NEXT morning was one of leisure. The 19th Brigade took up our line, and we bivouacked before the station. We fed and washed and slept. The enemy put a few shells on to the 19th Brigade, doing no damage, and when that Brigade pushed on to Harbe he fell back on his strong lines at Istabulat, another four miles. The 19th Brigade, with only one or two men wounded, seized Harbe and twenty-four railway-trucks, which were of great assistance presently, when the mules drew them along the track with ammunition for the assault on Istabulat.
In the afternoon the 28th Brigade followed to Harbe. The heat was considerable, but the journey was short. Beyond the river plunging shells told us that our troops were pushing up both banks of the Tigris simultaneously.
The zest Brigade took over Beled. With them remained the Cherub, wielding for one day the flaming sword of retribution. Arabs had desecrated our graves as they always did, and had stripped our dead. The Cherub put the bodies back and dug several dummy graves. In these last he put Mills bombs ; removing the pin, he held each bomb down as the earth was delicately piled over. The deed called for great nerve ; he could feel the bomb quick to jump under his finger’s pressure. Arabs watched impudently, sniping his party from a few hundred yards away. Neither did they let him get more than a quarter of a mile away, when he had finished, before they flocked down. The Cherub made his way to the station, and watched, as a boy watches a bird-trap. The Arabs fell to scooping out the soil badger-fashion with their hands. There was an explosion, and the earth shot up in a fountain of clods. The robbers ran, but returned immediately and carried off two of their number, casualties. Then they remained to dig. Colonel Leslie, commanding the 21st Brigade, had watched from Beled Station with enthusiasm, and he now turned a machine-gun on them. The Cherub, returning to the scene of his labours, found that the Arabs had dug two feet deeper than his original grave, breaking up the stiff ground with their fingers. To these desperate people a piece of cloth seemed cheap at the cost of two dead or wounded.
From first to last nothing moved deeper anger than their constant exhumation of our dead, and murder, for robbery’s sake, of the wounded or isolated. Major Harley, A.P.M. of Baghdad in later days, learnt to admire the ability of the Arabs, whose brief Golden Age, when Abbasids ruled, so far outshone contemporary Europe. When he pressed them on their ghoul-like ways, they replied,
‘You British are so foolish. You bury the dead with the clothes. The dead do not need clothes, and we do.’ The logic of this does not carry far. To them, as Mussulmans, graves were sacrosanct to a unique degree ; a suspicion of disrespect on our part would rouse the whole of Islam to flaming wrath. They were criminals, by their own ethos, when they desecrated our dead. Moreover, they murdered whenever they could, in the cruellest and beastliest fashion. The marvel is, our actions of reprisal were so rare. Apart from this of the Cherub’s, only two came within my personal knowledge. Of these two cases, one I and nearly the whole division considered savage and unjustifiable, which was also the official view. It was the act of a very young subaltern, mistakenly interpreting an order. In the other case an Arab was caught red-handed, lurking in a ditch on our line of march, with one of their loaded knobkerries for any straggler. I do not know what happened, but have no doubt that he was shot.
It cannot be said that they acted for patriotic motives, as the Spanish guerrillas against Napoleon’s troops. I remember an articles by Sir William Willcocks dealing with his experiences before the war, in which he tells how he and a friend went ashore from a steamer on the Tigris. An Arab calmly dropped on one knee and took aim at the Englishmen, as if the latter were gazelles or partridges. He missed, and they followed him into his village, where they asked him why he had fired. The man answered that he did it in self-defence, for the others had fired first. ‘ That,’ said the Englishmen, ‘ is impossible, for you see we are unarmed.’ Hearing this, the village rushed on them and robbed them of their valuables. Yet one of them was an official high in Government service.
The other side of the shield, as it affected Brother Buddu, was shown next day at Harbe. At dawn three men and four women were found in the middle of the 19th Brigade’s camp, outside General Peebles’ tent, wailing. The women said their husbands had been bayoneted and mutilated by Turks a fortnight before, and buried here. This story proved true. The women dug up and bore off the decomposing fragments for decent burial.
The Buddu was an alien in his own land, loathed and oppressed by the Turk. In his turn he robbed and slew as chance offered. He pursued the chase for the pelt, and went after human life as our more civilized race go after buck.
About this time the Bishop of Nagpur was on his second visit from India. His see was usually mispronounced as Nankipoo. He was following us up to consecrate the graves of our battlefields. Great delight was given by the thought that West-lake’s still unexploded bombs would receive consecration also for any retributive work that awaited them. And we brooded over the suggestion that the good Bishop might find, even in Mesopotamia, Elijah’s way to heaven, fiery-chariot-wise.
Our new camp was amid mounds and ruins. We found green coins, pottery fragments, and shells with very lovely mother-of-pearl. The Dujail ran near by, and made a green streak through an arid waste. The whole landscape seemed one dust-heap, sand and rubbish. But by the brook were poppies, marguerites, delicate pink campions, wheat and barley growing as weeds of former cultivation, and thickets of blue-flowered liquorice. There were many thorns, especially a squat shrub with white papery globes. A large and particularly fleshy broom-rape, recently flowering, festered unpleasantly everywhere.
April was well on, and the sun gained power daily. The camp had a thousand discomforts. We lay under bivvies formed of a blanket, supported on a rifle and held down uncertainly by stones. Blinding dust-storms careered over the desert. These djinns, with their whirling sand-robes, would swoop down and whisk the poor shelters away. If the courts above take note of blasphemy under such provocation, the Recording Angel’s office was hard worked these days. One would be reading a letter, already wretched enough with heat and flies, and suddenly you would be fighting for breath and sight in a maelstrom of dirt, indescribably filthy dirt, whilst your papers flew up twenty feet and your rifle hit you cruelly over the head. As a Marian martyr observed to an enthusiast who thrust a blazing furze-bush into his face, ‘ Friend, have I not harm enough ? What need of that ? ‘ One storm at Harbe blew all night, having made day intolerable and meals out of the question. As Fowke curled himself miserably under his blanket for the night, I heard him deliver himself of the opinion quoted at the head of this chapter.
Flies may be taken for granted. They swarm in these vile relics of old habitation. Moreover, there had been a Turkish camp at hand. But snakes and scorpions were found also almost hourly. The snakes were small asps ; the scorpions were small also, but sufficiently painful. My batman was consumed with curiosity as to what a scorpion was like ; he had heard tell of them ‘ in Gallipoli. The listening Gods took account of his desire, and he was mildly stung the day we left.
We spent the best part of a fortnight at Harbe. Morning and evening were enlivened by regular hates. So we had to dig trenches. But there were more memorable happenings at Harbe than the discomforts. Hebden returned with stores of sorts from Baghdad. Two new subalterns, Sowter and Keely, came. On Tuesday Hall’s M.C. for Sannaiyat was announced. We celebrated this with grateful hymn far into night. Thursday brought the Cherub’s M.C., another very popular honour, and we sang again, and the mules from their mess sang a chorus back, as before.
When as at dusk our Mess carouse, With catches strong and brave, The mules their tuneful hearts arouse, And answer stave for stave. ‘Dumb nature’breaks in festive noise, Remembering in this East The mystic bond which knits the joys Of righteous man and beast. Then pass the flowing bowl about Our stores have come today And let the youngest captain shout, And let the asses bray. The thorny trudge awhile forget, And foeman’s waiting host I Tomorrow bomb and bayonet- Tonight we keep the toast I
These light-hearted evenings seemed, even then, sacramental. We were waiting while the Third Corps and the cavalry cleared the other bank of the Tigris, level with us. On the 19th the river was bridged at Sinijah, which made close touch between the two corps possible and passage of men and guns. About the same time the cavalry captured twelve hundred and fifty Turks on the Shat-el-Adhaim. Our wait was necessary. But we knew the enemy was terribly entrenched less than six miles away, and that our sternest fight since Sannaiyat was preparing. ‘ This will be a full-dress affair, with the corps artillery,’ I was told. Some of my comrades were under twenty ; others, like Fowke and Grant-Anderson, were men of ripe age and experience in many lands. But all had aged in spirit. Hall, though his years were only nineteen, had grown since Sannaiyat into a man, responsibility touching his old gaiety with power. So we waited on this beach of conflict.
One evening stands out by its beauty and unconscious greatness. It happened thus. Remember how young many were, and it is small wonder if depression came at times. After the trying trench warfare before Kut had come the rush to Baghdad, a period of strain and tremendous effort. We had been fighting and marching continuously for many weeks, with every discomfort and over a cursed monotonous plain, without even the palliation of fairly regular mails. When men have been ‘ going over the top ‘ repeatedly, emerging always with comrades gone, the nerves give way. We longed to be at that Istabulat position. Yet here we had to wait while Cailley’s Column fought level with us, and day by day those sullen lines were strengthening. We had barely six thousand men to throw at them. So one night talk became discontented, and some one wished some reinforcement could be with us from the immense armies which our papers bragged were being trained at home. Then anotherG. A. or Fowkereplied :
” Oh that we now had here But one ten thousand of those men in England That do no work today I
Swiftly that immortal scene, of the English spirit facing great odds invincibly, followed, passage racing after passage.
God’s will pray thee, wish not one man more.
It was an electric spark. I never heard poetry, or literature at all, mentioned save this once. But all were eager and speaking, for all had read Henry V. When the lines were reached,
Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host, That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart laughter cleansed every spirit present of fear, and the shadow of fear, misgiving. Nothing less grimly humorous than the notion of such an offer being made now, or of the alleged consequences of such an offer, in the instant streaming away of all His Majesty’s Forces in Mesopotamia, could have made so complete a purgation. Comedy took upon herself the office of Tragedy. When voices could rise above the laughter, they went on :
His passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse. ‘Movement-orders down the line and ration-indents,’ was the emendation. We would not die in that man’s company That fears his fellowship to die with us. And Fowke’s voice towered to an ecstasy of sarcasm as he assured his unbelieving hearers that Gentlemen in England, now abed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.
As a Turkish attack was considered possible, every morning we stood-to for that ‘ witching hour,’ immediately before dawn, which is usually selected for ‘ hopping the parapet.’ The brigades reconnoitred, and exchanged shots with enemy pickets. Fritz came, of course. Then the 19th Brigade went on, and took up a position two miles in front behind the Median Wall, of which more hereafter. The battle preparations went busily forward.
Our camp was strewn with pebbles, an old shingle-beach, for we were on the ancient edges of the sea, before the river had built up Iraq.’ The stones at Beled had been the first signs that we were off the alluvial plain. South of Baghdad it was reported that a reward of L100 would be paid (by whom I never heard) to the finder of any sort of stone. And now, after our long sojourn in stoneless lands, these pebbles were a temptation, and there was a deal of surreptitious chucking- about. One watched with secret glee while a smitten colleague pretended to be otherwise occupied, but nevertheless kept cunning eyes searching for the offender. I enjoyed myself best, for I lay and watched the daily parade of the troops before breakfast, and could inquire genially, ‘ Have you had a good stand-to ? ‘ Fowke asked the wastes in a soaring falsetto, ‘ Why do the heathen rage ? ‘ And he was returned question for question, with ‘ Why do you keep laughing at me with those big, blue eyes ? ‘ Then the camp would rock with song as we fell to shaving and, after, breakfast.
The superstitions which old experience had justified waxed strong as the clays went by. When McInerney marked out a quoits-court and Charles Copeman dug a messthese officers found their amusement in singular ways, and would have been hurt had any one attempted to usurp their self-appointed dutiesand when I put in services for Sunday, the 22nd, it was recognized that we should march, and fight on the Sabbath. Not more anxiously did the legionary listen for tales of supernatural fires in the corn and of statues sweating blood than the regiments asked each other, ‘ Have you dug a mess yet ? Has the padre put in services ? ‘ Two of us went down with colitispossibly the Sumaikchah waters were not even yet done withand Fowke, as they left us, profaned Royal Harry’s words :
He which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart.
For all this, Shakespeare had a share in the storming of Istabulat, as will be seen ; as the ghost of Bishop Adhemar, who had died at Antioch, was said to have gone before Godfrey of Boulogne’s scaling-ladder when the Crusaders took Jerusalem. (` Thank God ! ‘ said they. ‘ He was not frustrate of his vows.’)
On Friday rain came, and Charles Copeman, who had, as already indicated, a passion for digging caught, perchance, in boyhood from his father’s sextondug a funk-hole from the enemy shell-fire. McInerney helped him. Now this was not an ordinary funk-hole. It was a very splendid and elaborate hole, and no one was allowed to come near, lest he cause its perfection to crumble away. So, to dry ourselves after the rain, we all dug, and the Desert-Gods laughed in their bitter little minds as they saw. Among the rest, Sowter and I dug a hole, dug deeply, widely, with much laughter and joyfulness. And to us, as the afternoon wore towards evening, came the C.O., and, after watching us for a few minutes, told us that we marched in an hour.