Humphrey Loch DFC, Royal Flying Corps
Humphrey Loch (preferring Norman or Nog) was my grandfather's great friend. They met whilst training at the Royal Flying Corps aerodrome in Aboukir, Egypt (Loch was then with the 5th Ghurkhas). Both came back to England in January 1917 as qualified RFC pilots. Long after the war, Loch started to write about his experiences under the title 'Short Precis of Years 1914-1930'. Whilst some of his work survives, much of it is lost or was never written/completed. Over time I hope to publish the completed sections on this site. It is after all a fascinating glimpse of life during and after The Great War. I hope you enjoy reading it too. GC
Chapters 18 - 25
Just as we arrived on the aerodrome at Aboukir after our voyage from Mesopotamia, a machine took off, rose into the air almost vertically like a rocket, instead of at a decent angle, fluttered at the top of its zoom, turned over and, with a glorious crash, tried to excavate a grave for itself in the hard surface of the sandy plain. An ambulance darted out from its lair beside the hangars and raced towards the casualty. This was our introduction to flying.
Extract from letter to mother (Amy):
20th Reserve Wing RFC, Aboukir, 4th December 1916
'There is not very much to tell you. We had our exam today and I am suffering a relapse. I hope to goodness I get through it as I don't want to do all this frightful sweat again. It really has been a most terrific swot for two weeks.
I have started flying and have done so far about two hours ten minutes dual. The officer instructing me says I am doing very well. I doubt if they let any details through so I won't send any. I doubt there's much chance of the leave stunt coming off unless I can get to France.
The work is very interesting but they cram such a fearful lot in the few days, one hates the name of an engine. Shop is also the only subject talked at all meals which becomes a trifle ennuyant when we are all in a state of total ignorance. Anyway, I'll be able to turn in to a chauffeur if I can't find any other job later on.'
Extract from letter to brother (Desmond):
8th December 1916
'This is not a bad spot. Top hole weather, the sea quite near and Alexandria not far off to go and have a fairly decent time in when one can. I've done about ten hours flying all told, about one and a half hours on my own i.e. without an instructor. It's not bad fun now I'm getting used to it. It's not frantically interesting as you don't see much but clouds unless you've got your neck screwed over the side the whole time.
There are a lot of rather queer specimens in this show but they are not bad taken all round.'
Extract from letter to mother:
19th December 1916
'Well I've finished Avro's now, did about three and a half hours solo on them and today did my first solo on B.E.s, another type of machine, they seem very nice buses. I'm getting quite acclimatised to being in the air now and feel quite confident.'
Two weeks later we had passed through the extremely simple technical course and a fortnight later were fully fledged pilots with as much as eight hours flying to our credit. A few more days and we were embarked for Europe.
The train journey across France from Marseille to Boulogne was one of the coldest experiences of my life. As usual, I had no money. We had to secure our own sustenance. The journey took thirty six hours instead of twelve and the train was completely unheated.
Extract from letter to Amy from her brother Charles Scott-Elliott
Desert of Egypt 1st January 1917
I have your letter and also one from Humphrey yesterday. There is no doubt that the Royal Flying Corps is an excellent branch of the service not only for pay but for other things. I do not think that nowadays it is more dangerous than any other branch of the service, not nearly so much as the ordinary infantry in France. Humphrey has very good nerves and eyesight ... so he should get on quite well.'
The snowy fields of Cramlington, near Newcastle, next witnessed my undistinguished efforts to fly. A squadron of large Armstrong Whitworths - a huge clumsy machine with a hundred and sixty horse power water-cooled engine. The great thing about this machine was its very low landing speed, due to its great span, and its excellent undercarriage. It was a safe but terribly clumsy and heavy type of machine.
Extract from letter to mother:
Cramlington Aerodrome 7th February 1917
'We arrived alright last night and have got quite a comfortable billet together with a very decent old thing who looks after us very well. It is most horribly cold and flying is horribly freezing. I was distinctly out of practice when I went up this morning.
It's not such a bad little spot this. They have the most extraordinary machines here, very good for strafing the Hun let's hope. We work from 9am 'til about 4:30 but nothing very strenuous. All the rest of our class from Egypt are here, but the worst ones have either been sent elsewhere or are still in Egypt.
Send up another woolly waistcoat when you have finished it as Crutchley has not got one.
We have to do a good many tests and things and so expect to be here two or three weeks yet.'
At Cramlington I learned a good many of the details such as wireless, machine gun, map reading, spotting and so on which had been left out of our scanty schedule in Egypt.
During a cross country flight in a snowstorm, I crashed a B.E.12 - then looked upon as a scout machine! - and turned right over in doing so. I crashed once again while trying to avoid a collision. I was warned that any more accidents would ensure my name being erased from the list of pilots going on service with the squadron. It was a mortifying experience, as, in Egypt, I considered myself rather an ace having been trained entirely on Avros - a very light handed machine. The only other matter of interest was a flight from Bristol to Stirling. Three of us took B.E.2.Cs from the Bristol factory. A terrible little aerodrome they had at Bristol too. We took four days over the trip. We landed at Castle Bromwich, Doncaster, Cramlington and Stirling.
Extracts from letters to mother:
Cramlington Aerodrome 10th March 1917
'There was a rumour we were going to France on Tuesday but that seems to be a wash out now. I'm glad as I want to fly the big buses this squadron has. They are so solid and well turned out.
I crashed on Sunday and again yesterday but not very badly and am quite alright. Flew at night for the first time last night, really awfully nice, no bumps and very calm.
Lack of exercise here gives me indigestion, we hardly ever get any and I'm sure it's very bad for us.
As a punishment for my misdeeds I've been orderly officer for a few days and have been stuck in this rotten mess and not able to go to my billet early, which annoys me.'
Cramlington Aerodrome 11th March 1917
'More of us went away today to an Australian squadron somewhere further South. I rather fancy they are going to keep me with this squadron though I have been told nothing definite. They fly a fine bus and I shall be glad to stay.
The worst of this old army stunt and especially the RFC, if one does pick up a decent chap or two you are bound to part in some way in a week or two, it's most beastly disorganising and rotten. You never know what to expect. Practically it's no use making friends with anyone.'
Probably because they wanted to get rid of me, I was next sent to Lincoln to learn to fly the dreaded R.E.8, a new Artillery machine with a very bad reputation for spinning and getting on fire. Before it was started, as I noticed when I arrived for my first trip in this pleasant machine, the tail had to be chocked up so that the machine would be in flying position. This was due to some defect in the twin carburettors, I believe. I took off and flew the machine above the ancient town of Lincoln. My heart was in my mouth and my right hand turns were so wide and careful that I was glad there was mist which hid my manoeuvres from the ground. What a heavy pig of a machine! It had a hundred and forty h.p. air-cooled RAF engine, stream lined wires, a top plane with nasty weak looking extensions. It was ugly in design and no credit so far as I could see to the RAF designers. It was however a little faster than the B.E.s and A.W.s and it had a wheel device for shifting the tail plane angle so that the pilot was supposed to be able to set his machine to fly at a certain speed with the minimum attention. At least this was, I believe, the theory. Personally, I always clung religiously to my joy stick and received much comfort in the air from the feel of it in my hand. This tail plane wheel also assisted the pilot to bring the machine down at a fairly slow speed. At any rate its mysteries defeated me for when I wanted to flatten out to land I found I had no control over the machine and dived into the ground. Fortunately, as I reflected to myself while I wondered what had happened, no fire burst out but I received a knock on the head or face which blinded me though it left me conscious. I spent the next three weeks in hospital in Lincoln, in a ward full of the survivors of R.E.8 crashes. Most of these poor devils were a great deal less fortunate than I.
Extract from letter to mother:
Scampton Aerodrome 2nd April 1917
'As you can see I am now at Scampton. 58 Squadron has been broken up worse luck and we are being distributed over the country once more. Four of us have come here. A pretty rotten spot but a fairly decent mess. It is rotten luck as 58 was a good squadron and ready to go out, the buses were decent and so were most of the officers. We are going to fly some other kind here.
I am in a hut now and miss my comfy billet.'
Extract from letter to Humphrey (from his friend William Sleeman, killed in action in France a month later)
49 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, Swingate Downs, Dover 11th April 1917
'Dear old thing, am sorry to see you are pushed onto R.E.'s. They are not at all fun. We have some here but I don't think I'll fly them. Fancy I'm for B.E.12's and Martinsydes. The 'drome here is all ridges, rotten for taking off and landing. Expect to smash myself when I get on to fast landers.'
The high spots of hospital life at Lincoln were the charming little nurse who used to bathe my eyes - she had false teeth - but was otherwise quite angelic, and the local theatre. I had always wanted to be one of those bright lads who adorn the stage doors of London theatres asking chorus girls out to supper. This ambition had never been realised owing to a detestable lack of courage and of means. Lincoln however afforded me the opportunity to achieve my ambition. The tiny local theatre boasted two stage boxes and the price was within the reach of another patient and myself. At the same time, the travelling company which was playing the town had for its leading lady a fairy who looked quite enchanting on the stage and who was even pretty and certainly good natured off. My friend and I ingratiated ourselves by gifts and were rewarded by the constant company of the lady in question. We felt we were a thousand times repaid.
From Lincoln, I was sent to Folkestone to join the Ferry Pilots. For the most part the Ferry Pilots were either veterans having a rest or those whose flying was not of the most brilliant. I found my headquarters situated in a very nice little hotel in Folkestone. But almost immediately it was moved onto the dreary expanses of Lympne downs. Even this was not so bad as, though we were some way away from the centre of civilisation, we were billeted in Lympne Castle, a charming old building with huge panelled rooms, winding stone stairs, all the most modern conveniences and a magnificent view over Dymchurch and the queer low country which surrounds it. Later we were moved into our own quarters on the aerodrome. We had W.A.A.C.s to minister to some of our needs.
Extract from letter to mother:
Lympne Aerodrome 29th May 1917
'We have had quite an exciting time here. Twenty bombs on the aerodrome but no damage at all. I am afraid they made a nasty mess in Folkestone, but it was a perfectly legitimate raid. Fourteen big buses at about 15,000 feet, no warning as they came from inland.'
Our job here was to fly new machines from all parts of the country to Lympne and from Lympne to take them over the channel. We used to fly all sorts of machines, with all sorts of engines from the ancient Moranes and B.E.2.bs - with twist lateral control to Bristol Fighters, DH.4s and the latest Scouts, Camels, Dolphins, DH.5s and Snipes. What a collection of machines used to leave the aerodrome daily if the weather was favourable. The only Scouts I ever flew were the old single seater Martinsydes which had a very low landing speed and would bounce like rubber balls if they were landed too hard. One was quite blind in them and they were sloppy on controls but I liked them, I fancy they were never used much at the front. We used to take the machines from Lympne to St Omer or later to Marquise. The first was a nice aerodrome, though not too large. The second was not so good. During this period, I ferried machines of many types from all parts of England. We used to land at St Omer or Marquise and then as soon as a tender full of pilots arrived we were despatched by car down to Boulogne. Usually we caught a boat back the same day but often we had to stay the night in Boulogne. This European life was rather pleasant. As I was not burned up by any feverish desire to fly in France, I would have been quite content if this existence had gone on ’til the end of the war.
Extract from letter to mother:
DH.4 No A4714 St Omer 13th August 1917
'I am writing this in a bus on my way back to Lympne. I am passenger so have the use of my hands.
I came over this morning and am on my way back. A wonderful view as we go across France with the Channel in sight. We are now at 3,000 feet and going at 85 mph. The fields and woods stretch out for miles. It's a dull day so it's not as pretty as it might be. Here's Calais on our right and Boulogne miles over on the left. You can just see England.
There was a raid on when I got back last night but none of our people saw anything.
The sun's coming out. The effect above the clouds is very pretty.
Please excuse the writing, the wind's blowing the paper about. We shall be in to the clouds soon. We're now 4,000 feet up and just over Calais. We're over the clouds now in a regular Switzerland of cotton wool.
Now we're over the channel and can see England in the haze. The boats are like little water beetles leaving white trails. Absolutely blue sky above us and down on the ground it's a dull stuffy day. It's getting beastly cold as we are over 7,000 feet now and still climbing.
One man fell in the sea today but was picked up.'
The chief incidents of interest during my stay at Lympne were the frequent air raids. Night after moonlight night we would hear the throbbing hum of Gotha engines sweeping close overhead. Twice we saw the machines of the daylight raids fly towards London. Each time a number of machines from the aerodrome went up in a vain attempt to catch up with the raiders. But we were not equipped for fighting and seldom had anything on hand except out of date machines and others of the newest types being prepared for the flight overseas. Because we were so helpless, the aerodrome - that is to say all the Ferry Pilots - received a little parcel of white feathers from some well meaning misses of the locality. The white feather rage had by then been worked to death and I cannot say that the receipt of the bundle urged us to any more heroic efforts to destroy raiding Gothas or Zeps.
Extracts from letters to mother:
Lympne Aerodrome 10th September 1917
'We have had a fairly exiting time during the last week. One night bombed four times in Omer. Boulogne bombed three nights in succession. Also various stray Huns passing over this place. Otherwise everything is as dull as ditch water and most of us are in a state of collapse from utter boredom.
They have sent a lot of us away to various other places in England but being unlucky I've been stuck here. Very sorry to hear poor Crutchley had such a crash, but he's much to be envied with his Russian Order and Captaincy.'
Lympne Aerodrome 31st October 1917
'You may be pleased to hear that I have now flown our great bombing machine the DH.4 and that I've been promised to be allowed to fly the SE5 which is the best scout in use. So things are looking up. I'm liking flying again.
I can hear a Hun machine and there go the guns again. They'll grin on the other side of their faces when our new bombing busses are released from the entanglements of red tape and get at them.'
Filton Aerodrome 16th November 1917
'I am flying a Bristol fighter and like it. The aerodrome or rather the mess here is top hole. Bristol is quite a good spot and I'm not keen on rushing back to Lympne so am in a way glad the weather's dud.'
Lympne Aerodrome 30th December 1917
'It's thawing here too now, result a thick mist and impossible to fly.
The leather jacket will be most useful. Light and warm, much better than the sheepskin ones.'
Finally however, we were most of us driven out of our involuntary funk hole by the severe fighting of the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. I was sent to Winchester - but I have forgotten the period when I was sent to Netheravon or somewhere to instruct on R.E.8s and having acquired a terror of these machines, made such an outcry when I was put on to instruct in them, that they took me off and put me onto Bristol Fighters. Anyway in the end I was sent to Winchester - to fly large A.W.s I was told. Imagine my horror on arrival when I was detailed again to work on R.E.8s. We spent a strenuous month at Winchester living in the most comfortless conditions and making every effort to brush up our stagnant memories of wireless etc. I passed my exams and with the resignation of despair found myself detailed for overseas work with R.E.8s!
One clammy day, a tender met me in Boulogne and took me to the central Pilot’s pool at Arques. There I had a few days shooting at clay pigeons and hoping that I would be forgotten but in the end I was posted to No 4 Squadron and joined it at St Omer.
The front was in a nasty state of chaos and partial retreat. 4 Squadron had been in Bailleul and at another place near the Nieppe forest and had been pushed out of both of them. We wondered where we would go if the German advance made any further progress.
It was not long before I got accustomed to the work - artillery observation, which was the duty of the flight to which I belonged. The squadron under a Major Saul, an unpleasant person, who never flew himself and had transferred from the A.S.C. - a matter for contempt in itself - was divided into four flights. Three of these were used for artillery observation work i.e. the ranging of our guns onto enemy targets and the fourth for low flying and infantry contact. The observation work was carried out as follows. Attached to each squadron was an Intelligence Officer and an Artillery Officer. They received from various quarters their orders, photographs of enemy targets and miscellaneous information. It was their job to dish all this out to the pilots engaged in the different work. The pilot detailed for a shoot would go to the office and receive photos of his target or targets. These targets were encircled by a number of concentric circles each with its own letter. Thus the bull’s eye was called Y or Z. The next X, the next A and so on. Mentally the observer divided these circles off like the face of a clock into the various hours. Having received his target and any information he needed with regard to his procedure during the shoot, the pilot found his target on his squared map, found the position of his battery and was ready to get out. On his dashboard he carried the photo of the target, a pad and pencil and a wireless tapper. Arrived at the line, the pilot located his target and his battery, let down his aerial and flying over his battery sent the message that he was ready to start. If the battery was ready, a signal was displayed on the ground in the form of white strips of cloth. When the battery was ready, the pilot flew at any convenient height between the target and the battery and ranged the guns by signalling, by means of the lettered circles and the numbers on a clock face, the approximate position of each shell burst. The battery opened fire with a salvo to show the observer that they were on the target. After that the observer signalled for the firing of each gun. When the battery considered itself ranged it either ceased firing and put out a signal telling the pilot he could go home or else continued to fire in its own time thus automatically telling the observer that he was no longer required. A shoot usually took between two and three hours. Certain combinations of signal letters were used for special occasions. The LL call for instance would turn all the guns within range on to the target signalled. This was only used in the case of the sudden appearance of great numbers of troops in close formation, transport, guns or an attack. Other signals affected the guns in certain areas and others again related to certain types of targets such as an enemy battery engaged in firing.
At the same time that this work was being done, the pilot or observer had to keep his eye open for any changes in terrain, any unusual sights, signs of batteries firing, new trenches, explosions, enemy balloons, enemy aircraft and any air fighting. Personally I found it best to do all the ranging and observation work myself while the observer concentrated his attention on the approach of enemy aircraft. It was neither a very dull nor a very exciting sort of existence. On a nice fine summer evening it was quite pleasant.
One of the most curious of our hazards was the passing of shells. These used to give the machine a terrific bump every time they passed close by. Sometimes, in the case of the twelve inch howitzers for instance, one could see them pass.
Bad weather was a nasty trial. But in addition to ranging guns, we had a multitude of other duties such as night reconnaissances, short day reconnaissances, photographing, dropping bombs, machine gunning the ground and flying low along the front line to keep in contact with the infantry. Before returning after each shoot, we were supposed to drop our bombs and loose off a few rounds of machine gun fire into the enemy back areas. What good this ever did, I do not know. No doubt it was one of the ultimate reasons why we are supposed to have won the war i.e. we did more useless things and encouraged more waste than the Germans.
Occasionally the tedium of a shoot was broken by the appearance of enemy aircraft. Perhaps one was attacked. But if one had a wakeful observer this never needed to happen as we were permitted, even encouraged, to keep out of the way of aerial combats. Few of us deliberately broke this rule. Nor did many of us attack the enemy balloons which were so thoughtfully strung along the enemy back areas. Sometimes a dare devil pilot who had even been known to loop an R.E.8 and come out alive, did actually bring down a balloon or an enemy scout. But for the most part we attended strictly to our own business and left the long bombers and the scouts and the fighters to do whatever dirty work they pleased without giving them the faintest cause to imagine we were trespassing on their preserves.
The tranquillity of my existence was only disturbed when I got more than one shoot to do a day, had to go on a night reconnaissance - which I loathed - and finally when a solitary Bristol Fighter was introduced to the squadron for the purpose of carrying out special long range shoots with nine point two guns on special mountings for harassing back areas. For these shoots one had to get up to a greet height - for an artillery observer who spent most of his flying life between five and three thousand feet - and wireless telephony was introduced. This machine was also used for long reconnaissances and it was on these solitary flights that one used to get into trouble as the enemy scouts, which never patrolled in numbers less than three, were always ready and waiting to gulp up a solitary two seater. On one occasion after looking for some time at the faint smoke coming from the muzzles of three elegantly painted machines, I noticed what I took to be the smoke of a fire in our engine and hastily went into a spin. Fortunately it proved to be only steam from a bullet pierced cylinder. However I was glad to be out of it as my machine was well shot up and my observer wounded. On another occasion, thinking to gain a little cheap glory, we attacked a scout which was sitting on the tail of an R.E.8, and hearing the unpleasant noise of machine guns not my own, looked around and found myself the objective of half a dozen German comrades. Once again my unfortunate observer was wounded, this time very badly and I side slipped out of the fray.
The advance began and presently, we left St Omer and dumped ourselves down on Linselles not far from Lille. This had been an old German aerodrome. The wooden hangers were pierced with the machine gun bullets of raiding scouts and the field was dotted with the tails of twenty pound Hale's bombs which had been dropped from a low height and failed to explode. We erected canvas hangers and were billeted among the small houses which surrounded the aerodrome. Here it was that we did our last war flying helping to tickle up the stern of the German army as it retreated. The armistice came, heralded with the blowing off of numberless Very lights. We could not believe it. I forgot to say that we did not move direct to Linselles. First we went to an aerodrome at the foot of Mt. Cassel and life became distinctly lively as we had to work in bad weather and the advance was causing us to have casualties frequently. At least two of our machines were blown to pieces by our own shells.
From this aerodrome, we moved I think to Ronq near Lille where we did no flying but had a busy enough time trying to keep from freezing to death. For this purpose we had to cut down all the wooden telegraph poles in the neighbourhood. I had a very nice billet here, in the house of an old officer. Our chief amusements here were low flying and exploring the Lille Fort and neighbourhood. I remember a monument to the Germans who fell at the taking of it. It was a curious heterogeneous life at this time. I do not clearly remember where we slept or eat. Linselles however is quite clear. We had our own squadron Mess run by me and a very economical Mess it was. We tried the experiment of a French cook but she did not last long. I limited the amount to be paid for Messing to a Franc a day and we did darn well on it. This I think was my greatest achievement in the war. This was all after the armistice. We used to fly to St. Omer for our provisions and bring them back in the machines.
Another of our diversions was trying to shoot wild duck from the aeroplane with the aid of a walking stick .410 shot gun. There was a great lake on the Lys near Bailleul which was covered with duck. Davidson and I would dive at the duck until we were almost touching them and then do spiral turns round them as they rose. But they soon beat us as they could do tighter climbing turns than we could and after a while they even refused to be driven into the air until our wheels were wet. We never brought one down.
Another diversion was going over the battlefields, exploring the huge defence lines round about Linselles, part of the Hindenburg Line. We visited the Messines ridge and saw the havoc of the heavy fighting there. We visited the Ypres salient, passed the great craters of enormous mines, aeroplanes crashed in shell holes, tanks stuck in the mud and disembowelled. Indescribable the effect the memory of all this has. At the time one was callous and saw every new horror with a casual eye.
The war over, the squadron started to break up. Some of us went off to Germany, some went home and some went to other squadrons elsewhere. I put in for a Hindustani course and was sent to Rouen for six excellent months, passed at the R.A. base depot on the edge of the great forest. It was a fine life, with horses to ride, the woods to explore and nothing much to do except drink and make merry.
Alas, in the end they found me, sent me to some camp near St Omer and shipped me home in a deplorable condition to Manston Camp where finally I was given the choice of becoming a pukka RAF officer or returning to my regiment. I decided on the latter as the indiscipline and disorganisation of the RAF at Mansion disgusted me. It was perhaps a foolish decision.
(On the 3rd June 1919 the London Gazette announced that Loch had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in France. There is no citation so it is unclear whether the DFC related to specific actions while based at St Omer or was given for his overall contribution to the war.)
Chapters 26 - 31
War in Mesopotamia
I reached the 2nd Fifth Gurkhas in Abbottabad some time early in 1920 and found myself taking over the command of the depot. The battalions were both away, one not yet back from Egypt and the other on the frontier, where the second battalion had a very bitter experience during the Afghan war and its related fighting. It struck me as curious that all the old battalion officers whom I had known in 1915 at Shubkadr and in Peshawar were not with their loved battalion on the frontier.
Where had they disappeared? Hardly one of them was a casualty, that I knew. In Mesopotamia the 2nd Fifth had few casualties. It was a different matter with the 1st Fifth. But here was our second battalion commanded during the Afghan war by a senior Captain from the Fourth and its company commanders, I.A. Reserve officers or regulars of the same seniority as myself. Strangely enough after the battalion had returned to Abbotabbad, the older officers began to return to. Wasn't that a strange coincidence? Well the l.A. Reserve officers and the younger regulars did probably just as well as their seniors and certainly died just as bravely. But it gives me a little bitter amusement to reflect on these matters.
I stuck Abbottabad for about six months and then finding that the 3rd battalion under Major Rose was being prepared for Mesopotamia, I volunteered for service and was attached to this battalion.
We went overseas to Busrah as a battalion to take part in the suppression of the 1921 Arab rebellion. We were joined at Karachi by Colonel Barlow, a somewhat whimsical and eccentric officer, whose pants were always appearing below his shorts, who frequently wore his hat back to front and who wore his arm in an honourable sling. The battalion was attached to the self contained brigade called SamCol, destined to march up the Euphrates from Nasariyah, relieve the besieged Samawah and clear the country to Kerbela. We trained to Nasariyah and then started our tedious trek by marching past the tall mounds which marked Ur of the Chaldees. It was most unpleasant marching. We had to keep pace with the relaying of the railway which had all been torn up by the rebels.
We advanced in diamond formation which had been found best against surprise attacks of the enemy. The marching was not so bad when away on the flanks or elsewhere but the dust of troops marching in column in the centre of the formation, the dust from the artillery and transport wagons was unbearable. We suffered a good deal from thirst, as we did not follow the river but the railway. All water was brought to us in tanks and was doled out at the end of the days march. I remember how delicious the foulest, warm water tasted when we could empty our chagalls on making camp for the night. It was exhausting not because of the distances we covered because they were daily very small but because of the all day exposure to the sun without a trace of shade. Fortunately the operations were conducted in the cooler weather. We came into touch with the enemy at various places. At one place - Abu Gizah - it seemed as if there might be an organised fight. We were told there were three lines of trenches to be taken and went into battle at dawn with our hearts in our mouths. However the so called trenches turned out to be shallow unoccupied water cuts. Banners waved from a deeper channel and from this shelter the enemy fired all they could at us. But the artillery and Lewis gun fire quelled their ardour and they crawled down to the river and got away or else scattered and fled. Shortly after this we reached Samawah and found here more resistance. However it did not take very long and needed few casualties to take the place and clear out the rebels. Before reaching Samawah however we had a number of brushes with the Arabs and destroyed a number of their towers in retaliation for the destruction of a river gun boat which had got stuck on a sandbank. The Arabs, through the treachery of the crew succeeded in taking this boat and murdering the men and officers. A lot of the ship’s shells and brass work etc were found in a big tower not far from the scene of the tragedy and I had the pleasure of setting fire to the place.
I always wondered why we never used our aeroplanes more on this campaign. No aeroplane photos of supposed enemy positions were ever issued to the battalions, although there were aeroplanes at Nasariyah which were sometimes used for bombing. I also thought our cavalry screen was pretty dud. Every time a shot was fired the infantry found themselves walking into the cavalry screen. It gave me a poor opinion of Indian Cavalry. The best troops in the show were, I think, the gunners. The infantry never had anything to do, except at Samawah, because of the effective handling of the guns and the dislike of the Arabs for shell fire. If I remember rightly we had two batteries of field guns and one of field howitzers. Our entire force consisted of a regiment of cavalry, one battalion of British Infantry, three battalions of native infantry - one Sikh and two Gurkha - and the gunners, engineers etc. After Samawah, the march up the river was just a picnic. We continued to march in diamond formation but for the most part we used our men to large extent as game beaters. The camel thorn was full of black partridge and hares, the jeheels were full of snipe, duck and geese. In addition enormous flights of sand grouse used to come down to the river at sunset. Besides this game we used to bomb the river for excellent fish. Altogether we did ourselves proud. The shooting was marvellous. At one place we had a brigade shoot through a big marsh. Great fun.
Extracts from letter to father:
3/th G.R. 34th Bde, Rumaitha, M.E.F.
10th December 1920
'A telegraph mending party was fired on this morning and a man wounded. They returned the fire and killed a budhoo (gang member) and a squadron of cavalry have gone out to see if they can get some of the swine. I hope they will succeed.
Yesterday we went out to cover a road-making party some five or six miles north of here and I had very fine shooting there and back and only stopped for lack of cartridges. My bag was two partridge and five sand grouse.'
Finally the work of SamCol was finished, the railway was completed to Baghdad and we were transported thither for a short time.
A little later we were sent down to Busra and after a short stay there embarked again for Karachi. A changed Busra this, to the town I knew in 1916, when there was a heat stroke ward at every corner and we were told to carry revolvers in case of attack. Now you could go anywhere at any time unarmed. I was very keen on carpets and both here and in Baghdad I spent most of my spare time haggling in the bazaars or else fishing for turtles in the creeks.
At last Karachi received us again and we went off to Dehra Dun where the battalion was to be broken up. I stuck Dehra for about a fortnight then volunteers for Mespot were again called for and Dobbs and I volunteered.
On the boat we met another Gurkha - Williams from the Eighth - and with him we reached Busra once more. Here we were asked what battalion we would like to join being given the choice of Sikhs, I think, or Burmans. In a moment of complete aberrations, believing that Burmans were almost on a par with Gurkhas, we voted for them and were shipped off to Mosul to join the 70th Burma Rifles.
In Mosul, a very well built town, in which we occupied excellent stone quarters, very well built and cool, we had the awakening of our lives. We found that Burmans were as like Gurkhas as Gurkhas are like men in the moon. There was literally no comparison. For the world’s rottenest troops give me Burmans. Undisciplined, dirty, slack, sloppy, casual and utterly unsoldierlike. However we were stuck and had to take charge of these peaches. The Burmese officers, almost to a man, were worse than useless and the NCOs were even worse.
Our Colonel - Morgan - who had been for years in the Burma Military Police, the meridian of inefficiency and slackness, was a very bad C.O. About his only qualification to command a battalion of Burmans was the fact that he had somehow been given the D.S.O. and could speak the language. He was supposed to have been a very good company commander during the war but he certainly was a rotten bad C.O.
Mosul was a quite interesting spot. The town was still more or less Arabic, though there was an English bank - where they gave you a little cup of delicious Turkish coffee every time you went to draw a cheque. The bridge of boats was quite a feature. The water melons were marvellous though the method of growing them was repulsive. The ruined walls and bastions of the old Turkish forts were still in existence and on the other side of the Tigris rose the long mounds of buried Nineveh. One or two roof theatres provided one with amusement in the evening. Once I saw Hamlet played in Arabic. It was an astounding interpretation. Hamlet spent most of his time killing people with a curved sword and Juliet was the most terrible harridan who has ever taken the part.
Presently we were drafted out to relieve the troops occupying various outpost positions. The most Northerly was at a place called Zakho among the Kurdich hills, another lay to the East and I was ordered with my company to march to Tel Afar.
It was a tedious three days march. The road ran through barren rather rolling country. Our halts were where we could find water. One night we camped in the open night. The next night we spent in the ruins of an ancient caravanserai crowing the crest of a bluff at the foot of which ran a stream and a glorious pool of crystal clear water with fish swimming in it. How delicious that water was. The next evening we marched into Tel Afar.
This outpost was situated in the buildings which covered and surrounded an ancient city mound, circled by the part coloured ruins of Turkish fortifications crowning the steep slopes of the Tel above the ravine through which a stream, having its source in the base of the Tel, ran. On the other side of the ravine and also along the western flank, the houses were still occupied by the original inhabitants. Tel Afar had been the scene of one of the little tragedies of this country. During the first occupation of the place by the British, an armoured car had gone down into the ravine and had been bogged down there. The local inhabitants had set it on fire and murdered the crew. As a result Tel Afar now bore a rather shattered appearance.
Looking to the West from the Tel one could see a vast distance over a plain dotted with the mounds of ancient cities. The Sinjar range of hills rose to the East. This was the reputed stronghold of the Yezidis or devil worshippers. Tel Afar itself had the reputation of being the place where Elijah or Elisha - I get mixed between them - was fed by the ravens. He probably did not need a great deal to eat as the stream from which he had to drink, if it was the same one from which we got out water, had the most medicinal properties of any water I ever encountered.
My company was billeted among the empty and half ruined houses of the village on the least steep flank of the Tel. The C.O. complete with a squadron of cavalry, lived on the Tel itself. The rest of the garrison consisted of a section of guns and transport people. My second in command and I with the transport officer and the gunner had our Mess on the top floor of a narrow little house with very thick walls and a terrific population of flies. Except on the trek to Samawah, I have never seen so many flies. Yet, we were fairly clean and there was disinfectant spread everywhere. The fact was that the Mess room was cool, not too dark and sufficiently smelly to be attractive to flies. We slept chiefly on the roof of another thick walled double roofed house across the road.
The men were constantly going sick with sand fly fever and and constantly being court-martialled for sleeping on their posts. I was never any good at this court-martial work and finally made such a hash of the forms that I was recalled to Mosul. Nothing of any interest every happened at Tel Afar. All we did was to spend our time quarrelling with each other. Our C.O. never descended from the cool heights of Zakho to come and visit us in all the months we spent at Tel Afar. The quartermasters department in Mosul was poorly run by a young subaltern with no one to help or direct him. All communications with headquarters had to be sent first to Mosul and then on to Zakho. A thoroughly rotten arrangement which no good C.O. would have countenanced.
I was relieved by Dobbs and spent the rest of our time in North Mespot in the cool stone headquarters at Mosul. I had plenty to read and nothing to do so was quite content.
Chapters 32 - 34
Burma and Retirement:
Our battalion was relieved finally by some one else or else it was decided to hold the posts with native levies and constabulary only. We were all withdrawn and marched down river to a rail head, some eighty miles from Mosul. I forgot to say that to reach Mosul from Baghdad, one had to cross the desert in a wonderful Ford lorry convoy, the raggedest convoy of working transport I have ever seen, over the worst possible motor road and all armed to the teeth. This slender thread was the only communication we had with Baghdad.
It was a delightful march down the river. Each night we halted beside the running water and the climate was comparatively cool.
From Baghdad we went to Busrah. From Busrah to Bombay. At Bombay we were transhipped to an Indian Marine man o’ war and in her sailed round the south of India, touched at Colombo and finally reached Rangoon, whence we went by train to Meiktila.
Extracts from letters to father:
5/70th Burma Rifles, Meiktila, Burma 25th October 1921
At last came Rangoon. We woke on the morning of the 19th to find ourselves swirling up a very dirty low banked river with green fields and trees stretching away in profusion on either hand. However we saw very little of the town as they know the Burman troops so well they wanted to give them no chance of deserting in Rangoon itself.
5/70th Burma Rifles, Meiktila, Burma 7th November 1921
My word this is a stinking wet day. Pouring with rain the whole day long and beastly chilly in to the bargain.
I hope the R38 disaster will stop the authorities from wasting money on these dirigibles. I am sure there is no great future for them. The aeroplane which even now can stay up in practically any weather is the thing.
After some time in Meiktila, during which this comic opera regiment which had thousands of names on its books for every man actually in the ranks, tried to reorganise itself and pull itself out of the appalling mess into which incompetence during its raising had flung it. The accounts were in a frightful state and huge sums were unaccounted for. The Burmans continued to be the most indisciplined and useless troops in the Indian Army. But finally we at least lost our treasured C.O., transferred to a position in which he could exercise his remarkable talents of organisation and training. I have seen this C.O. on the parade ground at Meiktila, under the slender spire of the Shew Myin pagoda, with the mouth of the midday cannon staring him reproachfully in the face, rush madly into the ranks of pseudo soldiers he was commanding and seize some luckless rifleman, who was possibly even more ludicrously inept than the others, fling him to the ground and scream with rage.
Extract from letter to father:
Meiktila 24th November 1921
'It is no use dad, I cannot stick Regimental peace soldiering for the rest of my life. We are daily becoming more like bank clerks and my whole time is occupied in adding up columns of figures I never get the same twice running. It drives me crazy. Here of course the clerks are worse than anywhere in the world but the same idea is percolating through the whole army. I swear on my honour that to do one's job properly one must spend five to six hours or more in the office not supervising work but doing it oneself.'
To be continued