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Title: In Mesopotamia
Author: Nicoll, Maurice, 1884-1953
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "In Mesopotamia" ***

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[Illustration: THE GARDEN OF EDEN, KURNA.]














  BASRA                                  19

  THE SICK AND WOUNDED                   37

  HEAT-STROKE                            51

  MIRAGE                                 61

  THE DAY'S WORK                         71

  THE NARROWS                            85

  AMARA                                 101

  ARABIAN COMEDY                        121

  THE BATTLE OF THE BUND                131

  EDEN REVISITED                        159



  The Garden of Eden, Kurna.     _Frontispiece_

  Towing on the Tigris.                       9

  A Convoy of Sick and Wounded.              27

  The Hospital Washing.                      45

  Donkey Labour in the Heat of the Day.      63

  On the Shatt-el-Arab near Basra.           81

  Arab Belum on Tigris.                      99

  Ezra's Tomb.                              117

  Walled Village on Banks of Tigris.        135

  The Tigris near Kurna.                    143




There is nothing to suggest that you are approaching the gateway of the
Garden of Eden when you reach the top of the Persian Gulf, unless the
sun be that Flaming Sword which turns every way to keep the way of the
Tree of Life. Of cherubim we could see no signs. We lay motionless
awaiting orders by wireless. Of the country before us we knew next to
nothing. We did not grasp that the great river at whose mouth we lay was
called the Shatt-el-Arab and not the Tigris; and I do not think that a
single one of us possessed a copy of the "Arabian Nights." Few of us
knew anything about the gun-running troubles in the Persian Gulf of
recent years, and of the exploits of the Royal Indian Marine.

The approach to the Shatt-el-Arab is remarkably featureless. After the
stark fissured coast hills of Persia and the strip of red Arabian coast
that marks Kuweit, the mouth of the river appeared as a yellow line on
the horizon intersected by the distant sails of fishing boats. At the
bar where the sand has silted, a few steamers were lying. A steam yacht
flying the White Ensign, with a pennant that trailed almost down to her
decks, showing the length of service she had seen, passed us and dropped
her anchor a mile to the south. The silence was only broken by the
clacking of the fans in the saloon. One gazed listlessly west wards at
the quivering haze that veiled Kuweit. There was a rumour that the
ship's launch was going there with a party of nurses and a sharp voice
sounded: "Nobody allowed on shore without a helmet." But it was too hot
to move. At length a fishing boat emerged from the haze and slowly
approached, rowed by four Arabs. It drew alongside, a spot of vivid
colour against the dark sea. In it were half a dozen big fish. The Arabs
began to harangue the occupants of the lower deck. We watched them
curiously, perhaps wondering if they had poisoned the fish. The Tommies
stared at them in silence. They were the first inhabitants of the
country that we had seen.

The business of transhipping at the bar is a burden to all concerned. A
steamer of shallower draught came alongside, and the derricks started to
grind and clatter, and the big crates swung up from one hold and
plunged down into the other for hour after hour. A squall arose and the
ships had to part company and we lay for two days tossing and rolling in
a dun-coloured atmosphere. Then once more we joined up, and the
unloading continued of the four hundred tons of equipment, which had
already been dumped on shore at Alexandria. It is a costly business
bringing out a hospital to these parts. About midday we weighed anchor
on the new ship, and crept up the channel over the bar. There were no
gas buoys to mark its course, and Fao, which lies near the mouth of the
river, had no lighthouse, so night traffic was presumably impossible.

The sudden sight of the belts of palm trees, the occasional square mud
dwellings, and the steamy, hot-house look of the banks came as a
surprise. Those of us who had been to the Dardanelles had half expected
that this end of Turkey would be much like the other--broken country
and sandy scrub, with hills. But here is only a broad swift river, a
strip of vivid green verdure, and beyond the immense plain stretching to
the horizon. In the stream was a small tug bearing the letters A.P.O.C.
At Abadan we saw the big circular tanks of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company
where the oil from Ahwaz, which travels through miles of piping, is
refined. Above Abadan, which is just a cluster of circular tanks,
slender chimneys and square houses on the arid plain, with a mass of
barges lining the numerous wharfs, we passed Mohammerah. On the opposite
bank--the west bank is called the right bank--you can see the Turkish
trenches where they opposed our first advance among the palms at the
battle of Sahil on November 16th, 1914, with a force of five thousand
men and twelve guns. The ground is intersected with narrow creeks cut
for irrigation purposes; and the trenches form little crescent-shaped
depressions almost hidden by the reeds and grasses. From the ship it
looks a lush green country here, for there are rice fields dotted about
and the river broadens out and surrounds an emerald island. Our 4,000
ton vessel swept up-stream at a speed of ten knots, with a great wash
spreading behind her, and her funnels towering high above the palms. Our
destination was reached at six in the evening, about sixty miles from
the mouth of the river, and the whole way up the scene had been
practically unvarying--river and plain, and countless palms. We had
passed the vessels sunk by the Turks to bar the progress of the original
expedition. Masts and a funnel are visible, standing clear of the main

Basra was like coming on a bit of the London Thames from a distance.
Lines of big ships appeared suddenly, round a bend of the river,
anchored in mid-stream. There were hospital ships, cargo vessels,
transports, war-ships, monitors, tugs, river boats, oil-driven
lighters--the ones we made the landing from at Suvla, with a coat of new
paint and the letters ML instead of K--barges, launches, native
dhows--which travel to Mombasa and Bombay--and innumerable lesser craft.
Basra itself lies up a creek, and is invisible from the river. What you
see on the shore is properly called Ashar, but the two places merge into
one another. Owing to the absolute flatness of the country, a sense of
smallness is produced everywhere. There is no background to give
perspective, and the great breadth of the sable river dwarfs the shore.

We dropped anchor a little below the town, near Korah creek. It was
Sunday and at that time it was still the custom of the inhabitants of
Basra to collect on the banks of the creek and hold a kind of social
parade from which the suggestion of a slave market was not entirely
absent. There was a continual procession of boats and painted _belums_,
the native gondola, long and narrow, with curved ends, and either rowed
or poled by two _belumchis_. In them were fair-skinned, unveiled women
with many bangles on their arms, wearing robes of dark brilliant hues.
On the shore, under the palms, wandered a crowd of white-robed Arabs,
with red or blue turbans. Occasionally one saw a khaki uniform. It was
intensely hot and damp. A haze lay over the further reaches of the
river, and the sky had a brassy look unlike the intense turquoise
clarity of the Egyptian sky. The palm fronds seemed metallic. As far as
the eye could see along the right bank lay a confused mass of low white
buildings, tents, huts of yellow matting and piles of stores. Gangs of
Arabs and Indian coolies were at work at the low wooden landing stage,
and over the scene towered the gaunt masts of the wireless station. The
left bank was chiefly palm grove, save for a gap where stood a big
building taken over by our flying men.

[Illustration: TOWING ON THE TIGRIS.]

A military authority came on board, wondering whether we were a cargo
of wood or mules. A hospital had not been expected, and we passed the
next day in idleness. On the third day our four hundred tons of stuff
were swung off into _mahallas_, the native barges, which are wide craft
decorated with carving and paint, both stem and stern pointed and high
out of the water, and amidships close down to the water-line. The Arabs
squatting on the painted poops of these ships seemed sullen. They looked
as cut-throat a lot as you could desire. When the boats were loaded up
they drifted off, and by means of a tattered bit of sacking for a sail,
and a long pole, managed to reach their destination somehow. It was
curious to see these primitive craft filled with the black cases of the
precious X-ray plant.

The creeks round Ashar branch off at right angles to the Shatt-el-Arab
at intervals of a few hundred yards, and extend for two or three miles
inland. They are broad and richly bordered with palms and pomegranate.
In places a network of vines festoons the trunks. A yellow tinge in the
heart of the palms showed the coming crop of dates. Seen in a picture
these creeks are idyllic, winding broad, calm and peaceful through the
groves. Slim boats glide up and down them, nut-brown children splash in
them, and women, veiled in black, come from the little villages to draw
water in brass vessels at their margins with graceful movements.

We landed from a roomy barge with a tug fastened alongside. The men
were cheery, and a mouth-organ and a mandoline wafted us on. Something
dark and indeterminate swept by on the swift current. It was said to be
the body of a dead Turk, bound for the Persian Gulf, after its voyage of
two hundred odd miles from Kut. We landed, uncomfortably hot. The men
fell in and we prepared to march off. A swarthy Arab, in red and white
headgear held in position by two thick rings of camel hair, wearing
curved slippers and saffron-coloured robes, stood scowling before us,
spitting at intervals. A group of sappers near by seemed unaffected by
his behaviour. The scowl and the spitting seem merely habits, induced by
the country. But it is necessary to orientate oneself very carefully in
the East. A long tramp followed up Dusty Lane, between scorching mud
walls. We passed dirty booths, naked children with frizzy hair, thin
faced women with swaggering hips, and occasional military police in
shirt-sleeves carrying thick sticks. The sight of a large cat sitting in
a niche, blinking in that excellent manner of inward ecstasy, was
cheering. On, beyond the town the march continued, the sweat pouring off
us, and tunics becoming stained with dark patches--through the camp
area, past Indian troops; past horses, tossing and switching, surrounded
by clouds of flies; past bullocks, huge, delicately pastel-tinted
beasts, sprawling under the feathery palms; past screaming mules, motor
lorries, wayside canteens and squads of men, until Makina Plain came in
sight. It was in this neighbourhood that our site lay, alongside a creek
where a liquorice factory had been in the days of peace. The first
impression was desolating. The place looked like a bricklayer's yard. A
glance was sufficient to estimate it would take many long weeks before
it was completed for use. Several large iron-roofed sheds stood by the
water's edge. Gangs of Arabs were at work; strings of donkeys carrying
mud raised the dust in heavy clouds; carpenters in blue trousers
hammered and sawed; planks, bricks, barrels of concrete, and piles of
matting littered the ground: and upon all the vertical rays of the sun
beat down unmercifully. The creek was full of the _mahallas_ that had
brought up our equipment, and for the rest of that day our men toiled
and sweated over the crates and boxes, and bedsteads and bales of
blankets, singing in monotone a rhythmic refrain in imitation of the
native coolies when carrying loads. The native chants are simple.

Singer: "To-morrow we will eat rice and meat!"

Chorus: "May Allah grant it!"

Singer: "We are doing a great deal of work!"

Chorus: "May Allah reward us!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The Tommies' refrain was more picturesque. Imagine six men carrying a

Singer: (Softly) "Is it 'ot?" (Pause.)

Chorus: "I don't think!"

Singer: (Fuller and staccato) "'Ot as 'ell?"

Chorus: "I don't think!" etc.

General Chorus: (repeatedly, with passion).

            "Aller, Oller, Aller!
          Oh, Aller, Oller, Aller!
            Aller, Oller Oo!"

Bully beef came along in the afternoon, and we had landed with full
water-bottles, for drinking water was unavailable. Towards evening some
double-roofed tents were run up. The men settled down in the empty sheds
alongside the creek. We got to bed in a thunderstorm--a vivid zigzag
banging affair that circled round most of the night. The rain turned
the ground into something beyond description as regards its slippery
properties. Only a native donkey can keep footing in such ground. There
is no road metal available in Mesopotamia. It is a stoneless place. The
frogs trumpeted in chorus all night; packs of dogs or jackals swept
about in droves, once at full pelt through our tent, like devils of the
storm. It was nightmarish, but sleep brought that wonderful balancing
force that sometimes clothes itself in dreams, and steeps the spirit in
all that is lacking. Just before falling asleep I reflected that Adam
and Eve might well have been excused in such a country.



We reached Mesopotamia when the hot weather was beginning. The campaign
to relieve Kut was at its height, and the wounded and sick were coming
down river in thousands. Apart from these there were big reinforcement
camps on Makina Plain, and all around us the daily sick rate was rapidly
increasing, and men straight from England, unused to hot climates, were
being sent in big batches off the incoming transports. There was very
little ice to be had, and so far as we were concerned there were no
fans, electric or otherwise, with which to ventilate the sheds.

The urgency of the situation demanded that we should open what wards we
could for the reception of sick and wounded at once. We had no nurses,
partly because there was no accommodation for them. Four sheds alongside
the creek were got in order. Iron bedsteads draped in white, mosquito
nets resembling bridal veils, bedside tables, and cupboards arranged
themselves in rows. An immense hammering and shouting filled the
stifling air. The sheds began to look moderately inviting--neat and
clean, smelling faintly of antiseptics which smelt better than the
things in the creek. At first about fifty beds were put into each shed;
in a short time beds were crowded into every available corner of the
clearing. Fresh sheds were being erected by natives. Since the ground
was undermined by marsh, the sheds had to be built on piles driven six
feet into the spongy soil. There was only one pile driver, which
resembled a cross-section of a lamp post, and was worked by a fatigue
party of wild-haired Indian troops from Afghanistan regions. One would
have thought from their flashing eyes when the pile driver crashed home
that they played a secret game in which each imagined his bitterest
enemy was in the place of the pile.

The problem of water arose at once. There was no general water supply at
that time, and each unit had to solve its own problem. Our supply had to
come from the creek, which was thick and turbid and contained a
multitude of unsavoury things. At first it was sedimented with alum,
which precipitated the suspended matter in a gelatinous mass, and the
clear fluid was chlorinated with bleaching powder. There is only one
consolation in drinking well chlorinated water. You know that it
contains nothing except chlorine. With whisky it forms a mixture that
it is difficult to describe. After a time two tanks were put in order
and arranged on brick furnaces, and from a third tank water that had
been allowed to settle was run off and boiled. These were satisfactory.
An hour's exposure of the boiling water in jars of porous
clay--chatties--made it decently cool. Chatties of great size were
procured from the bazaar and placed outside each ward. Nowadays water
comes in pipes from the Shatt-el-Arab, being taken from the middle
layer, which is clearest. The best water comes from the Euphrates, which
joins the yellow Tigris at Kurna about forty miles above Basra. It sends
down a tributary which flows into the Tigris a few miles above Basra.
From here water could have been conveyed in pipes. But the scheme was
thought unnecessarily elaborate and costly.

It must be remembered that in a place like Mesopotamia water is the
main problem. A clear, clean, pure water supply means an incalculable
saving of life. A dirty supply may mean the failure of the campaign. In
order to get good water for troops nothing should be neglected or
overlooked, and no kind of compromise should be permitted. There is
perhaps not a single act in war more criminal and more worthy of death
than to allow troops to muddle along and get what water they can, under
local arrangements, when a pure central supply is possible.

Sick Tommies in tropical climates appreciate soda water. At first we
were told to get our supply from a native in the bazaar at Ashar. The
problem at this time did not concern the soda water but the bottles.
There was a great shortage of soda water bottles in Mesopotamia. Breaks
and bursts were frequent, and it seemed impossible to import any new
ones, and they cost about sixpence each. Our hospital was situated at a
considerable distance from the town. We were not allowed a motor launch,
and the roads were often impassable for bullock tongas, owing to the
floods which were then prevalent. Soda water was therefore fetched by
_belum_. You were poled down the creek to the river, and rowed through
the maze of traffic to Ashar creek. Turning out of the broad swift
river, up the noisy creek you came on the river-side cafés, built on
piles and filled with splenetic-eyed Arabs sipping coffee and various
coloured sweet drinks. A cheap gramophone playing a thin Eastern music,
may be sounding. The conversation is animated and guttural, constantly
interspersed with that hollow, metallic rasp that is like the noise of
an engine exhaust. The town is of white mud and stone, with wooden
balconies painted a vivid blue, and flat roofs. A minaret rises behind
it with a blue-tiled extremity supporting the upraised hand and
crescent. The streets are narrow and airless. In the shops are a mass of
articles of all descriptions: tinned stuff, tobacco, clocks, hair-oil,
cheap jewellery, odd bottles of doubtful wine, scent, rugs, copper
vessels, sweets, sauces, pickles. Innumerable flies surround everything.
On much of the tinned stuff were very old labels. No man of experience
up-country in India will touch tinned stuff of that description. The
soda water factory was in a small courtyard. There was a big green
gasometer of carbon dioxide, a glittering brass-bound pump and a filling
apparatus. Three tubs were on the floor containing a blue, a red and a
clear fluid. These, said the Arab proprietor, were English disinfectants
in which the bottles were rinsed. Here you waited until your bottles
were refilled, at one anna (one penny) each. This represented a profit
of 1,200 per cent. The water which was used for filling them was taken
from the centre of the Tigris. Ice was obtained elsewhere, made from an
ammonia plant, in bars two feet by six inches. The necessity for ice was
imperative, but it could only be supplied in small quantities then.
These native plants were mostly taken over by the military as time went
on. A single bad heat-stroke case would often use up the whole day's
supply to the hospital. That was why ice was an imperative necessity. It
meant so many lives saved. In India ice is manufactured by machines in
quantity wherever it is required.


After soda water, the sick Tommy requires certain delicacies in food.
Eggs and chickens and fruit and vegetables were necessary. The
quartermaster soon began to lift up his voice. What with the supply and
transport depots of the Indian Army and our own Army Service Corps, and
the inevitable confusion of two different Army systems, he became
extremely irritable. This confusion existed in every department. On the
medical side, there was the British scale of field ambulances and
hospitals, and this differs entirely from the Indian scale. What could
have been more suitable for muddling than this? Its effects could be
seen in the expression of the quartermaster.

I can see him clearly, a plump, stocky man, with arms akimbo, his helmet
on the back of his head, the flesh of his face in folds of disgust with
sweat pouring off him, and his once elegant waxed moustache drooping,
saying in a chant: "The man who gets me out to this ---- country again
isn't born yet." That was when the bullock tongas, after travelling
over the surface of this cradle of the earth all day in search of
certain supplies, returned empty. Chickens and eggs were local produce.
The natives put fancy prices on things. What we paid was supposed to be
a controlled price. It must be remembered that we introduced a lot of
money into the country, and entirely changed the financial standards of
the Arabs. Arab coolies got tenpence a day--that is, their pay was not
far short of the European Tommy. Sometimes they struck for higher wages.
It did not breed a good spirit, but it may have been the best spirit
under the circumstances. It was, at times, necessary to use violence to
_belumchis_, who insolently demanded absurd charges, and a certain padre
gained respect by administering a severe thrashing to one of these
rascals. When the Russians came down, one of them was obstructed for a
moment by an Arab on the river bank. The Russian officer--a big
fellow--picked him up and threw him into the river.

The chickens were poor. Three might weigh in the aggregate a pound and a
half. The supply of eggs was limited when procured through contractors,
but it was possible to obtain a few from other sources. As regards
fruit, there was practically none. Potatoes were procurable in this
part, but not higher up the river. Owing to the intense heat and lack of
storage accommodation, vast quantities of food perished. Piles of boxes
containing cigarettes, that had lain in the sun, were found to contain
nothing but fine dust on being opened. It was the same way with
biscuits. Potatoes rotted in millions. The whole problem was one of
immense difficulty. The milk that was used was almost wholly tinned. The
use of fresh milk which was tried later at Amara was not a very
successful experiment. It required careful boiling, and often curdled
in mass. It was then boiled in a large number of small vessels, with
better results, but the supply drawn from outlying villages, and brought
down by river, was never adequate, and boiled milk is not very pleasant.
Bread was baked in the neighbourhood by army bakers, and eventually,
when proper ovens were made, was good. Sugar was plentiful, sandy in
colour, and full of extraneous matter, but quite adequate. There was no
shortage in tea. Fresh meat was a ration in Basra, but Indian cooks
seemed to make a better job of it than British. It was tough and stringy
and required a great deal of stewing. Rice was an occasional ration in
Basra, and a daily ration higher up, where it took the place of
potatoes. Lime juice, as a ration, was very uncertain. It was possible
to get it in the bazaar, and the Tommy could get it at the Y.M.C.A.
huts. Of these huts it is impossible to speak too highly. The Tommy
alone knows what he would have done without them. You drank, in the hot
weather, amazing quantities of fluid, and lime juice and water was the
usual mixture until the sun went down. One paid two shillings and
eightpence--two rupees--for one of those long, narrow, golden bottles,
with leaves and fruit moulded on their exterior. Wines and spirits could
be ordered through agents in Basra from Bombay at reasonable rates.
Bombay is about five days by steamer from Basra. It was almost a
universal experience to find alcohol necessary in the evening. The mind
was exhausted, food was unattractive, conversation was impossible, the
passage of time immeasurably slow, and a restless irritation pervaded
one until a dose of alcohol was taken. Its effect was humanising. Still,
it is worth remembering that the Prophet forbade alcohol to the people
of the country. But then he permitted other things.

Owing to the complaints about food supplies, in the early part of June,
in the second year of the campaign, there was published an order that
all troops were to have certain fruit and vegetable variations in diet.
Lists of articles were given, and the scale was very generous and
sensible. The actual supply of the stuff, however, did not come as we
might have been led to expect. This was because most of the articles in
the lists were starred, which meant that they were only supplied when
available, and I suppose India, which had to run several other
expeditions besides Mesopotamia, could not possibly produce enough
material to satisfy all requirements. At this time, too, many of the
cargo vessels were occupied in bringing immense supplies of wood from
India, and the local produce of Mesopotamia did not go nearly far
enough for the purpose. Some officers planted various seeds in patches
adjoining their quarters, but the business of watering them was
troublesome. A ration of fresh limes was served to our men on the 21st
of June for the first time, but the supply of these ran out the next
day. Some of the men retained these small, wrinkled fruits as
curiosities. Fish, an intermediate diet for intestinal cases, was sorely
missed. But it was quite out of the question. The river fish, of course,
were fairly numerous, but the uncertainty of their supply was too great,
and they had to be cooked very soon after being caught. There was always
a great deal of amateur angling in the evenings, and in the creek by our
hospital a kind of mud fish was caught, full of small, apparently
unattached bones, and tasting flat and stale.

It is curious to reflect that, in the second year of the campaign, this
great country of future agricultural development which is traversed by
immense volumes of water and whose atmosphere resembles that of a
hot-house, could not produce sufficient fruit or vegetables to supply
the relatively small military forces it contained. For these forces, if
stretched out along one bank in single file, each man at arm's length
from his fellow, would not nearly have reached from the mouth of the
Shatt-el-Arab to Basra itself. And the front lay more than two hundred
miles above Basra.



The sick and wounded began to arrive as soon as the wards were ready,
coming up the creek in boats from the convoys that were in the river.
The convoys consisted of river boats with a big barge lashed on each
side. The steamers were taken from many quarters, from the great rivers
of India, from the Nile--some saw service in the Nile War--and from the
Thames. Some were local and belonged to Messrs. Lynch, who ran a service
to Baghdad before the war. Some burned coal and some oil. A large
convoy--that is the steamer and its two lateral barges--might carry
three or four hundred cases in emergencies. The time they took to
travel from the front down to Basra, which is a distance of about two
hundred miles, depended very much on the luck they experienced in
getting through the Narrows. The passage of this bit of the river will
be described in a later page. Three days was a pretty quick journey.
Travelling by night was impossible. In rounding the sharp bends of the
river, which winds across the plain in a most extraordinary manner,
these convoys often cannoned helplessly against the banks. At well-known
cannoning places Arabs collected with baskets of eggs and chickens and
melons for sale. The sick and wounded lay closely packed on the deck
under a single thickness of canvas awning. In the great heat of
midsummer this was insufficient protection, but it was impossible for
the medical officers of the ships to obtain any extra canvas, and it
was thought that reed matting in close proximity to the funnels would be
dangerous. Tinned milk for bad cases and bully beef, stew, and bread and
jam for those fit to eat it were the main rations, but soup and eggs
were often available. The difficulties of catering for a crowded convoy,
with only a small galley, were considerable. Water was taken from the
river, and chlorinated in tanks on board.

On reaching Basra the convoys discharged their patients either at the
big British hospital, that was formerly the palace of a Sheik, and
stands on the river's edge, or at one or other of the Indian hospitals
that lie beside it. The accommodation for British troops was not great
at the time, so that it was the custom to transfer cases as soon as
possible into the hospital ships, which could come right alongside the
piers, and send them to India. Our hospital had four hundred beds
available within a short period. As a matter of fact, many more were
squeezed into odd places during times of pressure.

The appearance of the sick and wounded defies description. Like the
Gallipoli lot, only worse, they were lean, gaunt, haggard skeletons,
hollow-eyed, with rivulets of perspiration furrowing the dirt of their
faces. Looking back from a better state of affairs to those days, the
strange spectres that staggered off the boat become softened in outline.
It is only by the aid of pen, pencil, brush or film that their grimness
is kept alive in the mind.

They cheered up considerably after a day or two, and when it came to
censoring their letters, not a word of complaint did one find; nor, for
that matter, any news. The absence of nurses was a disappointment for
them, but the luxury of a spring mattress, of cool water in quantity,
and of being under a roof out of the sun made up for that in some
degree. They were full of rumours. Of the general situation they knew
nothing. One said we had half a million men in the field. Another
reckoned we had a division or two at the most. Many seemed to put the
figure at six divisions. A British division is about eighteen thousand
men, and an Indian division less. They were sure that Kut would be
relieved. It was at the time when the news was looked for daily. The
whole place was rich in tales. Every depot on shore, and every ship in
the stream, had its stories. Kut was to be occupied by us on the
following Sunday. General X had stated it quite decisively, with an
elegant gesture of confidence. General Y had sworn it, banging the
table. General Z had mentioned it casually, a cigar between his teeth.
The Turks were hopelessly demoralised. They had no ammunition, no food,
and no heart. Hopes ran high, and everyone who came up from Ashar was
eagerly questioned. We woke one morning to hear a great noise of steam
sirens from the river, and for a time lay in blissful happiness, certain
it could only mean one thing. It was like the night we lay on the
Gallipoli sand some days after the landing, in the darkness, sipping our
first tot of rum. Our hearts were merry, for had we not just heard that
Achi Baba had fallen, that Bulgaria and Roumania had declared war on
Turkey, and that the crackle of musketry to the north-east was due to
certain Boers who were swarming up the heights overhanging the Kishlar
Rocks? She must be a woman of temperament, Rumour, for when she smiles
she is so charming; but when she frowns, who can be so ugly?

During this time considerable activity prevailed throughout the Basra
region. Near by, on Makina Plain, a vast flat expanse of bare earth
beyond the shadow of the palm plantations, a perpetual dust arose.
Transport columns, guns and troops were always on the move, and the
camps grew in size until the whole place was dotted with white canvas
and yellow matting huts. The skirling of the pipes, the beating of the
drums, the sound of the bugle and the tramp of feet continually came
from the road that ran along the bank opposite the hospital. Wagons
rumbled over the wooden bridge, and the deep note of the incoming
steamers reverberated over the groves. But a difficulty began to arise.
All these incoming troops that were concentrating on the plain were new
to the country. The heat was increasing rapidly. It had long passed the
limits of the most intense English summer, and the mercury was now
rising above 100 degrees in the shade. The sky was cloudless and
brassy. The floods each day left great areas of damp, steamy marsh when
the tidal river fell. Mosquitoes were beginning to fill the night with
their thin screaming. Small, almost impalpable, colourless insects,
whose bite is like a red hot wire and who can penetrate the meshes of an
ordinary mosquito net with ease, began to infest the place. These were
sand-flies. They are surely the most successfully maddening insect ever
designed by the Lord of Flies. They give rise to a malady known as
sand-fly fever, which is like influenza and drains the body of all
vitality for many days. In addition to this, either the food, the water,
the dust, or the day flies were spreading about a form of diarrhoea
which rapidly turned into dysentery. The day flies were a swiftly
growing army. Breeding grounds in the surrounding camps, in the horse
lines, the bullock lines and native villages were numerous. They were
nothing like the flies at Mudros when the whole roof of a tent at night
might be uniformly black with them, and eating was in the nature of a
free fight. A couple of hundred or so to each tent was perhaps the
average, but they made rest a matter of difficulty. The Red Cross
fortunately supplied us with instruments of fly destruction, and later
on fly experts were sent out.


The result of all this was that the curve of sickness began to mount
steeply, and it became necessary to make some provision for the victims.
Since our position was central as regards reinforcement camps, we were
delegated to deal with local sick, and after that arrangement very few
of the cases sent down from the front came our way. For the first few
days the number of incoming sick could be dealt with adequately. But as
time went on, and the mercury rose higher and higher in the lifeless
air, the number increased and became formidable. Long lines of ambulance
wagons and bullock tongas crept steadily from every quarter to the
hospital. Beds were crowded into every corner of the wards. We had no
fans. Imagine, you who live in civilisation, what an electric fan may
mean. You can see it spinning in the corner of your club or restaurant
and think nothing of it. But in that place it meant the difference
between life and death. Picture yourself tossing in a high fever in the
centre of a stifling ward, with the temperature above 90 degrees all
through the night, and not a breath of wind stirring. Then think what it
would mean to find yourself placed suddenly under the whirling vanes of
a big fan, lying with your mouth wide open, taking great gulps of the
cool rushing air. When we moved up river, three months later, it was
rumoured the fans were on their way from India.

The maladies that were commonest were malaria, diarrhoea, dysentery,
jaundice and heat-stroke. There were some scattered cases of cholera,
and a few of typhoid. The typhoid began in earnest later on, as well as
sand-fly fever. Besides these there was a skin disease which we called
Basra sore--a very indolent ulcer which is not painful, but tends to
spread over the legs and arms, leaving a flexible, bluish scar when it
eventually heals. There was also an ill-defined syndrome, termed
variously Mesopotamitis or acute debility, or the Fear of God.
Officially one described it as the effects of heat. But of all these the
most pitiful was heat-stroke.



I do not know of any other malady so dramatic, or so painful to witness,
as heat-stroke, with the exception, perhaps, of acute cholera. It is
something that belongs to Mesopotamia in a peculiar sense, in that it
seems to express in visible and concentrated form the silent hostility
of the country which was noticed by the ancients. For Mesopotamia
welcomes no man. It is a profound enigma. What do those two gigantic
rivers mean that rush through those vast stretches of barren land? For
what ultimate destiny were they designed? It is like looking on two
enormous electric cables, carrying a current of incalculable amperage,
lying beside a vast but motionless machinery, because no contact has
been made. Whatever the answer may be it has been long in coming.
Dwelling beside them, one cannot help speculating, for there is a kind
of fatality that concerns the disposition of matter in Nature. Oil
fields and rubber trees existed, one might say, as enigmas, until the
internal combustion engine and motor cars dawned on the world and
explained their riddle. This was their fate. And of Mesopotamia, who
shall say that it may not be concerned with a yet unborn attitude in us
Europeans when we will turn wholly to the produce of the earth?

To gain some idea of heat-stroke it is necessary to grasp the conditions
that produce it. A typical hot day begins with a dawn that comes as a
sudden hot yellow behind the motionless palms. A glittering host of
dragon-flies rises up from the swamps, wheeling and darting after the
mosquitoes. In the growing light mysterious shapes slink past. They are
the camp dogs returning from their sing-song, which has kept you awake
half the night. Inside the mosquito net you see various gorged little
insects struggling to get out of the meshing through which they passed
so easily when they were slim and hungry. The hot beam of the sun picks
out your tent, and the mercury goes up steadily. At five you are bathed
in perspiration as you lie in bed. It has been in the neighbourhood of
90 degrees throughout the night; you have probably spent most of it
smoking in a chair in the moonlight listening to horses whinnying,
donkeys braying, dogs barking and yelping without a pause, and men
groaning and tossing in the steamy sick tents. The business of getting
up is one of infinite weariness. There is nothing fresh in the morning
feeling. At eight the mercury is probably 100 degrees. At times, as you
dress after a tepid bath, it is necessary to sit down and take a rest.
Your vesture is simple--a thin shirt, open at the collar, and a pair of
shorts, stockings and shoes. During the day your feelings do not
correspond to the height of the mercury, for after breakfast a certain
amount of energy possesses you, and the morning's work becomes possible.
But after a couple of hours, in the neighbourhood of eleven, when it may
be anything from 110 to 120 degrees in the shade, a kind of enervation
sets in. This is partly due to lack of food. For some reason we found it
necessary to eat a considerable amount. The theory of a simple diet, a
little fruit, meat once a day and in small quantity, did not work out
in practice. After midday the world is a blinding glare and the intake
of air seems to burn the lungs. A comparative stillness descends on the
scene. On the plain activities cease. Through the double canvas roofing
of a tent the sun beats down like a giant with a leaden club. The
temperature in the wards increases. At the worst moments you feel
distinctly that it would be possible, by giving way to something that
escapes definition, to go off your head. A spirit of indifference to
everything is necessary. Any kind of worry is simply a mode of suicide.
A man, for instance, who feels continually he ought to be up and doing,
and that to lie still in vacancy is a sin, does not do well, unless,
perhaps, he dwells in a cool stone house, under fans, with plenty of
ice, as was the luck of some. There must be no inner conflicts. Cranks
soon suffer. Life becomes simplified. An oriental contempt of the West,
with all its preoccupations, grows insensibly. When a dripping orderly
came to rouse you to see some case, you understood perfectly the
attitude of mind that has produced the idea of Kismet. Why move? If the
man dies, it is Allah's will. It is Allah's will that he is sick. Let
him remain in the hands of Allah.

It was during the afternoon and evening that heat-stroke occurred in the
main when the humidity of the air began to go up. A great many of the
new troops had no idea of the danger of the sun. The Tommy does not
estimate a situation very quickly. The attempt to change the main meal
of the day to an evening hour did not meet with success, and during the
afternoon the men would sit bucking away in their tents, and refuse to
adapt themselves to the idea of a siesta. Moreover, the Tommy is
obstinate by nature and does not like to give in. He goes on marching
in the sun, even though he feels bad, and the collapse is swift and

At about five o'clock, with the temperature falling and the humidity of
the air increasing, a period of intense discomfort set in. Perspiration
was so profuse that clothes became wringing wet like bathing suits, even
if you were sitting still. A kind of air hunger ensued. The few birds in
the groves sat with their beaks wide open. It was then that the
ambulance wagons began to roll in with their burden of heat-stroke
cases, and continued until after sunset. It is a malady which, as I have
said, is dramatic and painful to witness....

A heat-stroke station was prepared at the water's edge containing a
couple of baths and an ice chest, and patients were put into the chill
water as soon as possible. They were slapped and punched and laved till
they began to turn blue and the temperature fell. Then they were put in
a blanket, if any collapse showed, or just left naked on a bed in the
open. Fear played a powerful part in the malady. It tended to produce it
and to cause relapses, and it was good practice to use direct
counter-suggestion whenever the patient was conscious, as well as brandy
and morphia. The worst of it was that many of those patients who
recovered over night died next afternoon as they lay in the suffocating
ward. What was possible with wet sheets and small pieces of ice was
done, but it was a wretched business, and those who were in Basra at
that time and saw those spectacles will never forget them; nor will they
forget the silent, impotent rage that filled the mind at the thought of
the giant-bodied, small-headed Colossus of war which makes a useless
sacrifice of men in ways such as these every day. But it had one useful
effect, perhaps. A really Zoroastrian reverence for the sun came after
seeing a case, and a man learnt to look on his pith helmet and spine pad
as his best friends.



On the 28th of April, after a week of conflicting rumours, we heard that
Kut had fallen. As a nation we take reverses with consummate coolness.
Whatever one thought inwardly, work went on as usual, and in the men's
lines there was very little comment. Up to the last moment Rumour was
optimistic. She spread a most mysterious yarn about the ship that tried
to escape Turkish vigilance and get to Kut with supplies. It was, she
said, full of gold. For what purpose she did not specify, but it sounded
promising. This was her last fling. After that she changed her mask and
looked ugly. Forty thousand Arabs were mustering at Kuweit. German
cruisers were in the Persian Gulf, sinking shipping right and left. The
Turks were coming down on Nasireyah in tremendous force. Trouble was
brewing at Shaiba. In the last respect she proved correct, though the
trouble was not great. At Shaiba, which lies about twenty miles west of
Basra across the plain, a remarkable battle was fought in the April of
the year before. A Turkish force of twelve thousand regulars and thirty
odd guns, with numerous Arabs, was routed at an extreme and critical
moment, it is said, owing to a mistake. The mistake, for once, was on
the part of the Turks. Fighting had been very severe. We had no reserves
and things were looking black. Numerous Arab tribesmen who had remained
as neutral spectators were beginning to take it into their heads that we
were losing, and that only means one thing to them. It means they at
once join forces with the victorious side, and add their ghastly
devilry to the general merriment. The Turks, under Suleiman Askari, had
been certain of victory. Victory would have meant the evacuation of
Basra, if not of Mesopotamia. So sure had the Turks been that they had
struck a medal for the occasion, celebrating the triumph of the capture
of Basra. Our men found sacks full of these cheap aluminum badges in the
Turkish trenches, and they were sold afterwards in the bazaar at Basra
by the thousand. But the Turks never wore them, for, at the most extreme
and critical moment, across the plain there came a swirling column of
dust, a flashing of wheels, and a thundering of hoofs. The sight was too
much for the Turks. Another battery, or even a whole brigade of
artillery, after those three exhausting days of fighting, was not worth
waiting for. So they rose from their trenches and began to flee, and
the Arabs, changing their minds with incredible swiftness, fell on them
in the rear and cut and slashed them about considerably. In the
meanwhile the strange column galloped up. But there were no guns. In
place of guns stood a strangely assorted collection of wagons, spring
carts, tongas--anything on wheels--that a certain doctor had got
together and brought up at full speed to take away the wounded. The
Turkish Commander, Suleiman Askari, committed suicide.


A New Zealander came into hospital one day from Shaiba way. He was a
wireless man, and being so, had found something in the desert that
puzzled the science of his mind. He explained the matter. Out there it
is a white, undulating expanse, burning hot, but with more air than in
Basra. There are extraordinary effects of perspective. A man standing a
short way off may assume gigantic proportions, or look like a dwarf. A
motor car near by would seem to lose its solidity and dissolve into a
few filmy lines. The mirage of water is everywhere. An Arab might lie in
the open and no one would see him. A post might look like a horseman at
full gallop. It was a country of topsy-turveydom as regards the
subjective estimate of the eyes. But what puzzled the wireless man was
this. He thought he understood how eye-strain and difference of
refractive power of the layers of heated air, or reflected light from
the ground and such physical considerations could cause these illusions.
But what he could not understand was how it came about that several men
would experience exactly the same illusion. Why should a post
simultaneously appear as an Arab on horseback or an Arab crawling
stealthily on the ground to half a dozen men? Mirage, like Rumour, is a
curious thing. It may have some inner connection with the set of a
man's feelings. It has its pleasant side when it paints water and palms
where there is no water nor any palms. It has its sinister side when it
clothes the most innocent features of the landscape in images of dread.
Who knows how it touched up that flying column of ambulance wagons in
the eyes of the Turks? There are certain areas that are constantly the
site of mirage. Our gunners found this a continual difficulty at the
front, for the hostile Arabs, knowing the mirage areas, would get into
them and make ranging impossible. A transport column on the move through
mirage is a curious sight. You see, across the plain, a long line of
black dots, which are the wagons on the move. But apparently they are
passing through the centre of a narrow lake, that runs in the same
direction as their line of advance. The reflection in the lake is
perfect in every detail and that is suspicious, for a train of wagons
and horses crossing a shallow lake would stir up the water and disturb
reflection. But there is another thing that helps you to recognise
mirage. At the tail of the column rises a cloud of dust and here and
there along the line you can make out a little wreath of dust rising
apparently from the surface of the mirroring water.

The fall of Kut did not ease the pressure at the hospitals. The sick
rate was increasing steadily. The Shimal, the north-west wind that comes
just in time to make it possible for you to believe in Providence, was
not due until the middle of June. Down by the river-side, where the
official meteorological station stood, the day temperature was far over
100 degrees, and up in the airless creeks, in the palm groves, it was
much higher. Clinical thermometers cracked if they were left lying about
on tables. Our staff was getting seriously depleted. No Tommy had to
work so hard as those hospital orderlies, and it is not surprising that
our casualties in sick men were very heavy. Clerks in the office became
ward masters at a moment's notice. But in spite of all this the spirit
of the place remained unshaken. However great the heat, it did not
destroy that sense of humour which is the glory of the British Army.
Rather be beaten and retain that sense than be victorious and lose it.
And if you come to think of it, no man who retains his sense of humour
is ever really beaten.



The great distances that separate the main stations in Mesopotamia, and
the long sea voyage between Basra and Bombay, threw a considerable
strain on that part of the army that sits in offices and deals with army
forms. At Poona the supreme headquarters of the campaign resided amid
the clear breezes of the Indian hills. The consequence was that in cases
where two or three copies of a form would have sufficed on the Western
front, there it was necessary to multiply them indefinitely, so as to
satisfy all the various authorities down the line. For example, in
sending sick to India, a nominal roll is compiled with name, number,
rank, regiment, nature of disease and so on. This, in triplicate, is an
ordinary procedure anywhere. But in Basra it was necessary, for some
reason, to make out over twenty copies, and this is a long business on a
typewriter that will only do a small number at a time, and is wanted for
other things. It also caused a great delay before indents could
materialise. You wished, say, to order a truss for a patient. Out there,
owing to the heat, articles of this nature perished quickly. You
reported the measurements to the quartermaster. He made a copy of the
indent in triplicate, as well as an office copy. The indents went to the
Assistant Director of Medical Services for approval. They were then sent
back to the quartermaster. He then sent them to the Base Medical Depot,
who acknowledged their receipt and said they would be sent to India as
soon as possible. In India they passed through other complicated
machinery and the weeks went by. A truss, I suppose, is worth a few

There were three other factors that added to the difficulties, apart
from distance. One was the bar at the mouth of the river, which made it
impossible for deeply laden vessels coming up the Persian Gulf and
drawing many feet of water to pass without unloading in part into
another vessel. The other was that strip of river between Kurna and
Amara known as the Narrows, where river boats with supplies stuck
constantly, especially when the floods fell and the water was low. One
boat sticking here would hold up all traffic.

The third factor was the effect of the excessive heat. This effect,
rather subtle in itself, might be called the psychological factor of the
situation, for there is not the slightest doubt that it produced a kind
of cussedness in everyone, from the highest to the lowest, and sapped
energy and made changes unwelcome. For excessive and prolonged heat--and
the hot season lasted seven or eight months--rouses a defensive
mechanism of inertia whose aim is to preserve life. You saw that in the
earliest cases of incipient heat-stroke. A man felt suddenly all the
power go out of his legs. He wanted to lie down, and this was the best
thing he could do.

Mental exertion became almost impossible. Reading was not easy, writing
was a burden, and thinking a matter of extreme difficulty. Your interest
lay in watching the simplest thing. A Japanese fly-trap with its
slowly-turning, sticky surfaces was fascinating. There was a spice of
oriental cruelty in the way it slowly entrapped the fly, and it was
exactly that which made the appeal. You soon understood how it comes
about that the Eastern takes all the natural facts of life for granted,
without bothering about fine shades, and acts on them unquestioningly.
What is called altruism in the West seems artificial. It is not cynicism
exactly that the place breeds, and I never met anyone who was
sentimental in Mesopotamia, but it is a kind of descent that occurs to a
level of values that are coloured black and white, quite plain. A man
who expected to throw a spell over the country and act as a stimulant on
everyone would truly need to possess a prodigious character. "In the
tropics there is going on continually and unconsciously a tax on the
nervous system which is absent in temperate climates. The nervous
system, especially those parts which regulate the temperature of the
body, is always on the strain, and the result is that in time it suffers
from more or less exhaustion." The common effect of this is a
"deficient mental energy generally commencing with unnatural drowsiness
or loss of appetite and a yearning for stimulants which culminates in
that lowering of nerve potential which we know so well as neurasthenia."
Thus write the professors of medicine in India on the effects of
prolonged heat. I would add to it a large mental element, partly induced
by the lack of any kind of amusement, by the want of interest, and by
the peculiar effect of a landscape that is entirely flat and uniform. An
artificial mountain scenery, painted on canvas, such as one used to see
at Earl's Court, would have been a blessed relief. I think a London fog
would have been delightful. Towards the end of September, a few small,
fleecy clouds appeared one day in the sky and everyone ran out and
stared solemnly at them as if they were angels. But there is one phrase
that sums up the prolonged effects of heat better than any scientific
rigmarole. It takes the silk out of a man.

In Basra there was published daily a small, excellent newspaper which
gave the latest Reuters and printed selections from papers that came by
the mail. It was sorely missed when we went up river. I believe it was
edited by a lady. There was a club in Ashar where it was possible to sit
under electric fans. In old Basra there was an Arab theatre, containing
a few dancing girls and a cinematograph. But the arrival of the mails
was the great feature of life out there. They came roughly once a week,
and it is difficult to describe with what emotions they were received.
The whole district became revivified for a space under their influence.

Through the month of June the sickness increased and work went on
steadily increasing. We had 400 beds in the wards at that time, and it
was necessary to find accommodation for an average of 700 patients.
Anyone who was likely to be sick for any length of time was sent to
India whenever the opportunity arose. Down at the British Hospital on
the river front they were sending cases off that were likely to be more
than three days ill. It was an oriental polyglot scene down there on the
hospital quay in the comparative cool of evening, when the big white
hospital ship lay off the bank and crowds of ticketed patients sat under
the shelters waiting their turn to embark. Now and then a pale nurse,
dressed in white, with white helmet and red-lined parasol would walk
through the throng. Arab _belumchis_, Jews, Persians, Armenians, Sikhs,
Gurkhas, Pathans, and Ghats crowded the bank, voluble and picturesque.
Dhobies thrashed clothes at the river edge. Bhisties drew water in
kerosene tins. Convalescent Tommies in blue dungaree, fished
stolidly--wishing they were bound for India. The roofs of the square
white buildings were filled with nurses taking tea. Launches whirled up
and discharged Staff officers. All down the centre of the stream lay big
vessels. Already the place had a cosmopolitan spirit--a new-born
genius--and one could see it dimly in the future, when the Baghdad
railway runs through it to Kuweit, a white city, garish with painted
promenades and electric lights, with as many languages sounding in the
street as in Port Said.

The dates were now hanging in big masses of oval, greeny-yellow fruit,
some in clusters of two hundredweight and more, and the palm leaves were
turning brown at their points. The scarlet of the pomegranate trees had
vanished from the date groves and the floods were beginning to fall. It
had been necessary to surround the hospital clearing with a mud wall, or
bund, about four feet in height, in order to keep out the water, for at
times there is as much as a six foot rise when the tide comes up the

At any simple job of this kind the Arabs are quite good. They can
plaster mud on a roof, or make a bund, or run up a mud and reed hut, or
raise the level of the flooring of a ward, and they take their time over
it. But anything that savours of machinery is usually beyond them. It
was a common saying amongst the Arabs that sickness stopped as soon as
the dates were gathered in. That proved to be untrue. It was a long
while until the dates were ripe, and after they were gathered sickness
still continued. The amount of heat those dates required before they
turned yellow and soft, and their skins began to crinkle faintly, was
extraordinary. For weeks and weeks they remained hard and green, though
exposed to the fiercest heat of the sun. Pomegranates, in the same way,
hung for months before their skins turned to that beautiful deep
mahogany hue of the ripe fruit.


On a particular day at the end of June one might have fancied a crisis
had been reached. Curiously enough, by the irony of coincidence, the
Reuters of that day contained the news that it had been stated in
Parliament that, in the interests of the public, no statement would be
made about the state of affairs in Mesopotamia.

That night it was rumoured that Verdun had fallen....

The gift of a large fleet of motor ambulances presented by the cinema
people at home was a great boon, for urgent cases could be transported
to hospital rapidly, instead of jolting over the plain in bullock
tongas. Unfortunately, the axles of these cars were not quite equal to
the rough work, and in a short time they were sent away to other spheres
where roads were better. The ground in our neighbourhood was so
undermined by floods that on one occasion one of these cars, standing
empty, suddenly broke through the upper crust up to its axles. A great
deal of perspiration flowed before it was extricated.

In the meanwhile the creek was full of _mahallas_ loading up equipment,
for we had received orders to go higher up-river.



We left Basra when the Arabs, and the Indian troops, were celebrating
the Mohammedan feast of Ramadhan. During the feast, which lasts a month,
night is turned into day. No food is allowed, in theory, from sunrise to
sunset. Drums beat, dogs howl, cocks crow and the revellers shout and
wail and clap their hands in long, rhythmic, staccato periods, and
explosions of powder occur under the crescent moon.

A small, double-decked, squat river boat which had been captured from
the Turks took us on board. It burned oil fuel. A single canvas awning
with many gaps in it covered the upper deck. The lower deck was nearly
taken up by engine and boiler, save for a small saloon aft, and water
tanks and a galley forward. Our strength was about 100 men with twenty
Indians belonging to the hospital, and there were a few odd details
travelling as well and the crowding was considerable. On each side of
the steamer were big barges. On the port side was a barge of mules. On
the starboard side a barge of fodder, and various bales and cases,
surmounted by a crowd of coolies. The smell from either side was like a
Zoo. We set off in high spirits, for we had heard that Amara, whither we
were bound, was a Paradise compared to Basra. The heat was excessive.
Behind the funnel on deck, where our quarters lay, it was 125 degrees,
and the awning did not do much towards keeping out the burden of the
sun. The country through which we passed was green-tinged with sparse
palms, and absolutely flat. In the river were long strings of
_mahallas_, being towed by teams of Arabs. These craft may take sixteen
days to reach Amara. In the heat of the day the towing team gets into
the river and moves slowly along up to their waists in water. Owing to a
long stop at Margil, which lies two miles above Basra, and is the site
of the Supply people, we did not make much progress the first day. At
sunset it is necessary to tie up, or anchor, in the stream. The night
was not so bad save for mosquitoes, and after a sousing of river water,
drawn forward of the mule barge, and a cup of tea at dawn, we felt
cheerful. We started at four-thirty and passed Kurna.

Kurna is the Garden of Eden. It lies at the junction of the Euphrates
and Tigris, and is a small hamlet of white houses. Here there is a wide
area of date palms and a great brown, tranquil stretch of river. A white
doorway in a yellow wall, shaped like a pear, marks the supposed
position of Paradise. The doorway bears a tablet with an Arabic
inscription. Behind the doorway, just visible over the wall, a tree
grows. This may or may not be the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and
Evil, because a dwarfed sinister tree lower down, to which barges tie
up, is given the name. But I prefer the one in its walled garden, a
faded, simple, harmless-looking tree. And the result of eating its fruit
can be moralised on here, for on one side of it is the bazaar square,
where whisky and beer and tobacco are sold, and on the other side is the
telegraph office with the news of the war blazoned on the iron-studded
door and an armed sentry before it.

Beyond Kurna the Tigris takes some immense curves so that at times you
seem to see the sails of _mahallas_ all round the horizon. We lay on
deck, staring idly at the unvarying landscape which quivered under the
sun. Occasionally Arab villages were passed, constructed out of the
matting made from reeds, which is a local industry. The reeds grow in
big patches all the way up the river banks. On the second night we tied
up below Ezra's tomb. There was local Arab trouble in this part at the
time and we passed an outpost of native troops; also a mud hut, standing
solitary in a swamp in the plain and bearing the words "Leicester
Lounge" in black lettering. It seemed deserted.

At night there was a lot of lamp-signalling all round the horizon in
naval code. One caught M.M.O. repeatedly and then a lot of figures. Some
fires lit up the sky line to the north. On that night the heat was
beyond description. A plague of sand-flies and mosquitoes descended on
the ship. No one slept a wink. The mules screamed and kicked. There was
not a breath of air. A heavy smell pervaded the ship, and at times it
seemed that one's mind wandered a little. Before dawn a great cry came
out of the steamy darkness from some worshipping Arab and was repeated
twice. After a long silence a cock crew far across the plain and was
answered a hundred times. Then came a misty blue light and a sudden
glare of yellow. The day had begun and the engines started.

A monitor passed, bristling with guns and painted a vivid green. Ezra's
tomb is a mosque standing stark on the brown plain beside the river in a
clump of palms. It is kept in beautiful preservation, for it is visited
by pilgrim Jews. Against the lovely blue of the dome, with its circle
of gold, a tall palm leans, bending sharply inward as if to kiss the
Prophet's last resting-place in some sudden mood of devotion. Some way
above it lies a big village, and as we passed crowds of Arabs lined the
bank. Naked boys dived into the river after money. The women, dashing
types with nose rings, clad in robes of wonderful vermilion and purple
colours, ran along the banks with fowls and eggs for sale. Herds of
black buffalo, submerged up to the nose, basked in the water.

At one lonely place we passed a small shelter, a roof of yellow matting
supported by a few posts, containing six rather pale-hued women with
richly coloured robes and bangles seated in a semi-circle on the ground.
Outside stood the lord of the manor, very swarthy, in dazzling white,
with a rifle slung over his shoulder, scowling ferociously as he
surveyed the plains. He was a kind of policeman, I believe, in our pay.
At any rate he seemed to be, like policemen in general, a strong lover
of domestic life. Six wives may have contributed a little towards
overcoming the extreme monotony of life in the place.

Above Ezra's tomb begin the Narrows. The Tigris becomes very narrow,
pouring its filthy yellow water at a great speed between the sharply cut
banks. The turns are so sharp, being at times much more acute than a
right angle, that the only way to get round is to charge the bank, bump
off with a great churning of paddles and creaking of lashings and
clanging of the telegraph from the bridge, and work the steamer's nose
into the centre of the stream again. The banks, at these spots, are
perfectly smooth and polished owing to the constant impacts. By
themselves the river steamers could get round more skilfully, but with
their clumsy barges on each side it was impossible. The S-boats--the
stern wheelers--of which there are only a few, do not carry barges, and
therefore their handiness and speed are much greater. They can run from
Basra to Sheik Saad, close to the front, within three days, and can
travel by night if necessary.

At three in the afternoon as we bumped and scraped and panted up the
tortuous river, we came on the familiar sight of a convoy stuck,
broadside on, across the river in front of us. A little smoke came from
her funnel. The sun beat savagely down on her apparently deserted decks.
Behind her there was nothing but shimmering plain and the occasional
flash of water. Our engine-room telegraph rang. The engines stopped and
we slewed into the bank and dropped anchor. Then the skipper and his
navigating lieutenants withdrew to their cabins and the engine-room
staff, composed of an Englishman who had run boats up to Baghdad for ten
years, and a few Christian Baghdadies--powerful dark men, who seemed to
speak a kind of French--disposed themselves for rest on the lower deck,
and a great peace descended on the scene. Away over the horizon, north
and south, some columns of smoke were visible coming from other convoys
that were converging on the Narrows. It was necessary to wait for the
tide, as well as for a tug. There was nothing to do but to watch the
plain. At first sight it appeared lifeless, an expanse of golden browns,
reds and yellows, with a sharp purple rim on the skyline. But closer
observation showed long lines of cattle, mere dots in the distance,
moving slowly in search of pasture. In the shadow of a hummock an Arab
boy and girl sat together motionless. A mile along the level two Arabs
were rhythmically swinging water up from a cutting by means of a shallow
vessel with ropes attached to the side. The flash of it caught the eye,
and there was a patch of vivid emerald where the water fell. To the
north it was possible to make out the arms of a semaphore lying idle.
There was no sound in the place. The river itself flowed silently. Only
the occasional deep drone of a hornet or the note of a mosquito came to
the ear. The sun seemed to be drawing the land together, sucking up all
the sap it contained.

As we sat and gazed at these bending and twisting Narrows the idea arose
that it might be possible, by a little cutting, to do away with the
worst bits and open up a straight channel. For there were two main
places of obstruction, called the Devil's Elbow and Pear Drop Reach.
But it is necessary to say this with caution, for tampering with great
rivers like the Tigris may cause unthought-of trouble. It upsets the
natural balance of the waters.

Gradually the other convoys drew near and dropped anchor above and below
the obstructing vessel. Some native troops in one of them got out on the
bank and began to bathe, or wandered about looking for fuel to cook
their evening meal, and towards evening a string of Arab women and
children, from some remote village, came along with eggs and melons and
pumpkins. In the meanwhile a kind of activity prevailed in the region of
the obstruction. A tug boat appeared and ropes were stretched out to
posts on the land and the water was being churned to foam by the
paddles. It was said that General Y was on a convoy ahead, and General
X, who was going up to replace him, was in a convoy behind us. It was
possible to count seven convoys in all, and smoke columns were still
rising in the south. It was not until darkness fell that the ship was
pulled off, and it was too late to move on that night. So we ate our
bully beef and settled down for the night. Once more our sensations were
indescribable. The sand-flies were like a million little red-hot wires.
There was not a breath of air and the mules screamed and fought and
gasped alongside. One hundred and fifty people packed on a small deck,
round a funnel that is still burning hot, make a poor job of sleeping in
such a climate.

It was the devout prayer of everyone that we might reach our destination
next day and get off the ship and away from those mules. That was not to
be. We reached Amara in the darkness of the evening, and anchored near
the Rawal Pindi Hospital. Owing to a case of cholera that had developed
that day on the starboard barge, we were put in quarantine, so it was
necessary to unpack one's kit again and shake down for the night on
deck. One of the most refractory mules kicked itself loose of its
moorings and fell into the stream in the darkness. Several men risked
their lives in rescuing it. One would have thought, seeing that it had
been the noisiest and most vicious brute on the barge, that drowning was
scarcely good enough for it. And what is a wife to think of her husband
when she is told that he was drowned while gallantly attempting to
rescue from the swift current of the Tigris a mule that could swim far
better than he could? As no one was drowned, perhaps it is unnecessary
to ask the question.

[Illustration: ARAB BELUM ON TIGRIS.]



We reached Amara about the middle of July. At that time there was
practically nothing happening at the front, but the sickness was great.
Amara, by reason of its openness, was a little fresher than Basra, but
the temperature was high. It was 125 degrees in the shade on the day
following our arrival.

The white low houses line along the river front on the left bank in a
more orderly fashion than at Ashar. A bridge of boats connects the two
banks. This bridge, which existed before the war, swings open from the
centre and lets traffic through. On the right bank a few houses were
scattered amongst thick groves of palms. There is somehow a more
oriental spirit at Amara than at Basra. The _belums_ are more
fantastically curved, the mystery of the town more apparent, and the
narrow-domed bazaar, full of dim light and vivid colour, is permeated
with the spirit of the Arabian Nights. There are some cunning craftsmen
in the bazaar, particularly the silver-and gold-smiths, who make
exquisite inlaid work. They do this after the manner of true artists, in
that they work seemingly more by a process of thought and feeling rather
than with the aid of tools. For they sit on the ground with a bowl of
water, a small charcoal fire, a strip of metal, and a deeply preoccupied
look, and after a time the article is finished. The overlaying of silver
by antimony is their particular craft. Owing to the orders they
received, they soon began to charge prohibitive prices. At certain times
it was possible to get egret feathers, and also astrachan--the skin of
unborn lambs--in the bazaar. The old copper vessels that were sold in
many of the shops were sometimes very beautiful.

The suspected cholera case proving doubtful, we were put out of
quarantine next morning, and moved across the river to the site of the
hospital which we were to take over. It lay round a bend in the river on
the right bank above and well out of the town. To the north lay the
river, to the south the desert. A large number of mud and reed huts, in
long rows, stood on the plain, covering an area of about a quarter of a
square mile. These were the wards. There was a sense of space that was
refreshing after the cramped and littered area of the clearing at
Basra, with its surrounding marshes and palm groves. We officers were
put in tents in a small palm and pomegranate thicket at the periphery of
the hospital area. The nursing quarters were at the other end, nearer
the town. These quarters were built of wood and low roofed, with a layer
of mud on the top. The nurses were in many cases volunteers who had seen
service in Mudros, and these had just got the Royal Red Cross Medal,
equivalent to a D.S.O. Very pleased they were with it, and greatly they
deserved it. Their quarters were divided by thin mud walls into narrow
compartments, and they found the lack of sound-deadening properties
trying. But that is a universal experience of this war--the continual
overhearing of conversation, the necessity for being in a crowd, and the
lack of moments of privacy. They slept out of doors, on the river front,
in a wired enclosure, patrolled by a sentry. The sentries were a
peculiarity of the place which distinguished it from Basra. For in that
region looters came in from the desert, some from the villages and some
from camps of nomad Arabs. Their great ambition was firearms. The second
ambition seemed to be clothing. There must exist somewhere a complete
colony of khaki-clad Arabs, of all ranks up to Staff officers, probably
in some district Persia-way, in the Pashtikhu hills. They were extremely
daring. They would come in at night on horseback, leave their horses out
on the plain and stroll in under the sentries' noses. For many months a
spirit of compromise was shown in the matter, but eventually a stronger
line was taken and the Sheiks of the surrounding country were put under
the penalty of a heavy fine if looting continued. Occasionally men were
stabbed by these marauders, who carried long, curved knives, but the
main object was looting and not killing.

It was a singular spot to find a large number of women, away up in the
heart of that elemental country of fire and water and earth. But they
remained untouched by any kind of pessimism, nor were they greatly
interested in the campaign as a military affair. All their interest was
in their work. They were a wonderful stimulus. Where a man unwittingly
tended to let things slide they exhorted and energised. In details, they
did not seem to show that gradual decadence that creeps imperceptibly
over men when isolated and overworked. It is perhaps so subtle that it
takes a woman to detect it. Women may be theoretically unscientific, but
they are essential to the maintenance of the scientific spirit and
practice. Naturally they suffered sickness, but not nearly so much as
one might have expected; for discipline plays a tremendous part in the
avoidance of sickness. It is not so much a physical factor as a moral
one. It seemed possible to induce a practice of going sick very easily,
and in that climate it was only necessary to permit some inner act of
surrender that escapes simple definition, but resembles the lowering of
a dog's tail, and one became a sick man. It was not exactly malingering.

Beyond the western boundary of the hospital, behind the officers' tents,
lay an oriental garden. An oil engine and pumps at the river's edge
supplied the water to it through channels. The machine was worked by an
Arab who, as far as one could tell, prayed to it. In the garden, full of
moist heat and splashes of colour, lived a colony of jackals, those
extraordinary spirits of hell, whose wailing and hysteria are so
amazing. I do not know how Darwin would have accounted for the
particular note they strike. It is probably on a level with the roaring
of the lion, in that it is designed to terrify. But the jackal does not
terrify by such obvious methods as the lion. He plays on your eerie,
ghostly, superstitious side. He brings up into the imagination the
malignity and hopelessness of the damned. He seems to people the night
with wailing horrors. To a man dying of thirst in the desert, the jackal
must just give the final touch of despair that makes death and
nothingness seem best. It must be strange to die, surrounded by jackals
at their chthonian litanies.

Shortly after we reached Amara, the news came that Sir Victor Horsley
had died. It was in a season of extreme heat, when death comes suddenly
in many forms. Eighty officers attended his funeral in columns of
fours, the most junior in front. He had a coffin. Wood was precious in
Amara. There were some other bodies sewn up in army blankets. A long,
dusty march of a mile to the cemetery, a shallow earth grave, a brief
ceremony, the same for all, and a weary tramp home in the sun--that was
the final picture. There is one detail to add, and that is the lovely
playing of the "Last Post" over the graves. In him we lost the finest
surgeon in Mesopotamia.

For many days after this we moved about as it were in a vast furnace.
The nights were broken by sand-flies. Personally, I found the only way
of keeping them out was to wear socks on the feet and hands, and smear
the face and neck with some kind of ointment, on which their feet slip,
so that they cannot find a purchase when in the act of driving their
sucking apparatus into the skin. In the morning, what with the sweat and
the grease, and the tropical exhaustion, one looked like few things on
earth. Oil of citronella is only of temporary use; paraffin and creosote
are of little good. Butter muslin nets are out of the question, as the
heat is stifling under them. The burning of aromatic or pungent
compounds is useless, and as for killing them, one might lie awake all
night, scuffling and dabbing and slapping at the almost invisible forms
without gaining the slightest benefit. In the day time they hide in
cracks in the ground, under bits of matting or anywhere out of the sun.
Sand-fly fever is a malady that begins like influenza. One aches all
over. All the side of life that is enjoyment fades away. It is
impossible to smoke, or eat, or drink, or read, or talk. In Malta, where
it is indigenous, a convalescence of three weeks is allowed. It was not
possible to allow that in Amara. The fever lasts two or three days,
coming down in two main stages. The use of opium is recommended. As
regards the use of opium in Mesopotamia, it was possible to gain the
idea from actual experience that it was a most valuable drug during the
hot season. If limited to three drugs and no more, for work in that
country, I should prefer opium, Epsom salts and quinine. The quinine
that we obtained through official channels was in the form of pink
tablets and came from the cinchona plantations at Darjeeling that are
run by the Indian Government. These tablets are coloured pink to prevent
fraudulent selling, for they are handed out to natives in malarial
districts in large quantities, free of charge, and natives are not great
believers in medicine. The tablets are extremely hard and insoluble.
Prolonged exposure to the action of dilute mineral acids produces no
effect on them. We had, for the men, quinine parades, when five grains
were swallowed as a prophylactic against malaria every day. They were
amusing affairs to watch--serried ranks with water-bottles, standing to
attention while the sergeant dispenser walked with proper dignity down
the line handing a pink tablet to each man, who gulped it spasmodically,
took a draught of water and returned to attention. It reminded one of a
religious ceremony, of some strange communion service. In giving the
quinine in large doses it was essential to dissolve it, if any effect
was aimed at. Even then it rarely produced symptoms of quinine
poisoning. The home preparations were more satisfactory to use. As
regards opium, it was useful, apart from sand-fly fever, in those
frayed, sleepless states of mind that prolonged heat induces. The
English idea that a dose of morphia or laudanum at once induces the
opium habit, though very safe, is not altogether sound. Other hypnotics
were usually not strong enough to give long sleep; but here, to produce
an effect with hypnotics, it seemed necessary to double the dose. This
may have had something to do with some deterioration in drugs caused by
the big demands of the war. But I do not think it was the only
explanation. Of course, for those who dreaded the use of opium, and
preferred chloral or bromide, it was only necessary to glance into the
tents where the Chinese carpenters slept at night. There one saw rows of
comatose figures and if you cared to lift the lips from the gums of
those sleepers, you would usually see a little sticky mass of opium
wedged in between the teeth. That was one way of solving the problem of
sand-flies and heat at night and no doubt an admirable illustration of
the dangers of the drug. But it is possible to find illustrations for

At Amara, paratyphoid A was commonest in the troops coming down from the
Front. It was not a very grave disorder, but sometimes, particularly
when complicated by other factors, it was fatal. It must be remembered
that many patients reached us as emaciated skeletons, in the last stage
of exhaustion. Special wards were set aside for typhoid cases. Dysentery
was also increasing, and wards were reserved for these cases. It was
mainly what is called bacillary dysentery, for which Epsom salts is one
of the best remedies. All typhoid cases, as soon as convalescent, were
sent to India. That was because they often carry the germs in the
intestinal tract a long time after recovery and therefore may become a
source of infection. They spent on an average three months in India
before returning for service. There was no place in Mesopotamia where
convalescent patients could be sent with a reasonable prospect of
gaining full health. About twenty miles beyond Aligarbi lie the
Pashtikhu hills and there in those high altitudes a big military
sanatorium might have been established. This would have saved endless
transport difficulties, if a light railway had been constructed. But no
doubt the military situation rendered the carrying out of such an idea
impracticable. Heat-stroke in Amara was common enough, but it did not
seem so fatal as at Basra. This, perhaps, was due to the air, which was
drier and fresher. The supply of ice was also more adequate.

We had some unlucky spells. It is a curious thing that luck seems to
enter into the matter of death rates. I mean that sometimes for two or
three days at a time cases seemed to go wrong and die, on the slightest
provocation. At other times, when the luck changed, the most hopeless
cases would clear up. It was the same way in the operating theatre. It
is the same way with everything, whether it be card playing, or
business, or war, or love, or thinking, or sport. There are phases in
which something seems to overshadow the scene. The direction of the
current changes. For a time everything seems to go wrong. The machinery
behind life, that is always helping you on, stops and reverses. And
there is another aspect of the same thing which doctors sometimes see in
a remarkable way. It is the occurrence of similar kinds of cases at the
same time. For part of it there is the scientific explanation of
infection by germs.

[Illustration: EZRA'S TOMB.]

The Shimal was now blowing from the north-west, bringing the dust in
from the desert. At times it produced a strange effect. The atmosphere
became dun-coloured, thickened at places into opaque and rushing veils.
Under the pressure of the strong, hot wind the big _mahallas_, with
their white sails in tense curves, careered down the river with only a
streak of white foam under the prow to show they were not suspended in
the air. The further bank, pale and unsubstantial, was outlined fitfully
in the hurrying gloom. A kind of lividity spread over the picture,
bleaching it of all colour. Everything in the wards became silted over
with fine powder, and the big yellow and black hornets and the
long-legged wasps that seem to have two or three pendant abdomens and
are the hue of Burgundy marigolds, came hurtling through the unglazed
windows to crawl, half-stunned, about the mud floors. How the ward
Sisters anathematised these days! The storms provoked a feeling not
unlike east winds at home. They brought out small aches and pains and
one got irritable. A thunderstorm would have cleared away the effect,
but the sky remained cloudless and brazen.



Nothing was happening at the front. Occasionally there was spasmodic
shelling and bomb dropping, but the heat prevented any general activity.
Headquarters was under howitzer fire at times. One shell landed in the
mess waiter's tent and damaged nine men.

There was a tale told at the time concerning a powerful Sheik near the
front who was neutral. His son becoming ill, he sent to the Turks, and
also to us, for a doctor. The Turks, or rather the Germans, sent a
German doctor, and a German lady as well, the latter as a bribe. We sent
a medical officer, unattended. The Sheik kept them all. So far as I
know he may still be keeping them, and remaining strictly neutral. It
must be remembered that the Arabs--as well as many Indians--have been
led to believe that not only the Kaiser is a Mohammedan, but the German
people in general.

Towards the end of July there were day temperatures of 124 degrees in
the shade, and the wind, when it blew, seemed as if it had passed over a
burning city. It was impossible to do anything save what was absolutely
necessary. The sickness amongst the medical staff became rather serious,
and at times we had to look after far more cases than we could treat
adequately. But in these moments of temporary dislocation, the presence
of nurses made all the difference and that state of confusion that had
existed in Basra never occurred.

The day's programme was unvarying. After a somewhat exhausting night we
rose at seven. The best hours of sleep were usually after sunrise, for
then the sand-flies vanished. After breakfast of tea, eggs and bread,
the ward work started. This lasted until about midday. Then came lunch,
accompanied by many flies, and afterwards a long siesta, during which
one wore the minimum of clothing. At four or five one dressed again,
after a bath, and took a look at the wards to see any bad cases. Then
the evening began, in which life became more possible. Dinner was
usually a cheerful meal. After dinner what to do was a great problem.
One just did nothing. During all this time everyone became thin. Any
sickness, even a slight attack of diarrhoea, brought down weight
rapidly. There was the case of a certain sergeant, whose immense girth
was much revered by the Arabs. One can understand, perhaps, how it
comes about that fatness is admired in the East. It is so rare. It is
much easier to be thin. The sergeant went into hospital for a few days.
When he came out he had lost his glory even as Samson was shorn of his
strength in a night. His clothes hung about him in huge folds. What had
taken him years to produce was lost in six days, and with it went the
respect of the Arabs. There is practically no fat in the country. There
was no dripping for puddings. The cattle were all lean.

It is necessary to say a word about the Indian _personnel_ attached to
the hospital. These were the water carriers, washers and sweepers. They
had been immensely pleased at the idea of leaving Basra. But at Amara,
where they found things little better, there was some lamentation. In
temperament they were mere children requiring a father. But of one
venerable and aged man I would like to record a few things. He was a
gaunt, tall, grey-bearded fellow as thin as a stick-insect, and he
performed the most menial of all services, being a sweeper by caste. But
what he did was done with passionate devotion. He had seen service in
France and spoke a few curious French words. Troops on active service in
France certainly are taught some strange phrases. All day he toiled with
his kerosene tins and brushes and when he had nothing to do he invented
something. He would, for instance, dust the palm trees outside the mess,
pausing always to salute even the shadow of an officer on the horizon in
a stiff cramped fashion, and then applying himself with silent zeal to
his remarkable task. He came one day in some grief and said that he had
heard that his daughter in his village in India was to have married a
certain man. He, the father, had contributed 100 rupees towards the cost
of the ceremony. The suitor had taken the money and then announced his
intention of marrying someone else. News of the fraud had reached the
venerable old man in Mesopotamia and caused him to tremble with wrath.
Could the great Sahib, who was his father and mother, write to the
Viceroy of India and demand justice? To which the great Sahib in
question, after considering the matter gravely, replied, "Write to the
pig who is the son of a pig and say to him that unless he marries thy
daughter before two moons have passed then will the Viceroy himself be
informed by a telegram which I myself will send, and justice shall be
served out in this evil matter." The joy of the old man was great and he
hastened away to get the letter written. Next day he was clattering his
tins and brushes with a devotion to duty that was as worthy of a medal
as many things in the war. I was told the marriage was now certain to
come off. Still, it seems a bad beginning to matrimony, and if a man is
a pig, and the son of a pig, his children will presumably also be pigs.

There was an Arab theatre at Amara, and in September they produced a
play, in Arabic. It was based on a topical incident. No Arab was allowed
to go into camps, hospitals and so on, without a pass, and this was
amazing to the Oriental mind. The scene was a bare stage, lit by flares,
and an audience of bearded Arabs, Arab police and a few British officers
in the front row. On the stage sat a fat woman mournfully shaking a
tambourine, and between whiles going to sleep. Up the middle centre lay
a fat man, groaning. It was evident that he was playing a sick part.
Beside him lamented his wife, a dancing girl, squat-nosed and heavy
hipped. The low comedian entered. It is not in the interests of the
public to describe him too closely. Eventually he assumed the part of
physician. His treatment of the patient followed the plan of exorcising
a devil. He hit and kicked him, spat on him and jumped on him. There was
no improvement and the man died. The problem was now how to bury him.
The low comedian said he would attend to that and heaved the fat man on
his shoulders and went off to the cemetery. After an interminable pause
he reappeared still carrying the corpse. He dumped it on the ground and
made a gesture of despair. "It is no good," he said. "I cannot bury him.
I haven't got a pass!" This brought the house down and the fat woman
woke up and applied herself vigorously to the tambourine. At the theatre
at Basra, when European films were shown, the Arabs always laughed very
much at the amount of kissing that white folk indulged in. It seemed to
strike them as an extraordinary way of passing the time.

Arab women are not beautiful. Their faces are aquiline, their cheek
bones high, and their lips coarse. Their figures are lithe and they walk
well, with a sinuous swagger. But there is a sharp, harsh tone about
them and one could imagine them very accomplished in bitter speeches.
Their eyes are their best feature, but they contain an expression that
is hard, restless and challenging. They mess themselves about with
henna. Some wear nose rings and all wear bangles that clash as they
walk. They were interested in the nurses and seemed for some obscure
reason mildly amused. As labourers they were employed in large numbers
carrying baskets of earth on their heads, or mixing mud and straw for
plastering purposes. At a comparatively early age they lose whatever
looks they possess and become most extraordinarily malevolent hags. The
Arab men, as they age, usually look rather fine and dignified. The young
Arab is not attractive. He looks heavy, sullen and sensual, and his
expression is full of greed and cunning.



It was when the moon began to wane that the Arab marauders became
troublesome. Shots whizzed about the place at night, and one continually
heard the high pitched, nervous challenge of native sentries: "'Alt, who
goes da?" It was unwise to move about after dark without a lantern. In
peace time Amara is not free from this kind of trouble and an
interpreter remarked that just as much shooting used to go on then. It
was as well not to be absent-minded. One of the Sisters on her way back
from a ward at night was challenged, and thought it was some delirious
patient. She approached him resolutely and the click of a rifle brought
her to her senses. Towards the end of August the amount of looting
became serious. On the other side of the river was a big camp, where
troops were sent to refit and rest. Here the thieves played many cunning
tricks and there was some killing. They were adroit in stampeding horses
and in the confusion that followed making off with several. The sentries
were not allowed to load their rifles, as promiscuous firing was a
source of danger to the occupants of the tents, which were crowded
together on the plain. At times the looters slipped down the river in
boats, and it became necessary to stop all night traffic. Any craft seen
during the night was fired at from the bank.

We had our own particular problem. The hospital lay exposed to the
plain. A bund, or mud wall, marked the outer boundary. The native
sentries who were allotted to guard the place were insufficient in
number, as the area was considerable and thefts were constant. The
doctors and orderlies volunteered to do sentry duty, and one Arab was
shot and one wounded. This did not stop the stealing. Kit of every kind
disappeared. At times a man woke up to find an Arab calmly removing his
mosquito net, while another stood over him with a knife. It was a good
policy to remain motionless for a short time. It was better than
remaining motionless for ever. During the day time a large number of
Arab men and women were employed in the hospital area. There were about
fifty or so who sat all day under a matting shelter making mortar by
some mysterious process of hammering, singing their eternal nursery
rhymes that sound like "Ina Dina Dinah Do" over and over again. All
these Arabs were turned out of the compound before nightfall by the
local Arab police--picturesque fellows, who wore khaki uniforms and Arab
head cloths--but it is probable that they had something to do with the
thefts. They were certainly guilty of other thefts and on one occasion
the Indians, who had suffered severely as their tents lay nearest to the
plain, very nearly murdered an Arab whom they found with some crusts of
bread and some cooking utensils tied up in his clothing.


It seems to be a common belief among some people that the R.A.M.C.
orderly is a man with nothing to do. It was an erroneous idea to hold in
Mesopotamia, and when we were informed that we could arrange our own
guards, there was some resentment. However, there was some chance of an
interesting time, so parties were organised to watch along the bund.
On one occasion a show was arranged which might be termed the Grand
Battle of the Bund. It was a battle without casualties. A crowded mess
began the evening. Some naval men from a monitor lying alongside were
present, very keen on doing some strafing, as everyone was, where Arabs
were concerned. They related their own manner of dealing with such
things higher up the river--"Turned a machine-gun on their cattle and
annihilated the lot. That got the wind up them all right!" At
nine-thirty our party, composed of twenty officers, all the mess
waiters, and various other people--mostly victims of robbery--who
silently attached themselves, and also some crack shots from the A.B.'s
of the monitor, turned out somewhat noisily, all armed to the teeth with
rifles, shot guns, blue flares, revolvers and clubs and dispersed into
the surrounding gloom. The bund was about four hundred yards long, and
we lay at intervals of five yards or so, leaving a big gap at one end.
But strategy went by the board. The great idea was to strafe Arabs.
There was a murdered officer to avenge and some Tommies. The officer, by
the way, was killed on the other side of the water. To revenge him, his
brother officers turned out next night and lined the periphery of the
camp towards the plain. It is said that Arabs, knowing of this, landed
by boat behind them, crept into their deserted lines, looted everything
and departed. The tale may or may not be true.

That bund was remarkably uncomfortable. One lay against its sloping
side, scrambling to get a foothold and peering over the edge into the
dim regions beyond. It was a moonless night, but clear and brilliant
with stars.

The hours went slowly by. At last the Higher Command became weary and
ordered a flare to be fired, and everyone to shoot at anything he saw on
the plain. The flare was a prearranged signal for the monitor to turn on
the searchlight. The flare went off and burst high above us. In a moment
all was dark again. We waited for the searchlight to shine on the scene
from over the fringe of river-side palms. At last it came, ghostly,
fitful and strange, a sudden radiance in the dark plain, reaching far
out of the shadows on the horizon.

There was a pause. Nothing resembling an Arab was to be seen. Firing
began in a desultory way, as a flat celebration of people determined to
do something. Then everyone went home leaving, no doubt, a dozen Arabs
chuckling in some nullah lower down.

The looting continued. It culminated in our area in some big thefts
from the officers' tents. We had arranged patrols among ourselves. It is
eerie work. In the groves the shadows are thick and black. You crook
your finger round the trigger and wonder.... On the occasion of the Arab
raid on our quarters we had for the moment abandoned the patrols, partly
because it was at a time when, owing to sickness, there were few
officers fit for it, and partly because the moon was bright. One woke up
in the dawn light to find one's tent ransacked, and every bit of
clothing gone. Footprints in the dust at the head of the bed gave an
unpleasant sensation. It would have been little good waking in the
middle of the affair, although one slept with a revolver under the
sheet, when a watching Arab stood over one, knife in hand. After this
some strong action was taken and the Sheiks, as I have mentioned, were
fined. There was also a little affair of stern punishing round Nasireyah
that had a wholesome effect which spread as far as Amara. It is the only
way to deal with the Arabs of this generation.

Apart from looting, the great danger that continually threatened us was
fire. All the buildings were constructed of extremely inflammable
material. There was no fire apparatus, save buckets. The canvas of the
tents became so dry in the sun that a spark caused a conflagration. On
one occasion an officer's tent caught fire at night. A burst of flames
enveloped the canvas in a moment and the occupants, who were asleep,
barely escaped. It was impossible to remove the articles inside the
tent. Fortunately, the tent was in an isolated part, and only the
surrounding palm trees suffered. But if a fire had really started in the
main portion of the hospital, the whole place would have been gutted in
a twinkling. On one night a great glare arose from the river and it
seemed as if Amara was in flames. A series of tremendous explosions
followed. It was an ammunition barge somewhere in the stream that had
suddenly blazed up. It was towed away to a safer place, but if the
sparks that showered through the air had set fire to any house along the
Tigris front, the entire town might have been in ruins by the morning.

[Illustration: THE TIGRIS NEAR KURNA.]

During August scurvy was threatening the men at the front. Many Indians
went down with it. It is an unpleasant disorder. The gums looked as if
they were blown out like little pneumatic tyres. They were
reddish-purple, ulcerated, and the stench was oppressive. Hard, woodeny
swellings appeared on the legs, and the victim became very decrepit. One
of the main preoccupations in the wards was the differential diagnosis
between atypical malaria and typhoid fever, for the malaria that one
reads of in textbooks did not exist save exceptionally. A man had an
irregular temperature for days and it was often extremely difficult to
give a name to the cause. Fortunately one had the assistance of a
pathological laboratory, where blood could be examined and treated. In
general, the typhoid cases were consistently heavy and depressed, while
the malaria cases had spells of cheerfulness.

Life in the wards was not so bad for the patients. There was a certain
amount of literature--it was never abundant--and there was a gramophone.
There was also the occupation of killing flies with a fly-swotter,
playing card games and dominoes, grousing, yarning, sleeping and eating.
In the cool of the evening, the convalescents would line the river bank
and watch the convoys. There was bathing in the river. At times there
were rumours of sharks, for sharks go up river as high as Baghdad. It is
not possible to go far out in the stream unless one is a very powerful
swimmer. The current is very swift. Tortoises used to line the margin of
the river in the evening, with their heads sticking out above water,
while crowds of angry birds accused them from the wet mud of the shore.
Wild duck, partridge, snipe, sand-grouse and doves were fairly numerous,
and in the evenings it was possible to get a good bag. It was worth
shooting jackals, for their skins were in very good condition. The
hospital had a football ground and later on, towards the end of the hot
season, a tennis court was made with the aid of a mixture of mud and
straw. A cheery innovation was started shortly after the middle of the
year. Concert parties, organised in India from the talent of the Army,
came out and gave entertainments in the evening, and very good some of
them were.

An effort was made to further the interests of medical science, and the
Amara clinical society was started at which doctors met weekly and
discussed cases and diagnoses, and papers were read. There is, I think,
no better proof that, in its central core, medicine is an art, and not a
science, than the kind of discussion that goes on at medical meetings.
It exactly resembles the discussions that go on in political debating
societies. The monotony of life was interrupted at frequent intervals by
official inspections. Every General who passed up or down felt it
incumbent on him to visit the hospital. A crowd of lean men in khaki,
each with what looked like a large collection of stamps on his left
breast, a posse of Bengal Lancers, the warning note of the bugle, a
sudden cessation of scrubbing and dusting in the wards, the temporary
assumption of an intelligent air, of straps and leggings and tunics, a
few explanations or carefully veiled suggestions, some hearty laughs, a
popping of soda-water bottles in the mess, a receding cloud of dust on
the plain--and the inspection was over.

One often wonders at this constant habit of official inspections, when
an unofficial inspection, made by an able man who strolled in
unannounced, would be so much more intelligent and valuable. It is
almost painful to witness the preparation that goes on before an
official visit. There is a suggestion of something archaic, something
inferior to the spirit of life, in the whole process; as if one were not
an actively employed hospital, up to the neck in honest work, but merely
a passive model on a large scale, in which everything was always in
symmetrical rows, in which the patients were accustomed to be exactly
parallel to the edges of their beds, in which everyone preferred to
stand to attention if they could do so without dying. It was as if all
the rough strong machinery of the place never went at full speed, but
was carefully painted and polished until it looked like a musical box
without a soul or a purpose.

These inspections were incessant and entirely suspended the work of the
hospital while they lasted. When they occurred in the morning, it was
necessary to hurry through the usual work, get everything cleaned up,
assume full uniform, take all books, papers and games from the patients,
and wait patiently for the arrival of the inspecting party. As often as
not a message would come after a long delay, to say that the inspection
would be postponed until a later hour.

During September one of the native interpreters came into the venereal
tent as a patient. At the time it was under my care. There was, by the
way, very little venereal disease amongst the troops, though, of course,
the country is full of it. He was a little olive Jewish boy, alert in
manner, and muscular, and a good linguist. When war broke out he was
living in Baghdad, where he had learned French and English at one of the
Mission Schools there, for he was a Christian. When Turkey came in, he
fled from Baghdad with many others who wished to avoid conscription. He
travelled down the river to Basra. He described the journey as very bad,
with little food and a constant fear of being caught. On reaching Basra
he heard rumours of our coming expedition, but the most extreme apathy
existed in the town. The Turks were indifferent, walking about smoking
cigarettes and "making the shoulders to rise a leetle" as they talked.
But they kept a watchful eye on the Arabs. When the Turks evacuated
Basra a panic ensued. He was living at the time in a merchant's house
and they barricaded the doors and windows and got out any weapons they
could find. The Arabs from the plains poured into the town and began to
loot. They looted the customs house in particular, and other official
places. He saw many street fights in the white dust under the glare of
the sun, but he said it was usually the Arab looters fighting amongst
themselves. Their fights would last a long time, the men circling round
one another with knives, or sniping from street corners. There was a
great deal of musket firing at night. This state of lawlessness went on
for three days, and then we made our first appearance in the form of a
gun-boat that fired three rounds from one of her guns, "Not to hit
something, but to make a salaam." The barricaded ones felt more
comfortable. When the Sixth Division marched in he became smitten by the
general appearance of these veterans, and hearing that interpreters were
required, made an application and was accepted. He marched up with the
Division to Kut, and eventually on to Ctesiphon. "It was such a peety,"
he remarked, "for we did all know perfectly well--for I had told
them--that the inhabitants of Baghdad would destroy us themselves." I
asked him what the city was like and if it was safe in peace times. "Oh,
it is all the same in the whole country," he said. "It is all unsafe
unless you theenk. You must always theenk a lot in this country, and
not be in a hurry." At Ctesiphon he said that our troops, a division
strong, fought wonderfully and had beaten the Turks, who were far more
numerous, but a fresh division from Constantinople arrived in time to
alter the complexion of affairs. In the rout, he apparently managed to
crawl on to a steamer full of wounded. It stuck on the way down and was
surrounded by Arabs, who shouted from the darkness for them to
surrender. They had a machine-gun and got through. The Arabs, he said,
did not cause any trouble on our Lines of Communication until the
retreat began, and then they began work with enthusiasm. At Kut he went
through the siege. At the surrender he had the foresight to disguise
himself as an Arab. The Turks hanged a lot of interpreters. He escaped
and lay low, wondering how to get down the river. "The Turks did not
treat the British soldiers very well. The officers, oh, yes. But the
men, no. There was leetle to eat." Two months later, when things were
quieter, he went to a party of Arabs who were going down the river and
made an offer. "I did not trust them, so I went to a Christian house and
left three pounds there, and then I gave them three pounds and told them
if I arrived safely I would write a letter and they could get the other
money when they came back." The Arabs, finding no way of doing him
in--after much thinking, I suppose--agreed and they set off. They went
down the Shatt-el-Hai way, to the Euphrates, and after a lot of trouble,
he got through to the British lines, where he resumed his duties as

He was a curious mixture of daring and cowardice, like most of the
natives in Mesopotamia. He was very pleased with the hospital, but
expressed a crafty sentiment. "You have too many hospitals," he said.
"The Turks do not have these hospitals, for then all their men would
become sick. It is nicer to be in a hospital than in a desert." This
thought brings to the memory an incident that occurred in one of the
wards. A new case was admitted, and next morning the doctor overhauled
him. He found nothing wrong. "Well, what is the matter with you?"

"There ain't nothing the matter," was the reply. "You see it's like
this, sir. My pal Bill, in my platoon, he was out of 'orspital day
before yesterday, and he says: 'Ginger, me boy, if you want a nice bed
for ter sleep in, such as you've forgotten the sight of, you go into
'orspital.' So next day I reports myself sick, carrying on a lot and the
new doctor what joined us last week, 'e sends me straight 'ere. And they
washes me all over, and tucks me up between the sheets, and I've 'ad
the finest sleep since I came to this 'ere blooming country, sixteen
months ago. And I'd be obliged, sir, if you'd discharge me."

A great many men suffered from bad teeth, and the suitable treatment of
their cases became a problem. In the ordinary establishment of a general
hospital, in the Army, there are about thirty medical officers, but no
provision is made for dentists. In Mesopotamia decay of the teeth was
rapid. Dentists in small numbers were sent from India. I hesitate to put
down the amount that one dentist told me he was making each month. We
had, for some time, only one dentist, and his waiting list was several
hundred cases, all requiring urgent attention. Some of the bad cases
became permanent base men--that is, they were attached for duty at the
base--and assisted in hospital work. If each hospital had had a dentist
attached to it as a matter of routine, and a couple of mechanics for
repairing dentures, receiving the same pay as a doctor, the problem of
teeth, which is always troublesome, would have been to a considerable
extent solved. I do not know why teeth decayed so rapidly. It may have
been due to incipient scurvy, or to the nature of the rations, or to the
general state of health, or it may have been caused by some septic
condition of the mouth, induced by the heat and dryness. Some young
fellows lost every tooth in their possession in a year. Hair suffered in
the same way, but to a lesser extent. Some exhaustion of the thyroid
gland may have been at the bottom of the trouble.



Towards the end of October the weather became cooler, and in November
the nights were chilly. Sickness diminished rapidly. At this season
there is a kind of charm about Mesopotamia. Clouds begin to inhabit the
skies and the colour effects, especially those of dawn and sunset, are
lovely. It is a time intermediate between the season of heat and the
season of floods--a brief time, but one in which the country is at its
best. Mosquitoes and sand-flies vanish. A lovely bird, a deep blue and
russet, sings in the groves. The blue jay screams and darts through the
palm trees. It is possible to understand how in the Eastern poets the
beauty of women is constantly compared with the moon. It is the only
thing to compare it to. In a country like Mesopotamia, with its entire
lack of scenery, the moon in all her phases is by far the most beautiful
thing that one sees. After the heat of the day, when the sun has seemed
a destroyer rather than a fructifier, the slender crescent rising over
the plain is like a girl dressed in silver. This poverty in nature must
perplex the Mesopotamian artist. The only objects that the native
jewellers etch into their silver work are Ezra's tomb, the native boat,
the jackal, the palm tree and the camel. And that is about all the
material the country yields. It is this simplicity that leaves only two
courses open to the inhabitants. They must either fall back upon their
senses and become sensualists or seek a higher path and become mystics.

There is little love lost between the Indians and the Arabs. The Arabs
in Mesopotamia have long feared the incursion of India into their
country, for they knew that the Indian farmer under the British
engineers would make Mesopotamia blossom like a rose. The swiftness with
which seeds grow when properly watered is uncanny. We had a garden
attached to the mess and watered by a variety of people. The first
attempt was a failure owing to the absent-mindedness of the waterers,
each of whom, during an exceedingly hot spell, tacitly assumed that the
other man would do his duty. The second attempt was successful. Peas
straight out of packets and scattered in a long furrow rose from the
earth with a kind of ferocity, as if they hated the soil in which they
found themselves. There was one disadvantage in the produce of this
garden--its flavour was rather weak.

Coming down the river at the end of the year the railway was a great new
feature of the country. Small tank engines were crawling over the plain
and all along the banks were piles of sleepers and gangs of Arabs. We
reached the entrance of the Narrows at dusk and anchored for the night.
It was a night that differed entirely from those we endured when going
up. There was a concert party on board, and a cavalry major who
possessed some tomato soup. That night the sky was superb with stars.
Taurus rose, with Aldebaran as red as fire; then Castor and Pollux calm
in their symmetry, with the Pleiades above like a shattered diamond.
Then glittering Orion slowly swung above the horizon. In the middle of
the night there was a crash of musketry, and a sudden uproar. The major
appeared, speaking Hindustani very rapidly, his eyes closed. It appeared
that some Arabs had crept on to the barge next the shore and tried to
loot some mail bags. Quiet was soon restored. At dawn a crescent moon,
upholding Venus at her fairest, hung in the east, throwing a soft white
flame over the dark water.

That night we reached Kurna and tied up alongside the Garden of Eden. It
was pitch black. A string of little Arab boys suddenly emerged from a
brightly illuminated door each with a sack and slipped on board. This
was the mail for Basra, from the dwellers in Eden. About nine a dim,
white-robed procession passed down the river-side with a lamp, a torch
and a beating drum and vanished into a building. A wedding was being
celebrated in the Garden of Eden. Next morning that bride of yesterday
might have cast her white veil over the scene. Through the clinging
mist the life of the little hamlet gradually became visible. A café
revealed itself, a collection of wooden settles in a small square, and
beyond a big dark doorway. A fat Arab in yellow appeared and gazed at
us. Then an old wizened fellow, a _haji_ from his green turban showing
he had seen Mecca, came up and they conversed. Green Turban was plainly
lamenting. He pointed to our ship, to the telegraph-office, to a squad
of Gurkhas marching past wearing their ration baskets as hats, and threw
up his hands. The fat café proprietor shrugged his shoulders and pointed
to the bazaar. His argument was plain. Business was good and he was
content with the changes. Green Turban drew his robes closer round him,
shook his head and went off, a sad, gaunt figure on whose face was
stamped that expression which is common all the world over when new
wine and old bottles make contact. As he passed up the bank a barge load
of howitzers, their yellow muzzles gazing skywards, churned its way up

The railway from Kurna to Amara was nearing completion towards the end
of November. It is possible for vessels of considerable size to traverse
the whole length of the Shatt-el-Arab up to its point of commencement at
Kurna. The railway, so long in coming, will make a great difference to
the troops in the country during the next hot season. For, with proper
lines of communication and with properly equipped buildings for the sick
and wounded, a great deal of the sufferings that were endured in the
early stages of the campaign will be entirely done away with.

The major, a dreamy soul, while brooding over the golden brown plain on
our way down river, now and then sought to fathom the mystery of the
country's future. As we left Kurna and entered the fair, broad-bosomed
Shatt-el-Arab he suddenly swept his arm round the horizon. "All this
show of ours out here is nothing in itself," he said. "It's a beginning
of something that will materialise a hundred or two hundred or a
thousand years hence. We are the great irrigating nation and that's why
we're here now. We'll fix this land up and get it going and then far
ahead all the agricultural produce which we made possible will move the
wheels of a new humanity. Pray God, yes--a new humanity! One that
doesn't stuff itself silly with whisky and beef and beer and die of
apoplexy and high explosives."


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