In Mesopotamia
by Martin Swayne
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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.

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 interpreter.

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 cafe 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 cafe 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 stream.

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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