EVENTS moved rapidly for the division. The brigades scattered down the line, and H.Q. went to Akab, near the supposed site of Opis. The 21st Brigade went across the river. Only the Leicester-shires remained at Samarra, and even they sent one company to Istabulat. Our other three companies went to the station. The 3rd Division took over Istabulat and Samarra. The conviction took root that we were leaving the country.
On the 19th General Maude’s death was told. A pack of rumours came as to how he had come to die, and as to how many others had died. His funeral took place in Baghdad ; Fritz attended and dropped a message of sympathy. Mistaking his purpose when he flew so low, the archies fired on him. Also, for once, they are said to have nearly hit him.
Knowledge of the magnitude of the Italian reverses filtered in. Our Baghdad Anzac wireless heard one hundred thousand prisoners,’ when the German wireless broke in, Hallo, hallo, hallo, Baghdad ! We can tell you later news. It is three hundred thousand prisoners, two thousand five hundred guns.’ The enemy wireless possessed the code-name of our own, and frequently broke in on our messages with information, asking us to acknowledge ; but this was forbidden.
In December’s first week the Kifri push took place. This was not the 7th Division’s affair. The Third Corps had it in charge. We rationed them, which meant thirty-five miles of communications, up the left bank of the Tigris, into the sub-hills of the Persian borderlands. The loth Punjabis furnished dump-guards. These days I spent, exceedingly pleasantly, with the Guides in the Adhaim Valley. Here was a scene of exquisite loveliness. The Adhaim was dry ; but, in its deep bed, green lines showed where the water ran. The winter floods were even then beginning to gather higher up, and had reached to within a dozen miles of the brook’s junction with Tigris. The valley was thick jungle. There were no trees, but a most dense and luxuriant growth of tamarisk-, populus euphratica, zizyphs and other thorns, forming a covert six to fourteen feet high. Liquorice grew freely. Wild pig abounded, hares, black partridge, and sisi. In my very brief stay I saw no pig ; but their signs were everywhere, and their water-holes in the river-bed bore marks of constant resort. The Adhaim was crossed by Nebuchadnezzar’s great Nahrwan Canal. This was now, in effect, a deep nulla, and had silted in, so that its bottom was above the Adhaim bank. Its cliffs were tenanted with blue rock-pigeon, with hedgehogs and porcupines. Shoals of mackerel-like fish used to swim up the Tigris, with fins skimming the surface. Erskine showed me how to shoot these ; as, in later days, when we were in the Palestine line at Arsuf, I have seen Diggins stunning fish with rifle-shots in the old Roman harbour.
In their Samarra digging the Guides had found a stone statue, which is what they asked me up to see. The head and arms had been broken off, obviously deliberately; but it was plainly the Goddess Ishtar, with breasts remaining. She was sitting before the mess-tent, like Demeter before the House of Triptolemus. This discovery was of interest beyond itself. The books place Opis near Akab, apparently because the Adhaim enters the Tigris opposite Akab. But, as I have said already, Kenneth Mason has accumulated good reasons for placing Opis near Samarra. With those reasons, this statue of Ishtar may take its place. The Samarra of history was not much more than a standing camp for caliphs in refuge from their true capital, Baghdad. But old Samarra covers nearly twenty square miles of ruins upon ruins. Opis was a great mart ; and Samarra, in the relics of Eski Baghdad, to the north, reaches almost to the Tigris end of the Tekrit-Hit caravan road.
The Kifri push resulted in another withdrawal of the fight-weary John. He set Kifri coal-mine on fire, and it burned for some days. We took a hundred and fifty prisoners and two field-guns. Though Russia was out of the war, a local force of Russians helped us. They were told they would find their rations in a certain place when they took it. They took it all right.
I left the Guides, and went back to Beled, to my good friends of the 56th Brigade, R.F.A. On December 6 the 19th Infantry and the 56th Artillery Brigades received orders to move down-stream immediately. All came suddenly ; I was awakened by the striking of tents. On the 8th the Leicestershires left Samarra.. In less than six days they were in Baghdad. In those six days of marching they suffered terribly from cold, rain, and footsoreness. But they swung through Baghdad singing. The men of the Anzac wireless bought up oranges, and threw them to our fellows as they passed out of Baghdad to their camp at Hinaidi, two miles below. Baghdad streets were frozen every morning ; a bucket of water, put out overnight, would be almost solid next day. Nevertheless there were enough flies to be an intolerable pest. When we passed the variously spelt station of Mushaidiyeh, Keely noted the script preferred by the railway, Mouchahadie, and observed, Evidently it was connected in their mind with flies ; no doubt with good reason.’
Baghdad in winter is given up to immense flocks of crows and starlings and to the ‘ Baghdad canary.’ No wild flowers were out, except a white alisma. We purchased ‘ goodly Babylonish garments,’ the abbas for which the town is famous. Mine were sent home in an oil-sheet. The oil-sheet arrived, the postal-service satisfying themselves with looting the abbas. After all, men who have the monotony of service at the Base are entitled to indemnify themselves for the trouble to which men up the line put them.
We got our last glimpse of Fritz on the 15th. He was over Baghdad, and was said to have dropped a message, ‘ Good-bye, 7th Division.’ The countryside was stiff with troops moving up and down.
Our destination was matter of constant speculation. When orders to leave Beled reached the 19th Brigade, there came a wire from Divisional Head Quarters, ‘ Tell the padre to preach from Matthew twenty, verse eighteen.’ But the 28th Brigade knew nothing of this hint to Lee. Some thought we were going to Ahwaz, and thence up to Persia ; others held this Persian theory with a modification, that we should arrive up-country from Bushire. The favourite notion was that we were going to do another Gallipoli landing, behind Alexandretta. Some one got hold of a map, and announced that there were mountains there nine thousand feet high.
On the 18th we embarked, and began our slow drift down the flooded, racing stream. We passed the old landmarks, so known and so remembered. On the loth we passed Kut, and knew that for most of us it was our farewell glimpse of the town that through so many dreadful months had seemed a place of faery, and inaccessible.
Here an Empire’s might had agonized ; and many of us had buried more hopes than we shall cherish again.
It rained, and kept on raining. Knowing what wretchedness this meant on shore, we were glad of the crowded shelter of our P-boat, maugre its noises and discomforts. Marshall, the semi-mythical person at Corps, who had visited the Turks at Tekrit, scattering ruin from a ‘ lamb,’ was everywhere said to be taking bets, ten to one, that the war would be ended by Christmas. If rumour spoke truth, Marshall must have lost a pile of money.
On the 22nd we entrained at Amara, reaching Busra late on the 23rd. We spent Christmas encamped on a marsh. My mare developed unsuspected gifts as a humorist. Every time she saw a tree, even a date-palm, she shied, cavorted, and leapt, showing the utmost amazement and terror. This was witty at first, but she kept it up too long. Busra backwaters were lovelier than ever, with the willows in their winter dress, gold-streaked, and the brooding blue kingfishers above the waveless channels. BabIas were in yellow button, scenting the ditches where huge tortoises crawled and clustered. On the 30th I got a glimpse of Shaiba, of the tall feathery tamarisks above the Norfolks’ graves and trenches. On January 2 we embarked on the Bandra. With the cheering as we moved away, the words of a Mesopotamian gaff recurred to memory :
And when we came to Ashar, we only cheered once ;
And I don’t suppose we shall cheer again, for months, and months, and months.
We drifted down the beautiful waterway, past its forest of palms and its abundant willows and waving reeds. We reached Koweit Bay on the 4th and waited for rations and our new boats. On the 7th we were on our way to a new campaign. In nine months the Leicestershires were swinging through Beirut in the old, immemorial fashion, though foot-weary, and singing, whilst the people madly cheered and shouted. But it was not the old crowd. Fowke, Warren, Burrowsthese three were gathered, two months after the battalion left Mesopotamia, at Kantara, when the German last offensive burst. They were sent at once to France. Fowke and Warren were badly wounded ; a letter from Fowke informed me that he was hit while running aw ay,’ a jesting statement which one understands. Burrows, one of our keenest minds and a delightful man, a valued friend, did extraordinarily was strangely fearlessbut was killed as the French war was ending. From the 19th Brigade Haughton, Thornhill, General Peebles, had all gone long ago. Haughton was wounded in the Afghan War, and Thornhill (lied of illness. And now, as I write, G.A. is off to South America again, and J. Y. to Canada.