SOME RECOLLECTIONS OF 1/6th DEVONS
MEMORIES OF IRAQ
TRADITIONS OF GREAT REGIMENT UPHELD
As in the atom of space occupied by a dream, the events of a lifetime seem to pass before the sleeper, so in those tense moments of waking life when the mind is stirred by strong emotion, even the minor details of the happenings of years visualize themselves sub-consciously and pass in panorama before one's eyes. The mournful notes of “Last post” occupy but seconds in point of time, but that brief space, and the impressive pause before “Reveille”, the thoughts of many in the great audience at the unveiling the 6th Devons’ war memorial at Barnstaple ranged over the changing years of 1914-1919, the changing scenes of England - the Red Sea - India - Mesopotamia and Home.
From all parts of North Devon had assembled the remnants of the l/6th Battalion who sailed from England with the Wessex Territorial Division on October 9, 1914, and with them those of the 2/6th and 3/6th who so gallantly supported the original battalion. The sense of duty which actuated them then still stirred their feelings to the fulfillment of another duty, standing with bared heads before the memorial to their comrades. The well-remembered voice 0f Colonel Radcliffe CIE., D.S.0., who took the original battalion abroad and led them first in action, recalled to his old comrades that five weeks voyage to far-away Karachi, the land that was then new to most, the twelve months intensive training on the burning Punjab Plain station at Mean Meer – renamed, because of its sinister record of disease, ‘Lahore Cantonments’. The early casualties there from heatstroke came as a warning of what even peace time service means in tropic climes. Then, on Christmas-day 1915, the change over from barracks to rest camp, on relief by the 1/5th Devons from Muttan, and the departure on the ‘Elephanta’ for the Persian Gulf to form part of the relieving force. Next, the disembarkation at Basrah, the three or four miles' march with mule transport to the battalion’s impedimenta, the reed huts of Makina Messus—urging on biting and kicking pack mules rendered vicious and contrary by the sea trip. One thankfully “kipped down” in the darkness of a strange and rat-infested camp to awaken in the morning to find the torrential rain of the night had turned the country into a slippery, muddy morass, intersected with deep water-filled gullies.
ONLY WHITE UNIT
It was the winter season, but the warm serge clothing was left at the base dump, never to be seen again, and in a few days the 230 miles march up country was commenced in drill shorts and tunics. Arab guides showed the way through country unknown to any of the brigade, at the head of which rode Gen. Christian, and in which the 6th Devons formed the only white unit. It was a bitter experience as day after day miles of flooded country were traversed, and each evening sodden tents were pitched on sodden ground, and, wrapped in even wetter blankets, thankful to crowd together for warmth, one thought only, ‘One day less!’ The outstanding memories of the march are the wet, the cold, the blue dome of Erza's Tomb above Amara, the toil of having to entrench at each night’s camp for safety—but withal the cheerfulness of everyone. The third line transport consisted Mehelas, Arab river craft which sailed when the wind was favourable, and had to be towed at other times, the team of Arabs being dissuaded from desertion (of which there was great risk as one proceeded further up the river) by the imminence of the bayonets of the guard. The march of the column, therefore, depended on the speed of the Mehalas which carried the forage for the mules and the rations for the brigade. It was February 6 when Orah, the end of this stage, was reached, and for a month no one had had dry feet.
HOW THEY FELL
From the Senna trenches, a 16-miles night march—a nightmare, because of the constant stopping and starting inseperable from the movement of large bodies of troops in the darkness and in enemy country — took the battalion into their first regular action against the Dujailah Redoubt, on March 8 1916. That attack on a strongly-entrenched positioned over 2000 yards of territory devoid of cover, had its sequel in a large proportion of the names battalion appearing on the battalion memorial. Having marched all the previous night, fought all the day, buried the dead as the darkness rapidly fell amid the sniping of Arabs that plunder-lust had attracted to the vicinity of the opposing lines, and having dug in for the night in the hope of a resumption of the battle next day, the word was passed along the line that the whole force under Gen. Aylmer was ordered in the darkness to withdraw. The Sixth, then at an exposed point, had a brisk exchange of fire with some of the more advanced of the enemy, and then began the hideous retreat of 20 miles on Orah.
Short of food and water – stores were burnt rather than they should fall into the hands of the Turks, and besides every A.T. cart was required for the transport of the wounded - staggering along with stretchers with helpless comrades until the Bearer Corps could be found, shelled by the Turks, it was an experience difficult to forget. It is the hardest task to keep a brave face in retreat, even if the withdrawal is but temporary, but the 6th bore themselves well in retreat as in attack, and it was no idle praise from Colonel Radcliffe, a Devon officer all his life, when afterwards, when the gaps were seen and the casualties counted, he told the battalion that they had worthily upheld the traditions of the ‘Bloody Eleventh’. In the end the Tigris was crossed, and a weary battalion threw themselves on the ground in the open (many men were too tired to remove their equipment) to sleep until daybreak. Other troops who had not been engaged in the attack threw blankets over the sleeping soldiers as they lay.
THE FINAL CHAPTER
The next chapter saw the abortive attacks on Saniyat, the failure of the relief ship Tulmar to reach Kut, and the surrender of the emaciated garrison. The hot weather had come, disease had sadly weakened the Sixth, and they had months of outpost and mobile column work in various parts of the vast countrynever anywhere long but continually engaged against disaffected Arabs. Nasirayeh, Shaiba, Basrah, and Amara were all places at which the battalion was engaged before finally saying goodbye to Iraq.
The survivors the Sixth Battalion need no reminder of the trials they underwent, but they have fittingly perpetuated the memory of their comrades who fell, and seen that their names seen that their names “live for evermore” in the memory of North Devon. A simple story which takes not long to write, just one of many stories the Great War, recalled in that brief moment of the sounding of Last Post.