October 6th 1918

Whilst the papers have been full of the advances being made on the Western Front, General Allenby’s successes in Palestine have also been a feature.

Capt. Billy Collier (RAMC) played a small part in progress on this front over the summer and has kindly sent us an account of an expedition with the Camel Corps to attack the Hedjaz railway, which set out from Akaba on August 2nd.

The column progressed via Rumm towards their objective, the Mudowwara station:

“The station was protected by three redoubts, each on a hill and two parties were to attack the two southern of these from the rear, while a third went for the station… 

One of the most wonderful sights I have seen was our attack on the middle redoubt. Through my glasses, I could see a long line of men, silhouetted against the first light of dawn, as they climbed the hills, and in spite of bombs and rifle fire streamed along the crest without a halt.

Our relief was great when up went the signal for the capture of the southern redoubt, followed quickly by that from the station. From now onwards I was busy with the wounded and I did not reach the station and breakfast till about 11. Here was the Turkish garrison all captured – 6 officers and over 150 men, of whom about 30 were wounded.”

The following day (9th) they moved on, “blowing up the line, the station and the magnificent wells and engines the Turks had built there.” 

By the 14th they had reached Bair and, intent on another scheme of attack, were joined by a new Political Officer:

“We were joined today by Colonel Lawrence as Political Officer and he remained with us, though living for the most part with his own men, practically till the end of the trip. He has a most wonderful influence throughout this country – even, I believe, throughout Arabia and Mesopotamia. In this country he always dresses and generally lives as a Bedouin and has become a sort of ‘great white chief.’ His home is in Oxford.

His party of 50 braves or personal bodyguard arrived on camels the following day, singing and firing their rifles into the air. Firing off a rifle seems to be a popular form of amusement.”

Their plans, however, were discovered by two enemy planes, which flew over them at low altitude.

“Reports were received that our objective was more strongly held than had been anticipated, and this with the fact that we must have been spotted by the aeroplanes decided Col. B and Col. L that the projected attack was too risky.”

On their journey back to Bair, Billy was summoned to tend a British officer who had been accidentally shot:

“When we got there, we found that the bullet had gone through his heart and death must have been almost instantaneous. It appeared that one of Col. Lawrence’s braves had been picking up his rifle from the ground just behind him when it went off accidentally. The rifle had a long loop of string which actually went round the trigger and was no doubt responsible for the accident; in every civilised country it would have been regarded as criminal negligence.”

They made the journey back to Bair without any further alarms, with their rations just about finished.

“The same morning I went on with Col. L and three sick men… We crossed the Hedjaz railway at a destroyed station just before sunset, and for some miles drove up hill and down dale, on a surface of sharp stones, large and small. Luckily we had no punctures and soon after dark we got on to a tolerably level road which brought us at length to Aba el Lissan, the headquarters of the Hedjaz northern army and our own British HQ. We were received with great excitement, for no news of the column had been received since we left Bair 8 days previously.”

I understand that the Lawrence family do indeed live in Oxford – on Polstead Road – not far from the Campbells, with whom they are acquainted.

 

June 13th 1918

We are delighted to hear from Capt. Maurice Campbell (RAMC), who has written up his nine day journey (without maps) along the Bagdad – Persian Road (March 23rd – 31st.) for publication in the ‘Draconian.’

“This 200 miles through the hills still remains after thousands of years one of the worst and most difficult main roads in the world.

27/3/18. “We had only come 20 miles of our 120 (not counting of course the 80 I had done by car). Except for army mules for the Lewis guns and ammunition, our transport was entirely Persian mules, which are larger animals, supposed to carry 300 lbs…

The mules were looked after by a weird crew, dressed rather like the pirates in Peter Pan – especially the head man, who wore a bright blue coat and bright yellow trousers and looked the biggest villain I have ever seen…”

To prove the point, the following day, this ‘head man’ demonstrated his capacity for villainy on his own men:

“…it seemed as though they would never get loaded but finally the head man went up to various mules he thought underloaded, beat the driver over the head and tipped the whole load on the ground. The man then loaded again with another 100 lbs.”

Once underway,  even these hardy animals found the going tough:

“We started about six down a narrow lane, which got rougher and rougher. Even the mules could hardly stand and one was overbalanced by its load into a stream at the side. Several loads came off…”

Their resilience, however, is remarkable:

“Their saddles were kept on day and night and during the day even when we stopped for an hour their loads were never touched. But in spite of this they were ready to go on all day, grazing as they went. The one trouble was their speed – about two miles an hour, which made the day’s march a long one, although they never halted when we did.”

Of all the difficulties Maurice encountered on his journey, this is perhaps the strangest:

30/3/18 “In the morning we were greeted by the news that one of the mules had been eaten by a lion. On enquiry, it turned out to be a wretched creature which had been too lame to carry a load at all, so we suspected this was only the first stage in the manufacture of some circumstantial evidence so they might claim compensation.”

The following day, although still not at his final destination, Maurice was at least over the worst of it:

31/3/18. “This was the end of our journey on the Bagdad –  Persian road. From here to the Caspian it is good military road built by the Russians. From Bagdad to Qizil Roht, where I was camped, it passes over absolutely flat plains.”

Meanwhile, Maurice’s youngest brother 2nd Lieut. Pat Campbell (RFA) is serving in France.

We still remember the pain of awaiting news of the middle brother, 2nd Lieut. Percy Campbell, who was the second of our Old Boys to be killed, in October 1914.

The Roll now stands at sixty-six Old Boys, who have given their lives in this struggle against German aggression.

January 17th 1918

E A S T E R   T E R M   1 9 1 8

Yesterday saw the start of a new term. The School Roll numbers 141, of which 84 are boarders. Our Junior Department has a further 26 – the majority being 7 and 8 yr. olds.

Let us hope for a healthy term, free of illness. It will no doubt become even more difficult to keep everyone well fed. Yesterday’s announcement in the newspapers of compulsory rationing of butter and margarine (with other items undoubtedly to follow), allows us only 4 oz per person per week. Meat continues to be in short supply, although the importation of Argentinian beef is helping make up the difference.

* * * * * * *

It was a great pleasure to be able to share with our returning pupils the news of honours recently won in the war – particularly that of the DSO by one of their former teachers.

One of the more prestigious orders of chivalry is the Order of the Bath – founded by King George I in 1725. In the honours list announced in the New Year, Captain. WW Fisher (RN) and Temp. Brigadier-Gen. BG Price (Royal Fusiliers) were made Companions (CB).

The Distinguished Service Order (DSO) has been awarded to Temp. Major LD Luard (ASC), Acting Maj. JAA Pickard (RE, Special Reserve) and, although not an Old Dragon but a much admired member of the Dragon staff before the war, Temp. Capt. WRG Bye (Royal West Surreys & General List).

No fewer than six have been awarded the Military Cross (MC): Acting Capt. FS Low (RFA), Acting Major VLS Cowley (Irish Rifles, attached to MGC), Temp. Captain WT Collier (RAMC), Capt. EH Evans (RWF), Temp. Lieut. GH Moberly (MGC), Captain. GF Thuillier (Devons).

* * * * * * *

Readers of The Times of 14/1/18 may have noticed this article on Capt. William Fisher (RN). For those who read other newspapers, here it is:

Director of Anti-Submarine Division

“Capt. WW Fisher commanded a battleship at Jutland, and was commended for his services in that action. He has received a CB. He had held several Staff appointments before the war, having served as flag commander to the Commander-in-Chief  of the Home Fleet at Devonport, while in the summer of 1912 he was selected to act as Assistant Umpire for the Grand Naval Manoeuvres.

He is a gunnery specialist and a French interpreter, and was commander of the ‘Indomitable‘ when that vessel made her record run across the Atlantic with King George, then Prince of Wales, on board in 1908.

He has been for some months the Director of the anti-Submarine Division of the Naval Staff.”

December 11th 1917

This is the final instalment from Capt. Treffry Thompson‘s diary, covering the retreat after the Battle of Caporetto. The train eventually was able to speed up to take them across the River Piave to safety.

His final entry tells the story of how the Lieut.- Quartermaster had tried to rescue as much of their kit from the advancing enemy:

2/11/17 “At this point the Lieut.-Quartermaster turned up…

He said that he tried in vain to save our kits and ordnance, which he could easily have done if he could only have got lorries – he was promised lorries by Italian officers but none arrived – finally he bagged an old farm cart and an older horse and made a harness of belts and slings and straps. He opened all our kits and got out all valuable stuff and packed it on the cart.

He had with him an RAMC corporal with D’s motor-bike and one or two ASC men – they set fire to all the rest of the kit and stores… and they started off for the west – when they left the whole place was in flames and being shelled and bombed.

They got about six miles when the horse died – they harnessed themselves into it and the cart broke down – finally they had to leave everything as they were being sniped and came on as they were, riding a borrowed push-bike and harnessed up to the motor-bike.”

A gallant effort!

 

December 3rd 1917

With the Italian army struggling to hold the line at the River Tagliamento, crossed the previous day by Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men, Treffry needed to get them still further back if they were not to be caught up in the fighting.

This, the fourth day of the retreat, was to prove to be the most difficult for men tired from the march and extremely hungry.

30/10/17 “A roll call proved that we had got all the men across the river.

The Italian RTO’s Corporal Major decided, as the train that did come in was packed, that we had better try to secure some wagons which were a long way out of the station, but would eventually go on to a train. So we walked out to about 2 kilometres and found part of a train with five horse trucks already pretty well filled with Italian soldiers.

The Corporal Major opened the door of each and shouted, “This train goes to Udine,” (The Germans were in Udine by that time) and those trucks were empty in a moment, so we all got in. We had 6 officers and 28 men in ours, 20 patients and 8 men in another, and so on, and then we went to sleep just as it commenced to pour with rain once more.

A drawing by Treffry Thompson

We woke about 8 or 9 to find the train had gone about three miles and that now there was a solid line of trains buffer to buffer at least 5-6 miles long, actual movements being limited to spurts of 100-400 yards, perhaps once an hour….

The railway track was this hurrying mass of soldiery, without equipment and fighting mad for food, and refugees clinging desperately to their little all – little kiddy girls struggling along barefooted, often bleeding from broken glass, carrying some treasured possession – old women staggering under bundles of clothing – and mothers clutching a babe, or leading a couple of kids or crying wildly up and down the trains for some child which had got lost in the crush, while along the embankments of the railway and roads were the gleaming skeletons of mules and horses, in places three deep.

If a mule or a horse died, within half-an-hour it would be nothing but clean picked bones, so wild was everyone for food. The rain poured over everything.

We decided it was better to stay on the train where we had shelter and warmth, as the trains were bound to move down slowly and it was easier to starve in the train without collapse, than on the march when it would mean men getting left behind.

Finally, towards evening things began to look desperate and we started to forage in various directions. D and B managed to pick up nearly a sandbag full of macaroni where it had been spilled under a truck about three trains up the line. I achieved about 3-4 pounds of meat off the remnants of a horse I found. One truck made a meal off defunct mule.”

A couple of them went foraging to a farm and came back with two chickens, two ducks, about 40 lbs of hot polenta pudding and a sack of maize.

“Meanwhile we had got fires going in each truck – on piles of stones in tin helmets or old buckets and we had all those birds plucked, cleaned and cooked in no time. It was great sport, all sitting round, plucking hens. The revival of spirit was extraordinary and Rici sang to us from Il Trovatore etc.”

 

November 30th 1917

Having walked 20-22 miles the previous day, Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) and his men still had some way to go to reach safety, and they were not the only ones on the road:

29/10/17 “Masses of 2nd Army pouring past us and road filled for miles with guns, limbers and army wagons; lorries, cars, ambulances and wagons, hand-carts with a family’s entire possessions pushed by the women-folk, farm carts drawn by magnificent pairs of oxen laden with everything from copper water pails to canary cages, with the younger members of the family perched on top, and possibly a brace of geese or ducks with them; motor bikes with or without side-cars, and finally the humble push bike or the wheel-barrow, also laden with some treasured possession. The whole jumbled into a slowly, very slowly moving mass…”   

On reaching Codroipo, they were told to make for a bridge over the River Tagliamento – another 4 miles away.

“The river seemed miles away, but eventually we reached it about sunset, and then became wedged into a solid mass of soldiery frantic to get across the bridge and all jammed at the entrance.”

When Treffry finally arrived at the bridge, he had something of a fright:

“Between the rails it was open to the flooded Tagliamento forty feet below, since the bridge was an open one with the rails only being carried across on the sleepers, which merely rested on the open framework of the bridge. We moved on, foot by foot, to the entrance of the bridge, the crush becoming terrific…

I found myself suddenly shot forward and looking right down between the open rails. I grabbed the fellow behind me and, as he did not want to come too, he grabbed the fellow behind him, so we all swayed on to the gangway once more.”

After that they managed to drag themselves a further 3-4 km to the railway station at Carsarsa (just north of San Vito on the map) where the night was spent huddled together beside a siding. There was no food and the trains were all full. They can have got little sleep that night.

“Very cold, men huddled together with haversacks as pillows, but only for a few moments as it was too cold.”

November 28th 1917

This is the second entry from the diary of Capt. Treffry Thompson (RAMC) describing his experiences on the retreat, the start of which I shared with you on November 26th.

28/10/17  “The patients, who were lying in the ordnance sheds, well supplied with blankets, were now ordered to be evacuated through St. Georgia. Only eight ambulances available, but all worst cases sent under G. They eventually failed to get a train at St. Georgia and had to proceed to Postoguaro and were 13 hours in the ambulances.” 

With these patients off his hands, Treffry turned his thoughts to his group:

“Being allowed free run of ordnance stores, as it was going to be fired shortly, we picked what we wanted… While we were in this store a huge fire started on opposite side of town covering whole place with dense black smoke, and we were all ordered out at a minute’s notice from the store and town….

We found a seething conglomerate mass pouring through the Udine gate and up the westerly road to Codroipe.

Orders were then received to march from Palmanova to Codroipe in order to cross the River Tagliamento and find what they hoped would be safety.

“We reformed officers, personnel, Italian interpreter, Rici (an Italian opera singer attached to the hospital), 25 walking patients and a few others…” 

At this point an AOC officer, claiming to know the quickest way to the bridge over the Tagliamento, promptly marched them round Palmanova and a further six miles south before heading in the right direction.

“B and I brought up the rear, urging on the stragglers, which was a pretty heartrending job. The men began to shed their kits into the ditches and frequent halts were necessary. Rici the singer was very lame, but stuck to us and an enormous pack of kit…

We finally reached Gonas about 1 p.m., with the men very done, as they had then marched 16-17 miles and had had no rest since the day before and no food since the evening before…

We got the men some apples and pears and temporary shelter in an evacuated hospital. We shared a small bit of bully given by an Italian officer between the six of us. It was decided to push on to the next village at least, as there was no food in Gonas and the civilians were evacuating.”

At the next village there they found a larger evacuated hospital for the night.

“Got the men some food, first of the day – one tin of sardines between three, and half a loaf of bread per man…

Slept like logs, having done some 20-22 miles.”