My Family History
Leonard Ball - the Soldier
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Dad in Mesopotamia
Dad's troopship Empress of Britain left Durban, South Africa, on 21st April 1917, and steamed north-eastwards, having to negotiate a minefield before eventually docking at Bombay, India on 6th May. The Oxfords didn't go ashore until three days later when Dad's company had to march five miles from the docks to their camp where they had a bath and had their clothes fumigated.
After eight days in India, the Oxfords boarded the Ezra and sailed from Bombay into the Persian Gulf, arriving at Basra in Mesopotamia on 23rd May when the troops were disembarked. Click here for an overview of the Mesopotamia campaign.
Dad's Company was transported by train and by river boat up the river Tigris with the intention of joining the Regiment near Baghdad.
Right: Photo of Ezra's Tomb (see also
Dad's paintings of this subject).
En route to Baghdad, they passed through Qurnah then via Ezra's Tomb to 'Amara, Sheik Sa'ad, Kut al Imara, and 'Aiziziya (see map below, or try the full-sized image of map).
The Oxford & Bucks Regimental Chronicle for 1916-17 (page 69) records:
June 22nd. Lieut. J. W. Meade, 2nd Lieut. A. L. Thompson, 90 other ranks from England, and 13 from hospital, joined the Battalion; ... Most had about twelve months' service, but a few .... were untrained.
However Dad's journey was interrupted on 22nd June when he was hospitalised after smashing his thumb while on fatigues at Aziziya. He was posted to D company and had to receive hospital treatment for three weeks.
Eventually (on 15th September 1917) Dad resumed his journey north westwards by train, arriving at Hinaidi near Baghdad. This troop movement is recorded in the Regimental Chronicle for 1917-18 (page 68):
September 14th. Received orders to move, and hand over to 2/7th Hants (expected to arrive from India). Kits were sorted into 20 lb and the remainder dumped. At 5 p.m. heavy baggage loaded onto P.35 for Railway Camp; at 8 p.m. C Company embarked.
September 15th. At 6 p.m. first train left for Hinaidi. This carried the baggage, C Company, and 1 platoon of A Company. At midnight the first party of the 2/7th Hants arrived, and took over the standing camp. The 1/6th G.R. and details had taken over all guards and duties. At 1 a.m. the same train left for Hinaidi with B and D Companies, but with no baggage except 20-lb kits.
September 16th. ....at 7 a.m. the same train took the remainder of the Battalion to Hinaidi. The Battalion took over the camp of the 1/4th Dorsets at Karrada, half a mile from Hinaidi Station.
The summer of 1917 saw record temperatures in Mesopotamia. In a newspaper report dated 15th September 1917, war correspondent Edmund Candler described the temperature as reaching 122.8°F towards the end of July, ...while in the tents, the thermometer rose ten degrees higher..
Candler continued, ...In spite of the abnormal heat, the spirit of the troops has been splendid throughout the summer, and in the hottest places games have been kept up as usual....
However, one wonders how much of this was propaganda!
In a separate despatch, the same eye witness, Edmund Candler, reported,
The heat of the desert in trenches and tents is staggering. One feels as if one were standing at the edge of a huge fire in a high wind, licked by gusts of flame.
The flies were unbelievable. You could not eat without swallowing flies. You waved your spoon in the air to shake them off: you put your biscuits and bully beef in your pocket and surreptitiously conveyed them in closed fist to your mouth, but you swallowed flies all the same....
In his book The Neglected War, A. J. Barker observed,
The Mesopotamian summer in 1917 turned out to be more severe than those of the two previous years; it was, according to the people of Baghdad, 'the hottest season in the memory of man'.
For British, Indians, and Turks alike, the enemy now was the sun, the dust and the flies. Every day was a period of burning torment, by 8 a.m. the sun's glare was unbearable and by midday it was a fireball in the heavens.
About the battle for Ramardi in July 1917, Barker comments,
...Total [British] casualties amounted to 566, of which 321 had been caused by the heat some men dying of heat-stroke, some of thirst and others going mad.
Barker, A. J. (1967) The Neglected War Mesopotamia 1914-1918. Faber and Faber, London.
Mockler-Ferryman, A. F. (undated) The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle 1915-1920. Eyre and Spottiswoode, London.
The troops suffered not only from the heat, but also from disease. Cholera, smallpox, and dysentery were common afflictions.
On 13th October 1917, Dad was admitted to hospital with what he described at the time as "diarrhoea". In fact, he had dysentery. His entry in The National Roll of the Great War 1914-1918 states that he was in hospital for eighteen weeks with dysentery (see here for details). He was to suffer occasional recurrences of this disabling condition for the rest of his life.
The Regimental Chronicle for 1917-1918 reported that during November 1917, two men of the 1st Battalion died of smallpox, and one of cholera. The following month, a smallpox epidemic is reported, and a programme of vaccination was started; (Dad received his vaccination on January 20, 1918). Dad records in his diary that on 10th and 16th February 1918 the camp was isolated because of smallpox.
As well as dysentery, and the risk from smallpox, Dad also seems to have suffered dental problems, necessitating the extraction of 16 teeth in October and November 1917.
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