The Irish Guards, take up positions to provide cover for Royal Engineers trying to extinguish an oil well fire. Basra, April 2002.

After censoring 100 of my company’s letters, what strikes one is the piquancy of style achieved by the omission of all punctuation: “The Bible says this is a land of milk and honey there is plenty of water and dust about if that’s what they mean?” or “The sentry shot an Arab one night soon after we got here I saw him soon afterwards caught him in the chest a treat it did.”

They are disgusting creatures. Of course, the filthy habits of the natives encourage them. The streets are littered with every kind of food scraps and dirt. And the Arab has only two toilets — the street and the river. Our chief tyranny in his eyes is that we have posted sanitary police about who fine him 2 Shillings. if he uses either. But, like all reforms, it is evaded on a large scale.

The theory that the sun sweetens everything is not quite true. Even after several days’ sun manure is very offensive and prolific. And many parts of the streets are not reached by the sun at all, In any case, the flies get to work much sooner than the sun.

Now for the military news. This battalion, when we arrived here, was nominally nearly 300 strong, but actually, it could hardly have paraded 100. This reduction is nearly all due to sickness. The deaths from all causes only total between forty and fifty, out of the original 800. And of these, about twenty-five, I think, were killed in action.

But there has been an enormous amount of sickness during the hot weather, four-fifths of which has been heat-stroke and malaria. There have been a few cases of enteric and a certain number of dysentery; but next to heat and malaria more men have been knocked out by sores and boils than by any disease. It takes ages for the smallest sore to heal.

Of the original thirty officers, eight are left here, Major Stillwell, who is C.O., one Captain, Page-Roberts, a particularly nice fellow, and five subalterns, named Harris, Forbes, Burrell, Bucknill and Chitty: (Chitty is in hospital): and Jones, the M.O., also a very nice man and a pretty good M.O. too. The new Adjutant is a Captain from 2nd Norfolks named Floyd: he is also nice and seems good: was on Willingdon’s staff and knows Jimmy.

In honour of our arrival, they have adopted double company system. I am posted to “A” double company, of which the company commander and only other officer is Harris. So I am second in command and four platoon commanders at once, besides having charge of the machine guns (not that I am ever to parade with them) while Chitty is sick.

It sounds a lot, but with next to no men about, the work is lessened. On paper, “A” D.C was seventy-two strong, which, with my fifty, makes 122. But in fact, of these 122, twenty-five are sick and sixteen detached permanently for duties at headquarters and so on, leaving eighty-one. And these eighty-one are being daily more and more absorbed into fatigues of various kinds and less and less available.

On paper, “A” D.C was seventy-two strong, which, with my fifty, makes 122: but in fact, of these 122, twenty-five are sick and sixteen detached permanently for duties at headquarters and so on, leaving eighty-one. And these eighty-one are being daily more and more absorbed into fatigues of various kinds and less and less available for parade. In a day or two, we shall be the only English battalion remaining here, so that all the duties which can’t be entrusted to Indian troops will fall on us.

There’s no doubt that old Townshend, the G.O.C., means to push on to Baghdad; and if the Foreign Office stops him there will be huge indignation. It seems to me that the F.O. should have made itself quite explicit on the point, one way or the other months ago: to pull up your general in full career is exasperating to him and very wasteful, as he has accumulated six months’ supplies for an army of 16,000 up here, which will have to be mostly shipped back if he is pulled up at Kut.

The soldiers all say the F.O. played the same trick on Barratt in the cold weather. They let him get to Qurnah, and he wanted and prepared to push on here and to Nasiryah, which were then the Turkish bases. But the F.O. stopped him and consequently the Turks could resume the offensive, and nearly beat us at Shaibah. The political people say that the soldiers had only themselves to thank they were nearly beaten at Shaibah.

North of the Shatt-al-Hai line (i.e. Kut-Nasiryah) it would be very exhausting to go, and very awkward politically, as you soon get among the holy places of the Shiahs, especially Karbala, which is their Mecca. But it’s no use blinking the fact that a river is a continuous whole, and experience shows that the power which controls the mouth is sooner or later forced to climb to its source, especially when its upstream neighbours are hostile and not civilised.

And what power of government will be left to Turkey after the war? It looks as if she will be as bankrupt, both financially and politically, as Persia. In that case, it seems to me the British sphere should go to the Shatt-al-Hai, and the Russian begin where the plain ends, or at any rate north of Mosul.

Are you at liberty to tell me whether there is already an understanding with Russia about this country, and if so how far it goes?

Two days ago we got the best news that we have had for a very long time from both European fronts, an advance of from one to three miles over nearly half the Western front, with about 14,000 prisoners: and Russian reports of 8,000 dead in front of one position, and captures totalling something like 20,000.

Since then, no news has come through, which is very tantalising, as one longs to know whether the forward move has been continued. I am afraid that even if it has, that there will be more enormous casualty lists than ever.

Adapted from Letters From Mesopotamia, by Robert Palmer. Photograph courtesy of Think Defence. Published under a Creative Commons license.