The great distances that separate
the main stations in Mesopotamia, and the long sea
voyage between Basra and Bombay, threw a considerable
strain on that part of the army that sits in offices
and deals with army forms. At Poona the supreme
headquarters of the campaign resided amid the clear
breezes of the Indian hills. The consequence was
that in cases where two or three copies of a form
would have sufficed on the Western front, there it
was necessary to multiply them indefinitely, so as
to satisfy all the various authorities down the line.
For example, in sending sick to India, a nominal roll
is compiled with name, number, rank, regiment, nature
of disease and so on. This, in triplicate, is
an ordinary procedure anywhere. But in Basra
it was necessary, for some reason, to make out over
twenty copies, and this is a long business on a typewriter
that will only do a small number at a time, and is
wanted for other things. It also caused a great
delay before indents could materialise. You wished,
say, to order a truss for a patient. Out there,
owing to the heat, articles of this nature perished
quickly. You reported the measurements to the
quartermaster. He made a copy of the indent in
triplicate, as well as an office copy. The indents
went to the Assistant Director of Medical Services
for approval. They were then sent back to the
quartermaster. He then sent them to the Base Medical
Depot, who acknowledged their receipt and said they
would be sent to India as soon as possible. In
India they passed through other complicated machinery
and the weeks went by. A truss, I suppose, is
worth a few shillings.
There were three other factors that
added to the difficulties, apart from distance.
One was the bar at the mouth of the river, which made
it impossible for deeply laden vessels coming up the
Persian Gulf and drawing many feet of water to pass
without unloading in part into another vessel.
The other was that strip of river between Kurna and
Amara known as the Narrows, where river boats with
supplies stuck constantly, especially when the floods
fell and the water was low. One boat sticking
here would hold up all traffic.
The third factor was the effect of
the excessive heat. This effect, rather subtle
in itself, might be called the psychological factor
of the situation, for there is not the slightest doubt
that it produced a kind of cussedness in everyone,
from the highest to the lowest, and sapped energy
and made changes unwelcome. For excessive and
prolonged heat and the hot season lasted
seven or eight months rouses a defensive
mechanism of inertia whose aim is to preserve life.
You saw that in the earliest cases of incipient heat-stroke.
A man felt suddenly all the power go out of his legs.
He wanted to lie down, and this was the best thing
he could do.
Mental exertion became almost impossible.
Reading was not easy, writing was a burden, and thinking
a matter of extreme difficulty. Your interest
lay in watching the simplest thing. A Japanese
fly-trap with its slowly-turning, sticky surfaces
was fascinating. There was a spice of oriental
cruelty in the way it slowly entrapped the fly, and
it was exactly that which made the appeal. You
soon understood how it comes about that the Eastern
takes all the natural facts of life for granted, without
bothering about fine shades, and acts on them unquestioningly.
What is called altruism in the West seems artificial.
It is not cynicism exactly that the place breeds,
and I never met anyone who was sentimental in Mesopotamia,
but it is a kind of descent that occurs to a level
of values that are coloured black and white, quite
plain. A man who expected to throw a spell over
the country and act as a stimulant on everyone would
truly need to possess a prodigious character.
“In the tropics there is going on continually
and unconsciously a tax on the nervous system which
is absent in temperate climates. The nervous
system, especially those parts which regulate the temperature
of the body, is always on the strain, and the result
is that in time it suffers from more or less exhaustion.”
The common effect of this is a “deficient mental
energy generally commencing with unnatural drowsiness
or loss of appetite and a yearning for stimulants which
culminates in that lowering of nerve potential which
we know so well as neurasthenia.” Thus
write the professors of medicine in India on the effects
of prolonged heat. I would add to it a large
mental element, partly induced by the lack of any
kind of amusement, by the want of interest, and by
the peculiar effect of a landscape that is entirely
flat and uniform. An artificial mountain scenery,
painted on canvas, such as one used to see at Earl’s
Court, would have been a blessed relief. I think
a London fog would have been delightful. Towards
the end of September, a few small, fleecy clouds appeared
one day in the sky and everyone ran out and stared
solemnly at them as if they were angels. But there
is one phrase that sums up the prolonged effects of
heat better than any scientific rigmarole. It
takes the silk out of a man.
In Basra there was published daily
a small, excellent newspaper which gave the latest
Reuters and printed selections from papers that came
by the mail. It was sorely missed when we went
up river. I believe it was edited by a lady.
There was a club in Ashar where it was possible to
sit under electric fans. In old Basra there was
an Arab theatre, containing a few dancing girls and
a cinematograph. But the arrival of the mails
was the great feature of life out there. They
came roughly once a week, and it is difficult to describe
with what emotions they were received. The whole
district became revivified for a space under their
Through the month of June the sickness
increased and work went on steadily increasing.
We had 400 beds in the wards at that time, and it
was necessary to find accommodation for an average
of 700 patients. Anyone who was likely to be
sick for any length of time was sent to India whenever
the opportunity arose. Down at the British Hospital
on the river front they were sending cases off that
were likely to be more than three days ill. It
was an oriental polyglot scene down there on the hospital
quay in the comparative cool of evening, when the big
white hospital ship lay off the bank and crowds of
ticketed patients sat under the shelters waiting their
turn to embark. Now and then a pale nurse, dressed
in white, with white helmet and red-lined parasol would
walk through the throng. Arab belumchis,
Jews, Persians, Armenians, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Pathans,
and Ghats crowded the bank, voluble and picturesque.
Dhobies thrashed clothes at the river edge. Bhisties
drew water in kerosene tins. Convalescent Tommies
in blue dungaree, fished stolidly wishing
they were bound for India. The roofs of the square
white buildings were filled with nurses taking tea.
Launches whirled up and discharged Staff officers.
All down the centre of the stream lay big vessels.
Already the place had a cosmopolitan spirit a
new-born genius and one could see it dimly
in the future, when the Baghdad railway runs through
it to Kuweit, a white city, garish with painted promenades
and electric lights, with as many languages sounding
in the street as in Port Said.
The dates were now hanging in big
masses of oval, greeny-yellow fruit, some in clusters
of two hundredweight and more, and the palm leaves
were turning brown at their points. The scarlet
of the pomegranate trees had vanished from the date
groves and the floods were beginning to fall.
It had been necessary to surround the hospital clearing
with a mud wall, or bund, about four feet in height,
in order to keep out the water, for at times there
is as much as a six foot rise when the tide comes up
At any simple job of this kind the
Arabs are quite good. They can plaster mud on
a roof, or make a bund, or run up a mud and reed hut,
or raise the level of the flooring of a ward, and
they take their time over it. But anything that
savours of machinery is usually beyond them. It
was a common saying amongst the Arabs that sickness
stopped as soon as the dates were gathered in.
That proved to be untrue. It was a long while
until the dates were ripe, and after they were gathered
sickness still continued. The amount of heat
those dates required before they turned yellow and
soft, and their skins began to crinkle faintly, was
extraordinary. For weeks and weeks they remained
hard and green, though exposed to the fiercest heat
of the sun. Pomegranates, in the same way, hung
for months before their skins turned to that beautiful
deep mahogany hue of the ripe fruit.
On a particular day at the end of
June one might have fancied a crisis had been reached.
Curiously enough, by the irony of coincidence, the
Reuters of that day contained the news that it had
been stated in Parliament that, in the interests of
the public, no statement would be made about the state
of affairs in Mesopotamia.
That night it was rumoured that Verdun had fallen....
The gift of a large fleet of motor
ambulances presented by the cinema people at home
was a great boon, for urgent cases could be transported
to hospital rapidly, instead of jolting over the plain
in bullock tongas. Unfortunately, the axles
of these cars were not quite equal to the rough work,
and in a short time they were sent away to other spheres
where roads were better. The ground in our neighbourhood
was so undermined by floods that on one occasion one
of these cars, standing empty, suddenly broke through
the upper crust up to its axles. A great deal
of perspiration flowed before it was extricated.
In the meanwhile the creek was full
of mahallas loading up equipment, for we had
received orders to go higher up-river.