Tekrit

WE moved off, footsore. Mention of the cold must have become monotonous. But this night’s cold touched a sharper nerve of agony than any before. Our ‘ rest ‘ came, by a refinement of cruelty, not immediately before dawn, but between 2.30 and 4.30 a.m. We were then on bleak uplands, swept by arctic winds. In Baghdad winter is a time of frost ; and we were far north of Baghdad. No men lay down ; very few even stood still. The majority used the two hours of ‘ rest ‘ in running to and fro, and it was with immense thankfulness that we took up our trudge once more.

This time there was no question of surprise. Morning found us on a vast plain, set with yellow-berried jujube-bushes and low scrub. Shortly after 6 a.m. the enemy began shelling our transport, which accordingly moved out of range. My brigade fell slightly back, in conformity. Captain McIntyre, in a gloomy mood perhaps due to the freezing night just finished, prophesied that we should get the heavy stuff ‘ and the overs ‘ when once the enemy gunners got their nefarious game fairly going. Everything was bustle. Signallers set up their posts, Head Quarters were established, caterpillars crawled up with their heavy guns. Lieutenant-General Cobbe, the First Corps commander, was controlling operations. Fritz also seemed interested. He came over twice, very low and very hurriedly, but did no bombing. His second visit was followed by half a dozen crumps, from the 5.9′s, for our 6-inch guns.

This whole campaign had come very suddenly. Corps, I was told, were ignorant up to almost the day of our starting out from Samarra. Staff-captains and quartermasters received orders at the eleventh hour for transport arrangements. The campaign was a tour de force, everything being sacrificed to rations and water. A stream of Fords ran night and day between the troops and Samarra.

My brigade had a day of inaction, being moved up from time to time, and momentarily expecting to be sent in. The 21st Brigade had moved up the left bank, meeting with no opposition. Their part was enfilade gunfire. Our old colleagues, the 8th Brigade (from the 3rd Lahore Division), and the 19th Brigade attacked. The battle was largely one of gunfire. For such an exhibition Guy Fawkes’ Day had been fitly chosen.

Tekrit was one of the Turk’s best battles in the class of which he is such a master, the rearguard action. Our air men reported that, from our arrival, his troops and transport were flowing away steadily. His lines were held by artillery and machine-guns, fearlessly worked to the last minute of safety. Our cavalry operated on the left. It was here the action broke down. At this point there was only one line of trenches against us, and many think the 28th Brigade should have been sent in. Had this been done, the enemy right would have been forced back, and his troops pinned to the river, with large captures of men and guns as result. But the 28th Brigade were kept out, because of a cavalry mistake. The latter’s orders were to drop one brigade on the flank, and then push through to the river, behind the enemy. Then the 28th Brigade were to go in, and, when they had cleared the Turks out of their entrenchments, the cavalry were to collect the prisoners. But, instead, the cavalry, after dropping a brigade to watch the flank, waited, and finally did a very gallant but useless charge.

The terrain was extremely difficult. Almost the first thing the assaulting forces had to do was to cross a nulla sixty feet deep and a quarter of a mile wide, commanded by machine-guns, and searched with shrapnel. Later, when my own brigade moved up in support, we crossed this nulla. The toilsome going over slipping shingle was like Satan’s painful steps on the burning marl, not like those steps On Heaven’s azure, and the torrid clime Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with fire.

The story of this day belongs to the 8th and 19th Brigades. My own were spectators only ; deeply interested, and our own fate might at any moment become involved, but harassed with heat and flies and the unspeakable boredom born of long warfare, which even a battle can disperse only in part. Stories filtered through of the heroic work of the Seaforths and Manchesters and of the 47th and 59th Sikhs. Report persisted that the Seaforths’ head quarters had been knocked out by a direct hit, with twelve casualties, and that their regimental sergeant-major (Sutherland) was killed. This rumour was partly true, but a little exaggerated. Their colonel (Reginald Schomberg) was wounded, and their adjutant (McRae). This was the McRae who had fought the Turks with his naked fists at Sheikh Saad in January, 1916, and who rose from sergeant-major to Lieutenant-Colonel, with D.S.O. and Bar. Sutherland was not killed, but wounded. Lee, the Seaforths’ padre, kept up the tradition set by Dr. Ewing, that unsubduable old Roman ‘ whose white locks had waved through so many battles, till he was wounded at the forcing of Baghdad. Burn, the one Seaforths’ officer killed, out of twelve hit, was struck close behind Lee. Milne and Baldry were killed among the Manchesters’ officers.

From 10:30 to 11 a.m. was a time of artillery preparation. Fritz drifted restlessly about ; our own planes were busy ; klaxons sounded ; messages were dropped. According to information, opposite us the Turkish 51st and 52nd Divisions were unsupported. Both were old foes of Sannaiyat days. By 11.30 the enemy’s first two lines were taken by direct assault. At 3 p.m. my own brigade moved two miles closer in, on the left. It was a costly business, pushing the enemy back by frontal attack just where he was strongest in every way. Long lines of our wounded passed us, with a few Turkish prisoners. The day was as intolerably hot as the night had been cold. By four o’clock the Turk had got most of his heavier guns back.

We were shelling a small mosque, which he was using as an O.P. The 6-inches registered a hit, which sent up a white cloud of dust and powder. Every one was hopeful. The cavalry and lambs ‘ were said to be right round the enemy’s flank, and some thousands of prisoners were regarded as certain. Captain Henderson, the Diggins of the Manchesters, was rumoured to have taken three guns. At 4.30 the 21st Brigade launched an effective enfilade on the enemy’s transport from across the river ; the two attacking brigades went in again ; the cavalry charged across the Turks’ right trenches. We of the 28th could watch it all with the naked eye, the one confusion being sometimes as to whether it was Turks scurrying away or Seaforths going in. But we saw the Seaforths’ magnificent charge. Unfortunately most of the crumps which we took to be among a Turkish counter-attack were among our own men, who at one time ran into their own barrage. Their line swept forward, irresistible as always. In later days, in Palestine, when a despatch praised various miscellaneous troops who had been in their first actions and done not too badly, some one was foolish enough to express surprise that the Seaforths were not mentioned by name. I should consider it an insult,’ said their colonel, if any one thought it worth mentioning that my regiment had done what they were told to do. We take some things for granted.’ At Tekrit Schomberg, though already wounded, led his men in person. He was scholar and Christian ; the bravest of the brave,’ yet a lover of all fair things.

As the Turks ran from their trenches our machine-guns cut them up. Rumour now grew positive that we had the enemy hemmed against the river. Evening closed with a deal of desultory gunfire, which continued spasmodically all night. My brigade went to rest, in anticipation of a renewal of battle next dawn, when our turn would be due. The ambulances had worked nobly all day, cars sweeping up to well within shell-range ; and all night long stretcher-bearer parties were busy. Their work was superintended by Captain Godson, whose M.C. was well earned.

Tekrit cost us about two thousand casualties. Many of the wounded collected in the 19 C.C.S. at Samarra had been wounded by aeroplane bombs.

Next morning our orders of the previous night were confirmed. The enemy were supposed to be holding the kilns ‘ (actually these were tombs) behind Tekrit. The 28th Brigade were to go through the 8th and 19th Brigades, and drive them out. We were very doubtful of their being there. However, we went forward in the usual artillery formation. Every house in Tekrit had a white flag. This was the place where Townshencl’s men were spat on as they limped through it, prisoners. Nevertheless there was the same surprising display of fairly clean linen to which the villages before Baghdad had treated us eight months previously, and the Arabs were most anxious for us to realize how extremely friendly their sentiments were. •

We went forward, but found the Turks had gone. There were trump-holes everywhere ; the amount of our shrapnel lying about, wasted, would have broken a Chancellor of the Exchequer’s heart. Parts of the spaces between the Turkish successive lines were just contiguous craters. But there had been disappointingly few direct hits on trenches. The cemetery, hard by, possessed one or two craters also. The enemy had left abundant live shells, shell-cases, cartridge-cases. But there were very few dead. I saw only two ; and a few places where the parapet had been pulled in for a hasty burial. The old question was raised, Did the Turk dig graves beforehand, against an action, to hide his losses ? If he did, one can imagine few more effective ways of putting heart into his troops than by detailing them for such a job. I heard that the Seaforths buried sixty Turks. But their losses were certainly far less than ours. We took a hundred and fifty-seven prisoners. Corps claimed that evidence collected after the battle showed that the enemy losses for the three actions of Daur, Aujeh,Tekrit, were at least fifteen hundred. The Infantry, who had not access to Corps’ means of information, assessed them much lower. Myself, I think eight hundred would be nearer the mark.

There were great heaps of cartridge-cases, at intervals of fifty yards, along the trenches, where machine-gunners had clearly been. The spaces between showed little sign of having been held. From the Turk’s point of view, Tekrit was as satisfactory a battle almost as, from our point of view, it was unsatisfactory. His gunners and machine-gunners fought with very great skill and coolness, withdrawing late and rapidly ; hence the great dumps of shell-ammunition which were our only booty. We should have got the whole force. But no sufficient barrage was kept up on the lines of retreat during the night ; the cavalry’s service, though gallant, was ineffective ; the 28th Brigade were not used at the one point where they might have done the enemy much harm ; and Head Quarters were too far back. The Turks got every gun and machine-gun away. We captured a hundred boxes of field-gun ammunition, four hundred rifles, five thousand wooden beams, gun-limbers, boats, bridging material, buoys, two aeroplanes (one utterly broken up by the enemy, the other repairable), and a box of propellers, all serviceable. The enemy blew up three ammunition dumps before retreating.

Fowke had dragged through the campaign with a crocked knee. He now went into hospital. There J. Y., who always anxiously haunted all battle-purlieus, fearing for the regiment he loved so well, found him ; and, since he was not ill, obtained permission to feed him with some of the battalion’s Christmas pudding, just arrived. He refreshed him, too, with Kirin beer. Thus J. Y.’s last glimpse of him—for Fowke did not return to the battalion —was a happy one.

These days were very wretched. Turkish camps are unbelievably filthy ; and flies swarmed on the battlefield. We salvaged some miles up beyond Tekrit, with the results already stated. One of the two captured planes was a recovered one of our own, with the enemy black painted over our sign. We had a lot of very enjoyable destruction, including that of the musketry school and barracks, four miles away.

Tekrit’s chief fame is that Saladin was born just outside it. But it was also an early Christian centre ; the town wall is said to be partly the old monastery wall. The town is built on cliffs, which tower very steeply above the Tigris. The inhabitants were keen on trade, taking anything ‘ not too hot or too heavy ‘ ; but were unpleasant and exorbitant beyond any Arabs, even of Mesopotamia.

We now held both the Tigris and the Euphrates ends of the caravan route to Hit. G.A. opined that we should drive the enemy in from both ends, till both British forces were shelling each other. However, the Turk ran some seventy miles farther; and our planes did great bombing raids on their camp in the Jebel Hamrin, having the joy of using some of the enemy’s ow n bombs.

On the 8th I got a lift back to Samarra on a Ford, for the purpose of sending up food and comforts to the battalion. This kindly purpose was never fulfilled. I went sick, but had more sense than to go to hospital this time ; and the troops returned from Tekrit. The Leicestershires on route put up a large hyena, but failed to run him clown. My premature return became a famous taunt.

He deserted,’ Diggins would say when foiled in fair argument ; deserted from Tekrit, deserted in face of the enemy.’

The troops were back at Samarra by the 13th. ! ‘ Busra surmised, ‘they’ve had a bad knock. ” Withdrawn on account of difficulty of communications.” We know that story.’ It was as after the April fighting, when the wildest distortions were believed down the line, and when I was asked in confidence by an officer formerly with the Leicestershires if it was true that his old regiment had lost eighteen of our own guns.

Nearly every one was seedy for a while, with chills on the stomach and sore feet ; and a great wave of depression passed over the division. We would have made any effort to hold Tekrit after our toil and losses. But the Fords were needed for another front. So Johnny, after a time, was able to creep cautiously back, to the extent of cavalry patrols at Daur and Tekrit.