Archive for July 23rd, 2012

Iraq 1915: ‘A river of blood… why this bloodshed?’

Chrestomather | July 23, 2012 in At Home and the World in Mesopotamia | Comments (5)

 

 

 

All of Kalyan Mukherji’s letters from Mesopotamia are reproduced in Kalyan-Pradeep. For the most part they are short, hurried and matter of fact. But some of them, as Santanu Das has remarked, are among ‘the finest in the grand pantheon of First World War letters.’

His first letter from Mesopotamia was written on April 13, 1915, soon after he reached Basra.

Ma, we’ve arrived safely. We had a good time on the ship. Dr. Puri and I were on the same ship. All the trained troops from Kohat have arrived. About 40 thousand of them.

Let that be: arré Ram! Can this be the Basra of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid? Chhi, chhi! There’s not the faintest sign of the famous roses of Basra; instead there are shallow little creeks filled with knee- or waist-deep water from the Tigris. Every one of these khuds is home to hundreds of thousands of frogs. They come in all sizes, but most are big bullfrogs. What a fearsome roar they have! It’s enough to deafen your ears. Men can’t hear each other talk…. (p. 250).

 

 

Indian Troops in Mesopotamia, answering roll call (source, Photos of the Great War: http://www.gwpda.org/photos/coppermine/displayimage.php?pos=-615)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tone of the letters changes when Captain Mukherji reaches the front line.  On July 26, 1915, he writes from Nasiriya:

Ma, You must have read in the papers that there’s been a lot of fighting in Mesopotamia. The English [i] have had a great victory. And there can be no doubt of it this time. It happened before my eyes, from beginning to end.

On July 16 I was about to go out for a ride in Basra – and just then we received orders to pack up our things, load them on steamers and set off, in a couple of hours.

We left our patients in the hospital and set off as soon as we could… Leaving on the 16th we arrived here on the 19th. .. On landing we knew at once that we’d reached the enemy lines. The sound of their cannon was loud and clear.

We heard that our Generals’ tents were a mile and a half from the firing line; and the Turkish trenches and nullahs were two or three hundred yards away. As for us, let alone tents – we weren’t even allowed to have cots. One set of clothes, one blanket and a raincoat and 5 doolie-loads was all we were permitted.

Why should I give up a chance like this? I’m senior, I said, so I’ll go. Leaving the junior doctor in charge I set off at 5 in the morning. Yes, and by that time two shells had hit our camp.

Around sunset, when we reached the pre-arranged spot, I let the others off and set up our dressing station. I heard that our trenches were 300 yards from there, and the enemy trenches were another 200/300 yards farther.

We were sheltered by a 4 foot wall; people warned us – when the bullets start to fly its best not to leave the shelter of the wall. There was not a breath of wind behind the wall; fiercely hot. It was swarming with mosquitoes, insects, frogs.

At ten p.m. a storm of bullets began. Just like a hailstorm. Exactly. I’m not exaggerating. Sheltering behind a wall in a date garden. Boom boom! Hiss hiss! Bullets flew – for half an hour.

Every night the enemy soldiers would waste fifty or sixty thousand rounds; but without wounding anyone. Why they would fire like that – wasting lakhs of bullets – only they know. We stopped paying attention.

As soon as the firing began everyone would go to their places behind the wall and then we would spend some time chatting. Our troops didn’t fire in reply. Every night they would fire 4/5 times, for 10/15 minutes and after that they would probably fall asleep. In the 4 days that I was there no more than 7/8 were wounded.

Anyway on the night of the 23rd we received orders telling us that the next day at dawn the fighting would start in earnest. We would attack. By 5 a.m. we had to be ready to treat the wounded, with bandages, medicines, iodine, milk, brandy etc all prepared. At 5 our artillery barrage began.

‘Boom-boom’ some 20-25 cannon firing together. After 15/20 minutes our troops moved up and began to advance, firing over our heads.

We were out of the line of fire all along. Once or twice some bullets flew over our heads but didn’t hit any of us.

After two or three hours the enemy was driven back by the storm of bullets.

And after that of course there was the suffering of the wounded to deal with.

At about three a band of enemy prisoners and wounded arrived. From six-thirty in the morning till 1 pm I didn’t have a chance to breathe. A river of blood, red – all around – I myself, soaked in blood, to the skin. Who – who should I treat first?… Why this bloodshed!! What can I say? In my life I won’t forget that sight.

Yesterday evening we came to the town of Bijit §. On the way I saw the battlefield. What I saw – I couldn’t ever describe it. Today the English have hoisted their flag here.

I left behind my bedding and all my baggage and clothing. We’ve advanced 7/8 miles. I’m still wearing the blood-soaked shirt of the day before yesterday. I’ve wired them to send on my things – can’t wait for them to arrive.

I hope you’re all well.

Your Kalyan

[My translation, from: Kalyan Pradeep: Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukhopadhadhaya, I.M.S.-er Jiboni, by Mokkhoda [‘Mokshada‘] Debi (1928) [Kalyan Pradeep: The Life of Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukherji, I.M.S.] pp: 289-294.]



[i] Kalyan Mukherji’s choice of words when he is writing about the British-Indian force is revealing. He usually writes of ‘the English’ or ‘this side’ – not ‘our side’.

§ This is a literal transcription of the Bengali spelling. I haven’t been able to identify the town.

 



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