IN the quiet light we crossed the railway, and moved up to the Median Wall, in all a march of perhaps a mile and a half. This wall was old in Xenophon’s time! ; and along its northern side his army moved, watching, and watched by, the troops of Tissaphernes, moving parallel on the other side. He speaks of it as twenty feet in breadth and one hundred feet in height. Once it was the border between Assyria and Babylonia, and must have stretched to the Euphrates. Even now it runs from the Tigris far into the desert. It has crumbled to one-third of the height given by Xenophon. The semblance of a wall no longer, it is a mighty flank of earth, covering tiers of bricks. It effects ally hid our movements as we crossed the plain before it. The Turk was shrapnelling the wall and its approaches, endeavouring to reply to some howitzers. These last we left on our right. As I happened to be the nearest officer, the major came up and asked me that the Leicestershires should move more to the left, in case any of his guns had a premature.
We fell silently into our places behind the wall.
The artillery behind us were favoured with a certain amount of zizyph-scrub ; but the wall furnished no cover but itself. Fowke, who at all times indulged in a great deal of gloomy prognostication, known as
Fowke-lore,’ and received with delight, but not quite implicit belief, foretold that on the morrow our cavalryit was a point of principle with the infantry to assume that the cavalry, as well as all Higher Commands, were capable of every stupidity and of nothing but stupiditywould cut up B Company, his own, who had a certain unattractive duty assigned to them on the extreme left. He also told us that the Median Wall would be shelled to blazes, which seemed pretty probable.
The clearest figure in my memory for this hurried, stealthy evening is J. Y. Copeman, cousin of Charles. ` J. Y.’for he never carried any graver appellation than mere initialsonce a rising lawyer in Vancouver, was now our quartermaster. The gayest and most debonair figure in the division, known and popular everywhere, he was also an incredibly efficient quartermaster. Possibly the same qualities make for success in law and quartermastering. His gaiety was the mask for a most unsleeping energy and very great ability. He was once dubbed, by a person more alliterative than observant, ‘ a frail, flitting figure with a fly-flap.’ Yet he had taken over Brodie’s job, at Sannaiyat, when that experienced ‘ quarter ‘ had wakened suddenly to find that an aeroplane bomb had wounded him Within a year of this event I was privileged to be present at an argumeut between our D.A.D.O.S. and our D.A.D.S. & T., as to whether Copeman or Jock Reid, of the Seaforths, was the greater quartermaster. Where two such authorities failed to come to a decision, I must stand aside, especially as both J. Y. and Reid are my friends. With his ability J. Y. had an indomitable resolve, which made him refuse to go sick. He carried on through months of constant ill-health ; sometimes he was borne on one of his own ration-carts, too unwell to walk or ride. He fed alone, but had a familiar, in the shape of a ridiculously clever and most selfish cat. And it is J. Y. whom I remember on this eve of Istabul atJ. Y. marshalling his carts swiftly and silently up to the wall when darkness had fallen, and J. Y. next morning scurrying them away before dawn.
A Company went on picket, B and C patrolled before our lines, D lay behind the wall. Fires were kept low. J. Y. got o our blankets up to us, and we had some sleep.
Next day, the 21st, all kit was packed and on the carts by 4 a.m. Breakfast was at 3.3o ; hot tea and a slice of bacon. The second line fell back. Then we clung to the wall, and waited ; all but Fowke. That warrior moved off to the left with part of B Company, all carrying spades. Their task was to come out of the shelter of the wall as soon as the action began, and to work their spades frantically, sending up such dust-clouds that the bemused Turk might suppose a new Army Corps advancing to attack his right, and take steps accordingly. The brown-coated figure took a sombre farewell of me, reminding us that, though his crowd were going to be cut up by our own cavalry, the rest of us would be shelled into annihilation when Johnny opened on the famous wall. ‘ He’s bound to have the exact range, for it’s such a landmark. Besides, he’s got German archaeologists with him, who’ve dug here for years and years ; they know every brick. And he’s been practising on it for weeks. You saw how he had it last night when we came up.’
The two actions which it is customary to call the two Battles of Istabulat were fought in positions some milesapart. The title of Istabulat, or of Dujail River, may fitly be reserved for the first action. The action of the 22nd may then be known as that of Istabulat Mounds. The Istabulat fight was one in which my own Brigade were spectators, except for isolated and piece-meal action. We were in reserve ; and the 8th Brigade, of the 3rd Division, were in support, in line with us, and behind the Median Wall. The enemy were trying a new bowler, Shefket Pasha being in command, vice Kazim Karabekir Bey, who had resigned from command of their Eighteenth Corps just before Baghdad fell. We should not have supposed that this made any difference, even had we known.
The Istabulat battle has been described in print, I though inadequately and, in one important respect, most unfairly. That unfairness I shall correct in the next chapter. But for this first action I do not propose to do more than give an outline of the work of the two Brigades engaged, and an account of our own part in reserve.
The enemy’s position was of immense strength. Old mounds made an upraised plateau, through which the Dujail Canal ran swiftly between steep and lofty banks. The 19th and 21st Brigades attacked in converging columns, the first thrusting right in, the second coming with an arm sweep round. Thus, both frontal and flank attacks were provided. The enemy’s position was so strong, his redoubts so lofty, and the whole formidable terrain had been so entrenched and wired round that I do not believe we hoped to do more than eat our way into a part of his line. The operation was magnificent bluff. His morale was calculated to be now so low that he was likely to evacuate the position if we bit deeply into it. If this view is correct, General Maude was taking a heavy risk. But he not only always made all preparation possible before he struck, but on occasion did not hesitate to strike where the odds should have been against success, but the prize of success was great, and the morale of the troops against him weakened by repeated blows. In the Jebel Hamrin his calculation failed. But at Istabulat it succeeded. But, had the Turk been as he was in Sannaiyat days, two months back, we should have had a week of dreadful fighting instead of one bloody day. Holding Istabulat heights was a force estimated at seven thousand four hundred infantry and five hundred sabres, with thirty-two guns. This force, in its perfect position, we attacked with two weak brigades.
The carts had scuttled away; J. Y. and his cat had stalked off through the dimness. We were shivering behind the wall. At 5 a.m. the bombardment opened. From five to seven we brought every gun to bear on the enemy. Istabulat, like the last of Sannaiyat’s five battles, was an artillery battle, in the sense that the infantry, less strongly and splendidly supported, would have been helpless.
` I’ll never say a word against the gunners again after today and Sannaiyat,’ said a wounded Seaforths’ officer to me in the evening. The field-guns were well up from the start, and the how’s ‘ soon advanced. When the action began, the latter were half-a-mile behind us at the wall. It was an impressive sight, the smoke rushing out with each discharge, and then swaying back with the gun’s recoil. But the guns were rarely stationary long, and we soon had the unwonted experience of finding ourselves well behind our own artillery. Finally, in places our batteries were firing at almost point-blank range ; the enemy was simply blasted out of his trenches.
Fowke’s dust-up drew a few shells ; and the Turk strengthened his right to meet this new threat, But presently Fritz came over, very low and very impudent. He reported that it was only Fowke, and sheered off with a contempt quite visible from the ground. He was so low that we fired at him with rifles, vainly ; then he went, and was swooping down on the Seaforths’ attack and machine-gunning it.
The 19th Brigade got their first objectives with very few casualties. But then the enemy poured a murderous fire on to them from every sort of weapon. The 21st Brigade all but accomplished their impossible task. At a critical point a terrible misfortune occurred. The 9th Bhopalswho were playfully and better known as the 9th Bo-Peeps ‘crossed in front of a strong machine-gun position instead of outflanking it. The Turks held their fire till the regiment was close up. The latter lost two hundred men in three minutes ; and a large body of Turks. who were wavering on the edge of surrender, fell back instead. The Bhopals never recovered from this disaster. The skeleton of a battalion which survived the fight was sent down the line, and its place taken by the 1st Guides from India.
Two other battalions of the 21st Brigade, the 2nd Black Watch and the 1/8th Gurkhas, crossed a plain bare of cover. They crossed at terrible cost, and scaled the all but sheer walls of the Turkish left. But it was too much ; and a counter-attack swept the survivors off, and took two officers and several men prisoners. Evening found our forces held, though the whole enemy front line was ours and our teeth were fixed deeply into the position. The Black Watch had lost all four company commanders, killed.
It is not possible to convey to paper the heroism and agony of this day. Mackenzie, of the Seaforths, who won the D.S.O. two months previously at Sannaiyat for valour which in any previous war would have won the V.C., was shot dead as he was offering his water-bottle to a wounded Turk. Irvine, of the 9th Bhopals, was wounded, and lay out all day ; two wounded Turks looked after him, surrendering when we ultimately came up. The Gurkhas and Bhopals took two hundred and thirty prisoners. A Black Watch private captured nine Turks and brought them in, himself supporting the last of the file, who was wounded. A machine-gunner, isolated when his comrades were killed or driven back, although wounded, worked his gun till we advanced again.
The artillery, as was inevitable from the role they filled, suffered. Major the Earl of Suffolk, commanding B/56th Battery, was killed by shrapnel through the heart. He was a popular, unassuming man. Lieutenant Stewart, of the same battery, was wounded. Colonel Cotter, commanding the 56th Brigade, R.F.A., was hit in the forehead. Lieutenant Hart’s wrist was shot through. The 14th Battery had two hundred 5.9’s burst round them; yet they brought up their team, one by one, and got the guns away, losing men, but no animals.
Meanwhile from the Median Wall the ‘ Tigers ” watched the fight. One could not help being reminded of the grand-stand at a football match. Sitting on the further side and below the crest, the officers watched the Indians pushing over the plain steadily through heavy shelling. We saw dreadful pounding away on our left, where 5.9’s plunged and burst among the trenches the Seaforths were holding. Yet even a battle grows monotonous ; so in the afternoon we went down to the trenches before the wall to rest, so far as heat and flies would permit. In that period of slackness a number of men swarmed up the wall. Instead of sitting where we had done, they sat on the crest, against the sky-line. Hitherto the shrapnel had not come nearer than a ridge four hundred yards away, which had been often and well peppered. But now came the hateful whistle, and the ridge was swept from end to end with both H.E. and shrapnel. In our trenches we were spattered with pebbles. Thorpe, next to me, got a piece of H.E. in his coat. But we escaped a direct hit. One shell passing overhead skimmed the ridge and burst on the other side, scattering Colonel Knatchbull’s kit and smashing his fishing-rod. It killed a groom and wounded three other men, and wounded three horses so badly that they all had to be killed. It is always men on duty, holding horses or otherwise unable to escape, who pay for the curiosity of the idle.
Firing continued very heavy till dusk. In the evening I buried the man killed by the shell, and then went back to find the clearing-station. Part of a padre’s recognized function is to cull and purvey news. And I had many friends engaged. A couple of miles back I found the 7th British Field Ambulance, to which my own chief, A. E. Knott, was attached. The sight here was far more nerve-racking than a battlefield. It was an open human shambles, with miserable men lying about, some waiting on tables to be operated on. Knott was about to help in amputating a leg. In the few words I had with him I learnt that Suffolk was killed. I think I am right when I say that he was the only man killed among our 7th Division gunners. (We had other artillery with us, and they lost heavily.) It seemed strangely mediaeval, as from the days of Agincourt or Creci, that Death, scarring so many, but forbearing to exact their uttermost, should strike down so great a name and one that is written on so many pages of our history. I knew well how many would mourn the man. I asked Knott the question of questions, ‘ What are our casualties ? ‘ These, one knew, must be heavy ; but I was appalled by his reply, ‘ Sixteen hundred to one o’clock.’
I left the wretched scene and went back. Part of the way McLeod, of the Seaforths, his right arm in a sling, wandered with me, talking dazedly of the day and its fortunes. I found an officer with whom I had travelled on a river-boat not long before, when his mind held the presentiment of death in his first action. He, like McLeod, went out from Istabulat with the card, G.S. I wound, right arm.’ So much for presentiment in some cases. A different case occurred next day.
I found my mess sitting down to dinner. ‘ Montag’ Warren, our P.M.C., had excellently acquired dates and white mulberries, which last made a stew, poorly tasting, but a change from long monotony. A clamour greeted me. Where’ve you been, padre ? What’s the news ? ‘ I told them we had got on well. Then some one asked, But what did you hear about our casualties?’ Minds were tense, for every one knew that next clay our brigade must take up the attack, and for a whole day we had seen Hell in full eruption on our right. I told them other things I had learnttold them anything that might brush aside the awkward question. But they demanded to know. Neither do I see how I could have avoided telling. So at last I said, Well, what I was told was sixteen hundred.’
Silence fell. To some, sixteen hundred may seem a butcher’s bill so trifling that brave menand these were men superlatively brave, officers of the 17th Foot, and some of them had seen more pitched battles than years, had known Ypres and Loos and Neuve Chapelle, Gallipoli and Sheikh Saadwould not concede it a momentary blanching of the cheek. But these sixteen hundred casualties were out of barely four thousand men engaged, including gunners. In that minute each man communed with his own spirit, Voyaging through strange fields of thought alone.
The reader will be weary of Henry V. Nevertheless Shakespeare came to the aid of us, his countrymen, again as gallant old Fowke quoted from the heart and brain of England :
He which path no stomach to this fight, Let him depart… We would not die in that man’s company, That fears his fellowship to die with us.
So laughter ended a terrible day. Next day our tiny band was the spearhead of a handful of fifteen hundred bayonets, who caught the Turk in his fastnesses, wrested guns and prisoners from him, and slew and broke his forces so that they recoiled for thirty miles.
There was no rest. Through the darkness J. Y. flitted to and fro, and here and there a spectral blaze flickered furtively. We had neither blankets nor greatcoats, for fear of shell-fire made it impossible to bring the carts up. The night was infernal with cold ; sand-flies rose in myriads from the ground ; we shivered and itched in our shorts. Old aches and pains found me out, rheumatism and troubles of a tropical climate. I lay between two men, both of whom had seen their last sunset ; one was Sergeant-Major Whatsize. Infinitely far off seemed peace and the time, as Grant-Anderson expressed it,
When the Gurkhas cease from gurkhing, and the Sikhs are sick no more.
At midnight came a roar, then a crashing. It was Johnny blowing up Istabulat Station. At three o’clock we were aroused.