Robert Palmer – Volume 4
Volume 4 of War Letters 1914–1918 is based on the letters of Robert Palmer, a British officer in the Territorial army, who fought and died in Mesopotamia during the First World War (WW1). It is available at Amazon for £2.99.
Since my beginning work on the series, however, a collection of Robert’s letters has been published online at Project Gutenberg. It is a available free of charge in a variety of formats.
Unlike the Gutenberg edition, the War Letters edition has extensive notes and links to a wide variety of online sources. In addition, anyone buying the War Letters edition can also choose two of the following four publications related to the war in Mesopotamia at no extra cost. They are:
1. Evans, R., A Brief Outline of the Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914–1918. This is a carefully edited and specially formatted ebook of the classic account of the Mesopotamia campaign written by Major R. Evans in 1926.
2. Ridding, L., The Life of Robert Palmer, 1888–1916. Written by Robert’s aunt in 1921, this is a very moving account of Robert’s life based on Lady Laura Ridding’s intimate knowledge of the family. It has been specially edited and formatted as an ebook to accompany this edition of Robert’s letters.
3. Report of the Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry (HMSO, London, 1917). This is a PDF of the original wartime enquiry. It has a clickable table of contents enabling easy navigation of the document.
4. The Mesopotamia Despatches, 1914–1921. This is a PDF bringing together all the official despatches from Mesopotamia for the first time. Like the Report of the Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry it has a clickable table of contents.
To receive the extra publications, simply contact me with proof of having purchased War Letters 1914–1918, Vol. 4 from Amazon saying which two you would like. Contact details are availabe in the book.
Extracts from War Letters Vol. 4
(More extracts can be read at Amazon. No purchase or login required.)
Robert Stafford Arthur Palmer – ‘Bobby’ to his close friends and family – was born into a life of immense privilege, power and influence. ‘It seemed,’ said one of his aunts, ‘that his life, so full of splendid promise, was as near to being the perfect one as it is given to men to live … when the echoes of the celebration of Queen Victoria’s first Jubilee still reverberated through the British Empire and when that Empire lay steeped in the sunshine of peace, plenty, and prosperity …’ 1
[The introduction in the book continues until …]
… As the winter ended, however, rumours of a Turkish counter-offensive spread, and in March 1915 a call was made for more reinforcements to be sent from India to Mesopotamia. They included the 1/4th Hampshire Regiment, but not the 1/6th to which Robert belonged. ‘I suppose they are going to reserve us for feeding the 4th Hants in case they want casualties replaced later on,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘but you mustn’t worry, as the chance of my going is exceedingly remote.’ 25
The expected Turkish counter attack came in April. It was roundly defeated. Led by General Nixon, the British then seemed inexorably drawn up river. On 2 June 1915 General Townshend’s troops captured Amarah. By end of July the British had captured Nasiriyeh. As one victory led to another plans began for a possible advance to Kut-al-Amarah and then even Baghdad.26
But the army was poorly equipped and starved of resources by the military administration in India. Critically the boats they had for transporting troops on the winding rivers were woefully inadequate. The further they progressed up river, the more and more and their lines of communications became stretched. The climate and geography of Mesopotamia were also beginning to take their toll.27
Between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf lay miles of featureless desert barely above sea level. In the flood season, when the rivers broke their banks, vast areas of desert could be turned into enormous lakes within hours. Even when the waters receded, they would leave an impassable, muddy quagmire. In summer temperatures could rise to over 120˚ Fahrenheit, while in parts during the winter they could fall to below freezing.28
Small pox, cholera, malaria dysentery and typhus if not endemic were all prevalent. The British were beginning discover the truth of the old Arab saying: ‘When Allah had made hell he found it wasn’t it bad enough. So he made Mesopotamia – and added flies.’ 29
Miles away in India, Robert was still living in a very different world. ‘Isn’t it strange,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘that with you far away and the nightmare of the War hanging over us like a dark cloud, I have never felt so happy and peaceful inwardly … I have settled some of the long mental battles which divided me against myself and made me afraid and ashamed of myself. I owe this great blessing to Purefoy more than anyone. He has touched me as no one else my own age has and has given me glimpses of a blessedness I’ve always longed for and always missed, like love to an old maid. But the glorious thing is that I have not only got a glimpse but a taste of the real thing. I’m not an old maid but a young boy and I can feel the glow of a friendship that is more precious than life. You must love him too and make him love you.’ 30
August 3rd, 1915
It has been extremely wet recently. On Saturday we could do nothing except laze indoors and play billiards, and Friday was the same, with a dull dinner-party at the end of it. It was very nice and cool though, and I enjoyed those two days as much as any.
On Sunday we met Guy Coles, who is here during his three days’ leave. We had arranged to take Guy to a picnic with a nice Mrs. Willmott of Agra, who comes here for the hot weather. We rode up past the lake and to the very top of Agarpatta, one of the humps on the rim of hills. It took us over two hours, and the mist settled in just as we arrived, so we picnicked chillily on a misty mountain-top, but Mrs. Willmott and her sister are exceptionally nice people, so we all enjoyed it. They have two small children and a lady nurse for them. I never met one before, but it is quite a sensible plan out here.
We only got back to the hotel just before dinner, and there I found a wire from Major Wyatt asking me if I would command a draft and take it to the 4th Hants in the Persian Gulf. This is the exact fulfilment of the calculation I wrote to you in April, but it came as a surprise at the moment. 2
I was more excited than either pleased or depressed. I don’t hanker after fighting, and I would, of course, have preferred to go with the Regiment and not as a draft. But now that I’m in for it, the interest of doing something after all these months of hanging about, and in particular the responsibility of looking after the draft on the way seems likely to absorb all other feelings.
What appeals to me most is the purely unmilitary prospect of being able to protect the men, to some extent, from the, I’m sure, largely preventable sickness there has been in the P.G. Though in a battle I should be sure to take the wrong turn and land my detachment in some impossible place, I don’t feel it so beyond me to remind them to boil their water and wear their helmets.3
As for fighting, it doesn’t look as if there would be much, whereon Purefoy greatly commiserates me, but if that is the only privation I shan’t complain! I believe that if I could choose a day of heavy fighting of any kind I liked for my draft, I should choose to spend a day in trenches under heavy fire without being able to return it. The fine things of war spring from your chance of being killed, the ugly things from your chance of killing.
I’m afraid your lively imagination will conjure up every kind of horror, and that is the only thing that distresses me about going, but clearly a tropical climate suits me better than most people, and I will be very careful to avoid all unnecessary risks! both for your peace of mind and also to keep the men up to the mark, to say nothing of less exalted motives.
I know no details at all yet. I am to return to Agra on Saturday, so I shall only lose forty-eight hours of my most heavenly fortnight here.
Your loving son,
August 5th, 1915
I have written all the news to Mamma this week. The chief item from my point of view is that, as I cabled to you, I am to take a draft from our two Agra Double Coys. to reinforce the 4th Hants, who are now at Nasiriya on the Euphrates.4
Everyone insists on (α) congratulating me for going to a front and (β) condoling that it is the P.G. I don’t really agree with either sentiment. I believe that the people who say they are longing to be at the front can be divided into three classes. (1) Those who merely say so because it is the right thing to say and have never thought or wished about it on their own. (2) Those who deliberately desire to drink the bitterest cup that they can find in these times of trouble. These men are heroes and are the men who in peace choose a mission to lepers. (3) The savages, who want to indulge their primitive passions. Perhaps one ought to add as the largest class (4) those who don’t imagine what it is like, who think it will be exciting, seeing life, an experience, and so on, and don’t think of its reality or meaning at all.
I’m afraid I regard all war jobs as nasty, and the more warlike the nastier, but I do think one ought to taste the same cup as all one’s friends are drinking, and if I am to go to any front I would as soon go to the P.G. as anywhere. It will be a new part of the world to me and very interesting.
I had a talk with a Chaplain just returned from Basra, and he told me we’re likely to stand fast now holding the line Nasiriya-Ahwaz (or some such place on the Tigris). An advance on Baghdad is impossible without two more divisions because of the length of communications. There is nothing to be gained by advancing to any intermediate point. The only reason we went as far as Nasiriya was that it was the base of the army we beat at Shaiba, and they had reformed there in sufficient strength to be worth attacking. This is not, though, likely to happen again, as the Dardanelles will increasingly absorb all Turkey’s resources.5
Unless I hear before posting this I can tell you nothing of the strength for composition of the draft or the date of sailing.
From your loving son,
Notes to Introduction
1. ‘ “It seemed that his life, so full of splendid promise” …’ Following Robert’s death, his aunt, Lady Laura Riding wrote a loving biography of her nephew. Much of the family information in this introduction is drawn from that book. Ridding, L., The Life of Robert Palmer, 1888–1916, p.1. (A free, specially edited and formatted ebook of The Life of Robert Palmer is available to anyone who buys War Letters Vol. 4.)
25.‘more reinforcements to be sent from India to Mesopotamia …’ The reluctance of the Indian Government to release forces for Mesopotamia due to fears about the internal situation in India would continue to be a constant source of tension throughout much of the campaign. On 7 March 1915, after a week of lengthy negotiations and under pressure from Britain, the Viceroy had agreed to send the 33rd Infantry Brigade (1/4th Hampshire Regiment, 11th Rajputs, 66th and 67th Punjabis) along with the 1/5th Hampshire Howitzer Battery. These reinforcements were under the commander of Major-General Gorringe. Moberly, F.J., The Campaign in Mesopotamia 1914–1918, Vol. I, p. 186-9, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b746001?urlappend=%3Bseq=208
26. ‘Led by by the recently arrived General Nixon, the British then seemed inexorably drawn up river towards Baghdad …’ The expansion of the forces in Mesopotamia had led to the appointment of General Sir John Nixon as senior commander. Previously in command of the Northern Army in India, Nixon had arrived in Basra on 9 April 1915. It was a key event in the campaign, eventually leading to the fateful push for Baghdad.
Nixon’s instructions when he had taken command included a requirement for him to: ‘submit a plan for the subsequent advance on Baghdad.’ Report of the Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry, p. 16, http://menadoc.bibliothek.uni-halle.de/landau/content/pageview/296953
Afterwards Nixon would tell the Mesopotamia Commission that he saw the instruction as indicating a critical change in policy from defensive to offensive. Sir Beauchamp Duff at the India Office denied that was ever their intention, saying the plan was only meant to be put into action if agreed by the British Government. Moberly, F.J., The Campaign in Mesopotamia 1914–1918, Vol. I, p. 196, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b746001?urlappend=%3Bseq=218
For a good summary of events from April, when the Turkish launched their counter-attack, until July, when the British captured Nasiriya, see Evans, R., A Brief Outline of the Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914–1918, pp. 25–33. (A free ebook of A Brief Outline is available to anyone who purchases War Letters Vol. 4).
For Nixon’s official account see Despatch from General Sir John Nixon on the operations from mid April to September 1915, Second Supplement to the London Gazette, 4 April 1916, Issue 29536, pp. 3655–3672. (PDF 4 MB)
27. ‘Critically the boats they had for transporting troops on the winding rivers were woefully inadequate …’ The Mesopotamia Commission devoted one of the main sections of its report to the inadequacies of the available river transport, one of the central failings of the campaign.
‘Evidence is overwhelming,’ said the report, ‘that a shortage of river transport existed from the time of the occupation of Kurna, in December, 1914, and became serious from and after May, 1915 … practically at no time after the advance above Kurna was river transport adequate to requirements.’Report of the Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry, pp. 43–60, http://menadoc.bibliothek.uni-halle.de/landau/content/pageview/296959
28. ‘Between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf lay miles of featureless desert barely above sea level …’ The official history devotes its first chapter to describing the geography and climate of Mesopotamia. Moberly, F.J., The Campaign in Mesopotamia 1914–1918, Vol. I, pp. 1-10, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b746001?urlappend=%3Bseq=21
‘The above necessarily brief description of a country,’ concludes Moberly, ‘shows that all military problems … are affected by local conditions to an extent rarely met within any theatre of war.’ Ibid., p. 10.
29. ‘When Allah had made hell he found it wasn’t it bad enough …’ ‘The physical and climatic characteristics of Mesopotamia were, of course, comprehended in a general way,’ says Evans, ‘But it was not until a considerable military force had been thrust out into the country that we discovered the truth of the old Arab proverb.’ Evans, R., A Brief Outline of the Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914–1918, p. 6, http://warletters.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Ch-1-Brief-History-of-Mesopotamia-pp.2-13.pdf
30. ‘I owe this great blessing to Purefoy more than anyone …’ Ridding, L., The Life of Robert Palmer, 1888–1916, p. 134, http://archive.org/stream/lifeofrobertpalm00riddiala#page/133/mode/1up
INTRODUCTION / LETTERS / NOTES TO INTRODUCTION
Notes to Letters
1. ‘Naini Tal …’ Naini Tal is the name of the town and district in the north east of India, situated in the foothills of the outer Himalayas. A description of both the town and district as they were in the early 1900s can be found in The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. XVII, pp. 322–34, http://archive.org/stream/imperialgazettee18grea#page/322/mode/1up
For the town and area as they are now see http://nainital.nic.in.
2. ‘if I would command a draft and take it to the 4th Hants in the Persian Gulf …’ Robert’s draft was part of a contingent of just over 1,000 soldiers being sent out as a result of the casualties that had already been incurred. General Nixon had requested more men, but the Indian government was worried about the situation on the North-West Frontier and therefore didn’t comply with this full request. Moberly, F. J., The Campaign in Mesopotamia 1914–1918, Vol. I, p. 338, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b746001?urlappend=%3Bseq=364
3. ‘largely preventable sickness there has been in the P.G …’ Sickness caused by factors other than fighting was one of the principle problems faced by troops stationed in the region.
The Mesopotamia Commission, set up to investigate the failings of the campaign, noted that: ‘The treacherous climate, and the alteration of sweltering heat and bitter cold in these regions made the continuous supply of such articles as warm clothing, double-fly tents, sun-helmets, spine-pads, goggles, ice, ventilating-fans, mosquito nets, quinine and other tropical prophylactics indispensable if the health and moral of the troops were to be maintained at their accustomed high standard.’ Report of the Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry, p. 10
It was the lack of such basic equipment and supplies that accounted for so many casualties. The Commission noted some of the problems regarding the lack of preventative measures to safeguard the health of the troops:
Many of the essentials noted above ‘did not reach the troops in sufficient time and sufficient quantities.’ p.71
‘The troops were only supplied with light-weight, single-fly tents, quite insufficient to keep out the sun.’ p. 38
There was a lack of proper clothing, and ‘in the bitter winter months in Mesopotamia troops had been sent from India in “shorts” and tropical clothing.’ p. 38
In the advance to Amara there was a ‘shortage of drugs, including castor oil, epsom salts, emetine, quinine and supply of medical comforts.’ p. 65
Ice, recognised as an absolute necessity for the treatment of the sick ‘was not regularly available at Ahwaz, Nasariya or Amara.’ p. 65
The arrangements to provide good drinking water were classed as ‘defective’, with outbreaks of cholera attributed to ‘the failure to supply a sufficient amount of purified drinking water.’ p. 66
Inadequate diets and rations meant that scurvy was a problem, particularly amongst Indian troops. p. 71
Report of the Mesopotamia Commission of Enquiry, http://menadoc.bibliothek.uni-halle.de/landau/content/structure/188193
4. ‘our two Agra Double Coys …’ Prior to 1913, infantry battalions in the British army had been divided into eight companies. In 1913, the army introduced the four company system under which the former eight companies were merged into four ‘double companies’.
The regular army introduced the new system straight away, but the Territorial Force implemented it slightly later when their battalions were posted overseas. The new system was enshrined in the British army infantry training manual, Infantry Training (4–Company Organization), 1914.
5.‘An advance on Baghdad is impossible without two more divisions because of the length of communications …’ Robert’s understanding of the problems associated with an advance to Baghdad was shared by many in the military and the British government at the time. These concerns, however, did not eventually prevent General Nixon from getting the go-ahead for General Townshend’s forces to advance on Baghdad. The subsequent failure of the advance, due to inadequate forces and over-stretched lines of communication, is one of the most well-documented aspects of the Mesopotamian campaign.
Edmund Candler, the official ‘eye-witness’ in Mesopotamia, gave his view of the flawed thinking which led to the fateful decision. ‘We wanted Baghdad. It was an irresistible lodestar. It would be a set-off to Gallipoli. To hold it would save the wavering East, Persia, Afghanistan, the tribesmen on our frontier would settle down into amiable neutrality or friendship, and the menace of our internal disruption in India would be removed. Our lines of communications lengthened out to nearly 500 miles; our transport was lamentably insufficient; we were a mere handful, 14,000 rifles at the most; but we wanted Baghdad very badly, and we were British and they were only Turks.’ Candler, E, The Long Road to Baghdad, Vol. 1, p. 3, http://archive.org/stream/longroadtobaghda00canduoft#page/3/mode/1up