25th County of London Cyclist Battalion
The London Regiment


Mesopotamia  1917-1918


This page follows the activities of the 200 men who left the 1/25th at Gharial, India in November, 1917, as a draft to join the 1/9th Middlesex at Ambala. Many of these men had but lately returned, with the battalion, from the arduous campaign in Waziristan, but were passed as AI for active service before being drafted.

After joining, and incidentally losing their identity in the new battalion, they proceeded to Karachi, where they embarked for the Persian Gulf.
Little delay was experienced in disembarking at Basra, and progress up the Tigris by river boat was normal so far as Amara, where the battalion landed and pitched camp. The men of the 25th, unfortunately, were spread over the whole sixteen platoons, instead of, as they had hoped, being formed into one complete company. They were immediately reminded that conditions in Mesopotamia, so far as protection of rifles from theft were concerned, were, if anything, more stringent even than in India. They had been used to sleeping with an arm or leg through the sling and making hard and unresponsive bed-fellows in this way of their arms, but the Arab appears, if possible, to be even more wily than the Pathan and, as a result, the penalty for losing a rifle was six months' imprisonment and a fine of 100 rupees. Despite all precautions, rifle stealing at Amara became very prevalent and when it got to the stage that slings were being cut off men's wrists at night, instructions were issued that all rifles, in future, must be buried when the owners were asleep. It can be imagined that this order, though necessary, was far from popular, entailing, as it did, not only the digging of a trench in the floor of each tent every night, sufficiently large and deep to hold sixteen rifles, and the filling of earth in on top of the arms but, worst of all, considerable extra cleaning. It would seem that this station was considered perfectly safe from night attack in any shape or form, as one's imagination runs riot when considering what would have happened had it been necessary to use those rifles in a hurry.

The climatic vagaries of Mesopotamia are too well known to need much comment here. "The Land of Two Rivers," believed to be the scene of the Biblical Flood, becomes one vast lake when the rains really get to business. In the spring, at the height of the flood season, no land is visible, even with a telescope, from the bridge of a steamer; except for the mere ribbon of elevated "road" which skirts the normal river bank.
As far as the eye can see, the water lies some three feet deep on what, in other seasons, is dry land. It was under these conditions that the Middlesex proceeded to the vicinity of Baghdad, in which city the mud was two feet deep, even in the streets. It was a struggling, straggling line of troops which wended its sticky way to Khardiman, on the outskirts of Baghdad, where camp was formed.
Here Christmas, 1917, was celebrated, though not in a very festive manner. The members of the draft from the Londons were, however, the recipients of a number of 61b. Christmas puddings, sent to them by the 25th from India, and these-though more probably the kindly thought which inspired their despatch - helped to cheer matters up.

So things went on until the middle of February when, to relieve the monotony of events, the inhabitants of Nejif, a holy city on the edge of the Syrian Desert and the last stopping place of pilgrims bound for Mecca, became restive and indulged in a little desultory firing on some Indian cavalry, exercising outside the city wall.

The Middlesex were despatched to make a demonstration in the neighbourhood, while promises were extracted for the future general good behaviour of the citizens. No time was lost in carrying this plan into effect. Nejif is situated between 80 and 90 miles south-west of Baghdad, and this distance was covered on foot in seven days. The east is notorious for its forced road marches in time of war and this was just one more example. The troops were in field service kit and the column, as a whole, marched light, carrying only the are necessities and rations. All water had to be carried with the column from the Tigris until the Euphrates was reached. In fact, a little water was gathered at the small stopping places en route, but these yielded nothing like sufficient to satisfy the demands of even an infantry battalion. On the first day, nineteen miles were covered, on the second, fourteen miles, the third sixteen, the fourth fourteen, the fifth twenty and, after a rest on the sixth, the journey was completed by crossing the Euphrates on the seventh. Considering the nature of the going, this performance was remarkably good. Camp was pitched on an elevated position between Kufa, which lies between the river bank and the objective of the column, Nejif. It was a matter of great surprise to the troops to find, in this outlandish spot, a horse tramway connecting Kufa and Nejif. Trucks resembling railway waggons, each drawn by two horses, ran on metal tracks, and this means of conveyance was utilised for transporting the water required by the camp.
The whole city of Nejif proclaims itself to its world, which consists solely of desert, by a Mosque to Ali, one of Mahomet's brothers, who is buried therein. It has a dome of solid beaten gold that flashes in the sun and catches the eye at quite a considerable distance away, like a heliograph. Doubtless a beautiful sight, but a different frame of mind to that possessed by the troops, at that time, is required for its full appreciation.

The demonstration apparently had its effect and, the inhabitants having promised to behave more circumspectly in the future, the withdrawal was commenced about the middle of March.

Now follows a recital which is in keeping with the traditions of the East. Support having been withdrawn, the Nejifians promptly murdered the Political Officer in charge, and a punitive expedition was ordered. The column was composed of the 53rd Brigade of the 18th Division, which included the 1/9th Middlesex who, therefore, were called upon to return once more and blockade the city. It is doubtful whether the troops or the inhabitants suffered the more. A typical desert gave no shade and, in a sun temperature of 160 degrees, picquets had to be entrenched all round the city just within rifle range. The whole town, at night, was surrounded by barbed wire to ensure that no one entered or left, and anyone attempting to break through was promptly shot-a fate which also awaited those who attempted to evade the blockade by day. Every night, the Middlesex had to find wiring, entrenching and ration parties, in addition to guards. During the day, snipers from inside the city and blockade runners kept everyone on the qui vine. Night by night, the troops moved inward, decreasing the circumference of the circle until, by the beginning of May, the picquets were right under the city wall. About ten ex-25th men were entrenched, presumably as a special treat, in the city refuse heap. For three weeks, they had to do without a wash and, for five days of that time, without a water issue and the mental balance of most of them was getting shaky. For twenty-three nights in succession, there was work to do and their grey-back shirts became like millboards ; they were vermin infested in the normal way but had, in addition, to put up with what is described, by one of them, as a special breed of "large armour-piercing fleas," which emanated from the refuse heap. During this time, it is feared that the flashing golden dome of the mosque became decidedly alloyed with pieces of nickel and lead, of approximately .303' diameter.

Before the end of May, the town capitulated and the outskirts were occupied, while recalcitrants were identified to be handed over to the authorities for punishment. Part of the town had been blown away by shell fire and here a camp was pitched until all the necessary formalities were completed, when the column retired to Kufa, to enjoy a well-earned rest on the banks of the Euphrates for about ten days, before commencing the return journey to Baghdad.

The march from Kufa presented the same trials as the march out. Nevertheless, on the arrival of the column at the city made famous in the Arabian Nights, after a march of nineteen miles, which represented the last lap, the Middlesex were ordered to collect all kit and immediately entrain for Belad. On arrival about midnight, there appeared to be reasons for continuing the journey at once, but the Medical Officer ordered a three hours' rest, before allowing commencement of a further march, of nine miles eastwards, to Akab.

This was in June, 1918, when Akab was actually a front line position, but with the peculiar distinction that "No Man's Land" consisted of some 70 miles of desert between the British lines and the hills on the horizon, which marked the position of the Turks.

It was during the stay, at this position, that the Middlesex were visited by the combined concert party of the 1/25th Londons and 2/6th Sussex. This diversion meant more to the ex - 25th than the amusement created for them on the stage, as they were able to get first hand news regarding their old comrades in India, which seemed almost as welcome, to them, as news direct from home. When, finally, this party moved to "fresh fields and pastures new", it was replaced by another, drawn from the 1/9th Hants and 1/1st Kents - both of which battalions had been brigaded with the Londons and Sussex in the far off Bangalore days.

It seems well, at this point, to quote from one who was present, "but still at Akab the Arabs stole rifles and anything else worth having ; still they cut slings occasionally. Often, following the yell, ' Guard, turn out,' would all the main guard be chasing round the camp after an elusive naked oiled figure which on every occasion, except one, escaped. We had the pleasure of catching one, but I forget if he was hanged or not."
It is remarkable that, despite the very trying conditions experienced in Mesopotamia up to this point, the health of the Middlesex, as a whole, remained practically unim paired; if the usual temporary fevers and sickness, which go hand in hand with service in the East, are disregarded. Towards the end of the four months' stay at Akab, however, the battalion was struck by the wave of influenza which was then encircling the whole world. Fourteen days after the height of the epidemic, and while still fully twenty-five per cent. of the men were hardly able to stand, orders were received to strike camp and move out to take part in what was to prove to be the last attack on the Turkish position astride the Lesser Zab (a tributary of the Tigris from the Jebal Hamrin Hills).

The route followed ran through Samara, Tekrit, Quantara Camp to Baigi, where the 18th Division was forming for the attack on the Jebel Hamrin ridges, timed to take place at midnight on the 24th October, 1918. The 1/9th Middlesex came under shell fire on the evening of the 23rd, while having its last meal of the day. On the attack developing, the enemy fell back on the left bank of the Lesser Zab, so leaving the Fathah Pass free for the passage of the column.

The attack was pressed home and, as the troops emerged from the Pass, the Middlesex came under heavy machine gun fire and, in full kit and without any covering fire from behind, had to wade arm-pit deep across the river and form up on the wide shingle beach on the enemy's side. While this frontal attack was being made, the 17th Division had been executing a flanking movement on the Turkish position, so successfully that the enemy was forced to retreat still further. In this way the pressure on the main attacking force was relieved.

This fresh retreat left the road open to Shargat and, from 11 a.m. on the 25th October until 5 p.m. next day, the infantry of the 18th Division covered the amazing distance of thirty-five miles. To enable this feat to be accomplished, every ounce of kit, bit by bit, had been dumped; first the full service kits, then the packs, all being piled by the roadside and left in charge of those who fell out. As can be imagined, the advance was so swift that the rations could not keep up with the troops. It is impossible to conjure up, to the eyes of those who have never witnessed or taken part in such an advance, the conditions which prevailed. The cart tracks, which masqueraded under the name of roads, were axle deep in dust so fine that, in comparison, Fuller's earth appears coarse and gritty. Horses and mules were literally marched off their feet and died by the roadside from fatigue combined with lack of food and water.

At Shargat, the Turkish Commander-in-Chief surrendered and the troops, who had borne the burden and heat of the advance, enjoyed a well-earned and essential rest. No. 3 Platoon of the 1/9th Middlesex, in which there were about twelve ex-25th men, was detailed as baggage guard to the 18th Divisional Headquarters and had, therefore, to complete a further distance of over l00 miles to Mosul.*

* Two of the ex-25th men covered the distance of 120 miles from Baiji to Mosul twice on foot. They were subsequently appointed staff clerks to the 18th Divisional Headquarters. One or two other 1 /25th men actually entered Mosul, but these were not attached to the Middlesex. They had been drafted from the t /25th Signal Section. It seems worth recalling these facts, as Mosul represented one more outlandish place reached by members of the 25th.

The Armistice had now been declared on all fronts but, like their confreres in India, the ex-Londons had not yet finished with fighting. Some men had been demobilised and, early in 1919,-- the Christmas having been spent at Shargat-the 1/9th Middlesex was reduced to a threecompany battalion, continuing as such until the 23rd May (which seems to have been a very fateful day and month for the Londons in the East), when a punitive field column had to be formed.

In Southern Kurdistan, Sheik Mahmud headed a rising of Kurds who, to prove that this was a bona fide rebellion, imprisoned the British officials at Sulaimaniyah. Prior to the formation of the main punitive expedition, a small columm, including armoured cars under Col. Bridges, was sent against the rebels but, after an action in one of the passes in the Kurdish Hills, no further progress could be made. The operations were extended and a large Field Force, of which the Middlesex formed part, was formed, under Major-General Fraser.

The operations of this Force would provide a story of their own, but it is no part of the purpose of this history to record them beyond mentioning that, between the 28th May, when a contact was first established, and the 16th June, when the final advance was made, the Middlesex suffered occasional casualties and lost one or two night picquets. Following the final advance, the forces of the Sheik Mahmud, who was himself wounded and captured on the 18th, suffered complete defeat.

The usual "mopping up", which follows operations of this nature, then commenced, and several mobile columns were formed for the purpose of putting this good work into effect by scouring the surrounding country and rounding up any wandering bands. It was on one of these occasions, that two companies of the 1/9th Middlesex and two squadrons of Indian cavalry were completely surrounded, on the plains near Kirkuk. Unable to leave their position, they were under heavy rifle fire for three days and nights, sustained by rations dropped from R.A.F. planes which located them. It is remarkable that, although the fighting had been severe and continuous for seventy-two hours, the defence had been so effective that, when the beleaguered troops were relieved by another column, it was found that they had sustained no casualty whatever. As a well deserved reward, the Major in charge was awarded the D.S.O.

Although, since they left the 25th, the men, whose record has been traced, had undergone their fair share of arduous work, they lived to have the laugh of their old comrades in India for, by the end of July, they were all either demobilised or on their way home for that purpose, thus beating the 25th by over three months.


From 'The London Cycle Battalion'


 

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