Retreat from Ctesiphon
It’s a Good News/Bad News day for General Townshend, on the retreat from Ctesiphon. The good news is that his blokes have arrived safely at Aziziya, and his aerial reconaissance indicates that pursuit is far enough away for him to take a little time to re-organise everyone before setting out again towards Kut-al-Amara, where he intends to turn and take on his enemy. The possibility of being besieged there is obvious, but he’s not overly concerned by that. Twenty years before, a young Captain Townshend had made his name on the North-West Frontier of India, where he had successfully defended Chitral Fort for two months before the siege was broken by a relief force. Now he’s going to invite the Ottomans to besiege him, and so pin them in place for the relief force to give them a damn good kicking. We’ll see how that goes.
Ah, there was bad news, wasn’t there? A few miles upstream of Aziziya on the River Tigris, two of Townshend’s heavy vessels have blundered into a particularly difficult sandbank. One of them is soon re-floated, but one of them, Shaitan, refuses to budge. Three other ships take it in turns to tow the ship off, and all of them fail miserably, as more Arab bullets whistle around their ears. That’s pretty crappy. More tomorrow.
Once again I promise to everyone that yes, we are nearly at the end of this wretched, wretched battle. Today we have a lull at Gorizia and a heavy push against Mount San Michele, where we find the Austro-Hungarian artillery once again using its many excellently-sited observation posts to their full advantage. As so many times before, brief hope (this time on the north slope of Mount San Michele) quickly gives way to hideous agony, as the Italians briefly break into a trench, but the attackers are cut off from support by artillery fire into No Man’s Land, and then either evicted or liquidated by the counter-attack.
The storm continues on Gallipoli. Early in the morning, a wind blows in front the north, bringing snow and freezing temperatures. The consequences are inevitable. Captain Ashton of the 1st Herefordshires, at Suvla Bay, continues with the sad story.
Overnight our rations had been sent out to us in a lorry. The folk who sent them out, presumably sorry for those unfortunates in the snow, sent with them a double ration of rum. The wagon drivers, who brought the stuff, apparently before we arrived, finding no one to hand over to, had simply dumped the things by the side of the road and gone home. When morning broke men began wandering about, as men will, and unhappily found the dump. Instead of telling somebody, or even eating the food, which would have been sensible, they broke open the rum jars and started in. The effect on empty stomachs and in that cold was simply devastating. Filled with a spurious warmth, they lay on the ground, and in many cases took off coats, boots, even tunics!
Many of the men are now wearing sodden summer clothes that have frozen entirely solid. Frostbite runs rampant, as does hypothermia. Lieutenant Clement Attlee takes desperate measures to keep his men alive.
The CO hustled round getting the Doctor to all the men who were bad, moving them into fairly dry dugouts. I made our men who would stand shivering run about and we had fairly frequent issues of rum. I found one line of dugouts fairly dry and, collecting all the men who had been drowned out, I marked our new dugouts for them on a little hill under the trees and set them digging. I also collected a lot of old tins, issued fuel and some petrol and got braziers going. I then had a foot inspection and made all the men with sodden feet rub them with snow.
In some areas of the line, trenches on both sides have completely flooded, waist deep, chest deep, neck deep. Here the men simply climb out and sit on the parapets, peering quizzically at each other across No Man’s Land. Precious few except the gunners, well to the rear, have any appetite for shooting. And, warm back in London, the Cabinet and the War Committee both continue dithering about exactly what should be done next.
There was deep snow on the ground, and it was bitterly cold, and the men used to anxiously ask me if I managed to keep warm at night, as they huddled up together, four in one tiny tent, for warmth, and seemed to rather fear that they might find me frozen to death some morning in my wagon, but I was really quite warm enough.
The hills looked so tempting that I went for a stroll and wandered on farther than I intended. I was out of sight of the camp, when suddenly I heard voices behind some trees, though I could not see anybody, and I knew that none of our men were camping near. Discretion conquering curiosity, I beat a dignified retreat at a brisk walk, as I was quite unarmed at the time, and they told me when I got back it was a good thing I did. I took no more constitutionals over the hills while in that neighbourhood, anyhow, for I had no wish to cut off my career with the Army by suddenly disappearing, as nobody would know what had become of me.
Orders have just arrived for the rear-guard to start retreating along with everyone else.
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