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Eastward Bound To The Tigris

( Originally Published 1923 )

The War Office—The 'fast' convoy — Submarine attack — Alexandria — The Australian Cavalry—Suez—The Red Sea—Aden—Captain Cockman — Muscat —The Straits of Ormuz—The mouth of the Euphrates.

IN April, 1918, I received notice that my application to be relieved of my command in the Anti-Aircraft Defence of London had been acceded to, and shortly afterwards I was instructed to attend at the War Office for an interview with the C.I.G.S. (Sir Henry Wilson), whom I had had the advantage of knowing for many years – both before and during the war.

He received me with great kindness, and, in his own peculiarly abrupt and jerky manner, the conversation was pretty well as follows :

C.I.G.S.: Well, Toby, what are you going to do now?

SELF (With great diffidence) : I hope, sir, I may be able to be of service somewhere.

C.I.G.S.: Would you go to Persia?

SELF: Certainly, sir.

C.I.G.S.: When could you leave?

SELF (With more confidence) : What time does the train start?

That made him smile his unforgettable, whimsical smile, and all was well.

I was then passed on to quite a different class of person – to wit, a colonel of G.S. who made the part of the world in question his particular study at that time.

This gentleman, who looked and acted as if he even slept in his 'brass hat', was pleased to be extremely patronizing, and opened: 'I am going to send you to Persia.' I replied to the effect that I considered it an honour to go, and after a few remarks about the country generally, I was dismissed. And thus comnenced my connection with what was known as the 'Hush Hush Army'.

Motoring to Faris, I reached Marseilles on May 7th, to find what vas known as the 'fast' convoy assembling. This consisted of seven large liners, all about 10,000 tons; these were to be convoyed by ive Japanese torpedo-boats, and it was well known that submarine attack was to be expected at any moment.

Next day I received orders to go and take command of the troops an board a large vessel of 12,000 tons, where I was told things needed 'straightening out', as we were to sail at night, and the Boche was waiting outside!

We lay all next day in the roadstead, and were there joined by our five Japanese destroyers. These were smart ships and not to be distinguished from British torpedo-boat destroyers except by the flag they carried. I was told by those who had been with them before that they could be relied upon to keep at sea in any weather our own destroyers could stand, and probably to keep it up longer, as they carried a complement of seven officers to the British destroyers' three at that time. All being in order, soon after nightfall on May 10th the convoy got under weigh and stood away south on a course to take us west of Corsica and Sardinia, the pre-war course for Malta, passing, of course, east, not west, of those islands, so that a considerable detour was made, with the object of avoiding, if possible, the cordon of German submarines which was known to be awaiting our very valuable and important convoy.

At daybreak next morning I spent a long half-hour studying our neighbours and our destroyers before calling our troops to their stations and then going round the whole ship, including our battery, to make sure that all was in readiness for the attack which might take place at any moment.

The convoy was a most impressive sight, all the transports being first class ocean liners, none under 10,000 tons, and all capable of easily maintaining the 15 knots which was our minimum regular speed.

The 'Hush-Hush' or Phantom Army was known to exist from the fact that officers had been asked to volunteer for it, mostly from the French front, and, having been carefully selected, from that moment they disappeared. All that was known by their friends was that they had gone East on some rather desperate but unknown enterprise.

Soon after seven my steward brought me tea, and whilst I was drinking it I heard the unmistakable 'toot' of a whistle coming from one of the Japanese destroyers on the left flank, we being the second ship from the left. The 'toot' is the signal 'Can see danger', and on that I made one leap from my bunk into my flannels, grabbed my money first and then my tunic, scarf, tobacco, and glasses, in that order, and raced for the bridge, the captain hailing me as I ran up the deck to come up and stand by him to give orders to the troops.

I was, as may be imagined, moving pretty quick, but a 'toot' from the ship immediately on our left made me move smarter still, and I was on the bridge in less than two seconds from the first 'toot'. Of course, once there, I could see everything, and it was 'some' sight. This is what my letter, written the same day, says about it:

'The "toot" from the left-flank destroyer was followed by a "toot" from the ship on our left, and immediately after we could see the torpedo coming, and we "tooted" too, as that's the fashion-able thing to do when you see it. We saw it first about too yards away, coming past the stern of the ship on our left; it was coming from the rear of our left flank, and apparently going to hit us straight amidships on our port or left side. It was not coming fast (perhaps 20 miles an hour), and had therefore come at least 2,000 yards, and was slowing down rapidly.

'You could see the "feather", a kind of little wave on the surface showing where it was, and also the wake behind showing where it had passed; it appeared quite certain to get us somewhere about amidships, and all the boys on deck stood fast for the "bump!" Meanwhile the captain and his merry men were putting in some pretty strenuous work, swinging the ship to port – that is, to the left, for all they were worth. They say this ship "turns quick", and it was turning its best then, without any manner of doubt. I saw the d —d thing till it went out of my sight behind the deck-house on the bridge, when I couldn't see it any more, and I stood, like everyone else, stock-still, not because I wasn't interested, but for the sake of example, and after what seemed hours I was immensely relieved to hear a "toot" from the ship on our right, which, of course, meant that they could see it, and that it had gone past without bitting us. Our people on the after gun-platform right at the stern tell me it missed our rudder by feet only (some say 5 and some 9 feet), but it passed right under our counter, which is quite close enough for me.

In the meanwhile the Omrah, on our right, couldn't see it until it had passed us, as we were in the way, and so she had no time at all to turn, and, though it was then going quite slowly, it hit her "smack" just forward of the bridge, and there was a tidy explosion and a lot of black smoke. The hatches were blown off the fore-hold and all the wreckage fell on the bridge; but we don't know how many were hurt – anyway, she began to settle down by the head pretty well at once, and her stern got higher and higher in the air. All the rest of the convoy cracked on their best speed and began zigzagging about in various directions on the look-out for the next one. Our Japanese destroyers turned round like eels, and the nearest one was off to the place the torpedo came from like lightning, and dropped a "depth charge", which exploded under the surface and sent up a great mushroom of water, but I don't know if it got the submarine. The ship on our left fired a couple of rounds from her stern battery, but I couldn't see where the shells went, and I don't suppose they could see any target to shoot at. It was a lovely morning, quite calm, and a wonderful sight. Two destroyers stood by the Omrah and commenced to take the people off at once, whilst she fell rapidly astern of us, with her stern coming higher and higher out of the water.

'It was a pathetic sight to see this magnificent vessel all down by the head like a wounded thing, and the last we could see of her as she dropped rapidly astern was that she was heading due east (we were steering south), in a quite hopeless endeavour to make the coast of Sardinia, thirty miles away, before she sank. Our people thought she would float; as, if the forward engine-room bulkhead held, she could go a long way in that condition; but we had a wireless later to say she had sunk, and that the water got to the furnaces and so finished her off. It was a sad end indeed to such a fine vessel, but it has a side also of which they may well be proud -- namely, that the last boat had left the ship within six minutes (as timed from here by me), so there were no casualties other than those due to the explosion, and we hear all are safely on the destroyers, and they will be all right; but, of course, they will lose all their kits, and have a roughish time on the island if they go there.

Not the least sign of hurry or disturbance either there or here, and all as steady and cool as possible, which is good to see.

'The result of this morning is we have been sent an extra escort. We have now seven destroyers to six transports instead of five to seven as it was before, and have also had an air-ship with us the greater part of the day. It is also likely more ships will be sent out to meet us from Malta.

I don't think I have ever seen a more impressive sight than the whole convoy this morning, but far the finest part was the perfectly calm and natural behaviour of one and all. It was fine.'

That letter was written on the same afternoon, and the next afternoon Malta came in sight, where we were to coal. As we were stringing out to enter Valetta Harbour, the two destroyers with the complement and passengers of the Omrah came by, and we gave them a rousing cheer to buck them up a bit, which was needed, I suspect, as they were packed like sardines in a tin, many, including one General, still in their pyjamas, with bare feet. However, they were sure of a good reception on landing, and things might have been much worse.

We sailed from Malta on the 15th, and had an uneventful voyage in very hot and calm weather to Alexandria, the only incident of interest being the forming of the convoy into what they call 'line ahead', so as to go single file through the mine-fields outside Alexandria. The sea there is so shallow and the mine-fields begin so far out that we formed in single file before the shore was in sight at all, and, to show how intricate the passage was, I have a note that we formed up at 12.15 and did not get along-side till 5 p.m., so taking four and three-quarter hours to come through. This struck me as a very deep defence, and indicated how 'unhealthy' these waters were then considered to be!

The rail journey from Cairo to Suez via Ismalia is no joy-ride in summer, even in peace-time, and rail travelling is certainly no more comfortable in war-time. However, on this occasion I was lucky in that I enjoyed a perfectly unique military show from the train between Ismalia and Suez. Somewhere in these parts the Australian cavalry were training, and soon after leaving Ismalia I became aware that a cavalry advance in line, on a large scale, was in progress parallel to the railway and about level with the train. This was the Australians training for the advance which they eventually made against the Turks, with results that prove beyond dispute the value of cavalry in open country, as they fairly put the fear of God into the Turks, and so started the debacle which, spreading to other fronts, finally showed the war was won.

I learned I was to be O.C. troops aboard a P. & O., Kashgar by name, a splendid vessel, commanded by Captain Cockman, D.S.C., one of the best fellows it has ever been my good fortune to meet. But about him more later.

On going on board, I found my quarters on the boat deck aft very comfortable, but no one about. I had a solitary dinner with the skipper, and made friends in exchanging a very wide and varied lot of experiences, turning in about 10 p.m. Night very hot, not to say sultry.

The troops duly arrived on board next day, and we started, at daylight on the 27th, down the Red Sea.

It was my fifth trip through that very trying part of the world, and much the worst of the five.

The Red Sea, in my experience, is always hot, and no adjective I can write here can properly describe the heat. There is occasion-ally a wind, and often a calm; you may therefore either meet the wind, in which case it is pleasant, or you may (rarely) have a beam wind, in which case the heat is bearable, or, if it is calm, you get a draught from the speed of the vessel through the still air; but occasionally you get a following wind, which is the very devil, and it was so in this case -- and we gasped. I have a note that I couldn't write without a separate piece of paper under my hand, which otherwise wouldn't slide along when writing, and that the thermometer was 92° at midnight, with all the doors open and electric fans going, and everything soaking wet from the moisture.

On May 31st we had wireless news that the Bosche submarines had sunk another of our 'fast' convoy on their return passage from Alexandria to Marseilles, so it appeared they were keeping pretty busy, and it was a relief to us all to hear that, as far as was known, there were no German submarines east of Suez.

On leaving Men we found so much moisture in the air that it amounted to a regular fog, an unusual phenomenon in these latitudes, where the sun usually reigns supreme. No doubt people accustomed to our old English climate will think that, there being no sun, the weather would be cooler! But that's just where they would be wrong, as our young soldiers soon began to find out. The heat was stifling on this occasion, and, everything being wringing wet, our soldier-boys began to find out something about 'prickly heat', a most unpleasant experience which most people have at one time or another in those parts.

As we began to get out towards the Indian Ocean we began to get the ocean roll caused by the monsoon, which had already (May 3 I st) begun to blow across the other side on the Indian coast. So we had a glassy sea, a temperature of g6° on the bridge, a fiat calm, a heavy fog, and a real ocean swell, and I note without surprise in my letter written at that time that the captain and I dined alone!

This Captain Cockman was a splendid fellow in every way. I believe he was about the senior of the P. & O. captains at that time, and was and is known and liked far and wide by all who have met him. He told me of his experiences of torpedoes, and no one was better qualified to do so, as his experience was, if not unique, yet certainly as glorious as anyone else's; and here it is as I wrote it down that day.

This old hero, who had been many years in H.M.'s Navy and retired as a Commander, found himself in command of a P. & 0. in 1915, and when about to enter Plymouth Harbour his ship was struck by a Bosche torpedo, which sank her. Whilst he was sinking, however, he was fighting, not squealing, and he sank the submarine from his own sinking ship before she finally went down; for which he received a thoroughly well-deserved D.S.C. from His Majesty at Buckingham Palace.

We rounded the eastern point of Arabia about midday on June 3rd, in a damp heat as bad as ever, and stood up the coast north-west to pass close to Muscat on our way to the straits at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Muscat is worth a word or two; it is said to be the hottest place on earth. That may be so to sailors, few of whom have ever seen the Caspian Sea, to which I am prepared unhesitatingly to give the prize. However, in the meanwhile Muscat will do to go on with, as it certainly has no chance as a pleasure resort.

The town, such as it is –just a very old Arab pirate fortress – stands at the foot of sandstone cliffs on which are cut the names of many ships which have had the misfortune to be stationed there. The cliffs are from 500 to 800 feet high, in a little bay facing south, so that they are exposed to the sun all day, and get pretty well red-hot. The reader, therefore, may try to realize what the atmosphere is like in the narrow donkey-paths which are the only streets in the old town.

At Muscat lives an Arab Sheikh – descended, curiously enough, from an Englishman – whose history makes a rather interesting tale. It appears that in Elizabethan days, when the first British adventurers reached those seas, having sailed round the Cape of Good Hope with the intention of establishing trade with Persia, they found that Muscat was the home of the élite of the pirates of those days. These gentlemen (the Arab pirates) appear to have been very powerful, and, from the tales which are still told in the bazaars about them, they were in the habit of 'drinking blood', and had many other even less attractive habits. However, on its arrival, the English ship and crew promptly disappeared, and how much blood was drunk on that occasion was not recorded. The only outstanding fact which is on record is that the ship's barber alone was kept alive, as a slave, owing to his proficiency with his razor, upon which the somewhat peculiar customs of the Arabs led them to place a high value.

In due course the barber, making adequate use of his exceptional opportunities, became extremely popular with the numerous and influential female occupants of the zenana, or harem, of the pirate king, or sheikh, and with such success did he wield his razor that the ladies soon saw to it that he was afforded an opportunity of exercising his skill upon the pirate chief's throat. The barber, being, apparently, in no way lacking in enterprise, took instant advantage of his opportunity, and promptly and effectually cut the throat that in the past had ordered so many others to be similarly treated. His friends and supporters immediately placed the barber on the throne, to fill the vacancy created by his razor, and he reigned over the whole coast long and gloriously, and there his descendants reigned after him, and do so reign to this day!

On reflection it will doubtless be appreciated that in those parts the barber's trade is indeed an influential one, and the reason for this is in no way difficult to understand if it is borne in mind that in those parts of Arabia, as in most Eastern countries, the men usually remain unshaved.

Leaving Muscat at 4 p.m. on June 3rd, and steering northwest, we continued to experience all the delights (?) of a truly tropical voyage, and as we approached the Straits of Ormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the mountains, which now commenced to come right down to the sea, got barer of scrub and hotter and hotter, till the cliffs were a good thousand feet high, quite bare of vegetation, quivering with heat in the daytime and retaining the heat at night, so that as we approached them such air as there was came off the cliffs like the blast of a furnace.

I have a note written that night to the effect that the thermometer on the bridge registered 98° at midnight, and that I sat there to get the draught caused by the ship's travelling through the soaking air, with a pair of tropical drill shorts on — nothing else at all – and streaming with perspiration! Needless to say, there was no sleep for anyone. Stopping on the bridge all night, the scene at daylight was well worth much of the discomfort which we had been experiencing. As the day broke, the Straits of Ormuz came in sight, and the sun-baked mountains became bolder, grander, and many thousand feet higher, whilst the sea became dotted with many rocky and precipitous islets of all sizes, through which we threaded our way up to the extreme north-eastern point of Arabia. This ends in a sheer cliff of several thousand feet, with deep water close in, and the coast of Persia showing up a few miles away in the form of a great bay into which the great rocky mountain cape of Arabia juts out, making a most impressive gateway to the sea, country which challenges old Egypt's claim as the oldest and, in dim antiquity, the richest country on the earth.

We had a pleasant trip up the gulf until nearing the mouth of the Euphrates, when we hit a dust-storm straight from the desert, and the air so full of sand you couldn't see your hand before your face, and could hardly breathe. It was the first dust-storm most of our men had seen, and they didn't like it. However, they were learning something every day, and we had them trained to a much more amenable frame of mind than when they came on board at Suez.

We poked about trying to find a lightship which should have been somewhere about those parts, at the mouth of the great river; but we had no luck with it in the dust-storm, and so as soon as we got into soundings (i.e. shallow water) down went the anchor, at midnight, June 5th, to wait for daylight.

Mesopotamia at last, 3,350 miles, and fourteen days out from Suez, and 5,500 miles, and thirty-two days out from London.

We lay at anchor till daylight, and got wireless orders during the night to keep on up the river next morning. So the anchor was weighed as soon as we could see to get our bearings, and I said good-bye to the sea and salt water till I could pick up the Caspian Sea, a good 70o miles away as the crow flies, and more than double that distance by the way I should have to go, across as wild a country as anyone can wish for through one enemy in arms, then to take ship and tackle another and stronger enemy on the far side of the great inland Caspian Sea.

Adventures In The Near East:
Eastward Bound To The Tigris

Mesopotamia, The Land Of The Rivers

Persia: The Road And The Famine

The Caspian Sea - Advance To, Relief Of, And Siege Of Baku

Evacuation - The Steamer Armenian

Homeward Bound – The Armistice

Intelligence In Transcaucasia (february To August, 1919.)

East Again - Salonika, Constant, And Batoum

The Caucasus - After The Armistice

Eastern Anatolia - Trebizond And Erzeroum

Read More Articles About: Adventures In The Near East

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