Huweslet Or ‘the Battle Of Juber Island’

OCTOBER 22 was the date when Johnny developed unheard-of cheek. His patrols appeared by the river, one fellow riding along our wire and slashing it with his sword. Then from Y p.m. onwards he shelled both banks of the river, having pushed down from his advanced post at Daur, a dozen miles away, with a couple of hundred cavalry, several machine-guns, and light field-guns. The Guides and our cavalry were reported to have lost men and horses ; and G.A., on picket, sent word that the Turks were digging themselves in. And On the 23rd shelling continued, and that evening the division moved out. At the officers’ meeting we were told that a force, estimated at four thousand Turks and several guns, was digging in. We were to do twelve thousand two hundred yards north, and then seven thousand five hundred yards half right, to get behind them. This was the 28th Brgade. The 8th and 19th Brigades, starting later, were to make a frontal attack at 4 a.m. ; our brigade were to enfilade the Turk when bolted ; and these united efforts were to drive him into the dead ground by the river, and there, as the scheme wittily put it, our artillery and machine-guns would deal with him.’ Whoever drew up the plan was not only bloody-minded but oblivious of long experience, assuming thus that John was such a very simple person.

We moved off just before dark, raising a white dust. Through all our wide detour there were strict injunctions against smoking, enforced among the Leicestershires, ignored among machine-gunners and Indian drivers. Never can night-march have been noisier. At every halt the mules sang down the whole length of the line ; signallers and gunners clattered past. About midnight a stranger was seen talking to some drabis. A Leicestershire sergeant, coming up, said, Hullo, it’s a bloody Turk.’ Hearing himself identified. Johnny turned round and saluted. He was led to the proper authorities, and proved to be a Turkish cadet. He was armed with a penknife and a pair of gloves.

The night was bitterly cold. At 3.3o a.m. we ‘ rested.’ We had reached what in Mesopotamia would be considered well-wooded country, an upland studded with bushes. Just on dawn we rose, with teeth chattering and limbs numbed with contact with the cold ground, and moved on. Our planes appeared, scouring the sky ; and a few odd bursts of rifle-fire were heard about 7 a.m. We had now reached the edge of the dead ground against the river, and looked down to Tigris, as in later days I have looked down to the Jordan. The doctor and I were told to set up our aid-post in a deep nulla there, and wait on events. A report came from our air-folk that five thousand Turks were on Juber Island, opposite Huweslet. We moved steadily forward to the attack, steadily but unbelievingly. Unbelief rose to positive derision, for as we topped a slight brow we gave a target no artillery could have resisted, yet nothing happened. It’s a trap,’ said Fowke darkly ; ‘ he’s luring us on.’ Why should John lie doggo in this fashion ? Nevertheless the airmen insisted that the Turks were there. So we dug ourselves in, in a semicircle facing the island, preliminary to attacking it. It was noon, hot and maddening with flies. The Leicestershires sent scouts out, who pushed up to Juber Island, and found that there were indeed five thousand there—five thousand sheep and several Arab shepherds. On the opposite bank John had a machine-gun, with which he sniped those who approached the water. He killed mules, and wounded several bhisties and a sweeper. There were also people sniping with rifles, and the Indian regiments had casualties. On our side, the cavalry brought in a prisoner. We had the young gentleman caught at night, and one other ; the 19th Brigade took a fourth prisoner. So we abandoned the battle, had breakfast at 2.30 p.m., and returned. The day was wearying beyond conception, yet the men, British and Indian alike, were singing as they passed Al-Ajik. Samarra camp was a swirl of dust after the day’s busyness ; almost a faery place in the last sunlight.

The next day was dedicated to sleep, and to humour at the expense of the Royal Flying Corps, to whose mess a sheep’s head was voted.