Sunday, August 4, 2013
Downland: part ten
Since the end of the Great War, Ridler had struggled: his living had been piecemeal, hand to mouth. But the war had been a terrible time; the guarantees of his peace-time commission – pay, rations and billet – had been replaced by humiliation, death and disease. The Mesopotamia campaign had started with all the expectation and certainty of a British military operation: they had marched in to Basra and Kurna with little loss or opposition and had carried on up the Tigris to garrison the town of Kut-Al-Amara.
In November 1915, General Charles Townshend had then led his troops into battle at Ctesiphon, the last major obstacle before the final march on Baghdad, with confidence. Having witnessed only surrender and desertion from the Turkish forces they had encountered so far, the ferocity of the battle - the casualties, the defeat and retreat - were a shock to Ridler. The British and Indians had lost more than half of their troops and were forced to return to Kut where thousands of Turkish soldiers had besieged the town. For 147 days they resisted the siege before the humiliation of surrender. 147 days of bitter cold, hunger and infection. And then Townshend simply capitulated, surrendered his command and abandoned his men to sit on the side-lines for the remainder of the war: a small island off the coast near Istanbul, use of a yacht, visits from dignitaries. Captivity in luxury was better for Townshend: after the war, when the treatment of his men at the hands of their Ottoman captors became clear, a death in disgrace.
Ridler had felt that treatment but the Indian troops had fared worse and, as they were marched from Kut to Anatolia, they were made to strip to the waist and walk bare-chested. Every village they passed through, people would flock to the roadside to stare at these half-starved Indian troops. Their rib cages pushing bleached bone hard against the paper thinness of their black skin, their pale eyes set deep in dark, emaciated faces and their abject submission to the will of their captors all made them a spectacle. In Aleppo, a guard made one captive dance, whipping at his ankles with a switch. Small boys, laughing with delight, threw pieces of bread. Ridler was spared this humiliation, but he too, had submitted to whatever was required to survive. Half did not see the travelling circus through to its end: 5,000 starved, tortured, beaten to death.