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With a Highland Regiment in Mesopotamia

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With a Highland Regiment in Mesopotamia
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Author(s): H. John Blampied
Date Published: 2010/06
Page Count: 224
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-121-8
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-122-5

A highland regiment at war in the East

When this book was originally published both the regiment and author remained anonymous. Today we know it concerns the wartime experiences of the 2nd Battalion, The Black Watch and that its author—an officer of the regiment—was Blampied. To make the book more relevant to modern readers references to the regiment, division etc. have been inserted into this edition. The war in Mesopotamia—known as Iraq since the 6th century—against the Ottoman Turkish empire was very different to the experience of the Western Front, but the fighting could be no less fierce and in one of its earliest engagements the regiment suffered terribly, providing yet another example of how the Great War destroyed ‘family’ regiments in minutes.
This book provides an excellent insight into a highland regiment at war and is particularly interesting since the theatre of operations is familiar as the same one as the most recent conflict in the region.

One brigade was to deal with the Turks on the right bank of the Tigris, one brigade was to hold his forces near the left bank, while a third, with ours in immediate support, was to make the decisive attack on the enemy’s left flank. This brigade and ours therefore manoeuvred to the right for position. Before we had taken sufficient ground to our right, fresh orders arrived directing both brigades to counter-march back and attack the centre of the enemy’s line, against which the brigade on our left was already moving. Instant action was demanded and instantly the 2nd Battalion and a battalion of Jats moved forward to the attack. No time was given for the issue of orders, no frontage or direction was given, no signal communication was arranged.<br>
To all enquiries the one answer was given “Advance where the bullets are thickest” and right there did the 2nd Battalion advance. Magazines were charged and bayonets fixed on the move; the companies moved with great rapidity and wonderful exactness considering the exhausting march of the day before and the little practice they had had in open warfare. But without covering fire, and there was little artillery fire available to cover our attack such an attack over bare open plain cannot succeed unless the enemy be few in numbers or of poor heart. The Turk was neither weak nor faint-hearted, and poured in so deadly a fire that before the leading lines were within 200 yards of the enemy, five hundred of the battalion had been killed or wounded.<br>
Other units suffered with almost equal severity, the attack came to an inevitable halt, there were no reserves to drive it home, consequently orders were sent up from the Brigade that the infantry should dig themselves in where they were. Nineteen officers and two-thirds of the men had been hit: Colonel Wauchope was severely wounded by a shell and Major Hamilton Johnstone took over command.<br>
But if our losses were heavy and the sufferings great, the Turk had also suffered so heavily at our hands, that he was forced to evacuate his position on the following day, and we occupied it on the 9th. The situation was one of extreme difficulty for the new Commanding officer. If there were few men left there were still fewer officers or sergeants remaining with much experience. Yet the Turks were close to our trenches and re-organisation of the depleted platoons imperative. But his indomitable spirit and the determination within the regiment, so often shown at times of crisis, made the hardest tasks possible. The wounded were brought back, the dead buried; rations were got forward and the trenches securely held. New leaders were appointed, and on January 10th when the Brigade moved forward from Sheikh-Saad the Battalion had been reformed under its well-loved commander, ready as always to do whatever duty lay before.<br>
Progress was made up the river bank slowly, but always in the direction of Kut, the aim and object of our every march and fight at this period. The enemy had retreated some miles and, on January 13th, they were attacked and driven out of their position on the wadi, the 2nd Battalion playing a small but successful part in this action and losing 34 men. The Turks then fell back on to a more strongly entrenched position at Hannah.<br>
The rainy season was now in full swing. It rained day after day and the whole country became sodden, making it very difficult to move troops and almost impossible to move artillery. The discomfort the men suffered is almost indescribable, with no tents and everyone chronically wet to the skin and unable to have properly cooked food, made a seemingly hopeless position; but it is wonderful how hardship and discomforts are forgotten at the thought of beleaguered comrades in need of help and, as the country dried up and the sun shone forth, the men’s spirits rose.<br>
On the eighteenth the 2nd Battalion had orders again to move forward. They did so and occupied a line of trenches about two thousand yards off the enemy, who were strongly entrenched in what is now known as the Hannah position. The whole country here, it must be understood, is absolutely flat, only in the distance twenty or thirty miles away one could see the snow-clad Pusht-i-kuh Mountains. Each night short advances were made and fresh trenches dug, till the night of the 20th. In this manner an advance was made up to within two hundred and fifty yards of the enemy’s position. There, under cover of darkness the last line of trenches were dug and the companies deployed into two lines, and there they faced the enemy and awaited dawn. The Battalion and our old friends, the Jats, had been lent to another Brigade detailed to make the decisive assault on the morning of the 21st.<br>
Major Hamilton Johnston had made every possible arrangement for a successful assault and the leading lines were well within striking distance of the enemy. But however brilliantly carried out an assault may be, however gallant and determined the men, to ensure a lasting success against a determined foe there must be weight as well as depth in the attack. Now on the night of the 20th, owing to the movement among the troops, lack of reconnaissance and the mud, the troops in rear of the two leading battalions were deployed so far back, that though they moved forward in the morning simultaneously with the Jats and Highlanders, they suffered such losses on their way that none were able to reach the enemy trenches. And dire was our need there for support.<br>
At a given signal our artillery opened a light bombardment of seven minutes, then the long awaited and thrilling order to assault was given. The companies made a magnificent response and all rushed forward, crossed the muddy water-logged No Man’s Land with their left 200 or 300 yards from the river, and gained the objective, though not without losses. No pause had been made for firing for the bayonet was the weapon our men trusted. More and more it is proved that the bayonet is the weapon that wins the trench, the rifle the defensive weapon that holds it. Yet though no pause had been made our losses in that charge were severe. Major Hamilton Johnston was struck first by bullet and then, almost at once, killed by shell; only four officers reached the objective and of these three were wounded.<br>
The Turks fought desperately and it was only after a severe struggle that we captured some 300 yards of the first line trench. The Jats had suffered fully as severely as ourselves, but a certain number joined up with our men and fought right well, but no further assistance was forthcoming. The colonel was once asked by the Higher Command if such and such a trench could be captured. “My Regiment,” he replies, “will capture any trench, but it is a different matter whether it is possible to hold it.” Then for one and a quarter hours, the length of time which the trench was held, the regiment added a very glorious page to its history.