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Mesopotamia, The Land Of The Rivers

( Originally Published 1923 )

The great Euphrates River German obstruction of navigation Bussrah The port and its growth The river steamer The rivers Their transport value and difficulties Troops' accommodation The junction of Tigris and Euphrates The Garden of Eden Ezra's Tomb Amnora Loss of a man overboard The desert Arabs and their camps Their horses Distant mountains of Persia Kut River windings Report G.H.Q. Bagdad Orders to leave at night Hospital Convalescent home Commander-in-Chief's house Town and bazaars of Baghdad Army Boxing Final Departure by Decauville Railway.

AT 7.30 a.m. on June 6th we entered the great Euphrates River, one of the mightiest of the great rivers of the earth.

The value of this river to the countries it traverses is comparable only to the Nile, as in each case the waters are the life-blood of vast tracts of land on either side, which by irrigation have from time immemorial been transformed from a burning desert into the greatest corn-bearing lands known to the ancient races whose home they were in the dim ages of antiquity.

There is, however, and always has been, a fundamental difference between Egypt, the land of the Nile, and Mesopotamia, the valley of the Euphrates; for whereas the Nile by its annual floods causes an automatic irrigation and fertilization of the country, the Euphrates has no such regular annual flood, and the spreading of its fertilizing waters over the land has ever been dependent on the skill and labour of the inhabitants. In ancient days that skill and labour were always forthcoming, until the advent of the Turk effectually put a stop to any such useful enterprise or labour, and allowed the ancient irrigation works to decay and fall in ruins, as had already fallen the great Empires of Assyria and Babylon.

The Euphrates River during the last seventy miles of its course from Bussrah to the sea is about the width of the Thames at Gravesend, and ships of 10,000 tons, or even more, can ascend it with ease. The land on either bank is a flat, marshy plain, but the banks everywhere are lined with plantations of date-palms, which, being evergreen, show up well against the sandy and monotonous background, and tend to give a general impression of fertility and cultivation.

The most interesting sight after leaving the coast was the ships sunk in the river by the Germans at the outbreak of the war. I examined them as we passed with great curiosity, as I could see at once that they must have been previously specially loaded with rocks and prepared for the purpose, and it was yet one more sign of the thoroughness of German preparedness, that they had ready beforehand in this remote spot the means of blocking the river to British vessels; and though, of course, no such defence could last long, yet they considered even the small delay that might result was worth the trouble it cost.

We saw nothing of special interest until entering the long, straight reach of the river, where the great British base at Bussrah had grown like a large mushroom in so short a time, from an insignificant old native river town.

We anchored our great ship a mile or more above the British Military Headquarters, and I got a launch of sorts and went down and across the stream to report and take orders.

It was hot at this time even for Mesopotamia, being 104 in the first-floor veranda overlooking the river, after sundown, at 8.30 p.m., and about the same all night, and 120 to 130 inside during the day, with the electric fans going, so that I was glad indeed when all my preparations were made and I was ready to start up the great river at daylight next morning, and so enter a country of the greatest interest, but one which was then quite new to me.

Soon after daylight on June 8th I embarked on the river steamer which was to take me up the great Tigris River to Bagdad, and here was 'novelty' indeed, as there was nothing anywhere which was like anything I'd ever seen before.

The first outstanding object to absorb my attention was the steamer itself-- an absolutely new type of vessel to me. In order to adequately appreciate by what chain of circumstances it came to be here at all, it is necessary to bear in mind the peculiarities of the river itself, and the events for which it had provided the 'setting' and been itself the 'scene' during the two immediately preceding years of war.

In marked contrast to the Euphrates, which is a 'slow' and 'sluggish' river, the 'Djala Zu', or Tigris, runs fast, through the sandy plain in which its course is constantly changing, sandbanks being quickly formed in some places, and as quickly swept away in others, so that a shallow draft is as indispensable to a steamer to enable her to keep afloat as are powerful engines to enable her to ascend against the stream. Add to this the fact that during the British advance to Baghdad the river formed practically the main and only means of transport in bulk for the supply of the troops, and it is not hard to realize the exceptional transport difficulties with which our forces were confronted, but which were in the end, as usual, satisfactorily overcome.

The immediate result of these exceptional requirements was a great search and requisitioning of all the shallow-draft steamers which could be found in every hole and corner of the Dominions. The steamer upon which I now found myself had quite lately been tackling the equally difficult waters of the Irrawady, the great river of Burmah. She was, it seems needless to observe, hardly a Lusitania, and sleeping-cabins, except two small box-like erections on the upper deck, were conspicuous by their absence. However, she had good engines, by Denny of Dumbarton, perhaps the most satisfactory part of the whole show, and their regular and unfailing power was transmitted to the water by a method quite new to me namely, a 'stern-wheel'.

Another striking novelty was the fact that two great flat-bottomed barges, nearly as broad and long as the steamer, were lashed one on each side of her. The object of this somewhat unusual form of 'rig' is that when, as she often does, the steamer bumps the bank, it is the barge that takes the bump or goes aground, the steamer itself being spared that very searching trial. This considerably improves what chance there may be of continuing the passage without spending many hours aground, or, in the even worse case, of being stopped entirely by some structural injury to the vessel. Although those very unsightly barges form in the first instance shields for the steamer, yet incidentally they also form transports, and on this occasion were packed with troops, both British, and Indian natives, whilst the officers only were accommodated that is, could, and did, sit and lie on the deck of the steamer itself.

On this in no way spacious deck, on this occasion, were 'parked' over seventy officers, with all their kits and belongings, and though we frizzled there for ten solid days, no one had a word of grumbling to say about it, and all were content, as we were moving on towards our goal, and as long as we moved we got some air. But when we got aground and stood still it could be remarked what a wealth of variety of anathema the English language is capable of producing to say nothing of the very considerable amount of 'chat' emanating from the native troops, who were so closely packed on their barge alongside that they were obliged to take it in turns to 'sit down' !

The first day out of Bussrah we passed the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris; but as the country there is a huge marsh which, in fact, is the form in which the Euphrates joins the Tigris the actual junction was not apparent and did not in any way attract attention. During the night we passed through the 'Garden of Eden', or rather the place where tradition has placed the earthly paradise of the ancients. We have been brought up to think of this as having been a most desirable retreat, the outstanding feature of which was that no clothes were worn there. Well, in those days it may, or may not, have been a pleasant retreat, but I have no doubt at all that no clothes were ever worn there, as certainly when we went through even the Biblical fig-leaf would have seemed like 'winter clothing', the damp heat was so oppressive.

About midday on our second day we passed Ezra's Tomb, a very ancient holy place, now maintained by subscriptions from Jews in all parts of the world. Here is the ancient tomb, surrounded by several courtyards of rather pretentious buildings of mud bricks, with a tower in the centre crowned by a remarkable Oriental dome of ancient construction, whose surface is entirely covered with the real old sky-blue glazed tiles which were a beautiful feature of the famous buildings of Babylonian days, and are still to be found scattered about on the most venerable relics of past ages which are the salient features of this otherwise most monotonous country.

The tomb in these days forms in reality a kind of hotel, presided over by a Jewish priest, whose staff consists entirely of experienced midwives although exactly in what the priest's own particular speciality may consist I was unable to discover. However, it appears Jewish women, who are about to have the great honour of 'doing their bit' towards the continuance of the chosen race, are in the habit of retiring to this spot as the critical moment approaches, in order that the future 'Ikey' may get his first view of the world from the precincts of the holy place, and, it may be presumed, under the auspices of the expert priest, which combination they are taught will insure that a child so born will lead a specially holy and successful life!

However, whether that may be so or not, the old tomb, with its sky-blue dome sparkling in the Mesopotamian sun, forms the most prominent feature of the otherwise sadly monotonous landscape for many miles.

After passing old Ezra's somewhat remarkable resting-place, the river becomes narrower and the eternal groves of date-palms come nearer together, the river about here being about the width of the Thames at Richmond.

About half way between Bussrah and Kut is Amora. This is quite a decent-sized place, with now a railway station and a depot for stores, with the usual hospitals, rest-camps, etc. The great feature, however, is the bridge of boats, the first yet seen, and the only one from Baghdad to the sea, a distance of quite 400 miles as the crow would fly if he was there which he is much too wise to be and quite three times as far following the interminable windings of the river, as we were perforce obliged to do.

The reach at Amora is long and straight, the river being much broader there than for many miles below, and on leaving this reach the width compared with the Hudson River above New York; but at the same time became very shallow in places, with low banks and many sandbanks. Our course therefore zigzagged about from one side to the other, the course being steered according to indication-posts placed on either bank, and constantly changed as the sandbanks formed or disappeared, to give the pilots a reasonable chance of keeping afloat -- which, in our case, we duly proceeded not to do. However, even this had its compensations at that particular moment, for as the banks got lower and the country marshier, the groves of date-palms which had covered the banks all the way up from the sea now disappeared, and let us get a breath of a God-sent breeze, blowing south over the marsh from the distant mountains which bound the high uplands of Persia and now appeared like a dim, dark cloud far away to the north. The only happening of interest about here was the loss of one of the Indian natives overboard. They had been warned again and again not to sit on the side, but they would still do so, with their legs hanging over to get the splashing of the water; and a sudden bump pitched this poor fellow overboard, where he had no chance at all, and the stern-wheel promptly 'ate him up'. However, this incident had more effect on the others than all the orders I had published, and sitting on the side became, for a time at any rate, a much less popular pastime.

We now began to leave country where scarcely any cultivation is done in these days, and opened out the pasture country, the true home of the real nomadic, or wandering, Arabs. The wealth of these tribes lies to-day entirely in their flocks and herds, as has always been the case since the days of old Abraham; but above all in their horses, which are well enough known and valued the world over to need no praise from me.

The villages or camps of these wandering Arabs are queer places. We saw and passed close to many on the river-banks in crossing these great open plains. They consist of just a small collection of tents or hovels, just sticks stuck in the ground and covered with reeds cut on the river-bank and plastered with mud. Sometimes, in the case of a chief or sheikh, his home will consist of a great sheet of cloth woven from the hair of his camels, which sheet will also be plastered with mud, to give it weight in the wind and keep off the fierce rays of the Mesopotamian sun, the one great force which dominates every form of life in those parts.

These hovels slope up from the back over a cross-pole, or, in some cases, over two cross-poles, and are invariably in a position facing and close to the river-bank. They are open at the sides, to get all the benefit possible from the cooler air off the water. In most cases the front can be lowered at night, and so give some small amount of privacy, upon which, however, the Arab sets small value. Again and again, in passing close inshore, I was able to study through my excellent field-glasses the minutest intimate details of the Arab's home-life in his tent, cooking, eating, sleeping, and bathing, without such curiosity causing either the Arab himself or his wives, daughters, and dependants generally, the smallest concern. The thing that struck me most amongst the habits of these communities was the position occupied by the horses in the home circle. This is such as is hardly to be realized by those familiar with the horse as he is known in any other country.

From the time of his birth the Arab's steed is a respected and most highly valued member of the family circle, the foals as well as their parents sharing in the family meals in the tent and being at all times as free to take advantage of its invaluable shade during the day as of its equally welcome protection from the dew at night. The insult of a bridle is one that many of them never experience, and the Arab chief would be far more likely to tie up his wife or daughter than he would be to offer his horse such an insult in which conclusion it is quite probable that his experience of both affords him ample justification.

It is this treatment for centuries past which gives to the Arab horse his supreme confidence in himself and makes him what he is, the king amongst the horses of all countries, as he knows not, nor ever has known, fear, neither of his master nor of anything else. He behaves himself, accordingly, with uniform reason and propriety, and his general behaviour and self-control might be imitated with advantage by many so-called 'civilized' human beings elsewhere.

These encampments, so inimitably and immortally described as 'the tents of the Arabs, which they silently fold when they steal away', are always pitched where the pasture at the moment is best and the water plentiful and easy of access, and are moved frequently and without difficulty as the feed offered for the flocks by the surrounding country becomes better in other sites. The flocks which constitute the sole wealth of the sheikhs consist of horses, in the first place, and also of camels, cattle, sheep and goats, and donkeys, and these wander at their own sweet will around the encampments, all coming readily at their master's call, at daybreak and sunset, to give their milk, which is the greatest luxury of the true desert.

I was on several occasions fortunate in seeing an Arab, wakened Fresh from sleep by the passage of our steamer, come from his tent and, calling his horse, leap on its back, where he sat entirely and obviously at home, without thought of saddle or bridle. They then together proceeded at a canter, with equal grace and mutual confidence, to make the round of the flocks to see to their welfare, such being the daily and exclusive occupation of the true Arab and his desert steed.

Hereabouts we obtained our first clear view of the Persian mountains, which were now seen rising sheer out of the plain about thirty miles north of the river. They looked very high, though I knew they were not more than 5,000 feet, and therefore babies compared to the snow-topped giants of more than three times that height amongst which my path would lie 500 miles or more farther on. We here passed through the Turkish lines which were laid out by the German staff of the Turkish Army. These trench systems extended for miles on either side of the river, and fulfilled the object of their construction, which was to hold up the British force which was rushed up the river to the relief of Kut.

The town of Kut is by no means impressive, being a collection of mud hovels surrounded by a mud wall, the whole lying within a large loop of the river, which offered the only feature of any military defensive value. It was obvious at first glance that nothing but dire necessity could have occasioned its selection for the last and gallant stand the British troops made there before their ultimate and disastrous, though unavoidable surrender.

On leaving Kut the course of the river becomes, if possible, even more sinuous than before; so much so that one spot, marked by a small mound crowned by a permanent if humble building, was approached by us quite closely from three different directions in turn. To illustrate further the nature of the country and the rapidity of our progress in the true direction of our goal, there were in sight at this place at the same time three different steamers ahead of us and three behind us in the various loops, though each was separated from the other by many hours of river travel!

In the early morning of June 15th the minarets of Baghdad became visible. At 12 noon that day we tied up at a military wharf, after eight days of the Mesopotamian river in June, a two days quicker passage than we expected, but one which provided me with all the experience I shall ever require of that form of travel.

Leaving the disembarkation to be superintended by others, I got a launch and went five miles up the river to report at G.H.Q., but found that the Commander-in-Chief, Lieut.-General Sir W. Marshall, to whom I had several letters and whom I was most anxious to meet, was absent, organizing the final advance, which was then being prepared for, with the great secrecy indispensable to its success.

At Headquarters I heard I was detailed to leave that same evening for the wilds, in command of a convoy of 300 cars, which left me only a few hours to get all my kit, and that with a temperature of 115 in the hotel courtyard, the coolest place to be found, seeing it had a fountain in the middle and punkahs and fans all round, and in any case no sun could ever penetrate there. How-ever, as there was no moment to spare, and so much to do, I was forced to go to work in the heat of the day, when all others were resting in the cool, and, worst of all, though I was promised a car, yet, as it did not turn up quickly, I had to start out on my feet an unheard-of proposition at midday in midsummer in these parts.

I did my best, but within an hour I was gasping for breath and 'down and out', so that when the car did come I was just able to tell the driver to go for a doctor. This he did, and brought him 'on the run'. The doctor had one look at me and one at his thermometer, giving my temperature, and phoned straight to the hospital for an ambulance, which got me there in double-quick time. I just remember that, and then a blank for some days, during which time I lay unconscious; and an official telegram was sent to the War Office, and forwarded by them to my wife and brother, saying: 'General hospital announce Col. R. dangerously ill.' My brother, getting that, knew well it meant 'No hope'.

After being unconscious in hospital twenty-four hours, my temperature came down and not much harm had been done, but I was very weak and tottery, and was kept lying down for three more days, without being allowed to get up. However, within a week I was considered fit to move, and did move, to the convalescent home on the river-bank, five miles downstream a bit weak and very thin, but being otherwise all right.

At lunch on second day of my stay at the convalescent home I was called to the phone to speak to the Commander-in-Chief's house. I rushed to the phone, and was told the Chief had just returned, and had got the letter I had brought him from Sir H. Wilson, and that if I would come and stay with him at his house he would send an A.D.C. with his own launch to fetch me at once, and also a car for my kit and a servant to look after it! No doubt of my answer to such a glorious invitation, and within an hour down came the launch and car, and I went off in state to his lovely house, built right on the river, with great big rooms, cool courtyards, and a spacious terrace with steps to his private pier and landing-stage!

This was luxury indeed for me, and I knew well that I should have, thanks to his kindness, the best chances of 'picking up' quickly and so getting on up-country at the earliest moment. In the big house all was in the highest state of efficiency no kind of ostentation, but everything was the best of its kind: electric fans, ice, a first-class cook and servants, a launch on the river, and cars for the city.

The party in the house consisted only of the Chief himself, his Chief of the Staff, the military secretary, two aides-de-camp, and myself; and of course I got all the latest information from Persia, and was able to give them what was of, perhaps, even more interest to them than their news was to me that is, a first-hand account of how things were going 'before Amiens' at the real heart and vital centre of the war.

The three days which I passed as the Chief's guest were spent in laying in stores of every description, as on once leaving Baghdad I should be unable to obtain any stores of European origin, and very little, if anything, of any other kind. It was therefore necessary to provide myself with all requisities, from a tent and saddlery down to lamps, cooking-pots, and as many tinned provisions as I could run to. And at the same time I was anxious to see as much as possible of Baghdad itself, the famous 'City of the Caliphs', where my father had spent twelve of the most interesting years of his life.

Baghdad, to which the Great War has brought more change and progress in its short course of years than had been produced by three times that number of centuries previously, lies chiefly on the northern bank of the Tigris River, here a broad, shallow, and fast-running stream of which the real bed is about half a mile in width, but which is full of sandbanks, some of which are frequently exposed, and greatly detract from the effect which would otherwise be produced by that expanse of water.

All the life and interest of the Oriental inhabitants of Baghdad has always centred round the bazaars, and though there are now many counter-attractions of Western origin to be found elsewhere in the town and suburbs, yet here in the bazaars is to be found the true and unchanging 'East', where the merchant and his ways are as crafty and tortuous as they ever were in centuries long passed away. It must be borne in mind that Baghdad is still as much the centre of all the transcontinental and caravan trade of Asia as it was in the days of the Caliphs, and here to-day come caravans from the Arabian Desert and from Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, as they also come from Asia Minor, Persia, Mesopotamia, India, Central Asia, and far-off China, just as they did in the time of Harun ar Rashid in the days which are so vividly put before us in the Arabian Nights.

All the types rendered familiar to us all by these famous tales of old are still before us here today, and, last but not least, 'The Forty Thieves' are conspicuous in every direction, and my own abiding wonder was at once aroused as to what possible object the old chronicler could have had in limiting their number to forty! a figure which gives an entirely erroneous idea of their multitude, and therefore tends to be misleading and costly to the stranger.

The bazaars themselves are in all cases covered in, as a protection from the heat of the sun outside, but this protection is entirely ineffective against the heat generated by the excited and perspiring crowd who are thus sheltered, and the atmosphere so created and 'bottled' is such that the European in his haste to escape therefrom becomes a more ready prey to the Eastern chafferer than he perhaps otherwise would be.

In the evening, after dinner, we attended the finals of the Army Boxing Competition, 5,000 British soldiers being present, who made the most enthusiastic and interested audience imaginable. A Canadian shoeing-smith was the winner of the heavy-weights, beating a sergeant of British cavalry, who was much the better boxer of the two, in the final. The Canadian got a great reception both before and after his effort, and was evidently a well-known character and very popular. He knew very little of the skilful part of the game, but his strength was colossal and he hit, when he did hit, like a cart-horse kicking; however, he was most diffident of his powers, and showed the greatest anxiety throughout in case he should be tempted to hit too hard, and so hurt his opponent seriously. This accident, it appeared, had once before happened to him, and in consequence it had only been with the greatest difficulty that his admirers had succeeded in persuading him to enter the competition at all. However, one or two red-hot punches delivered in quick succession and with great skill on the end of his nose by his expert cavalry opponent soon rendered him much less diffident, and in the end he hit out 'good, hard, and plenty', and the cavalryman promptly acknowledged his powers by duly relapsing into immobility on the floor. On this climax being reached, the huge Canadian delighted the whole assembly by showing signs of the liveliest concern for the well-being of his erstwhile antagonist, and, dashing across the ring, picked him up in his arms like a baby and carried him off as fast as he could run to the ambulance post near by, amid the whole-hearted and deafening applause of all present.

Immediately on the close of the boxing I went straight to the little station of the Decauville Railway, and left for the sixty miles' journey to railhead, after a total stay in Baghdad of ten days only. Here the real 'road' was to begin, and the frontier of Old Persia would at last be close at hand.

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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