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The Legion of Marching Madmen

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The Legion of Marching Madmen
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Author(s): W. J. Blackledge
Date Published: 2014/09
Page Count: 176
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-334-6
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-333-9

Impressions of the war along the Tigris

The author of this book was well known under several pseudonyms for the writing of military accounts, either based on his own experiences or those of an Australian soldier or legionnaire of the French Foreign Legion. The writing style might seem sensationalist, and that could lead readers to speculate about how much of the narrative is genuine. However, that concern was ever a consideration of the military memoir—regardless of how soberly ‘the facts’ were presented. This account is based upon the authors experiences as a British soldier involved in the Mesopotamia Campaign during the First World War. It includes photographs, including those of the author, so we might assume the account to be comparatively well founded. It is a stark, brutal no holds barred version of the war against the Turkish Army and is, without doubt, an entertaining read for anyone interested in the subject.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

Added to the horrors and bestialities of war was the terrifying prospect of starvation, of starving slowly to death while we kept the Turks at bay and waited and hoped for the advent of the relieving force. The weeks went by, dragging the heavy days on leaden feet. For six weeks we did not even see an aeroplane, nor any other sign that the reinforcements somewhere south were keeping touch. We were just hemmed in. So far as the troops knew, we might live and die in Kut and never again know the world without.
The force was on the defence every minute of every day. The Turks shelled us incessantly. Sometimes we would quieten them with our guns for a short spell. And then again would begin the nerve-wrecking zoom and crash of common shells and shrapnel, spreading hot lead over civilian and soldier alike. Nights were made hideous with the racket of explosions. Tommies got on each other’s nerves. Bully beef, Arab black bread—God knows what it contained!—and char, was no diet for sick soldiers. There were minor riots in the bazaar and men were “clinked,” but I saw no single instance of field punishment number one in Kut, Townshend was a wise general. It was only the troops’ faith in the man that kept them going as long as they did.
There were, of course, several desertions. Some got away. Others were potted at in the river until they had to turn back, drenched and more miserable than ever. There were cases, too, of our own men being shot as they attempted to swim the river at dead of night, under the impression that they were Arabs carrying information to the enemy. Heaven alone knows what happened to the Tommies who got away from Kut and into the desert. Maybe some of them managed to trek down river and make contact with the relieving force. But the chances are that the Arabs got them.
There was nothing in the nature of a fortress about Kut. If there had been, things might have been vastly different. The old fort was built of mud bricks, which was all very well for old-fashioned and savage warfare. It was no use against Johnny’s shells. We rebuilt it time and time again, strengthened it solidly with sandbags, but always we worked under shell fire, and men went down like ninepins. Trenches, however, well built, must cave in under the blast of perpetual shelling. Ours certainly did time after time.
And once Johnny took advantage of the situation and rushed the trenches. That was on December 10. They pressed our northern front severely for several hours and it seemed to be their intention to break into Kut by way of our entrenched position. We knew that if the gigantic force broke through we were finished. They would simply sweep over us and cut us to bits. Johnny was not allowed to get over, however. We shattered his line with a terrific blast of machine-gun and rifle fire. Johnny was no good in the open. He turned and scattered back to his own trenches. The enemy had lost heavily. The dead and wounded lay thickly about the open desert which stretched between their trenches and ours. They were left to rot in the sun.
Two days later, just at dusk, the enemy made another attempt to storm our trenches. We met them with volley after volley of withering rifle fire. On they came, grey figures massed solidly in a tremendous effort to carry our position. Our machine guns sprayed them with deadly effect. We saw them dropping in their tracks, a ghastly curtain of men thrown at us in a desperate effort to capture our trenches and rush the town. Still they came, massed solidly like a human wall of flesh, into which the stuttering machine guns drilled gaps. . . . It went on most of the night. Sometimes they would come within a few yards of our barbed wire—only to be shot to their knees, yelping and yelling like wounded animals. Never was there such a colossal and blood-thirsty wastage of men. Lives were literally thrown away by the hundred. Many were trapped in the barbed wire entanglements. Many threw away their arms and tumbled headlong into our trenches out of sheer terror.
When dawn came all was quiet once more, except for the piteous cries of the men left out there in the open. They had to stay, and we had to tolerate the sickening moans and cries, for the Turks dared not come out for them. Over two hundred prisoners and deserters fell among us during that ghastly night. They told us that some ten thousand troops had been rushed on the position, and that there were more than two thousand casualties. There were several German officers among them, and they estimated that something like seven thousand rounds of shell had been poured into us in the last twenty-four hours. We lost 120 men killed and wounded.
I stopped one in the left shoulder and was in dock for the next three weeks. But no man stayed in hospital longer than he could possibly help. The building was constantly shelled, and it is no fun to be shot at when you can’t reply. Fortunately mine was only a flesh wound. I was back at work in twenty days. Those poor devils in hospital were having a perfectly putrid time. I saw a medical officer, an orderly, patient and bed as well all blown to pieces when that corner of the dock was shot to hell. The very vibration of the shell as it whistled through the air sent us crashing to the ground as if we had actually been hit!
After those insane attempts to rush us, Johnny appeared to give up the idea of direct attack upon the entrenched position, and started in with a serious and unceasing siege bombardment. He kept it up for days, hoping maybe that his persistency would start something among the civilian population. We, however, had the inhabitants well in hand by this time. Our situation was far too desperate to permit the natives any licence whatever. The slightest suspicion of treachery—and the rations were then being carefully doled out to all—and punishment came in swift and certain death. Moreover, we had imprisoned all the sheiks and khans and headmen of the town, and were holding them as hostages. The population was cowed—where it wasn’t sullen and treacherous.
It was known that Arabs were leaving the town by some means. But the way could not be discovered. Johnny Turk was kept informed and we did not know how. I knew there was a secret way out. At all events, I knew that Latifah knew of such a way. I passionately wanted to take this story to the authorities at this time, for I realised that this secret exit was a menace to us all.
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