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War in the Garden of EdenByKermit Roosevelt

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War in the Garden of Eden

By

Kermit Roosevelt

Table of Contents

I. OFF FOR MESOPOTAMIA

II. THE TIGRIS FRONT

III. PATROLLING THE RUINS OF BABYLON

IV. SKIRMISHES AND RECONNAISSANCES ALONG THE KURDISH FRONT

V. THE ADVANCE ON THE EUPHRATES

VI. BAGHDAD SKETCHES

VII. THE ATTACK ON THE PERSIAN FRONT

VIII. BACK THROUGH PALESTINE

IX. WITH THE FIRST DIVISION IN FRANCE AND GERMANY

I

II

Kermit Roosevelt

From the drawing by John S. Sargent, July 8, 1917

I. OFF FOR MESOPOTAMIA

It was at Taranto that we embarked for Mesopotamia. Reinforcements were sent out from England in one of two ways—either all the way round the Cape of Good Hope, or by train through France and Italy down to the desolate little seaport of Taranto, and thence by transport over to Egypt, through the Suez Canal, and on down the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The latter method was by far the shorter, but the submarine situation in the Mediterranean was such that convoying troops was a matter of great difficulty. Taranto is an ancient Greek town, situated at the mouth of a landlocked harbor, the entrance to which is a narrow channel, certainly not more than two hundred yards across. The old part of the town is built on a hill, and the alleys and runways winding among the great stone dwellings serve as streets. As is the case with maritime towns, it is along the wharfs that the most interest centres. During one afternoon I wandered through the old town and listened to the fisherfolk singing as they overhauled and mended their nets. Grouped around a stone archway sat six or seven women and girls. They were evidently members of one family—a grandmother, her daughters, and their children. The old woman, wild, dark, and hawk-featured, was blind, and as she knitted she chanted some verses. I could only understand occasional words and phrases, but it was evidently a long epic. At intervals her listeners would break out in comments as they worked, but, like "Othere, the old sea-captain," she "neither paused nor stirred."

There are few things more desolate than even the best situated "rest-camps"—the long lines of tents set out with military precision, the trampled grass, and the board walks; but the one at Taranto where we awaited embarkation was peculiarly dismal even for a rest-camp. So it happened that when Admiral Mark Kerr, the commander of the Mediterranean fleet, invited me to be his guest aboard H.M.S. Queen until the transport should sail, it was in every way an opportunity to be appreciated. In the British Empire the navy is the "senior service," and I soon found that the tradition for the hospitality and cultivation of its officers was more than justified. The admiral had travelled, and read, and written, and no more pleasant evenings could be imagined than those spent in listening to his stories of the famous writers, statesmen, and artists who were numbered among his friends. He had always been a great enthusiast for the development of aerial warfare, and he was recently in Nova Scotia in command of the giant Handley-Page machine which was awaiting favorable weather conditions in order to attempt the nonstop transatlantic flight. Among his poems stands out the "Prayer of Empire," which, oddly enough, the former German Emperor greatly admired, ordering it distributed throughout the imperial navy! The Kaiser's feelings toward the admiral have suffered an abrupt change, but they would have been even more hostile had England profited by his warnings:

"There's no menace in preparedness, no threat in being strong,

If the people's brain be healthy and they think no thought of wrong."

After four or five most agreeable days aboard the Queen the word came to embark, and I was duly transferred to the Saxon, an old Union Castle liner that was to run us straight through to Busra.

As we steamed out of the harbor we were joined by two diminutive Japanese destroyers which were to convoy us. The menace of the submarine being particularly felt in the Adriatic, the transports travelled only by night during the first part of the voyage. To a landsman it was incomprehensible how it was possible for us to pursue our zigzag course in the inky blackness and avoid collisions, particularly when it was borne in mind that our ship was English and our convoyers were Japanese. During the afternoon we were drilled in the method of abandoning ship, and I was put in charge of a lifeboat and a certain section of the ropes that were to be used in our descent over the side into the water. Between twelve and one o'clock that night we were awakened by three blasts, the preconcerted danger-signal. Slipping into my life-jacket, I groped my way to my station on deck. The men were filing up in perfect order and with no show of excitement. A ship's officer passed and said he had heard that we had been torpedoed and were taking in water. For fifteen or twenty minutes we knew nothing further. A Scotch captain who had charge of the next boat to me came over and whispered: "It looks as if we'd go down. I have just seen a rat run out along the ropes into my boat!" That particular rat had not been properly brought up, for shortly afterward we were told that we were not sinking. We had been rammed amidships by one of the escorting destroyers, but the breach was above the water-line. We heard later that the destroyer, though badly smashed up, managed to make land in safety.

We laid up two days in a harbor on the Albanian coast, spending the time pleasantly enough in swimming and sailing, while we waited for a new escort. Another night's run put us in Navarino Bay. The grandfather of Lieutenant Finch Hatton, one of the officers on board, commanded the Allied forces in the famous battle fought here in 1827, when the Turkish fleet was vanquished and the independence of Greece assured.

Several days more brought us to Port Said, and after a short delay we pushed on through the canal and into the Red Sea. It was August, and when one talks of the Red Sea in August there is no further need for comment. The Saxon had not been built for the tropics. She had no fans, nor ventilating system such as we have on the United Fruit boats. Some unusually intelligent stokers had deserted at Port Said, and as we were in consequence short-handed, it was suggested that any volunteers would be given a try. Finch Hatton and I felt that our years in the tropics should qualify us, and that the exercise would improve our dispositions. We got the exercise. Never have I felt anything as hot, and I have spent August in Yuma, Arizona, and been in Italian Somaliland and the Amazon Valley. The shovels and the handles of the wheelbarrows blistered our hands.

Map of Mesopotamia showing region of the fighting

Inset, showing relative position of Mesopotamia and other countries

We had a number of cases of heat-stroke, and the hospital facilities on a crowded transport can never be all that might be desired. The first military burial at sea was deeply impressive. There was a lane of Tommies drawn up with their rifles reversed and heads bowed; the short, classic burial service was read, and the body, wrapped in the Union Jack, slid down over the stern of the ship. Then the bugles rang out in the haunting, mournful strains of the "Last Post," and the service ended with all singing "Abide With Me."

We sweltered along down the Red Sea and around into the Indian Ocean. We wished to call at Aden in order to disembark some of our sick, but were ordered to continue on without touching. Our duties were light, and we spent the time playing cards and reading. The Tommies played "house" from dawn till dark. It is a game of the lotto variety. Each man has a paper with numbers written on squares; one of them draws from a bag slips of paper also marked with numbers, calls them out, and those having the number he calls cover it, until all the numbers on their paper have been covered. The first one to finish wins, and collects a penny from each of the losers. The caller drones out the numbers with a monotony only equalled by the brain-fever bird, and quite as disastrous to the nerves. There are certain conventional nicknames: number one is always "Kelley's eye," eleven is "legs eleven," sixty-six is "clickety click," and the highest number is "top o' the 'ouse." There is another game that would be much in vogue were it not for the vigilance of the officers. It is known as "crown and anchor," and the advantage lies so strongly in favor of the banker that he cannot fail to make a good income, and therefore the game is forbidden under the severest penalties.

As we passed through the Strait of Ormuz memories of the early days of European supremacy in the East crowded back, for I had read many a vellum-covered volume in Portuguese about the early struggles for supremacy in the gulf. One in particular interested me. The Portuguese were hemmed in at Ormuz by a greatly superior English force. The expected reinforcements never arrived, and at length their resources sank so low, and they suffered in addition, or in consequence, so greatly from disease that they decided to sail forth and give battle. This they did, but before they joined in fight the ships of the two admirals sailed up near each other—the Portuguese commander sent the British a gorgeous scarlet ceremonial cloak, the British responded by sending him a handsomely embossed sword. The British admiral donned the cloak, the Portuguese grasped the sword; a page brought each a cup of wine; they pledged each other, threw the goblets into the sea, and fell to. The British were victorious. Times indeed have sadly changed in the last three hundred years!

I was much struck with the accuracy of the geographical descriptions in Camoens' letters and odes. He is the greatest of the Portuguese poets and wrote the larger part of his master-epic, "The Lusiad," while exiled in India. For seventeen years he led an adventurous life in the East; and it is easy to recognize many harbors and stretches of coast line from his inimitable portrayal.

Busra, our destination, lies about sixty miles from the mouth of the Shatt el Arab, which is the name given to the combined Tigris and Euphrates after their junction at Kurna, another fifty or sixty miles above. At the entrance to the river lies a sand-bar, effectively blocking access to boats of as great draft as the Saxon. We therefore transshipped to some British India vessels, and exceedingly comfortable we found them, designed as they were for tropic runs. We steamed up past the Island of Abadan, where stand the refineries of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. It is hard to overestimate the important part that company has played in the conduct of the Mesopotamian campaign. Motor transport was nowhere else a greater necessity. There was no possibility of living on the country; at first, at all events. General Dickson, the director of local resources, later set in to so build up and encourage agriculture that the army should eventually be supported, in the staples of life, by local produce. Transportation was ever a hard nut to crack. Railroads were built, but though the nature of the country called for little grading, obtaining rails, except in small quantities, was impossible. The ones brought were chiefly secured by taking up the double track of Indian railways. This process naturally had a limit, and only lines of prime importance could be laid down. Thus you could go by rail from Busra to Amara, and from Kut to Baghdad, but the stretch between Amara and Kut had never been built, up to the time I left the country. General Maude once told me that pressure was being continually brought by the high command in England or India to have that connecting-link built, but that he was convinced that the rails would be far more essential elsewhere, and had no intention of yielding.

I don't know the total number of motor vehicles, but there were more than five thousand Fords alone. On several occasions small columns of infantry were transported in Fords, five men and the driver to a car. Indians of every caste and religion were turned into drivers, and although it seemed sufficiently out of place to come across wizened, khaki-clad Indo-Chinese driving lorries in France, the incongruity was even more marked when one beheld a great bearded Sikh with his turbaned head bent over the steering-wheel of a Ford.

Modern Busra stands on the banks of Ashar Creek. The ancient city whence Sinbad the sailor set forth is now seven or eight miles inland, buried under the shifting sands of the desert. Busra was a seaport not so many hundreds of years ago. Before that again, Kurna was a seaport, and the two rivers probably only joined in the ocean, but they have gradually enlarged the continent and forced back the sea. The present rate of encroachment amounts, I was told, to nearly twelve feet a year.

The modern town has increased many fold with the advent of the Expeditionary Force, and much of the improvement is of a necessarily permanent nature; in particular the wharfs and roads. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the Mesopotamian campaign is the permanency of the improvements made by the British. In order to conquer the country it was necessary to develop it,—build railways and bridges and roads and telegraph systems,—and it has all been done in a substantial manner. It is impossible to contemplate with equanimity the possibility of the country reverting to a rule where all this progress would soon disappear and the former stagnancy and injustice again hold sway.

Ashar Creek at Busra

As soon as we landed I wandered off to the bazaar—"suq" is what the Arab calls it. In Busra there are a number of excellent ones. By that I don't mean that there are art treasures of the East to be found in them, for almost everything could be duplicated at a better price in New York. It is the grouping of wares, the mode of sale, and, above all, the salesmen and buyers that make a bazaar—the old bearded Persian sitting cross-legged in his booth, the motley crowd jostling through the narrow, vaulted passageway, the veiled women, the hawk-featured, turbaned men, the Jews, the Chaldeans, the Arabs, the Armenians, the stalwart Kurds, and through it all a leaven of khaki-clad Indians, purchasing for the regimental mess. All these and an ever-present exotic, intangible something are what the bazaar means. Close by the entrance stood a booth festooned with lamps and lanterns of every sort, with above it scrawled "Aladdin-Ibn-Said." My Arabic was not at that time sufficient to enable me to discover from the owner whether he claimed illustrious ancestry or had merely been named after a patron saint.

A few days after landing at Busra we embarked on a paddle-wheel boat to pursue our way up-stream the five hundred intervening miles to Baghdad. Along the banks of the river stretched endless miles of date-palms. We watched the Arabs at their work of fertilizing them, for in this country these palms have to depend on human agency to transfer the pollen. At Kurna we entered the Garden of Eden, and one could quite appreciate the feelings of the disgusted Tommy who exclaimed: "If this is the Garden, it wouldn't take no bloody angel with a flaming sword to turn me back." The direct descendant of the Tree is pointed out; whether its properties are inherited I never heard, but certainly the native would have little to learn by eating the fruit.

Above Kurna the river is no longer lined with continuous palm-groves; desert and swamps take their place—the abode of the amphibious, nomadic, marsh Arab. An unruly customer he is apt to prove himself, and when he is "wanted" by the officials, he retires to his watery fastnesses, where he can remain in complete safety unless betrayed by his comrades. On the banks of the Tigris stands Ezra's tomb. It is kept in good repair through every vicissitude of rule, for it is a holy place to Moslem and Jew and Christian alike.

The third night brought us to Amara. The evening was cool and pleasant after the scorching heat of the day, and Finch Hatton and I thought that we would go ashore for a stroll through the town. As we proceeded down the bank toward the bridge, I caught sight of a sentry walking his post. His appearance was so very important and efficient that I slipped behind my companion to give him a chance to explain us. "Halt! Who goes there?" "Friend," replied Finch Hatton. "Advance, friend, and give the countersign." F.H. started to advance, followed by a still suspicious me, and rightly so, for the Tommy, evidently member of a recent draft, came forward to meet us with lowered bayonet, remarking in a businesslike manner: "There isn't any countersign."

Except for the gunboats and monitors, all river traffic is controlled by the Inland Water Transport Service. The officers are recruited from all the world over. I firmly believe that no river of any importance could be mentioned but what an officer of the I.W.T. could be found who had navigated it. The great requisite for transports on the Tigris was a very light draft, and to fill the requirements boats were requisitioned ranging from penny steamers of the Thames to river-craft of the Irrawaddy. Now in bringing a penny steamer from London to Busra the submarine is one of the lesser perils, and in supplying the wants of the Expeditionary Force more than eighty vessels were lost at sea, frequently with all aboard.

As was the custom, we had a barge lashed to either side. These barges are laden with troops, or horses, or supplies. In our case we had the first Bengal regiment—a new experiment, undertaken for political reasons. The Bengali is the Indian who most readily takes to European learning. Rabindranath Tagore is probably the most widely known member of the race. They go to Calcutta University and learn a smattering of English and absorb a certain amount of undigested general knowledge and theory. These partially educated Bengalis form the Babu class, and many are employed in the railways. They delight in complicated phraseology, and this coupled with their accent and seesaw manner of speaking supply the English a constant source of caricature. As a race they are inclined to be vain and boastful, and are ever ready to nurse a grievance against the British Government, feeling that they have been provided with an education but no means of support. The government felt that it might help to calm them if a regiment were recruited and sent to Mesopotamia. How they would do in actual fighting had never been demonstrated up to the time I left the country, but they take readily to drill, and it was amusing to hear them ordering each other about in their clipped English. They were used for garrisoning Baghdad.

After we left Amara we continued our winding course up-stream. A boat several hours ahead may be seen only a few hundred yards distant across the desert. The banks are so flat and level that it looks as if the other vessels were steaming along on land. The Arab river-craft was most picturesque. At sunset a mahela, bearing down with filled sail, might have been the model for Maxfield Parrish's Pirate Ship. The Arab women ran along the bank beside us, carrying baskets of eggs and chickens, and occasionally melons. They were possessed of surprising endurance, and would accompany us indefinitely, heavily laden as they were. Their robes trailed in the wind as they jumped ditches, screaming out their wares without a moment's pause. An Indian of the boat's crew was haggling with a woman about a chicken. He threw her an eight-anna piece. She picked up the money but would not hand him the chicken, holding out for her original price. He jumped ashore, intending to take the chicken. She had a few yards' start and made the most of it. In and out they chased, over hedge and ditch, down the bank and up again. Several times he almost had her. She never for a moment ceased screeching—an operation which seemed to affect her wind not a particle. At the end of fifteen minutes the Indian gave up amid the delighted jeers of his comrades, and returned shamefaced and breathless to jump aboard the boat as we bumped against the bank on rounding a curve.

One evening we halted where, not many months before, the last of the battles of Sunnaiyat had been fought. There for months the British had been held back, while their beleaguered comrades in Kut could hear the roar of the artillery and hope against hope for the relief that never reached them. It was one phase of the campaign that closely approximated the gruelling trench warfare in France. The last unsuccessful attack was launched a week before the capitulation of the garrison, and it was almost a year later before the position was eventually taken. The front-line trenches were but a short distance apart, and each side had developed a strong and elaborate system of defense. One flank was protected by an impassable marsh and the other by the river. When we passed, the field presented an unusually gruesome appearance even for a battle-field, for the wandering desert Arabs had been at work, and they do not clean up as thoroughly as the African hyena. A number had paid the penalty through tampering with unexploded grenades and "dud" shells, and left their own bones to be scattered around among the dead they had been looting. The trenches were a veritable Golgotha with skulls everywhere and dismembered legs still clad with puttees and boots.

At Kut we disembarked to do the remaining hundred miles to Baghdad by rail instead of winding along for double the distance by river, with a good chance of being hung up for hours, or even days, on some shifting sand-bar. At first sight Kut is as unpromising a spot as can well be imagined, with its scorching heat and its sand and the desolate mud-houses, but in spite of appearances it is an important and thriving little town, and daily becoming of more consequence.

The railroad runs across the desert, following approximately the old caravan route to Baghdad. A little over half-way the line passes the remaining arch of the great hall of Ctesiphon. This hall is one hundred and forty-eight feet long by seventy-six broad. The arch stands eighty-five feet high. Around it, beneath the mounds of desert sand, lies all that remains of the ancient city. As a matter of fact the city is by no means ancient as such things go in Mesopotamia, dating as it does from the third century B.C., when it was founded by the successors of Alexander the Great.

My first night in Baghdad I spent in General Maude's house, on the river-bank. The general was a striking soldierly figure of a man, standing well over six feet. His military career was long and brilliant. His first service was in the Coldstream Guards. He distinguished himself in South Africa. Early in the present war he was severely wounded in France. Upon recovering he took over the Thirteenth Division, which he commanded in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and later brought out to Mesopotamia. When he reached the East the situation was by no means a happy one for the British. General Townshend was surrounded in Kut, and the morale of the Turk was excellent after the successes he had met with in Gallipoli. In the end of August, 1916, four months after the fall of Kut, General Maude took over the command of the Mesopotamian forces. On the 11th of March of the following year he occupied Baghdad, thereby re-establishing completely the British prestige in the Orient. One of Germany's most serious miscalculations was with regard to the Indian situation. She felt confident that, working through Persia and Afghanistan, she could stir up sufficient trouble, possibly to completely overthrow British rule, but certainly to keep the English so occupied with uprisings as to force them to send troops to India rather than withdraw them thence for use elsewhere. The utter miscarriage of Germany's plans is, indeed, a fine tribute to Great Britain. The Emir of Afghanistan did probably more than any single native to thwart German treachery and intrigue, and every friend of the Allied cause must have read of his recent assassination with a very real regret.

When General Maude took over the command, the effect of the Holy War that, at the Kaiser's instigation, was being preached in the mosques had not as yet been determined. This jehad, as it was called, proposed to unite all "True Believers" against the invading Christians, and give the war a strongly religious aspect. The Germans hoped by this means to spread mutiny among the Mohammedan troops, which formed such an appreciable element of the British forces, as well as to fire the fury of the Turks and win as many of the Arabs to their side as possible. The Arab thoroughly disliked both sides. The Turk oppressed him, but did so in an Oriental, and hence more or less comprehensible, manner. The English gave him justice, but it was an Occidental justice that he couldn't at first understand or appreciate, and he was distinctly inclined to mistrust it. In course of time he would come to realize its advantages. Under Turkish rule the Arab was oppressed by the Turk, but then he in turn could oppress the Jew, the Chaldean, and Nestorian Christians, and the wretched Armenian. Under British rule he suddenly found these latter on an equal footing with him, and he felt that this did not compensate the lifting from his shoulders of the Turkish burden. Then, too, when a race has been long oppressed and downtrodden, and suddenly finds itself on an equality with its oppressor, it is apt to become arrogant and overbearing. This is exactly what happened, and there was bad feeling on all sides in consequence. However, real fundamental justice is appreciated the world over, once the native has been educated up to it, and can trust in its continuity.

The complex nature of the problems facing the army commander can be readily seen. He was an indefatigable worker and an unsurpassed organizer. The only criticism I ever heard was that he attended too much to the details himself and did not take his subordinates sufficiently into his confidence. A brilliant leader, beloved by his troops, his loss was a severe blow to the Allied cause.

Baghdad is often referred to as the great example of the shattered illusion. We most of us have read the Arabian Nights at an early age, and think of the abode of the caliphs as a dream city, steeped in what we have been brought up to think of as the luxury, romance, and glamour of the East. Now glamour is a delicate substance. In the all-searching glare of the Mesopotamian sun it is apt to appear merely tawdry. Still, a goodly number of years spent in wandering about in foreign lands had prepared me for a depreciation of the "stuff that dreams are made of," and I was not disappointed. It is unfortunate that the normal way to approach is from the south, and that that view of the city is flat and uninteresting. Coming, as I several times had occasion to, from the north, one first catches sight of great groves of date-palms, with the tall minarets of the Mosque of Kazimain towering above them; then a forest of minarets and blue domes, with here and there some graceful palm rising above the flat roofs of Baghdad. In the evening when the setting sun strikes the towers and the tiled roofs, and the harsh lights are softened, one is again in the land of Haroun-el-Raschid.