Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Another New Year without cheer in the grim Great War

Captain Warren Sandes
When the New Year dawned in 1916 there was little optimism among troops of the Great War. After 16 months, the conflict was still going strong, with large numbers of casualties and no sign of an end in sight, and it comes as no surprise to discover that the tone of soldiers' diaries and letters was resigned rather than hopeful. An example is the New Year entry from a rather unusual journal kept by Captain Warren Sandes, an officer of the Royal Engineers.

It was unusual because Sandes was not serving in the trenches of France but in the Middle East with the Mesoptamian Expeditionary Force, whose aim in 1915 had been to capture Baghdad. Their advance, however, was halted by the Turkish Army who forced them to retreat to the Arab town of Kut-al-Amara, and in early December the Turks laid siege to the town, trapping the men inside for five months. Among them was Capt Sandes and this is how he described his New Year inside Kut-al-Amara:

1st January 1916 
New Year's Day and 10 o'clock in the morning. Now about 7am in old England. Everybody will be waking up there to the usual New Year good wishes which few of us have had the heart to wish each other here for it seems ironical to wish anyone a happy day when all know that that is impossible. 
Still, every day one is thankful to be still alive when, day by day, one hears that such and such a friend is underground. The shelling of the enemy does little damage comparatively but some shells must find their billets; one for instance three days ago killed two and wounded one other of the RA [Royal Artillery] officers. In the two Sapper companies with us here, out of eight officers who came originally with them last October year, only one remains - and so on. One British regiment has, of its original officers, the Colonel, one subaltern, and the doctor. 
The siege has lasted nearly a month now but we are not yet really pinched for food or fodder. There is a lot of influenza about and I have it myself and was feverish last night but took a good dose of quinine and am better this morning - the result probably of having to live so much in shady corners after an open air life. Everyone looks forward to the stupendous mail which will be waiting when the relieving army arrives. The last letter from home was one dated, I think, about October 14th.

A few days later Sandes wrote to his mother, describing his New Year 'celebrations' at Kut. The letter remained part of his journal because it could not be sent:

My dearest Mother, 
On New Year's night at dinner all were fairly cheerful except myself [suffering from 'flu] till towards the end of dinner the dull distant boom of a big gun was heard. All talking stopped at once while we waited for the whistle [of a shell]. It came in a couple of seconds, rose to a roar and finished with a crash in the next house. A sergeant came running in to say that two sepoys were killed and five wounded. This was unfortunately true, and threw a gloom over the rest of the meal. People dropped away one by one and I went up to my room two houses away, and got into bed listening hard for another boom and prepared to bolt downstairs if one came. None came so I went to sleep rather feverish and depressed.

Despite several attempts, a British relieving army never managed to reach Kut. The siege lasted until April 1916 when the threat of starvation finally forced the British to surrender. Life inside Kut, and later in Turkish prison camps where the men were held, was often horrific and the story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches  using Sandes' journal, along with some extraordinary photographs he took during his time in Mesopotamia.

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