowledge, this kindly, never-wearied old hero was always known by the regiment as ‘ Mester Dobson.’ I shall follow their example, and so call him henceforth.
I also was of Wilson’s entourage, and went with him accordingly. Before we crossed the first ridge we picked up a man prostrate with heatstroke ; we left him under a culvert, in charge of John, Wilson’s Indian orderly.
Meanwhile D Company found the hills on our left strongly held. Every slope was sown with shallow trenches, earth-scars which held six or seven Turks, and snipers caused us casualties. Lieutenant-Colonel Knatchbull, learning this, on his own initiative swung round B and C Companies across the railway to support D. Wilson now came upon his first casualty, a signaller hit in the spine. We bandaged him, and left him in a shallow nulla, sheltered from the bullets flying over. He died next day.
B and C Companies, crossing the railway, pushed up a long narrow nulla to the hills where D were engaged. Service’s machine-guns put up a covering fire.
The attack had now developed along two distinct lines, and on the railway itself we had no troops. The enemy presently put down a barrage of shrapnel all the right length of the line, where he had seen our men cross, of which barrage every shell during two hours was wasted. As Wilson dropped down the embankment on our left side of the railway, we found machine-gunners sheltering in a quarry, awaiting orders. ‘ It’s unhealthy over there,’ said their 0.C., Lieutenant Sanderson.
The Turks have a machine-gun on it.’ However, there was a lull as we crossed to the nulla, and only a very few bullets went by. In the nulla Wilson set up his aid-post, sticking a second flag above the railway, for the solitary company that was supporting the Sikhs’ attack. Wounded began to come in, the first cases being not bad ones.
Give you five rupees for that wound, sergeant,’ said Mester Dobson. You can’t have it for seventy-five,’ said Sergeant Hayes, as he limped off in search of the ambulances, smiling happily. Perhaps nothing will stir the unborn generations to greater pity than this knowledge, that for youth in our generation wounds and bodily hurt were a luxury.
But cases soon came in of men badly hit, in much pain. With them was borne a dead man, Sergeant Lawrence, D.C.M., a quiet and much-liked man. My Plymouth Brother friend came also, and sat aside, saying he could wait, as a stretcher-case was following him. As the doctor saw to that broken body, myE riend rested his wounded leg, and we had some talk. The long marches, the nights of little sleep, and the unsheltered days of heat and toil and wearied waiting for evening had tired him out. I want rest,’ he said, and I think the Lord knows it, and has sent rest along.’ All our men were brave and cheerful, but no more cheerful hero limped off through the bullets than my calm and gentle friend.
Wilson went out for a few minutes to see a man in the second line, hit in the groin. When he returned we had some cruelly broken cases in, and that nulla saw a deal of pain, and grew stale with the smell of blood. A fair number of bullets flew over, and there was the occasional swish of a machine-gun. Mules were killed far back in the second line, and men hit. But the nulla was safe. The misguided Turk shelled and machine-gunned the empty space beyond the railway.
Colonel Knatchbull came in and assured Wilson that the nulla was the best and most central place for the aid-post. He searched the front with his glasses. Then he said, Marner’s dead.’
The Leicestershires’ attack was held up in the hills. They asked for support, but none was available. They were told to advance as far as they could, and then hold their line till help could come. The hills were thick with excellent positions. Every fold and dip was utilized by a scattered and numerous foe, to whom the ragged ground was like a cloak of invisibility. No artillery help could be given. We could only seize the ground’s advantage and make it serve as help to the attack as well as to the defence. It was here that Marner fell. C Company was sheltering in an ancient canal. Seeing a man fall, Captain Hasted called out, ‘ Keep your heads down.’ Almost at that moment Marner looked over, having spotted a sniper who was vexing us, and fell dead at Grant-Anderson’s feet. Though in falling he brushed against Hasted, the latter could not pause to see who it was ; nor did he know till he cried out, a minute later, that Marner was to move round the flank of the position immediately before them. Some two hundred yards farther on Second-Lieutenant Otter was struck by a bullet which went through both left arm and body, a bad but not fatal wound. But a gracious thought came to the Turkish gunners. Seeing us without artillery support from our own guns, they put two rounds of shrapnel over, the only shells on these ridges during the fight. These burst directly on the Turkish snipers, who did not wait for the hint to be repeated, but went. The Leicestershires topped the last ridge, and were on the plain before the station. Fowke and Service remained to guard the left flank, while Hasted went forward with the bayonet to clear the hills to the left. Fowke, watching benevolently the evolutions of certain horsemen on his left, received a message from our cavalry, ‘ Those are Arabs on your left, and are hostile to you.’
And now it would have meant a bloody advance for A and B Companies against those trenches in the open. But the Turks, held by the Leicestershires’ strong steady attack, had given insufficient attention to the movement threatening their left. The two Sikh regiments, though checked and held from time to time by rifle and machine-gun fire, used the broken ground with extraordinary skill. Their experience on the Afghan frontier had trained them for just such work as this. Rising ground was used as positions for covering fire, and every knoll and hummock became a shoulder to lift the force along. Their supporting battery had located the enemy’s gun-positions, and kept down his fire. One gun-team bolted, and the crew were seen getting the gun away by hand and losing in the effort. The Sikhs rushed a low hill, which had long checked them, and its garrison of one officer and twenty-five men surrendered. This attack was led by the well-known ‘ Boomer ‘ Barrett, colonel of the 51st. He slapped the nearest prisoner on the back and bellowed Shabash.’ The enemy’s resistance crumbled rapidly. A breach had been made in his defence, and the Sikhs poured through. They made two thousand yards, and did a swift left-turn. The enemy on their right slipped off, but the Turks in the trenches covering the station had left things too late. The 51st drove the foe before them to the north of the station, and the 53rd rushed the station itself, capturing eight officers and a hundred and thirty-five men, with two machine-guns. This was about 3 p.m.
Wilson now left his aid-post, and we came up the line. All the way the Turk was shelling the railway, but, by that fortunate defect of observation conspicuous throughout, shelling our right exclusively, for not a shell came on the left. We passed the enemy’s trenches and rifle-pits, which scarred some six or seven hundred yards of space before the station ; there were rifles leaning against the walls, with bayonets fixed.
The station had excellent water, a great attraction after the filthy wells of Sumaikchah. No one heeded that the Turk was dropping shells two thousand yards our side of the station. ‘ He always does that. It’s a sort of rearguard business. It’s the ammunition he can’t get away. He’ll be moving his guns quickly enough when we get ours on to them.’ But, as the official report afterwards observed, with just annoyance at the enemy’s refusal to recognize that the action was finished : ‘ During the whole of the afternoon and till dusk the enemy continued to shell the captured position with surprising intensity, considering what had been heard of his shortage in gun-ammunition.’ What happened, in fuller detail, was this.
Beled Station was like the gate of Heaven. With the exception of the Leicestershires, still in the field, all the great and good were gathered there. The first I saw was that genial philosopher, Captain Newitt, of the 53rd Sikhs, sitting imperturbable on a fallen wall and smoking the pipe without which he has never been seen. Not Marius amid Carthage ruins was more careless of the desolation around him. With him was Culverwell, adjutant of the same battalion. They hailed me with joyous affection, and we drank the waters and swapped the news. General Davies came up and asked, Have the Leicesters taken any prisoners ? ‘ I told him
‘No.’ He seemed disappointed ; then added,
‘We’ve taken over two hundred prisoners, including nine officers and three machine-guns. What were your casualties ? ‘About twenty, sir,’ I said.
‘The 53rd have had thirteen men wounded,’ said the Brigade-Major. Fifty will cover the casualties for the whole brigade. It’s been a most successful action.’
Marner’s loss was greatly felt. I hear you’ve lost a good officer,’ said the Brigadier ; and the Brigade-Major added, ‘ He was the brigade’s great standby for maps and drawings. I don’t know how we can replace him.
Then for a moment we fell to jape and jesting ; foolishly, for the Gods are always listening, and the Desert-Gods have long ears. You’re last from school,’ said Brigade- Major McLeod. You know Napier’s message—” Peccavi, I have Sind.” Give me a wire for Corps, ” I have B-led.” ‘
“Sanguinevi,” ‘ I said, if such a verb exists. Let’s call it very late Latin.’
As we spoke, the enemy shortened his range ; a shell skimmed the roof, and burst at the embankment bottom, directly under two Sikhs who were cooking. It hurled one man into the air and the other to one side. A great dust went up. Before most people realized what had happened, Wilson and Stones were carrying the men up the bank. This was an extremely brave deed, for a second shell was certain, and, as a matter of fact, a second and a third came just as they had reached our wall. Stones, like many medical officers, was a missionary ; he had come from West Africa. He had one of the noblest faces I ever saw ; a very gentle and courteous man, fearless and with eager eyes. He served with the 56th Rifles.
One of the stricken men was a mass of bleeding ribbons, the top of his head blown off. A cloth was drawn over his face ; he was dead. The other had his left leg torn off below the knee, his right heel blown away, and wounds in his head and stomach. He died that evening. Now he lay with scarcely a moan, while Sikhs gathered round and gave such consolation as was possible, an austere, brave group.
The Turkish gunners now concentrated on the station and its approaches. Our cavalry rode through the Leicestershires’ lines as those warriors moved up to an advanced line of defence. They brought a wounded prisoner. The enemy instantly shrapnelled them, and they scattered, the prisoner, for all his broken leg, keeping his seat excellently and riding surprisingly fast. Luck had been with the battalion this day, and it now remained with them. Many had rifles hit. Fowke, who was a magnet for bullets, had his right shoulder’s star flattened. But there were no casualties. The enemy, growing vindictive, chased small bodies of even three or four with shrapnel. He continued to pelt the station, throwing at least two hundred rounds on it in two hours. Mules and horses were hit, and many men. Isolated men, holding horses in the open, had a bad time. Several shells landed on the roof, and had there been against us the huge guns of other fronts the station would have gone up in dust. When I saw it again, a month later, I realized what a rough house that tiny spot had experienced. Unexploded shells were still in the walls, and on the inner wall of the side that had sheltered me I counted over twenty direct hits. Fortunately the 5.9’s were not in action this day, and every station on the Baghdad-Samarra line has been built as a fortress, massively. By incredible luck no shell came through the doorless openings and rooms behind us ; they struck the inner wall and roof. But the water-station behind us gave very poor shelter to the men there. Shells burst on the railway, and sent a sheet of smoke and rubble before them. Two of our guns came up to the hills that had covered the Sikhs’ advance, but fired very few shells, failing to find a target. The enemy saw their flashes, and fired back without effect. Then Fritz came and hovered above our huddled crowd with low, deliberate circles. We took it for granted he would bomb us, or, at kindest, spot for his guns. But he just hung over us, and then went to look for our batteries.
Before this McLeod offered me a cup of tea. We drank it in a tin shed a few yards south of the station. I wanted the tea horribly, but felt it was ‘ hairrdly safe to be aboot.’ This feeling was shared, for when the staff-captain and signalling-officer joined us, the latter asked, Isn’t this spot a bit unhealthy, sir ? ‘ Oh, no,’ said McLeod. ‘ It’s quite safe from splinters, and it’s no use bothering about a direct hit.’ As I had seenhigh explosive burst pretty well all round, and both windows were smashed of every inch of glass, I could not quite share this confidence that the hut was splinter-proof. But I required that tea. It was very good tea. Had it been shaving water, it would have gone cold at once. But being tea which I wished to drink quickly, it remained at boiling-point and declined to be mollified with milk. However, no more H.E. came our way, only shrapnel.
McLeod said we had had at least two thousand Turks against us and at least twelve guns. During the action the enemy reinforced the position from his main one at Harbe. He must have had other casualties in addition to our prisoners. Our left wing, when they occupied the hills, saw four or five hundred Turks skirr away ‘ in one body, and the machine-gunners found a target. Raiding-parties of Arabs hung on our flanks throughout the day, and increased the force against us, at any rate numerically.
The day had been cloudy and comparatively cool, and an exquisite evening crowned it. With dusk I left the station, where wounded Turks were groaning and shells bursting, and sought the hills. The shrapnel was dying down, and, once off the plain, all was quiet. The scene here was one of great loveliness. The Dujail, a narrow canal from the Tigris, ran swiftly with water of delightful coldness and sweetness. The canal was fringed with flowers, poppies, marguerites, and campions ; the innumerable folds and hollows were emerald-green. C Company were holding the extreme left of our picket-line. Here I found Hasted, Hall, Fisher, and Charles Copeman. We held a dry, very deep irrigation-canal, running at right angles to the Dujail. There were no shells, and we could listen composedly to the last of the shrapnel away on the right. The full moon presently flooded the hills with enchantment. But our night was broken by Arab raids. Twice these robbers of the dead and wounded tried to rush us. The first party probably escaped in the bushes, but the second suffered casualties. In the evening Arabs had raided our aid-post, wounding the attendant, who escaped with difficulty. Fortunately there was none but dead there ; these they stripped, cutting off one man’s finger for the ring on it. All night long they prowled the battlefield and dug up our buried dead. For which, retribution came next day.
Fisher and I scraped a hole in our canal, and tried to sleep. But a cold wind sneaked about the nulla, and the hours dragged past with extreme discomfort. No one had blanket or overcoat, and most were in shorts. At dawn we had ten minutes’ notice to rejoin the rest of the regiment behind the station. In that ten minutes I had opportunity to admire the soldier-man’s resourcefulness. One of the picket, thrusting his hand deep into one of the countless holes in our canal-wall, found two tiny eggs. Raising fat in some fashionprobably a candle-end he had fried eggs for breakfast before we moved. The eggs were presumed to be grouse-eggs. More likely they were bee-eater’s, or may have been snake’s or lizard’s. These canals are haunted by huge monitors, and there must be tortoises in the Duj ail. However, eggs were found, and eggs were eaten.
On picket the men’s talk was interesting to hear. They were regardless of the discomfort they had known so long ; and when his turn came to watch, every man was eager to lend his waterproof sheet to Fisher and me, who had only our thin khaki. Marner’s death had gone deep. ‘ I hear Mr. Marner’s dead,’ said a voice. I’m sorry to hear that,’ said another ; ‘he was a nice feller.’ He was a good feller and said a third. He was more like a brother to me than an officer,’ his platoon-sergeant told me. These were brief tributes to an able and conscientious man, but they sufficed. At Sumaikchah our bivvies had been side by side, where the green was most glowing, and we had rejoiced together in that light and colour.
Beled Station was a small action, scarcely bigger than those dignified in the Boer War with the name of battles. Our casualties were little over a hundred for the whole day, and more than half of these were incurred in the station itself. The Leicestershires lost twenty, three killed among them ; several of the wounded died later. But the action attained considerable fame locally as a model of a successful little battle. Our losses were miraculously slight. But for the very great skill with which the two separate attacks were organized, and the constant alertness which exploited every one of the ground’s endless irregularities, our losses must have been many times heavier. The advance was conducted with caution and the utmost economy of life ; but the moment a breach was effected or an opportunity offered, then there was a lightning blow and a swift push forward. Thus the enemy in the station were trapped before they realized that their retreat was threatened. The careless trooping together at the station was the one regrettable thing, and it cost us dear. The water of Beled Station was like the water brought to David from Bethlehem.
For the action itself, a small force advanced steadily throughout the day, with unreliable maps, over ten miles of broken country, which was admirably furnished with posts of defence, which posts they seized and turned into advantages for attack. They captured a strong position and over two hundred prisoners, three machine-guns, and some hundreds of rifles with less than half the casualties their numerically superior foe sustained. Since a small battle is an epitome of a large one, and far easier to see in detail, even this lengthy account may have justification. The Army Commander’s opinion was shown not alone by his congratulatory message, but by the immediate honours awarded. To the Leicestershires fell one Military Cross 1 and four Military Medals, one of the latter going to Sergeant Batten, Marner’s platoon-sergeant. The water-tank leans against the station no longer, and they have repaired the crumbled walls. But the cracks and fissures in the great fort lift eloquent witness to the way both armies desired it, and the quiet, beautiful hills carry their scars also.
The rushing brook, the silken grass and pride Of poppies burning red where Marner died, Unchanged I and in the station still, as then, The water that was bought with blood of men.