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   Chapter 4 SKIRMISHES AND RECONNAISSANCES ALONG THE KURDISH FRONT

War in the Garden of Eden By Kermit Roosevelt Characters: 14637

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


We spent a few days making repairs and outfitting before starting off again. This time our destination was Deli Abbas, the headquarters of the Thirteenth Division. The town is situated in the plains below the foot-hills of the Persian Mountains, on the banks of the Khalis Canal, some seventy miles north-east of Baghdad. At dawn we passed out of the north gate, close to where General Maude is buried, and whirled across the desert for thirty miles to Bakuba, a prosperous city on the banks of the Diyala. From the junction of the greater Zab down to Kurna, where the Euphrates joins, this stream is the most important affluent of the Tigris. It was one of those bright, sparkling mornings on which merely to be alive and breathe is a joy. We passed a number of caravans, bringing carpets and rugs from Persia, or fruit and vegetables from the rich agricultural district around Bakuba. The silks manufactured here are of a fine quality and well known throughout the country.

After passing the big aerodrome near the town, the going became very bad; we struggled along through the village of Deltawa, in and out of unfathomable ditches. The rivers were in flood, and we ran into lakes and swamps that we cautiously skirted. Dark overtook us in the middle of a network of bogs, but we came upon an outpost of Welsh Fusiliers and spent the night with them. We had smashed the bottom plate of one of the cars, so that all the oil ran out of the crank-case, but with a side of the ever-useful kerosene tin we patched the car up temporarily and pushed off at early dawn. Our route wound through groves of palms surrounding the tumble-down tomb of some holy man, occasional collections of squalid little huts, and in the intervening "despoblado" we would catch sight of a jackal crouching in the hollow or slinking off through the scrub. Deli Abbas proved a half-deserted straggling town which gave evidence of having once seen prosperous days. Some Turkish aeroplanes heralded our arrival.

In front of us rose the Jebel Hamrin-Red Hills-beyond them the snow-clad peaks of the Kurdish Range. A few months previous we had captured the passes over the Jebel, and we were now busy repairing and improving the roads-in particular that across the Abu Hajjar, not for nothing named by the Arabs the "Father of Stones." Whenever the going permitted we went out on reconnaissances-rekkos, as we called them. They varied but slightly; the one I went on the day after reaching Deli Abbas might serve as model. We started at daybreak and ran to a little village called Ain Lailah, the Spring of Night, a lovely name for the small clump of palm-trees tucked away unexpectedly in a hollow among barren foot-hills. There we picked up a surveyor-an officer whose business it was to make maps for the army. We passed through great herds of camels, some with small children perched on their backs, who joggled about like sailors on a storm-tossed ship, as the camels made away from the cars. There were villages of the shapeless black tents of the nomads huddled in among the desolate dunes. We picked up a Turk deserter who was trying to reach our lines. He said that his six comrades had been killed by Arabs. Shortly afterward we ran into a cavalry patrol, but the men escaped over some very broken ground before we could satisfactorily come to terms with them. It was lucky for the deserter that we found him before they did, for his shrift would have been short. We got back to camp at half past eight, having covered ninety-two miles in our windings-a good day's work.

Each section had two motorcycles attached to it-jackals, as one of the generals called them, in apt reference to the way in which jackals accompany a lion when hunting. The cyclists rode ahead to spy out the country and the best course to follow. When we got into action they would drop behind, and we used them to send messages back to camp. The best motorcyclist we had was a Swiss named Milson. He was of part English descent, and came at once from Switzerland at the outbreak of the war to enlist. When he joined he spoke only broken English but was an exceedingly intelligent man and had been attending a technical college. I have never seen a more skilful rider; he could get his cycle along through the mud when we were forced to carry the others, and no one was more cool and unconcerned under fire. The personnel of the battery left nothing to be desired. One was proud to serve among such a fine set of men. Corporal Summers drove the car in which I usually rode, and I have never met with a better driver or one who understood his car so thoroughly, and possessed that intangible sympathy with it which is the gift of a few, but can be never attained.

We were still in the rainy season. We had to travel as light as possible, and all we could bring were forty-pounder tents, which correspond to the American dog-tent. Very low, they withstood in remarkable fashion the periodical hurricanes of wind and rain. They kept us fairly dry, too, for we were careful to ditch them well. There was room for two men to sleep in the turret of a Rolls, and they could spread a tarpaulin over the top to keep the rain from coming in through the various openings. The balance of the men had a communal tent or slept in the tenders. The larger tents in the near-by camps blew down frequently, but with us it happened only occasionally. There are happier moments than those spent in the inky blackness amid a torrential deluge, when you try to extricate yourself from the wet, clinging folds of falling canvas.

Time hung heavily when the weather was bad, and we were cooped up inside our tents without even a hostile aeroplane to shoot at. One day when the going was too poor to take out the heavy cars, I set off in a tender to visit another section of the battery that was stationed thirty or forty miles away in the direction of Persia, close by a town called Kizil Robat. We had a rough trip, with several difficult fords to cross. It was only through working with the icy water above our waists that we won through the worst, amid the shouts of "Shabash, Sahib!" ("Well done!") from the onlooking Indian troops. I reached the camp to find the section absent on a reconnaissance, for the country was better drained than that over which we were working. A few minutes later one of the cyclists came in with the news that the cars were under heavy fire about twenty-five miles away and one of them was badly bogged. I immediately loaded all the surplus men and eight Punjabis from a near-by regiment into the tenders. We reached the scene just after the disabled car had been abandoned. Some of the Turks were concealed in a village two hundred and fifty yards away; the rest were behind some high irrigation embankments. The free car had been unable to circle around or flank them because of the nature of the terrain. The men had not known that the village was occupied and had bogged down almost at the same time that the Turks opened fire. By breaking down an irrigation ditch the enemy succeeded in further flooding the locality where the automobile was trapped. The Turks made it hot for the men when they tried to dig out the car. The bullets spattered about them. It was difficult to tell how many Turks we accounted for. As dark came on, the occ

upants of the disabled car abandoned it and joined the other one, which was standing off the enemy but had lost all four tires and was running on its rims. We held a consultation and decided to stay where we were until dawn. We had scarcely made the decision when one of our cyclists arrived with orders from the brigade commander to return immediately. Although exceedingly loath to leave the armored car, we had no other course than to obey.

It was after midnight by the time we made back to camp. We were told that a small attack had been planned for the morning, and that then we could go out with the troops and recover our car, using some artillery horses to drag it free. The troops soon began filing past, but we didn't pull out till three o'clock, by which time we were reinforced by an armored car from another battery. We were held back behind the advanced cavalry until daylight, and felt certain that the Turks would have either destroyed or succeeded in removing our car. Nor were we wrong, for just as we breasted the hill that brought the scene of yesterday's engagement into view, we saw the smoke of an explosion and the men running back into the village. We cleared the village with the help of a squadron of the Twenty-First cavalry, and found that the car had been almost freed during the night. It was a bad wreck, but we were able to tow it. I wished to have a reckoning with the village head man, and walked to an isolated group of houses a few hundred yards to the left of the village. As I neared them a lively fusillade opened and I had to take refuge in a convenient irrigation ditch. The country was so broken that it was impossible for us to operate, so we towed the car back to camp.

Hauling out a badly bogged fighting car

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A Mesopotamian garage

Our section from Deli Abbas was moved up to take the place of the one that had been engaged, which now returned to Baghdad. We were camped at Mirjana, a few miles north of Kizil Robat, on the Diyala River. A pontoon bridge was thrown across and the cars were taken over to the right bank, where we bivouacked with a machine-gun company and a battalion of native infantry. The bed of the river was very wide, and although throughout the greater part of the year the water flowed only through the narrow main channel, in the time of the spring floods the whole distance was a riotous yellow torrent. We had no sooner got the cars across than the river began to rise. During the first night part of the bridge was carried away, and the rest was withdrawn. The rise continued; trees and brush were swept racing past. We made several fruitless attempts to get across in the clumsy pontoons, but finally gave it up, resigning ourselves to being marooned. We put ourselves on short rations and waited for the river to fall. If the Turks had used any intelligence they could have gathered us in with the greatest ease, in spite of our excellent line of trenches. On the fourth day of our isolation the river subsided as rapidly as it had risen.

We had good patrolling conditions, and each day we made long circuits. Sometimes we would run into a body of enemy cavalry and have a skirmish with them. Again we would come upon an infantry outpost and man?uvre about in an effort to damage it. The enemy set traps for us, digging big holes in the road and covering them over with matting on which they scattered dirt to make the surface appear normal. The nearest town occupied by the Turks was Kara Tepe, distant from Mirjana eight or ten miles as the crow flies. In the debatable land were a number of native villages, and such inhabitants as remained in them led an unpleasantly eventful existence. In the morning they would be visited by a Turkish patrol, which would be displaced by us in our rounds. Perhaps in the evening a band of wild mountainy Kurds would blow in and run off some of their few remaining sheep. Then the Turks would return and accuse them of having given us information, and carry off some hostages or possibly beat a couple of them for having received us, although goodness knows they had little enough choice in the matter. There was one old sheik with whom I used often to sit and gossip while an attendant was roasting the berries for our coffee over the near-by fire. He was ever asking why we couldn't make an advance and put his village safely behind our lines, so that the children could grow fat and the herds graze unharmed. In this country Kurdish and Turkish were spoken as frequently as Arabic, and many of the names of places were Turkish-such as Kara Tepe, which means Black Mountain, and Kizil Robat, the Tomb of the Maidens. My spelling of these names differs from that found on many maps. It would be a great convenience if some common method could be agreed upon. At present the map-makers conform only in a unanimous desire to each use a different transliteration.

Kizil Robat is an attractive town. I spent some pleasant mornings wandering about it with the mayor, Jameel Bey, a fine-looking Kurdish chieftain of the Jaf tribe. He owned a lovely garden with date-palms, oranges, pomegranates, and figs. Tattered Kurds were working on the irrigation ditches, and a heap of rags lying below the wall in the sun changed itself into a small boy, just as I was about to step on it. Jameel's son was as white, with as rosy cheeks, as any American baby.

Harry Bowen, brother-in-law of General Cobbe, was the political officer in charge of Kizil Robat. He spoke excellent Arabic and was much respected by the natives. His house was an oasis in which I could always look forward to a pleasant talk, an excellent native dinner, and some interesting book to carry off. Although the town was small, there were three good Turkish baths. One of them belonged to Jameel Bey, but, judging from the children tending babies while squatting in the entrance portico, was generally given over to the distaff side and its friends. The one which we patronized, while not so grand a building, had an old Persian who understood the art of massage thoroughly, and there was nothing more restful after a number of days' hard work with the cars.

In the end of February there passed through Kizil Robat the last contingent of our former Russian Allies. They were Cossacks-a fine-looking lot as they rode along perched on their small chunky saddles atop of their unkempt but hardy ponies. When Russia went out of the war they asked permission to keep on fighting with us. They were a good deal of a problem, for they had no idea whatever of discipline, and it was most difficult to keep them in hand and stop them from pillaging the natives indiscriminately. They had been completely cut off from Russia for a long time but were now on their way back. A very intelligent woman doctor and a number of nurses who had been with them were sick with smallpox in one of our hospitals in Baghdad. When they recovered they were sent to India, for it was not feasible to repatriate them by way of Persia. When the Russians first established connection with us, some armored cars were sent to bring in the Cossack general, whose name we were told was Leslie. We were unprepared to find that he spoke no English! It turned out that his ancestors had gone over from Scotland to the court of Peter the Great.

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