Baghdad. 17th November, 1917.
In the West, partially because of Christianity, there is a view that history is linear, that it leads somewhere, In the East the idea that things just go round and round is more prevalent. In this, the week when the last British forces left Iraq, I was reminded of these different ways of thinking when a colleague showed me a wonderfully written letter from one of her ancestors who served in the British Army in Iraq in 1917.
Alfred William Johnson was 40 at the time of writing and convalescing from an unspecified illness/injury. The British had taken Baghdad a few months earlier. Some of his remarks are clearly a product of the early 20th century officer class, some could have been written yesterday. They are edited here for brevity:
‘Officers Convalescent Depot. Baghdad 17/11/17
My dear ones,
I toddled off to start local purchase and the resources of the newly captured Euphrates Turkish town of Felujah……and proceeded on the ‘push’ to Ramadie. The capture of Ramadie was considered by General Maude as a model of how a battle of that sort should be fought and I see that the London ‘Times’ and other home papers refer to it as a model….. the outflanking by our cavalry was the special stunt that worked so well in enclosing 3400 Turks in a net with the bridgeless Euphrates on their other side. Ramadie was a very filthy battered town when I arrived a few hours after the surrender of the Turkish general.
There is (a) wonderfully inspiring kind of feeling that sometimes comes to you on the rim of the Empire at places like Ramadie, and once when pushing beyond with a big reconnaissance party I had a very faint and brief taste as I looked towards Palestine only 300 miles westward of what I suppose Crusaders felt intensely when they headed for Jerusalem.
Really the Arabs are capable of wonderful things when educated, their brains, and I suppose souls only need enlightening, they are physically all muscle, quick to pick up, very resourceful, industrious and simple hearted and hospitable when treated as human beings. If not tactfully approached they can be as ‘independent’ as an Ulster ploughman.’
Various characters and objects flow through the letter; Chaldean Christians, wind up gramophones, Sunni Sheiks, memories of Donegal hotels, Irish corporals, Scottish batmen and Armenian adventurers before he returns to impressions of the people.
‘Undoubtedly eight months of British occupation have cleaned up Baghdad. The Baghdadis, now that they are satisfied that the British don’t intend to start compulsory Christianity and permit their usual coffee shop customs to proceed undisturbed, are apparently quite satisfied with their new rulers….on the river the back draped nuns sitting in the stern are not Sisters of Mercy but wives and mothers of Araby…..their stately procession from river to mud walled homes with copper or earthen water vessels poised on their shoulders. The only detraction in dress being hideous Lancashire prints which they apparently delight in. In this respect we will probably ‘civilize’ the Arabs out of their true taste in colours. …It is funny to watch the kids playing and hear boys at play call M’Hamed, Braheem, Ismail!
We of course are a mixed crowd here convalescing. The son of a Cork bottler, the son of a Northumberland mine owner, an R.E. Colonel from the Assouan dam in Egypt, Seaforths, Argylls, Indian Army etc.’
The letter ends with bad news of General Maude the officer who had led the British into Baghdad in May 1917 –
‘Four days ago I was across the river …and heard with deep depression that the Army Commander was dangerously ill. Very rapidly the worst happened and yesterday afternoon at four o clock he was buried, surrounded by many Generals and officers and troops – a chief place being allotted to officers of the XIII Div which he led on Gallipoli and brought to Mesopotamia. What a tragedy for his wife and family whom he had not seen for 3 years.
With much love to all the family circle,
Ever you affectionate