Veritable hell: “We knew that some one had blundered, but obedience is the first rule of the army”

Here is a dramatic account of life in the Army Service Corps taking water to the thirsty troops one terrible day in Mesopotamia.

(We publish the following account of an exciting adventure in Mesopotamia in justice to the gallant men of the A.S.C., in case there should still be any who are liable to despise the man not in the front line. ED)

“A Stunt.”
(By a FORD Driver in Mesopotamia)

We had just completed an eleven days’ continuous run, and were expecting a day or two’s well earned rest, but such was not to be.

We reached —— at midnight and “parked up” our cars outside the old Turkish Cavalry Barracks. I “clicked” for guard, and at 3.30 a.m. took a telegram from a despatch rider, containing instructions to move off and load up immediately, So at the first streak of dawn, amid much “wailing and gnashing of teeth”, we “wound up,” and after picking up supplies we started off on a joy ride across the desert to an unknown destination, for a journey of indefinite duration.

We arrived at ——, and to our great joy were informed that we were to rest for the remainder of the day. What hopes!

For the next two days we had barely time to eat the necessary “bully,” so busy were we rushing supplies of all descriptions to an advanced position.

At the end of the second day, thinking we had earned a little sleep, we had just got into our blankets when the whistle announced “fall in.”

This time (about 8.30 p.m.) it was to pick up troops, under sealed orders. For the first fifteen minutes all was well, then we pulled up, and the fun commenced. All lamps out, no smoking, talking or blowing of hooters, the greatest precautions to be taken.

Of course, you should know that we were on the desert, following a track which we had never travelled before, everything pitch black, laden with troops, with the knowledge that with us rested the success of the action planned for the following day break.

When returning the following morning, we could hardly believe our eyes, when we saw the route we had taken in the dark, deep, yawning precipices and huge boulders of rock, and the places of danger which we passed but “where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise.” Anyhow, after about an hour’s ride or so, during which time we had relieved the tension on our nerves by smashing a few radiators, losing the column and sundry other mere “inconveniences,” it was decided to pull up for one-and-a-half hours till the moon should show just a glimmer, for progress under the circumstances was absolutely impossible.

This hour-and-a-half was even more nerve racking than driving, as we hardly dared to whisper, for here we were, stranded in “No Man’s Land,” where, apart from the actual enemy, viz.:- Johnny Turk, the great nuisances were the hostile and cunning Arabs, who do not at all object to using us as targets for practical jokes of a serious nature.

At last we started off again, and after many and indescribable difficulties, we parked up under the shelter of a big hill to drop our men and to wait for dawn and further instructions.

The day broke and with the dawn our brave men went over the top of the hill, but Johnny was not asleep this time, for he soon started throwing a few shells over, and we, being somewhat interested, stood on top of our cars to watch the proceedings, until one of the enemy’s aeroplanes “spotted” our “place of rest” and gave information to his artillery, who got our range to a nicety, and we (reckless, daring spectators) began to discover, a few at a time, that the underneath parts of our cars needed attention, but I freely admit, that to stand and allow someone to throw 6in. shells into our midst, while powerless to reply or defend ourselves, did not greatly appeal to me at least.

However, our time of idleness was brief, for word came through, even in the early dewy hours of the morning, that the only water available for our advancing troops was from the salt lakes.

Then we got busy, packets, tanks, buckets, petrol tins, canvas water carriers, everything capable of holding water is flung aboard and we dash off by two’s and three’s from our “park” to gain a river some few miles across the desert.

But Johnny had anticipated our movement and had the river banks nicely covered with snipers and machine guns, so instead of running “en bloc” and filling up altogether, we had to dash up one or two at a time and fill up our receptacles.

When all the difficulties were overcome, and we were ready to commence our return journey, it was approximately 10 a.m., with a temperature of 110° in the shade, when we regained sight of our troops it was practically midday, with a temperature of 128° in the shade.

Then came a veritable hell, the water had to be got to the troops and orders came through that the M.T.’s were to “carry on.”

We knew that some one had blundered, but obedience is the first rule of the army.

The M.T.’s had never been under fire in Mesopotamia before and never since, except in cases of single cars on special detail, but here we were, about eighty cars in column, ordered to practically reach the front line trenches, shells bursting right and left. Did someone mention “Brooklands?”

Never before had Ford cars travelled at such a speed, sixty pounders make excellent accelerators. There were many miraculous escapes, cars riddled with machine gun bullets and shrapnel, some cars put out of action, here and there was a man putting on a spare wheel under fire, but marvellous to relate, not one of our men was touched. I shall not forget a shell dropping and rolling under a car about two yards away.

Thank God, ‘twas a “dud.”

Eventually the trenches were reached, the sight was almost beyond description, dead and dying, troops mad with thirst, they had been drinking salt water, and more men had been “laid low” by sun and thirst than anything else.

Disregarding discipline, our cars were raided, the water speedily drunk, and all craving for more. Then we drove, hither and thither, picking up wounded and dying, and made our way to the field hospital. By this time it was “every man for himself,” and we practically worked individually, using our own discretion. During this time, two of our men gained Military Medals, and one of our officers was “mentioned” and has since received promotion.

Night was now drawing near, but it made no difference to us. Half was ordered to move the Casualty Clearing Station and then drive thirty miles (this time in safety) across the desert for more ammunition.

On the return journey, I, personally, and several of my “pals,” I know, fell asleep over the wheel, to be suddenly and rudely awoke by a “gentle” drop into a hole or a bump against a sand bank.
When we got back we found that our troops had retired about seven or eight miles, and while we were fetching the stores and wounded back, the Arabs had great sport “sniping” at us, and some of us nearly got into trouble for stopping to reply to their “overtures of good will.”

But we successfully completed the retirement, and Johnny did not follow up, so the “stunt” s finished, and we returned to —- for a rest, — what hopes, we were dead beat, no sleep for over fifty-six hours, but within twenty-four hours we were again on our ordinary work of carrying supplies from one dump to another, to be forgotten until the next stunt, but don’t forget, — when the M.T.’s are wanted again, they will be there.

The Newburian (magazine of St Bartholomew’s School, Newbury), July 1918 (N/D161/1/8)

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“A terrible blow to his parents”

Tribute is paid to Burghfield men whose deaths had been reported.

THE WAR

Casualties
C Searle (killed)
Sidney Cooper (wounded and missing, reported killed)
Ernest F Bunce (died of wounds)

Discharge
R Jordan (wounded)

Obituary Notices

Lance-Corporal Ernest Bunce is reported as having died from wounds received on the 18th November; he was on 1/1st Berks Yeomanry in Palestine during General Allenby’s victorious advance. No news except the telegram of his death has reached his parents, deepest sympathy is felt for them and his twin sister Elsie in their great sorrow. They wish to return grateful thanks for many kind messages.

Christopher Searle of the Royal West Surrey was killed on October 4th in France. His Commanding Officer writes of him that he had just gone through an attack with his Battalion safely, and on going to fetch some water, a shell burst close to him, and he was killed instantly.

“The Company all regret him, he did his work well and was very popular.”

It is a terrible blow to his parents, he was their only son, but he was a brave lad, and they must feel very proud of him.

Sidney Cooper, 2nd Royal Berks, of Pinge Wood, was reported as “wounded and missing” some time ago, he is now believed to have been killed.

Fred W Fisher died in hospital at Brighton on December 6th after a long sad illness partly due to a kick from a mule. He enlisted in the ASC in March 1916, and was fit for duty for only a few months.

Burghfield parish magazine, January 1918 (D/EX725/4)

Rather a drag in operations at the Dardanelles

General Charles E Callwell wrote again to Ralph Glyn on the latter’s way back from his mission to organise ammunition for Gallipoli. He had some inside information regarding Cabinet discussions.

War Office
14th August 1915

My dear Ralph

Many thanks for your letter from Marseilles. You are one of those people who possess the gift of getting things done and I highly appreciate your successful efforts to rush that ammunition stuff through so satisfactorily and rapidly, and I am taking care to let Braithwaite know that the Medforce in reality owes its receipt mainly to you – I am assuming that you have not been submarined or wrecked or any dreadful thing. I told Winston the other day that Lord K had gathered somehow that you had been relling him (Winston) about ammunition requirements at the Dardanelles and had not been pleased. Winston was full of regrets but added “Well, after all it was worth it”.

Your wire from Marseilles about your transport going through went to QMG2 before I ever saw it, hence the return wire. The only way to make sure that a wire intended for me goes to me in this place seems to be to address it by name. Wortley has always been an opponent of anything going by the Marseilles route and was I think a little surprised and chagrined to find its advantage so clearly demonstrated thanks to you.

I had not heard of Sykes’ mishap and hope that he is all right again both on his own account and in view of the importance of having him fit and well for the work out at the Dardanelles. We are watching the progress of events out there anxiously, as there seems to have been rather a drag in the operations after the first landing at Suvla Bay just at the moment when it was all-important to push and get as much ground as possible. They also seem to be in a good deal of difficulty in respect to water at that point, but this will probably right itself as they settle down. I trust that things are getting cleared up at Mudros where it is evident that there has been shocking congestion of traffic, coupled with want of push by somebody to get things done and straightened out.

They are having the devil of a Cabinet Sub-committee to recommend what forces we should be prepared to put in the field next year. Crewe and Curzon and Austin and Selborne and Winston and Henderson, and I had a long afternoon with them yesterday. Curzon and Austin are towers of strength, Crewe makes a suave chairman, Winston talks infinitely and Henderson tells inappropriate anecdotes. I daresay that in due course they will adumbrate something useful, but in the meantime they want a lot of information which I am sure K will jib at giving them. They all seem to be for compulsory service, but were not inclined to fall in with my urgings that there should be an announcement of the intention at once in view of its moral effect upon Allies and enemies.

Your Italian friends have not done much beyond talking at present, but Delme Radcliffe writes that he was taken aside on the battlefield the other day by Porro and Cadorna and that the latter was very sympathetic and made a lot of enquiries. Why they will not go to war with the Turks I cannot make out, seeing that the Turks have so stirred up Tripoli against them that they have not got much more dry land left than Birdwood has at Anzac.

Yours ever

Chas E Callwell

Letter from General Charles E Callwell to Ralph Glyn c/o the British Embassy at Athens (D/EGL/C24)