Henderson - a personal account of my time in Mesopotamia.
Part 1, - 1st July 1920
Steaming slowly down the Persian Gulf in the damp heat so prevalent at this time of the year one looks forward to seeing England once again where one may breathe more freely and perspire less.
It is the first day of July 1920 and we are aboard S.S. " Cooeyana " of the B.I.S.G. making for Bombay which we hope to reach on the sixth of the month - in another five days time.
From Bombay it is hoped that a passage direct to England may be obtained without much trouble or delay.
Central Air Communications Squadron.
Captain Henderson in the middle of the front row.
Hardly twelve months ago we - the C.A.C.S., a R.A.F. detachment of which I had command - embarked at Suez for Mesopotamia with the object of organising and working an aerial route between Cairo and Karachi. The scheme has since been abandoned, at least for some time to come, much to my disappointment. The reason no doubt being that the Government at home were not prepared to stand the initial expense of its organisation. It is doubtful whether the project could ever have paid even if it were commercialised by handing the Aerial Route over to civilian firms.
Prior to reaching Mesopotamia the unit was delayed in India. During that period of waiting I was summoned to Simla to discuss matters with General Sir William Salmond Commanding R.A.F. Middle East and also to receive final instructions from him before proceeding on to Mesopotamia. The establishment of the C.A.C.S. was roughly eighteen officers and 110 other ranks. This personnel was to be split up into small detachments for the maintenance of intermediate stations. These were located as follows:
- Abu Kemal on the Euphrates
- C.A.C.S. Basra
- Bushire on the Persian Gulf
- Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf
- Charbah on Makram Coast
- Karachi Indian terminus
When at Simla I drew the G.O.C.s attention to the fact that roughly 70 odd other ranks were now eligible for demobilisation and also that the officers who had applied for post-war commissions in the R.A.F. had not yet been notified as to what chances they had in being selected. The former matter was dealt with in India where I arranged demobilisation for about 75% of the men and had their gratuities paid them prior to departure for England. I was given to understand that the officers applications would be specially considered but there would be no guarantee as to their ultimate selection.
Towards the end of September the greatly reduced remains of the unit left Poona and embarked at Bombay for Mesopotamia. The officers with exception of myself going on in advance. I following a few days later with the men.
We arrived in Mesopotamia at the beginning of October and found that the building of our station at Shaiba - about 12 miles West of Basra - had not yet been commenced upon. We therefore established ourselves temporarily at the Aircraft Park at Basra. The A.P. is situated on the opposite side of the River to Basra proper at a place bearing the name of Tamminah.
Here we were destined to spend many happy months - at least so I found it. The heat of the Summer was just abating and in a week or two after our arrival the temperature was quite mild and agreeable.
The mess was soon got going under Mayhews care. But unfortunately there were many little squabbles and numerous mess meetings convened to decide upon knotty problems such as the price of drinks, messing and rules relating to times of meals etc. The mess business I think was my worst worry. The successful feeding of men - or rather young boys - is a very difficult matter and the Mess Secretary and President must be very thick skinned at times.
To carry on for the moment leaving the mess troubles - which were many. I inspected the site chosen at Shaiba for an aerodrome shortly after my arrival in the country. There were no buildings of any sort erected but the "Railways" had laid a single line track on to the site. I visited the Assistant Director of Works at the Base and discussed the matter. The lay out scheme shown me I condemned as undesirable and impracticable. He therefore asked me to produce an amended "lay-out" scheme which was afterwards approved. Building work was commenced forthwith but construction was very slow. Weeks passed without any perceptible show of energy on the part of the people responsible for the erection of our huts hangers and building.
The Wing H.Q. at Baghdad rendered very little assistance in speeding up this work and my hands were therefore tied. All of us chaffed at this delay and all were keen to do a job of work and get some flying. The only thing therefore was to wait and pass the time as pleasantly and as fruitfully as possible. Physical training parades were part of the daily routine. Football matches were arranged Officers would play men and one or two station matches were arranged with our neighbours the 49th Bengalis.
Several shooting expeditions were arranged, game being quite plentiful at this time of year. Gazelle, sand grouse, black-partridge, Snipe and duck in large quantities. Gazelle and sand grouse were usually shot from a Crossly tender although this was latterly prohibited. I think the snipe and duck shooting expeditions where one had to wade waist-deep through the marshes were the most sporting and the hardest work. Commander Hughes Hallet and officers of the R.I.M.S. Lawrence were most energetic in this.
With the Wing Commanders sanction we availed ourselves of an aeroplane - an ancient B.E.2c. which we erected and frequently flew. It did a considerable amount of flying, poor old thing, and oddly enough was never crashed; though prior to my departure for England I learnt that it had been condemned and was to be scrapped. Many there were in Basra who had their first flight in the air in this old machine. It has borne me safely to Muammerah frequently to visit Dr. Lincoln, the Consul there, and also Sheik Chassib the eldest son of the old and wealthy Sheik of Muammerah. Also to Ahwaz on the Karun River where the 5th. Cavalry I.A. were stationed, to Amara and to Baghdad, 350 miles from Basra and return. Those flights were very enjoyable and did much to "keep our hands in" in flying.
The approaching Christmas festivites had now to be considered. A fund was started for the men's Christmas dinner and attained a good proportion. Notices with regard to the sale of "home-fed" turkeys appeared in the local two page - the "Basra Times" - but the price asked was enormous and exorbitant - £10 - £30 per bird according to weight - and could not be considered by us. A stage for theatricals was erected in the men's Regimental Institute under the guideance of Greenborough the Transport Officer and incidentally Theatrical Manager. Newton too did much in this way. Dermain - the Adjutant - wrote and prepared a small sketch depicting the unit and some personnel in ten year's time still in Mesopot. This farce and other entertainments helped considerably in the enjoyment of the men on Chistmas and Boxing day.
All went well and I think each of us enjoyed ourselves to the full. We visited other Messes to wish them the Seasonable Compliments and were visited - sometimes at a rather late hour! I don't think any of us will forget the night when the Indian Marine officers took the place by storm and cleared out completely our stock of wines for the following week! There were several dances given, Grey Mc Kenzies, the Port Directorate, the free masons and the usual weekly dance at the Gymkhana club at Mekina. The R.A.F. in Baghdad gave the best ball of the season, organised by Capt. Buxton the Staff Offr. (Air) at Wing H.Q.
Dixon and I hoped to fly up to Baghdad for this latter dance but had to come down at Amara on account of weather. We left Basra flying with the wind against us and met with rain shortly afterwards. We had to decend, as I mentioned previously, at Amara where Major and Mrs Newlands kindly put us up for the night. The following morning- New Year's Eve Day- rain was still falling so we gave up the attempt to reach Baghdad. We got back to Basra in good time to enjoy the New Year's Eve festivities.
In order to give the reader of this personal record a rough idea and picture of Mesopotamia. I will do my best to describe the country we were to spend many months in. The country itself is roughly triangular in shape having its base north of Mosul in the hill country of Upper Mesopotamia the apex gradually forms itself into a tail following closely the banks of both the Tigris and the Euphrates whose junction is at Karun about 120 miles north of the estuary of the Shat-al-Arab, which represents the "stem" combining the two former rivers into one and so out into the sea. For miles on either bank there runs a strip of cultivation and palm groves encroaching on the desert country. Beyond this belt of cultivation are extensive desert lands upon which here and there occasionally grass and scrub crops up, forming grazing grounds for the Bedouin flocks of sheep and herds of goats. On the edges of these palm groves are scattered Arab villages - straggling mud huts usually walled in to prevent the numerous jackalls and pararie dogs from making ravages their poultry and stock. A good simile of these hamlets ( for illustration ) would be an English farm yard; the natives occuping byre like dwellings in the surrounding walls while hens and goats clutter about unhindered in the central space. Most of the inhabitants of these small hamlets appear to be related to each other. They are all subservient to the head-man or "sheik", who usually is responsible for the cultivation of his ground to the Shiek of the district. This "hurra" Shiek holds a similar position to that of a squire in England. He owns the land and sublets allotments and farms at so much per hectacre, it is a complete feudal system.
The living conditions in these villages are to say the least insanitary and primitive in the extreme. Families are herded together in these mud-floored dwellings possesing for ventilation the door alone. During the rain season everything becomes soft and cloying and owing to architecteral design of the roofs of these squalid dwellings; the interior must be the height of discomfort.
Fishing and farming are the two main occupations. The artificial irrigation of the land under cultivation and the palm groves gives employment to a high percentage of the male folk. Fishing in the rivers is carried out by means of netting from " bellums " - small shallow draught canoes which are capable of navigating the shallowest of creeks. Fishes of considerable size are frequently caught and find a ready market.
The growing, picking and final packing of dates is the main occupation and until recently has been the only source of revenue. Thousands of tons are exported annually from which the Sheik of Mohamra - who owns most of the palm groves in lower Mesopotamia -obtains an annual income of anything between £50,000 to £75,000 per anum.
Since Britain has been granted the mandate for Mesopotamia a small revenue or tax is imposed on all land and date groves. This tax has naturally not met with any enthusiasm from the Arabs. Villages frequently neglect to pay their share in the taxation. Reminders are sent to the Sheik through our Political Officers and if then ignored the inhabitants of the village we subjected to an aerial bombardment, which up to the present, has proved a successful means of getting taxes paid up without further delay. In my opinion this is greatly affecting our position in Mesopotamia by causing ill-will and hatred of the Arabs for us.
It is rather interesting to note that quite recently a question was raised in the House of Commons as to whether we were using bombing warplanes for the purpose of enforcing taxation in Mesopotamia. The statement was flatly denied by an honourable member!
Part 3, - SUNDAY 24th October 1920
Since last writing my narrative of events that happened since 1919 to date; on my arrival in India I was admitted into Colaba War Hospital Bombay to await there until a passage home by ship had been arranged. My health was none too good during my first few weeks there but owing to the care and attention of the nurses and also the exellent food supplied I very soon regained my lost strength and was quite fit again by Aug. 19th. when I was discharged.
I proceeded ( upon instructions ) from Bombay to Dhulia where I spent a very pleasant time playing golf, both at Nasik and Dhulia and also taking long walks in the surrounding hills and foothills of the Western Ghats.
Dhulia is situated about 150 miles roughly n.e. of Bombay and is about 2,000 ft. above sea level. The climate is delightfully mild and bracing as compared with Bombay. We were usually out and about all day. I never found it too warm to play golf even in the middle of the day. There were many others besides myself awaiting too for passage homeward.
Dixon of the H.L.I. whom I had met in Mesopotamia and I usually paired off for golf each morning and in this manner we passed the time very pleasantly. There was quite a good little club at Dhulia where occasionally dances where held. Dhulia being a station town there were numerous wives of officers and civilians who appreciated these dances and assisted greatly in making them a success and enjoyed by all. I will always look back with pleasure upon the times at Dhulia. And so to continue. At the beginning of October we learnt that we were all to sail on the S.S. Princess sailing on the 6th. of the month, and on the night of the 5th. we entrained at Dhulia after saying goodbye to all our friends and left for Bombay which was reached at dawn the following morning.
The troubles and bother of embarkation, the worry of seeing one's kit on board etc. was gone through that morning and we left the wharf side shortly after we had finished `tiffin'. By four o'clock the Taj Mahal Hotel - the main landmark of Bombay - faded out of sight and merged into the grey of the smoke hanging like a pall over the town itself.
The monsoon having run its course the sea was at this time quite calm and we soon found that the S.S. Princess - a captured German Royal Yacht - was a very speedy vessel. We put into Perim Island - beyond Aden - for coal and spent half a day getting in sufficient to carry us on to Port Said.
The Red Sea trip proved to be much cooler owing to the fact that7 there was a strong headwind. Owing to this difference in temperature we were able to have sports and competitions on board. These were ably run by Capt. and Mrs. Stibbing. Concerts were also organised.