8 – To the Persian Front

Baqubah, September 28th, 1917 (W.J Grummett is in the back row, fifht from the right)
2nd Lieutenant W. J. Grummett, Baqubah, Mesopotamia, September, 1917

As the fearfully hot weather began in India that summer of 1917, Will Grummett lay in Belgaum Stationary Hospital, just one of many victims of malaria, among those whom  other diseases and battle wounds had felled. Typically,  military hospitals were open ward type, with as many and perhaps more than 50 men to a large room and only the occasional folding screen to provide some temporary privacy. For the first few weeks I doubt Will took much notice. Malaria produces alternating periods of high fever and chills accompanied by intense whole body pain, convulsions, vomiting and diarrhea.  The fever can be so high and sustained that it causes delirium. The danger was that this may lead to a coma and then, in most cases, death.

In 1917, the treatment for malaria was a naturally occurring compound called quinine (extracted from the bark of a tree).  Depending on the severity of the infection, quinine could be administered orally, intramuscular or intravenously. This last route had only recently been adopted as a means of dealing with patients who had lapsed into a malarial coma. To be sure that the parasites were eradicated from the blood and the liver, quinine was administered over a period of three months in decreasing doses as the patient showed improvement. (Memoranda on Some Medical Diseases, 1916)  The treatment wasn’t exact and the parasites have the ability to remain in a dormant form and can re-activate, causing recurrence of the disease up to a year or more following the original onset. One thing you can be sure of is that the disease is less likely to recur  when you are rested, well fed and relatively stress free. These are, of course, three things which are never guaranteed during war.

Will began to improve, and with that probably began to be more aware. Lying in his hospital bed in the intense and suffocating heat, I am sure he had far too much time to think about his situation. He was very sick, very far from home, with no one he knew to talk to or to provide comfort. This may have been the first time he really saw and began to comprehend what the weapons of this mechanized war could do to a soldier, as nothing is hidden from eyes and ears in an open ward: not the myriad ways that steel flung at high-speed can tear and smash flesh and bone, not the limbless bodies, nor the moans of agony, or the pleas for it to end. I like to imagine that the nurses at Belgaum were of the kind so often described in factual and fictional accounts of this war, being equally as effective at tending the spirit as they were at tending the body.

Will entered hospital toward the end of April of 1917.  I think he remained in hospital until the end of May and perhaps part of June. Surprisingly, by late June he was deemed fit to resume his duties and to ship out to the fighting.  By this time he would still be taking a daily dose of quinine and my guess is he was shy a few pounds.  Nevertheless, he packed his kit and departed in the last days of June, leaving Belgaum by train bound for Bombay.  At the port in Bombay, he boarded his third troop ship and departed for Basrah, the main Mesopotamian port on the Persian Gulf. From Basrah his journey would take him up country to Baghdad and from there to a place called Karnabit north and east along the Diyala River in a region the British referred to as the Persian Front.

Getting to that front was no simple matter. The distance from Belgaum to Basrah  is about 1800 miles. Leaving in late June as they did,  they were travelling in the hottest weather and contrary to the “trooping season” rule (see post #5). The first stage of the journey would be by train to the port at Bombay, some 300 miles. Once he boarded his troop ship there were no stops along the way, just a straight shot across the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Oman and into the Persian Gulf and, finally, 70 miles up the Shaat-Al-Arab to Basrah.

In transit - India to Mesopotamia
Troop ships in the Persian Gulf, 1917
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Troop transport ships in port at Basrah, Mesopotamia, 1917

From Basrah (Busra on the map below) the remaining  trip to Baghdad, (about 300 miles or so) could be made by a  combination of rail and river steamer.

Persian front showing baqubah and karnabit general area

An American observer, Lt. Colonel Edward Davis noted in his report from the front, “ In order to save time, my trip to Baghdad was not made by river steamer, but by rail to Amara, thence, by steamer to Kut-el-Amara…thence, by rail to Baghdad.” (Davis, 2003). It is not clear, exactly how Will got to Baghdad and it’s not terribly important, but it is fortunate that he seems to have entered the city on the Tigris River and had his camera ready to take in the remarkable view.

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Baghdad from the Tigris River,  Mesopotamia, 1917

Once in Baghdad all that remained was the short trip up the Diyala River to get to his destination at Karnabit. This leg of the journey may have been made by light gauge railway or a combination of wagons and the newer Ford trucks provided for the campaign. Along the way, Will would pass through the main garrison of the 2nd Battalion, Norfolk Regiment in the town of Baqubah about 10 miles south of Karnabit (see detailed map below).

Baqubah and the segregation camp at Karnabit, Mesopotamia.

As Will arrived at Karnabit and reported, the officer of the day recorded the following in the Regimental Diary, “July 11, 1917 at Karnabit: Captain R.T.H. Reynolds M.C. and 2nd Lieutenant W. Grummett and 22 B.O.R. (British other ranks) joined the battalion today.” (Regimental Diary of the 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment, July 1917)  After 28 months of training and travelling, Will had finally made it to the front – sort of.  In fact,  Karnabit was a segregation camp set up as part of the strategy for dealing with an epidemic of diphtheria. Will’s first experience on arrival was probably having his throat swabbed for testing while he was held in quarantine until it was certain he was not likely to make matters worse.

Despite the reduction and improved management of the incidence of diseases such as cholera and enteric fever, as reported by General Maude in the dispatches to the government (see post #6), malaria, diphtheria and heat stroke remained significant issues, seriously impacting the effective strength of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force. At times during the later part of the campaign, disease and heat related injury reduced the Battalion to 2/3 of its strength. (Petre, 2003)

Part of the reason for the continuing difficulty with disease was simply the challenges presented by the country and the simple tent style camps which, while the standard for the time, provided little protection from mosquitoes, the heat or flash and seasonal flooding.

Flooded Camp, Persian Front, Mesopotamia, 1917
Will Grummett’s tent, Persian Front, Mesopotamia, 1917

Mesopotamia is tremendously hot, particularly in the months of April to October. In 1917, the region was in the grip of a particularly  notable hot season: so hot that the people of Baghdad referred to that summer and early fall as,  “ The hottest season in the memory of man.” (Moberly, 1927) From the date of Will’s arrival until early October, the daytime temperature was never less than 110 degrees F, and rose to as high as 130 degrees F (Regimental Diary of the 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment, July-October, 1917). The official history of the Norfolk Regiment summarizes these extremes with a single terse sentence, “For most of the time the weather was excessively hot, tempered by dust storms and other unpleasentnesses.” (Petre, 2003)

Large dust devil (Mesopotamia)
Dust devil, Persian Front, Mesopotamia, 1917

Because the heat was so intense, both the Turks and the British would, with one notable exception, avoid engaging in battle in the hottest period of the year simply because the heat could kill more effectively than any soldier.  The First Battle of Ramadi,  which occurred in July of 1917 is proof of this claim.  Temperatures that day rose to 160 degrees F and more British soldiers died as a result of heat stroke (321 killed) than from enemy fire (245 killed) (Rogan, 2015).

For soldiers in the line during this time of the year, “Duties were principally the furnishing of small escorts, fatigue parties and training.” (Petre, 2003)  The routine was disturbed only by occasional overflights of enemy planes (which were met with an early form of anti-aircraft fire using a modified Lewis gun -see photo below) and late night incursions by locals into the camp in an effort to carry off whatever they could (Petre, 2003).

Lewis air cooled machine gun (magazine removed)
Lewis Gun set up to act as an anti-aircraft weapon, Mesopotamia, 1917

At least one of Will’s assignments during the hot weather appears to have been reconnaissance. In his collection of papers there is a report prepared and signed by Bullen and Grummett 2nd Lieutenants, it details the roads and road conditions and the geography in the Deltawa to Baqubah area.

On September 28th, 1917, Will was at the main garrison in Baqubah. He was there with the full complement of officers of the Norfolk Regiment.  This fact is documented in the group photograph below. Will is fifth from the right in the back row (the picture at the head of this article is an enlargement of Will from this photo).

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The officers of the 2nd Norfolk Battalion at Baqubah, September 28th, 1917

It seems unlikely that the officers of the regiment assembled simply for the purpose of taking a group photo.  I think, considering the late September timing, that they came together at the garrison in  Baqubah for a senior command briefing. The briefing was probably intended to outline the objectives and plans for operations on the Persian Front that would begin that October.  The Turks were still patiently present on the west bank of the Diyala River.  They held the Jebel Hamrin (Hamrin Hills) and were in full control of the canal system and water control structures on the west side of the Diyala. As the weather cooled, the Norfolk Regiment and the rest of the 37th brigade prepared to push the Turks out of the Jebel Hamrin and seize control of the vital waterways.

Next installment coming in August, In the Jebel Hamrin.

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