SAMARRA was entered on April 23, the 21st and 8th Brigades going through the 19th and 28th Brigades. These brigades followed during the course of the day, and the ridge of Al-Ajik fell into our hands. From Samarra northwards high bluffs run with the river, pushing out to it from plateaus stretching across the heart of Jezireh and climbing again beyond the river to the Jebel Hamrin. Below the bluffs are wide spaces of dead ground, beds which the Tigris has forsaken. On the right bank, before the dead ground begins and directly opposite Samarra town, is a plain some ten or dozen miles in length, between the mounds of the battle of April 22 and the crest of Al-Ajik ; this plain may be three miles broad. Al-Ajik covers and commands all approaches from the north, and, with the central plateau, shuts the plain within a crescent. Here, behind Al-Ajik, lay our camp for the next seven months.
North from Al-Ajik the plateau rolls away to Tekrit, and the same rolling country lies to westward also, broken with nulla and water-hole. To Tekrit, more than twenty miles beyond, the Turkish Army fled.
Samarra is a dirty, sand-coloured town, with no touch of brightness but what its famous dome gives it. This dome it was that shone over against the sunset, the last earthly beauty for so many eyes, on that evening of savage battle when the 7th Division flung out its leading brigade and reached, all but held, the Turkish guns. The dome hides the cavern into which the Twelfth Imam vanished, and from which he will emerge, bringing righteousness to a faithless world. Just beyond the dome rises the corkscrew tower, built in imitation of the Babylonian ziggurats. To the north-east is ‘ Julian’s Tomb,’ a high pyramid in the desert. It was near Samarra that he suffered defeat and died of wounds. For twenty miles round, in Beit Khalifa, Eski Baghdad, and elsewhere, is one confused huddle of ruins. It is hard to believe that such tawdry magnificence as Harun’s successors intermittently brought to the town during the precarious times of Abbasid decay is responsible for all these arches and caverns and tumbled bricks. Major Kenneth Mason, already mentioned as having identified Xenophon’s Sittake, has collected good reasons for placing Opis, once the great mart of the East, at Eski Baghdad, and not where the maps conjecturally place it, twenty miles farther down Tigris. In summer, green is none save in patches by the river ; but a thin scurf of yellow grass and coarse herbage overspread the ruins, in which were abundant partridges and quails. Germans had been excavating before we came, and we found in the town many cases of antiquities, ready packed for transport to Europe. The 7th Division, digging their positions, presently found pottery, glazed fragments, and tear-bottles.
The town is walled, and sits above steep bluffs. Tigris, swift and clear like a mountain stream, races by, dividing round an island. Below the town is another island, with an expanse of shingle towards the right bank ; to this island Divisional Head Quarters went, a most unfair avoidance of the ‘ dust-devils ‘ which plagued their brethren. Here were tamarisk thickets, haunted with great metallic beetles, with such wings as Eastern smiths know how to use. The green bushes were good to the eyes, and a pleasant curtain from flying sand. But a sudden rise in the river flushed its shallow right arm, and made the place an island in reality and all inconvenience. The righteous, seeing this, rejoiced.
The brigades scattered over the plain, the 8th Brigade going on, after brief pause, to the ravines and jungles of the Adhaim, where the war was dying. May’s first week swept the Turk out of the Adhaim Valley, and our troops settled down for the summer.
The brigades scattered ; blankets came up, and we slept. For over a month we had only bivvies, the usual rifle-supported blanket, tugging and straining at the stones which held it whenever a ‘ dust-devil ‘ danced by or a sandstorm arose. But E.P. tents dribbled in. Even mails began to arrive, and parcels ; and to me, on the first day of ease, came a jubilant telegram from my old friends of the 19th Brigade : Conic and have tea with us. We have a cake ! ‘ I went, and found them where the shingles led to Divisional Island. Blue rollers swung themselves on the air below the cliffs ; and on the pebbles an owl skipped and danced, showing off in the beautiful evening sunlight. This was a daily performance, Thornhill told me. It had been General Peebles’ birthday, and the brag about the cake was splendidly justified. There were buns also.
Summer dragged by. In Baghdad pomegranates blossomed, mulberries fruited, figs ripened. But in Samarra the desert throbbed and shimmered in the growing and great heats. Worst of all, we missed the dates. The fresh dates are the one solace of Mesopotamia. My campaigning recollections are embittered by this memory, that both my two date-seasons were spent up the line, at Sannaiyat and Samarra, where dates never came. Till mid-May the nights remained cool. Mesopotamia’s extremes are amazing. After a day intolerable as I have found very few days in India will come a night, not close and sleepless as an Indian night, but cool, even cold. In the April fighting we found the nights bitter. So May gave us a fortnight of tolerable nights ; but then fire settled on the land. The flies all died. But the infantry had an elaborate trench-system to dig, so they were not able to die. The ground was solid gypsum.
Changes happened. Generals Peebles and Davies went to India on leave. The enemy’s Intelligence Department, alert as ever, noted the fact, and gave it out that our losses in the Istabulat battles were even heavier than they had supposed at first, for two generals had left the front, casualties. Such a statement was twice blessed : it cheered the enemy, and cheered us also. In my own brigade Thorpe became staff-captain, in place of Weir, who went home. To all the Leicestershires, and to me especially, Thorpe’s going was a heavy loss. I could have better spared a better man.’ I must henceforth botanize alone. No longer could he teach young subalterns to practise music ‘in the Socratic sense, that the best music was philosophyto be repaid with their affectionate regard as ‘ Daddy.’ He wrote to me, a month after his going, that he was becoming as ‘ great a horseman as John Wesley ‘ ; and he lost weight during that summer. He lost a good deal his first week, and in this manner. The Bishop of Nagpur was due to visit us, and all who had subscribed their religion officially as C. of E.’ were commanded to brighten belts and buttons for a service parade on Wednesday at 6 ak. emma. The parade was held, every one arriving, of course, considerably before the hour. The Divisional General was there, and many generals and colonels ; in fact, every Anglican of note, except Thorpe, who sent word, about 6.3o, that he had made a mistake, and the service was to be next clay, Thursday, at the same hour. At this announcement a wave of uncontrollable grief swept over the vast assembly, and for some days Thorpe was a fugitive. But he returned to normal courses, and in time even this witty inauguration of his reign was forgiven. But I had many inquiries as to the tenets of Wesleyanism.
For me, I went sick ; recovered ; and went sick again, drifting down-stream, and to India. But first Thornhill, Bracken the machine-gunner, and I explored Al-Ajik.
Once upon a time the river had washed the foot of Al-Ajik ridge. But now a long stretch of dead ground intervenes before water is reached. Local legend says a lady lived here who played Hero to a Leander on the opposite bank. More obviously, Al-Ajik castle guarded Samarra from the north. The castle is on steep crags, with vast nullas in front. In the old days it should have been impregnable. Underneath are very large vaults, filled with rubbish. As our exploring party came up a pair of hawks left their eyrie, and circled round us, screaming their indignation. When the division first reached Al-Ajik, Thornhill said, a pair of Egyptian vultures (Pharaoh’s Chickens) were nesting here. These had gone. They are rare birds in Mesopotamia, and I never saw them north of Sheikh Saad. Thornhill had seen Brahminy Duck in a nulla, so we searched till we found a tunnel. Bracken leading, we got in some hundred yards, stooping and striking matches, till we came on a heap of bones. Thornhill surmised a hyena, so we returned, as no one wished to fight even that, unarmed and in a diameter of less than five feet. There must be many tunnels leading into the heart of Al-Ajik fortress ; and here, as everywhere on the plateau, were remains of the most complicated irrigation system the ancient world knew. The castle, as it stands, has been largely built out of the ruined portions on its northern face.
Life was scant at Samarra, as poor as it had been abundant at Sannaivat. The crested larks were of a new species. Owls nested in the old wells ; and most units were presently owning their owlets or kestrels or speckled kingfishers, miserable-looking birds. Sandgrouse were few, but commoner towards the central plateau, where were water-holes. Gazelles
were often seen by pickets, and used to break across the railway-line, to water at the river. One regiment took a Lewis-gun after them, and other folk chased them in motor-cars. The British army, as ever, busied itself, as opportunity came, in its self-appointed task of simplifying the country’s fauna that the naturalist’s work might be easier. Wherefore the gazelles left our precincts, but still haunted the channels of the Dujail, by Beled and Istabulat. For most of the year the water-holes sufficed them, the green, velvet dips, with zizyph-bushes fringing each hollow, which redeem the desert. Hedgehog quills and skins were common, as everywhere in Mesopotamia. A vast hedgehog led C Company of the Leicestershires nightly to their picket-stations. On its first appearance a man ran to bayonet it, but the officer did not see the necessity of this, and stopped him. So the urchin lived, and ever after paced gravely before its friends. Then we had the usual birds. Storks nested in the town ; there were rollers and kingfishers, and a hawk or two. But the desert, with its starved crop of dwarf thorns, had no place for bird or animal. Men who saw Samarra after my time raved of its winter glory, its irises, its grass knee-high, its splendid anemones. But in summer the land lay desolate. Nothing abounded but scorpions, mantidae, and grasshoppers.
And nothing happened but the heat. In July, in ghastly heat, men were expected to take Ramadie. They failed, most of their heavy casualties being from heat-stroke. But that was the Connaught Rangers and a Euphrates affair. At Samarra we experienced nothing more dangerous than Fritz’s 1 visits. Once or twice he bombed the station. When the railway began running, there were two accidental derailments, in the second of which several men were killed and General Maude had a narrow escape. By Sumaikchah a British officer and his Indian escort were waylaid and murdered. The murderers were outlawed ; but a year later the first on our list of the whole gang walked back into occupied territory and was taken and hanged, despite the wish of the Politicals to spare him. Of all these events, such as they were, we heard from Barron` the bold, bad Barron,’ who left the Leicestershires to take up ‘ important railway duties ‘ pending the renewal of fighting.
These matters are dull enough ; but no recital can be so dull as the times were, and we had to live through them. At Samarra the division worked unmolested through the awful heats, digging the hard ground, cutting avenues for machine-gun fire, making strong points. Wilson had gone, but he had an adequate successor in Haigh. Thanks to him, the Leicestershires established the singular fact that Samarra is the healthiest spot in the world. One man died, in place of the dreadful sequence of deaths a year before at Sannaiyat. The division’s daily sick-rate was .9 a thousand ! The Leicester-shires and the Indian battalions did even better. And yet we spent the summer in a place where fresh vegetables were unprocurable, except a most inadequate supply of melons and (rarely) beans. Djinns scoured the plain, and at any hour of any day half a score of ‘ dust-devils ‘ could be seen racing or sweeping majestically along each djinn seemed to make his own wind and choose his own pacenow towering to a height of several hundred feet, with vast, swirling base, and now trailing a tenuous mist across a nulla. Our few hens ran panting into the tents, ejected at one door, only to enter at another. And yet, as I have said, only one man died–with the battalion, that isand ridiculously few went sick. But by Colonel Knatchbull’s death in Baghdad the battalion lost its commander, and the division a very fine soldier. Wounded at Sheikh Saad in January, 1916, he had returned in time for the three railhead battles. He struggled on with sickness, refusing to contemplate a second leave to India, and died at midsummer.
The worst of the heats I escaped. After a spell in Beit Na’ama, the delightful estuary-side officers’ hospital, a tangle of citron and fig-groves, with vines making cool roofs, and with the Shat-el-Arab flowing by, I was discharged. Feeling more wretched than ever, I lingered on at Busra in the poisonous billets, filthy Arab houses, named by their present occupants Flea Villa,’ Bug Cottage,’
Muddy View ‘ (this would be for winter ; the world nowhere else holds such mud as Busra mud). Busra is hateful beyond words ; any place up the line is preferable, except perhaps Twin Canals 1 and Beled. I was to be returned to duty ‘ in due course ‘ ; but the Transport authorities were never in a hurry. It was like being slowly baked in a brick oven. I had spent ten days so, with no prospect of being given a boat up-stream, when some one told General Fane, the O.C. 7th Division, that I had been very sick and was waiting to get back to duty. He said, Nonsense,’ and sent a wire direct to G.H.Q., insisting that I be given a month’s leave in India. I got it immediately. But for this action, leave could not have come my way. No division ever had a kinder O.C. than Fane. He knew every one, and was constantly doing thoughtful acts such as this.
India, when it found time to give thought to Mesopotamia, chattered of the tremendous Turco-German offensive which was to sweep down from Mosul in the autumn. When I returned, at the end of August, all down the line I found excitement. Only at Samarra itself was quiet and ease of mind, where old comrades greeted me joyously and introduced new-corners. There was Fergusson, reputed to have half a century of ranching and horse-dealing in the Argentine ; Forty-nine,’ said Fowke, in a delighted whisper, assessing his age. (As a matter of fact, Fergusson’s years were forty-one.) There was Ezra ‘ (‘ Likewise Beetle,’ interpolated Fowke), who had arrived the day I went sick. ‘ Ezra,’ who signed his name as Mason, and was brother of Kenneth Mason, engineer and archaeologist, got his nickname from a supposed modelling of his bald dome upon Ezra’s Tomb, by Q’urna. Keely, classical scholar and philosopher, was standing outside his tent, pondering, as I came up to rejoin the battalion. He called me up, and asked me earnestly what girl from Greek literature I should like to have known, even to have had as companion on the Thames at Richmond. ‘ Nausicaa,’ I said. ‘ Every time,’ agreed Keely, brightening up as if a heavy load had been lifted from his mind, and begged me to have a drink in her honour. Bale and Charles Copeman were away, by Al-Ajik; in the nearest E.P. tent to Constantinople,’ G.A. said. Of our wounded, only G.A. was back. Warren came later ; Westlake remained in India.
Some surprise was expressed that I had returned at all. This was Thorpe’s doing. To explain, I must go back a little. I knew Thorpe years before the war. We met again in Sannaiyat trenches. His messmates, who desired to know more of Thorpe’s old life, asked me how we met first. ‘ I was chaplain of a jail at Peterborough,’ I replied. The statement was received at once ; the only head on which further light was sought was as to the number of years that were deducted from his sentence for service in Mesopotamia.. (Convicts from India who came out in the Labour Corps to Mesopotamia were remitted ten years.) Now, during my Indian leave, an old friend found me out and took me to spend the last days of my Darjiling visit with him. He was, among other things, superintendent of the prison. I carelessly wrote to Thorpe on a sheet of paper with the printed heading ‘ Jail-house, Darjiling.’ Thorpe spent July and August in taking this sheet round from mess to mess. He blackened my reputation, and opened up a field of speculation as to the reason of my incarceration. ‘ No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped from the sea ‘from Mesopotamia, say’ yet Justice hath not suffered to live.’ He considered that he was level with me for my Peterborough jail-jape, and was much cheered.
It took the best part of September to get upstream and back to Samarra. When the boat reached Busra, scores of men were prostrate on the deck from heat-stroke and exhaustion. In the Gulf I had a funeral. I tried to skip to the finish of the service, with the page shimmering and jumping before me, but had to hand the book to the captain as I reeled down. He threw the body over, and every one flew up-deck. Later, on the up-stream trip, we realized the fact on which all Mesopotamia agreed, that for sheer horror the deck of a P-boat’ is unrivalled. Possibly it is due to the glare from the water, but our daily temperatures of between 115° and 125° in the shade seemed a hundredfold higher than they were. Just below but we were held up for several days in a camp ; not even Sheikh Saad in the old, bad days was more cursed with sandflies.
I had for companion on board Kenneth Mason, engineer and archaeologist. We passed Sannaiyat and the winding reaches where every earth-scar and mound had a history. Here the Turk had blown up the ammunition barges, and for hundreds of yards inland the ground was still strewn with twisted scrap-iron ; here he had set his 5.9’s on the balloon, and the evening fishing had been interrupted ; here used to be the advanced dressing-station in the times of trench warfare ; here was Left Bank Group, where our guns had been, the tamarisk thickets and wheeling harriers, and the old shell-holes on the beach. Those crumbling sandbanks were Mason’s Mounds, and those were Crofton’s 0. Pip. ‘ Here were Abu Roman Mounds, and here the lines of Nakhailat or Suwada ; here were the Beit Aiessa defences ; here those of Abdul Hassan and E Mounds. It was on that angle that the Julnar grounded in that despairing, impossible attempt to run the blockade and bring food to Townshend’s men. It was in that scrub that the Turks and H.L.I. crashed when both sides launched a simultaneous attack.
We passed Kut. The river was low, and the people were growing lettuce, while they might, on the dried sandbanks. The town front against the palms showed its shell-holes and caverns, and we remembered how we used to see the city, from Dujaileh Redoubt, rising up like a green promontory. From Townshend’s first battle there to the day when the 7th Division occupied the lines of Suwada, Kut cost us not less in battle casualties than sixty thousand men. One makes no computation of the dead in the old cholera camps by Abu Roman, or in a score of cemeteries from Sannaiyat and Es-Sinn to Bombay, who perished in that time when the shark-tracked ships went down To Bombay Town.
Kut will be a place of pilgrimage, and deserves to be, even among the many shrines of this war. From Sheikh Saad to Shumran is one graveyard and battlefield, a stretch of thirty miles, where over twenty pitched battles took place, many being British defeats. At Kut itself Townshend’s old trenches can be traced ; and in the town are broken buildings, and, to eastward, the monument erected by the Turks. Across the river is the Highland Light Infantry.
Shat-el-Hai and its complicated and costly battlefields, and the relics of the famous liquorice factory which Townshend held, and which we took, in 1917, almost last of all. At Shumran, above the town, is the place of the great crossing. And on the ribs of sand, when water is low, are liquorice-stacks and lettuce-beds.
The mud-strips green with lettuce, red with stacks Of liquorice ; shattered walls, and gaping caves : Beyond, the shifting sands ; the jackal’s tracks ; The dirging wind ; the wilderness of graves.
The evening of September 13, the lofty Arch of Ctesiphon showed for hours as we toiled along the winding reaches ; in the first gold and chill winds of dawn on the 14th we watched it recede. On the 18th I reached Beled, ‘ The Home of the Devil,’ as the Arabs call it, where the Manchesters dragged out a panting existence, battling with dust-storms. In the station I was shocked to see what vandalism had been at work. The broken glass had been cleared away ; in the tin shed where we had drunk tea amid the flying shrapnel on that Easter evening new panes had been put in ; the water-tower had been replaced. With dusk I reached Samarra, and set Keely’s mind at rest on the Greek girl question.
Through October Fritz came daily, photographing. The sole rays in a dreary protraction of existence were afforded by the Intelligence Summaries, run by Captain Lang, a versatile and popular humorist. Deserters reported that at a certain place the enemy’s staff consisted of only one lame Turk and one powerful Christian.’ The `powerful
Christian’ had to do all the work, and was preparing for a hegira to our lines. Then we had exchanged prisoners recently, sending back eight wounded men, one having but one leg. On reaching the Turco lines, when we offered to give these wounded a further lift of some miles, the offer was accepted with cringing gratitude.
Intelligence ‘ surmised that these wounded might have to walk to Mosul, another hundred and forty miles, and went into reverie on the situation’s possibilities. If the one-legged man has any influential friends in Constantinople, we may expect to hear shortly of a Turkish Commission in Iraq.’ That was the time when the Report of the Mesopotamian Commission came out. Though a revelation in England, it did not excite us, who knew its facts long before. Then letters from the enemy G.H.Q. to General Maude had had his name and address printed on the envelope. This,
Intelligence ‘ thought, was sheer, outstanding swank, to show us that the Turks had at least one lithograph.
Late in September our second attempt on Ramadie met with complete success, when General Brooking captured the nucleus of a projected offensive against us. We by Tigris rejoiced, knowing, too, that our task, when it came, would be the easier.
The ist Guides joined the division in place of the Bo-Peeps.’ The brigades went out on reconnaissance frequently. September 25 saw one of these shows, which included a sham fight. The day was very hot, and Haigh’s stretcher-bearers complained of the inconsiderate conduct of the thirty-one casualties.’ Unfortunately there were no dead among them.’ However, as one S.B. added, fortunately a good many died of wounds.’ The died of wounds ‘ were formed into platoons, and marched off the field of action.
The stretcher-bearer who made the remark about the died of wounds ‘ was a particular friend of mine, who had a great gift of happy phrasing, illustrated in the words I have quoted. Once we had a long talk about the old battles, and, speaking of a common friend who had been killed, he observed, I do think it dreadful, his being killed like thatkilled outright.’ I never got at his notion of what made a cushy death ; probably something Mexican or early mediaeval.
Through October my diary notes little but services and a terrible lecture on Mesopotamian history, which, from first to last, I delivered over fifty times. Latterly envious tongues alleged that I had to ask units for a parade when I gave this lecture. But those who said this lied saucily and shamelessly.