The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
To Baghdad by River
To Baghdad by River.
Mespot.—at last—and we were steaming up the mile-wide Shatt-al-Arab, looking alternately at Mesopotamia, to the west, and Persia, to the east. After passing Fao, the date palms growing in magnificent and regular profusion, by reason of perfect irrigation, succeed in blotting out the immediate country; but over their noddingheads, laid out in full view was a wide stretch of shining, clear water. Odds were freely laid by the veterans that the water scene didn't exist, and the newcomers, who could see the shadows in the depths, just as freely rose to the bait. The view turned out to be a wonderful example of a mirage.
We passed Muhammareb, on the Persian side, and got a close view of the two palaces of the Sheikh one of the few chieftains who has always been friendly disposed towards our Flag. At the rear of one of the palaces was a beautiful mosque, inset in a garden of flowers of riotous tropical color. After sixty miles of peaceful river and palm groves, we were moving through five miles of jetties, mud-brick buildings—military and trading offices— and thousands of odd craft. The river now was unbelievable, with its stir and bustle and ceaseless activities. The number and variety of the vessels skimming its surface was amazing: light cruisers, monitors, steamships, ocean and river-going dhows, barges, tugs, bellums, mahaylas, goofas, paddle-steamers with the red cross proclaiming their mission against a background of pure white; and darting in and out at incredible speed, scores of tiny, graceful motor launches.
At last we anchored and disembarked on to barges drawn by tugs, to proceed to the particular rest camp to which we were allotted. The journey from Basrah to Baghdad must be made in a vessel of much lighter draught. We went to Ashar Barracks, where we were told to mess; but received a chit for a billet in Bridge Street. We wondered vaguely what it would be like. Our Ford car went up a native street at ten miles an hour—the pedestrians, mostly Bedouins, hanging themselves on the walls till we had passed—evidently they were accustomed to the procedure, for we noted no casualties. The car stopped in front of a native house and our hearts followed suit. We were agreeably surprised, however, for the billet was clean and equipped with electric lights and fans. Our native servants soon made the place homely.
Basrah is no beauty, and if El-Sindibad of the Sea could only return, he would die of vexation, All the houses are native-built, and most of the streets are narrow and winding. Through the town crawls a dirty canal on which bellums are pulled to and fro. The population is Military, Jewish, Persian, but predominantly Arabic; and already the damp heat was imprisoning it indoors. Within a month or two the shade temperature would rise to well over 120 degrees. On May 1st. commences the issue of ice to the troops and umbrellas to all personnel working on the docks. Fancy an umbrella as part of a soldier's equipment!
Again we embarked—this time on a paddle steamer—and got well away for the city of Ali Baba. Just outside Basrah we passed the Euphrates —the new channel. Originally the confluence with the Tigris was fifty miles further up the river, at Qurnah—the original site of the Garden of Eden. We reached Qurnah at dusk, for which we were all thankful, as one bright youth desired to point out the very tree from which the apple was pinched that made the world such a delightful place to live in. However, we viewed the jetties and the dumps under the glare of our searchlights as well as we could, for darting through the light, like myriad sparks from some gigantic furnace, were millions of Poochees—insects of microscopic size to beetles of such growth that, beware lest you only wound them and they return to the attack and swallow you whole. Eventually, we were forced to retreat to the security of our nets. The day had been as hot as the temper of a red-haired girl. The date palms had thinned out and now showed in patches only where villages existed. Intermixed were fig trees, red-flowered pomegranates and a most flippant type of our beloved weeping willow. We limped past what looked like a blue bullet peeping from a mud case. An innocent inquiry elicited a deafening roar of '"Ezra's Tomb". Each spoke naturally; but you know the result when a party of tourists, anxious to impart knowledge, make a dead heat of it.
Now we were moving slowly through the Narrows, and with a cargo-barge roped to each side, made a tight squeeze of it. Often we bumped against the banks in order to secure an impetus to round a bend. The Tigris was in flood, and at a higher level than the surrounding country. To keep it from overflowing, mud banks, called bunds, have been constructed along the edges. These require a tremendous amount of supervision and labour. Of course, British money is receipting all bills. The villagers-women and children only—were walking along the banks with trays of eggs on their heads and fish and poultry in their hands, for sale. Their stock of fish was gradually increasing, for the wash caused by our boat left many high and dry on the banks. The Arabs had already walked miles and had traded at such times as the steamer bumped alongside. Someone threw a coin, upon which the youngsters pounced, bringing down one of the women and scattering eggs in all directions. She shrieked maledictions at all and sundry, scratching her cheeks and tearing her hair.
Practically all the villages we had passed were built of reed huts. These remain quite waterproof for about two years. We had just out-distanced Qal'at Salih, where we were interested in the train on its sultry journey from Amara to busy Basrah. And so evening descended.
Three in the morning—a pyjamas parade—and the M.O. giving a lecture on Amara, just disappearing from view. A town famed for its gold and silver work, but from the river front as lacking in charm as the monotonous country beyond it. We passed Sheikh Saad without enthusiasm. In the early days of the war a position of great strategic importance, it is now a collection of tents and a mere post by the way. Kut-el-Amara now rose to our vision. Already it is a flourishing town though only a year ago saw it the scene of battle and siege—a battered ruin and a shell-torn desolation. The weary sameness of the view had sunk into our very souls and our only ambition was to lie back in a lazy torpor. Even the wonderful Arch of Ctesiphon scarce roused us from our lethargy, and it got a passing glance merely and an unattending ear to its history and origin only.
Another forty miles, ending our eight days trip of five hundred and sixty, brought us into view of Baghdad, and all eyes were strained and faculties sharpened to see and grip an impression. of the City of Mystery. The river was wide and shining. From the forest of plaster-colored houses rose, outflung against the background of the sky, numerous mosques, bluetinted minarets and picturesque palm trees, and the poems of Omar Khayyam, the stories of carpets, of Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves, cherished memories of our childhood, and the Thousand and One Tales of the Arabian Nights, all came swiftly to mind and converted the scene into a wonderful vision of an enchanted city. Let us leave it here lest by overt or too scrupulous examination, the illusion of the dream be lost, or its fabric be torn and rent beyond repair.