A Mesopotamian Stunt
Maurice Harold Jenks
M. H. Jenks writes a matter-of-fact account of an attempted ambush of Turkish soldiers in Mesopotamia in the summer of 1918. It is not an account of heroism, but of the logistical problems and difficulties that occur when coordinating the movements of large numbers of people who all need to sleep, eat and drink.
A Mesopotamian Stunt
Some incidents in the taking of Kurkik, May 1918.
Narrated by M. H. Jenks.
The Column started at 5 p.m., having already marched from 4 a.m. till 1-30 p.m. The original idea had been to march till 7 a.m., and get into position to attack at dawn, but the Turks had a pressing engagement in the rear, and by 9 a.m. the last of them had disappeared, except a few who became Arabs for the time being. So our ten mile march became seventeen; strangely enough, a not unusual occurrence in this part of the world.
When our planes reported no signs of Turks, the fast-moving column came in from the detour it had been making to get behind the enemy’s position in Tazah and headed along the main road. We sat by the side of the road and watched different sized clouds of dust–which meant cavalry, guns, armoured cars and such-like aristocrats go by, and then pushed on, taking the village in our stride. This sounds splendid of course, but by 10 o’clock in the morning when the sun’s climbed up a fair way and one’s already done 15 miles the “stride” of the P.B.I. is not quite so elastic as you might picture it. Three hours rest, and then we were on trek again; on ahead, the guns were giving the usual prospect of excitement that never came off.
The day hadn’t had time to cool yet, and we moved forward in jolts varying from 10 to 100 yards at a time, which means that there was an obstacle of some sort ahead. You’ve got to march in the rear of a column to realise what fun can be got of an obstacle as insignificant, for instance, as a dry nullah four of five feet broad. The first few sections of fours step across it, then one man climbs carefully done one side and up the other; another jumps, goes a bit short and slithers down; someone else probably lands on the spot he ought to have left clear and hasn’t. They sort themselves out and double after the rest, 10 or 20 yards, nothing for them, but when that happens some 20 times through one battalion the officer who’s doing the job of whipper-in is kept fairly busy. Then there are the mules, of course. To get the jolt-walk to perfection you must do a night march behind a caterpillar pulling, say, a six-inch howitzer–but that’s another story.
This particular obstacle turned out to be a river to be forded in three chapters, stretching altogether over about half-a-mile. Getting from a mile one side of it to a mile the other took about two hours and a half. It had got cool by now, especially from one’s knees downwards, after passing the ford. Then it began to get dark and with the darkness came the rain. Not one of the sudden thunderstorms that soak you through in three minutes and give you a chance to dry off in the next few miles, but a slow, steady, British rain. It probably expected a greatcoat and mackintosh defence, and when it found it had only shirt-sleeves to contend with thought it might as well carry its programme through. We went through the usual remarks–“Nice little drop o’ pani this,” “I ‘ear them poor blighters in France is getting’ a ‘orrid time with storms now,” “I’m for the A.S.C. next war.” The officers make idiotic jokes and the men humour them and laugh. The Company Commander rides back. “Those lights just ahead are where we stop. Rain? Don’t call this rain, do you? It’s practically stopped anyhow. Mr. Jones anywhere about here? Hello, that you Jones? –how’s things? Mules alright? These poor beggars are pretty done, they’ll be a huge sick parade in the morning, I’m afraid. We’re stopping in three miles short of the proper place–simply can’t get on, message just in from Brigade to doss down where we are, they’ve lost touch with column H.Q. Those explosions are in Kurkrik–shouldn’t think Turkey wait for us–Cavalry are doing outposts, thank heaven. Bring the company along, will you. I’m going to see if it’s possible to get them some tea. What a life–Cheerio!”
We get in and form up. All round us we can hear people squelching about, without the least idea who they are, of course. The Colonel goes off to Brigade to try and find out what’s doing; they know exactly as much as we do. By now it’s about 10 o’clock, and we sit down where we are and watch the rain splash off the lamp. One of use has a waterproof sheet under which we get our heads–our Company is down to three officers by now. One has a flask of whisky–the very worst whisky to be got, I should imagine, but it warms one a bit. And so we sit from 10 till about 4 o’clock. Various little incidents help to relieve the monotony; we’re just half dozing when an orderly pokes his head under the sheet–“Is O.C. B Co. here, please? Will you come to H.Q. Sir, it’s that lamp on the pole.” The one or two people fall over us. “Where’s the L-----s mate?” Dudds, who was one attached to the L-----s, mumbles “s’pose I’d better help them have a look,” and wanders off with our only lamp. We’re asked at different times if we’re with the Transport, the M.O., and practically every unit in the British and Indian Armies.
About 4 o’clock we are told to be ready to move at 5, so at 4-45 we parade, that is to say everyone stands up and puts on his equipment, the mules are loaded and the company is reported “present and correct, sir” –ye gods! We stand this for a while and then the order comes to unload the mules, we’re not going to move just yet. So we unload them, and go on waiting. I think that wait just about touches the limit. Can you picture it? Just getting light enough to see that it looks like raining all day, wetter and colder than we’d ever believed it possible to be. Pretty hungry–our last meal was at 3 p.m. the day before, and not exactly a brilliant prospect of food to come. No news, of course; we may stand there all day for all we know–or care–for the moment.
But the light brought its compensations too. I think the turning point was reached when it got light enough to see Kurkrik–it reminded us, We weren’t out there just to please some Brass Hat. We were–this wanted a bit of swallowing–a pursuing force; if we felt like this what must Johnnie fell like? Yes, decidedly the tide turned with that first sight of Kurkrik, with its great patches of smoke, where they’d set it on fire, and now and then an explosion–“Was that the bridge? No, too loud, must have been an ammunition dump–hello the guns have started again!”
About 6 o’clock we get an order to move–a few hundred yards to a place where the mud isn’t as yet churned up. We pass other regiments–“Heavens, do we look like that? Who are they? The ----------. Pretty rotten lot if they can’t stand a shower–we’ll show ‘em. Come on, look to your dressing–by the left, confound you–what’s the matter with you all this morning–and how about the step? Come on, you people, pick it up; no don’t slack off yet, we’re only just past–and you’ve got back badges on.”
We get to a fresh bit of ground and form up again, pile arms, and equipment off. Someone has a bright idea–P.T., and in a few minutes squads of men are doubling, leap-frogging and throwing their arms and legs about in the approved Aldershot style. Then news begins to filter in, and by about 8-30 we hear that our people are in Kurkrik and the cavalry are in pursuit beyond.
One battalion is to go into the town and the rest of us to stay where we are for a bit. Once more we fall in and move another half-mile or so; by now the rain has slowed down, and by the time we get into our new position, on the slope of a hill, it has stopped altogether and there is a peep of the sun. As a general rule the sun isn’t exactly our best friend here, in May, but for once it got a general reception. Our camp became a huge drying ground, and once it had got over its surprise at our cheers on its arrival, the did its work properly.
The next question was food. We found that the carts that had crossed the ford before the storm were all right–the rest were absolutely cut off until the floods stopped. As things stood we had one day’s rations in the carts, our iron rations and anything we might get from Kurkrik, so things were alright for a day or so anyhow. Everything depended, of course, on the state of the roads behind; what we’d passed over as dry nullahs were now rushing water-courses, and the streams we’d waded through were impassable by anything. We made the one day’s rations–a tin of bully, two biscuits and a little tea–do for two, and about 11 p.m. on the second day we got a message through that the ration carts had got to Tazah–how they got there, the bridging, fording, and road-making that enabled them to get up, is a story of its own–all that mattered to us at the moment was that they were there, and the one ford between them and us was expected to be passable next day, so, on the strength of that, we were allowed to eat the biscuits out of our iron rations with some fresh meat we’d got from Kurkrik (that was about all we did get from Kurkrik, too) for the third day.
After that, of course, all was plain sailing. We’d been told to take Kurkrik, and in spite of the–what was it? –“the heavy storm which had delayed the advance,” on May 7th, we marched in with our best grins on to help the official cinematograph wallah to get his film of “Our troops in Mesopotamia: the land where water is at a premium.”