JOHNNY’S leg-pull made him one up. This was recognized, and his action drew our attention to the undesirability of allowing him to remain at Daur. On October 31 the 28th Brigade went into the trenches at Al-Ajik. November 1 was Thursday. Haigh had the misfortune to go very sick on this day ; he left us, and his successor arrived about 4 p.m. The new doctor fell into my hands, as the battalion was unknown to him, and he had never been in action.
As we went forward bad news came in, so bad and unexpected that it seemed incredible, the news of the Italian reverses. This filled us with profound depression. Our tiny side-show seemed more insignificant than ever while the European battle was being lost. When word followed of Allenby’s success at Beersheba we did not guess that here was the beginning of a tide of victory which would ultimately pull the whole war our way. There was one splinter of light, an absurd joke in London Opinion which set the Leicestershires chuckling,
Overheard at the Zoo.’ It is the conversation of Cockney children before the ostrich cage :
Sneagle ! ‘
This lent itself to indefinite expansion : Snemeu,’ Snalbatross,” Snoriole,” Snelephant.’
Report came of the exploit of Marshall at Corps Head Quarters. He had gone out in a lamb ‘ on the other bank of Tigris, almost to Tekrit, and had shot down thirty horses and a dozen men as he flew past the enemy lines.
On the evening of November i the Al-Ajik trenches were crowded. Fritz came over reconnoitring, and his surprise was amusing to see. He checked, wheeled, abandoned all thought of a visit to our camp, and beetled back, after very elaborate reconnaissance. Then our own planes flew over, sounding their klaxons and dropping messages, in rehearsal for the morrow.
At 9.10 the force met at the place of assembly. The 21st Brigade were to move up the left bank ; they are hardly in this picture. On the right bank the 28th Brigade went first, followed by the 19th and 8th Brigades. With the column were the 4th and 9th Brigades, R.F.A., two batteries of the 56th Brigade, and some 4.5 and 6-inch howitzers. Altogether, including those operating on the left bank, we had eighty guns.
The night was even colder than the one before the Juber Island farce. Part of the night I marched with my friends of the 53rd Sikhs, with Dewitt and with Heathcote. Every one anticipated a very hard fight. We were up against a position which was reputed to be as strong as Istabulat had been. Before dawn we found ourselves among ghostly-looking bushes, and lay down for one shivering hour. We had marched over seventeen miles, with the usual exhausting checks and halts attendant on night-marching, and we were deadbeat to the wide. Yet nothing could be finer than the way the men threw weariness away, like a garment, with the first shells, and went into battle.
Sarcka, the excellent Yank who ran our Y.M.C.A., marched with us, carrying a camel-load of cigarettes. He was usually called Carnegie ‘ by Dr. Haigh. That classical mind memorized Sarcka’s name as meaning flesh ‘ ; then, since it moved with equal ease in Greek and Latin, unconsciously transliterated. As we went forward, and a red sun rose over Tigris, Sarcka remarked : ‘ The sensation I am about to go through is one which I wouldn’t miss for worlds.’ Mester Dobson looked surprised. I bided my time, knowing how unpleasant the first fifteen minutes under shell-fire are for even the bravest.
Soon after 6 a.m. the enemy advanced pickets were driven in. We were advancing in artillery formation over undulating and broken country, sparsely set with jujube-bushes (zizyphus). A gazelle bounded away in front of us. At 6.15, says my diary, the first shells came. Our planes swept along, klaxons sounding, and the sky became torn with shrapnel. Johnny felt for us who formed the doctor’s retinue, felt with an H.E. bracket, before and beyond us. The advance was extraordinarily rapid, a race ; consequently the doctor’s party got the benefit of most of this early shelling. Fortunately the enemy seemed to have got on to his old dumps, for his stuff, w hich came over plentifully enough, was detonating badly. A shell burst in Lyons’s platoon, apparently under Lyons; yet he walked out of the dust unhurt. The 56th Rifles went first, advancing as if on parade ; this day they rose high in the Leicestershires’ admiration. The ‘ Tigers ‘ came next ; then the 51st and 53rd Sikhs. The enemy was fairly caught by surprise. Fritz, the previous day, had brought back the first hint that anything was doing ; and, despite that knowledge, it was not expected that march and fight would come so swiftly and together. If the doctor stopped to bandage a man, we had to run to keep touch with the regiment. I was worried with visions of pockets of fifty or sixty wounded awaiting attention. Very early in the fight we found two men hit with shrapnel, and left them in the shell-hole. It was suggested to Sarcka that he stay with them, and guide the ambulances along our track whenever they came.
No,’ he said sturdily, ‘ I’m going on.’ And go on he did, and was shortly afterwards distributing cigarettes under heavy fire. Public opinion had condemned his coming, for the soldier holds that no man should go under fire unless he has a definite job there. But when he justified his place by a score of deeds, from cigarette-distributing to bandaging the wounded, public opinion rejoiced and accepted him, known for a comrade and a brave man.
Along the plain the enemy had a number of large thorn-stacks, with sand-bagged seats in their centres. Here had been snipers. These stacks we avoided ; as we did, as a rule, all such things as battalion head quarters. The colonel of a regiment moves with a small army of orderlies ; his majestic appearance over a brow rarely fails to draw a few salvoes. The doctor’s meinie, therefore, took their way along the open, avoiding all prominences of landscape and people. I turned aside to what proved to be a 56th Rifles’ aid-post, with a dead horse before it. Here had been the first Turkish lines. Our gulls pushed on very rapidly, the gunners riding swiftly by and into a large, deep nulla. We overpassed them again ; there was one smart minute or so when half a dozen pipsqueaks ‘ burst in a narrow fault of the ground, scarcely a nulla, beside us, the steep sides killing the spread of the H.E. The enemy had been shrapnelling hard along the line occupied by the 56th Rifles and the Leicestershires. Nevertheless we picked up very few wounded.
Johnny’s shrapnel now began to get wilder still. We found Colonel Brock, the Leicestershires’ colonel, where several wide, big nullas met. The battalion was digging in, he said. About thirty prisoners came over a hill behind us. We set up an aid-post, our first stationary one ; Sarcka produced a tin of Maconochie, and we had tiffin. A few wounded Indians came, the first being a man from whose pocket-book we extracted a shrapnel bullet. He had no other hurt.
The colonel was puzzled at our few casualties. There had been not only a good deal of shrapnel, but heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, yet hardly a man had been hit. The fight was nearly over, so I went back for ambulances. John was throwing a certain amount of explosive stuff about, uselessly and recklessly. On my way back I found Owen, of the 51st Sikhs, with a wounded arm. Owen, long ago, lost an eye in a bombing accident at Sannaiyat. He pluckily returned from India, and again took over the work of bombing instructor to his regiment.
It was now getting hot, being well past nine o’clock.
In the trenches by the 56th’s aid-post there were two Turks, each with a leg smashed to pulp by H.E. But the most distressing sight was an enemy sniper on one of the 0. Pips already mentioned. Round him were many used cartridges and bandoliers. He sat among the thorns, eight feet above ground, with the impassive mien of a Buddha. His face had been broken by our shrapnel, and his brains were running down it ; the flies were busy on a clot of red brain by his temple. He was one mess of blood, and very heavy as well as high up. My efforts to lift him down simply stained my clothes.
About 4 p.m. I was with a doctor, looking at a dead Turk who was a particularly gruesome sight, with blood still dripping from his nose. Suddenly appeared a merchant with a camera, who took this Turk’s photo. Not satisfied with this, he proceeded to stage-manage the place. The ambulance was coming up to remove a wounded Turk. He ordered it back, then bade it run up smartly, while the man was to be lifted in, equally smartly. Then he bade the doctor and myself stand behind the dead Turk aforementioned. When he went, the doctor said, ‘ Thank God, he’s gone.’ I took the man, in my carelessness, for another doctor with a taste for horrible pictures, and it was not till some time after that I realized he was the official cinematograph operator, and was merely doing his job. So, somewhere or other, a film has been exhibited, ‘ Wounded being collected on Mesopotamian battlefields.’
Going back to the Turkish sniper, who was still on his stack and had been overlooked by the cinematograph operator, I found that, in his agony, he had dug a hole in the thorns, and buried his head ; I suppose, to escape the flies. His legs were waving feebly. It was right he should be left to the last, as he had no chance of life, and nothing could be done for him in any way. But never did I feel more the utter folly and silly cruelty of war than when I saw this brave man’s misery. Next morning he was found to have crawled some hundreds of yards before dying. He had left his stack.