The following is about my father’s part in the First World War – more specifically, his part in the Mesopotamia (now Iraq) campaign, described in his letters home to his mother.
Freddy Page-Roberts’s family lived in the 18th century Rectory, Stratfieldsaye, where his father (the great rosarian) was vicar to the Duke of Wellington. Freddy went to Marlborough, thence to Wye Agricultural College and on to Egypt as an employee of the British Government (Egypt was a Protectorate) to irrigate land with Nile water for agricultural purposes. In 1914, when working on these projects, war with the Germans seemed inevitable. So he returned to England as a Territorial to join his regiment, the 1st/4th Hampshires (although he had played cricket for the neighbouring county of Berkshire). After training on Salisbury Plain he was commissioned and sent to join the Indian Army in India.
In 1915, when the British army was engaged with the German army in trench warfare in France, and the Turks, in league with the Germans, ruled Mesopotamia, it was thought that to protect the allies’ oil supplies in the Persian Gulf, and to rule the Mediterranean waves, a force should occupy just southern Iraq. The Indians, who were to provide the soldiers, on the other hand, had in mind to conquer a Mesopotamia that had historically been a veritable Garden of Eden, colonise it with mass emigration, and return it to its productive state. And a conquered Mesopotamia would be a distant protection of its borders. Anyhow, the army were to beat back the Turks in this sector, about the same time as armies were to strike the Turk in the Dardenelles (where the Black Sea is linked to the Mediterranean).
To gain this foothold in southern Mesopotamia, an expeditionary force (IEFD – Indian Expeditionary Force D) was dispatched from India with mainly Indian soldiers and British officers (of which my father, now Captain FW Page-Roberts (age 25), was one).
The campaign was to be run from both the Empire’s HQ in London and the government in India, who provided the troops. With this divergent command structure and of separate national interests there was bound to be confusion and trouble.
After general chaos, without proper maps or understanding the terrain (mostly mud, water, many extremely vivid mirages and mosquito-infested reeds (let alone it being very cold by night and scorchingly hot by day), it came as rather a surprise that after some difficult fighting the Turks retreated northwards. Danders were up. Advance was almost unstoppable. Generals needed victories and glory.
The Turks were one thing, the indigenous Arabs quite another. The Turks fought like seasoned soldiers and were clearly the enemy. The tribal Arabs, on the other hand, whose allegiances were needed by both sides, resented occupation by both, and took advantage of both. Their method of fighting was to skirmish with stealth, shoot accurately, grab, and run. They were much feared as thieves, even causing the soldiers to sleep on their rifles for fear of them being stolen.
So it came about that my father was part of a force detailed to advance up the River Euphrates to take the strategic town of Nasariyah (sometimes spelt as Nasariyeh). This was to protect the western flank of the proposed operations. Maps and charts were useless, local boats, commandeered and weighed down by armour and guns, drew more than the general depth of water, so were a burden. Thick reeds had to be pushed through, scorching heat caused sunburn, no mosquito nets were available, the marsh Arabs skirmished, killed and stole, not to mention the wily Turk who defended from well-constructed positions and then retired strategically.
It is during this part of the campaign that my father wrote two letters home to his mother.
Near N……. (Nasariyah)
July 21st 1915
Just had mail of June 13th.
My dearest Mother,
It is some time since I wrote, but no boat has gone down from here, so it doesn’t make any difference.
We’ve had a very strenuous time. We went to the advanced trenches about a week ago. We went up by boat at night, landed, and after sundry jobs, got into the trenches at 12. p.m. Next morning we got up at 3.30 a.m., and they started shelling us at 4.30 and we had five or six hours under pretty heavy fire. My Company lost 2 killed and 3 wounded. We were in a very bad spot, as the night before one of the barges got stuck in the mud, and had to be left. This of course drew the enemy’s fire, and we happened to be in direct line about 50 yards short. It really wasn’t at all pleasant, especially as the third shot killed two. I thought we were in for a pretty bad time. If they had had high explosives, we should have been blown to bits, so the gunners say. We can’t dig trenches here, as water is just below ground. Meanwhile the 24th had gone out in boats on the left flank with some mountain guns to attack some sand hills, and had an awful time, five out of 13 officers killed and a hundred and thirty casualties.
Turks much stronger than expected, and hoards of Arabs. As a matter of fact, we all but went on that expedition, and if we had been a little stronger we should have gone. We buried a man called Birkbeck of the 24th Pujalies. Ask the Knights if he is a relation of the Farnham ones. Next day was quieter, but dreadfully hot, and we had to stay in marching order with no shade and no breeze. (I got a touch of the sun). In the evening at eight, we relieved the 76th in the advanced trenches, 600 yards from the Turks. We were lucky, and not fired on, till we settled in and were digging hard to improve cover, then they let loose.
Next day. Stood to arms at 3.15 a.m. and then started absolute torture till 7.39 p.m. Couldn’t move, not a breeze, and awful heat. Time goes very slowly, and we had severe heat strokes, one died. We had to dig for water, which was beastly. At 8.30 we were relieved and went back under a pretty heavy fire: got back all right, sweating like anything.
Next day I was feeling pretty rotten, and had a bit of temp., so came down here (hospital) at night, and am getting on all right. It’s only really an ambulance, with no attendance, and no food arrangements, but we get tents (double fly ones). Today it’s been 110 in the tent, so you can imagine what it was like under one waterproof sheet.
We may not be undergoing the hardships of France, but I should like to get the people who say we are having a picnic here. And put them out in our trenches.
More reinforcements have come up, and one aeroplane at last, which says the Turks are retiring to another position.
Hope we shall soon do something.
Love to all,
Your loving Freddy.
The next letter is headed Nasihirah, and dated July 27th, 1915.
My dearest Mother,
At last we are at Nasihirah, after nearly five weeks hard work and beastly heat. I believe the Indian Mutiny is the only other time that operations have been undertaken in an Asiatic summer. I am very disappointed, as I did not take part in the charge that turned the Turks out of their trenches on one side of the river, being still on the sick list. Three of us who were in Hospital joined the Battalion the night before the show, but were sent with the half-fit men in reserve on a barge, so missed the great show of this war. It was very annoying, but we were not fit, and wouldn’t have been much use for 24 hours of solid work. We started the shelling about 5 a.m., and about 7.30 we (only 120 strong and 9 officers) and the 7th Gurkhas left our advanced trenches for the enemy, and had a very hot time of it, and came under very heavy shell and rifle fire, and had to wait a bit, three quarters of an hour, under a wall before getting on. Meanwhile an iron barge was taken up to the creek we had to cross, about 200 yards from the Turks with sappers and miners and one of our companies. They had a very rough time, and the barge got practically blown to pieces and eventually sank. These men got off and lined the creek, covering the advance, while the sappers made bridges. The creek was supposed to be five feet deep, but turned out to be only three and quite fordable. Two of that Company were killed and most hit.
The Battalion and the Gurkhas then advanced and crossed the creek, cheered by the sappers and miners, and rushed to the trenches, from which the Turks were beginning to bolt, and by the time we got there were in full flight. Only about 20 of us, and 40 Gurkhas were up at first and cleared them out, 500 of them.
The W. Kents on the other side had gone like anything, straight at the trenches, and took them, but with pretty bad casualties. There were about 5000 Turks, and we had about 3000 at the most, our reserves were never used. Besides this they had a very strongly fortified position and excellent trenches. We got about 500 prisoners, and killed about 700, and took 16 guns. Not so bad.
Our casualties were about 350 all told.
We had Officers: 1 killed, 1 died of wounds, 3 wounded. Men: 8 killed, 1 died of wounds and 31 wounded. 44 in total.
Barton, our Adj. from the 2nd Battalion was killed soon after the start. He was one of the very best, and only married last August to an awfully nice girl. He will be a great loss to the Battalion.
Paul Simmons, of Basingstoke, died in the afternoon, hit through the liver. He was quite conscious about five minutes before he died. He was also one of the best, and I am awfully sorry about both of them. The Colonel was wounded, and rather lucky, as it just missed his lung, Osborn in chest, poor old fat Parsons broken arm.
This took place on the 24th of July (1915). We and the un-fit men spent the morning on the barge, and had shells pitching around. In the afternoon I did what I could for the wounded, and saw about burying the dead. At night the barge was towed up to the enemy’s trenches, where the men were, and next evening we came on to Nasihirah, and bivouacked, everyone tired out. Next morning I took 60 men to the barracks on the opposite bank to attend the salute of 21 guns, and the unfurling of the Union Jack. It is still very hot, but we can get some fresh meat and vegetables here, which is a great blessing.
The General came last night, and said we had done, with the Gurkhas (both very weak, 300 about) what a whole Battalion should have done, and we had done quite as well as regulars, and said we might be sent to India to join the rest, and recuperate a bit. I hope we shall go, as we are only about 100 strong, and rather worn out, and have had a good show. We’ve just heard Turkish reinforcements are about seven hours march away, but it’s not verified yet: we ought to give them a pretty warm time if they come.
Haven’t had mails for ages. Many thanks for chocolate. It’s rather melted, but when we get to ice, it will be all right, It’s very nice to be going strong, but I do wish I had been in the charge. Only 4 officers got there. My Company had 13 casualties out of 40.
Now comes a large gap when either letters did not arrive, or they were lost, I will fill in the rough details as I know them.
This next letter concerns the headlong push north up the Tigris toward Kut, where the advance army was besieged by the Turks. Later, in an attempt to raise this siege, my father would be badly wounded in the Battle of Hanna. The fighting now described was chaotic, partly due to the speedy advance outstripping the length of available telephone cable back to Headquarters, and an almost complete breakdown of communication between those in command on the battlefield.
Indian Expeditionary Force D
Jan 11th 1916
My dearest Mother,
I am still going strong, and as comfortable as can be expected under the circumstances. Have left Amarah by boat, on the 13th of December (did not see the New Year in) arrived at Ali Gharbi on 1st Jan. Joined up with D Coy (Hugh North etc) all quite fit.
We stayed there until the 6th and then had orders to march. We did a forced march to Calel (?) past part of the force that had gone on in front about 20 miles, and arrived in camp after dark, which made things very difficult. It rained in the night, which didn’t add to the comfort. We had seen shells bursting all morning and next day we went on again about five miles and caught up the first force. Waited for orders, crossed the bridge and advanced towards our right flank to represent heavy reinforcements. We came under rather heavy shrapnel which burst all round. Luckily we only had 5 casualties in my Company. We went on for about one and a half miles and then retired. Got into camp near river and then had orders to march at 9 p.m. to a point of concentration preparatory
to a night march round our right flank. We waited from 11 to 4.30 with no blankets. Bitterly cold. At 4.50 we started again and marched about 6 miles down stream, but eventually found no trace of Turks, and came back to the bridge.
Directly we got back we had to go out again to take up a position on our right flank. We again came under heavy shrapnel, which luckily burst too high. We then dug some good trenches. In the evening it rained and made the trenches perfectly beastly and cold. Next morning it was misty and damp and we found the Turks had gone in the night. About 1 p.m. we returned to bridgehead and thought we were going to advance but got orders to cross over and look after a hospital there. We crossed by boat but didn’t get off, and we slept in the saloon in some comfort and had the first wash and shave for about five days. Yesterday we crossed over again and came up river about 7 miles and joined up with the rest of the force. It took us from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. to do it as we had a lot of cow guns and carts to get along over a very bad road. Then we had to wait to 3 a.m. for our valises and men and blankets. There was a very heavy dew and it froze in the night, so it was pretty beastly. Good day today and I think we rest here for the present. The casualties were very heavy about four thousand five hundred on our side, some of the regiments just arrived got it very badly. At present we don’t know where the Turks have gone.
We’ve had no mail for some time now. Hope to get one soon.
Cheerio. Hope you’re all well. Freddy.
Jan 16th 1916
My dearest Mother,
Just a line as I hear mail goes out in about half an hour. There’s nothing much to say except that we are having rather an unpleasant time but no more casualties as yet. I think I last wrote about the 11th. We are not yet in Kut owing to the Turks putting up a very good show in the way of a rear guard action.
There was another scrap about 3 days ago, which just missed being a great success. We hovered about in reserve and on preparing for action advanced to find the wily Turk had gone. We had some very cold wet nights without bedding or covering of any sort. But I’m glad to say we are again at the river and water will give us a chance to get at our parent boat and tents.
The troops from France are beginning to find this not such a picnic as they thought, especially the little things like medical comforts which of course one can’t expect to be as good here, as there.
We had a service on the boat this morning.
We got a mail three days ago, which had been done a long time and dated Dec 7th (latest). While on treck it would be very nice to receive food and chocolate. Mess stores are not very plentiful.
All the officers except Foster are fit and well and full of life.
Glad to hear you’re all going strong. Please thank father for his letter. Love to all
Your loving Freddy.
Feb. 2nd 1916
My dearest Mother,
I’ afraid you haven’t had a regular supply of letters lately, but we have been wandering about all over the country, and I really haven’t had any letters between the 9th and 27th of December. One is somewhere up river and the other went down on the Persia. I hope Nan (?) Crane wasn’t on it.
I hope you got the telegram about me being hit all right. After being in reserve the lst two shows and only coming under shell fire, we were supporting the attack on 21st over an absolutely open piece of ground with a long way to go, and the poor old Regiment got cut about badly, all the officers except I were hit and about 90% of the men. A good many are missing as we got into their trenches but couldn’t stay there. Next day there was an armistice but a lot were not found.
I expect (SS Varela, Feb5) you saw the casualty list so I won’t write them all over again, but the Turks managed to pick out the very best of the bunch. All my friends in the Regiment are gone or else up in Kut and now the Colonel has gone. I don’t know about what will become of us. Absolutely the very best of the officers were killed or missing, and I’m afraid there’s not much hope for the missing.
Poor old Hugh was killed instantaneously which is better than it might have been.
I am very glad to hear you are going strong and had a successful operation at last. You seem to have been well looked after by all the doctors. I expect that by the time you get this you will be about again.
As to my wound, I got hit about 200 yards from their trenches high up on the left thigh and couloid (?) nerve. They potted at me all day but luckily didn’t get me again. I was hit about 8 am and lay out that day and night till about 3.30 next morning when some stretcher bearers luckily came along, and after a very adventurous journey (as it had been raining all the time and the place was a mass of mud and ditches full of water) I got to an ambulance about 7 am. I lay in the mud there after having some rum till about 10 am, and got onto a boat at about 12 pm and into some dry blankets.
On the 24th I got onto another boat going down stream, full of British casualties who made a beastly noise all night. Of course it rained and the water poured onto my bed. We dined on bully and biscuits most of the way down and eventually got to Basra on the 28th and into a bed in hospital and had a decent meal.
On Feb 3rd we got onto the hospital ship Varela and are now on our way to Bombay, thank goodness.
I think after 11 months of Mesopotamia one wants a bit of a change.
The bullet must have hit the bone but very luckily didn’t break it, but cut the nerves. And I can’t at present move my left foot or leg below the knee much.
I don’t know if it will be a long job or not. If I get any convalescent leave I shall try to get to Cashmere for a bit. I’m afraid there’s not much chance of getting to England.
The food on board is top hole and I’ve had the first decent meal since we arrived in this country 11 months ago. Quite a change after picnicking for so long, and very hard not to overeat.
They’ve got some nursing sisters out now from India at Basra which makes a lot of difference to the running of the hospital, as the orderlies are only picked up from regiments in the country. We have got a lot of men doing orderlies who’ve had practically no training. A few RAMC men did come with the troops from France.
Colaha Hospital. Bombay Feb 10th 1916
We arrived here last night after a very good trip with only one morning at all rough.
We got off Bombay Harbour about 11 am, took some time to get into docks and I eventually got into an ambulance at about 6.30. And so to the Hospital about 20 minutes run. It’s a very fine hospital on the sea, but unfortunately I can’t see out.
My ward is quite nice and high and airy. 18 beds, not all full.
The Major examined me this afternoon and says they’ll explore the nerve (sciatic) to see what’s wrong, and that I shall probably be sent to England as it will be rather a long job.
It will be top hole getting back for a bit.
I heard from Mrs. Bowker who is at Poona and of course very upset about the Colonel. I am sorry for her. I think she’s nursing at a Poona Hospital. If I do stay in India I hope I go there.
I can’t hear many details about my Company. A lot got down river before I got in, and are now all over India.
I believe I was reported killed in the Indian papers. I hope you got the wires I sent all right.
Well I hope I shall soon be home and find everyone fit.
Love to all.
Your loving Freddy
My father doesn’t mention the blood loss, pain, being left for dead among the dead, building a coffin of mud around him for protection and the rain filling this coffin with bloody water, twice falling off the stretcher on the bearer’s three and a half hour treck to an ambulance station, or the unsprung cart that then transported his wounded body to the river Tigris. But he was lucky to have escaped death at Hanna, where 3,600 of his comrades were killed.
He never really recovered from this dreadful experience, living his life as a barely successful chicken and mushroom farmer through the great depression, and with his foot held up by a spring connected to a collar around his leg.
Desperate for good health, he took the great elixir of the time discovered by Madame Curie – radium. This destroyed his blood, and he died in 1938, aged 48.