Authors: Catrin Collier
The third novel in the
Long Road to Baghdad
series, a vivid, moving, historically accurate account of a conflict between Eastern and Western Empires.
1916, Mesopotamia. The Turks march prisoners from the siege of Kut the hundreds of miles to Baghdad. The men are weak from starvation after the five-month siege, with many suffering from dysentery and diseases. They have no medical supplies â and then the hot weather begins â¦ Hundreds of men die on the march, the stragglers killed by Arab tribesmen; those too ill to move are left behind to die.
Meanwhile, the POWs who survived imprisonment re-enter an uncertain world â among them John Mason, his health ruined and future unsure. His old friend Charles Reid is more optimistic as love blossoms. But nothing is clear-cut anymore â¦ Harry Downe remains with his Bedouin wife's tribe: how much of his past does he truly remember? Harry's journalist brother Michael seeks answers amidst the ruins of war as, for their friends and comrades, the struggle to survive goes on despite the conflict's end.
For my cousin, Peter Johns, ex-Warrant Officer of the 1st Battalion The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment)
A wonderful man who taught me a soldier fights for many things, but once in battle, always for the man alongside him.
When a story is told
Three apples fall from heaven
One for the storyteller
One for he who listens
One for he who understands
The Road from Kut to Shumran
Major Warren Crabbe saw the soldier marching in front of him waver, bend at the knees, and collapse. Crabbe dived forward but failed to break the man's fall.
A soldier who'd been marching alongside them crouched next to Crabbe. âSir, is Billy â¦'
âDead, Private Evans.' Crabbe closed the man's eyes and unfastened his identity discs from around his neck.
A Turkish private rushed up and hammered his rifle butt on Evans's shoulder. âYallah! Yallah!'
âYallah to you, you bastard!' Forgoing caution, Crabbe grabbed the Turk's rifle and shoved it aside as he repeated the Turkish command to âhurry'.
The Turk switched his attention to Crabbe, and brought his barrel down, full force, on the major's back. Fighting pain, Crabbe lifted the head of the dead soldier and held it up in front of the Turk. âThe waste of this brave man's life is down to you and your foul command. How dare you march sick, starving men who've suffered five months of bloody siege â¦'
The Turk lashed out with his rifle stock a second time, slamming it into Crabbe's head. Crabbe reeled sideways and sprawled on the ground. Two naval lieutenants, Grace and Bowditch, fists clenched and faces grim, headed for the Turk. The Turk raised his rifle and pointed it at Grace.
âBack off!' Crabbe ordered the lieutenants. âGo, notify the Brigadier. If anyone can stop the swine beating us, it's him.'
When the Turk saw the lieutenants heading for the knot of senior British officers he disappeared up the line.
Evans tried to lift Crabbe. âSir â¦ sir â¦'
Major John Mason saw Crabbe on the ground and moved towards them.
âMajor Mason, sir â¦'
âI saw what happened, Evans.' John knelt beside the soldier who'd collapsed and checked his pulse. He knew it was useless, but even surrounded by death he instinctively adhered to medical procedure. He confirmed his suspicions before turning his attention to Crabbe and examining a cut that had opened below his eyebrow. âOur prison escort is touchy. Best not to annoy them, Crabbe.'
âYou know me. Never learned the gentlemanly art of tact and diplomacy.' Crabbe tried to rise and fell back on the ground.
John called to his orderly. âDira, bring the knapsack with the dressings.' He pressed down on Crabbe's cut. âHow many men have we lost from the Dorsets since we left Kut?'
Crabbe pushed his hand into his pocket and retrieved a handful of identity discs. âI think seventeen. But I could have lost count. I'm not at my best.'
âEight hours to march eight miles in this heat without food and water â none of us are. But looking at the state of the men, I'm surprised as many have made it this far.'
âIs it true we'll be travelling on from here by boat, sirs?' Private Evans asked.
Crabbe squinted up at the boy. âWhere did you hear that, Evans?'
âAh, rumour,' John repeated, âif I ever track down rumour I intend to have a long conversation with that man.'
âAre we, sirs? Going on by boat to the prison camp, I mean,' Evans persisted.
âIf I and the other medics have any say, we'll sail to our ultimate destination in a velvet-lined barge complete with kitchen, chef, and all home comforts, but I doubt the Turks will pay much attention to our advice,' John replied. âHave you been issued with biscuits by the Turks, Evans?'
âAll the men have, sir. Two and half each.' Evans reached into his tunic and pulled out three filthy lumps of black biscuit about five inches in diameter and three-quarters of an inch thick. âI tried breaking one with the heel of my boot, but I couldn't make a dent, sir. They're as hard as the cobblestones in Ponty market square.'
âWhere?' John was bemused by Evans's turn of phrase.
âNever ask Evans to explain any of his mysterious communications, Major Mason,' Crabbe warned. âHe's Welsh.'
âAnd that means â¦ sir?' Evans bristled in indignation at the perceived slight.
âIt means you never stop talking gibberish, Evans.' Crabbe allowed John to help him up to a sitting position.
Evans stared downwards as he cradled his dead mate's face so the officers wouldn't see the expression on his face.
âI told the men to pass the order down the line. No one, officer or rank, is to attempt to eat that hard tack biscuit until they've soaked it in water,' John warned Evans. âNine out of every ten men have dysentery and the remaining one, diarrhoea. After the starvation diet the Kut garrison's been on since December, something as hard as that could prove fatal to a weakened stomach. That's without accounting for the bacteria and dirt baked into them.'
âWhat water, sir?' Evans looked around as if he was expecting a water cart to materialise.
John pointed to the river. âBoil it before you use it. If you pour it on the biscuit while it's hot, the heat might even kill some of nastier additions in those black bricks.'
âWhat about â¦' Evans finally looked up from his mate.
âAs we seem to have reached our destination for the night. I'll look for Reverend Spooner after I've seen to Major Crabbe. He'll know what arrangements have been made,' John offered.
âIt will be burial at sunset, won't it, sir?'
âIf it can be organised that quickly, Private Evans,' John qualified.
âThank you, sir. I'll pass the word on about soaking the biscuits, sirs.' Evans rose and managed to stand in an approximation of attention. He saluted and left.
Dira arrived with the knapsack. John opened it and rummaged through the meagre contents. âHardly anything left.'
âThose are the last of our medical dressings, sir. Captain Vincent told me to warn you there are no drugs. When he asked the Turkish officers for medical supplies they said they didn't have any for their own troops. They insist they have nothing to give us, not even antiseptic.'
âGiven the state of the Turkish troops, I believe them, but someone has to petition for the medical care of our ranks. We're the Turks' responsibility now.'
âYou volunteering?' Crabbe rose gingerly but didn't remain upright for long. He sank down on the muddy riverbank.
âIf senior staff isn't prepared to do the job, yes.'
Dira signalled to two Indian sepoys who brought a stretcher. They loaded the dead soldier on to it and carried the corpse away.
John took a needle from a tin in Dira's knapsack, struck a match, and held it in the flame for a minute. He wiped the soot from it with a corner of gauze, threaded the needle with fine silk, and stitched Crabbe's wound. The major didn't flinch. When John finished, he lit another match and sterilised the needle before returning it to the knapsack. âDira, do me a favour. Find Reverend Spooner and ask if there's a burial service scheduled for sunset?'
âIt won't be sunset, sahib. The men are too weak from marching to dig. I heard the brigadier say dawn might be a more appropriate time.'
âIf you need me, sir, I'll be with Captain Vincent. He's treating the worst dysentery cases with what's left of the chalk.
âTell him to send for me if he needs help.'
Crabbe saw John looking at the mud stains on his uniform. âMy clothes are so filthy a little extra dirt makes no difference. Besides, mud's cooling. Damn the hot season.'
âThe temperature is higher than it was in the desert when we marched overland to Amara last year.' John sat next to Crabbe with the same disregard for his uniform, which was no cleaner and even more threadbare than Crabbe's.
âIt's probably no higher, just our memory playing tricks.'
âI wish I hadn't smoked my share of the cigarettes the Turks handed out when we marched from Kut.'
âMy last one.' Crabbe took a battered specimen from his pocket and contemplated it. âIf I don't light it soon, it'll turn to dust. If you have a Lucifer we can share it.'
John felt in his pockets and produced a box of matches. He struck one, shielded the flame with his hand, and lit Crabbe's cigarette. Crabbe inhaled and passed it over. âAs defender at your court martial, I need to make enquiries into your status as a double prisoner of the British and Turks.'
âPresumably as a British court martial passed down a death sentence to be carried out as soon as my medical skills are no longer needed, the British brass can execute me any time they like.' John inhaled and savoured the sensation of smoke in his lungs.
âThey'll need to borrow a Turkish firing squad to do so. If I remember the Hague Convention rules on the treatment of POWs, which Turkey pledged to follow, we aren't allowed to shoot one another.'
âEven if said prisoner is under sentence of death?'
âI have the brigadier's signed document stating, “Major Mason is no longer to be treated as a prisoner but as an officer and doctor of the Indian Expeditionary Force D, his sentence to be reviewed after the relief of Kut”, safe in my pocket. And from where I'm sitting it looks like the senior officers are more concerned with survival than reviews. The only ones who wanted you shot were the ones who trumped up the charges against you, Perry and Cleck-Heaton. As they both developed “funk fever” that fooled the Turkish medics and gained them a coward's place on an evacuation boat downstream, you're safe until the end of the war. You're a doctor and from the state of the men, I'm talking Turk as well as Expeditionary Force, neither side will want to kill a medic. Not while men are dropping like flies.'
John studied the soldiers around them. Most of the British had long passed weariness and were on the point of collapse. Officers as well as ranks were slumped on the ground. A few senior men were trying to remonstrate with the Turkish officers in an effort to get food and better treatment for their men, but from the expression on the Turks' faces, they weren't in a mood to listen.
âSpeaking of the Hague rules, it also states that prisoners of war have to be fed and sheltered. I see no evidence of food, tents, or the Red Cross.' John took another drag on the cigarette before returning it to Crabbe.
âThis far behind the Turkish lines it'll be the Red Crescent.'
âI doubt any one of us will be fussed which turns up as long as it's one or the other. Halil Bey promised Townshend we'd be fed when we reached here, didn't he?' John checked.