The 6th Battalion of the Devons was one of the finest Territorial battalions in the British army, proven beyond doubt by their years of service in India and Mesopotamia. Together with the 4th and 5th Battalions, their role was to act as ‘Internal Security’ troops, at a time of unrest when the situation in India was becoming more dangerous for the occupying colonial power. At the same time, rigorous training programmes had to bring these as yet only half-trained troops up to the level of those serving in the regular army. Officers, N.C.O.s and men were sent on a variety of courses; signaling courses at Kasauli, machine-gun courses at Kota Gheri and musketry courses at Rawal Pindi. In particular, the 6th Battalion had to find two companies to garrison Amritsar and a further detachment to garrison the Lahore Fort. The remainder of the Battalion was stationed in the so-called ‘Lahore Cantonment’, renamed from its original name ‘Milan Mir Barracks’ because of its reputation for malaria. On March 1st 1915 the Battalion was inspected by Sir John Nixon, G.O.C. Northern Army (later to take command of the British operations in Mesopotamia) who complimented the Battalion on its physique and discipline, after which, in very hot weather the Battalion proceeded to take the Kitchener Test, in March 1915 - devised originally for the New Army battalions, a thorough examination of fitness in all branches of field-service. Among other things this included a forced march of 15 miles in full equipment, followed immediately by a mock-attack using live ammunition. Not a man fell out, and the 6th Battalion’s results headed the list of all the Territorial battalions in the Punjab.
The Punjab was in a state of continuous unrest around Lahore and Amritsar; in March 1915 a rising was imminent at Rawal Pindi, but was contained in time. However, up to 500 men had to be kept back at any one time from moving up into the hills, an otherwise normal procedure for a whole battalion in India to avoid the summer heat, meaning a great trial for those that had to endure an exhausting and boring life in Lahore. The war-diary makes references not only to Lahore as a ‘hot-bed of sedition’ but also to the ever-present dangers of heat-stroke, malaria and dysentery. The 6th Battalion held together well, health remained good and only 12 cases of venereal disease were reported. The great hope was for active service, best of all for service in France. As a result, when 29 men were called for in May to volunteer to join the Dorsets (with the rumour that they were on their way back to Europe) practically the whole battalion stepped forward. Two Winkleigh men, in fact, were selected, Privates Frederick William Davey and Frank Turner, but it was not to France but to Mesopotamia that they were sent, destined to die in horrible circumstances as prisoners of the Turks after enduring the siege of Kut.
At the end of a very trying year, in December 1915, the Viceroy himself visited Lahore for the celebration of the Indian Officers’ Durbar, the 6th Battalion providing a splendid Guard of Honour; Colonel Radcliffe was congratulated on the finest performance ever witnessed by the Viceroy, and with this commendation ringing in their ears, the Battalion was warned off on December 17th for transfer to Mesopotamia. With just time to celebrate an early Christmas, (the Battalion was actually relieved by the 1st/5th Devons on Christmas Day), the Battalion moved down to Karachi and embarked for Basra on 30th. Little did those eager, fit and well-trained men realise the hell that awaited them.
With no surviving records, we have no knowledge as yet of Ernest Ware’s further part in the war, and we can only hope that family memories could fill in the gaps. Nevertheless, it could be of much interest to understand the following history of the 1/6th and it could well be that Ernest played a full part.
The Battalion was extremely under-equipped for any kind of operational service, and what was available had to be packed in a great hurry. Almost all basic necessities for military operations were lacking - great-coats, water-proof capes, field-dressings, binoculars and so on, and the expectation was that all this equipment would be issued in Basra. It was not to be. On Christmas Day 722 men were on strength. 127 of these had to be left behind sick or suffering from bad teeth - the result of an unusually hot summer in ‘The Plains’. Eventually, including drafts from 1st/4th and 1st/5th battalions, 32 officers and 642 other ranks embarked on the transport ‘Elephanta’, together with the entire Headquarters of 36th Brigade (the Devons and three Indian Punjabi battalions under Brigadier General Christian). Basra was reached on January 3rd, in the expectation that river transport awaited them to travel up the Tigris to Kurna and then on to Amara and the forward base at Sheik Saad. Instead, chaos and mismanagement were soon apparent. First, there was a seven day delay as the men sweated in their cramped camp conditions, before it was announced that no river transport was available and the Battalion would have to march all the way, a distance of 220 miles. On 10th January the long forced march up country began.
In order to appreciate why the 36th Brigade was posted to Basra in the first place, additional information is available in the Related Topic ‘Kut-el-Amara’ which outlines the situation in early January 1916. Reaching Qurna where there had been heavy fighting on 4th-8th December, the battalion continued through Amara and Sheik-Saad (see maps attached to this page), eventually reaching Orah on the left-bank of the Tigris some 30 miles from Kut. The war-diary tells us that all the discomforts and difficulties experienced on the march were ‘cheerfully borne by the men of 6th Devons, because they hoped to be able to relieve their comrades at Kut’.
Quite what those difficulties were is best recorded by quoting from Atkinson’s ‘Devonshire Regiment in the Great War’ P. 118-119. ‘The only transport available was native boats called mahailas, on which rations were carried. These were dependent on the wind, and often, when the day’s march was over, the battalion found itself without rations, owing to the wind having dropped and left the mahailas far behind and unable to make any headway against the current. Mules had to go back for the rations, but it was usually midnight before the men got their food. This was the greater hardship because, while the nights were bitterly cold with sharp frosts, the river was in flood and well over the banks. The troops had often to wade through the water waist-deep, to encamp on soaking ground and wrap themselves in sodden blankets, for when it stopped raining the mules, who carried the blankets, often indulged in a roll in the water. The marching was most difficult, the mud being tenacious enough to draw the soles off the men’s boots. It was a strenuous and uncomfortable experience and the marvel was that the sick rate was no higher; while the men’s cheerfulness was astonishing, they were always singing and joking and, as one officer writes, ‘the deeper the water, the more they would joke and quack like ducks’.’
Atkinson could have added that during the march the men were put on half-rations (a tin of bully-beef and two biscuits a day) with an occasional tin of Australian jam. For water, they drank from the filthy and polluted water of the Tigris, with no prospect of boiling or purification. It is not surprising that by the time the Battalion reached Orah, many were sick, mainly with dysentery and pneumonia. There was no way of making a fire and the men slept in the open mud all night. Furthermore, the battalion was still dressed in thin Indian drill uniform (see attached photos of the march) although the weather was now bitterly cold and wet - apparently the military authorities in India, under General Nixon, had decided that Mesopotamia was a ‘hot’ country. We even know from Col. Olerton’s little pamphlet on the Dujailah battle, which he published in 1948, of the songs they sang, ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, ‘One Man went to mow’, or ‘Widdicombe Fair’, led by Sgt George, a magnificent Barritone, who together with the mouth-organ section played the men into ‘camp’ each night with the Regimental march ‘We lived and loved together’, better known as ‘Over the Swedes and Turnips’. The march continued in this way for four weeks, reaching Qurna on 14th January (the traditional site of the Garden of Eden now with its alleyways renamed ‘Rib Road’, ‘Eve’s Walk’, ‘Serpent’s Alley’ etc.) up to Sheikh Saad by 5th February, an advanced base of several thousand troops under canvas. This was the site where the 7th Division had dislodged the Turks on January 7th with 4000 resulting casualties, many of whom were simply left to die in the mud, their bodies now swollen and naked, butchered, stripped and mutilated by the Arabs. The Devons saw it all. They saw, too, the results of the battles of the Wadi,13th January, and El Hannah (by El Orah) on 21st January. Both were equally ghastly. Battles were being fought without any medical assistance for the wounded: boatloads of injured, sick and dying men were going down the Tigris huddled on bare decks, without covering or shelter from the sleet and rain, with few doctors, no lint, bandages, gauze dressings or splints. Unchanged field dressings would be up to 8 days old, maggots in the wounds, the men covered in sores, many with gangrene, utterly filthy, cold, hungry and desperately thirsty. The Government of India was totally responsible for the chaos, a few days’ voyage away, where supplies abounded.
The advance having been checked at Umm el Hannah on January 21st, the front line troops were in trenches astride the Tigris, just below the el Hannah position, sapping up towards the Turkish trenches on the left bank. On the right bank further advance was impossible, protected as it was by the Suwaicha Marsh. The battalion finally reached the advanced positions at Orah, on the left bank of the Tigris about 30 miles from Kut, on February 6th, where they joined the few remnants of the 3rd (Lahore) Division and the 7th (Meerut) Division under the command of General Aylmer, making a total force of some 23,000 fighting men. From February 8th to March 6th the war-diary reported that the battalion took its share in the trenches and outpost work, engaged also in road-making, wood-cutting and other fatigues, finally moving into the front trenches at Senna, which they found flooded in a foot of water, and occasionally harassed by hostile aeroplanes. The famous battle of the Dujailah Redoubt was now about to begin. At 6.0 pm on March 7th, 36 officers and 814 other ranks paraded in battle order, each man carrying two days’ rations and 150 rounds of ammunition, prepared to attack the Es Sinn position and the Dujailah Redoubt following a night march of 15 miles across the desert.
The attached map shows the layout of the battle. The Es Sinn position and the Dujailah Redoubt blocked the last barriers on the right bank of the Tigris to the relief of Kut, but the Turks felt sure that these positions were safe and could never be attacked. The plan therefore depended on achieving complete surprise. A successful night march would enable the troops to be in position as dawn was breaking to launch the attack, break through, mop up the last resistance from the rear and compel the Turks to abandon their positions on the left bank, thus opening the road to Kut, which in the opening stage of the battle could be clearly seen by the Devons through the haze, a mere 15 miles away. The plan was brilliant and original, and astonishingly for the army of those days, with nothing more than the compass and inaccurate maps to guide them, the night march was achieved with almost total success.
The war-diary of the 6th Battalion (see the attached transcript) is of course an invaluable source for knowing what happened next, with the whole operation described also in Atkinson’s history and the Col. Oerton pamphlet (see the complete pamphlet on the right) that was kindly given to us from the Barnstable archive, including photos of the Devons on their march up from Basra to Orah. Over 20,000 men comprising 3rd Division and the 28th, 35th and 36th Brigades of the 7th Division, set off on the 10 mile night march, with transport, guns and ambulance carts, in total silence and undetected by Turkish patrols or sentries, avoiding too the Arabs who would have raised the alarm. Moving 4 miles forward from the Senneh trench lines, the columns assembled at ‘The Pools of Siloam’ by 8.00 pm, and waited there for complete darkness before moving a further 7 miles to reach their allotted positions for the attack. Commanded overall by General Aylmer, the force had been divided into three columns, the 7th Division Brigades under General Kemball forming the 36th Brigade in ‘A’ with the 9th and 37th Brigades in ‘B’, and the 3rd Division column ‘C’ under General Keary. The whole infantry force was supported by a cavalry brigade, which as it turned out proved totally useless in the battle, missing a great opportunity to harass the arrival of Turkish reinforcements. Separating, ‘A’ and ‘B’ made for the Dujailah Depression south of the redoubt, ‘C’ for a point between the Dujaila Redoubt and the Sinn Aftar Redoubt to the north of it, (see the attached map of the Dujailah battle area).
A surprise attack was now vital for success, in spite of the tiring night march of 12 hours with limited water and rations, the men weighed down with heavy packs and extra ammunition. The Turkish trenches lay virtually empty for the taking, soldiers standing on the parapet shaking out their blankets and eating breakfast, oblivious of what was happening. The three Brigades had arrived about one and a half hours behind schedule, but there was nothing to stop the 3rd Division moving forward and taking the Redoubts and trenches virtually without loss. The 36th Brigade, in fact, was actually in the rear of the Turks, as was the cavalry brigade. This is not what Generals Kemball and Keary had expected and General Aylmer, himself in the front area with the 3rd Division, was unwilling to change the plan which provided for artillery support before the attack. While the men waited and fumed at the delay, Kemball’s guns leisurely proceeded to register at 7 a.m.; the Turks were warned, surprise was gone, Turkish reinforcements were rushed up and the battle in fact was already lost before it began. Patrols, including one British Major dressed as an Arab, had virtually entered the Turkish trenches and reports were sent to Aylmer that the opening was clear. However, Keary’s 3rd Division had been ordered to wait for Kemball’s Brigades to attack, so here too all chance of taking the Redoubts was lost. The troops were forced to lie idly by for most of the day before being launched in suicidal attacks on positions that by then were strongly defended by Turks entirely hidden from view.
At 0715 hrs the 36th Brigade, including the Devons, began the attack on trenches at the shrine Imam Ali Mansur, (as marked on the map). In spite of enfilade fire from the Sinn trenches, the objective was gained by 11.30 hrs Meanwhile, the 37th and the 9th Brigades waited impatiently while the opportunity of occupying empty trenches slipped away. At 1330 hrs the Devons were then recalled to assist the attack on the Redoubt. Advancing across ground without a vestige of cover, the Battalion was swept by a devastating rifle and machine-gun fire from the Redoubt, and the slaughter was unbelievable. B and D Companies were in the front line on their arrival, C and A in close support. In spite of the impossibility of any further progress, and indeed being ordered not to do so, the war diary reports that a suicidal attempt to make a final attack was made by 4 officers and 20 or 30 men in the front line, a hopelessly brave effort to inspire the remaining troops to renew the attack. Those involved were definitely from the front-line Companies, Captain Stranger (B) being killed and Captain Bazely (D) wounded. In the hour or so waiting in the darkness for the stretchers to arrive for carrying the wounded, the battalion was ordered to disperse in order to avoid some of the undirected fire including grenades that were falling among them. General Keary’s 3rd Division waited until the late afternoon when they were finally ordered forward to be mown down in useless waves of suicide attacks No ground had been taken as night fell on a scene of utter devastation. The 6th had dug in as best they could. Now was the chance to collect the wounded and attempt to bury the dead. Officers and men were totally exhausted; they had marched all night and fought through a day of torrid heat, and after 36 hours their water-bottles were empty. Neither rations nor water was available, and now the Battalion toiled for a second night searching for and carrying their wounded as far back as possible, under constant sniping of rifles, machine-guns and rifle-grenades. Orders were received to retire before 1.30 a.m. but nothing could be done before 2.15 a.m. when stretchers were procured for the removal of their casualties. Reaching an assembly point 1,200 yards in the rear, the Battalion was then ordered to escort a convoy of sick and wounded back to camp some 18 or 19 miles across the desert. The sufferings of the wounded were atrocious, jolted across the desert in springless army-transport carts drawn by mules, tortured beyond endurance, often with heads and limbs forced through the iron slats on which they lay. Many were dead before camp was reached. In two days, General Aylmer’s Corps had lost 3,476 officers and men in a battle that should have been won in the first two hours of daylight. The consequences of the delays were profound. The last opportunity to save the garrison in Kut had been thrown away, with the result that the surrender was now inevitable and with it the loss of the entire garrison taken into captivity. Three of our Winkleigh men perished as a direct result of the tragedy of Dujaila - Thomas Knight had been reported as ‘missing’ in the battle, and Frederick William Davey and Frank Turner, who while still in India had been posted to the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsets and who were at the time both holed up in Kut, ending their days as prisoners of the Turks.
As the exhausted men struggled back to camp, the full extent of the tragedy became apparent. 24 officers and 550 men of the 6th Battalion had taken part in the attack, including 8 officers and just under 300 men who had joined the battalion from England only two days before, many of whom had recovered from wounds incurred in the 8th and 9th Devons at Loos in September 1915. 8 officers had been killed and 8 wounded, with the Medical Officer reported missing during the night 8th/9th. 22 men had been killed, 141 wounded and 22 were missing. The proportion of the dead to the wounded is significant; the Turks were firing along the ground from their concealed trenches, so that casualties occurred more in leg than chest injuries. Having done what they could to decently bury their dead, the Battalion was able to pay their last tribute to them when they returned to the Dujailah Redoubt later in mid-May after Kut had fallen on April 29th. The people of North Devon also paid their tributes then and continue to do so whenever the 8th March, ‘Dujailah Day’, is remembered by the now amalgamated Devonshire and Dorsetshire Regimental Association. At the time of course the failure of the battle was covered up in newspaper reports that stressed instead ‘the glorious achievements of the heroic Devons’ who won ‘immortal glory’ on the day, thus offering some comfort to grieving widows, parents and sweethearts, who had very little idea of the sufferings endured by the battalion, and certainly no idea whatever of the appalling blunders made by the Generals who recklessly and stupidly threw away so many men’s lives. Attached to this page is the account of the battle in the ‘Western Morning News’ which gives a good flavour of how the war was reported, even by one who was an eye-witness of those events, and who must have known a great deal more than the censor allowed him to dispatch.
The next three weeks were spent at the wadi, trying to increase the bunds to prevent the Tigris from inundating the whole area. On March 31st the whole 36th Brigade moved to Orah in Corps reserve. On April 6th when the 13th Division attacked the Hannah and Falahiyah positions, in a last desperate attempt to relieve Kut, the 1st/6th was involved only by giving covering machine-gun fire from the right bank. After this the Battalion took over some captured trenches at Beit Aiessa, and then on 21st April gave support to the Meerut Division in the last (and failed) attack on Sannaiyat, before moving back to Abu Rahman on the day that Kut finally surrendered, April 29th.
In May 1916 the whole Mesopotamia Force was reorganised; the 1st/6th left the 36th Brigade for the Line of Communications, guarding and defending from marauding Arabs key points that led upstream from Basra. Fresh drafts were received from the 2nd/6th in May, June and July, but sickness and exhaustion had taken their toll. Only 7 officers and 180 men remained reasonably fit for guard duties requiring 147 men each night. On August 13th a burial party visited the battle site of Dujailah; 20 bodies were buried and identifications secured. In September the Battalion moved to Sheik Saad, and in October to Amara at which time it totalled only 9 officers and 276 other ranks. By February 1917 new drafts had brought the Battalion up to over 950 strong. The Battalion’s task was now to protect the light railway that ran from Sheik Saad to the Shatt al Hai. Here they stayed well away from General Maud’s campaign to advance to Baghdad and beyond, protecting the railway and collecting battlefield salvage, and having occasional brushes with Arab marauders. In April 1917 there was a move to Shaiba on the Euphrates, west of Basra, with many personnel moving to India to recover from sickness, or for periods of leave. Life was far from comfortable, however, with temperatures in July and August reaching a maximum of 124 degrees.
The end of the war in November 1918 saw the 1st/6th at Magil Camp, Basra, recovering from the attacks of the Spanish influenza epidemic which had been raging since October. Later in November the Battalion moved back to Shaiba, where 200 men and one officer were dispatched to Salonika. On 6th December the remainder moved up-stream to Amara, where demobilization began.