Message that went around the world

Part two of George Brown’s time serving as a signaller with the Black Watch in Mesopotamia from 1915 -1918.

“We set off on the 8th March, 1917, intending to make Baghdad, a distance of 22 miles. It was an indescribable forced march through the blazing sun with little or no water allowed and our throats like dried leather. After 15 miles we suddenly bumped into the enemy who were being driven back towards Baghdad by the 28th Battalion.

“That night was spent in the sandy desert without rations or water and the following day we found the enemy had evacuated their position. The ration party eventually arrived at the same time as the wind got up and we couldn’t see a yard in front of us for swirling red dust and sand. Our bully beef, biscuit and jam and dixies of tea had to be eaten in the middle of the sand storm with no cover whatsoever. To crown it all the Turks began shelling us but it was a hit or miss operation and although we had a few casualties it could have been worse.

“I was awakened in the early hours of the 11th to accompany Lieutenant Houston (in charge of half a company) who had been allotted the job of capturing Baghdad Railway Station. My mate Pat Kelly and I, complete with field telephone and the end of a reel of telephone wire, were his two signallers.

“It was still dark when we set off but as we neared the railway station it began to clear and we found we were in the outskirts of the city. There were occasional large villas, surrounded by trees and then we passed a great ornamental iron bridge. I suppose that was the light railway we had already crossed. We were then about 1000 yards from the station buildings and here we halted. As signallers we were told to establish communication with the regiment then await results.

“Lieutenant Houston formed his men in extended order and then surrounded the area round the station. There were bushes and palm trees around the main buildings but they helped to screen the attack. Whilst we were waiting we heard some rifle fire in the direction of the station and soon saw ‘Blackie’, the Lieutenant’s orderly, running towards us. He handed me a form and said: “This is from Lt. Houston and he says to get it away at once.” I looked at the telegram form. “Baghdad Railway station in our possession. Two casualties. Further instructions desired. Houston.” I buzzed the Battalion and got the message over at once. Back came the reply....”Congratulations. Remain at signal station and await our arrival. Stewart, Lt. Colonel.”

“Now give this a wee thought. Here was wee Geordie Brown of Twynholm who had just transmitted a message that would go round the world. “Baghdad has fallen to the Black Watch!” First the message went to Battalion HQ, then immediately transmitted to Brigade HQ, then to Divisional HQ, finally to Army Corps HQ where it would be wirelessed to the Prime Minister... all the way from me! Pat and I celebrated with a ‘drum up’ and Lt. Houston enjoyed that ‘dish o’ tea’ as much as we did and soon the rest of the company had their Billy cans on our fire too!

“About two hours later we heard the pipes, and down the slope from the desert we saw the Battalion in all its glory with the Colonel in front on horseback. He intended riding into the City of Caliphs in style. The column halted in front of us while Lt. Houston made his report to Col. Stewart possibly informing him that the advance party had found a Turk in the railway station calmly waiting beside an electric switch which was wired to blow up the station on the arrival of our troops. The Turks had cleared out earlier in trains but were unable to take a huge quantity of rolling stock, engines and trucks, some still filled with army supplies.

“As we began our triumphal march into Baghdad we heard a few rifle shots. Someone had been left behind to harass our progress and had tried to get Colonel Stewart... a near miss we later learned. An orderly appeared later with an Arab tied to his saddle and cantered the whole length of our column with the Arab hanging on to a rope and his legs going like windmill sails... he would be attended to later. Disappointingly we only got as far as the Bridge of Boats but the troops on the left bank had reached the city unmolested and were occupying the centre of the city. However, we ran down to the river, discarded our clothes and plunged into the cool water to the amusement of the spectators on the bank... who cares? We enjoyed ourselves.

“That night we slept the sleep of the just, our reward for the strenuous efforts of the previous days which led to the ultimate capture of Baghdad!”

By mid April, George was in action again in the searing heat of the desert ...

“We were informed we were up against one of the strongest Turkish positions. Something like sixty thousand Turks were holding the hills between us and Istabulet Station, beyond which, one day while scouting, I got a glimpse of a mosque dome in Samarra. On April 20, we were called into HQ and told to prepare for battle. Ammunition and rations were issued to us and, towards evening, camp fires were lit and a sort of wild jollification began – I think a double ration of rum had a lot to do with that! We knew we had a battle royal ahead of us among the ridges.

“At 4am on the 21st we moved forward to our positions of attack at 5am we charged forward under cover of our artillery fire. We had 700 yards of open country to get across before we got any head cover. We did this so well our artillery, whose barrage had not lifted, gave our own men “socks” with shrapnel.

“Those of us with phones had to connect up immediately to keep Battalion HQ informed of the action. We were ordered over the top again at 11am with about 50 Black Watch and 150 Gurkhas and five or six officers but Colonel Cunningham, who was in command, refused. We got shelled very heavily, high explosives and shrapnel were falling around us like hail.

“By midday we were gasping for water but the enemy was sweeping the small stream with shrapnel, so Pat Kelly and I volunteered to go back along the shell-swept ridge to a place out of range. Collecting as many water bottles as we could carry we stumbled off down the ridge getting heavily peppered with shells. We were almost giving up when we came upon a small packall half full of water lying half buried by the side of the road. For a few minutes you couldn’t hear the shells for the gurgles!

“We set off again carrying the packall with us determined to fill it for the poor thirsty chaps in the front line. At HQ Sergeant Yule warned us to take care at a low bend further on where Turkish snipers had a clear view and had already potted an unlucky Gurkha.

“We soon came to the place which didn’t look dangerous but sure enough the poor Gurkha lay there. My pal Kelly was in front with the bottles and I came trudging behind with the packall on my back. Pat ran across and nothing happened. I bent low and followed as quickly as I could ...

“Of course I ducked but I hadn’t gone three paces when something like an aeroplane or a railway train hit me and down I went. My chum hauled me to the side quickly and grasping my field bandage tied up my wound which was bleeding profusely. It was a bullet which had gone clean through my thigh pretty high up and came out at my hip. Pat rolled me over and pulled me into the shelter of the ridge. Just then Geordie McClure came up and the two of them bandaged up my wound. This hurried rough and ready bit of first aid was the saving of my life. I just had to content myself till the stretcher bearers arrived and that, I was told, would be a long time as there were a lot of casualties. To pass the time, as the road began to get busier, I shouted out warnings to those passing the shell hole to keep their heads down. Just before dark the stretcher bearers arrived and soon I was on my way to the First Aid Post.”

That was the end of George Brown in the front line but after a long and painful recovery he was posted to India and then to Egypt. He spent the remainder of the war as batman to various officers.

r Wullie Lochrie from Newton Stewart called the Gazette offices last Friday to say his mother remembered John J Dedman, the Ewart pupil who fought in the Great War we featured last week. Wullie could confirm that John J’s father was the headmaster of Kirkinner School early in the last century and that John J Dedman eventually emigrated to Australia where he rose to become a Cabinet Minister in the Australian Government during the Second World War.

You can find out more about John J Dedman here: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dedman-john-johnstone-303