I - "Wilkey"
II - The Children Of Kanee
III - An Amphibious Engagement
IV - The Taking Of Nasiriyah
V - The Man And The Axe
VI - The Retreat From Ctesiphon
VII - A Forlorn Hope
VIII - The Dawn Of A New Era
IX - The Art Of Diplomacy
X - Unmixed Bathing
The Forward Observing Officer
XII - A Mesopotamian Picnic
XIII - A Lower Deck Episode
XIV - The Ordeal Of Lochinvar
XV - Knights Errant
LIST OF MAPS
1. Lower Mesopotamia
2. Sketch Map of The Tigris North Of Kurnah
3. Sketch Map of The Euphrates; Nasiriyah To Chabaish
4. Sketch Map of The Tigris: Kut-Al-Amarah To Sheikh Saad
I - "WILKEY"
Frederick J. G. M. Elkes, R.N.R., killed in action on
December 7, 1914, at the taking of Kurnah.)
I THINK he was the only incurable optimist
I have ever met. When he went sick we all used to throng into his cabin (it was
the Captain's deck cabin, to which he was removed for the sake of fresh air),
and the sick man used to cheer us up in his own inimitable way. It was like a
bracing tonic to see his funny old face and hear him talk broad Lancashire.
There was a photograph in his cabin of two bonny little girls with twinkling
eyes, and he used to tell me about them; and when I told him that it was easy
to see whence they inherited those eyes, his own would give just that identical
twinkle. Like all brave men, Wilkey was very simple
and very human.
We all called him Wilkey,
but whether the name was merely an amplification of his real name, or whether
it referred to a well-known popular comedian, is more than I can say. He held
two medals for life-saving, as I found out by (for Wilkey
never said much about himself); also he was a remarkably good shot with a
Service revolver. If there was any kind of sport or fun to be had anywhere,
Wilkey was always right on the spot. Above all, he was an
incurable optimist. I believe that if he had fallen from a royal-yard he would
have thrown a smile to anyone who happened to be in the foretop as he passed,
and would have sung out, "Ah'm all right so far."
At Gib. the doctors declared that he had
appendicitis, and insisted on sending him to hospital; but three or four weeks
later he fetched up at Aden in a P. and O., and found us there tinkering up
some engine-room trouble. When at last we reached the bar of the Shatt-al-Arab,
and learned that we were to start a campaign in Mesopotamia, Wilkey was in a state of gleeful excitement, especially on
hearing that he was to take command of an armed launch. Of course we called it
H.M.S. Wilkey, but it turned out to be a clumsy
little craft, and its engines were constantly refusing duty. Wilkey, nothing daunted, declared that
"if the bally old pa-acket wouldn't steam by
herself, he would get somebody to tow him into action." He got her into
the river somehow or other, but it so happened that there was no action just
then, because one of our sloops silenced the guns of the Turkish battery and
put all the Turks to flight, so that our troops were landed without a casualty
or scrap of any kind. The capture of Busrah followed
shortly afterwards and Wilkey was transferred to the
command of another armed launch called the Shaitan,
and the original H.M.S. Wilkey was put out of
commission. He came back to the old ship at the bar for a day or two during the
transfer, and before he left again for the river he called me into his cabin,
handed me his keys, and asked me to take charge of his possessions. "If
anything should ha-appen to me," he said, "joost
send them all to the missus." And so I said good-bye to Wilkey.
It was on December 3, 1914, that the sloops
and armed launches left Busrah and steamed upstream
to a position about ten miles below Kurnah. Next morning
early they proceeded as far as the junction of the Shwaib
and Shatt-al-Arab, about three miles south of Kurnah,
and found the Turks entrenched in a long line from the village of
Mazeerah to the left bank of the river. Our troops landed
north of the Shwaib, and under cover of the naval
artillery and two R.F.A. guns mounted in stern-wheelers they advanced towards
the enemy's trenches. It was a slow business, for there was not an inch of
cover on that flat open plain, and the Turk was sticking like a leech to his
trenches; but at last he found it was getting too hot for him, and by one
o'clock in the afternoon he had skipped back out of it. Then came the turn of
the armed launches. There were only three of them - Lewis Pelly, Miner, and
Shaitan but when they received the order to go upstream and
shell the enemy's positions at Kurnah, the joy of
battle entered their souls, and they went forging on until they got within 800
yards of the Turkish guns. Now, the Turk has a little way of pretending that he
is not there, and of letting you come up quite close to him, and of then
informing you, without any preliminary, that he is very much there all the
time. If his gunnery in those days had been anything to write home about, there
would have been no armed launches left; and as it was, they found their
position quite uncomfortably warm. The sloops were round a bend of the river
and could not see the Turkish guns, so the gallant little trio had to face the
music all by themselves. It was not long before the Miner got a shell into her
engine-room at the water-line, and the water followed
it through the hole. Stoker Petty Officer Arthur Jones stopped one piece of
shell with his back and another with his head, and Stoker Douglas
Lacey, R.N.R., became troubled in his mind about him and
about the cascade which was flooding the engine-room
deck. But Jones just said: "Never you mind about me. We're here to keep
steam in this bloomin' boiler. That's our job. And we just carry on with it as
long as the blankety old packet stops afloat. See,
mate?" So they carried on. That is why the Captain of the Miner was able
to take his packet down-river and run her on the mud, so saving her from
sinking. That night the engineers from the sloops patched up the hole, and next
day the Miner (Lieutenant Cuthbert E. Heath-Caldwell, R.N., in command), serene
and smiling, said she was ready for some more whenever they liked.
Meanwhile the other two went on plugging
away until the General sent word that he must wait for reinforcements before he
could proceed any farther, and then the armed launches were recalled.
Wilkey appeared that evening in the Odin's mess with a face
like a map of Polynesia. It was peppered all over with little bits of shell,
which had just penetrated the skin and lodged beneath it. The doctor was for
digging them out at once, but Wilkey was for a
whisky-and-soda. "My fa-ace," he explained,
"was never very mooch to look at. So ah'm not
worrying about it." That was on the evening of the 4th, and for the next
two days there was a lull in the operations while reinforcements were being
brought up from Busrah.
On Monday, December 7, 1914, the programme
opened with an overture by the sloops and armed launches, which advanced
upstream about a mile, and shelled the enemy's guns at Kurnah
and his trenches on the left bank of the river. Under cover of this bombardment
our troops began to advance, the plan being to clear the Turks from the left
bank, cross the Tigris about three miles above Kurnah,
which lies on the right bank, and then attack from north and south
simultaneously. By two o'clock in the afternoon the first part of the programme
was completed; the trenches were carried and the Turks driven back to their
second line. It was at this juncture that the armed launches were sent up to
assist the troops, and to cover their left flank from snipers or any hostile
force, which might be lurking in the palm groves on the right bank below
Kurnah. Now, things that float differ from things that
crawl in that they cannot hide themselves in a hole. While Tommy was making
himself fairly comfortable in the abandoned Turkish trenches, Jack afloat on
the water was thinking to himself that no gunner could ever hope for a better
target than he presented. As for the Turk, he played his old game of
Brer Rabbit, laying low, until the
three launches came nicely round the bend into a direct line of fire. And then
he let drive.
Wilkey was standing on the bridge of the Shaitan; beside him at the wheel was Chief Petty Officer
Thomas Trenwith, and beside Trenwith
stood Mr. George Pysey, who was the skipper of the
Shaitan in the palmy days of
peace before ever the white ensign flew from her mast-head. "Let them
ha-ave it properly," Wilkey was saying to his
gun's crew below. "Keep on plooging away."
He watched the spurts of flame from the Turkish guns flash out with every
round, and in his ears was the shrill music of their shells shrieking all round
him. But he was not thinking of the Turkish shells. His eyes were glued to his
binoculars as he spotted the fall of each one of the Shaitan's
shells, and directed the gunlayer as to his range and
direction. "Eh, but that was a beauty!" he said; "you've got her
joost right now. Carry on. Let them ha-ave
it..." The sentence was unfinished. A shell hit the Shaitan's
wheel, ricocheted off it, and passed clean through his body. He died with the
joy of battle on his lips and in his heart. Chief Petty Officer
Trenwith was badly wounded; Mr Pysey
was stunned, and knew no more until he recovered consciousness enough to be
aware of something which lay huddled up on the deck beside him, and dreamily
wondered what it was. Meanwhile Petty Officer Walter Vale, who had been below
with the gun's crew, had realized at once that he was face to face with one of
those moments in a man's life when action must follow thought as thunder
follows lightning. In half a dozen strides he was on the bridge, in a fraction
of a second he understood that for the moment he was in command of the ship,
another fraction told him that the steering gear was hopelessly smashed, and a
flash of memory brought back to him an axiom of seamanship which he had learned
many years ago: When the steering gear is out of action, you can steer by the
engines, if she has twin screws. So he grasped the engine-room telegraph,
signalled "Starboard ahead and port astern," swung the ship round,
brought her downstream, and fetched her up alongside the Senior Naval Officer's
ship. There he stepped on board, saluted the S.N.O., and made his report in the
same sort of tone as if he were coxswain of a steam-pinnace reporting to the
Officer of the Watch that he had brought off the liberty men from the shore.
The cultivation of the emotions is one of the things we neglect in the Service.
Of the further events of that day and the
day following a brief summary will suffice to complete the story. By the
evening of the 7th our troops had cleared the left bank of the enemy, and next
morning they were seeking a favourable spot to cross the Tigris. Meanwhile
there was silence in the village of Kurnah, and the
belief gained ground that the Turks had fled up the river during the night, The
Lewis Pelly (Commanded by Lieutenant John F. B. Carslake,
R.N.) proceeded towards the village to reconnoitre, and reached within 400
yards of it before she was greeted with a heavy fire, which made her skip back
in haste according to her orders. There followed a mighty bombardment by the
sloops, and in the afternoon the Lewis Pelly tried her luck again. But the Turk
had not got tired of the Brer Rabbit trick, and the
ships had to shell the enemy heavily in order to cover her return. In the
evening the General announced that the crossing of the Tigris had been
effected, and that the troops on the other side were bivouacking for the night,
and would attack at daybreak next morning. About midnight a small steam-launch
was seen coming down from Kurnah with lights
ablazing brilliantly, and doing her best to attract
attention. In her were found three Turkish officers, who came under a flag of
truce to offer the formal surrender of Kurnah. On
December 9, 1914, the Union Jack was hoisted in the village, and
Subhi Bey, formerly
Vali of Busrah, with 35 officers
and 958 men, became prisoners of war.
Wilkey lies in the cemetery at Margin, about five
miles up-river from Busrah, and a monument has been
erected by his shipmates to him and to Ordinary Seaman Edward Gibson, who died
of wounds received in the same engagement. Of Wilkey
the official record says: "This Officer behaved with conspicuous gallantry
throughout the operations. He was an able Officer, and is a distinct
loss." The unofficial record must add that he was one who, keenly
revelling in the joy of life, had no fear of death. He was an incurable
optimist, and, if ever he turned his thoughts to the mysteries beyond the
grave, I know he must have found there a land full of hope and promise. In
Shelley's "Adonais" we may find the epitaph which best befits him:
"He is not dead, he does not sleep; He
has awakened from the dream of life: 'Tis we who, lost in stormy visions, keep with
phantoms an unprofitable strife."
II - THE CHILDREN OF KANEE
IT happened at the village of Kurnah, which lies at the junction of the Tigris and
Euphrates. Kurnah is never mentioned nowadays without
reference to the fact that local tradition has acclaimed it as the site of the
Garden of Eden, and the reputation of the Garden has consequently been dragged
through the mud by all the makers of mirth from Punch downwards. A more
uninspiring spot it would be difficult to conceive. On every side a flat
expanse of delta, which becomes a marsh in the flood season, and in the dry
season is little more than a desert with a fringe of palm-trees near the
river's edge, a scorching sun, plenty of dust, and plenty of mosquitoes. Such
is Kurnah, and whether or not it ever was the Garden
of Eden, at all events it was once an outpost of the British Empire; for at the
beginning of 1915 it was the northernmost limit of the British advance, and was
being held by a small garrison of English and Indian troops supported by the
guns of H.M.S. Thora. Some six miles higher up the
Tigris the Turks and their Arab allies were encamped with a fairly considerable
force, and were busily entrenching themselves and constructing gun emplacements
wherever they could find a dry stretch of ground. All the surrounding country
was in flood, and the work of the artillery, both British and Turkish, was
severely handicapped. The British, however, had an important advantage in the
possession of a flotilla of sloops and armed launches, whose artillery could be
moved up or down the rivers to any spot where it was required. This advantage
proved to be a determining factor in the early stages of the Mesopotamian
Against this naval force the Turks had
nothing more formidable to oppose than a river gunboat which
carried nine-pounder guns, and had always shown a remarkable agility in
skipping up the river whenever the British sloops hove in sight. If the Turks
could have found a means of supplementing their very inadequate naval strength,
the history of the Mesopotamian campaign would have been very different
reading, but the transportation of men-of-war from Constantinople to Baghdad is
no easy matter when all the sea-routes are held by the enemy.
Constantinople was forced to the conclusion that even in an inland campaign
seapower has an uncomfortable way of asserting itself, and
that when rivers and floods wash out all the ordinary rules of military
tactics, and drive the belligerents to a form of warfare that can only be
described as amphibious, sea-power represents the ace of trumps in the game.
The Turks were not slow to realize this, and were embarrassingly persistent in
the little attentions they paid to the British sloops. Having no guns to
outrange the Thora's guns, they tried other devices.
The earliest and most ridiculous entertainment was to creep downstream at night
in native canoes and bombard the ship with rifles at close range. This was
obviously futile, but it served to amuse the Arabs in the Turkish camp; for the
Arabs used to have a theory that if you hit a ship on the funnel you may pierce
its most vital organs, and make it an invalid for life. The next effort was the
kerosene tin filled with explosives, suspended from a plank and floated down
the river an ingenious device as far as it goes, but rather primitive for
twentieth century warfare. The main defect in it is that there is no guarantee
that the plank will float in the right direction, and, as a matter of fact, the
strong current invariably carries it to the bank within a very short distance.
Two attempts were made, and both failed; but as a result of them a boom defence
was constructed across the river, and by way of additional security the
Thora used to drop downstream every night below the pontoon
bridge at Kurnah. There followed a distinct lull in
the proceedings, and we had to wait patiently for the next effort.
One evening in March,
1915, there was a "kag" going on in the Thora's wardroom mess, where
some half-dozen officers were indulging in that most innocent of short drinks,
the "Pow de Souza." Let me explain that a "Pow
de Souza" is a slice of sour lime in a claret glass of soda-water, with a
suspicion of gin to flavour it, and a "kag" is a form of discussion
peculiar to the Navy, where everybody speaks at once, and no one pays the least
attention to what anyone else is saying. The theorem propounded by the
Navigator was that a certain well-known flag-officer belonged to the bulldog
breed. He did not lay it down as a theorem, of course, but as an axiom, which is
the orthodox way of initiating a "kag." And, of course, he did not
trouble himself with definitions, so that no one was quite clear as to the
meaning of "bulldog breed" as applied to an Admiral, and the
"kag" very nearly fell flat in consequence. But, fortunately, the
Paymaster came to the rescue by propounding another theorem all on his own. He
boldly stated that the bulldog breed had had its day, and that in
twentieth-century warfare brains were worth ten times as much as breed, bulldog
or otherwise. It is impossible to say what course the discussion took, because,
when five or six people are all talking simultaneously, the resultant sound is
about as intelligible as that of a bluebottle in a biscuit tin. During a
temporary lull in the turmoil a private of marines, told off as wardroom
officer's servant, announced that the soup was down from the galley, and all
the disputants disappeared into their cabins to clean themselves. This was the
usual procedure in the Thora; nobody ever thought of
getting ready for dinner until dinner was waiting to be eaten.
At the dinner-table
there were certain rules to be observed. "Kags" were allowed, but
they were conducted with a decorum and self-restraint almost worthy of the
House of Lords, and anything which savoured of
"shop" was interdicted. The mess rather prided itself on its
conversational powers, which could cope with such subjects as shoes, and
sealing-wax, and cabbages, and Kings. (Ships were usually
barred under the classification of "shop.") The Navigator could
always speak fluently on any subject under the sun, whether he knew anything
about it or not; the First Lieutenant had an extensive knowledge of history,
ancient and modern, a catholic taste in English literature, ranging from
"Chambers's Encyclopaedia" to the latest guidebooks of English
counties, and a passionate devotion to the works of Rudyard Kipling, Nathaniel
Hawthorne, and the author of "Gals' Gossip." The Sub was also of a
literary turn of mind, and dabbled in verse-making;
while the Paymaster could quote long passages from the English poets as well as
from the Odes of Horace (until he was smothered with a sofa cushion). The
Doctor, although he was by nature somewhat taciturn, used to stimulate the
conversation with a few well selected interjections, such as, "Just
think!" or "By Gosh!"
The claims of Kurnah
as the site of the Garden of Eden were under discussion, and the Book of
Genesis had been consulted as to the identity of the four rivers which flowed
from the Garden; and when the translation of the Authorized Version was
challenged the Revised Version was produced, and everyone had become satisfied
that the Garden was at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates. The
possibility that either or both of the rivers might have been diverted from the
courses which they followed in the days of Adam had just been mooted, when the
Paymaster was heard to be gently muttering to himself. The First Lieutenant
instinctively stretched out for a sofa cushion, but it so happened that the
Paymaster was not quoting Horace, but Kipling's "Conundrum of the
Workshop." He was saying:
"Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree
where the Four
Great Rivers flow, And
the wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it
long ago, And if we could come while the
sentries slept and softly
scurry through, By the favour of God we might
know as much as our
father Adam knew."
"Well, that wasn't much," said
"On the contrary," said the
Paymaster, "I believe that Adam was quite a sagacious old boy."
"But he knew absolutely nix until he
had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge."
"He lived a hundred and thirty
years," said the Paymaster impressively.
"Well, you must be getting on that
way, and you"
"Now you're condescending to
personalities," said the Paymaster.
"Well, what did he know?" asked
the Navigator with the air of one who has put a real poser.
"He knew the name of every beast of
the field and every fowl of the air."
know he did?"
"Because he named them himself."
"But I bet you he didn't remember them
all after he'd done it."
The Paymaster was not prepared to make a
definite assertion on this point, so he let the Navigator rattle on with a
string of statements which would appear absolutely irrelevant and disconnected,
unless you happen to know the Navigator. The only thing which checked the flow
of his eloquence was the fact that the dead-lights were screwed down in order
to darken ship, and in spite of two electric fans the atmosphere in the
wardroom was not conducive to protracted efforts in oratory. So the Navigator
paused to gasp, and the First Lieutenant struck in with:
"Now then, old Pay, let's have it.
What did our father Adam know besides the names of the birds and beasts?"
The Paymaster cleared his throat ominously.
"Once upon a time," he began,
"in the days of long ago, when the Earth was inhabited by a race of
"Is this Teutonic mythology?"
asked the Sub-Lieutenant suspiciously.
"No, it is not," said the
"What is it, then?" asked the
The Paymaster paused, and his eye kindled
with the light of cherished memories.
"I once knew a man," he said,
"who had a blazer specially made for him with all the crudest and most
startling colours he could think of, and across it he had emblazoned four
"What does that stand for?" asked
"That's just what everybody wanted to
know. For days he kept them guessing, and they tried every variety of boating
club, bicycling club, Badminton club, and bowling club. When they tired of
guessing, he told them M.O.B.C. stood for 'My Own Bally Colours.'"
"Excuse me, Pay," said the First
Lieutenant, "but can you explain to me what this has to do with the race
"Nothing, except that the race of
giants belongs to my own bally mythology."
"And now we have it. Go on."
"One of the giants was called Kanee, and he took a long journey to this very land of
"Where from?" asked the
"Now, look here," interposed the
First Lieutenant, "give the Pay a chance. You know that he never gets
through a yarn in less than half an hour under the most favourable conditions,
and by that time he has invariably forgotten the point."
"If there ever was one," added
"Go on, Pay... he took a long journey to
"And there he found the Eden
Tree," said the Paymaster.
"So he knew as much as old Adam,"
suggested the Navigator.
"What did you say was the name of this
worthy gentleman?" asked the First Lieutenant.
his name, and after he had found the Eden Tree he gained a sixth sense. People
now call it common sense, on account of its rarity; but of course they don't
know that it is a sixth sense, or that Kanee was the
first to possess it. After this he returned to his native land, where he begat
"By Gosh! Just think" said the
Doctor, who always liked to contribute his quota to the conversation. The
Paymaster was encouraged to conclude his narrative.
"And the children of Kanee settled in many parts of the world, but mostly in the
land to the north of the Tweed, and in Yorkshire and in Kent."
Middlesex?" asked the Sub, who was born there.
"There may be some even in Middlesex.
Anyhow, all the children of Kanee inherited this
sixth sense, and they alone possess it."
"What a bit of luck!" said the
Doctor, suddenly remembering another phrase in his repertoire.
"Well?" said the Navigator. "Is that all?"
"That's all," said the Paymaster.
"What a rotten yarn!"
A distant thunder broke through the still night
air the sound of artillery firing. A signalman presented himself at the
"Turks firing at Snipe Camp,
"Where are they firing from?"
"Can't say exactly where it is,
"Can you see the flashes of the
"I saw one, sir, on the port
"Out in that direction, sir."
"Can you see where the shells are
"No, sir; I think they must be falling
short somewhere the other side of the trees."
"Have you reported to the
"Yes, sir; he's on the bridge
The signalman withdrew. His report created
a mystery, for between Snipe Camp and Birbeck Ridge
there was a wide stretch of flooded land, and so far as was known the Turks had
no guns with long enough range to bridge the distance. It was hardly
conceivable that they would drag their guns all the way from their camp to
Birbeck Ridge to blaze at Snipe Camp, knowing that it was
beyond their range. The obvious inference was that they had procured some new
guns of larger calibre.
There was a little desultory conversation
on the subject, but it was too nearly akin to "shop" to arouse much
enthusiasm at that hour of the evening and the Navigator seized an early
opportunity of changing the subject.
"Well, Pay," he said, "you haven't explained the point of that yarn yet."
"It isn't a yarn," said the
Paymaster. "It's my own bally mythology."
"Just think!" said the Doctor.
"Perhaps it's allegorical,"
suggested the Sub.
"Fancy the Sub being able to say a
word like that at this hour of the evening," commented the First
"Quite a good effort," said the
"Well, just explain the allegory,
then," said the Navigator.
"You were talking just now" said the Paymaster, "about the bulldog breed,
and I was talking about the man who can think."
"But you aren't going to start it all
over again, are you?" asked the First Lieutenant apprehensively. Just at
this moment the Captain came into the wardroom.
"Number One," he said, "I'm
going up the river to-morrow to have a makey-look-see.
I fancy the Turks must have got hold of some new guns, or else they have
managed somehow to bring the old ones a good deal nearer than they have ever
"The signalman says their shells are
falling a good deal short, sir."
"Yes, but what can their little game be? They wouldn't be such fools as to drag those old guns of
course, they may be merely trying to shake us up a bit."
"It would be interesting to see what
sort of guns they have brought down there."
"I don't suppose they'll leave them
there; but, anyhow, I'm going to make a reconnaissance tomorrow."
Staff heard of any fresh guns arriving?"
"No, I was talking to them only this
morning, and they hadn't heard of anything then. It's rather mysterious....
Anybody on for a rubber?"
It was a queer coincidence that someone
during the evening asked how an observation mine is worked. The explanation was
refreshingly devoid of technical terms.
"There's a road; or a river, or a
railway, or something, and you know that the enemy is coming along it sooner or
later, so you shove a mine under it. On one side of the road is a tree or
something conspicuous. You draw an imaginary line from the tree to the place
where your mine is, and continue it to the other side of the road. Then you dig
a hole in the ground, and connect your mine to it by electric cable. The tree,
the mine, and the hole, are all in the same straight line. When you see the
bloke you want to scupper coming along the road, you hide in the hole and wait
until he is between you and the tree. Then you press the key, and up he goes.
Only you must be quite sure that you are looking at the right tree.... Did I
deal these? One no-trump."
At an early hour next morning the bugle
sounded off General Quarters, and the ship proceeded cautiously up the winding
river to the accompaniment of the leadsman's monotonous chant, "By the
mark, three," "And a half, three." It was a morning of glorious
sunshine in the days of spring, before the land becomes a steaming caldron and
the sun a pitiless furnace. Beyond the floods on the starboard beam was a
stretch of sand where wild boars could be seen roaming in search of their day's
rations; nearer at hand a jackal was picking his way through the flood and
casting furtive glances in the direction of the ship, possibly wondering
whether some lucky chance might yield him a feast before the day was out. A
signalman on the bridge was sweeping the horizon with his glass. Presently his
attention became riveted upon some object in the distant reaches of the river,
and he watched it carefully for a few moments before turning to the Captain who
stood beside him.
"She's coming down, sir," he
"The Turkish gunboat, sir."
The Captain raised his binoculars. There
was no doubt about it; the gunboat was steaming slowly down the river. A wave
of excitement swept through the ship. The Marmaris
coming down to engage us! What a chance! It seemed almost too good to be true.
It was the first opportunity since the beginning of the war for a scrap with
something which floated. All the guns' crews beamed
expectantly, and the order to load with common shell was carried out with an
alacrity which, for the East Indies Station, seemed
positively undignified. But the Captain was thinking hard. Why should a gunboat
with only nine-pounders come down to engage a sloop with -----. He signalled to the engine-room to reduce speed. Still the
little Turkish gunboat continued her course downstream until she came to a bend
in the river, where she stopped and waited, a daring challenger inviting the
British Lion to come on if he dared. Was she within range? The question was
eagerly canvassed. Not quite; another thousand yards
would do it. Suddenly the Captain's voice rang out from the bridge, "Let
go anchor!" Soppitt, able seaman, addressed
another member of the foremost starboard gun's crew in subdued but voluble
tones: " 'Oly of 'Olies! what
does 'e want to stop 'ere for? Does 'e think we're a bloomin'
Queen Elizabeth with a range of umteen miles? Another
thousand yards and we've got the blessed angels, got 'em as snug and comfy as a
bloomin' weevil in a bloomin' biscuit. Of all the darnation shows what does 'e
want to stop for?"
"Will you try a shot at them, Number
One?" came from the bridge through the megaphone.
"Ay, ay, sir."
The First Lieutenant was in the foretop,
spying out the land with a pair of binoculars. He leaned over the railing and
gave his orders. "Close up, starboard gun's crew. Extreme elevation.
Deflection five right. Fire as soon as you're ready." The starboard gun
fired, and the First Lieutenant raised his glasses to spot the fall of the
shell. Soppitt was quite right: it needed another
thousand yards; possibly another five hundred would have made it uncomfortable
for the Turk. Would he come down farther and try his luck? What was the range
of his guns? Was he going to return our fire? These and a hundred other
questions were being eagerly discussed on the fo'c'sle,
but the prevailing question was, Why did the Skipper
drop the hook just at the moment when he had the chance of sending the Turk to
"What's the matter with the
bloke?" asked Forest, a corpulent shipwright.
"'E's afraid of 'urtin' 'em", said Soppitt, waxing
you like to 'ave one of them nasty shells come at
your 'ead? You wouldn't 'alf like it, you wouldn't.
And you didn't ought to want to send 'em at a bloomin' Turk's 'ead. Poor innocent, misguided Turk, what don't know no
The criticisms were getting dangerously
pointed, when the appearance of the Sub-Lieutenant coming up the
fo'c'sle ladder enjoined silence. As the Sub usually did
duty as cable officer, everyone waited expectantly for the order "Up
anchor." But the order was not given. The starboard gun tried a few more
rounds, and succeeded in eliciting a reply from one of the Turk's
nine-pounders. It was some slight consolation to see the Turkish shell fall a
good two thousand yards short. Presently a shot from the starboard after-gun
appeared to fall fairly close to the enemy, and as a result he was seen to be
getting under way. Many eyes were turned to the Thora's
bridge to see if there were any sign or portent that the order would be given
to proceed, but the Captain stood there with an expression on his face as
inscrutable as the Sphinx's. Slowly and cautiously for there was none too much
room in the river the Turkish gunboat turned round, and began to creep back up
the river. Her deliberate movements seemed to say in tones of infinite regret:
"If you're afraid to fight me, there's no use in my waiting any
longer." The indignation of Able Seaman Soppitt
grew beyond his own jurisdiction, and, after some futile efforts to find words
capable of expressing it, he relapsed into a sullen
silence, liberally punctuated by vigorous expectoration. But still H.M.S.
Thora lay at anchor, and showed no intention of advancing
And then something happened. It is hard to
explain why it happened. Perhaps the observation station was badly placed, or
perhaps the observer was over-enthusiastic, or perhaps he was looking at the
wrong palm-tree. Anyhow, he pressed the key the key which
was intended to send a British ship and a hundred odd officers and men to
kingdom-come. A few yards in front of the Thora a
column of water shot up and towered high above her masts. It was a magnificent
sight, reminiscent of the Crystal Palace fireworks on a Brock's Benefit night.
The ship's company watched it with respectful appreciation, but they did not
cheer, possibly because they had a queer kind of feeling that, according to all
the rules of chance and probability they should have been performers in the
entertainment instead of mere spectators of it. They gazed in silence, and when
the fountain had subsided they gazed at the dead fish floating down the stream.
Soppitt was the first to find his voice, but his
observations relating to the enemy and their methods of warfare would suffer so
much in translation that it is better to imagine them in the original. The most
eloquent passage in his speech was devoted to certain German engineers who were
known to be operating with the Turks. To them he ascribed the conception of the
whole plot, and it is probable that he was right in his surmise. For the scheme
was elaborate and worked out with Teutonic thoroughness, from the firing by
night on Birbeck Ridge, to decoy us into a
reconnaissance, to the final manoeuvres of the Marmaris
which served to bait the trap. The only fault to be found with it was that it
presupposed that no Captain of a British man-o'-war would ever ask himself the
question, "Why does a gunboat with nine-pounder guns advance to attack a
sloop with four-inch guns?"
A few hours later the Navigator, replete
with a substantial lunch, was reclining on the wardroom sofa.
"How did the Skipper know that that blankety mine was there?" he asked.
"I don't suppose he did," said
the First Lieutenant.
it was just a fluke that he stopped? "
"No" said the Paymaster;
"there was no fluke about it. The Skipper just happens to be one of the
children of Kanee."
But the Navigator has no faith in the
Paymaster's mythology. Probably he objects on principle to all private
mythologies. Moreover, he inclines to a faith in the bulldog breed.
At the beginning of June,
1915, the Marmaris, with many holes in her side, was
lying, a half-sunken wreck in the Tigris, five miles above Ezra's Tomb. But
that is another story. It is only worth mentioning here because, among the
books and papers in the possession of her crew, the ship's log was found.
A staff officer sent us the translation of
an entry in the month of March, 1915, which read:
"Proceeded down-river as far as Rota Creek in order to entice the British
sloop Thora over the mine-field above
III - AN AMPHIBIOUS ENGAGEMENT
IN the early days of the war, Lord Crewe,
speaking in the House of Lords about the campaign in Mesopotamia, described it
as an amphibious campaign. And the expression was remarkably apt. When you are
waging war in a country which is under water for six
months of the year, you gradually acquire the habit of thinking amphibiously.
This does not mean, of course, that you become amphibious in your mode of life,
or that you learn to waddle like a walrus or make a noise like a hippopotamus.
But, being forced to fight in two elements simultaneously, you adjust your
notions about fighting accordingly. When a third element the air is added to
the other two, a further adjustment has to be made, and you learn among other
things that supremacy in the air may give eyes to your own artillery and
blindness to that of the enemy. This is a simple proposition compared with the
problem which arises when there is no dry land on which your artillery can move
about, or your infantry advance to attack, or your cavalry maintain a pursuit
if the enemy retreats. These problems can only be solved by
learning to think amphibiously.
Towards the end of May,
1915, it was decided to attack the Turkish force above Kurnah,
which lies at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates, with a view to a
further advance up the Tigris. This force was estimated to be a little over
three thousand strong, and it was entrenched upon various sand-hills and dry
patches of ground in the midst of the floods. In these days, when we reckon the
strength of armies by the million and casualties by the thousand, no one could
be expected to take much interest in so small an affair; and when the London
newspapers published the bare news that our forces had advanced from
Kurnah to Amarah, the only
noteworthy comment of the Press was a petulant outcry by one of the weekly
journals, wanting to know, "When is this picnic in Mesopotamia going to
cease?" For at that time Mesopotamia was regarded as only a small
side-show, bearing no obvious relation to the rest of the
war, and it was felt that all the Empire's energies ought to be devoted to the
serious work in France and Gallipoli. At that time, too, the name of General
Townshend was unfamiliar to the public, and the fact that it was his
division which made the big advance from Kurnah
to Amarah failed to stir the popular
The engagement above Kurnah
was remarkable for two things - the unique conditions under which it was
fought, and the startling success of the British arms. The ground on which the
village stands was a few feet above the level of the flood, but all around it,
as far as the eye could see, was flooded marshland, dotted here and there to
the northward with the small sand-hills in the occupation of the Turks.
These hills had been christened with such
names as Norfolk Hill, One Tree Hill, One Tower Hill, Shrapnel Hill, and Gun
Hill. So inconspicuous are they in the dry season that a casual observer would
imagine that the whole countryside was a dead-level plain; but in the summer of
1915 their barren soil stood out clearly amidst an ocean of green reeds, which
grew to a height of five or six feet above the level of the water. The depth of
the flood varied considerably, but the average was probably about two feet, and
it would have been quite possible for the infantry to wade through it, if the
ground had not been intersected by numerous nullahs,
or dykes, cut at right angles to the river for irrigation purposes. Most of
these were too deep to be fordable, and so it was necessary to devise other
means of enabling the infantry to advance.
The Arab has invented a long narrow boat,
which is eminently suited to navigate the swift current of the Tigris. He calls
it a "bellum," and propels it in deep water with one oar and one
paddle, and in shallow water with two punt poles. The bellum played a very
conspicuous part in the engagement above Kurnah. For
weeks beforehand Tommy had been patiently learning the gentle art of punting,
and studying how to avoid that distressing situation where the punter has to
make up his mind whether he will say good-bye to his punt or to his pole. The
sepoy also had been an assiduous student of the art; it was
all part of the process of learning to think amphibiously. Then steel plates
arrived from Busrah, and a new weapon of war was
called into being - the armoured bellum. Here was an ideal method for infantry
to advance across No Man's Land. Comfortably seated on the thwarts or in the
bottom of the bellum under the lee of steel plating, they were to be punted
through a forest of green reeds, and could dream that they were spending a
summer's day on the upper reaches of the Thames, until suddenly they would wake
up with a bump to find that they had emerged from the forest, and had run
aground on the sand-hill which was their objective. Then they must dream no
longer, for a few yards in front of them the Turks in their trenches would be
busy with their rifles, and the job of an attacking infantry is one of those
which is all the better for being done quickly.
So the problem of creating an amphibious
infantry had been solved. Next came the problem of the artillery, and it is not
an easy matter to make a 4.7 gun into an amphibious monster. The best we can do
with it is to mount it in a barge, and get a paddle-steamer
to tow it upstream to wherever it is needed. It can then tie itself up to the
bank and get to work. This sounds all right in theory, but in practice there
are one or two serious obstacles. In the first place, a barge is a low-lying
craft, and the gunner cannot see his objective over the top of the reeds. In
the second place, when the aeroplanes have helped him to find his range, he
cannot be sure of keeping it with any exactness, because his barge has a trick
of recoiling after every round. The artillery did not take at all kindly to
amphibiousness. Then there were the mountain guns, which scorned anything so
commonplace as a barge, and invented a craft all their own. They got the idea
from the children in the kindergartens, who fold bits
of paper and make all sorts of wonderful things out of them; the most wonderful
of all is the double canoe, consisting of two very angular boats joined
together along the beam like a pair of Siamese Twins. Take two
bellums and place them alongside each other; then fix a
wooden platform athwart the pair of them amidships; on this platform mount your
gun, and, in order to protect the gunners from a blazing sun, build over them a
pergola with frame of wood and roof of matted reeds; and there you have the
recipe for the amphibious mountain gun. It is artistic if it is nothing else.
In the sternsheets of each bellum stands the
gondolier with his punt pole, and by dint of much practice the two gondoliers
learn to punt in blissful harmony. The troubles of the mountain gunner,
however, are the same as those of his big brother the 4.7. In a forest of
reeds, his fire is indirect, and his platform as unstable as a wayward minx.
Fortunately, the tale of the artillery is
not yet completed. We have yet to reckon with the naval guns. Three sloops and
a small flotilla of armed launches took part in the engagement above
Kurnah and to them, at any rate,
the presence of water everywhere brought no difficulties or embarrassments.
They had bridges and foretops from which their gunnery could be controlled, and
in the case of the sloops the guns were at a sufficient height from the water
to enable the gunlayers to see what they were aiming
at. Their gun platforms, compared with those of the 4.7's and the mountain
guns, were the essence of stability. It is true that their masts and funnels
afforded the enemy a splendid mark for range-finding,
but, fortunately, the Turkish gunnery at that time was poor; and although the
ships were hit occasionally, there were no casualties and no material damage.
It was one of the naval guns which at a range of something over 8,000 yards
sent a shell right into the embrasure of a Turkish gun, which had commanded the
village of Kurnah and the straight reach of river
running past it. The gun was silenced, for all its crew were knocked out, and
so an unmolested advance up the river was secured as far as Snipe Camp, about
two miles above the village. This was the naval programme to concentrate on
each battery singly, and so silence them one after another. Meanwhile the
infantry were to advance through the reeds in their armoured bellums, and at the appointed times were to land on the
various sand-hills and rush the enemy's trenches. The only thing
which went wrong with the programme was that, except on Norfolk Hill,
the Turk would not wait to be rushed. The deadly accuracy of the artillery
upset his nerves badly, and, if he saw no chance of skipping back out of harm's
way, he resorted to the white flag. This was not like the Turk, for usually he
hangs on to his trench with the tenacity of a badger in a hole. But the naval
guns, after they had silenced all his batteries, got the range of his trenches
and adjusted the time fuses to a nicety, so that life was really not worth
living in those trenches. The battle started soon after five in the morning,
and by noon some half-dozen of the Turkish positions were in our hands,
together with a fair number of prisoners and quite a useful haul of material.
This completed the General's programme for the day, and the afternoon was spent
in burying the dead beneath a blazing sun, while the shade temperature
registered 110 F.
There was one feature in our equipment which deserves special mention, if only on account
of its picturesqueness. This was the amphibious field
hospital. The Arab has a form of river craft larger than the bellum; it is
called the "maheilah," and is fitted with a
mast and a sail. In its pristine form it is not unlike a fishing smack, but its
two ends curl upwards like a viking's
ship, and its prow is adorned with paintings in the style of an illuminated
manuscript. Now picture it after its conversion into a field hospital. The mast
has been unshipped, and the well has been boarded over to make a continuous
deck from prow to stern. Again we must revert to childhood's days, and study
the design of Noah's Ark. The frame is of wood and the roof and sides of matted
reeds, and on the roof is painted a large Red Cross. Inside are neatly arrayed
cots and all the appurtenances of the medical branch, including the hospital
orderlies, whose brows are as wet as the village blacksmith's, and whose scanty
attire is wetter still, for 110 F. in the shade is not far removed from a
Turkish bath. Still, they are prepared for 350 casualties, and it was not their
fault that they only had 23 to deal with. The total cost of the operations
(apart from heatstroke cases which come into every day's work in peace as well
as war-time) was three men killed and twenty wounded; and so it was really
quite natural that the worthy gentleman in his arm-chair in Fleet Street should
tell his readers that Mesopotamia was a picnic.
Next day the aeroplanes brought word that
the Turks had abandoned the rest of their positions, and were in full retreat
up the river in steamers, barges, and maheilahs, and
then the whole British force began to move forward in pursuit. Now watch the
procession as it files up the Tigris. First two armed launches doing duty as
mine-sweepers, with a wire hawser towed between them; then
the sloops, which look like giants amidst this motley assembly of river craft;
after them more armed launches. Then come the stern-wheelers carrying the
infantry, who have now abandoned their armoured bellums.
It is a queer-looking craft, this sternwheeler, something like a two-storied
wooden house with an old hay-making machine at the stern, kicking up the water
high into the air with as much grunting and groaning as though a spavined horse
was setting the wheel in motion. Besides the stern-wheeler there are the
Irrawaddy paddlers, and the Indus tugs, and the steel barges of the Supply and
Transport Corps; but all these are prosaic compared with the hospital
maheilahs and the mountain guns with their double canoes
and pergolas of green reeds. Darting in and out among the fleet are the
motor boats which carry about the staff officers and other
There is something about the whole scene
which brings back memories of Henley Regatta, with its house-boats,
its river steamers, its motor-launches, and its decorated pleasure craft. But
the enemy is in retreat, and where are the cavalry? Now, it is useless to argue
with the cavalry. When they say that they cannot learn to think amphibiously,
they mean it, and there is nothing more to be said about it. Their argument is,
of course, that the horse is not an amphibious animal, and there is a good deal
of truth in it. But the General is never nonplussed by these
trifling limitations. If the horse is not amphibious, at all events the
Navy is versatile, and when it has finished playing the role of artillery it
will turn joyfully to the role of cavalry without requiring any rehearsals. All
the rest of the story of the advance from Kurnah to
Amarah is purely naval history; for the Navy now leaves the
Army behind all except the staff officers who find accommodation in the sloops
and goes pounding up the Tigris, past Bahran with its
mud forts, past the attempted obstruction near Rot ah Canal, past the remains
of the Turkish camp at Mazeebla, round the
Peardrop Bend, and into the then unknown reaches of the
river. The enemy had a long start, but his steamers were heavily laden and were
towing barges full of infantry, and his maheilahs
stood no chance in a race with steam. Bit by bit, the distance between pursuers
and pursued grew narrower, and just before sunset the enemy came within range
of our guns.
As the sun dipped below the horizon and the
sky was suffused in a soft glow, the guns began to bark from the leading armed
launch, which had been ordered to proceed to the head of the flotilla and to
look out for mines. Soon after, the thunder and flame burst from the Senior
Naval Officer's ship, which followed a mile or so behind. In a wilderness of
green marshes the silver windings of the Tigris showed up clearly in the
evening light, and the pursuing ships forged ahead at a steady pace, ever
mindful of the chant which came from the leadsman in
the chains. In the distance were the white sails of the fugitive
maheilahs, like the wings of frightened swans, and in front
of them the desperate little steamers were struggling to tow their barges laden
with Turkish infantry. Ahead of them all was the Turkish gunboat
Marmaris, bound on her last run for safety, and knowing in
her sorrowful heart that she could never reach it. When the brief twilight had
faded away, and darkness enveloped the whole scene, our guns still went on
spitting fire, although their targets were fast becoming invisible. But it was
needless, for the fugitives had realized that the game was up. The
maheilahs lowered their sails, and those of the
steamers which had not been sunk by gunfire drew sullenly to
the bank, and waited for their captors to come up. Only a very few of the men
tried to escape into the marshes; most of them were too familiar with the
habits of the Marsh Arab to make so hazardous an attempt. Among these few were
three of the German engineers who had been employed at Busrah
in connection with the Baghdad Railway, and had joined the Turkish Army at the
beginning of the campaign. They in the innocence of their hearts thought that
they could make their way in an Arab mashoof (canoe)
across the marshes, and find a road which would take them to Baghdad But they
knew not the Marsh Arab. Two days later three naked German corpses were found
near the river.
The last to abandon hope of flight was the Marmaris. She had left all her companions behind and
disappeared into the darkness. But we knew what water she drew, and we knew
roughly the depth of the river, so we did not worry about her. We also knew
that she had some holes through her side, and probably some wounded men aboard
her, and that probably her Captain would have only one thought in his mind how
to render his ship beyond repair, so that she could be of no service to her
captors. Presently a flickering light shot up from across the marshes, and as
it grew it revealed the dark outline of a ship some five miles away round a
bend of the river. The Marmaris had found salvation
in harakiri; her crew had set her on fire, and
encamped on the river-bank until such time as H.M.
Navy should offer its hospitality to them. Her guns, however,
were afterwards found to be in excellent order, and for some strange reason the
ammunition in her magazine was not affected by the fire.
The pursuers had forgathered in the gloom
of a clump of palm-trees, which had appeared as a
11conspicuous landmark in the midst of the marshes. Nestling in the palm-trees,
a blue-domed temple marks the spot where the prophet Ezra is said to have died
on his way from Palestine to Persia. It was an inconvenient spot to select,
because it is a long way from everywhere, and necessitates a tedious journey
for the Jewish pilgrims from Baghdad, who, in the days before the war, came
every year to visit the tomb. It would seem that Ezra was mindful of the maxim
that a prophet must be buried a long way from his own country if he would be
honoured by his own people; but even he could not foretell that some day a
British man-of-war would come along with an ordinary signalman who knew not
Ezra, and insisted on referring to the noble edifice as "Eliza's Tomb."
Let the prophet rest in peace. He at any rate is untroubled by the voracious
swarms of mosquitoes which haunt his resting-place, or by thoughts of malaria,
or of a thermometer which refuses to drop to a respectable position even after
nightfall, but keeps a tightly packed medley of naval and military officers
gasping for breath beneath their mosquito nets, and steadily dripping all night
long on mats of woven reeds, which have the merit of allowing the drops to soak
through, and so leave a fairly dry surface beneath the restless sleepers.
Next day saw the innings of the armed
launches, for they alone can now continue the pursuit up the river. One Turkish
steamer laden with troops has yet to be accounted for. All the rest of the
Turkish force is at Ezra's Tomb under the custody of the sloops, until such
time as the Army can come up and take charge of the prisoners. At daybreak the
armed launches get under way, the most commodious of them finding accommodation
for the Senior Naval Officer and the General, with a small personal Staff. They
go pounding on through the Narrows, past the village of Kulat
Salih and into the broader waters above, until the
General begins to grow nervous. "We really don't know what we are up
against," he reminds the S.N.O.; but the S.N.O. is a born optimist, and
all he says is: "I think we will just go round the next bend." By
steadily continuing the process of going round the next bend, they find
themselves waltzing into the town of Amarah. Ahead of
them is the launch Shaitan, but she is too intent on
retrieving the lost lamb to feel any curiosity about this quaint-looking town;
so she goes on plugging away at her best speed right through Amarah into unknown regions beyond, until in due course she
overhauls the runaway, and induces it without much argument to return with her
downstream. Some hours later she re-enters Amarah in
triumph, and hands over another big batch of prisoners.
Meanwhile the rest of the flotilla have
come to anchor, and are admiring the picturesque features of the town, including
the Arab ladies drawing water from the river in kerosene tins. The S.N.O. is
saying affably to the General, "So this is Amarah,"
but the General is busy thinking. The total British force at the moment,
counting in all the crews of the launches, the General, his Staff, and a dozen
privates, amounts to eighty-eight officers and men. So the General says the
time has come to find out what they are up against. A Naval Lieutenant is sent
ashore in a skiff with six Tommies, and he makes
straight for the Turkish barracks, where he finds quite a lot of soldiers, such
as one often does find in barracks. He seeks out the Commanding Officer and
asks him how many men he has there. The number was between 400 and 500.
"Is that all?" asks the Naval Lieutenant. "Then tell them to
pile arms and fall in on the river-bank. They will be stowed in barges and sent
down the river at the first opportunity." Now, the Commanding Officer does
not know that the total British force at Amarah is
only eighty-eight, nor that the British Army is at
least twenty-four hours behind the Navy. All he knows is that he has seen a
steamer-load of discomfited infantry tearing up the river with an armed launch
in chase, and that armed launches have guns. So he deems it wise not to argue
the point. His men are told to pile arms and in due course are comfortably
stowed away in barges. And that is the story of the taking of Amarah.
The Sub-Lieutenant of the Thora was temporarily in command of one of the launches,
and was ordered to take a barge-load of prisoners alongside him, and to mount
guard over them. His launch had a crew of Lascars, and the only white man
besides himself was a private in the Royal Marine Light
Infantry, who constituted a small but dauntless bodyguard. The Sub also had a
revolver and a deck-chair, both of them useful
articles in an emergency. The night was divided into watches of one hour each;
while the Sub paced the deck, revolver in hand, the private slept peacefully in
the deck-chair, and then after an hour the positions were
reversed. But, if the truth must be told, they were mighty glad the next day to
see the first of the river steamers bringing up the Army. So was the General,
and so were all the officers of H.M. Amphibious Cavalry; for those Turks were
beginning to think, and among other things were beginning to think that they
had been bluffed in a most ungentlemanly way.
Moreover, embarrassing problems of commissariat were looming ahead, as must
inevitably happen when the cavalry makes a big haul of prisoners some eighty
miles beyond their nearest base.
So ended the amphibious engagement, and,
turning to the profit and loss account, we must estimate the enemy's casualties
in killed and prisoners at between 3,000 and 4,000, and we must add to these a
substantial haul of steamers, barges, maheilahs,
guns, ammunition, and stores. On the other side we have to place three men
killed and twenty wounded. The result of the operations has been an advance of
nearly eighty miles into the enemy's country, and the capture of a garrison
town. The General, who conceived the whole scheme and carried it out according
to time-table, with amazing punctuality, was then
unknown to fame. He was destined to find it later by becoming the victim of the
first disaster in the campaign. That was many miles farther up the river, where
the land is dry, and the British genius for thinking amphibiously could find no
IV - THE TAKING OF NASIRIYAH
THERE are two main essentials for
amphibious warfare; one is land, and the other is water. In the engagement
above Kurnah which resulted in the capture of Amarah,
there was not very much land, but there was plenty of water. In the advance to
Nasiriyah up the Euphrates, which commenced about a month
later, there was a moderate supply of land, but of water there was usually too
little, and occasionally too much. There was too little to get over the
Hammar Lake anything drawing more than five feet, but when
we blew up the obstruction across the Hakeekah
Channel the water came through like a cataract, and there was a great deal too
much of it. The expedition to Nasiriyah (Pronounced
Naz-i-reeah) taught us that in amphibious warfare the parts
played by the Navy and Army respectively must vary according to the proportion
of water to land, and according to the general condition of each of them.
The reason that we decided to go to Nasiriyah was that the Turks had used it as a base, from
which in their optimistic minds they had once hoped to recapture
Busrah. That dream was settled for ever
when our forces operating from the fort of Shaiba
defeated a considerably larger Turkish force concentrated at Berjitsiyah Wood. The story of the Battle of
Shaiba is as thrilling as a battle story can be, and the
only thing that restrains me from telling it is the recollection that I am
writing about the Navy in Mesopotamia, and the Navy had nothing whatever to do
with it. When the Turks retreated from Berjitsiyah,
they returned to their base at Nasiriyah; and as this
base lies on the flank of our advance up the Tigris, it was decided that their
presence there was a dangerous embarrassment. If further reasons are required
for the Euphrates expedition, it may be mentioned that Nasiriyah
is the centre of influence over the powerful Arab tribes in those parts, and
that it has some strategic importance because it stands at the south end of the
Shatt-al-Hai, the river which joins the Tigris and
the Euphrates, flowing out of the former river at a point just above
Kut. (The u pronounced like double o, as in "
foot.") It was also the headquarters of the Turkish civil administration
of the western portion of the Busrah
Having decided to go to Nasiriyah,
we had only one other question to settle how to get there. A crow or an
aeroplane would go in a straight line of about 100 miles from Busrah; but things that float could 'not go by that route
because there was not enough water to float in, and things that walk could not
go by that route because there was too much water to walk in. So they had to go
nearly due north for about fifty miles, and then nearly due west for about
eighty-five miles, while the crow and the aeroplane were taking their leisure
along the hypotenuse of the triangle. But the troubles of the things that float
and walk did not end here. The first eighty miles of the journey was
comfortable enough, for any of the river craft could take them up the
Shatt-al-Arab from Busrah to Kurnah,
and then up the Euphrates from Kurnah to the village
of Chabaish. It was beyond Chabaish
that the troubles began. The first of them was the Hammar
Lake, a large expanse of shallow water with a tortuous channel running through
it. When the expedition started on June 26 the channel was five feet deep - when
reinforcements were sent up about the middle of July it was only three feet
deep; and when stores and ammunition were required at the end of July for the
newly installed garrison, they had to be dragged in bellums
over a stodgy mixture of mud and water.
The Hammar Lake
at the best of times is not a delectable health-resort. For scenery it has an
unlimited expanse of reed-growing marshes, occasionally varied with island
villages and a few clusters of date-palms. For climate
it has the alternatives of a biting blast in winter and an intense humid heat
in the summer. Its human population is small and by no means affluent; its
insect population consists of voracious hordes of mosquitoes, which are as
numberless as the sands on the seashore, and appear to thrive exceedingly.
Having crossed the Hammar
Lake, the expedition entered the Hakeekah Channel,
which joins the lake to the broad waters of the Euphrates. Here they had their
first intimation that the enemy was ready and waiting for them. Two
motor-launches, built by Thornycrofts for the Turkish
Government, and armed with pom-poms, opened fire on the advancing river
steamers. The naval flotilla returned the fire, and the motor-launches retired
gracefully. The procession of river steamers then entered the channel without
further interference, and after about half a mile of it they came to their next
difficulty. This was an obstruction (known in local parlance as a "bund") which the Turks had built right across the channel. As a
rule the Turks have been singularly unfortunate over their obstructions. They
tried one between Busrah and the Persian Gulf,
another just below Kurnah, and yet another near the
Rotah Creek, a few miles above Kurnah;
but in every case we found that by means of careful navigation we could
circumvent the obstacles. The Hakeekah bund, however,
was quite a different affair. They had plenty of time in which to prepare it,
and for once they managed to do the job thoroughly. They filled
maheilahs (river sailing craft) with mud, and sank them
across the channel, and then they piled more mud on top of them, so that a
first-class dam was constructed; and it held back the waters of the Euphrates
until they spread far and wide over the land, and were forced to find other
passages into the lake. But all things human are transitory, and the Turkish
bund is no exception to the rule. It takes time, however, to blow up a bund
with dynamite, and it is not a pleasant job when there is a tropical sun
beating down on the workers all day long, when the night temperature seldom
falls much below 100 F., and when two impudent little motor-boats, skulking
round the corner, persist in irritating the workers by dropping pom-pom shells
at frequent intervals. Still, it is only a question of time, and when the
firing of the fuse has been followed by a mighty bang, there is a channel
through the bund 4 feet deep and about 150 feet wide, and through it the water
comes pouring in an avalanche.
How can an unwieldy stern-wheeler plough
her way against such a cataract? There is only one possible solution of the
problem to haul her through with a wire hawser. Picture a long line of
struggling humanity, streaming with perspiration, backs bowed and sinews at the
stretch, as they tug for dear life to get the steamers one by one through the
channel. The naval flotilla goes first, and as soon as it reaches calmer waters
it proceeds to reconnoitre the enemy's position. Meanwhile the work of hauling
the transports through goes on wearily, and at the end of five days all the
craft are safely anchored at a spot near Ati's Tower.
The enemy's first position was at the
junction of a small tributary, called the Gurmat
Safah, with the Euphrates. Here he had guns
which commanded the Hakeekah Channel, and was
craftily entrenched on either side of it. On July 5, at daybreak our troops
advanced to the attack, and the naval flotilla supported them with gunfire. And
here is a convenient opportunity to point out the inward meaning of the axiom
that in amphibious warfare the respective roles of Navy and Army must always
vary with the respective conditions of water and land. The naval flotilla
consisted of three stern-wheelers, a small armed
launch called the Sumana, and two horse-boats with a
4.7 inch gun in each. All these craft were palpably makeshifts, commandeered
for the purpose of this expedition, because they had a small enough draught to
pass through the Hammar Lake. The Senior Naval
Officer was in one of these stern-wheelers (the Shushan),
and he expressed himself quite candidly upon her merits as a fighting ship. He
referred to her as the "ancient Shushan,"
but I think it would have sounded better if he had said "venerable,"
for there is a persistent rumour that she was once the royal yacht of
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. He also described the troubles of the gun's
crew of the twelve-pounder which had been temporarily mounted in her. After
every round they examined the deck carefully to see how much of it had carried
away; and when they found that on the port side the deck could stand the strain
no more, they shifted the gun over to the starboard side, and went on gaily
firing until a violent recoil very nearly sent the gun, the mounting, and the
remainder of the deck, through the bulkhead of the forecabin.
This, as the S.N.O. remarked, made good shooting very
difficult. The horse-boats with their 4.7 inch
guns suffered mainly from their lack of elevation. Indirect fire over the tops
of the reeds was the only possible method; and although this
was checked by an officer with a telephone from an advanced
observing-station, it could never be as effective as direct fire from a stable platform
at a suitable elevation. The Army had howitzers and mountain batteries, but
their troubles were much the same as those of the horse-boats. On the other
hand, the Turks had a good supply of guns mounted in well-constructed
emplacements, so as to command the various reaches of the river. It is not
surprising that Major-General Gorringe during the
course of the operations sent a message to the Army Commander at
Busrah: "I do not appear to have the superiority in
artillery, which the calibre and range would reasonably lead me to
expect." Perhaps he had in mind the achievement of General Townshend's
division above Kurnah, when the artillery of three
sloops-of-war and a flotilla of armed launches swamped the enemy's guns, and
enabled the Army to gain a decisive victory at a cost of only twenty-three
In spite, however, of the difficulties with
which the gunlayers had to contend, the enemy's first
position at Gurmat Safah
did not give much trouble. His guns were silenced after about four hours'
bombardment; and when his small force of infantry tried to skip back, they were
outflanked by the 24th Punjabis, advancing in bellums
in the approved amphibious style, and were made prisoners. The result of this
first scrap was that the Hakeekah Channel was open to
us, subject only to the possibility of mines, for which two of the
stern-wheelers proceeded to sweep. In this they received unexpected assistance,
for they were hailed from the bank by a party of Arabs bringing a little
present with them in the shape, of a Turkish officer. They explained that he
had been sent down from Nasiriyah to raise the Arab
tribes into a state of active resistance against the invaders; but the tribes
did not feel that they wanted to be raised, and they really did not know what
to do with the officer, so they handed him over for disposal. He turned out to
be an amiable kind of Turk, and he was so much overjoyed at finding himself
still alive that he proceeded to guide the mine-sweepers
to the most likely places. All the same they found only one mine; presumably
the Turks had run short of mines. On emerging from the Hakeekah
Channel we found a river some 200 yards broad, and along its bank were several
small villages with gardens and patches of cultivated soil, usually surrounded
with mud walls. On the left bank were occasional palm groves and fringes of
willow-trees, but the right bank was almost entirely devoid of trees. The banks
themselves were nothing more than causeways a few hundred yards wide between
river and flood, and beyond them the whole country at this time of year was
completely under water. Here was a magnificent terrain for a defending force,
for there was no way of getting round them, and no alternative to plain,
ungarnished, brutally expensive frontal attack. To make
matters worse, the dry land was intersected at frequent intervals by
dykes which had been cut at right angles to the river for
purposes of irrigation.
The first item in the programme was the
occupation of Suk-y-Sheyukh (Pronounced
Sook-y-Shook - the Market of the Sheikhs)
which lies a little south of the head of the Hakeekah
Channel. This was entrusted to the naval flotilla and the Chief Political
Officer, who hoisted the Union Jack in the presence of a representative
gathering of local Sheikhs and villagers. The flotilla then led the way up the
Euphrates until they reached Asani and located the
enemy's main position near a place called Mejinineh,
about four miles below Nasiriyah. Three thousand
yards lower downstream another bad attempt had been made at an obstruction by
sinking two steamers and a Thornycroft launch in the
river; but it was a complete waste of good material, for there was very little
difficulty in getting through it. On July 7 a reconnaissance told us that we
were up against a strong position, and that the enemy was well supplied with
guns; so there was nothing to do but to wait for reinforcements and more
howitzers to come up from Busrah. At the same time
the Sumana was sent down for repairs necessitated by
a shell which hit her when she was in the
Hakeekah Channel, and punctured a steampipe.
Both she and the transports had plenty of trouble in getting through the
Hammar Lake on their way back, and it was now becoming an
urgent question whether the operations could be completed before the fall of
the river made the line of communications inadequate.
On the night of July 13 we attacked on both
banks, the 12th Brigade on the left bank and the 30th Brigade on the right bank
making frontal attacks, while the 24th Punjabis crept round through the floods
to make a turning movement and capture some sand-hills behind the enemy's
position. If this turning movement had succeeded, the Turk would not have been
able to hold his ground; but, unfortunately, our native troops found a stiffer
opposition than they could tackle, and when a tribe of Arabs attacked them in
the rear they had no alternative but to get back as best they could. The
General came to the conclusion that the reports were true of the Turks having
received considerable reinforcements, and that he could do nothing further
until more forces were sent up from Busrah, so he
asked for more infantry, more artillery, more ambulances, and more aeroplanes.
His message even suggested that the operations were assuming the character of
trench warfare, which up to that time had been unknown in Mesopotamia in the
modern sense of the word. It did not sound like a pleasant prospect at a time
of year when the heat is most intense and the mosquitoes at their most virulent
stage of activity, and it is not altogether surprising that the temper of the
expedition was suffering severely. The Commanding Officer of one of the sternwheelers wrote to
say that " it would need three or four nights from 9 p.m. till 1.30 a.m.,
and several large glasses of lime-juice and soda, to express my moans and
general opinion of the way this show is run." He had been spending many
nights towing strings of bellums up to the front
trenches to supply our troops with food, and he had been greeted regularly with
a hail of shells and rifle-shot from the enemy. It was
a monotonous kind of entertainment, and he was beginning to grow weary of it.
He had to carry on, however, for another ten nights before the reinforcements
from Busrah had been ferried, punted, dragged, or
pushed, through the mud and water of the Hammar Lake,
and brought up to the front. Meanwhile gun positions had been moved forward,
trenches extended, and various other preparations for attack completed; and all
the time the workers were painfully conscious of three things that the
thermometer stood high, that there were plenty of mosquitoes in the world, and
that the Turks had some very pretty shots among their snipers.
At daybreak on July 24 the great attack was
launched, and on the left bank the 12th Infantry Brigade soon met with success,
occupying the enemy's advanced trenches after about two hours' fighting. The
real trouble, however, was on the right bank. Here the 30th Infantry Brigade
found that a branch channel of the river, known as the Mejinineh
Channel, formed a serious obstacle between themselves and the enemy. It was too
wide to jump and too deep to ford, so they appealed to the Sappers and Miners
for assistance. The Sappers and Miners said that they would be happy to throw a
bridge across, if only they could get there with their materials. It was then
that some staff officer had a splendid brainwave, and remembered a rule set
forth in an unofficial and unpublished treatise on the art of amphibious
warfare. "When in doubt, apply to the Royal Navy." So the Royal
Navy's aid was invoked, and the little Sumana
(commanded by Lieutenant W. V. Harris) was told off to tow a barge with a
consignment of sappers, miners, and bridging materials, up to the
Mejinineh Channel, while the rest of the naval flotilla did
their best to cover the operation by their gunfire. The barge itself was to
form part of the bridge, and the Sumana was to
deliver it safely and in a suitable position in the channel. As soon as the
Turks saw what the game was, they let drive at the Sumana
with everything they could bring to bear on her. The marks of the rifle bullets
made her look as though she had the chicken-pox, and the shells aimed,
fortunately, too high to do vital damage punctured her luckless steam-pipe once
more. But she got the barge into the channel and stood by while the Sappers and
Miners completed the bridge. Then the 30th Brigade came pounding over it, and,
though the Turk still clung like a leech to his trench, he knew in his inmost
heart that he could not hold it. By noon the main position was captured, and
there remained only a forlorn hope of a position at Sadanawiyah.
Whatever might have been its powers of resistance, they were nipped in the bud
by the S.N.O., who brought his ship abreast of the foremost trench, laid it
alongside the bank, and blazed at the Turks with everything that the little
Shushan could boast in the way of armament. Then our troops
charged the trenches, and the Turks decided that it was not worth their while
to stay there. By six o'clock in the evening they were in full retreat, but the
work of the day was not even yet completed as far as the Navy was concerned.
The flotilla immediately proceeded up
towards Nasiriyah, and, before they had gone far,
what should they meet but their old friend, the Thornycroft
motor-launch with the pom-pom! (There were originally two of these, but the
Turks sank one when they tried to obstruct the channel.) She did not linger
long, but as she departed she kept her pom-pom going busily. Now, it was
annoying to think that a little thing like that, after making itself highly
objectionable, should get off scot-free. Lieutenant Commander Seymour in the
Shushan realized this, and he strode up to the
twelve-pounder in the bows, and announced that he was going to have three shots
if the gun-mounting and the deck would stand it. He
laid the gun himself and fired. The first shot was a bit short, the second was
a bit over, the third hit her plump and set her on
fire. Her crew ran her into the bank and jumped ashore; and that was the end of
the Thorny croft motor-boat.
At Nasiriyah the
naval flotilla found white flags flying, but when they got abreast of the
Turkish barracks some soldiers on the roof opened fire
with their rifles. The Navy replied with shells and Maxims, but it was getting
too dark to see, so they dropped back and anchored below the town. Next morning
a deputation of Arab citizens came off to report that the Turks had evacuated
the town, and to invite their kind friends, the British, to occupy it.
Major-General Melliss, of the 30th Brigade, had
accompanied the naval flotilla, and a hundred Gurkhas
had also managed to find accommodation in the little stern-wheelers. The party
landed in state on the morning of July 26, and hoisted the Union Jack at
V - THE MAN AND THE AXE
IF simplicity of language be a virtue in a General's despatches, the best part of them
will be found in those rare passages towards the end when a hero is recommended
for the Victoria Cross. A deed of heroism needs no embellishment of the pen, no
mellifluous recital, no paean of praise; the briefest statement of fact and
circumstance is enough to present it to the imagination and proclaim its worth.
It was in the simplest of words that Major-General Townshend told the story of
the death of Lieutenant Commander Edgar C. Cookson, R.N., and recommended him
for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. And the story in itself is a
simple one, but as it involves the story of the first capture of
Kut-al-Amarah in September, 1915,
of which very little has ever appeared in the public Press, I propose to tell
it in detail.
It was not until nearly three months after
the occurrence of the events I am about to relate, that the attention of the
people of England was turned to Mesopotamia by a series of disasters, which
culminated in the surrender of Kut by General
Townshend's division after a siege lasting 145 days, During that anxious period
a good deal was heard about the strong Turkish positions between marsh and
river, which the relieving forces tried in vain to pierce, and such names as
Aieessa, and Ess Sinn became
quite familiar to newspaper readers for a short while. But now I want to go
back a few pages in the campaign, and show how the same division, blessedly
unconscious of the fate in store for it, turned the Turks out of that very
stronghold at Ess Sinn, drove them back in full
retreat, and marched triumphantly into the town. No more striking illustration
could be found of the vicissitudes of war than is afforded by these two periods
in the history of the Mesopotamian campaign the first twelve months up to the
autumn of 1915, and the next five months from December, 1915, to April, 1916.
The causes which
brought about the transformation are not for discussion here, nor can any
comparison be drawn between the two days' engagement, which resulted in the
first capture of Kut, and the long series of
operations by means of which we tried our utmost to relieve the beleaguered
garrison. The conditions were entirely different from alpha to omega. In the
first place, in September, 1915, the forces engaged on both sides were
comparatively small; in the second place, there was then dry weather and dry
ground; in the third place, although the scene of operations was the same, the
Turks then relied on only one position at the Ess
Sinn banks and made no attempt to hold any positions to the east of it.
Nevertheless, the first capture of Kut-al-Amarah was
in itself a performance of sufficient merit to deserve more recognition than
the few lines in which the newspapers recorded it.
The main item in the plan of attack was the
device of deceiving the enemy as to where the real blow was to be delivered.
Our Army was divided into two columns, of which Column A was a formidable force
consisting of all three arms, and was placed on the right bank of the river.
Column B, which was placed on the left bank, consisted only of infantry and a
small supply of artillery. With this disposition of troops the battle opened on
September 27, and Column A gave every semblance of a lively attack, while its
cavalry stood ready to make a vigorous pursuit if the Turks gave way. But as a
matter of fact all this was merely play-acting. At nightfall the Sappers and
Miners constructed a pontoon bridge across the river, and during the dark hours
the greater part of Column A crossed to the left bank, where the real offensive
was to take place, only two battalions being left behind to cover the
The field of operations on the left bank
may be described as a channel of land between marsh and river, subdivided by
swamps into four narrow passes. On the extreme north the Suwaikieh
Marsh, about eight miles from the river at Ess Sinn,
extended east and west for many miles, and formed an impassable boundary. In
between were three smaller marshes in a straight line running northwards from
the river, which were known as Horseshoe Swamp, Suwaida
Marsh, and Ataba Marsh. The
Turks made use of these to protect their flanks, and had dug their trenches in
between them. Before daybreak on September 28 Column A had not only reached its
position of deployment, but had divided itself into three portions No. 1 to
make a frontal attack between Horseshoe and Suwaida,
No. 2 to turn the Turkish flank by advancing between Suwaida
and Ataba, and No. 3, consisting of cavalry and
armoured cars, to go right up between Ataba and the
northern boundary, in order to prevent a possible attempt on the part of the
enemy to turn our right flank. Meanwhile Column B, at the south end of the
line, was to attack the Turkish trenches between Horseshoe and the river. If we
could succeed in getting past this line of swamps, we should have no further
obstacle to bar our advance upon Kut, which lies on
the same side of the river. If, however, we had attempted to press our attack
on the right bank, we should no doubt have succeeded in it; but there would
still be the river between us and our object, and that it would have proved a
serious obstacle the history of the subsequent operations has conclusively
It is rather surprising that the Turks were
deceived by our ruse, and it is still more surprising that on September 28 they
took so long to realize that we did not intend to make any serious attack on
the right bank. It was half-past five in the evening before they managed to get
their troops across the river, and start to bring relief to those which had
borne the brunt of the day's fighting. By this time our No. 2 force, having
fulfilled its mission, was advancing westwards between Horseshoe and
Suwaida. But on seeing the Turkish reinforcement advancing
from the river, our force turned southwards, swooped down on the enemy, and
completely routed them. By night we held the greater part of the enemy's
trenches and had inflicted heavy casualties, with the result that he decided to
retire, and before daybreak was in full retreat along the road to Baghdad.
The part played in the operations by the
naval flotilla was necessarily that of floating artillery. The flotilla
consisted of three armed launches Shaitan, Comet, and
Sumana, four horse-boats, and two small
motor-boats. The horse-boats had each a 4.7
inch gun, but the launches were too flimsily constructed to carry
anything larger than a twelve-pounder. In addition to these craft there was the
Royal Naval Air Service, with their seaplanes, who did invaluable work in
reconnaissance, in observation of artillery fire, and in carrying important
messages. It cannot be said that they enjoyed their job, for the truth of the
matter is that most of them were in the throes of malaria. Major Gordon, of the
Royal Marines, who was their chief, says very plaintively that in a hot climate
he does not like a machine whose slip-stream blows
directly through the radiator on to the pilot's face.
On one occasion he collided with a bellum
as he was getting off the water, and damaged his chassis, and he explains in
his best official language that " this accident
was due to the pilot not being in a fit condition to fly, as he had been sick
with malaria the day before." But it was simply a case of necessity's
compulsion, for we were short of aeroplanes at the time. Three days later he
managed to get through the ordeal of a flight of 240 miles without accident. He
was splendidly backed up by his men, of whom he says: "Out of twenty
ratings, eighteen have been attacked by malaria, some on more than one occasion
since leaving East Africa. This illness is hampering the work to a great
extent, as the majority of the men are not fit for a long day's work. They all,
however, insist on working, and will not say when they feel ill." A dose
of Mesopotamia on top of a dose of East Africa without a sugar-plum of leave in
between is rather strenuous even for the R.N.A.S., and it is comforting to know
that they were all sent home shortly afterwards for a rest and change of
To return to the three armed launches.
Their job the first day was to keep up a bombardment of the enemy on the right
bank, in pursuance of the scheme of creating the impression that the main
attack was to be made there. On the second day they still confined their chief
attentions to the right bank, with the idea of keeping down the enemy's fire
from that quarter against our brigades operating on the left bank. As soon as
an aeroplane brought them word that the operations far inland to the north had
been successful, they moved upstream, and engaged the enemy at close range.
Here they found the enemy's shells and rifle-fire made things rather warm for
them, and the General sent word that they were not to advance any farther. So
they hung on where they were, and secured themselves to the bank. At six
o'clock in the evening another message came through from the General. It told
them that our attack at the north end of the line on the enemy's left wing had
been completely successful, and that the Turks were retreating. The message
went on to refer to an obstruction across the river near Kut.
Unless this could be removed, it would be impossible for the flotilla to aid
the cavalry in pursuing the enemy. The General therefore requested the Senior
Naval Officer to proceed upstream, examine the obstruction, and, if possible,
Lieutenant-Commander Edgar C. Cookson was
acting S.N.O. at the time, in the absence of three officers senior to him, of
whom two had taken their ships to Ceylon for health-recruiting purposes, and
the third was in hospital. He ordered the flotilla to darken ship, and about
seven o'clock the three launches crept upstream, followed by one of the
motor-boats. As they approached the obstruction they were detected, and a heavy
fire with rifles and machine guns was opened on them from the trenches on both
banks of the river. They found that the obstruction consisted of a
maheilah in the middle, and two iron lighters, one each
side. These were placed across stream in a line and joined together by wire
hawsers. The first idea was that, if the maheilah
could be sunk by gunfire, there would be plenty of room for the ships to pass
between the two iron lighters. Whether this theory would have proved correct,
or whether the sunken maheilah would have been a
worse obstruction than the floating maheilah, was
never determined, because it is not such an easy thing as it looks to sink a
maheilah by gunfire.
It 'became clear that the only satisfactory
way of removing the obstruction was to cut the moorings by which the craft were
held together, and send the maheilah floating
downstream with the current. The S.N.O. ordered the Comet, from which he was
directing the operations, to proceed upstream and place herself
actually alongside the maheilah.
No mere words can convey an adequate idea
of the inferno of rifle-fire which greeted the vessel
as she carried out this manoeuvre. To the Turks it was of vital importance that
the obstruction should remain intact until they had time to get their army
away; for their line of retreat for the first few miles lay within easy range
of the river, and if the armed launches were able to go upstream at once, they
would probably make the difference between an orderly retreat and a rout.
Fortunately, all three of the launches were fitted with bullet-proof
plating, and so long as a man's duties allowed him to keep under cover he was
fairly safe. But it was not always possible to keep under cover. For instance,
there was Leading Signalman Gilbert Wallis, who had to get into an exposed
position in order to make his signals visible. He was wounded at a very
critical moment, and was unable to stand up; but he managed to prop himself
against something and carry on with his signal. It was fortunate that he could do
so, for without that signal there would have been worse calamities. Then there
was Private A. G. May, R. M.L.I., who was working the Comet's six-pounder from
behind its gun-shield. He was working it single-handed, and was feeling quite
happy at his job until his gun-shield carried away and then he went on working
it without feeling happy. The Comet's guns were decidedly unfortunate, for the
three-pounder on the port side was always in trouble. The bolts
which were meant to hold the mounting to the deck got so loose that they
threatened to draw out altogether. Leading Seaman Ernest Sparks, however,
continued to fire the gun and to hope for the best, but it was rather like
riding a thoroughbred with two broken reins patched up with a bit of cotton.
The Comet was brought alongside the maheilah to the musical accompaniment of bullets pattering
on the steel plating like raindrops on a window-pane.
They came in a thick shower from both sides of the river, and those which missed the ship went shrieking overhead like a
swarm of harpies. Lieutenant Commander Cookson peered through the darkness at
the wire hawsers which held the maheilah
in its place, and in a moment his mind was made up.
The Captain of the Comet (Lieutenant W. V.
Harris) heard him shout for an axe; but was too busy manoeuvring the ship to
attend to him, and it was too dark to see from the bridge what actually
happened. The eyewitnesses were the gun's crew on the fo'c'sle.
They saw the S.N.O., axe in hand, leaning over the Comet's steel plating in an
endeavour to reach the wire hawser. Then they saw him get over the plating and
step on to the maheilah itself. Immediately
afterwards they saw him fall between the ship and the maheilah,
and they hastened to extricate him and bring him back into the ship. There were
more bullet holes in him than they cared to count; he died within ten minutes.
The Captain of the Comet found that no less
than twelve men in the little ship were wounded, and wisely decided that it was
impossible to do anything more under such a heavy fire at point-blank range, so
he signalled to the other launches his intention of retiring. This was the
signal which Leading Signalman Wallis managed to get
through, although he was unable to stand up on account of his wound.
All the flotilla got back safely, and anchored for the night
in the Na'khailah Reach.
Next morning early they went upstream
again, and found that the enemy had fled from their trenches abreast of the
obstruction, leaving only two men with an old muzzle-loading cannon, which they
fired off in the true comic-opera style. By ten o'clock the ships were at
Kut; but they had no time to dally there if they were to
overtake the enemy. Unfortunately, the Tigris itself proved an enemy, and they
found natty obstructions of which the hand of man was o lite
innocent. The Sumana ran aground and broke both her
rudders; the Shaitan was hit by a shell from one of
the Turk's rearguard guns, but, fortunately, the mishap did no more than delay
her progress and she was able later on to come up with the Comet again. They
sighted two of the enemy's steamers ahead of them, and managed to send a shell
into the Busrah, causing her to drop two
maheilahs full of ammunition which
she had been towing, and so find safety in her superior speed. But the
Shaitan and Comet still pressed forward, until they
suddenly found another contretemps to deal with. The Turks had detached a small
force of infantry and some mountain guns to make a detour inland, rejoining the
river some way below our forces, there to harass our line of communications.
This force was now on its way back, and, seeing British steamers in front of
it, opened fire on them with the mountain guns. So the two
armed launches were in the uncomfortable position of having the enemy
both ahead and astern of them. At this critical juncture the Shaitan ran aground again; she soon got off, however, and
Lieutenant Mark Singleton, who was now acting S.N.O., decided that the pursuit
must be abandoned, as there was grave risk that the ships might be cut off altogether.
So they turned round and made their way back to Kut.
When General Townshend heard the story of
Lieutenant-Commander Cookson's death, he sent a special despatch to General
Headquarters detailing the facts. Having described the situation in which the
Comet was placed, with a heavy fire at point-blank range from both sides of the
river pouring into her, the despatch concludes with these simple words: "
He found that he could not send a man over the ship's side to cut away the
obstruction, because it meant certain death, so he took an axe and went
That is all. No laudatory phrases; no
embellishments; just a plain recital of a plain story. But was finer tribute
ever penned? As Senior Naval Officer he had been entrusted with an important task,
but when he arrived on the scene he found that to order a man to execute it
would be to send him to certain death, and so " he took an axe and went
himself." When the children of the centuries to come take up the burden of
their marvellous heritage as citizens of the British Empire; when they turn to
the pages of history and learn about the strange transformations which the land
of Mesopotamia has seen; when they trace the records from the days of Babylon's
glory, which endured for two thousand years, through the ages of pomp and
magnificence which marked the reign of Haroun-al-Raschid,
Caliph of Baghdad, through the years of poverty when, under the thraldom of
Constantinople, industries were abandoned, waterways were left to flood the
country at their will, and peasants taxed into a state of starvation to fill
the pockets of Valis and Mudirs;
when at last they come to the Great War, which brought the British flag into
this realm of mighty rivers, and with it the dawn of a new era: then let us
hope they may find a breath of inspiration, giving them strength to bear the
burden they have inherited, in the simple story of the sailor who " took
an axe and went himself,"
VI - THE RETREAT FROM CTESIPHON
BY one of the ironies of Fate, the big
disaster of the Mesopotamian campaign synchronized with the debut of the most
important accession to the naval forces in the country the specially
constructed gunboats, which were sent out in sections and put together at
Abadan. On October 23, 1915, H.M.S. Firefly, the first of the new craft, was
launched; and ten days later she arrived at Busrah,
where she shipped her guns and ammunition, carried out her gun trials, and
proceeded the same day up-river, to play her part in the
famous push towards Baghdad. Needless to say, she was an object of great
interest to soldiers and sailors alike, for she was the very latest thing in
Mesopotamian novelties; and while the experts were talking learnedly about her
armament, her engines, her draught, her searchlight, her wireless equipment,
and all else connected with her fighting efficiency, the ordinary mind was
content to admire her domestic fittings the bunks, the lockers, the telescopic
washhand-stands, the flaptables,
the wicker chairs, wicker mess-tables, and all the rest of her furniture and
appointments. She had little opportunity, however, of showing herself off, for
she was born in stirring times, and her baptism of champagne was shortly to be
followed by her baptism of fire.
Under the command of Lieutenant-Commander
C. J. F. Eddis she proceeded to Aziziyeh,
where she found the three armed launches Comet, Shaitan,
and Sumana, the sternwheelers Shushan
and Massoudieh, and four horse-boats, each carrying a
4.7 inch gun. This was the whole of the naval flotilla
at that time capable of getting up the river. Other gunboats were on the stocks
and were nearing completion, but the Great Push could not wait for them. It is
not to be supposed, however, that the fortunes of this luckless attempt to rush
through to Baghdad could in any way have been affected by an increase of naval
strength. A great change had come over the character of the campaign since the
summer of 1915, and it could no longer be described as amphibious warfare. The
floods had subsided with the fall of the rivers, and the fighting had receded
northwards beyond the flood area. The first taking of Kut-al-Amarah
at the end of September, 1915, may be said to close
the first chapter in the history of the campaign. Thenceforth the operations
approximated in character to normal military operations, and the functions of
the Navy were reduced to supplementing as well as they could the Army's
artillery, patrolling the long line of communications, and standing by to take
up the role of cavalry in the event of the enemy being put to flight. So far as
artillery work is concerned the Navy were at a big disadvantage, in that the
masts and funnel of a gunboat offer an ideal mark on which the enemy's gunners
can take their range; and while land artillery can take advantage of
irregularities in the ground to conceal itself, the gunboat must always present
a conspicuous target. Moreover, the river-banks were high, and for guns with a
flat trajectory it was impossible to get under the lee of them, and at the same
time command the appropriate range; the only way of firing the projectile over
the bank was to keep at a sufficient distance from it, by taking advantage of
the river bends, and this, of course, exposed the ships to the full view of the
hostile gunners. A further difficulty confronting the Navy was the low level of
the river, which is full of shoals and shifting sand-banks,
and is very difficult to navigate. This explanation is necessary to a full
comprehension of what befell the Navy during the retreat from Ctesiphon.
On November 22, 1915, the naval flotilla
was lying at the village of Bustan, about two miles
east of Ctesiphon; and as soon as our attack began the flotilla became heavily
engaged with the Turkish guns on the right bank of the river, and at the same
time was bombarding the Turkish trenches. Their main trouble was the difficulty
of locating the enemy's guns, which were very cleverly hidden. The enemy, on
the other hand, had been able to prepare for the attack, and had evidently made
careful calculations of the exact ranges of various points on the river. Their
position was an enviable one, for they were firing all the time at exposed
targets while they themselves were well concealed, and could seek protection in
trenches or dug-outs whenever our shells began to fall uncomfortably close to
them. None the less the flotilla carried on with the work for four days,
although the Comet had been badly hit on the first day; fortunately, she was
not compelled to withdraw, as it was found possible to repair the damage on the
It is not my purpose to write the story of
what was happening on land during these four days, except in so far as the
record is necessary to explain the fortunes of the naval flotilla. I have heard
General Townshend's attack at Ctesiphon described as a masterpiece; and I have
heard it said that he achieved exactly what he predicted no more and no less.
He is reported to have said, when he had arrived at Ctesiphon and had made a
reconnaissance of the enemy's position, that by engaging the enemy he could win
the battle, at a price, but that his force would be so much depleted that
further progress would be impossible. His orders were to engage the enemy, and
he carried them out, completely defeating one Turkish division and capturing
1,300 prisoners and several guns. At the end of three days' hard fighting he
had driven the enemy back to their second line of trenches; and then came the
ominous report that large Turkish reinforcements were arriving. So there was
the General, several hundred miles from the base, on a barren plain swept by
bitter cold winds, with over 4,000 casualties on his hands, a badly equipped
medical service, and a fleet of river transport so inadequate that supplies had
broken down, and some of the troops had been without food for three days.
The order to retire came from Headquarters
only just in time; in another day or two it would have become impossible for
him to extricate his division. On the night of November 25 the field of
Ctesiphon was abandoned, and the Army retired to their previous camp at
Lajj, about six miles down-river. Next day the retreat
continued towards Aziziyeh, and it soon became
apparent that there were still further difficulties to be overcome. The
problems connected with the navigation of a winding river, with sharp bends at
frequent intervals, a strong current, and shifting sand-banks, have already
been mentioned; it must now be explained that all the food, ammunition, and
stores of the Army were loaded in barges, which were towed in pairs on either
side of paddle-wheel steamers. Only those who have had experience of river
navigation can appreciate the full significance of this. To manoeuvre a
paddler, with a couple of heavy barges tied alongside her, round one of those
bends was a feat in itself, and this feat had to be repeated at very frequent
intervals. It has been said by Napoleon that an army marches on its stomach,
and, remembering this maxim, we may find a silent but eloquent expression of
the military faith in the efficiency of the Navy and the Merchant Service. For
the Army from Ctesiphon marched on in a straight line, trusting to the skippers
of the river craft to bring the food and stores round all the tortuous windings
of the river, and to come up with them when required.
As it turned out, nearly all the transports
got stuck about four miles below Lajj, and a new
function for the Navy in Mesopotamia was revealed - the rescue of stranded Army
rations. Throughout the whole of November 26 the naval flotilla was busily
engaged in towing transport barges off the mud, and throughout the next day
they were occupied in the same way a little lower down the river. One of the
tugs had taken a wrong channel near Zoeur, had run
aground and been abandoned by her crew on the approach of some Arab cavalry. So
the Comet and Shushan went in search of the straying
tug, found her, and extricated her, meanwhile carrying on a hot argument with
the Arab cavalry. The work of rescuing stranded barges went on all that night
and during most of the next day; and when all the transports were at last
cleared, the Comet and the Shaitan themselves ran
aground about eight miles above Aziziyeh. They
remained aground all night, while the enemy's advanced troops carried on a
heavy sniping from the right bank, and next day from the left bank as well. But
the Comet got clear, crossed the river, and kept the sniping parties at a
respectable distance, while the Firefly and Shushan
were busy attending to the Shaitan. But the poor old
packet was past praying for; she had bumped the mud so often in the course of
her long career that she had lost heart for her job. She was leaking like a
sieve, and there was nothing for it but to salve her guns and stores and
abandon her. This was not an easy operation to carry out, with energetic
snipers on both banks of the river; so the Senior Naval Officer had to send an
appeal to the General for help, and in the afternoon some cavalry came out from
Aziziyeh and eased the situation.
When the rest of the flotilla arrived at Aziziyeh, the S.N.O., feeling that the entertainment of the
past few days had been too strenuous for real enjoyment, suggested to the
General the advisability of sending the transport barges in advance of the
Army, instead of leaving them in the rear to be shepherded home by the Navy. He
pointed out to the Staff the difficulties of navigation under the existing
conditions, and the fact that the transport had to cover a much longer route
than the Army owing to the tortuous course of the river, the distance by road
from Lajj to Kut being
about 75 miles, and the distance by river 210 miles; and he warned them that,
if the barges were not sent ahead, it was probable that many of them would be
lost, should the Turks continue the pursuit. He then despatched the
and the horse-boats down-river to make all speed to
Kut, leaving only the Firefly, Comet, and Sumana, behind with him.
It is impossible at this date to ascertain
the reason why it was not found possible to act upon the S.N.O.'s
advice, but the fact remains that on November 30 the transport barges left
Aziziyeh about the same time as the troops recommenced
their march, and anchored that night in the Ummal-Tubal
reach, abreast of our camp. Here occurred the most dramatic incident of the retreat.
At daylight on December 1 large enemy forces were seen to the north-west, at a distance of about two miles; and all round
the horizon were still larger forces, which appeared to encircle the British
camp on three sides. This was not the awakening vision that the leader of an
army would covet, and it came with the greater unexpectedness because this was
the first occasion in the campaign that the Turk had been in the position of
the pursuer. His extraordinary mobility in retreat was well known to us, but
now we learned for the first time that he could be equally mobile in pursuit.
There was no leisure, however, to spend in moralizing, for with the first
streak of dawn the enemy launched a vigorous attack. The naval flotilla was in
action immediately, and, spotting a large body of Turks massed together not
more than 3,000 yards away, the Firefly and Comet proceeded to pour
lyddite into them with methodical rapidity. Meanwhile the
Army was hastening its retreat, burning all the food and stores
which it was found impossible to transport. The air was filled with a
blue haze and the penetrating smell of sizzling hams combined with the gentle
odours of petrol and burning sacks of flour. How ardently must the beleaguered
garrison at Kut, a few weeks later, have wished that
all those good things, which were destroyed on that eventful morning, had
remained to them! But the great object was to get the army safely away, and in
an incredibly short space of time it melted like a cloud on the horizon. There
remained the little gunboat and the two armed launches, still plugging away
with lyddite shells Horatius
Codes, Spurius Lartius, and
Herminius, barring the way of the advancing army.
They were aided at the outset by the cavalry brigade, which prevented a Turkish
column from enveloping our right flank, and by our land artillery, which fought
a desultory rearguard action as it retreated.
The three little craft carried on with
their job, heedless of whether they were receiving support or not, until a
Turkish shell hit the Firefly amidships and penetrated her boiler.
Lieutenant-Commander Eddis was badly wounded, and one
of the stokers was killed; the engines were put out of action completely and
the ship began to drift helplessly downstream. Then the Comet took her in tow,
but in trying to negotiate a narrow bend in the river both ships stuck on the
mud, the Comet being firmly wedged against the bank. The Firefly, however,
managed to get afloat again, and was sent drifting downstream, but it was not
long before she grounded on another shoal. Meanwhile the Sumana
had come up, and was making desperate efforts to drag the Comet off the mud;
but by this time our troops had all retreated eastwards, and large bodies of
Turkish troops had entered our camp. The enemy had also brought up several
field guns to short range, and were subjecting all three of the ships to an
accurate and heavy fire. Finally the enemy's infantry came running up to the
river and completely surrounded the ships, pouring a hail of rifleshot into them. The S.N.O. decided that it was useless
to make any further attempt to save either the Comet or the Firefly, and,
having called up the Sumana to come alongside the
Comet, he climbed aboard her, and sent a skiff to fetch off the officers and
men of the Firefly. The S.N.O. was one of those cheery optimists whose optimism
is merely stimulated by being in a tight corner. It is recorded of him that, as
he was leaving the Comet with bullets pattering against the ship's side and
singing in his ears, and shells shrieking over his head, he turned to the
officers standing beside him, and said, with his inimitable chuckle of glee,
"A champagne supper if we get out of this, what?"
So the little Sumana
took aboard her the two stranded ship's companies, and staggered downstream, so
heavily laden that her deck was almost awash. The last she saw of her two
lamented sisters was that they were both on fire, with large bodies of Turkish
troops surrounding them. But their crews were safe for the time being, their
guns and engines had been disabled, and the S.N.O. had got his confidential
books tucked under his arm all except an obsolete signal book, which had to be
left in the Firefly's safe, because the fire had made the safe too hot to open.
I have heard a yarn that in that selfsame safe was a plan of Baghdad drawn up
by the General, showing the houses where the British troops were to be billeted
when they entered the city. General Townshend was always very thorough, and
prepared for every contingency, even when he had very little faith in the
possibility of its occurrence. Von der
Goltz and Khalil Pasha must have
smiled sardonic smiles when that plan of Baghdad was brought to their notice.
In the hurry of our Army's retreat two
barges filled with stores had been left behind, and the Sumana
had taken charge of them, intending to bring them down to Kut.
But now they were surrounded by the Turks, and it was
impossible to rescue them. So the little Sumana went
struggling on, with an abnormal draught which caused her many a bump on the
mud, and attended by a constant risk of taking a list and rolling on to her
beam ends. It was not long before she came to more evidence of the troubles of
a retreating army. One of the transport steamers, towing a lighter on either
side of her, had run aground at a difficult bend near Shidhaif.
Now, one lighter contained a few stores and some sick and wounded Indian ranks,
and the other lighter contained a very large supply of military ammunition for
guns of all calibres and for rifles. There was no time to lose, for the Turks
were hot on the pursuit and their field guns were within range. The only
question to be decided was, Which of the two lighters
ought to be salved first? and the S.N.O. made up his
mind in a moment the one which would be of more value to the enemy. It was
dragged off the mud, and so was the transport tug, and the pair were sent on
their way downstream. This left the problem of the sick and wounded in the
other lighter. To take them aboard the Sumana was
impossible, for it needed little more than an extra featherweight to make her
founder. There happened to be a small steam-launch within hail, and the S.N.O.
told her Captain to go alongside the lighter and take off as many of the sick
men as he could accommodate, without jeopardizing the safety of his craft. As
it turned out, this solution of the problem was no solution at all, for in some
unaccountable way possibly because the Captain attempted to take too many
people aboard, and so made the launch unwieldy the rescuer got aground in the
shallows, and had to be abandoned. The Sumana could
not possibly attempt to give assistance, for with the load she had to carry she
could not even return upstream against the current. Moreover, matters had
become urgent, for between her and Kut were many big
bends of the river; and if the Turks with their field guns took a straight line
across the plain, they would be able to reach one of these, and so cut off the
possibility of further retreat.
When darkness fell, the difficulties of
navigation increased threefold in fact, it is nothing short of a miracle that a
small overladen craft should have been able to find
her way through those tortuous channels of the river at its very lowest season,
round hairpin bends, and over treacherous shoals. Sub-Lieutenant C. P.
Tudway, who handled her, deserved a better fate than to be
among the garrison which surrendered at
Kut some five months later. When at last the
Sumana reached Kut on December 2,
she found that she had outpaced the troops after all, and was two or three
hours in front of them. They arrived that same evening thoroughly exhausted,
and perhaps the most cheering sight which greeted the
careworn Staff was the smiling face of the S.N.O. One of them gave vent
to his feelings by exclaiming: "Well now! we
never expected to see you again/'
So ended the famous retreat from Ctesiphon,
and it is no exaggeration to say that the Navy in Mesopotamia never had more
difficult duties to perform than during those unfortunate days. The loss of the
Comet and Shaitan was bad enough, but the loss of the
Firefly was a disaster. She was the first-born of the new brood, and the Navy
regarded her with eyes of pride, as every mother regards every firstborn child.
She had been snatched away from her parent, and become a captive in alien
hands, which knew not how to heal her sores nor soothe
her afflictions. For more than a year she bore her sorrow patiently, and then
came the day of her deliverance, when the tragedies of Ctesiphon and
Kut were overlayed by the
brilliant record of General Maude's advance and the capture of Baghdad. But
that is Another Story.
VII - A FORLORN HOPE
THE month of April,
1916, was full of dramatic incidents in the Mesopotamian campaign, and ended
with one of the most dramatic events of the war the surrender of
Kut-al-Amarah. To everyone engaged in the campaign it was a
month of long and terrible suspense, and the psychological barometer of the
whole British force was going up and down like a piston-rod, as each scrap of
news came through from the front. On the 5th of the month we captured the El
Hannah position, and it was reported in Busrah that
our casualties had been remarkably small, that the Turks had retreated to a
lightly held position, some miles to the rear, that we might confidently expect
to clear them out of that on the morrow, and that we should then be up against
their last and main defence at the Ess Sinn Banks.
Next day we heard details of the operations: There were five lines of trenches
to be taken before El Hannah became ours; the Turks first retreated to a
position at Falahiyah, which we attacked at nightfall
and captured; meanwhile on the right bank of the river we had driven the Turks
out of their position, and when they counterattacked we completely
outmanoeuvred them and caused them very heavy casualties. All this sounded such
excellent news that our spirits soared into the clouds, and we began discussing
what would be the most appropriate way to celebrate the relief of
Kut. Blowing off sirens and hooters and sending up rockets
seemed somehow inadequate for such an occasion, and a searchlight display by
the assembled squadron, even if it could be arranged, would be a commonplace
method of expressing our emotions.
For the next day or two nobody dared to
cast any shadow of a doubt upon the universal confidence that Kut would be relieved; the only latitude allowed to the
pessimists was the expression of the view that it would take longer than was
generally anticipated. And then there followed a week of ominous silence from
the front. The barometer began to fall slowly but steadily, for we knew that,
when a big push is in progress, no news must inevitably mean bad news. The
Turks were holding us up at Sanna-i-yat, the position
which early reports had declared to be only lightly
held, but which had evidently been much strengthened by the enemy. A few days
later came news that the floods had entered both the Turkish trenches and our
own, and that, while we had managed to pump the water out of ours, the Turks
had been forced to move back to higher ground, and had lost heavily in doing
so. We also heard that we had advanced on the right bank of the river, and that
arrangements had been made to supply food to Kut by
means of aircraft. This was about the 15th of the month, and the barometer
began to rise again, but not very rapidly. The precise effect which the floods
were likely to have upon the operations was at first an uncertain quantity; but
when we learned a few days later that our troops were engaged in making a
causeway through the floods as an essential preliminary to further advance, we
realized that Fate was against us, and that the advent of the flood season had
taken place at a most unfortunate moment. And all the time there were small
driblets of intelligence trickling through to us about the desperate straits to
which the Kut garrison was reduced. We were all
busily engaged upon efforts in mental arithmetic. Given that the aeroplanes at
our disposal were so many, that each aeroplane was capable of carrying so many
pounds of food per day, and that the garrison of Kut
was so many thousand, how much food would be received by each man, and how long
could they hold out upon such scanty supplies?
Up to this time not a word had been spoken
in H.M. ships about the Julnar. Some of our artisan
ratings had been sent up-river to Amarah, and most of
us knew that they were to fit up steel plates round her steering positions and
engines, and make her as secure as was possible against gun and rifle fire; but
none of us spoke of it. In the wardroom of one of the sloops an officer
remarked that the moon was not rising until past eleven o'clock, and the remark
was received by an ominous silence and severe scowls. Ashore, however, the
importance of secrecy was not so fully appreciated. The various messes were
openly canvassing the chances of the vessel getting through the blockade, and I
have heard that even the Arabs in Busrah bazaar were
making it a subject of speculation. The difficulties of keeping the matter
secret were obvious. The vessel had been loaded up at Busrah
with some 250 tons of food, and had then gone up to Amarah,
where she was specially fitted for the great ordeal. However assiduously false
reports were spread as to her purpose and aim, the most simple-minded person
must have made a shrewd guess as to the real nature of her mission. I happened
to go up to Amarah shortly after she had left there
for Sheikh Saad, and walking along the bank I met one
of the river-transport skippers. He had just brought down some sick and wounded
and a few Turkish prisoners, and told me that he had passed the
Julnar the previous evening. I suppose the expression on my
face indicated my surprise at his referring to the subject. ' You can't put the
cat back in the bag when she's once out of it," he said. "Why, I
overheard some of my prisoners exchanging bets on the possibility of her
The voyage of the Julnar
was never anything more than a forlorn hope. She was a twin-screw steamer, and
faster than most of the river craft, and if any vessel at all could slip
through the blockade she was that vessel. In order to gauge her chances we must
appreciate the nature of the task in front of her. First of all, she had to
face the ordinary difficulties of navigation a winding river with hairpin bends
and occasional shoals, which even in the flood season were capable of pulling
up a heavily laden vessel. Secondly, she had to face these difficulties in the
dark, for to make the attempt by daylight was, of course, out of the question.
Thirdly, she had to run the gauntlet of the Turkish guns on both banks from
Sanna-i-yat to Kut a distance of
over twenty miles by river to say nothing of a possible fusillade by rifles and
machine guns. Fourthly, there was the possibility that the Turks might have
sown a minefield, or, what was more probable, have stretched a wire hawser or
some such obstruction across the river, in anticipation of the attempt being
made. Aeroplane reconnaissances were made, and the
airmen reported that they could see no signs of minefields or obstructions; but
the waters of the Tigris are muddy, and it was more than possible that objects
beneath the surface would escape detection. Turkish prisoners, however, were
unanimous in declaring that no obstructions had been prepared. This
information, however, if it could be relied on, only served to emphasize the
first two difficulties the negotiation of the sharp bends in the river and the
ticklish job of navigating in the dark. The Admiral himself said that he had
very little hope of the success of the undertaking, for the odds against it
were too great.
I believe that it was first suggested some
weeks previously by a member of the Army Commander's Staff, and was referred to
the Senior Naval Officer; that it was debated at some length between the Army
Commander, the Staff, and the S.N.O.; and that it was in the first instance
abandoned as being beyond the range of practical politics. When, however, the
position of the beleaguered garrison became critical, the proposal was again
brought up, and was referred to Vice-Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss,
the Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies Station, who had arrived at
Busrah on April 10, 1916, in the yacht Imogene, in the
course of his tour round the naval ports of his station. He had at once
proceeded up-river, in one of the gunboats, to the scene of
the operations, and the most important question upon which he had to decide was
this question of whether or not the attempt should be made to send a ship
through to Kut. Without pretending to know what
considerations influenced the Admiral's mind, I feel that the problem, although
a momentous one, was simple enough in its elements. The beleaguered garrison
were nearing the end of their tether; the fate of some 9,000 officers and men
was in the balance; the Army had appealed to the Navy for help. So long as
there was the smallest grain of a chance, so long as it could be said that with
the aid of extraordinarily good luck there was a remote possibility of success,
that appeal must not be made in vain. The Admiral sent out private letters to
the officers of the Mesopotamian squadron asking for volunteers for the command
of the Julnar. There was no need to point out to them
the dangers of the enterprise, or the slender hopes upon which it had been
sanctioned; they all knew that the chances of success were practically
negligible. But most of them sent in their names, and the Admiral's next
problem was that of making the selection.
His choice fell upon Lieutenant Humphrey O.
B. Firman, R.N., and to accompany him he selected
Lieutenant Commander Charles H. Cowley, R.N.V.R.,
whose intimate knowledge of the river, gained in the service of Messrs. Lynch
Brothers, was likely to be most valuable. Mr. Reed, who was given a temporary
commission as Engineer Sub-Lieutenant, R.N.R., also volunteered to accompany
the expedition. The crew consisted of one engine-room artificer, one leading
stoker, three stokers, one leading seaman, and six able seamen. All these were
volunteers drawn from the men of the gunboat flotilla. The Admiral says of
them: "They were under no misapprehensions as to the dangers they ran, and
they knew that I considered it most unlikely that they would reach their
destination and fulfil their task; and had it not been that I realized that it
was the one and only chance of saving the garrison, I would not have given my
consent to such an undertaking." At eight o'clock on the evening of April
24 the Julnar started from Falahiyah
on her perilous voyage, and, as though to give her an enthusiastic send-off,
our artillery at once opened a terrific bombardment of the enemy's lines. The
object of this was, of course, to keep the Turks in their trenches, and so
reduce their chances of detecting the blockade-runner; and at first
it really looked as if the ruse had been successful, for there was no
indication that she had been detected.
We began to make calculations as to her
probable progress; but in so doing we were obliged to guess her speed, for
there had been no opportunity for testing it after she had been armour-plated
and loaded. The moon was due to rise at 1.15 a.m., which gave her just over
five hours to cover the twenty odd miles; and taking into account a strong
adverse current of about four knots, the allowance was not excessive. After
Sanna-i-yat her course would be fairly straight for the
first two miles or so, as far as Beit
Aieesa; but after that there would be several nasty bends,
including a specially difficult one at the end of the
Nakhaila reach. Then came the Ess
Sinn position, where it was reasonable to suppose that the Turks would be on
the look-out, and some four miles farther on was the hairpin bend of
Magasis Ferry, which is eight and a half miles from
Kut by river, but only four miles as the crow flies. Our
only hope lay in the darkness of the night, which was intensified by the high
banks of the river; if she had really managed to pass through the front enemy
position at Sanna-i-yat without being seen, it was
just conceivable that the Turks in the back positions might be caught napping.
While we were in the midst of these anxious speculations, a report came from
H.M.S. Mantis that a red light had been seen at some distance up the river, and
we were told that this was the recognized Turkish signal that a vessel was
passing up the river. The futility of further speculation became painfully
obvious; there was nothing for it but to sit down and wait patiently for the
issue, whatever it might be.
The full story of the voyage of the Julnar will never be known until the war is over, and our
prisoners in Turkey have been released; the only glimpse we can get through the
veil which shrouds that heroic endeavour is to be
found in the chronicle of one of the beleaguered garrison. We will therefore
change the scene to Kut itself, and see what was
happening among those who for nearly five months had kept the flag flying in the
face of grim starvation. The quotations are from the report written by
Lieutenant H. S. D. McNeal, R.F.A.; and though his account of the death of
Lieutenant Commander Cowley is no more than hearsay,
there are circumstantial details about it which serve
to lend corroboration to it. But first of all I will quote two short extracts,
which in themselves afford an awful revelation of the
sufferings endured by those brave men:
"Esmeralda, my charger, was killed and
eaten on April 18. Poor thing! she died in harness all
For a long time before that date the issue
of horseflesh as part of the daily rations had become the normal routine; the
trouble was that even this form of food had come to an end.
"On April 23 we drew as rations four
ounces of bread, one ounce of sugar, and half an ounce of cheese."
How well I remember seeing the arrival at Busrah of some of the exchanged prisoners, those who were
too far emaciated to stand the smallest chance of surviving the long journey
which would have been before them, had they been carried into captivity. I saw
a batch of human skeletons with a thin covering of skin over their bones, and I
shuddered and turned my head away. About a year later I returned to the heart
of the Empire, and found the walls placarded with
appeals to the people to eat less bread, and a Food Controller spending his
days in trying to persuade the citizens of England not to waste food. Truly we
are an unimaginative race. But let me pass on to the entry in Lieutenant
McNeal's report, which relates the occurrences of the eventful night of April
" Great excitement prevailed in Kut when it was heard that the relieving force would
attempt to send the steamboat Julnar through with
rations. It was decided that if the boat got through undisabled
it was to come up to Kut itself and be unloaded, but
that if it was hit it was to be beached at the fort. The artillery made special
preparations to cover its arrival, and everyone was on edge with expectation.
Shortly after midnight heavy rifle fire was heard down-river, and we knew that
the attempt had begun. For fifteen minutes the firing was very rapid; then it
died down, and our spirits with it. Another burst of firing came, and our
spirits rose accordingly; but this also died away into silence, and we knew
that the attempt had failed."
Oh the anguish of it! After five months of
hardship and struggle against the pangs of hunger, after five months of
alternating hope and despair as each item of news from the relieving force
trickled through to the defenders, after five months of grim determination
upheld by the traditions of the Empire to which they belonged by the memory of
Lucknow, where " ever upon the topmost roof the banner
of England blew"; of Delhi, of Khartoum, of Ladysmith, and of Mafeking
after five months of unfaltering loyalty to their beloved General and of
unflinching faith in his leadership, those sons of Britain and of Britain's
Indian Empire realized that the last hope had gone, and that nothing now
remained to them but to surrender. The silence after the second burst of
rifle-fire told them that the attempt had failed.
"Afterwards," says Lieutenant
McNeal, " we heard that every member of the crew was killed by
rifle-fire." (Hearsay was at fault in this, for it has been ascertained
that only the two officers Lieutenant Firman and
Lieutenant-Commander Cowley were killed. All the rest
were taken prisoner, but among them five were wounded.)
"The Navigator," continues the
journal, " Captain Cowley, had dropped at the
wheel with a bullet through his groin, just as he was steering the ship through
the most critical place in the whole river, a hairpin bend. While consciousness
lasted he hung on, but the boat was swept into the bank and grounded.... When
the Turkish officers boarded the boat, they found him unconscious, with his
hands still gripping the steering-wheel, and, in spite of all the efforts of
the Turkish doctors to save him, he died without regaining consciousness."
Whether or not this account of Lieutenant Commander
Cowley 's death is accurate in its details, all who
knew him will feel confident that he died at his post. His loss was a severe
one to the expedition; for apart from his universal popularity, and his
knowledge of the natives, among whom that popularity extended, his familiarity
with every reach of the river between Busrah and
Baghdad made him a very valuable asset in the British forces. Both he and
Lieutenant Firman received the posthumous award of
the Victoria Cross.
Aeroplanes next day reported that the Julnar was in the hands of the Turks at Magasis
The rest of the story is soon told. On
April 26 the garrison at Kut gave up all hope, and
proceeded to destroy the remainder of their store of ammunition, by
decapping it and dropping it into the river. Negotiations
were opened with Khalil Pasha as to the terms of
surrender, and at first there was some expectation that the garrison would be
allowed to return to India on parole. When, however, word was passed that, in
exchange for this concession, the Turkish Commander demanded that all the guns
should be handed over to him intact, the officers and men of the garrison
unanimously declared that, rather than surrender the guns to be used against
their own comrades by the enemy, they would go as prisoners of war to Turkey.
On April 29 General Townshend gave orders that the guns were to be destroyed,
and sent round word that all, except the extreme cases in the hospitals, would
be made prisoners. The last act of the garrison was to destroy the wireless
installation. On that eventful morning we at Busrah
were taking in the farewell words of the men with whom we had worked and
fought. In a pathetically brave message General Townshend expressed his thanks
to the Army Commander, to General Gorringe, and to
the officers and men of the relief force, for the efforts they had made. There
followed a long pause; then came the simple word " Good-bye " and
then... silence! So ended the most disastrous chapter in the history of the
VIII - THE DAWN OF A NEW ERA
THE Babylonian Empire endured for over two
thousand years from 2700 B.C., when Ur-bahu combined
all the city kingdoms into one empire, until 538 B.C., when Cyrus invaded the
land and annexed it as a province of his Persian kingdom. For over two thousand
years this country was pre-eminent in the world as the home of art and
commerce, famed for its carpets, its cloths, its embroideries, its schools, its
libraries, its poets, its astronomers, for all that is comprised in the Word
" civilization." The walls of Babylon, we are told, were 200 cubits
high, 50 cubits thick, and 60 miles in circumference; and when the city had
been laid low by the Persian conquest, Alexander the Great promised to rebuild
the ruined temples, but after employing 10,000 workmen for two months he was
not even able 'to clear away the rubbish, So the city which once was queen of
all the world remains to this day a mass of broken bricks and rubbish. But the
prosperity of the land could not vanish in a day; the fertile soil of
Mesopotamia, and the great rivers which then irrigated
it and provided the natural highways of commerce, still endured; and Babylonia
still remained a rich prize, for which Syrians, Parthians,
and Romans, in turn competed.
And finally it fell into the hands of the
Caliphs, the successors of Mohammed, who founded a new city farther to the
north, and called it Baghdad. Here the wealth and pomp and luxury, which had
once been Babylon's, were transferred; here Haroun-al
Raschid reigned in the ninth century in a palace with
vaulted ceilings, rich mouldings, inlaid mirrors, and massive gilding; here was
the home of Sindbad the Sailor, from which he set out
upon his wonderful travels, always calling at Busrah
to charter his ship and load her with his merchandise. Then came the ravagers
from the Ottoman Empire, followed by centuries of strife between Turkey and
Persia, fighting for this land of wealth like dogs over a fat bone. But still,
in spite of all, the prosperity of the country remained to it, until in 1638
the Sultan of Turkey finally prevailed, and from that time forward Mesopotamia
became a Turkish province and a scene of desolation.
Where is its wealth now? Who can believe
that this wilderness of marsh and desert was once a thriving land; that where
now we see half-naked nomad tribes living the lives of animals, there once
dwelt the foremost agents of the world's civilization? Where are the vaulted
ceilings and inlaid mirrors to be found in the evil-smelling, narrow, unpaved,
dirty, garbage-strewn streets of modern Baghdad? I am told that a few of these
relics of the glorious past survive, but they look like the tawdry trappings of
a yesternight's feast. Where are the richly laden
vessels which once sailed from the port of Busrah to
carry their wares to the limits of the then known world? Where are the poets,
the astronomers, the bankers, the merchants, who
spread the fame of Babylonia far and wide? All have been swept away by that
magic wand the sceptre of the Turkish Government. It would take too long to
tell how this conjuring feat has been accomplished, to describe the methods by
which Constantinople essayed to govern Irak. It must
suffice to indicate them in a few words. First we have the principle of divide
et impera, which meant keeping each Arab tribe in a
state of perpetual hostility against its neighbour; then we have the
Valis of Baghdad and Busrah the
Governors whose personal income was derived from the taxation of the country,
and was supplemented by " saying their prayers at Kerbela " (a
euphemism for raiding the Mohammedan shrine at that place); then we have the
Mudirs, or local Governors, whose salaries the Government
carelessly forgot to pay, so that they had to raise their income by levying
fines on the peasantry and tolls upon the river-craft which pass through the
pontoon bridges across the rivers (built solely for this purpose, for nobody
ever used them as bridges); and then we have the minor officials, such as the
quarantine officer at Busrah, who charged a fee for
disinfecting you before you went ashore, and another fee of an indeterminate
amount for giving you a permit to land. The conservancy of the waterways was
absolutely neglected, and this was the worst crime of all, for the whole
vitality of the country depends on them.
It is true that in 1911 Sir William Willcocks was engaged by the Turkish Government under a
five years' contract to survey the rivers and carry out such irrigation works
as were found necessary; but after struggling with the Turkish officials for
two and a half years he threw his hand in, and was requested by the Minister of
Public Works, as a favour, to state that he resigned on account of ill-health.
In the report which he wrote immediately after his return, he contrasts
Mesopotamia with Egypt; for he had travelled some, years previously up the Nile
from Khartoum to the equatorial lakes, and had seen the wonderful work which
his own countrymen had done in that inhospitable waste of waters, to introduce
new forest trees and new agricultural products, and ameliorate in some degree
the conditions of life of the miserable inhabitants. His next vogages were up the Tigris and Euphrates, traversing those
deserts and swamps, which to-day represent what was in antiquity the richest and
most famous tract in the world, and this is what he says: " How should I
have felt if I had belonged to a race in whose hands God had placed for
hundreds of years the destinies of this great country, and that my countrymen
could give no better account of their stewardship than the exhibition of two mighty
rivers flowing between deserts, to waste themselves in the sea for nine months
of the year, and desolating everything in their way during the remaining three?
No effort that Turkey can make can be too great to roll away the reproach of
these parched and weary lands, whose cry ascends to heaven."
Fortunately, Turkey is no longer called
upon to make the effort, for the country has passed into other hands, and the
dawn of a new era has come. It broke on March, 1917,
when the British flag was hoisted at Baghdad. The story of that wonderful
advance of the Expeditionary Force from Falahiyah to
Baghdad, and from Baghdad to the railhead at Samara, affords a fitting climax
to the vicissitudes of the two and a half years' campaign. The part played in
it by H.M. Navy was by no means insignificant; in fact, it may fairly be said
that the action of the Navy in pressing the pursuit of the enemy resulted in
such disastrous consequences to the Turks that it determined the fate of
Baghdad. The naval force had been considerably augmented during 1916, and a
large flotilla of gunboats was now on the two rivers. Three of the large
twin-funnelled vessels and five of the Fly class took part in the operations,
and just before the final advance into Baghdad the force was increased by the
Gnat, a fourth vessel of the Mantis class, as well as the recaptured Firefly.
The actual beginning of the operations, which had such a triumphant conclusion;
dates back as far as December 13, 1916, when we opened the ball with a heavy
bombardment of the Turkish position at Sanna-i-yat on
the left bank of the Tigris, and at the same time made an advance on the right
bank as far as the Shatt-al-Hai, which we succeeded
in crossing. Next day we extended our advance up both banks of this tributary
stream, and so by degrees we crept closer to the Tigris at the point where the
Shatt-al-Hai diverges from it. Our object undoubtedly
was to clear the right bank of the Tigris, effect a
crossing on the west side of Kut, and so cut the
Turkish line of communications with Baghdad. I believe it is one of the
elementary axioms of military tactics that the most advantageous point for
crossing a river in the face of a hostile force is at the end of a big loop;
for if you have possession of the bank, you can bring up your artillery on
either side of the loop, enfilade the enemy, and so force him to evacuate the
loop and leave you to build your pontoon bridge without being molested. The
Turks fought hard to prevent us from occupying the right bank of the Tigris on
either side of that loop, which holds the town of Kut,
and they were forced to defend with equal vigilance the loop farther west known
as the Shumran Bend. The ding-dong struggle went on
for weeks, but at last we succeeded in clearing the enemy from the right bank.
Our frontal attack on the Sanna-i-yat position was at first merely a blind to
distract the enemy, but later on we made it so much of a reality that the Turks
were at a loss to know where the main attack was to be launched. On February 17
a surprise attack on Sanna-i-yat gained us the first
two lines of trenches on a front of some 400 yards, but, unfortunately, we were
unable to hold them in face of a strong counter-attack. Five days later the
Seaforths and one of the Punjabi regiments did splendid
work in a repetition of the same attack, and in spite of six successive
counter-attacks we managed this time to hold the first two lines of trenches.
We then made feints of attempting to cross the Tigris at Magasis
Ferry and opposite to Kut, with the result that the
Turkish forces were dispersed over a large area, and his artillery was
concentrated at points where we had no real intention of attacking. Finally, on
February 23 we effected a crossing at the apex of the Shumran
Bend, first by means of ferries, which took over four battalions to cover the
bridgehead, and then a pontoon bridge was constructed; the infantry of one
division had crossed before nightfall, and another division was ready to
follow. Meanwhile we were attacking the third and fourth lines of trenches at
Sanna-i-yat, and during the day these also were captured by
our troops. This was the beginning of the end for the Turks, and their sole
object now was to prevent us from cutting off their line of retreat.
On the morning of February 24 the gunboat
flotilla was ordered to move up from Falahiyah, and
in the evening they entered Kut. Once more the Union
Jack floated over the town, after an interval of nearly ten months; and if only
General Townshend's division had been there to share the rejoicing, the memory
of those dark days of the campaign 'in the spring of 1916 would have been
blotted out for ever. Next day the pursuit of the retreating enemy began in
earnest, and, as usual, the Navy was asked to co-operate with the cavalry. At
Imam Mahdi we came across the enemy's rearguard in a
prepared position, and a fierce artillery duel opened up between the gunboats
and the Turkish howitzers and field batteries. After a few hours some of our
own field artillery came up, and later our infantry stormed the Turkish
trenches. The battle lasted all day, but by nightfall the Turk had either had
enough of it, or he thought that his main army had been given sufficient time
to make good its retreat; for during the hours of darkness he evacuated the
position, and next morning the flotilla continued the pursuit.
I imagine that no army in the world can
beat the Turkish Army in mobility. The Turkish soldier can live for days
together on the food which he can carry on his back a hard cake made of
compressed dates was his usual diet and consequently his officers have no need
to worry themselves to any great extent about such prosaic problems as those
connected with the commissariat and the transport of food-supplies. Their main
concern, when the army is in retreat, is to get away the guns and munitions,
and throughout the Mesopotamian campaign they have been singularly successful
in achieving this object. By way of illustration, it may be mentioned that on
February 26 one of our columns tried to accomplish a big stroke by cutting
straight across a bend of the river, fully anticipating that they would thus
overtake the enemy. They made a forced march of eighteen miles over dry desert,
but at the end of it they found that the Turk had been too quick for them, and
their only consolation was the capture of a few guns which
had been left behind. It is probable that the enemy would have succeeded, in
spite of all our efforts, in effecting an orderly retreat had it not been for a
daring exploit on the part of the gunboats.
At Nahr Kellak the flotilla came across the rearguard for a second
time, and found them well entrenched. Our cavalry, together with the naval
guns, shelled them hotly; but there was no moving them, and it became obvious
that the performance at Imam Mahdi was to be
repeated. It was then that the Senior Naval Officer decided to try and run the
gauntlet of the Turkish guns, and make a bold bid to slip past their rearguard.
In arriving at this decision he had several circumstances to take into
consideration. The Tigris at the Nahr
Kellak Bend is fairly wide; and though there are always
shifting sand-banks to be found in every part of the
river, he had reason to believe that at this point there was plenty of water.
This was an important factor in the situation, because if the foremost ship of
the line had been sunk there might have been some danger of the channel
becoming blocked, and in this case the rest of the flotilla would have been in
an awkward predicament. It must be realized that the enemy's trenches and gun
emplacements were situated all round the bend, so that as the ships passed an
inferno of shot and shell came at them from three directions. Moreover, the
Turks had heavy calibre guns as well as field guns within a few hundred yards
of the river, all blazing away at point-blank range; and from the trenches
there came a strident accompaniment of machine gun and rifle fire to supplement
the roar of the big guns.
Five gunboats took part in this wild dash
round the Nahr Kellak Bend,
the Mantis leading, and as they swept past up the river every gun they had was
in action, from the six-incher down to the Maxim. The range was something less
than 500 yards, the kind of range at which the old wooden walls of England used
to open an engagement with muzzle-loading guns and red-hot cannon balls. The
fury and deadliness of an artillery duel with modern guns at such a range
almost baffles the imagination. Every ship was hit several times, but still
they held their course; and Fortune smiled on them, for not one of them was disabled.
The Moth, which was last in the line, came in for the worst punishment; two of
her men were killed outright, and of her small complement more than half were
wounded, including her three officers. She was hit eight times by shells, and
her after-compartment was holed below the water-line,
but still she managed to keep on forging ahead. The Mantis also had a heavy
casualty list; her quartermaster and her pilot were killed in the conning
tower, and her Captain (Commander Bernard Buxton, R.N.) received a nasty wound.
But in spite of this he took charge of the wheel, just in time to save his ship
from running ashore; and though he had never seen that part of the river
before, he managed skilfully to steer his ship through the shallows.
So the enemy's rearguard was passed, and
before long our flotilla came up with the main Army, and opened fire on them
with everything they could bring to bear heavy guns, secondary armament,
pom-poms, Maxims, and rifles. The scene that ensued is indescribable; gun's
crews were shot down, and their guns abandoned, to be picked up later by our
advancing troops; munitions and stores were scattered wholesale; rifles were
thrown down, and even haversacks and water-bottles; and the greatest wonder of
all was that the Turkish soldier was seen to run, for in normal circumstances
nothing could ever make him do more than slouch along either in advance or
retreat. To quote the words of Mr. Edmund Candler, the "Eyewitness "
in Mesopotamia: " So far the enemy had conducted an orderly retirement, It
was the action of the gunboats on February 26 that introduced panic and
converted the retreat into a rout."
It was not long before the flotilla found
something else than the Turkish Army to engage their attention. This was the
Turkish Fleet, and the first vessel to come within range was our little friend
the Sumana, one of the unfortunate garrison
forced to surrender at Kut. She surrendered again
now, and was restored to her rightful owners. Several transport steamers also
hove to and gave themselves up, and about five o'clock in the evening the large
steamer Busrah was brought to by a shell from the
Tarantula and surrendered. She was full of Turkish troops, and was carrying
some German machine-gunners, of whom some were found killed and the rest
wounded. But the prize on which the S.N.O. had most set his heart was the
Firefly, which the Turks had rechristened Firicloss
the first of the brood of Mesopotamian gunboats, which was lost to us during
the retreat from Ctesiphon. She was within range, and in company with her was
the steamer Pioneer. Both were hit several times, but the Firicloss
continued gamely to return our fire with her new-pattern British-made gun. At
last, soon after six o'clock, she ran into the bank n the Zaljah
reach, to the west of Umm-al-Tubal, and within a mile or two of the spot where
she had been lost in December, 1915. We overhauled
her, and found that the Turks were trying to set fire to her magazine; but we
stopped it just in time, and the Firicloss became the
Firefly once more. Her term of tribulation was over, and she returned again to
the bosom of her family, heartily welcomed by all her younger sisters. We had
to remove her to a safe distance from the Pioneer, which was badly afire. Later
on the command of the Firefly was taken over by Lieutenant-Commander
Eddis, who had charge of her at Ctesiphon in
November, 1915. He was delighted to find in his cabin that
his books and many of his papers remained intact. Our other captures included
ten barges, some bridging material and pontoons, and large quantities of
rifles, ammunition, and equipment.
Most of the next day we kept the enemy in
sight, and together with the cavalry we helped to speed him on his way. On
March 1 we reached Aziziyah, which is fifty miles by
road from Kut, but about twice as far by river; and
here we called a halt, while the Army was reorganizing their line of
communications and preparing for a further advance. The Turks had been
streaming through the village no longer an army, but a distracted rabble casting
aside their rifles and accoutrements as though they had no other thought than
to get away from the sound of the British guns. Five days later the pursuit was
continued, and at Lajj the enemy's rearguard was
found; but a blinding sand-storm rendered artillery
work impossible, and it was left to the cavalry to force them to retire. Next
day the flotilla arrived at the famous Ctesiphon position, and found it
absolutely deserted. It had been strongly entrenched, and there was ample
evidence that the Turks had fully intended to make a big effort here; but
apparently it had been found impossible to rally them, and the great Ctesiphon
stronghold was relegated to the lumber-room of past history.
The final stand in front of Baghdad was
made by the Turks on the banks of the Dialah River,
which joins the Tigris about eight miles below the famous city; and though the
enemy's forces were so much depleted that the line was not held in very great
strength, they yet managed to offer serious resistance when our infantry tried
to cross the Dialah by ferry. In fact, they subjected
our troops to such heavy rifle and machine-gun fire that the first attempt had
to be abandoned, and we deemed it wise to adopt other methods. We sent a
detachment over to the right bank of the Tigris to enfilade the Turks across
the river, and incidentally to deal with enemy forces to the south and
south-west of Baghdad. This detachment gradually made its
way up the right bank, and on March 10 put the enemy's rearguard to flight,
occupying Baghdad railway-station early next morning. Meanwhile the struggle on
the banks of the Dialah continued, and during the
early hours of the morning of March 9 the North Lancashires
crossed the river, and seventy of them heroically stood their ground for
twenty-two hours until next morning, when the East Lancashires
and the Wiltshires joined them, and drove the enemy
out of the river-side villages back to the Tel Mohammed Ridge, his last
position, which was occupied that night. Some motorlighters
carrying infantry across the Dialah got stuck in the
mud, and had to be rescued by the Tarantula.
In the afternoon of March 11 the flotilla
arrived at the Citadel in company with Paddler 53, carrying the Army Commander,
and for the first time in history the Union Jack was hoisted over the City of
the Caliphs. For some hours previously a state of anarchy had prevailed, and,
as in the case of Busrah when our naval forces first
arrived there in November, 1914, Arabs and Kurds were
looting wholesale and setting fire to the houses. Order was soon restored,
however, and an inventory was commenced of the booty left in our hands. Guns,
machine guns, rifles, ammunition, machinery, railway materials, rolling stock,
telegraph equipment, hospital accessories all the paraphernalia of a big army
were there. But perhaps the most interesting of all was a collection of
disabled guns which had been rendered useless by the garrison of
Kut on the eve of its capitulation neglected victims of a
melancholy disaster, abandoned to the inroads of rust and decay; their very
uselessness bore testimony to the pathos of the tragedy in which they were
involved. But a new era has dawned for Mesopotamia with the hoisting of the
British flag over Baghdad Citadel; a future full of hope and promise has been opened
up for this mournful land, debased from her proud estate by corruption and
misrule. The brightest dawn, however, does not always disperse the clouds of
yesterday, nor the golden promise of the future lighten
the darkness of the past. There are those among us whose private sorrows still
rouse them to a bitter questioning of the why and wherefore of the blunders
that have been made, who cannot forget that a heavy toll in the lives of
Britain's sons has been levied for the lack of foresight and the errors of
judgment, committed by some of those responsible for the conduct of the
campaign. Such errors, alas! form the staple of the
Empire's history. We Britons spend our lives in making blunders, and give our
lives to retrieve them. But though the clouds remain, they are no longer dark
and threatening; the dawn has come, and with it the confident assurance that in
this new burden of Empire the task of restoring Mesopotamia to her former
prosperity the generations to come will gain inspiration from the long chronicle
of heroic deeds which make up the story of her deliverance. The lives of
Britain's sons have not been sacrificed in vain.
IX - THE ART OF DIPLOMACY
NOT more than a dozen years ago the peace
of the world was very nearly disturbed by a circumstance which in itself
appeared so inconsequent that the story never reached the public ear. It
happened in Westminster, in the offices of a firm of consulting engineers,
which were situated immediately underneath the Embassy of a European Power. For
the sake of brevity we will call that Power the
Republic of Calcivania. On a certain anniversary of a
famous event in Calcivanian history the flag of the
republic was bravely floating from outside the Embassy's front window. At the
window immediately below it sat the head of the firm of consulting engineers.
The flag waved backwards and forwards in the breeze, and every now and again
flapped noisily against the window-pane, until at last
the engineer could stand it no longer. He took two quart bottles of ink, a
London Directory, and a Stock Exchange Guide, ranged them at intervals along
the window-sill, and, having armed himself with a ball of string, he proceeded
to moor the flag of Calcivania in a thoroughly
seaman-like manner. And then he went on with his work. When the
Calcivanian Ambassador was returning from lunch he looked
up to satisfy his patriotic emotions by a sight of the dear old flag; and next
moment he was observed to be leaning heavily against the railings at the side
of the pavement, with a fixed stare in his eyes, as though he were trying to
recollect what he had had for lunch. It is unnecessary to relate the subsequent
events in detail. Suffice it to say that, when matters had reached the verge of
an international crisis, the situation was suddenly relieved by a timid knock
at the Ambassador's door and the. appearance of the
office-boy employed by the firm of engineers. The boy confessed his sin with
frankness and humility, and plaintively besought forgiveness. He received
double wages that week, and Europe was saved from a mighty conflagration.
It is unfortunate that the pages of history
cannot record an equally satisfactory conclusion to all the international
incidents which have been fraught with big consequences. The
one that I am going to relate has certain features about it which demand an
apology for its 'publication, and let me say at once that it would never have
seen the light of day if it did not happen to be true. This,
and the fact that it throws a valuable sidelight on the history of the war,
afford, in my opinion, sufficient justification for its appearance in
print. By way of further preface, let me add that in the autumn of 1914 the
British sloop H.M.S. Thora was lying off the Persian
town of Mahommerah, at the junction of the Karun and
the Shatt-al-Arab, that the opposite bank of the Shatt-al-Aiat
was Turkish territory and that the Turks had been in the habit of claiming that
the whole of that river belonged to their domain, although they laid no claim
of course to the Karun, which flows entirely through Persian territory. With
this explanation, I may safely leave the reader to his perusal of the
narrative, which I heard from the lips of the officer mainly concerned, and
which, to the best of my ability, I have recorded in his own words, without
attempting any embellishment.
We were seated in the wardroom of H.M.S. Thora, and the.conversation
happened to have veered round to the subject of beverages, when the Captain
turned to me, and said: "Talking of drinks, I suppose you know what was
really the beginning of the war between England and Turkey."I murmured something about the
and Breslau and German influences at Constantinople, but the Captain obviously
felt grieved at the display of so much ignorance, and sought to hide his
feelings and his face behind a large glass of lime-juice and soda.
"No," he said, " those were merely contributary
causes. The real cause of the war has never been published yet; but there is no
reason why it should not be known now, so I will tell you."
Here is the story, in the Captain's own
words as nearly as I can remember them, of the events which
led up to the declaration of hostilities between England and Turkey:
"In the autumn of 1914 the Thora was lying at Mahommerah,
and a Turkish gunboat came and anchored close by in the Shatt-al-Arab. To say
that relations were strained between the two countries is to put it mildly. All
those little matters you were mentioning just now well, they didn't make things
any easier; and when I saw the gunboat's Captain coming alongside in his skiff,
I realized at once that the position needed careful handling. At the same time
I was confident that my diplomatic skill was right on the top line and in good
working order. By the way, if you want to wire me at any time, my telegraphic
address is ' Tact'. Well, the
Turkish Commander was brought into my cabin, and of course I smiled at him
benignly and asked him to sit down. He sat on the extreme edge of the chair,
and cleared his throat three times before commencing fire. Then he dropped his
topee, which he had been twiddling round and round between
his knees; and as I stooped hurriedly to pick it up for him, he did the same,
and our heads collided violently. It was not a good beginning, and I'm not sure
that I didn't make it worse by complimenting him on the thickness of his skull.
But always remember this, my boy, that in diplomacy as in all other arts, Summa
celare artem, the zenith of art is to hide art. When I told him that
he had a thick skull, he naturally said to himself: ' Here is a plain sailor
who says what he means and means what hie says.' So
he fired off his first round.
" ' To make your acquaintance,
Captain,' he said, ' is to me both a pleasure and an honour. I have made haste
to capture the opportunity before it should be too late.'
" ' That's all right, my dear fellow',
I said. ' No doubt we shall see a good deal of each other now that we're such
near neighbours. Have a cigarette', I held a match for him, and he lit up; but
I noticed that he was all of a tremble, so I suggested a drink to steady his
nerves. But no, he wouldn't have a drink; and it flashed through my mind that
the Turk is probably rather particular about his drinks. You see, they have
some funny little customs; for instance, if a Turkish official makes himself
more than usually obnoxious, the fashionable thing to do is to put finely
ground glass into his coffee every evening. In course of time he gets a kind of
Crystal Palace inside him, and then he dies. Little customs of that kind are
apt to make a man rather an epicure about his drinks. He took two or three
ladylike puffs at his cigarette, and moved himself so near to the edge of his
chair that I began wondering what would be the proper procedure if he collapsed
on to the deck. Then he tried a second round:
" Captain, ' it makes me desolate that
we must so soon say the Good-bye.'
" ' Steady the Buffs,' I said; ' we've
only just said How d'you
' I know, I know,' he said; ' it is
desolating'. ' When are you shoving off?' I asked.
"'I? When am I?' he asked. ' You
misunderstand me, Captain. I am not, as you call it, shoving my ship. But you
are shoving your ship. It is so sad/.'
' This was a regular broadside, and as he
sat there leaning forward towards me, with his hands gripping his knees, he
stared so hard at me that he seemed to be trying to look right through me. I
felt it was a critical moment, and I said to myself: ' Keep your head, my boy
keep your head.' So I put on one of my blandest smiles, and said:
' You're a marvel, you know. You've only
been in my cabin five minutes, and you've got me guessing already.'
"The stare gradually relaxed into a
* Shall we say, Captain, that at this time
of the year the Karun is not a healthy river for British sailors?'
' Yes,' I said, ' you can say that if it
gives you any pleasure; but you don't want me to say it, do you?'
" ' As you will,' he said, and
shrugged his shoulders so beautifully that he nearly fell off his chair.
" ' No, I'm afraid I can't make a duet
of it,' I said. ' You see, I'm in Persian territory, and I shouldn't like to
offend the Persians by saying that their river is unhealthy at any time of the
" ' I think you forget, Captain,' he
said, ' that in order to return to the Persian Gulf you must shove your ship on
the waters of the Shatt-al-Arab, and so become the honoured guest of my
" ' That will be a pleasure to look
forward to later on,' I said, ignoring the contention that the whole of the
Shatt-al-Arab was Turkish water.
"Well, it took the deuce of a time to
come to the point, but he blurted it out at last. He had received orders from
Constantinople that he was to intimate to me politely but firmly that the
Thora must leave Mahommerah
without delay. Of course I told him I could do nothing in the matter until I had
instructions, and that I should wire for them. He came again next morning to
ask if I had had an answer to my telegram, and of course I hadn't. We had no
reason to be in a hurry over the business. The following day he called again,
but I was still without instructions. He told me he was sorry to say that
Constantinople was growing impatient, and he wore quite a worried look. The day
after he blew in again, and this time there was an air of determination about
him. I don't know what orders he had received, but evidently he had come to
present an ultimatum.
" ' Captain,' he said, ' it desolates
me to tell you that the sand runs so fast that unless the egg is soon boiled it
will be all gone.'
" ' Sit down, my dear fellow,' I said;
' and, talking of eggs, let's have a cocktail.'
" ' Thank you, I do not drink
intoxicants,' he said.
'" ' Well have a temperance drink,
then,' I suggested. ' Whether our respective Governments part brassrags or not, there's no reason why we shouldn't have a
drink together while we can.'
" He saw the force of this, and after
a moment's hesitation he said: ' Thank you, Captain; I will have a glass of
"It was an awful moment. I felt a cold
shudder pass down my spine, and I know my face was as long as a sea-boot. But I
turned it away from him quickly, and, mustering all my presence of mind, I rang
the bell. When my Goanese steward appeared, I gave
him such a stare as told him as plainly as any spoken words that if he didn't
rise to the occasion he would get the sack on the spot. All I said was, ' Boy,
bring me a large glass of sherbet and a large whisky-and-soda,' and I said it
as if sherbet was an ordinary everyday drink in a British man-of-war. Imagine
my joy when I saw a distinct gleam of intelligence in that boy's eye, the first
time I had ever detected such a thing.
"Well, we sat down and chatted about
the weather, and the date crop, and things like that, and presently my steward
brought in the drinks. My No. 1 size glass is a source of great pride and joy
to me; they have nothing like it in the wardroom. The nearest approach to it is
the zinc bucket used for drawing bath-water from the
river. One glass was filled with a nice cold whisky-and-soda, and the other
with a luscious foaming beverage throwing up sprays of effervescence. My guest
looked at it with undisguised admiration. He made a good effort to drink it off
at one go, but my glasses aren't built for that sort of thing. However he did it in three, and I don't mind betting that Bogey
would have taken at least ten.
'' Then we sat and talked in the most
friendly kind of way, and we had just got on to the subject of the
Bahrein pearl fisheries, when he suddenly sat up in his
chair; and a curious expression came over his face, half puzzled, half
frightened. I jumped to the conclusion that his conscience had just awaked to
the fact that he was not carrying out his orders, so I said rather feebly: '
Well, now about this little business of ours?' To my astonishment, he got up
abruptly and gave me such a look I don't know quite how to describe it, but I
imagine it was just the sort of look that Caesar gave Brutus when he said: ' Et
tu, Brute!' Then he snatched up his
topee and made a dash for the door. He didn't even turn
round to say good-morning, but made a beeline for the gangway, jumped into his
skiff, and shouted to his men to shove off. I stood there at the gangway
watching him. Every now and then he half rose from his seat and shouted at his
men. I don't understand Turkish, but his voice and attitude suggested that he
was saying: ' Pull, you blighters, pull!' I went back to my cabin to think it
over, and rang the bell for my steward.
' Boy,' I said, where did you get that
'A little lime-juice, sir, and a little
sugar.' " ' Yes?'
' And the white powder ' " ' The white powder?'
' Yessir, plenty
' What white powder?' I thundered.
' From de bottle in de sleeping cabin/
"I sank into a chair and mopped my face with a handkerchief. My
Eno's Fruit Salt! He had used about half the bottle. The
game was up; all my diplomatic efforts had been brought to nothing. That night
my gallant Turkish friend sent a long telegram to Constantinople, mostly about
sherbet. War was declared within forty-eight hours."
X - UNMIXED BATHING
THE first person to whom
the new arrival at Busrah is inevitably introduced is
the bellumchi. He is the gondolier who plies for hire
a long narrow boat, which the Arab calls a bellum, and to all intents and purposes
he combines the functions of cabman, guide, and bureau of information. He would
be more successful as a guide and bureau of information if his stock of English
were enlarged, but as a rule it is limited to the reassuring formula of "Orright, sir," which he regards as a suitable reply to
any question you like to ask him. If you seem dissatisfied, he assumes that you
must have forgotten your own language, and obligingly translates it into
Hindustani for you ' ' A-chah
sa-ab. ' ' Finding that you
still persist in asking such silly questions as, " How far is it to B.G.H.
No. 3," or can he take you right up the Ashar
Creek as far as the Busrah Bazaar, or how far are the
Ashar Barracks from the bridge, he tries "Orright, sir," again, and then the conversation
If you want to go for a shooting expedition
and there are plenty of snipe and wild-duck about in the autumn you must engage
a bellum for the day, and pick out a bellumchi who
specializes in this class of business, and who knows where the best sport is to
be had. One of these specialists, Mahomed Ahmed by
name, has a fair knowledge of English, and can muster quite long sentences,
such as, " Plenty snipe at Gurmat Ali. Ahmed
show you. Orright, sir." Ahmed
is also a keen sportsman, and keeps a pair of dogs which serve very well as
beaters, but as retrievers leave much to be desired. In the autumn of 1915 a
small party of gunboat skippers arrived at Busrah,
and, in the absence of anything approaching a civilized hotel, they had to find
what accommodation they could. They were waiting for the completion of their
respective commands, which had been building at Abadan for some months past.
Amongst them was Toby, who had been appointed to the Smackfly,
and was getting rather tired of being at a loose end. He was frequently in the
Thora's mess, of which he and all other gunboat skippers
were honorary members; and one day I suggested to him that he might devote his
superabundant energies to getting up some amateur theatricals for the benefit
of the men. He used to be madly keen on theatricals, and in his own peculiar
way he was quite a good actor, and was even better as a producer. In the art of
make-up I have never seen his equal among amateurs, and when I was shipmates
with him some years ago, he was continually upsetting the equilibrium of the
older and staider members of the mess by presenting
himself in the wardroom in some quaint disguise, such as a piano-tuner with an
unquenchable thirst for beer, or a lawyer's clerk come to serve a writ on the
highly respectable and very indignant Fleet Paymaster. But
apparently his enthusiasm had died down, and he showed no interest whatever in
the subject of theatricals. His new hobby was the study of Arabic, and
when Toby gets hold of a new hobby wild-horses cannot drag him away from it. So
I had to leave him in peace to his "Arabic made Easy," and " How
to learn Arabic in Half an Hour," and all the rest of his paraphernalia.
One evening when Toby was dining in the
mess, the question was put to the vote as to whether or not he was getting too
fat; and it was unanimously decided that he was, and that he must go shooting
on the morrow for the sake of the exercise. Toby declared at first emphatically
that nothing would induce him to go shooting with his brother officers (only he
described them in other language); but later on, when he had had a good dinner,
he became more complacent, and gave a half -promise that he would accompany the
expedition. Presently, however, the hour of six was mentioned as a good time to
make a start, and Toby said that if they expected him to turn out at six
o'clock in order to tramp through marshes and see a lot of boss-eyed blundering
blighters scare away all the birds with their popguns, they would not only be
disappointed, but they could also go to blazes, which is a hotter place even
than Mesopotamia. They then started arguing with him gently. It was precisely
on account of the heat, they urged, that an early start was desirable; it was
nice and cool in the morning now, but about ten o'clock the sun began to get a
trifle warm, even in the late autumn; that would be the time to pump up the
Primus stove and prepare breakfast; then after breakfast they could laze about
for a while, and they might possibly have a swim in the Gurmat
Ali River, if they could find a backwater where the current was not too strong.
In the afternoon, as soon as it began to get cool again, they could have
another go at the snipe. But Toby was obdurate; he did not mind starting at
ten, or he would even stretch a point and make it nine, but he refused to go a
step beyond this concession. Eventually they decided to humour him, for they
knew in their inmost hearts that on previous occasions they had solemnly agreed
overnight to make an early start in the morning, but somehow or other it had
been half-past nine or ten before they had succeeded in shoving off. The
concession to Toby was therefore more apparent than real.
Next morning, however, they were
considerably riled at receiving a note from Toby, about breakfast-time, to say
that he was sorry that he could not accompany them after all, because another
pressing engagement had intervened. The Navigator of the Thora
was furious at the thought that, if it had not been for their desire to please
Toby, they would all have been out of the ship by six o'clock. He had just
managed to crawl out of bed and slip into some clothes in time for "divisions,"
and was so obviously suffering from a fat head that no one took him very
seriously. The Captains of the Scrunchfly and
Scatterfly devoted their energies, not to reasoning with
him, but to inducing him to get on with his breakfast, and to remember to bring
his gun (which he often forgot when he went shooting). At last they managed to
shove off, and Ahmed with his mate punted them at a good pace up the river to
the confluence of the Shatt-al-Arab and Gurmat Ali
River, which latter is sometimes known as the New Channel of the Euphrates. A
little way up the branch river they called a halt, and the Captain of the
Scatterfly produced a corkscrew from his pocket, and
proceeded to show his skill on a nice cool-looking bottle of beer. It was
hardly time for lunch, so after they had fortified themselves with beer they
landed and went in search of sport. The birds turned out to be very scarce, or
else the sportsmen went in the wrong direction, and, as
walking was warm work, it was not long before the need of returning to
the bellum with its enticing cargo became apparent. On their way back they were
walking through a palm grove, when they suddenly came upon a white-headed Arab
striding majestically along the river-bank, followed
at a respectful distance by an attendant. Although he was short of stature,
there was something so dignified about his appearance that the officers could
not help remarking him. He wore his ch-feea (A
kerchief worn on the head) well forward on his head, so that the folds of it
partly eclipsed his face; and his abba (A cloak) was
of a texture which showed that he was no ordinary peasant, but a man of some
wealth His attendant was plainly clad, but had an intelligent face, and wore an
air of importance suggesting that he regarded his office of bodyguard as one of
grave responsibility. To the astonishment of the officers, the old gentleman
halted and gravely saluted them, touching with the fingers of both hands first
his forehead, then his lips, and then his heart. They smiled and acknowledged
the salute, without in the least understanding the significance of the
gestures. Their surprise was considerably increased when the old Arab addressed
them in somewhat faltering English, for it is very rare to find a native with a
knowledge of any other language than his own. He had a very deep voice, and
uttered his words in a kind of sing-song which was
quite pleasing to the ear.
" Salutations, gentlemen. I hope that
you have had pleasant amusement."
The Captain of the Scatterfly
assumed his inimitable smile, and answered for the party:
"Thanks, old sport. Not so bad, but
there aren't many birds about to-day."
"There have been English officers
before," said the old man, " who have shot well; and so the birds are
how do you say? shy. But later on, when they have
begun to know you, they will not be shy."
This was a cryptic utterance, which was
clearly capable of two interpretations, but the officers let it pass.
" You do not know the Arab
salutation?" the old man went on. "I will show you I touch my
forehead; it is because I think of you with my mind. I touch my mouth; it is
because I speak of you with my lips. I touch my breast; it is because the
memory of you is cherished in my heart."
The Navigator of the Thora
asked him to tell them some more about Arab customs, and the Sheikh was
beginning to do so, when he became disconcerted by the behaviour of Ahmed's
dogs. The beasts sniffed him very suspiciously, and showed signs of
disapprobation, so that the old man grew quite alarmed. A cynic has divided the
world into two classes those who like dogs and those who like men. The
classification is obviously incomplete, for it makes no provision for those who
like both, nor the benighted few who like neither. One
might as well divide the world into the people who wear mackintoshes and the
people who carry umbrellas, or into the people who wear collars and the people
who wear neckties. It is certain, however, that the dignified old Arab belonged
to the category of those who do not like dogs, and the dogs appeared to
reciprocate the feeling. Not that their attitude was
exactly hostile towards him, but they seemed to regard him as a strange object
begirt with mystery. The Captain of the Scrunchffy
shouted to Ahmed to call off his dogs, and found that he and the Arab's
attendant were talking together and were apparently on terms of intimacy. Ahmed
whistled to his dogs, and the Captain of the Scrunchfly
took the opportunity of going up to him to get information.
"Ahmed," he said, " who is
that old bloke?"
" Sahib not know him?" said Ahmed
in a tone of surprise. " He is the Sheikh of Margill."
Now, there were many reports about the
Sheikh of Margill. He was said to be a highly
cultured gentleman; he was also said to be addicted to lavish hospitality; and,
moreover, he was said to be specially fond of naval
officers. I have never met the gentleman myself, and so I cannot speak with
authority; but I have a shrewd suspicion that the Sheikh of Margill
is very like other Arab Sheikhs. The fact remains, however, that rumour has
surrounded him with a halo of romance, and to the naval mind especially he
seemed to be a most desirable acquaintance. When the Captain of the
Scrunchfly went back to his companions and whispered the
tidings in their ears, he found that the old Sheikh was squatting on his
haunches and discoursing quite fluently upon Arab lore.
" You have heard the women in the
villages make a noise like this," he said, and gave quite a good imitation
of that shrill chorus which often breaks the stillness of the night in a
river-side village. "It is what you call a serenade.
When a girl is to be married, all the women of her village meet outside her
house every night for seven nights before the wedding, and they make that song to
her. After that there is the wedding. You have not been to an Arab wedding? You
should go. There is dancing and much music with a drum."
" How many wives does a man have round
about here?" asked the Captain of the Scrunchfly.
"If he is a poor man he has only one,
but if he is rich he has as many as his house will hold," said the Sheikh,
and then added modestly: "I have only six wives."
"And do they all live happily
together?" asked the Navigator of the Thora
"Oh yes, quite happy. They have just
gone to bathe themselves in the little lake. I have a little lake in my palm
grove; it is private, of course, so I allow my wives to bathe themselves
"No mixed bathing in this country, I
suppose?" hazarded the Captain of the Scatterfly.
The Arab shook his head solemnly, and
turned a searching glance upon the officer to divine the inner meaning of the
question. Then he got up suddenly as though a new thought had just occurred to
him, and spoke with an eagerness quite strange to the
usually phlegmatic native.
" See here, gentlemen: you are all
naval officers, and when I was a child my father taught me, as his father had
taught him, to hold in honour the great Navy of your country. If it would
please you, you shall see my wives. But only from a distance.
You will promise me not to go too near. I will show you. It is not far from
here. Are you tired? "
The three officers assured him that they
were as fresh as daisies; and though the Captain of the Scatterfly
added as an afterthought that the weather was remarkably dry, and cast longing
glances towards the bellum, it did not avail him, for the Sheikh divined his
thoughts and hastened to explain the situation.
" The ladies do not stay long in the
water. You must go quickly, or you will be too late. I will send Hussein to
guide you. He is young like you and can walk as the sh-marl
(A hot dry wind which blows from the Arabian desert.) flies across the desert.
I will stay here and wait for your return."
He shouted for Hussein, and then, with an
expression of honest anxiety on his face, he added: " But you will promise
not to go too near."
The faithful attendant came up, and the
Sheikh gave him some instructions in Arabic. What they were the officers of
course had no idea, but they supposed that Hussein was to lead them to some
point of vantage whence they could obtain a discreet view of the ladies of the
harem enjoying their bathe, and that he was receiving strict injunctions not to
let them trespass beyond the limits of propriety.
" You must make speed or you will be
too late. It would be better to leave your guns here, for it is hot weather to
carry guns." And then, as they hurried off in the wake of Hussein, he
again repeated his apprehensive injunction: "You will promise not to go
As soon as they were out of sight, the old
Sheikh started to examine the guns which the officers had left behind, and,
having selected one to his fancy, he got into the bellum and ordered Ahmed and
his mate to punt him through the reeds on the left bank of the stream. If there
had been any observers watching the Sheikh of Margill
during the next half-hour, they would have said that he knew how to shoot, and
he also knew where the birds were to be found. He explained to Ahmed that the
sahibs would be glad to find that they could take home quite a big bag, after
all, and Ahmed appeared to be quite satisfied with the new arrangements.
Meanwhile the sahibs themselves were
stalking through palm groves at a prodigious pace, circumventing the wide
nullahs, jumping the narrow onesi
and dripping big drops of perspiration at every stride.
" Queer old boy,' gasped the Captain
of the Scatterfly, at the end of the procession.
" You don't often find a bloke who asks you to go and see his wives
"I wonder," panted the Captain of
the Scrunchfly just ahead of him, " what kind of
rig they wear in the water."
"In the country," choked out the
Navigator of the Thora, " the women seem to wear
only one garment for walking about in, so I suppose they wear less for bathing
" Don't you believe it," grunted
the Captain of the Scatterfly. "They're probably
like those girls at the fashionable watering-places rigged out in most
wonderful contraptions, rove at odd corners with all sorts of weird
"I say!" gulped the Navigator of
the Thora, "Where is this bloke taking us? The
old boy said it wasn't far."
By dint of a combined effort they found
breath enough to make Hussein hear them, and they called upon him to stop. But
Hussein knew no English, so all he did was to shout "Orright.
Sir,' over his shoulder, and hurry on at an even greater speed. In a little
while he was completely lost to view, and then the officers realized that it
had been an unequal contest from the start. They came to a wide
barred their farther progress, and, as they could not tell which way their
guide had taken to circumvent it, they collapsed on to the ground and silently
"I suppose the silly ass will discover
in time that we are not following him," said the Captain of the
"I don't care whether he does or
not," said the Navigator of the Thora. "I'm
not going to follow him any more."
So Hussein was left to his own devices,
and, to the best of my knowledge and belief, they consisted in making a detour
through the palm groves to the bank of the Tigris, where he found a bellum
moored at the mouth of a nullah. In this he paddled
his way downstream, and so went home, feeling that he had thoroughly earned his
About an hour later three very warm
officers gave vent to expressions of intense relief on sighting their old
friend Ahmed with his bellum. Seated on the bank a few paces off was no less a
person than Toby, and as they came up they saw that he was busily engaged on a
plate of ham and a bottle of beer, so much so that he seemed quite unconscious
of their arrival until the Captain of the Scatterfly
announced exclamatorily that he was jiggered. Then Toby smiled his sweetest
smile, and said: " You see I managed to get away, after all." Thereat
he took another big pull from the bottle, and added: "It was deuced good
of you fellows to leave your guns behind for me. I clean forgot to bring mine.
But you look warm. What on earth have you been doing?"
"We've been for a walk," said the
Captain of the Scrunchfly doggedly.
" You look as if you'd been training
for the hundred yards. Queer ideas you fellows have. You go out shooting, and
then take it into your heads to leave your guns behind. I managed to bag a few
birds while you were away. I don't know whose gun it was, but it was a very
nice one. Many thanks for the loan of it."
" For heaven's sake, give me a drink,'
said the Navigator of the Thora.
" Have you all been having a
swim?" asked Toby. "I remember that was to have been part of the
But not another word was to be got out of
any of them until their internal needs were satisfied.
" By the way," said the Captain
of the Scatterfly after a long pause, " the old
Sheikh of Margill was here just now. Have you seen
anything of him, Toby?"
"Sheikh of Margill?
So that's who it was?" said Toby.
' Why? Have you been talking to him? Where
did he go?"
"I've often heard of the Sheikh of Margill," said Toby. "Nice old bloke, isn't
The sentiment was received with a chilling
silence, so Toby tried again.
" By the way, is he married?"
" How the deuce should we know?"
asked the Captain of the Scrunchfly irritably.
' Well, I thought that, as he was a pal of
yours, you would at least ask after his missus and the kids.'
" Chuck over that ham and the
carving-knife," said the Navigator of the Thora,
whose mind at the moment seemed unable to transcend beyond the most mundane
'' Where did the old boy go?"
reiterated the Captain of the Scatterfly.
Then Toby, having eaten a very satisfactory
lunch, quietly picked up a newspaper which had been
lying beside him on the ground. Underneath it were disclosed the
abba and ch-feea of an Arab
Sheikh, and beside them a neat little japanned tin box, which anyone in the
theatrical profession would have recognized at once, as a make-up box.
"I think," said Toby, " that
he must have gone to bathe with his harem, as he has left his clothes behind."
Of the subsequent proceedings I have no
official records. Suffice it to say that, when the four officers returned that
evening to the Thorn's mess, they were all agreed that they had had a splendid
day's sport, and they followed it up with one of those convivial evenings for
which the Thora was rightly celebrated. There is just
that something about Toby that nobody can be really angry with him for long.
XI - THE FORWARD OBSERVING OFFICER
IN the summer of 1921, some time after the
conclusion of the Great War, I was motoring with a small party of friends
through the Eastern Counties. We were passing through a particularly flat part
of the country, with very little to relieve the monotony of the landscape
except an occasional clump of trees, and a still more occasional village with
red-tiled roofs and square church tower. Although there was nothing about the
scene which was really comparable with the desert plains of
Mesopotamia, my mind for some unaccountable reason wandered back to that
land of blazing sun, enervating heat, and voracious mosquitoes. The faces of
old acquaintances passed in a procession before my mental vision, and one in
particular halted in the middle of the stage and recalled to my memory some of
the episodes with which he had been associated. I had been messmates with him
at the naval camp in Ceylon, where we went to rejuvenate ourselves when the
ordeal of the Mesopotamian summer was beginning to make its mark on the health
of the ships' companies; I had dined in his mess aboard H.M.S. Flighty on many
occasions, and he had dined in my mess; I had played tennis with him, walked
with him, and yarned with him. And now I had a vivid recollection of him,
seated in an arm-chair in our wardroom, telling us his
experiences up the river when he was doing duty as Forward Observing Officer to
the gunboats. It was in the dark days after the retreat from Ctesiphon, when
General Townshend and his division were being besieged in Kut,
and many valuable lives were being sacrificed in the long endeavour to relieve
him. At that time the British camp, was on the wrong side of the
Wadi, a small stream flowing into the Tigris from the
north, and the Turks were strongly entrenched at El Hannah on the other side of
the stream. From January until April of the year 1916 we strove to drive them
out of their position by frontal attack, and each effort cost us so dearly that
during long intervals we were forced to rest in our trenches, and do no more
than snipe at them with our rifles, while our artillery every morning and
evening loosed off a few rounds to let them know we had not forgotten them. It
was trench warfare on the same pattern as was going on in France at the time,
and it pleased nobody; for the conditions under which our troops were living
were about as bad as they could be, owing to the lack of river transport, and
during January and February they were forced to the conclusion that the pelting
rain, biting winds, and omnipresent mud of Mesopotamia in the winter were worse
than its heat and mosquitoes in the summer. It was not until April 5, 1916,
that we finally managed to capture the El Hannah position, and then we had
great hopes that the relief of Kut was in sight,
until we found ourselves held up again by the Turks at Sanna-i-yat.
But I am digressing from the subject of the Forward Observing Officer.
I could see his face so plainly, as I sat
leaning back in the car, quietly enjoying the exhilaration of the smooth
travelling. I could even hear his voice as he was describing what it felt like
to stand on the top of a ladder, with Turkish shells whizzing all round him,
and I remember his saying: "The material effect was nil, but the moral
effect on my nerves was enough to entitle me to a fancy claim for
damages." And then I awoke from my reverie with a start. It was
lunch-time, and we had pulled up at the door of an hotel in a small provincial
town where the good lady of the house, clad in a black sateen dress which
seemed rather to exaggerate the ample proportions of her figure, stood at the
door and assured us that she had an excellent lunch for hungry motorists. Just
inside the door I noticed a poster announcing the advent of a travelling
circus, and idly paused to read the large print on it. The biggest letters of
all proclaimed a wonderful feat of equilibration by the "Great
Scalator"; but, as I had never heard of the gentleman
before, I was quite prepared to accept his greatness on trust and seek the more
prosaic pleasures of life, such as a good hostelry can afford.
The inn was an old one, and, as I am
interested in architecture and archaeology and things like that. I started to
explore its rooms and passages. This explains how it was that I found myself
unexpectedly in the bar. A trim little barmaid was presiding over an array of
beer-pumps, and the sole other occupant of the room was a well-groomed
gentleman, who stood with his back to the door through which I had entered. So
far as I could make out, he was discussing the subject of psychological
phenomena with the trim little barmaid. There was something about the set of
his shoulders which seemed familiar to me, and, when
he turned his head, the exclamation of surprise I uttered was not on account of
the meeting, but of the strange coincidence that my daydream should have
prepared me for it. It was the Forward Observing Officer. After an exchange of
the usual expressions of gratification at the unexpected pleasure
which had befallen us, he said, "What's yours?" and after a
few further observations on the same subject I also said, "What's
yours?" And so in course of time the Forward Observing Officer grew
reminiscent. "Let me see," he said," you weren't up at the
Wadi camp before we captured the El Hannah position, were
you?" I hastened to reassure him on this point. "No," he
continued, "I remember now. You were down at Busrah
in those days. You know we used to have a morning and evening Hate just to show
the old Turk that we were not neglecting him. I had to walk two miles or so
across the plain, and stand on top of a ladder to spot the fall of the shells
from our gunboats, and report results by telephone. I never felt really
comfortable on that ladder. You see, it was the one conspicuous object there,
and the Turkish batteries were very partial to it. Sometimes the shells came in
such a thick cloud that it grew quite dark overhead, and I'm one of those
people who can never smoke a pipe comfortably in the dark. As a matter of fact,
I believe those Turkish batteries were manned by Germans, or at all events
their gunners had been trained by Germans, and I'll tell you how I found out.
"I suppose you know that every shell
has its own special shriek, and you can tune a shell to make any note you like.
All the German shells were marked with their notes B flat, B natural, C
natural, C sharp, and so on and the German batteries were trained to play
regular tunes by firing the shells in the right order. They trained the Turks
to do the same, because they were very keen on introducing Kultur
to the British, and they thought it was an excellent thing for us to hear good
music. Some of the Turkish batteries only played light and frivolous music,
things like ' When the Midnight Choo-Choo leaves for
Alabam' and 'Ragtime Cowboy Joe.' They were allowed to do
this because the Germans were rather anxious just then to pay pretty little
compliments to the Americans, and you know America is very proud of the great
musicians which she has produced in recent years. But
some of the batteries played real classical music, things like the overture to
' Tannhauser' and Handel's Largo, and ' Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.' There was one battery, though, that
played funny things like the Hungarian Rhapsodies and Rachmaninoff's Prelude in
E minor. I never liked that battery, and whenever they started to play
Sinding's ' Rustle of Spring ' I always knew that it was
time to pack up. Have you ever tried coming down a ladder in a hurry? Well, of
course, the dodge is to put your feet outside the rungs and slide. Avoid a
ladder with splinters; they spoil all the pleasure of the thing. At first you
are apt to land with a bit of a bump, but with practice you learn to put the
break on with your feet when you are near the bottom, and so land quite
comfortably and gracefully. That battery was very fond of the ' Rustle of
Spring' and they used to make their infernal shells rustle a bit too close to
me to be really pleasant, so I became rather an expert in sliding down a
ladder. Life's a queer thing when you come to think of it. You never know
what's going to happen next. Who'd have thought that it was worth one's while
to learn how to slide down a ladder? The same again please, Belinda."
I had listened with breathless interest to
these thrilling experiences, but curiosity now prompted me to ask him what he
was doing in a little country town near the East Coast of England. I suggested
tentatively that he might be on leave.
" Leave?" he said. "I've
left the Service altogether."
" Have you, though?" said I.
"Then, what kind of a job have you got now?"
He reached across the counter and lit a
" Come and see the circus," he
said. "Afternoon performance at three, evening at seven."
Here was an obvious effort to change the
subject, and I took the hint. It was many years since I had seen a circus, and
the idea rather appealed to me, so I accepted the suggestion with alacrity. At
the same time I must confess my curiosity was fairly aroused by the air of
mystery with which he was surrounding the nature of his present occupation, and
I could not resist asking him, after a decent interval, why he had chosen to
leave the Service.
" Lucre" he said, "filthy
lucre that and nothing more. I discovered that I could make more money outside.
It happens that I can do something which very few
blokes can do, and so I can command a big price. In the Service there were hundreds
of other fellows who could do my job just as well as I could, and consequently
there's no money in it."
This was as much as I could get out of him,
but I had hopes that when we had spent the afternoon together he would grow
more communicative, so I asked him to get me some seats for the circus next to
his own, and handed him the necessary. I then joined my friends at lunch (he
had refused to make one of the party), and I was glad to find that they were
quite keen on the idea of spending the afternoon at the circus.
The tent had been rigged in a field not far
from the inn, and we got there punctually at three o'clock; but I was
disappointed to find that the seat next to mine was empty, and, though I looked
all round the ring, I could see no sign of the Forward Observing Officer. The
show was very much the same as I remember it in the days of my childhood, only
I am sorry to say that the clown did not strike me as being so irresistibly
funny as he used to do in those bygone days, nor did I experience quite the
same thrill when the lady on horseback jumped through the paper-covered hoops.
Nevertheless we were all there to enjoy ourselves, and so we applauded each
performer with enthusiasm. Finally there came what was evidently the piece de
resistance. A terrible-looking old tramp with many days' growth on his chin,
and clad in tattered garments surmounted by a disreputable top-hat, lurched
into the arena, and commenced his turn by bumping into the clown, who turned a
double somersault on the ground, but did not seem in the least to resent the
affront. On the contrary, it had the effect of making him quite industrious,
for he produced a large square board and proceeded to sprinkle it with powdered
resin. He next produced a ladder, and, placing the feet of it on the board,
invoked the aid of the tramp in hoisting it. Having got it into position, the
clown retired a few paces to gaze at it admiringly while the tramp held it
upright. And then, before I had realized what was going to happen, the tramp
began to mount the ladder, keeping it balanced by a lateral movement
which continually adjusted the position of the feet, and so kept them
below the centre of gravity. Up and up he went, slowly advancing from rung to
rung, while the audience sat breathless with excitement. Once he lost the
balance, but as the ladder swayed forward, and the prospect of an appalling
disaster caused a deep groan to run round the tent, he slid down to the ground,
with an ease and grace which brought back to my mind what my friend had told me
of his experiences in Mesopotamia..A
little more resin was sprinkled on the board and the tramp again began the
ascent. This time he was even more cautious than before, and the audience
watched his every movement as though they were spellbound. At last he reached
the top, and even stood upright on the topmost rung. His next action caused
some alarm to the ladies in the audience, for he proceeded to divest himself of
his garments. The top-hat went first, and was adroitly
caught by the clown; the coat and waistcoat followed, and then the trousers.
Finally the beard was discarded, and there there in
all the glory of pink tights stood the Forward Observing Officer.
XII - A MESOPOTAMIAN PICNIC
THE Flytrap is the messenger of the Fleet
in Mesopotamia. She was originally built by Thornycrofts for the Turkish Government, but at an
early stage in the campaign we succeeded in persuading the Turks by means of
cogent arguments that she would be more useful to us than to them. When she had
been refitted and her engines thoroughly overhauled, she became one of the
fastest packets on the river, and with her six-pounder and a Maxim she was
quite formidable enough for her purpose. She takes the mails, and the fruit
ration and fresh vegetables from Busrah up-river, and
distributes them among the gunboats; and sometimes she carries the Senior Naval
Officer between the base and the scene of operations, and, in fact, does odd
jobs of general utility. She might, of course, have been called the Mercury, or
some fancy name like that; but her duties were at first associated with the Fly
class gunboats, and so it seemed more appropriate to call her by the homely
name of the Flytrap. There is nothing very remarkable about the Flytrap except
her commanding officer, whose versatile genius has taken him through many walks
of life, and, if it had only led him into a more public career, would have made
him a valuable contributor to the gaiety of nations. He started life in the
Britannia by having a difference of opinion with the mess steward as to the
freshness of a dish of cabbages. His method of persuading the steward to smell
it was to plunge his nose into it forcibly, and, as the cabbages were hot, the
steward's nose suffered. There followed an interview with the Captain, but our
versatile friend still consoles himself with the reflection that for the next
week everybody could see the steward's nose, but nobody could see where the
cane had made its painful impressions. Of his subsequent career and its
startling and dramatic developments, there is no space to write in detail here.
The Law at one time exercised a fascination for him, but it did not last long;
he gave a passing thought to Medicine and to the Stage, but it was no more than
a passing thought. The call of the sea was ever in his ears, and he found he
could not resist it. All the same, he still feels there is one profession for
which he would have been eminently suited, and he has never ceased to hanker
after it. "I ought to have been a parson," he will often say in an
impressive tone; and when you ask him why he has this fancy for the Church, he
will reply: " You have never seen me in a surplice, have you? I looked
This introduction to the Captain of the
Flytrap is necessary, because he is the principal actor in the story of the
Mesopotamian picnic. It was told me by the Captain of the
Scrunchfly, and I accept no responsibility for it. I
merely repeat it in his own language so far as I can
remember it. The scene is laid at the Bal-i-hai
Redoubt, and I have not yet been able to find any such place on the map. He
says it is somewhere between Kurnah and Baghdad, so I
will take his word for it. The time is the early summer, of 1916, soon after
the fall of Kut, when a rather curious reaction had
set in among all ranks and ratings in Mesopotamia. The strain of the previous
four months had been severe, but when the tragedy was over, and we knew that
all efforts to relieve the garrison had proved fruitless, our spirits suddenly
went up with a jump. I cannot explain the psychology of it, but I imagine that
it is just that of the philosopher who invented the adage about not crying over
spilt milk. Anyhow, here is the narrative of the Captain of the
Scrunchfly as he told it to me. By way of preface, let me
explain that the Captain of the Squashfly is always
called Garibaldi, in reference to the popular superstition about the
ingredients of Garibaldi biscuits.
I am not quite sure how it started. I think
someone picked up an English newspaper dated some time in the summer of 1915,
wherein an intelligent journalist had asked petulantly: "When is this
picnic in Mesopotamia going to end?" Someone picked up this old newspaper
about the Mesopotamian picnic, and Garibaldi, the Captain of the
Squashfly, said, "Well, why not have a picnic in Mesopotamia?"
and his First Lieutenant said, "Why not?" and the Captain of the
Flytrap also said, "Why not?" I think that was how it started.
Anyhow, we agreed to combine the resources of the Scrunchfly,
Squashfly, and Flytrap, and to walk across the plain
to a little hill in the distance which had a nice shady cluster of trees on it,
and there, far from the madding crowd, to regale ourselves in our sylvan
It was the Captain of the Flytrap who gave
a spice of originality to the thing by asking if we would mind his coming in
his surplice. You know, he has an idea that he ought to be a parson because the
rig suits his peculiar style of beauty. So he has made himself a surplice out
of an old tablecloth, and this was what he wanted to wear, but the suggestion
roused Garibaldi's jealousy.
"If you're going to do that," he
said, " we may as well call it a fancy-dress picnic at once."
"And why not?" asked his First
"All right," said Garibaldi;
"I shall go as Salome."
"Then, you don't get me there,"
said the Captain of the Flytrap. "As if any self-respecting parson would
go to a picnic with Salome!"
They argued it out for half an hour, and at
last persuaded Garibaldi to go as King Canute in his seaside bathing costume
and a gold-painted cardboard crown. It was the idea of the crown
which brought him round; it pleased him no end. A
stroke of diplomacy on my part. His First Lieutenant said he was going
as a Greek Athlete, with a crown of palm leaves on his head, a monocle in his
eye, and a pair of bathing drawers round his waist.
The weather had started to hot up a bit, and these scanty costumes were quite
de rigueur. I decided to go as a Boy Scout shorts, shirt, and a
Well, we got a couple of hands to help us
carry the gear. We thought two would be enough until we saw the stock of
beer which Garibaldi contributed to the feast. Then we
wished we had borrowed half a dozen mules from the Transport Corps.
Nevertheless we strode on bravely, old Surplice leading the way. I fancy he got
a bit mixed as to whether he was Anglican or Roman. He imagined he was leading
a procession, and held a tablecloth over his head to look like a banner. He
never said a word the whole way, but kept on making a diabolical row
which, Canute told me, was supposed to be a Gregorian chant.
When we got to the foot of the hill, I remember I had a bit of an argument with
the Greek Athlete as to whose turn it was to carry the basket with the crockery
in it, and we argued all the way up. The two hands had dropped some way behind,
and, as they were carrying the beer, Canute got anxious about them, and went
back to see if he could help them by carrying some of it himself. Well, as I
told you, I was busy arguing with the Greek Athlete, when I heard voices ahead
of me, and, looking up, I saw a bloke in khaki talking to the Surplice. On
getting closer I found he was a Turkish officer. He spoke excellent English and
seemed rather a cheery soul. I heard him say to the Surplice:
" But you are holding up a flag of
truce. What have you come to say?"
And old Surplice went on solemnly chanting:
' Venite, exult emus Domino.
omnia opera," and so on.
Finding that he couldn't get any sense out
of the Surplice, the Turco turned to me and the Greek Athlete. Our costumes seemed to startle him
a bit, but he spoke quite politely.
" Good-morning/' he said; " you
wish to parley with me?"
"Even so," said the Greek
Athlete. " Let us sit here beneath this pleasant shade and tell sad
stories of the death of Kings."
The Greek Athlete reads Shakespeare, but he
can never get his quotations right. As the Turco
seemed rather puzzled, I thought I had better put in a word or two.
" But tell us first, brave
warrior," I said, "who are you, and how come you to be sequestered in
this lonely spot?"
"This," he said, "is the
"Ah!" said the Greek Athlete,
fixing his monocle in his eye. "Now, that is very interesting. Never
before have I seen a redoubt. Does it have a moat and drawbridge?"
"Tell me," said the Surplice,
" does all this proud domain belong to you? And those brave fellows
yonder, whose heads I see above the battlements, are they all your faithful
"They are my gun's crew," said
the Turco, He was a good fellow, but horribly
"You have a gun?" said the Greek
Athlete. "That is very interesting. And have you an artificial lake with
swans swimming over its glassy surface?"
" Look here," I said, "I'm
awfully sorry if we're trespassing. You see, we didn't notice any fence or
signboard to say that trespassers would be prosecuted by order. We came up here
to have a little picnic. Won't you join us?"
"We'll clear up all the bits of paper
and empty bottles and things," said the Greek Athlete, " and this
noble home of your proud ancestors shall look as fair as ever. ' I pray you,
worthy knight, join us in our revelry."
The Turco didn't
seem to know quite what to make of us.
" Pardon me," he said; " our
countries are at war."
"War," said the Surplice in his
best canonical voice " ah, war is a terrible thing! And to think that
nations went to war with each other all because of a woman. Helen of Troy, you
know. But of course you never met her. I am glad I am very glad. She was no
better than she ought to have been."
Just then up came old Canute with the beer,
and the sight of that seemed to settle the question for the Turco.
"Well," he said, "I cannot
take you prisoners, as you came here under a flag of truce. I suppose this
gentleman is in charge of the party;" and he turned towards Canute, whose
cardboard crown made him look rather impressive. Canute's regal bow was quite a
'' That," said the Surplice, "is
our old friend King Canute, who tried a course of sea-bathing to cure his
chilblains, and wrote that beautiful poem, ' Roll on, thou dark and deep blue
Ocean, roll.' He married the fair Robina, the
daughter of the lady who burned King Alfred's pancakes, and made him exclaim, '
Ah, Robbie, Robbie, I asked for bread, and you gave me a lump of charcoal!' He
had fourteen children in fifteen years in order to avoid paying
Well, we spread the tablecloth on the
ground, and put all the good things on it; and I asked our guest whether he
would start on sardines with hardboiled eggs and chutney, or lay a foundation
with jam sandwiches. We gave him plenty of beer. It seems that he belonged to
the Young Turk party, and Young Turks drink beer. And all the time the Greek
Athlete and the Surplice burbled away like a pair of cooing doves. The Greek
Athlete every now and again would put his monocle in his eye, and gaze
abstractedly at the Bal-i-hai Redoubt.
"So that is your redoubt," he
would say. "Verily a noble structure. Now.tell
me: is it haunted by a ghost in clanking armour? No?
And yet, I suppose, it is very ancient. Did it belong to your father before
you, and your grandfather before him?"
The Turco would
smile indulgently and shrug his shoulders. Whether or not he thought we were
harmless lunatics I cannot say; probably he had an idea that all Englishmen
were more or less mad. Anyhow, he went on placidly stowing away the victuals,
and I rather fancy that it was the first good square meal he had had for many
months. Now and then he would look from one to the other of us, and he seemed
to be specially fascinated by the Greek Athlete's wreath of palm leaves and
Canute's golden crown. A contented smile played over his lips all the time, and
I think he was really enjoying himself.
"Tell me," said the Surplice:
"in your proud domain I suppose you have an extensive and valuable
"Well, no," said the Turco, "not very extensive. In fact, it consists just
now of only one book a book on tropical diseases."
"Now, that is very interesting,"
said the Greek Athlete. "I love tropical diseases. Which ones do you like
" Lately," said the Turco, "I have been reading about malaria, beriberi,
and Asiatic cholera."
"I know! I know!" said the
Surplice, waving his hand excitedly " mumps!" We all looked at him in
surprise; even the Surplice surprises us sometimes.
" Mumps," said the Turco very politely, "is hardly a tropical
"But I remember learning that when I
was a child," said the Surplice. "When in a redoubt, read
Then we took the Surplice, gently but
firmly, laid him on the ground, and sat on him. The Turco
was getting used to our little ways, and went on placidly eating.
"The Surplice," explained King
Canute, "has the reputation of being the worst bridge-player in
From beneath the combined weight of King
Canute and the Greek Athlete the voice of the irresponsible Surplice broke into
a chant, and I just managed to recognize the air of a setting of one of
"I sat playing bridge at midnight, the
clock was striking the hour; My partner made it three
No Trumps, I bravely shouted four."
' How often, oh how often,' said my partner
with a sigh, ' I've told you not to push it up when there's no necessity. How
often, oh how often, in the days that are gone by, I've longed to punch your
silly head and black your blooming eye."
"It's no use," I said; "you
had far better let him get up, especially as he hasn't yet produced that cheese
which he promised to bring."
" By Jove, yes! Where's that cheese,
The Surplice struggled to his feet, and,
diving into a basket, produced a stone jar, which he held aloft triumphantly.
" Cheese, Gorgonzola, one in number.
The climax of the feast."
"Is it anything like your Silver Key
cocktail?" asked Garibaldi, turning pale. This was a patent ready-made
cocktail which the Surplice used at one time to keep in the
Flytrap, and we all had painful recollections of it.
"Now, as a matter of fact," said
the Surplice, "I know nothing about this cheese, except that I bought it
in Bombay some months ago."
" How many months?" asked the
Greek Athlete anxiously.
"I have reserved this cheese,"
the Surplice continued impressively, " for some state occasion, and behold
the hour has come."
"Well, suppose you open the blooming
thing," I suggested, "instead of playing the Hyde Park orator."
He sat down and laboriously stripped off
the layers of tinfoil, until he came to the stone stopper, which was coated
round the edge with cement. He was in the act of chipping this off, when he
suddenly threw the thing from him and collapsed in a heap. The jar landed on
top of a beer bottle, and burst with a kind of sizzling noise. I remember that
I was telling the Surplice in forcible, language not to act the goat, when I
became conscious of a blue haze all round me, which grew so thick that it was
impossible to see a yard in front of me. A curious lassitude overcame me, and I
sank to the ground. The next thing I remember was that I was lying on my back
beneath the trees at some little distance from the scene of the picnic, and I
heard one of the matelots saying: "Try a drop o'
beer; that might pull 'im round." It did, and I
raised my head and looked about me.
"Where are the others?" I asked.
been able to get 'em out yet, sir. It's something
cruel over there. We only just managed to drag you out of it. Another minute
and I should 'ave dropped. Lucky we was on the windward side of you! 'Ullo!
'Oo's this coming along?"
It was some of the Army. They explained
that they had seen us through their telescopes, and thought they ought to warn
us that we had wandered up to a Turkish redoubt. When they saw the air turn
blue, they guessed that something had happened, so they had sent for an
ambulance party. Those ambulance fellows were splendid; they dashed into the
thick of it, and brought the whole lot back on stretchers. They then went up to
the redoubt, where they found thirty-two Turks laid out, but by means of
artificial respiration they were all brought round. Of course, there was
nothing for it but to take them back to the British camp as prisoners, and our
fellows occupied the redoubt as soon as the air had cleared a bit.
Two days later there was a paragraph in
Reuter's to say that we had stormed and occupied the Bal-i-hai
Redoubt, capturing one officer and thirty-two men. Our friend the
Turco happened to see it just before he was sent
down-river. I strolled round to say good-bye to him (for he was a very decent
sort), and I found him absolutely furious.
" Look at this," he said. "
Stormed and occupied the Bal-i-hai Redoubt! Is that
what you call storming a redoubt? Why, you didn't even know it was a redoubt
until I told you. Bah! You talk about Wolff's Agency, but for sheer audacious
mendacity well, to use your English expression, you take the gingerbread."
' If the Turkish officer said that to the
Captain of the Scrunchfly, I must honestly say that I
am inclined to agree. But no: perhaps it is wiser not to say it; he is bigger
than I am.
XIII - A
LOWER DECK EPISODE
THE educational test for the rating of
petty officer consists of simple arithmetic and writing from dictation. The
First Lieutenant of the Thora always used to complain
that the men who passed their educational test were the most incompetent
members of the ship's company, and that the men who failed were usually the
smartest. Such, I believe, is the way of examinations; the really brilliant men
are the ones who get ploughed. At least, I know that when I went in for
examinations I usually got ploughed, but, of course, I do not mean to infer
that the rule is invariable. For instance, there was Able Seaman
Soppitt who passed his educational test with flying
colours; he was quick at figures, and wrote a very fair hand, and his spelling
was above reproach. Soon after he joined the ship he was rated Leading Seaman,
but this only caused the First Lieutenant to use some picturesque language in
which Soppitt was described as the biggest blithering
idiot in the ship. The fact of the matter is that the man's genius did not lie
in the direction of seamanship, or of any of those qualities which appeal to
the executive officer; it is hard to define exactly the direction in which it
did lie, but the genius was there all right, and the best I can do is to
describe it as a genius for original sin. Of course, I may be crediting him with
a brilliancy which really belongs to his collaborator, a corpulent
shipwright called Eraser. I only know that between the pair of them they showed
enough diabolical ingenuity to have raised them to a position of immortal fame
in the collected annals of unpunished crime.
It is a matter of small moment to know how
I became acquainted with the facts in the incident of the lonely Naval
Officers; suffice it to say that I held my peace, and that the Powers that be,
if they ever went through the process of putting two and two together, gave no
sign that they had arrived at the inevitable result. It is true that I had one
piece of evidence which I kept to myself, merely
because I attached no importance to it at the moment. Soppitt
came to me one afternoon and asked me for the address of the Times. I am used
to being asked all sorts of strange conundrums, so I gave it to him, and
thought no more about it. Quite two months later (for the post to England took
about a month each way on the average) I happened to be glancing through the
Times, when I came across the following advertisement:
"Two lonely Naval Officers would like
to receive letters from some bright and cheerful young lady. Address C. S. or
J. F., Box Z 4824, Times Office."
About a week later (the ship was lying at Busrah at the time) the news circulated that the mail steamer
was just coming round the bend, and, in accordance with my usual custom, I went
up on the poop to watch her arrival. When you are several thousand miles from
home, and in a climate which is bad enough to cause a beneficent Admiralty to
give you extra pay for living in it during the four worst months of the year,
the arrival of the English mail once a week is attended with a degree of
expectancy worthy of a lovelorn maiden on St. Valentine's Day. It is about the
only thing which breaks the wearisome monotony of the
daily routine and gives a zest to life. As the mail-steamer makes its way up
the Gulf, the wireless stations tick the news from one to the other, and start
a buzz of speculation as to when it will arrive at each port of call. Sometimes
doleful tidings come through that the P. and O. steamer has been delayed, and
that the Persian Gulf steamer has left Bombay without any English mail; and
then there is an air of calm resignation on the faces of the exiles as they
settle down to endure another week of scorching days and breathless nights.
On this occasion, however, the English mail
was up to time, and everybody was looking happy as the mail-steamer swept
majestically up the river and passed within a stone's-throw of the
Thora. "Good-evening," said the mail-steamer,
dipping her ensign as she proceeded to her anchorage. "Good evening,"
said the Thora, dipping her ensign in answer. "Quartermaster!"
sang out the First Lieutenant, "call away the steam-cutter to take the
postman over to the mail-steamer,'*
"Ay, ay, sir."
Perhaps there is no better exercise for the
virtue of patience than when the mail-steamer arrives. She has no sooner
dropped her anchor than she is surrounded by all the small craft in the river,
all clamouring at once for attention to their multifarious demands; for they
are exiles one and all, and here is the one link with civilization, with that
far-away world from which they came. But not one of them can gain admittance to
the ship until it pleases the medical officer of the port to run his launch
alongside, go on board to make the usual inquiries and inspection, and
pronounce his verdict as to whether he can give the ship a clean bill of
health. By the time these preliminaries have, been carried out, and the mailbags
addressed to the care of the Senior Naval Officer have at last been handed
over, the stock of patience both of the mail-steamer's officers and of those
awaiting their letters is nearing total exhaustion.
The First Lieutenant was standing at the
gangway when the steam-cutter returned.
"An extra big mail," he remarked.
"Are these all for Thora?"
" Yes, sir," said the Master at Arms,
who was doing duty as ship's postman; "and this isn't all of it.
There's an extraordinary lot of parcels as well as the
letters. Anyone would think it was Christmas time."
"Well, carry on with the sorting as
quick as you' can. I'll send the coxswain back for the parcels."
Twelve large bags were emptied on the deck,
and the Master-at-Arms, assisted by the Sergeant of Marines, dripped large
beads of perspiration over them as they knelt down to their task. "Look
here," said the Master-at-Arms, as soon as he had
had time to grasp the situation, "we'd better make separate bundles for
them two. It'll save us trouble in the end. "And so the work went on,
accompanied by a monotonous drone of which the burden ran, "
Soppitt, Eraser, Eraser, Soppitt,
Soppitt, Eraser, Eraser," ad infinitum.
After half an hour the First Lieutenant
came out of the wardroom to see what was happening.
"How about the wardroom letters?"
"We haven't come to any wardroom
letters yet, sir."
"You're a mighty long time over this job.
What's the matter? What are these two piles here?"
"One is Leading Seaman Soppitt, sir, and the other is Shipwright Eraser."
" H'm! They seem to run an extensive
Presently the Captain's bell rang for the
Quartermaster, and the message he sent was brief and to the point.
"The Captain says 'e wants 'is letters
at once." "We haven't
come to the Captain's letters yet."
The First Lieutenant realized that the
position had become acute.
"We must have some extra hands on this
job," he said, "or we shall be all night over it."
The aid of two petty officers was invoked,
and for a solid hour the four sorters stuck manfully to their task; for a solid
hour they dripped perspiration to the accompaniment of the same monotonous
chant. And so at last the work was completed; letters and parcels were sent off
to the various quarters of the ship to which they belonged all except four
large heaps, two of letters and two of parcels, which remained lying on the
Fraser can come and fetch 'em if they want 'em,' said the Master-at-Arms, who was not in the best of
tempers. "And I'd advise 'em to bring a couple
of coaling barrows and some sacks," added the Sergeant of Marines.
In the cool of the evening (if a shade
temperature of 95 can be described as cool) Soppitt
and Fraser sat down with an air of grim determination to tackle their
said Soppitt:." 'ere's one 'as sent me 'er photo."
"I've 'ad three photos so far,"
said Fraser complacently.
though," said Soppitt; "she wants me to
send 'er mine."
"Most of 'em
seem to want that," remarked Fraser.
"What are we going to do about
it?" asked Soppitt.
"I don't know what you're going to do,
but I ain't going to sweat my 'eart
out over it."
" 'Arf a
mo', Fraser; ain't you got some picture postcards of
"I got one of Jellicoe and one of Sturdee, that's all."
"That'll do. You 'ave Sturdee, and I'll 'ave Jellicoe. Dig 'em out,
The postcards were produced, and Soppitt copied out carefully the name and address of one of
his fair correspondents. On the space reserved for 'messages he wrote: "
Herewith my photograph as requested, J. R. J."
" 'Ere you are, Fraser," he said;
" all you 'ave to do is to write the young
lady's name and address with a touching little message alongside of it."
" But there's about 'alf a dozen of 'em in the first
matter. You can send a postcard to the others saying as 'ow
you're sorry you ain't got any photos left, but if
she will apply to Miss So-and-so she can 'ave a sight
of one. It'll be like one of these 'ere cirkerlating
Fraser expressed approval of the plan, and
they again devoted themselves to the colossal task in front of them.
" 'Ow about
this for style?" said Soppitt after a short
interval. "Just listen to this: ' I picture you, in my mind's eye, on your
great steel-clad boat 'they all call a ship a boat ' your great steel-clad
boat, round which the billows are surging, your face turned to the howling
gale, your hands firmly grasping the rudder ' '
" She seems to think you steer the old
'ooker by swimming behind, and 'eaving
round the rudder when you want to alter course."
" Perhaps she means the wheel,"
suggested Soppitt. ' Where am I? '
Your hands firmly grasping the rudder, an intrepid son of an intrepid race,
nurtured in the traditions of our glorious Nelson. That sounds all
right, don't it?"
' There's a good many of 'em go in for the 'ighfalutin'
style," remarked Eraser. "It's by way of being bright and
For another spell there was silence, broken
only by the sound of ripping open envelopes and the rustle of paper.
said Soppitt presently, " 'ere's
one of 'em broke into poitry."
"I've 'ad four poitry
ones," said Eraser.
"Just listen to this: 'Brave guardian
of fair England's shores, who knowest not the use of
fear, take comfort in your lonely watch, for England's daughters hold you
dear." That's a bit of all right. There's fifteen
verses of it."
"' Lonely watch' don't sound
right," said Eraser critically; "most of mine 'as a fancy word for
watch; they calls it a vigil."
Soppitt tried the emendation, but shook his head
sadly. "It don't sound right with ' vigil.' You'll 'ave
to make it ' vidge.' ' Take comfort in your lonely
"Roast mutton and vidge
twice," quoted Eraser.
Soppitt opened another envelope and laboriously
made his way down the front sheet of a closely written letter.
"Now, that's what I calls
thoughtful," he said " She arsts me to send
my photo, and then she says that a woman don't take much stock of what a bloke
looks like, only she 'as a natooral curiosity about
"She guessed you was an ugly-looking
devil," suggested Eraser, "and she wanted to tell you as 'ow it wouldn't put 'er off, so
long as she knew the worst at once."
"I've got another idea. There's a book
I saw sculling about the other day one of these 'ere advertisement books of the
orficers ' tailors, with pictures of
orficers in uniform. I'll cut out one of those and send it
to 'er with my love."
Eraser was deeply immersed in a long epistle which evidently gave him some trouble. He kept on
going back to the beginning, to get a fresh start; but before he had gone far
he came across a series of perplexing obstacles. At last he appealed to
Soppitt for assistance. "I can't make 'ead nor tail of this one. 'Oo was
Di-og No, that ain't
right Diogeens. 'Oo was
"Blessed if I know," said Soppitt.
"Well, this is what she says about 'im. ' Diogeens lived in a tub,
but he was not lonely; for he told Alexander the Great to get out of his
a genuyne letter," said Soppitt.
"It's a soap advertisement. You'll see it marked 'Advert' at the end.
"Ave you used Sunlight Soap? Yus, but
Diogeen's is the best."
" 'Arf a
mo'," said Eraser; "you're right off the target. Listen to this: ' He
had cultivated the art of self-sufficiency, and learned to extract the elixir
of life from the serene contemplation of Nature.' I reckon it all means
something, only you want a key to it."
"Is there any more of it?"
' 'Ere you are; I've found the key: For Diogeens read Naval Officer; for tub read ship.' Now then
let's try again."
" But 'ow
about all them other words? Ain't they in the
"I can't make no sense of it,"
said Eraser despairingly.
"What's the finish of it?"
Eraser read out the concluding sentences of
the letter with slow precision, tackling the long words by numbers, as they say
in the drill-book.
"'The moral of the story is that man,
in spite of all his supercilious pretensions, is irrevocably doomed to a
position of perpetual dependence upon woman. Wherefore, O sailor man, be wise
in time. No longer hold yourself aloof, but, when occasion serves, step forward
boldly to meet the representatives of the fairer and stronger sex, and make
your choice.' She draws three lines under 'stronger."
"I know!" said Soppitt. " She's one of these 'ere Suffragettes
arstin' you to receive a depytation.
She thinks you're a bloomin' Cabinet Minister."
you're right," said Eraser. " But I ain't
going to meet any representatives of the fairer and stronger sex in this
forsaken country unless she's thinking of these Arab women, with their faces
stowed in their silk 'andkerchiefs, and I reckon
there aren't many Suffragettes among that crowd."
The morrow being Saturday the afternoon was
devoted by the ship's company to "make and mend "; but
Soppitt and Eraser spent it in a state of profuse
perspiration unpacking parcels, which spread themselves over mess tables, mess
stools, and the deck. There were knitted ties, and knitted scarves, and knitted
socks, and knitted cholera belts, and knitted tam-o'-shanters, all so
beautifully warm and comforting that fresh streams of perspiration started to
run down their necks with every parcel they opened. What to do with them in the
Persian Gulf at the very climax of the hot weather taxed even the ingenuity of
Soppitt. It was with rather an apologetic air that he and
Eraser offered them round to their shipmates, suggesting that they might come
in handy one of these days. (And I have no doubt that they did.) By the time
all the parcels had been disposed of, nearly every member of the ship's company
had received a favour of some kind or other. The next problem was how to convey
a message of thanks to each of the donors. The only possible method was to get
each recipient to write a letter on his own account, for neither of the two
heroes could face the ordeal of writing all the letters themselves. By means of
a little astute diplomacy, Soppitt managed to induce
them to sit down pen in hand and write quite effusive letters, extolling the
virtues of a nice warm woollen scarf or a nice thick pair of socks, and he took
care that none of them explained that the smudges on the paper were caused by
the drip of honest sweat. He and Eraser undertook to address and stamp the
envelopes (the postage made quite a big hole in their month's pay), and, when
each letter was completed, Soppitt went through it to
"censor" out all undesirable particulars, and then appended a postscript
in his own handwriting: "I thought you would not mind me handing on your
beautiful present to this man, who is an orphan and quite alone in the
In the evening the two conspirators, having
at last accomplished their Herculean task, were standing on the
fo'c'sle trying to get cool. The sun was setting behind the
palm-trees which fringe the river, casting its last
rays across the endless miles of desert beyond. On the bank a few patient
sepoys were squatting and whiling away their leisure hours by
dangling the most primitive of fishing lines in the current, an occupation
which seemed to befit their sombre taciturn natures. Except for a few
motor-launches and other light craft passing up and down the river, all the
world appeared to be in a state of suspended animation, and that feeling of
peacefulness which sunset brings to the senses had entered the souls of even
Eraser and Soppitt.
They had both been silent for a long while,
when Soppitt stepped to the side of the ship, knocked
out his pipe against a stanchion, and turned towards his companion.
"I wish now that we 'adn't done it," he said.
"Too much like 'ard
work," commented Fraser.
that," said Soppitt, "but I wish we 'adn't done it."
"Well, there ain't
no 'arm in it, as I can see."
playing the game," said Soppitt, whose gaze was
wandering over the tops of the palm-trees to the distant horizon. "They
all done it out of the kindness of their 'earts."
"Well, we ain't
agoing to break their 'earts,
"You remember that advert?" asked
Soppitt after a pause. "You remember we said as
'ow we was lonely? Well, we wasn't
not then. But some'ow it's different now. It's made
me feel a kind of lonely."
all the young ladies what's arst for your
"No, I ain't thinkin' of them at all."
He dived into his pocket and drew out a
letter. "This is the only one of them letters that I've kept," he
said. "It's different from all the rest. It don't arst
me for no photo; it don't enclose no photo; it don't call me the intrepid son
of an intrepid race, nor the brave guardian of England's shores."
"Is it poitry
or prose?" asked Fraser.
Soppitt would not commit himself to any answer,
but drew the letter from its envelope and handed it to his companion.
This is what Fraser read:
" DEAR MR. SAILOR, I am only nine
years old, so I am not really a grown-up young lady. But you say you are
lonely, and I don't like to think of you being lonely, because I never am. You
see, I have Tim that is our dog; he is a fox-terrier
with a lovely black blob on his forehead and I can't be lonely when I have Tim
to talk to. But if you like I will send you Tim. I know you would love him as
much as I do, and then you would not be lonely any more. Do let me send him;
only you must tell me where to send him to. With love,
yours affectionately, SYBIL F AIRFIELD."
Fraser folded up the letter and handed it
back. His eyes, too, now sought the horizon.
"When I get to Bombay," said Soppitt, "I'm going to buy a collar for Tim and send it
" But ain't
you going to write to 'er now?"
"Yes, I'm going to write and tell 'er that I ain't really lonely
leastways I wasn't."
"You're right," said Fraser;
"I reckon it makes one feel as if there's something one wants, and don't
just know what it is."
"I know now what it is," said Soppitt. "I suppose every bloke's the same; but I
dunno maybe they ain't. It's just
a kind of feeling that
if I was 'er daddy,
or if I 'ad one like 'er all my own, there'd never be
no more loneliness for me."
Thus did Leading Seaman Soppitt
stumble by accident on one of the laws of the universe which
it is not given to every bachelor to discover.
XIV - THE ORDEAL OF LOCHINVAR
IT so happened that the Smackfly
and the Scatterfly were the only two gunboats on the
Euphrates patrol at the time, and both were lying near a large village called
Sup-Turiniyah, tied up to the opposite bank of the
river. This was in the late summer of 1916, at the time when the expedition was
having a standeasy so far as fighting was concerned,
but was still very busy over its transport problems. The railway was nearing
completion between Kurnah and Amarah,
and the line to Nasiriyah was well advanced. An
expert business man had taken charge of the river transport service, another
expert was dealing with the congestion of shipping in the port of
Busrah, and a new Army Commander was not only himself
leading the strenuous life, but was making all his Staff do the same, in spite
of the devitalizing effect of the climate. The rivers had fallen, and the
Hammar Lake had become impassable for anything bigger than
a bellum; so the two gunboats were doomed to spend the next few months above
the lake, until such time in the early spring as the water began to rise again.
They were quite happy, however, for they found congenial company in the
military messes at Nasiriyah and other places where
detachments were stationed; and occasionally they got a chance of doing a
little wholesome strafing, when a fractious tribe of Arabs became too bold and
started interfering with the food convoys. But on the whole the Arabs are a
peaceable folk when they have to deal with people stronger than themselves and
after a few salutary lessons they came to the conclusion that it was best to
leave the Inglesi alone when their gunboats were
The one person whom this life of monotonous
ease suited thoroughly was Toby, the Captain of the Smackfly,
for it gave him ample opportunity for pursuing his new hobby, the study of the
Arab and his language. He used to make a point of doing his own marketing in
the villages, and probably the vendors chuckled with delight whenever they saw
him coming; for Toby had no head for figures, and would readily pay any price
demanded of him so long as he got the goods. He once told me that he believed
very firmly in what he called the Gouin system for
learning languages. I do not profess to know what this is, but Toby's method
was to borrow the Interpreter from the Scatter fly (having none in the
complement of his own ship), and to make the unfortunate man stand by while he
emitted a series of weird, sounds, which he fondly believed to be Arabic. The
Interpreter used to wear a patient smile throughout the performance, for he was
a born diplomatist; but after a bit he began to get a
faint glimmering of the meaning of the sounds. In fact, the result of the
Gouin system, as practised by Toby, was that the
Interpreter learned a brand-new language.
As regards the study of the Arab, Toby
commenced by making a careful research into the subject of the native dress. In
the more civilized centres this was quite a big subject, for some of the town
Arabs wear elaborate costumes, and apparently the number as well as the quality
of the garments rises proportionately with the social status of their wearer.
Thus, a wealthy Arab merchant in Busrah wears quite
magnificent robes including a pair of cotton trousers; and his wife is arrayed
in a silk dress which would rival any Paris gown, and hides her face behind a
silk veil of costly texture, whose only fault is that it leaves too much to the
imagination. But in the country districts the garb of the man varies between
nothing at all and a long coarse robe, which he calls his "
abba"; a kerchief held on his head by a circlet of woven
hair, which he calls his "akal "; and a
pair of sandals on his feet. The women in the country appear to wear only one
garment, a loose-fitting dress of dark material, which is usually seen tucked
up to the knee when the lady is drawing water from the river or working in the
fields. As a matter of fact, I have it on the authority of an official
publication that there are other garments, but that they are hidden from view;
and experts tell me that the skirt of the one visible robe should be
technically called a divided skirt, because from the knee downwards it is slit
at the side, presumably to facilitate the operation of tucking it up when the
lady goes paddling in the river. Of course, there are the distinctions due to
rank to be observed in the villages as well as in the towns, and one may spot
the village Sheikh by his belt (he calls it "hussan")
and his sandals. His wife, too, and his daughters, assimilate their attire to
that worn by the highborn ladies of the metropolis, and in the larger villages
wear the veil which their humbler sisters can afford
This information about Arab costume, meagre
as it is, must not be taken for gospel; for the greater part of it I have
accepted on trust from Toby, and although his former passion for theatricals
has made him a student of such matters well, Toby, after all, is just Toby. You
may picture him in his spotless white suit and helmet, taking those funny
little strides of his along the river-bank towards some village of reed huts,
which occasionally boasts a brick house for the residence of the Sheikh; on one
side of him the broad waters of the Euphrates, and on the other a clump of
palm-trees or a patch of cultivated ground growing "ladies' fingers"
or some other native vegetable; in the distance, both to right and left, nothing
but limitless acres of marshland, from which the flood waters are beginning to
recede as the autumn approaches. Lazily paddling down the river, an Arab in his
mashoof (the native canoe) stares at him with an air
of nonchalance, dreamily wondering why the white man should be in such a hurry
(for Toby always steps out briskly); or perhaps the fellow is not even using
his paddle, except as a rudder, but is reclining at his ease in the
sternsheets; while his wife on the bank is pulling steadily
at the end of a tow-rope. Toby in his philosophic moments has sometimes dilated
eloquently upon the wonderful training of the Oriental woman as contrasted with
that of her Western sister. I may mention that Toby is a married man, and, like
most married men, he can grow quite eloquent when he is several thousand miles
away from home.
The Captain of the Scatterfly
is called Lochinvar, and there is a thrilling romance
attached to the name. Once upon a time his ship was lying at Queensferry, and near-by there lived a retired Dundee
jutespinner, who was always known to Lochinvar's
messmates as the "Highland Chieftain" (presumably because he came
from the Lowlands). Now, the Highland Chieftain had a daughter who was fair to
behold, and when Lochinvar set eyes on her. But I am
digressing. Lochinvar is really a very remarkable
character, though it is difficult to say just exactly what there is remarkable
about him. When you come to look into it carefully, his face is not quite a
perfect circle; and though his hair has a warm tint, no one would dream of
holding up a piece of bread on a toasting fork to it. But he has a smile. I
cannot describe that smile, but I have heard people say that the mere sight of
it will banish a raging toothache.
The Smackfly and
the Scatterfly, as I said just now, were both lying
tied to the bank opposite to the village of Sup-Turiniyah,
and they were within a stone's-throw of each other. Lochinvar
had finished his dinner, and was seated in a wicker chair just outside his
cabin reading a novel and trying to keep the mosquitoes at bay by puffing
vigorously at a large pipe. It was a thrilling novel, all about a squire of
dames who rescued the heroine from a band of highwaymen (they had been employed
by the villain to assist him in absconding with her). He had just reached the
chapter in which the hero is enticed into the lair of this ruffianly
gang, when the Quartermaster appeared before him.
" Beg pardon, sir. There's a lady to
see you, sir."
"A what!" exclaimed Lochinvar, nearly jumping out of his chair.
"An Arab lady, sir. She's alongside in
Lochinvar swallowed three times, dropped the pipe
out of his mouth, and rubbed his eyes. When he had recovered his composure, he
asked in level tones: "What does she want?"
"Wants to see you, sir."
"Is the Interpreter aboard?"
"The Interpreter brought her off,
" Hassan brought her off? Tell him to
come here. Half a minute. Tell him to bring the lady
The Quartermaster retired,
and in the silence that followed the ping of the mosquitoes sounded like the
shrill note of a flute'. Then
came the noise of footsteps along the starboard gangway, and next moment Hassan
appeared and stood to attention with that impenetrable smile on his face that
never seemed to wash off. He was followed by a closely veiled lady, who
approached timidly to about two paces in front of Lochinvar,
and then sank on her knees with head bowed in an attitude of supplication.
Lochinvar laid down his book on top of the big gun, at the
breech end of which he was sitting, and leaned forward in his chair.
"What's all this about, Hassan?"
"The lady wants to make a request,
"Who is she? Where did you find
"I went ashore to buy some eggs, sir,
and the lady was on the bank when I was coming back. She is the daughter of a
Sheikh, but her father is dead. Her mother is dead, too. She has been living
with her stepmother, who beats her."
" But what does she want with
Here the lady began to speak volubly and
passionately, holding her hands clasped together towards Lochinvar.
"What is she saying, Hassan?"
Hassan's smile broadened perceptibly for a
moment, but quickly resumed the normal.
"I do not know, sir. She speaks fast,
and it is a dialect."
"Tell her to speak more slowly."
Hassan interpreted, and the lady began to
speak very deliberately and very earnestly.
" She says, sir, that the stepmother
wants her to marry, and has chosen a husband for her; but he is not a good man;
he is not a proper husband for a Sheikh's daughter, and she hates him."
Lochinvar looked thoughtfully at the figure
crouching before him. It would be impossible to describe it as anything more
than a conglomeration of clothes with something animate inside them; no outline
of the human form was visible, and no glimpse of the face could be caught
through the thickness of the veil. She began to look about her, turning her
head with a quick, timid movement, first towards the open door of
Lochinvar's cabin, where she could see a snow-white
coverlet upon the bed, and a neat array of books on a shelf over the bunk; and
then round on her right, looking upwards to the awe-inspiring gun, whose muzzle
stretched away into the gloom beyond the rays of the lamp hanging above
Lochinvar's head. Presently there arose from the village
that strange ululation which suggests a railway whistle trying to neigh like a
horse. The girl made a sudden start, and, with a dramatic wave of her hand
towards the direction of the sound, she spoke in a trembling voice, which ended
with a catch of her breath and a violent shudder. Hassan interpreted. "The
women of the village, she says, think that she is in her house, and they are
serenading her because she is soon to be a bride. It is a native custom."
"What's her name?" asked Lochinvar. Hassan repeated the question.
"It is a strange name," said
Hassan when the lady had replied; "I cannot make it out."
Lochinvar looked thoughtful. "Well, what does
she want me to do?" he said.
The girl again began to speak volubly, and
from her gestures Lochinvar could see that she was
very much in earnest. She stretched her hands towards him with palms raised,
and bowed her head between her arms. Then with a sudden movement she raised one
arm as if she were trying to ward off a cowardly blow, and her whole attitude
was eloquent of abject terror. And then she began to sob until her body shook
with violent paroxysms.
" Poor little devil!" murmured Lochinvar. " Her stepmother must be a brute. What is
she saying, Hassan?"
" She is asking you to let her stay
here, sir. She says that if she goes back now they will kill her."
" But I can't keep her here. I've
nowhere to stow her."
" She says that she will be happy if
she can sit at the sahib's feet and eat the crumbs that fall from the sahib's
"That's all very well, but confound it
all! I can't turn the Scatterfly into an asylum for
distressed females. How long does she suggest that I should keep her? What is
she saying now?"
"She says that the sahib's face is
like the rising moon," said Hassan, and added hastily: "In
Araby that is a compliment, sir."
"The deuce it is! Well, what's her own face like? Tell her to take off her veil."
Hassan opened the negotiations.
"She says she is shy, sir," he
"Well, that's a bit thick," commented
Lochinvar; " she wants to come here as my guest,
and I'm not even to see her face."
"She says, sir, she is the beauty of
"No false modesty about her, anyhow.
What are the rest of them like?"
"She says, sir, that Sup-Turiniyah is famous for its beautiful women."
"Well, its fame never reached me; I
never heard of the damned place until I tied up here."
The girl now said something very softly,
and Hassan had to stoop down to catch it. He shook his head protestingly,
and looked quite embarrassed.
"What is she saying, Hassan?"
"She wants to know, sir " Hassan
began, and stopped himself with an apologetic cough.
"Translate it, Hassan. Never mind what
"She wants to know, sir, whether you
mix catechu with the henna when you dye your hair."
"The saucy little minx!"
exclaimed Lochinvar with a smile.
explained Hassan, " red hair is considered very beautiful."
"So that's her little way of making
love to me?"
Again a low gentle voice murmured from
beneath the veil, and Hassan stooped to listen.
"Any more conundrums?" asked Lochinvar. "What is she asking now?"
"She wants to know, sir, whether it is
very expensive to make your nose look so beautiful?"
"Confound her impudence!" said Lochinvar. "Tell her that little girls shouldn't be
sir, a fresh complexion is much admired. She is only wishing to tell you that
she thinks you very handsome."
"It's deuced good of her, but if she
wants me to reciprocate the compliment she must take off that blooming
"She says, sir, that she will take off
her veil presently if you will let her stay here."
"I should jolly well think so! Does
she think I'm going to keep an Egyptian mummy aboard here? Tell her to take it
off at once."
"She says that she will unveil if you
will take her to Nasiriyah. She has a house at
Nasiriyah; her father was a rich man and owned property
there. And she says that, if the sahib will visit her in her house sometimes,
she will be very happy there."
"I've got a dainty little motor-car,
and I've got a yacht," quoted Lochinvar, and for
a while he sat looking thoughtfully at the figure kneeling in front of him.
Subconsciously he began softly to sing the popular duet to himself, while his
brain was absorbed with the problem which had been
presented to him. ' I've got, honey, lots of money; I've got everything!' He
broke off abruptly and looked round with a startled air. Someone quite close to
him was humming an accompaniment to his song. It was only just audible, but
there was no mistaking the tune, including the little twiddly
bit when the lady in the song asks whether the yacht sails upon the ocean.
"Who was that humming?" asked Lochinvar.. Hassan's smile was as
Sphinx-like as any human smile can be.
"I believe it was the girl," said
Lochinvar. "But how the deuce does she know that
Hassan said something to her in Arabic, to
which she replied in a dull, listless voice.
"She says, sir, that she belongs to a
musical family. Her brother plays the drum."
"But that wasn't an Arabic tune she
was humming, nothing like any of the weird noises that the natives call
"She says she heard some English
soldiers singing it."
"Tell her to hum it again."
Hassan interpreted the request.
"She says she is shy, sir."
" Confound her shyness! Ask her again
what her name is."
Hassan again put the question, and again
was answered by the same low mumbling.
"I do not know the name at all,"
he said, " but it sounds like Legpoolina."
"Queer name," mused Lochinvar; "but I suppose all these girls have
outlandish names that nobody can pronounce. Look here, Hassan, I'm fed up with
her. Tell her that she must either take off her veil or else clear out of
it." And Lochinvar rose from his chair with an
air of determination. In an instant the girl was on her feet, and had darted
forward into the gloom beyond the light's rays.
"Bless my soul!" said Lochinvar, "I didn't mean to frighten her. Here, all
right, what'syourname; I'm not going to eat
But the lady remained in hiding, and after
a few moments Lochinvar walked towards her in his
most dignified manner. No sooner did he approach her, however, than she dived
under the gun and got round to the other side of the mounting. With slower
movements Lochinvar also dived under the gun, but by
the time he had reached the port side of it Legpoolina
had dodged round again to the starboard side. Three times Lochinvar
pursued her round the gun, and then he tried the effect of suddenly reversing
his direction after an elaborate feint; but Legpoolina
was too quick for him, and with a sigh of resignation he sank into his chair
"I'm not going to play any more,"
he said. "I don't know whether you call it Hide and Seek,
or Chase me, Charley, or Round the Mulberry Bush, but I'm fed up with it."
He picked up his book and made a pretence of reading; the silence was only broken by the
ping of the mosquitoes. His eyes roaming the pages in front of him caught these
words: "In the Stone Ages woman was wooed by physical force; today the
gentler methods of civilization must be used; but there are times when the
modern woman has a secret yearning for a glimpse of neolithic
Lochinvar laid down the book on his lap.
"Where's that girl? What's she doing,
But Hassan, feeling that his services were
no longer required, had gone aft. Lochinvar leaned
forward in his chair and peered round the gun into the darkness beyond. He was
startled by a quiet voice from behind him, which said in a matter-of-fact tone:
"I've brought a bottle of whisky, but I have run out of soda. I hope
you've got some."
Lochinvar wheeled round in his chair and sat staring
with mouth agape. There stood Legpoolina in an
attitude of demure humility; her veil had been cast aside, and was hanging down
from her shoulders. The face revealed was the face of Toby.
XV - KNIGHTS ERRANT
In the summer of 1916 the Navy in
Mesopotamia was enjoying a stand-easy, more or less. The Army was very busy
building railways and roads, and importing steamers for river transport, and
generally bestirring itself over the problems connected with a long line of
communications between the base and the scene of operations. The Navy's job was
to patrol the line, and to talk gently but firmly to any Arabs who tried to play
monkey-tricks, the conversation being conducted with
anything from a Maxim to a four-inch. The Arabs soon got to know that it was
better not to play monkey-tricks, and so the Navy did
not often have to display its conversational powers.
One evening there was a gathering of the
clans at Amarah. The large twin -funnelled
Straddlebug was lying about a mile upstream from the town,
tied to the right bank at a spot where it is thickly covered by a palm grove.
She had gathered around her some half-dozen or so of the smaller gunboats, as a
mother hen gathers her chicks. Just ahead of her were the Squashfly
and the Swotfly; tied to her starboard side was the
Scrunchfly; close astern of her were the Slayfly, the Grabfly, the
Clawfly and the Scatterfly. They
had met to rejoice because one of the clan, who is beloved by all of them, had
received recognition of his services to his country the right to wear a piece
of metal attached to a piece of ribbon, and to append to his name some well selected
letters of the alphabet. Such things happen to many people in this mighty
struggle, but when they happen to the best-loved naval officer in Mesopotamia
the occasion obviously demands some special observance. Most of the forenoon
the Doctor of the Straddlebug had been writing out
invitation cards to the officers of the squadron. "The Captain and
Officers of H.M.S. Straddlebug request the pleasure
of your company to dinner this evening." There followed an allusion to the
auspicious news which had just been telegraphed up
from Busrah, and an explanation that, owing to the
exigencies of the Service, it was regrettably impossible for the hero of the
evening to leave his duties at Busrah and attend the
dinner. Then came the letters R.S.V.P., and a footnote at the bottom explained:
" R.S.V.P. means Bring Your Own Sandwiches." It was a happy idea, for
it resulted in a miscellany of contributions to the feast, both solid and
liquid. Lochinvar, the Captain of the
Scatterfly, was very anxious that the occasion should be
graced by the presence of the ladies, for there were a large number of hospital
nurses at Amarah, and one of the hospitals was quite
close to where the Straddlebug was lying. But the
view of the majority was that it was to be a naval dinner in honour of a naval
officer, and that the presence of ladies, however delightful, would not be
The dinner was a complete success from
every point of view. Garibaldi, the Captain of the Squashfly
(so called in reference to the popular schoolboy superstition as to the ingredients
of Garibaldi biscuits), contributed that air of irresponsible gaiety which
comes of long experience of a flag-officer's dinner-parties; Lochinvar wore his inimitable smile, which grew more and
more resplendent as the evening advanced; and the Captain of the
Clawfly punctuated the conversation with that deep-throated
roar of his for which he is justly famous. In an interval of comparative calm
someone asked, "Where is Hercules?" Hercules, I should explain, is the
First Lieutenant of the Straddlebug, and is so called
because he once entered for the Amateur Boxing Championship as a heavyweight,
and survived the first two rounds." Hercules is dining with Toby in the
Smackfly," said the Captain of the Straddlebug.
"Toby has to go down-river to-morrow at daylight, so he had to get through
the pontoon bridge this evening while it was open. I suppose Hercules thought
he might be a bit lonely down there all by himself."
"But, hang it all!" said the
Captain of the Schrunchfly, "why couldn't he
leave his old packet and walk up here to dinner? It isn't much more than half a
mile along the bank,"
"I'm sure I don't know why he didn't,
except that Toby has his little idiosyncrasies."
Someone suggested that he was probably
poking round the Amarah bazaar trying to discover a
new smell, for Toby at that time was hotly pursuing his new hobby, the study of
the Arab. After that the subject of Toby was allowed to drop.
Then the Captain of the Straddlebug,
as president of the table, proposed the toast of the evening, and somebody
interjected, "And may his shadow never grow less"; but after a
moment's reflection the president amended the sentiment to, "May his
shadow never grow less nor greater," and I feel confident that the
amendment would have been heartily approved by the subject of the toast
himself. After dinner the Junior Lieutenant of the Thora
was made to recite. At that time he was in temporary command of the
Slayfly while her Captain was in hospital with a touch of
fever. He gave them the account of the costermonger who was accused of stealing
an old gentleman's watch, winding up with the impassioned speech made by the
prisoner in his own defence, a classic worthy to rank with Cicero's "Pro
Milone." He had just reached that dramatic moment
where the prisoner says, "And by Your Worship in particular," when
the whole company was startled by a piercing shriek from the river-bank.
It was the cry of a woman in an agony of terror, a blood-curdling yell
which caused even the rosy countenance of Lochinvar to turn pale. At the same moment, with such
promptness that it might have been the result of a preconcerted
signal, the Swotfly turned on her searchlight.
A white flood of light streamed through the
palm grove on the river-bank, and immediately
attracted a swarm of stag-beetles, which dashed themselves against the glass
and fell to the deck. There is something strangely dramatic about the glare of
a searchlight, something suggestive of the devices of the stage at a Drury Lane
melodrama. In the intensity of light every object stands out conspicuously as
though seen through a stereoscope, but beyond the limits of the beam there is a
blackness like that of the nethermost pit. The officers in the
Straddlebug had eyes for only one object revealed by the
searchlight's glare. Hastening along the crest of the bank was a tall,
powerfully built Arab. He seemed to glide along with a movement
which was almost snake-like, his ch-feea and
abba streaming out behind him. But it was not on the man
that every spectator fixed his horrified gaze, but on the burden that he
carried in his arms. The girl was evidently in a dead faint, for her head lay
drooping across his shoulder, and one arm was hanging limp and swinging like a
pendulum with every stride he took. Her face was as white as the cap on her
head, or at least it appeared so in the rays of the searchlight, which had the
effect of making even her grey uniform look almost white.
As soon as the alarm was raised, the Arab
realized that by keeping along the river-bank he could never escape the
pursuing glare, and that his one chance of safety was to be found in the
thickness of the palm grove inshore; so he swerved suddenly to his right and
threaded his way with a sinuous, gliding movement through the palm-trees. Less
than fifty yards from the river, and running parallel to it, was a deep
nullah (dyke), and the nearest crossing was at least two
hundred yards farther upstream. There was another crossing downstream, but
before the Arab could reach it he would be in a populous area and
was bound to be intercepted.
' That's all right," said Garibaldi;
" he can't get across that nullah except by
jumping it, and he'll have to drop the girl to do that."
But Garibaldi spoke too soon. The Arab was
seen to increase his stride, and, gathering speed as he approached the
obstacle, he took a mighty leap which landed him
safely on the other side. Next moment he was lost to view behind
a thick undergrowth through which the searchlight could not
Then the chase began. It was led by the
Captain of the Scatterfly, who rushed across the
gangway, plunged headlong into the palm grove, tripped over a root, picked
himself up, ran wildly on, took a flying leap at the nullah,
missed his footing, and fetched up in the water with a mighty splash. The
Captain of the Clawfly was hard on Lochinvar's heels, and when he saw the bedraggled officer
crawling up the muddy bank on the other side of the nullah
his deep-throated roar could be heard echoing through the grove. Followed by
the more prudent members of the hunt, he ran along the side of the
nullah until he came to the place where a felled palm-tree
had been thrown across it, and then ran back along the other side. But
Garibaldi, of the Squashfly, was not to be numbered
among the prudent. Realizing that time was the essence of the contract, he
followed Lochinvar's example, and landed with a
squelching noise into two feet of slimy mud, which rose like a fountain all
round him and almost eclipsed him.
The most prudent of all was the Captain of
the Straddlebug, who "fell in" a
landing-party with a Maxim gun, in case the pursuit should lead them into a
stronghold of armed Arabs. He was accompanied by the Captain of the
Slayfly, who had darted back to his ship to get his
revolver, and the pair of them at the head of the Maxim party brought up the
rear of the chase. Of the further adventures of these two and their party of
gallant matelots I have no exact record; but it seems
that carrying a Maxim gun across a narrow plank in the dark, with a deep
nullah underneath, is one of those things at which the
average matelot does not shine. The only
authenticated incident which I have been able to gather from
the confused account of this party's proceedings is that of a sotto-voce
observation made by a leading seaman, to the effect that he was not a
sanguinary tight-rope dancer.
I pass on to the events
which befell the two heroes who had faced the terrors of the leap in the
dark. On they stumbled through the night, until they came to the entrance to
one of the camps. Here a sentry was on duty, and when the two strange figures
came within the rays of his lantern he hastily searched his mind for
instructions as to the proper procedure. In their present condition it was
impossible to say what they were, but if they were excavated they might turn
out to be commissioned officers. In order to be on the
safe side he stood to attention.
"Which way did he go?" gasped Lochinvar.
"Beg pardon, sir?" said the
"He must have passed this way. Where
did he go?"
"Was you referrin'
to them two naval orficers' sir?"
"Naval officers! What the blank are
you talking about? That Arab carrying oft one of the hospital nurses."
The sentry merely gaped.
"We're wasting time," said
Garibaldi; "he must have struck across the desert."
"But how could he? We should have seen
him," objected Lochinvar. " He couldn't
possibly cross an open space like that without being seen."
"He might be hiding in the shadow of a
nullah," suggested Garibaldi; and they dived
again into the palm grove.
"What did he mean about two naval
officers?" Garibaldi asked after they had proceeded
a hundred yards or so. "I thought all the others were behind us."
"The fellow's a blithering
idiot," said Lochinvar testily. "I wish the
deuce we had a lantern! If the devil's hiding hullo! what's
Two figures were seen darting through the palmtrees a short distance to the right of them. They
turned out to be the Captains of the Schrunchfly and
the Clawfly; and when the latter was near enough to
recognize Lochinvar through the alluvial deposit
encasing him, his deep-throated roar made the palm-trees shake again. Presently
the Captains of the Swotfly and Grabfly
came up, and the six of them proceeded to form line abreast with intervals of
about thirty yards, and to make a thorough search of the palm grove. Garibaldi
was farthest inshore, and after a while he again came across the sentry at the
"Did you say you saw two naval
officers just now?" he asked.
"Two, sir? There's more than that
"But just before you saw me?"
"That's right, sir, there was two orficers a
tall one and a short one." "Which way did they go?" "I
couldn't rightly say, sir; but I think they must have turned up towards the
river, like as if they was going to the oriicer's
club. They was carrying something under their
arms." "What sort of thing?"
"I couldn't rightly say, sir; they was
too far off. Just looked like a couple of bundles what might be anything."
"Thank you," said Garibaldi, and
he turned on his heel and resumed the search.
As I said before, I have no precise record
of the adventures of the Captains of the Straddlebug
and the Slayfly. I only know that after an hour and a
half the Maxim was safely returned to the ship, and that two perspiring
officers dragged their weary limbs across the gangway. They were shortly
followed by the rest of the search-party, who straggled
in one by one, all very much depressed by their failure. The first person to
meet the eye of the Captain of the Straddlebug was
his First Lieutenant, who was sitting unconcernedly at the top of the deserted
"Hello, Hercules! You've missed some
excitement this evening," he said; and then, as he rounded the corner of
the big gun, he saw that Hercules had a guest.
"Hullo, Toby! I didn't expect to see
you this evening. What will you have? I see you've tried the port."
"You keep a jolly good brand of port
in the Straddlebug," remarked Toby. "Where
do you find it?"
But something had caught the eye of the
Captain of the Straddlebug, from which even a
compliment to his port wine failed to distract his attention. He gazed at it in
silence, and then he gazed on Toby, and from Toby his gaze shifted to Hercules.
At the far end of the table were two neatly arranged piles, one consisting of
the abba, ch-feea, and
akal (A circlet of woyen hair
which keeps the ch-feea in place on the head) of an
Arab Sheikh, and the other of the cap and grey uniform of a hospital nurse. The
silence was intense while seven overheated officers, five of them coated with
dust and two with slimy mud, stared in wonder at the two significant piles. No
ordinary historian is competent to describe their feelings, and no ordinary
language is adequate to record what they said when they had recovered their
powers of speech. But it must be placed to the credit of the Captain of the
Clawfly that the sounds of his mirth were wafted across the
river, and next morning the inhabitants of Amarah
were asking each other if they had heard the earthquake during the night. All
honour, too, to the Captain of the Straddlebug, who
remarked that they had all been put through the only real test, for no man can
justly claim to have a sense of humour unless he can see a joke against