FEATURE ARTICLES

The Canadians in Mesopotamia

William Byron March 1 1918
FEATURE ARTICLES

The Canadians in Mesopotamia

William Byron March 1 1918

The Canadians in Mesopotamia

William Byron

ALTHOUGH no Canadian battalions have taken part in the Mesopotamian Campaign, the Dominion has earned its share of the credit for the successful outcome of the rive on Baghdad. Many Canadians figured in the campaign. There were about sixty in the medical corps, perhaps an equal number in the various branches of the engineering service—and the capture of Baghdad was an engineering feat in the final analysis—and quite a number of Canadian girls serving as nurses.

The story of the second Mesopotamian Campaign is quite as wonderful as any of the famed exploits of Haroun-al-Raschid, one time Caliph of Baghdad. It is the story of rout turned into brilliant victory, of chaos turned into perfect order and efficiency. The first campaign, bungled hopelessly by the Indian Office, had ended in the capture of General Town•end s forces at Kut-el-Amara. The Mesopotamian report issued last year has revealed all the mistakes >f that frightful fiasco. Then the Imperial Government took charge and a rapid change came over the «cene. Perhaps in no theatre of the war has better management and generalship been shown than in the second campaign on the Tigris. It has been the good fortune of the body of Canadian officers already mentioned to assist in this transformation.

The Indian Office relinquished control of Mesopotamian affairs in July, 1916, and the following month the first party of Canadians arrived consisting of twenty-one medical officers. They went first to Bombay and then trans-shipped to Busra, the sun-blistered port at the mouth of the Tigris River which has jerved as the base of the Mesopotamian Campaign It was 120 in the shade the day they landed, a paralyzing heat that rendered the new comers absolutely helpless. It struck through the pith helmets they wore with a numbing effect; it reflected up from the baked clay streets and the mud walls of Busra and filled the vision with delirious fantasies of color.

None of the party will ever be able to forget that first day in Mesopotamia.

They were billeted in native palaces which had been turned into hospitals.

Evening came on with a welcome degree of coolness and some of the new arrivals took advantage of it to have a look around.

They found Busra in a

condition of peculiar turmoil. Ordinarily a very sleepy, dirty and odorous city of moderate size, it was rapidly growing to metropolitan proportions. At that time the population had swelled to well over 100,000 and to-day it probably runs as high as 150.000. Cities of the Orient are not adapted to rapid growth. The sanitary facilities are not adecúate at any time; the streets are narrow, rough and crooked; the water and food supply is restricted; hotel accommodation is almost nil. Busra. in the throes of growth, was not good to look upon.

The Canadian officers found tangible evidences of both the old order and the new.

The old order was represente d by long rows of strawthatched huts, where the wounded and sick were kept. They found these huts crowded with very miserable soldiers suffering from wounds, and dysentery and heat stroke.

“It is inconceivable what these places must be like in the middle of the day!” said a Canadian, as he emerged from one hut where the air had hung about the cots in foetid, stifling heaviness.

The condition of the patients bore witness to what it was like. The sun struck down on the straw thatch until the atmosphere beneath became unbearable. Mosquitoes and sand flies came up in clouds to add to the discomfort of the

The new order was seen in the engineer-

ing work which was under way on every hand. Splendid new piers were being erected. A railway line was being started and already the steel was stretching out from Busra which would carry up the troops needed to push the Turk from his intrenched lines before Kut. New hospitals were in course of erection — well ventilated structures with every convenience and as much protection as could be obtained by mechanical means from the blistering sun of Mesopotamia.

The party met a young Canadian engineer who had been engaged on the pier work for a month or more. He was as brown as a berry and seemed pretty well acclimatized already. He was cheerful and even enthusiastic.

“You fellows are just in time to see a miracle,” he exclaimed, pointing to the harbor. “That’s the first evidence of it over there. They’ll be able to bring their transport ships up soon and unload troops by the hundreds of thousands. Then we’ll have the railroad built and plenty of ships to ply up and down the river—and some day soon something will land on Johnny Turk like a ton of bricks! I tell you this campaign is being run right. On our end of it we’re working by stop-watch ; so much to be done by a certain time and no allowances made. We have to produce.” “Things were pretty bad before, I guess,” said one of the medical men.

“Awfui,” said the engineer. “It was a bad bungle. Would you believe it that there were only ten boats on the ri\fer to keep up communication with Townsend at Kut?—ten flat-bottomed paddlers to take up reinforcements and supplies and to bring the wounded back! They died like flies on the way back and, of course, there was no hope of relief once the Turks got around Kut. But—believe me!—everything is different now. The war office at London has hold.”

IN a very short time the miracle that the young engineer had predicted began to unfold. Transport ships steamed up to the new wharves and disgorged troops

and tremendous piles of supplies. The railroad, ingeniously laid with three rails to accommodate rolling stock from both Britain and India, crept further and further up the banks of the Tigris. Flatbottomed boats for transport upstream kept arriving until there were 150 in all at work. There was a machine-like regularity about it all that suggested a wonderfully well worked out plan.

During all this preliminary work the discomforts suffered by the British and Colonial troops were very great. The season was at its height and the heat was so intense that little work could be done in the middle of the day. At night the air cooled off considerably, but the fleas and sand flies came out of the swamp lands around the camps and settled down like a plague.

The men slept under nets which kept the mosquitoes at bay, but the sand flies, which were small and venomous, easily found their way through all varieties of nets. In the morning a man awoke — if he had slept at all—with his body red and swollen from the activities of these nocturnal visitors. It became so bad finally that the engineers put oil in all the lowlying lands around the army lines. After that there was less discomfort, but at no stage could unbroken rest be enjoyed.

THE work of preparation for the new drive went forward without any hostility on the part of the inhabitants of the country who were for the most part Arabs. At the same time the natives did not show any great cordiality. The Arab is a calculating person with a wholesome fear of his master, the Turk. The result of the first campaign had left seeds of doubt in the Arab mind. He expected that some day the British would leave Busra and the Turk would come back; and it would not do on that black day for the powers of the Porte to be able to say that the inhabitants had helped the invaders. So there was no enthusiasm and no cooperation. Later, when the Turkish troops were driven back from Kut, the attitude of the inhabitants began to change. When Baghdad fell, Busra came off the fence and from that time on has been actively and openly pro-British.

The Arab from the desert, the Bedouin, was a different problem again. A waif, a friend of no man and a thief of marvellous cunning, the Bedouin had to be carefully watched. Wherever the British tents were erected came these prowlers of the desert and, no matter how close the vigilance displayed, goods immediately began to disappear.

One night a party of three Canadian medical officers went to sleep in a tent. They wakened up to find the sun peeping over the eastern horizon and striking directly on them.

“What the -!” exclaimed the first

one to roll over. What’s happened to our tent?”

Half of it was gone. One whole side had magically disappeared. The reason was guessed at when it was found that a sharp knife had ripped the canvas away.

A Bedouin—may his tribe not increase—had been in need of canvas for some purpose or other, perhaps for a new robe, and had taken as much as he required from the tent as they slept.

A few nights later a still more daring feat was carried out. Some Arabs stole through the sentry lines and carried off several sets of mule harness. The officer in charge, again a Canadian, was at first very much wrought up. Finally, however, he began to see a comic side to it and he walked over to the medical headquarters to share the joke with his fellow-countrymen there.

“This is a good one on friend Arab,” he said.

“They have donkeys only and they’ll never be able to use mule harness. It’s too big. So they’ve had their trouble for nothing.”

The next night the Arabs came back and stole the mules that went with the harness!

This was a truly remarkable feat, for the animals had to be spirited out through the sentry lines and anyone who knows the army mule will agree that the abductors must indeed have been artists in their own line. Needless to state there was no hilarity next day when the theft was discovered. The joke was not on the Arabs.

THE Canadians mixed very freely with the natives, sometimes rather to the wonderment of their British comrades. Several of them used cameras extensively and the zest for pictures took them into all sorts of queer corners. The Arab is a handy man with the knife so that a certain amount of danger attended these excursions. No case was recorded, however, where unhappy results followed. Perhaps the sheer unconcern of the Colonials carried them through.

One young medical officer had the unique distinction of photographing an Arabian woman of high rank. The wives of the better class Arabians never appear in public with more than their eyes showing. There is something peculiarly fascinating about these dusky-orbed daughters of the desert peeping out from shadowy lattices or gliding by with their graceful drapes and their faces hidden by veils which leave only the eyes free. One day this officer met a very important man, indeed, a date producer who had a large establishment in Busra. The Arab had one of his wives along and did not demur when the Canadian suggested he would photograph them.

“Tell the lady to remove the veil,” said the latter.

The Arab caught his meaning and told his wife to reveal

her charms. She did. “After all,” said the Canadian, “it would have been a much better picture the other way.”

He went back to his quarters thoroughly disillusioned. Arabian women look better with their veils on.

The harem is still an institution in Mesopotamia. Hospitals were located in several of the palaces belonging to the noble-born of Busra and necessarily the feminine wings were taken over. In one place was a large chamber which had been used as a bedroom for a number of the former owner’s wives. Above each alcove was an inscription which the staff declared must represent the name of the particular wife who had slept there and which were variously translated as “Sarah,” “Flossie.” “May” and “Jenny.” Cots were put into these alcoves and now

wounded soldiers sleep there.

THE work of preparation for the new drive went on apace. As the oew troops arrived they were sent up the river, chiefly by the boats, to the British lines before Kut. It was a ten-day trip up, as the Tigris follows a serpentine course north. It is very sluggish and in places quite shallow. The engineers soon made a rather remarkable discovery about the river. It is deepest at its widest parts and becomes shallow where the banks converge, thus reversing the natural order. The engineering corps was at first very much puzzled as to how the volume of water flowing along the wide and deep sections managed to get through the narrow and shallow parts; and it was finally concluded that the only explanation was underground seepage.

The Canadian medical officers were used in various parts of the line.

Some remained in the hospitals at headquarters and other were stationed at the camps along the river — very trying service for they had to live under canvas which intensified the heat. The majority, however, served behind the lines before Kut or on the hospital boats, plying up and down the river.

The “front” when the campaign opened was on the east bank of the Tigris before Kut-el-Amara, and was similar in many respects to the front in France. It was, of course, trench warfare. The trenches were shallow owing to the sandy nature of the soil and there was no evidence of the complicated systems of communication trenches found on the Western front. There was comparatively little artillery fire and the number of airplanes was limited on both sides so that the approach to the front line was not fraught with the same hazards. On the other hand, however, such fighting as occurred was even more sanguinary. An attack was not preceded by heavy artillery fire calculated to wipe out the opposing line and had to be brought off across open ground swept

by machine gun fire. There was much heavy hand-to-hand fighting and the British troops found the Turks hard antagonists at close range. They could not stand up to British attacks when it was a case of man to man, but they fought well and like gentlemen. They used their prisoners well, and consequently the British did not fear capture as they do on the Western front.

An example of the fairness of the Turk as a fighting man came under the notice of the Canadians. The medi cal corps had established a dressing station not far back of the front line and quite often Turkish shells landed in dangerous proximity. This was considered unusual. The Red Cross was conspicuously displayed and the Turk had always respected it Finally, during a truce to collect wounded —frequently the Turk will hoist a white flag and send stretcher bearers out afte> his men—a message was sent over which read: “Move your dress ing station farther back or we won’t be able to help hitting it”

Which is “playing tb» game.”

The campaign opened actively in the cool season: in other words, the season of rain and mud Soldiers who had seen every variety of mud and had come through camp a i g n s in Flanders swore with all the fluency of old campaigners that they had never seen the equal of Mesopotamian mud. It was heavy and clammy and—everywhere It stuck to the feet of the marching troops and made every step a muscular effort After marching fifty yard* through a muddy stretch, a man’s legs began to ache and sweat beads of sheer agony stood out all over him. A mile was enough to kill the sturdiest. Sometimes attack* had to be made across a No Man’s Land of such mud!

IT was soon found that the Turkish lines on the east bank were too strong to be carried. Under the ;J>rect>on of German officers the Turk* had dug themselves in so strongly that to carry th* lines by assault would have been too expensive

an operation. So a large force was thrown across the river to the Western flank. In the meantime a heavy artillery fire was kept up on the eastern side and the Turks did not detect the flanking movement until it was too late. Their troops on the west bank gave way before the attacking force, and the British pushed up the west bank of the Tigris without difficulty.

The flanking movement was a complete success, but crossing the river was found to be a serious problem. Realizing that they were trapped if the British crossed, the Turks fought desperately against all attempts. Finally the flanking movement, earried the British above Kut on the west bank. A surprise attack by cavalry and

the use of pontoon bridges finally effected a landing on the east side. It was a sanguinary struggle, however, and the British losses were heavy before the defending forces were driven back.

A Canadian medical officer, Lieut. Renton, of London, Ontario, distinguished himself in the crossing of the Tigris. He was in charge of the Red Cross work and was under fire during the whole engagement. So heavy was the fire that all his stretcher-bearers were killed, and he himself was in continual danger. The work was so well carried out, however, that Lieut. Renton was again placed in charge when a similar crossing was successfully made above Baghdad.

Once across the river the British troops had the Turks in the jaws of a vise. A large enough force was thrown across the river above Kut to cut off retreat and practically the whole Turkish army was forced to surrender. Much to the regret of everyone most of the German officers had made good their escape before the vise closed. A few were captured. They were subalterns for the most part and they took their captivity in bad grace being very much chagrined at the turn the campaign had taken. They had little tr say.

“You surprised us,” said one of them, it. a burst of candor. “We had no idea you

Continued on page 101

The Soldiers’ Opinion of Mesopotamia

This “Mesopotamian Alphabet" was written by the officers who served in the earlier stages of the campaign and shows in a good-natured but unmistakable way the feeling that existed with reference to early failures. Repeated efforts were made to send the verses out of Mesopotamia, but the Censor refused to pass them. However, they came out—and here they are, in MACLEAN'S, of course.

A is an apple, which grew, so they say In the Garden of Eden, down Kurna way, Till Eve came along and ate it one day And got thrown from Mesopotamia.

B stands for Bedouin, the waif of the sands ; He’ll steal your eye-teeth and the rings from your hands;

He can steal the boots off the sentry who

On guard in Mesopotamia.

C is the poor old Indian Corps That went to France, and fought in the

Now ft gathers the crops and fights no more In the land of Mesopotamia.

D is the digging we’ve all of us done Since first we started to fight the Hun ; And now we’ve shifted ten thousand ton Of mud in Mesopotamia.

E is the energy shown by the staff

Before the much-advertised "Hanna" strafe— Yet the net result was the Turks had a laugh At our strafe in Mesopotamia.

F stands for Frit* who flies in the sky.

To bring him down we’ve all had a try : And the shells we shot at him all passed by And fell in Mesopotamia.

G is the grazing we do all the day.

We fervently hope we all may some day Get issued again with a ration of hay— Although we're in Mesopotamia.

H is the harems, which H appears.

Have flourished in Baghdad for hundreds

We hope to annex the destitute dears.

When their husbands leave Mesopotamia.

I is the Indian Government, but

On the subject I’m told I must keep my mouth shut.

For it’s all due to them we failed to reach Kut From Amara in Mesopotamia.

J is the jam ; with label it trie«

To say that in Paris it won the first prize. But out here we use it for catching the flies Which swarm in Mesopotamia.

K are the kisses from lips sweet and fair Waiting for all of us 'round Leicester

Where we wend our way after waiting a year Or two in Mesopotamia.

L is the loot we hope we shall seize—

Wives and wines and bags of rupees— When the Mayor of Baghdad hands over the

To the British in Mesopotamia.

M is the local mosquito whose bite Keeps us awake all through the long night. And make« all our faces a horrible sight.

In the land of Mesopotamia.

N is the navy that's tied to the shore,

They have lashings of beer and stores

Oh, I wish I had joined the navy before I came to Mesopotamia.

O are the orders we get from the Corps. Thank goodness, by now we are perfectly

That, if issued at three, they’ll be cancelled by four.

By the muddlers of Mesopotamia.

P are the postal officials who fail To deliver each week more than half of our mail.

If they had their deserts they would all be in jail

Instead of in Mesopotamia !

Q is the quinine we take every day,

To keep the malaria fever away.

Which we’re bound to get sooner or later, they say.

If we stay in Mesopotamia.

R are the rations they give us to eat.

For breakfast it's biscuit, for dinner tinned

And if we’ve been good we get jam for a

With our tea in Mesopotamia.

S and T are supposed to supply

The army with food -we hope when they

They will go to a spot as hot and as dry As this horrible Mesopotamia.

U is the lake called Ummhal Braha.

Which guards our left from all possible

And waters Gorringer's barley farm In the middle of Mesopotamia.

V is the victory won at Dugailah.

I heard of it first from a friend who’« a

Who read it in Reuter’s aboard his Mahailaly. On the Tigris in Mesopotamia.

W stands for the wonder and pain

With which we regard the infirm and insane Old Indian generals who guide the campaign We’re waging in Mesopotamia.

X are the extras the corps say we get :

But so far there isn’t a unit we’ve met Who have drawn a single one of them yet Since they landed in Mesopotamia.

Y is the yearning we feel every day

For a passage to Busra and thence to Bombay—

If we get there we'll see we keep right away From the wilderness—Mesopotamia.

I have tried very hard and at last I’ve hit On a verse the letter Z would fit But the censor deleted every bit Save the last word—Mesopotamia.

The Canadians in Mesopotamia

Continued from page 17

could recover so soon from your defeat. The size of your army and the completeness of your equipment was a revelation.” He was much surprised when he was told that the fleet of boats on the river had been increased fifteen times over in a few months and a railroad built up behind the lines. “It was well handled,” was the only comment he made.

THE Turkish prisoners, on the other hand, talked freely. They were not as war weary as had been expected, for the Turk after all is a born fighting man and likes it. They expressed aversion for the German officers as individuals, but were full of admiration for what they had done in the organization of the Turkish army. Little news could be gleaned with reference to the captured troops of General Townsend. They were at Aleppo and many of them had died from typhus and cholera. Beyond that the Turks could give no information.

A Turkish hospital-ship was captured on the river above Kut. It was filled with wounded Turks and a few British wounded who had been captured before the rout The boat was turned and sent down stream to Busra. On the way down typhus broke out So prompt were the measures taken, however, that it was «tamped out before a man was landed.

The medical service, the weakest point in the first campaign, was well nigh perfect in the second. Contagious diseases were kept down and the wounded and sick got prompt and splendid attention Ninety per cent of the cases were medical — cholera, dysentery, malaria and heat stroke. The weather was a more deadly enemy than Johnny Turk at all stages of the campaign.

A Canadian officer was placed in charge of a hospital-ship which had been one of the original ten in the first campaign. The captain had served right through and was still seething with memories of the mistakes made by the Indian command. The Mesopotamian report was out by this time and some word as to the nature of it had leaked through the censor.

“It doesn’t cover the case,” grunted the captain, one evening as he paced the deck with the doctor. “I remember once during the hardest fighting they loaded this boat with wounded troops. Some of them hadn’t even received first aid. They were in bad shape, the most of them. So many had to be put on the boat that they were lying everywhere—out on the deck in the hot sun without covering and between decks where the heat was stifling. There wasn’t a medical man sent along—none could be spared. It took us a week to get down stream to the hospital base and many of the men died on the way. All we could do was to drop them overboard with a bit of prayer.”

*"P HE campaign moved rapidly after the A capture of the Turks at Kut. This «mashing blow had broken the back of the Ottoman force and little difficulty was experienced in shoving them back on Baghdad.

General Maude, who commanded the forces, had the utmost confidence of the whole army. Having been in Canada for some years as Aide-de-Camp at Rideau

Continued on page 104

The Canadians in Mesopotamia

Continued from page 101

Hall, he took a special interest in th* Canadians on the staff. Every time h* learned that any member of the staff wa> from Canada he would single him out and have a short chat. “I’m always glad t« get men from Canada,” he often said, “but I can’t help pitying you. This climate must be hard on you Canadians. It’s not so bad for the rest of us.”

The entry into Baghdad was a tremend ous and picturesque event. Baghdad to day is, of course, a far different city from the Baghdad of the Arabian nights. It is modern in the Oriental sense—a sprawly city of noisy bazaars and crumbling minarets and unnecessary walls. Fully 50,000 of the inhabitants are Jews and Armenians who have suffered long under Turk ish rule. The reception they gave th* British troops was one of heart-felt enthusiasm. The rest of the population. Arabs, mostly, showed a degree of restraint at the time, but later—when they became convinced that the British were there to stay—they gathered enthusiasm rapidly.

The day before Baghdad fell one hun dred German officers left on the railroad to Mosul. Before going they did as much damage as they could. The wireless station—reputed to be the finest and most complete in the world — was completely wrecked. With typical German humor the fleeing Teutons had lingered long enough to leave messages on the walls of the wrecked station. “Gott Strafe England!” was printed in huge red letters. In one place was a painting of a German Zepp dropping bombs on St. Paul’s. There were, in fact, a series of cartoons depicting the fate of the British and all their works.

THE Canadians who have returned from that front declare that Mesopotamia is well worth keeping. They believe it can be made into a fertile, productive country. The great necessity is a broad system of irrigation.

At present Mesopotamia is a date-growing country. Practically all its wealth emanates from the shipping of dates, and before the war Busra was monopolized by the date interests.

The climate, however, makes three crops a year a certainty in all cereals and vegetables. The Canadian officers, finding the army fare monotonous and at

times insufficient, started to raise vegetables in little plots of ground back of tSe hospitals. The results were marvellous. Vegetables, all vegetables, shot up out of the earth and reached an early and tine maturity. It was necessary to keep them watered and the intense Mesopotamian sun did the rest. These Canadians assert that all grains, even wheat, could be grown, there; provided, of course, that proper irrigation plans are carried out.

It will be recalled that the Garden of Eden was supposed to have been located somewhere near the junction of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Under Turkish misrule and the indolence of its inhabitants Mesopotamia has became a country of parched land and desert stretches. A decade of progressive rule, British rule, will suffice to establish again a tropical Eden all the way from Baghdad to the sea.