Read CHAPTER III of War in the Garden of Eden, free online book, by Kermit Roosevelt, on ReadCentral.com.

PATROLLING THE RUINS OF BABYLON

We returned to find Samarra buried in dust and more desolate than ever. A few days later came the first rain-storm. After a night’s downpour the air was radiantly clear, and it was joy to ride off on the rounds, no longer like Zeus, enveloped in a cloud.

It was a relief to see the heat-stroke camps broken up. During the summer months our ranks were fearfully thinned through the sun. Although it was the British troops that suffered most, the Indians were by no means immune. Before the camps were properly organized the percentage of mortality was exceedingly large, for the only effective treatment necessitates the use of much ice. The patient runs a temperature which it was impossible to control until the ice-making machines were installed. The camps were situated in the coolest and most comfortable places, but in spite of everything, death was a frequent result, and recoveries were apt to be only partial. Men who had had a bad stroke were rarely of any further use in the country.

Another sickness of the hot season which now began to claim less victims was sand-fly fever. This fever, which, as its name indicates, was contracted from the bites of sand-flies, varied widely in virulence. Sometimes it was so severe that the victim had to be evacuated to India; as a rule he went no farther than a base hospital at Baghdad or Amara.

One of the things about which the Tommy felt most keenly in the Mesopotamian campaign was that there was no such thing as a “Cushy Blighty.” To take you to “Blighty” a wound must mean permanent disablement, otherwise you either convalesced in the country or, at best, were sent to India. In the same manner there were no short leaves, for there was nowhere to go. At the most rapid rate of travelling it took two weeks to get to India, and once there, although the people did everything possible in the way of entertaining, the enlisted man found little to make him less homesick than he had been in Mesopotamia. Transportation was so difficult and the trip so long that only under very exceptional circumstances was leave to England given. One spring it was announced that officers wishing to get either married or divorced could apply for leave with good hopes of success. Many applied, but a number returned without having fulfilled either condition, so that the following year no leaves were given upon those grounds. The army commander put all divorce cases into the hands of an officer whose civil occupation had been the law, and who arranged them without the necessity of granting home leave.

A week after our return to Samarra a rumor started that General Maude was down with cholera. For some time past there had been sporadic cases, though not enough to be counted an epidemic. The sepoys had suffered chiefly, but not exclusively, for the British ranks also supplied a quota of victims. An officer on the staff of the military governor of Baghdad had recently died. We heard that the army commander had the virulent form, and knew there could be no chance of his recovery. The announcement of his death was a heavy blow to all, and many were the gloomy forebodings. The whole army had implicit confidence in their leader, and deeply mourned his loss. The usual rumors of foul play and poison went the rounds, but I soon after heard Colonel Wilcox in pre-war days an able and renowned practitioner of Harley Street say that it was an undoubted case of cholera. The colonel had attended General Maude throughout the illness. The general had never taken the cholera prophylactic, although Colonel Wilcox had on many occasions urged him to do so, the last time being only a few days before the disease developed.

General Marshall, who had commanded General Maude’s old division, the Thirteenth, took over. The Seventeenth lost General Gillman, who thereupon became chief of staff. This was a great loss to his division, for he was the idol of the men, but the interest of the Expeditionary Force was naturally and justly given precedence.

In due course my transfer to the Motor Machine-Gun Corps came through approved, and I was assigned to the Fourteenth battery of light-armored motor-cars, commanded by Captain Nigel Somerset, whose grandfather, Lord Raglan, had died, nursed by Florence Nightingale, while in command of the British forces in the Crimean War. Somerset himself was in the infantry at the outbreak of the war and had been twice wounded in France. He was an excellent leader, possessing as he did dash, judgment, and personal magnetism. A battery was composed of eight armored cars, subdivided into four sections. There was a continually varying number of tenders and workshop lorries. The fighting cars were Rolls-Royces, the others Napiers and Fords.

At that time there were only four batteries in the country. We were army troops that is to say, we were not attached to any individual brigade, or division, or corps, but were temporarily assigned first here and then there, as the need arose.

In attacks we worked in co-operation with the cavalry. Although on occasions they tried to use us as tanks, it was not successful, for our armor-plate was too light. We were also employed in raiding, and in quelling Arab uprisings. This latter use threw us into close touch with the political officers. These were a most interesting lot of men. They were recruited in part from the army, but largely from civil life. They took over the civil administration of the conquered territory and judiciously upheld native justice. Many remarkable characters were numbered among them men who had devoted a lifetime to the study of the intricacies of Oriental diplomacy. They were distinguished by the white tabs on the collars of their regulation uniforms; but white was by no means invariably the sign of peace, for many of the political officers were killed, and more than once in isolated towns in unsettled districts they sustained sieges that lasted for several days. We often took a political officer out with us on a raid or reconnaissance, finding his knowledge of the language and customs of great assistance. Sir Percy Cox was at the head, with the title “Chief Political Officer” and the rank of general. His career in the Persian Gulf has been as distinguished as it is long, and his handling of the very delicate situations arising in Mesopotamia has called forth the unstinted praise of soldier and civilian alike.

Ably assisting him, and head of the Arab bureau, was Miss Gertrude Bell, the only woman, other than the nursing sisters, officially connected with the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Forces. Miss Bell speaks Arabic fluently and correctly. She first became interested in the East when visiting her uncle at Teheran, where he was British minister. She has made noteworthy expeditions in Syria and Mesopotamia, and has written a number of admirable books, among which are Armurath to Armurath and The Desert and the Sown. The undeniable position which she holds must appear doubly remarkable when the Mohammedan official attitude toward women is borne in mind. Miss Bell has worked steadily and without a leave in this trying climate, and her tact and judgment have contributed to the British success to a degree that can scarcely be overestimated.

The headquarters of the various batteries were in Baghdad. There we had our permanent billets, and stores. We would often be ordered out in sections to be away varying lengths of time, though rarely more than a couple of months. The workshops’ officer stayed in permanent charge and had the difficult task of keeping all the cars in repair. The supply of spare parts was so uncertain that much skill and ingenuity were called for, and possessed to a full degree by Lieutenant Linnell of the Fourteenth.

A few days after I joined I set off with Somerset and one of the battery officers, Lieutenant Smith, formerly of the Black Watch. We were ordered to do some patrolling near the ruins of Babylon. Kerbela and Nejef, in the quality of great Shiah shrines, had never been particularly friendly to the Turks, who were Sunnis but the desert tribes are almost invariably Sunnis, and this coupled with their natural instinct for raiding and plundering made them eager to take advantage of any interregnum of authority. We organized a sort of native mounted police, but they were more picturesque than effective. They were armed with weapons of varying age and origin not one was more recent than the middle of the last century. Now the Budus, the wild desert folk, were frequently equipped with rifles they had stolen from us, so in a contest the odds were anything but even.

We took up our quarters at Museyib, a small town on the banks of the Euphrates, six or eight miles above the Hindiyah Barrage, a dam finished a few years before, and designed to irrigate a large tract of potentially rich country. We patrolled out to Mohamediyah, a village on the caravan desert route to Baghdad, and thence down to Hilleh, around which stand the ruins of ancient Babylon. The rainy season was just beginning, and it was obvious that the patrolling could not be continuous, for a twelve-hour rain would make the country impassable to our heavy cars for two or three days. We were fortunate in having pleasant company in the officers of a Punjabi infantry battalion and an Indian cavalry regiment. Having commandeered an ancient caravan-serai for garage and billets, we set to work to clean it out and make it as waterproof as circumstances would permit. An oil-drum with a length of iron telegraph-pole stuck in its top provided a serviceable stove, and when it rained we played bridge or read.

I was ever ready to reduce my kit to any extent in order to have space for some books, and Voltaire’s Charles XII was the first called upon to carry me to another part of the world from that in which I at the moment found myself. I always kept a volume of some sort in my pocket, and during halts I would read in the shade cast by the turret of my car. The two volumes of Layard’s Early Adventures proved a great success. The writer, the great Assyriologist, is better known as the author of Nineveh and Babylon. The book I was reading had been written when he was in his early twenties, but published for the first time forty years later. Layard started life as a solicitor’s clerk in London, but upon being offered a post in India he had accepted and proceeded thither overland. On reaching Baghdad he made a side-trip into Kurdistan, and became so enamored of the life of the tribesmen that he lived there with them on and off for two years years filled with adventure of the most thrilling sort.

I had finished a translation of Xenophon shortly before and found it a very different book than when I was plodding drearily through it in the original at school. Here it was all vivid and real before my eyes, with the scene of the great battle of Cunaxa only a few miles from Museyib. Babylon was in sight of the valiant Greeks, but all through the loss of a leader it was never to be theirs. On the ground itself one could appreciate how great a masterpiece the retreat really was, and the hardiness of the soldiers which caused Xenophon to regard as a “snow sickness” the starvation and utter weariness which made the numbed men lie down and die in the snow of the Anatolian highlands. He remarks naively that if you could build a fire and give them something hot to eat, the sickness was dispelled!

The rain continued to fall and the mud became deeper and deeper. It was all the Arabs could do to get their produce into market. The bazaar was not large, but was always thronged. I used to sit in one of the coffee-houses and drink coffee or tea and smoke the long-stemmed water-pipe, the narghilé. My Arabic was now sufficiently fluent for ordinary conversation, and in these clubs of the Arab I could hear all the gossip. Bazaar rumors always told of our advances long before they were officially given out. Once in Baghdad I heard of an attack we had launched. On going around to G.H.Q. I mentioned the rumor, and found that it was not yet known there, but shortly after was confirmed. I had already in Africa met with the “native wireless,” and it will be remembered how in the Civil War the plantation negroes were often the first to get news of the battles. It is something that I have never heard satisfactorily explained.

In the coffee-houses, besides smoking and gossiping, we also played games, either chess or backgammon or munkula. This last is an exceedingly primitive and ancient game it must date almost as far back as jackstones or knucklebones. I have seen the natives in Central Africa and the Indians in the far interior of Brazil playing it in almost identical form. In Mesopotamia the board was a log of wood sliced in two and hinged together. In either half five or six holes were scooped out, and the game consisted in dropping cowrie shells or pebbles into the holes. When the number in a particular hollow came to a certain amount with the addition of the one dropped in, you won the contents.

In most places the coffee was served in Arab fashion, not Turkish. In the latter case it is sweet and thick and the tiny cup is half full of grounds; in the former the coffee is clear and bitter and of unsurpassable flavor. The diminutive cup is filled several times, but each time there is only a mouthful poured in. Tea is served in small glasses, without milk, but with lots of sugar. The spoons in the glasses are pierced with holes like tea-strainers so that the tea may be stirred without spilling it.

There was in particular one booth I could never tire watching. The old man who owned it was a vender of pickles. In rows before him were bottles and jars and bowls containing pickles of all colors red, yellow, green, purple, white, and even blue. Above his head were festoons of gayly painted peppers. He had a long gray beard, wore a green turban and a flowing robe with a gold-braided waistcoat. In the half-lights of the crowded, covered bazaar his was a setting in which Dulac would have revelled.

At Museyib we led a peaceful, uneventful existence completely shut in by the mud. We had several bazaar rumors about proposed attacks upon the engineers who were surveying for a railroad that was to be built to Hilleh for the purpose of transporting the grain-crop to the capital. Nothing materialized, however. The conditions were too poor to induce even the easily encouraged Arabs to raid. One morning when I was wandering around the gardens on the outskirts of the town I came across some jackals and shot one with my Webley revolver. It was running and I fired a number of times, and got back to town to find that my shooting had started all sorts of excitement and reports of uprisings.

Christmas came and the different officers’ messes organized celebrations. The mess we had joined was largely Scotch, so we decided we must make a haggis, that “chieftain of the pudden race.” The ingredients, save for the whiskey, were scarcely orthodox, but if it was not a success, at least no one admitted it.

As soon as the weather cleared we made a run to Kerbela a lovely town, with miles of gardens surrounding it and two great mosques. The bazaar was particularly attractive plentifully supplied with everything. We got quantities of the deliciously flavored pistachio-nuts which were difficult to obtain elsewhere, as well as all sorts of fruit and vegetables. There were no troops stationed in the vicinity, so the prices were lower than usual. The orders were that we should go about in armed bands, but I never saw any marked indication of hostility. The British, true to the remarkable tact and tolerance that contributes so largely to their success in dealing with native races, posted Mohammedan sepoys as guards on the mosques, and no one but Moslems could even go into the courtyards. If this had not been done, there would have been many disturbances and uprisings, for the Arabs and Persians felt so strongly on the question that they regarded with marked hostility those who even gazed into the mosque courtyards. Why it is so different in Constantinople I do not know, but there was certainly no hostility shown us in Santa Sophia nor in the mosque of Omar in Jerusalem. Be that as it may, forbidden fruit is always sweet, and the Tommies were inclined to force an entrance. During a change of guard a Tommy who had his curiosity and initiative stimulated through recourse to arrick, the fiery liquor distilled from dates, stole into the most holy mosque in Kerbela. By a miracle he was got out unharmed, but for a few hours a general uprising with an attendant massacre of unbelievers was feared.

The great mosque lost much of its dignity through an atrocious clock-tower standing in the courtyard in front of it. It had evidently been found too expensive to cover this tower with a golden scale to shine in the sun, so some ingenious architect hit upon the plan of papering it with flattened kerosene-tins. It must have glinted gloriously at first, but weather and rain had rusted the cans and they presented but a sorry spectacle. From the thousand and one uses to which these oil-cans have been put by the native, one is inclined to think that the greatest benefit that has been conferred on the natives by modern civilization is from the hands of the Standard Oil Company.

There were a fair number of Indians living in Kerbela before the war, for devout Shiahs are anxious to be buried near the martyred sons of Ali, and when they are unable to move to Kerbela in their lifetime they frequently make provisions that their remains may be transported thither. The British found it a convenient abode for native rulers whom they were forced to depose but still continued to pension.

Hilleh, which stands near the ruins of ancient Babylon, is a modern town very much like Museyib. I never had a chance to study the ruins at any length. Several times we went over the part that had been excavated by the Germans immediately before the war. I understand that this is believed to be the great palace where Belshazzar saw the handwriting on the wall. It is built of bricks, each one of which is stamped in cuneiform characters. There are very fine bas-reliefs of animals, both mythical and real. In the centre is the great stone lion, massively impressive, standing over the prostrate form of a man. The lion has suffered from fire and man; there have even been chips made in it recently by Arab rifles, probably not wantonly, but in some skirmish. Standing alone in its majesty in the midst of ruin and desolation amid the black tents of a people totally unable to construct or even appreciate anything of a like nature, it gave one much to think over and moralize about. The ruins of Babylon have been excavated only in very small part; there are great isolated mounds which have never been touched, and you can still pick up in the sand bits of statuary, and the cylinders that were used as seal-rings. The great city of Seleucia on the Tigris was built largely with bricks and masonry brought by barge from the ruins of Babylon through the canal that joined the two rivers.

The prophecy of Isaiah has fallen true:

And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’
excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.

It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from
generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent
there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.

But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses
shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there,
and satyrs shall dance there.

And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate
houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces: and her time is
near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged.

A few days after Christmas, we were ordered to return to Baghdad. The going was still bad. We had a Ford tender in advance to find and warn us of the softest spots. Once it got into the middle of such a bottomless bog that, after trying everything else, I hit upon the idea of rolling it out. It was built all enclosed like a bread-van, and we turned it over and over until we had it clear of the mud. We had hard work with the heavy cars sometimes we could tow one out with another, but frequently that only resulted in getting the two stuck. Once when the cars were badly bogged I went to a near-by Arab village to get help. I told the head man that I wanted bundles of brush to throw in front of the cars in order to make some sort of a foundation to pass them over. He at once started turning out his people to aid us, but after he had got a number of loads under way he caught sight of one of his wives, who, instead of coming to our assistance, was washing some clothes in a copper caldron by the fire. There followed a scene which demonstrated that even an Arab is by no means always lord of his own household. The wife refused to budge; the Arab railed and stormed, but she went calmly on with her washing, paying no more attention to his fury than if he were a fractious, unreasonable child. At length, driven to a white heat of rage, the head man upset the caldron into the fire with his foot. The woman, without a word, got up and stalked into a near-by hut, from which she refused to emerge. There was nothing for her discomfited adversary to do but go on with his rounds.

By manoeuvring and digging and towing we managed to make seven miles after fourteen hours’ work that first day. Night found us close beside an Arab village, from which I got a great bowl of buffalo milk to put into the men’s coffee. Early in the morning we were off again. The going was so much better that we were able to make Baghdad at ten o’clock in the evening.