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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 influence.

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 the Shatt-el-Arab.

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.